RIP Zombie Hamster

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It wouldn’t be the holidays around the Afthead house without a pet dying. Yesterday, when my husband was looking for things to do I suggested he check on Lula, the zombie hamster.  He disappeared into the basement and shortly returned shaking his head.

“She’s really dead this time?” I asked.

“Had been for awhile from the looks of her.”

And like the dope I am I burst out crying. She wasn’t my favorite pet, but death is sad.  We had a quick burial beside the dead-bunny-bush where Lula joined the baby bunny who died in our window well several years ago.  No words were said, because it was 20 degrees out, but her tiny body curled neatly into the hole I managed to spade out of the frozen ground.  She looked very Lula-esque as I sprinkled dirt on top of her.

The last time I knew she was alive was December 14th, because she tried to run around on her wheel while I was working at home:  the tumor on her hindquarters made movement difficult.  I gave her a slice of apple which she nuzzled on for a bit before drinking and heading back to her purple cave.  It was a nice final hamster human interaction.  (Yes, she could have been dead for two weeks in there, but I was dealing with a cancer scare at Christmas and couldn’t bring myself to check on her.)  The last time my daughter saw her was at our Christmas craft party where one of Afthead Junior’s friends suggested feeding Lula to her pet snake.  I can’t say that would have been a worse ending for Lula, but my daughter balked at a Lula death by snake swallowing.

This morning, I did a little research.  Lula’s life expectancy was 1.5 – 2 years.  By my calculations we had her almost 3.5 years.  So she lived an entire lifetime as a hamster, then another as a zombie hamster before the zombie-hamster-tumor took her agility, then her sight, and finally her life.

My last hope for Lula is that she and the bunny don’t start some mini Pet Sematary in my back yard.  I really hope she rests in peace back there.

My favorite Christmas Present? A Benign Biopsy

My new favorite word is benign.  Say it with me: benign.  It’s a little choppy and doesn’t really flow off the tongue;  there may be too many syllables for the length.  It wasn’t a word I’d given much thought before last week.  In fact, if you’d asked me before that, I would have said I liked the word malignant better.  It has a force to it, a weight, and a power that is scary as heck when it might be related to your own body.

Last Friday I was presented with that glorious word, benign.  All day I sat by the phone waiting for my biopsy results.  Before the biopsy, the mammography center had warned  that I might not hear the results until after Christmas, but the surgical center seemed certain that I’d hear on Friday.  My husband and I had discussed the uncertainty and decided that if the sample was cancerous we didn’t want to hear until after Christmas.  I rationalized that I could fake my way through the holiday not knowing, but would likely ruin everyone’s Christmas if I did know.  However, when I discussed my plan with the biopsy nurse practitioner and doctor they looked at me like I was crazy.  “I mean, I’ll have questions and I’ll need to know what the plan is if it isn’t benign.”  I told them.  They assured me that there would be a plan – nay a whole team ready – if the sample was not benign so I capitulated and agreed that they could call, which seemed to satisfy their need for procedure and protocol. (“Not benign” is such a stupid euphemism.)

My arms were deep in the sink, soaking my brother’s Christmas scarf for blocking when my daughter ran in, “Mom, your phone is ringing.”  I dripped while sprinting into the study and grabbed my phone.  Better to ruin my phone with soggy hands then miss this call.  They were going to tell me if the turtle ripped from my body was a good turtle or an evil turtle.

There is no situation that is beyond the absurd in my life.  While I was laying face down on a surgical table, my clamped and bleeding boob protruding through a hole, the doctor put up the image of the sample taken from my flesh.  It looked exactly like a turtle with a bulbous middle, a head, and four smaller blob appendages.  Of course, I shared my interpretation of this image with my medical team.  Appeasing me, they pointed out the lighter squiggles on one turtle foot.  That was the sample they wanted.  The worrying parts of the turtle were now outside of me ready to be analyzed and tested.

The call had no preamble before the nurse practitioner – the one who convinced me that I wanted to talk to her no matter what she was going to tell me – said, “I have good news for you.  Your sample is benign.”

That moment is clear in my head.  As unclear as the medical guidance given to me by my doctor during the biopsy procedure.  He was very kind, but the nurse assigned to me seemed hellbent to ensure any medical information provided was covered up by cheery banter.  She entered with the doctor and was “there for me” in some role perfectly clear to her.  At the moment the biopsy was about to happen the doctor said, “I’m going to take the sample now.  You might feel…” but whatever I might have felt was drowned out by the nurse screaming in my face, “WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?” I still don’t know what I was supposed to feel, but Nurse Rose knows I like sugar cookies the best.  Her question wasn’t a total non sequitur.  She’d drowned out the anesthetic information by asking me my plans for the day, which involved making Christmas cookies.

Sure, maybe making Christmas cookies they day you get a biopsy might seem a little strange, but that’s what happens when you get an irregular mammogram less than two weeks before Christmas.  My brother’s scarf was carried with me from waiting room to procedure room to waiting room the day of the biopsy, because I had knitting to finish before the holiday.  My potential cancer worries were all wrapped up with holiday concerns – pun intended.

The decision to have the mammogram right before Christmas was an odd one for me.  In a flash of uncharacteristic optimism I took the appointment offered because, after my first irregular mammogram in June, my doctor and I looked at the films together.  She’d assured me that the worrying spots had been on my mammogram in 2015, disappeared in 2016 and were back in 2017.  She said it was probably nothing, but cautioned me that I needed to go every 6 months, just in case.

At the time, the mammogram didn’t seem like it was “just in case,” but in hindsight the lady doing my mammogram got less and less chatty as she took more and more pictures.  Since this was my first followup appointment, I just figured she didn’t find my demeanor charming.  Or maybe she was also unsure how she was going to get everything done before Christmas.  When she asked me to sit in the waiting room I didn’t wonder, but when she asked me to come back into the bowels of the mammography center I got concerned.  She led me into a dimly lit room with faux leather chairs around a small conference table and I panicked.  The room looked exactly like the special room my vet has for euthanasia appointments.  When the radiologist arrived and didn’t bring me a warm blanket and a cocktail of life-ending drugs it was a relief, until he suggested a biopsy.

The warm blanket came right before they strapped my legs to the biopsy table and raised me into the air on the worst amusement park ride ever.  Nurse Rose did not find my amusement park ride jokes funny as the table made herkey jerks and my boob was smashed and smushed and poked.  I feel like being “there for me” should have involved laughing at my jokes.

The benign call ended awkwardly.  When asked if I had any questions I mentioned that I thought the incision was bleeding more than it should.  The nurse practitioner seemed taken aback, like the invitation for questions was rhetorical.  I was supposed to just hang up in a blaze of relief and joy.  When I told her that the bloody spot under my bandage was much bigger than a dime or nickel she said, “Well, if it’s still a problem on Tuesday give us a call” then said goodbye.  My Christmas cancer worry was replaced by a smaller bleeding-out worry.  Nothing I couldn’t fake my way through, but enough to make me drift off to sleep with images of bloody wounds dancing in my head.  (Spoiler alert, I haven’t bled out yet.)

When people ask me what I got for Christmas this year I go blank.  I got benign, but almost everyone doesn’t know I had a biopsy.  A few friends and family members along with an astute coworker who caught me at a bad time know, but I didn’t tell anyone else.   When was the right time?  During the band concert?  The school holiday party?  During our work calendar exchange?  At my friend’s dad’s funeral?  Had the ending been different I would have had to tell, but now I’m just awkwardly hugging on one side and randomly asking people to carry heavy things for me.

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Along with my constant appreciation of the absurd are my rose colored glasses.  Even after my Magic 8 Ball told me I didn’t have cancer (this was before the actual diagnosis) I couldn’t help planning for the worst.  The silver lining of the cancer scare was my evaluation of the things I was afraid of losing:  my family, my friends, my book, my stories and – surprising to me – my Master’s degree.  In the week between mammogram and biopsy I planned how to transition my work role to others, write my book at chemo so my mom could read it, and make countless videos and knit objects for my kid to remember me by.  (Because a box of hand-knits is almost the same as having a mom, right?)  I also hoped I would feel well enough during treatment to go to school.  It’s interesting the things that rise to important when you are considering th….

“WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?!?!?!”

Now when things start to get serious around here, you’ll understand why I’m screaming cookie gibberish.  My surgical pamphlet tells me that one in eight women develop breast cancer and four in five biopsies like mine end up benign.  That means many women are having these procedures and it’s all okay, but for each four of me, one other woman is dealing with all the fears I had the past two weeks.  If you find yourself in this same uncomfortable situation, my hope is that your turtles turn out benign and your warm blankets just make your uncomfortable amusement park ride a little bit more pleasant.

Goodbye Bart

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Ah Bart.  Remember him?  He was my attempt to prove to myself that I am not the cat grim reaper (or cat hospice provider as so many of you sweetly suggested.)  I think it is time for me to write his final chapter.

For those of you who missed the early story Bart was a foster cat our family took in back in November when our local shelter became overcrowded with rescue animals from other states.  Our mission was to get him healthy, so he could go to the pet cardiologist to have his level 2 heart murmur evaluated.  (Heart murmurs for cats are graded from 1-6 with the 1-2 range usually not being a big deal.)  Bart was kind of a mess when he came to us, but oh, he was a lover and had a purr that vibrated his whole body.  Over the month we cared for Bart he recovered from a wound on his leg, a multiweek long respiratory infection, a perpetual bloody nose from the aforementioned respiratory infection, and being neutered.  Just when everything was all better and he was healthy enough to go to the cardiologist a surprise gross abscess burst under his chin leaving bloody puss all over his fur and the floor.

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The shelter people told me to bring him in, that they would evaluate this new wound then check with the specialist.  Even with his new ailment, he was cleared to see the cardiologist, so Mr. Bart went for a field trip to the animal hospital, and I agreed to take him back and get his abscess cleared up before he went up for adoption.  Five more days of antibiotics for Bart at the Afthead house, but he’d get to spend Christmas with us!

December 23rd the shelter called with the results of Bart’s cardiology scan.  He had two defective ventricles.  The shelter vets and specialists conferred and had decided that Bart was going to be euthanized.  His condition gave him only 3 -18 months to live, so he wasn’t eligible for adoption.  Two days before Christmas I got this news, and the extra present was that the shelter said that they would allow me, and only me, to adopt him, but I would have to take him back to the cardiologist and be responsible for his heart medication and quarterly/monthly cardiac checkups.  The single thing that could save Bart was my willingness to take on the time and expense to care for a cat who probably wouldn’t live two years.  I pondered all this while sitting in my study stroking what appeared to be a healthy Bart.

The only person I told was my husband, who doesn’t really care about animals the same way I do, and we agreed that no one else needed this news right before Christmas.  We also agreed that I needed time to decide what we were going to do.  (Mr. Afthead leaves such decisions to me, since I am the one with a breakable heart.)  So I put on my happy face and celebrated the holidays with my family, my own pets, and Bart.

In the back of my head thoughts were churning.  How could this happen again?  Why would life be so unfair to give this sweet cat a defective heart?  Could he continue to live with us?  My cats hated having Bart in the house.  They had stopped entering the basement, which is where their litterboxes are, and had resorted to pooping and peeing on my bed until I put a litterbox in my bedroom.  Could I live with that situation?  Bart was sweet, but a destructive cat and had shredded the chair in my study, his domain, and clawed other furniture when given the chance to explore.  Unquestionably I could have trained him, but maybe not before he died or had a stroke: either likely situations given his condition.  And while we really liked Bart no one in the family felt that he was our cat.  We were doing this so that some other family could adopt this beautiful, big purring cat, not so he would be ours.

There were so many ethical considerations.  Should we tell our daughter about what the shelter had decided?  Should she get to help make the decision about what our family was going to do?  Was it wrong for me to keep the news from my extended family over the holidays?  Was it my responsibility to care for Bart until the end of his life regardless of the cost or quality of his life?  Because I believe in science and medicine I didn’t think the diagnosis was wrong.  If I adopted him he would die.  What should I do?

I searched my heart and my brain but in the end I came to the same place I’d come before.  This was too much.  Without telling my daughter anything except that Bart was going back I took him to the shelter and said goodbye.

For two days I held my sadness in and pretended that Bart might be going up for adoption, or Bart might come and live with us to be fostered again.  Eventually I started to tell my friends and family what had happened.  Because secrets and lies have a way of worming their way to the surface eventually one of my friends told her daughter – a friend of my daughter’s – what happened.  When I found out I knew I had to tell my daughter because kid friends talk.  I didn’t want my child’s trust and faith in her mother to be dependent on the ability of a 9 year old to keep her mouth shut.  I got home from work and said, “I’ve got some sad news.”

“Don’t tell me Bart is dead.”

All I could do was nod.  We cried together about the 8 dead cats she’s known in her 8 years.  She listed each one and the way they died.  Three pets and five fosters all gone.  When we were done with the immediate mourning she told me what I had known all along, “Mommy, we are never, ever doing that again.”  We won’t.  We won’t foster.  We won’t keep big secrets from each other.  We won’t do that ever again.

I love the community at the shelter, and the foster parents.  My foster mentor was so caring when I told her what happened with Bart, and she promised me that my situation “just never happens.”  No one loses 5 out of six foster cats in their first two attempts.  She shared her own sad stories, and even offered to give me a her healthiest foster litter this spring to ensure I have a success.  Behind the scenes I’m sure she raised heck – contrary to the evidence she really thinks I have the potential to be a great foster parent – and a few weeks after Bart died a sympathy card came from the shelter.  It made me cry, but it did not make me change my mind.  This is not my way of helping make the world a better place.  I can’t take any more dead cats.

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Last time this happened I was able to come up with some silver linings, but not this time.  I’m sad for me, sad for my family, sad for Bart, and sad for the shelter and the folks who work there.  Nothing about this was fair or good or worthwhile.  Everyone poured their heart into this experience and the only glint of silver is that Bart was able to live in a warm house with a family for a month, but that seems so pitiful.

In the end, as always, children are the wisest.  This weekend my kiddo told me, “Mom, I think that all our cats that died are part of Adventure now.”  (Adventure is our only foster that lived, and she’s our pet now.)  She started listing out traits of each dead cat and how she saw them reflected in our pet.  At the end of her speech she looked to me for approval and I told her, “Yep kiddo, I think you are right,” because really I don’t have any better resolution.

Goodbye Bart.  We were all pulling for a happy ending, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Afthead Holiday Party

I’ve just finished cleaning up from my third annual holiday party.  Yep, me, the introverted Afthead throws a holiday party every year, but it’s my kind of party.  I pick up five of my daughters friends after school and we craft for four hours.  I am their hostess, their coach and their mentor as they learn new skills making gift for themselves, their friends, and their families.

Every year I have a plan.  I buy supplies: yarn, pipe cleaners, beads, and Popsicle sticks.  In the days before the party my daughter and I make sample projects and test out what is too hard, what doesn’t really come together, and what we can reuse from last year.  The event begins with an after school snack while I casually lay out the demo items we’ve created, showing what they could make for their mom, sister, dad, or grandpa.  Some things grab their attention, and some things don’t, but ten minutes into the party it isn’t about me anymore: it becomes all about them.  I hand them each a gift bag to store their loot and they start crafting.

It is a marvel to behold, an experiment in personalities.  We hand select friends who can sit and craft for four hours with breaks only for food and to find the scissors.  Learning from our past mistakes girls who want to be the center of attention or who can’t sit still aren’t invited back, because there are lots of parties where you can dance on the table, chase friends or wear pretty dresses.  This party is different; I and the girls love it.

This year we hit the perfect mix of guests.  There were two new girls on the invite list.  I taught one to finger knit and she was a prodigy.  Four hours she stood in her snow boots looping yarn over her tiny fingers.  She went home with three scarves.  The second new girl sat on the floor cross-legged making pom-pom after pom-pom: methodically winding the yarn around one arm of the puffball maker, closing it; winding the other arm, closing it; finding the good scissors, cutting the loops; and tying the yarn around the middle.  She’d wiggle the contraption apart and out would pop another pom pom.  Then she’d find another yarn and do the whole process again.

The evening’s transition is magical.  They start the day calling for my help.  Every one of them needs me, my hands, and my expertise.  Impatiently they wait calling out Coach Johanna, Jo Jo, Mom, Mrs. Johanna, but by the end they are helping each other and I am forgotten.  Today, with an hour left in the party, I was unexpectedly called.  They explained that a timer needed so the girls could prepare for a rendezvous.  Having no idea what they were talking about they explained, with the condescension of children, what they are learning about Colorado history right now.  In case you are also ignorant:

Rocky Mountain Rendezvous (in trapper jargon) was an annual gathering (1825–1840) at various locations held by a fur trading company at which trappers and mountain men sold their furs and hides and replenished their supplies.

The timer rang, and the girls set up shop to trade their precious crafts with each other.  There were no fights, no arguments, lots of compliments, and it was all their idea.  I contributed cookies to the event, which they appreciated, while letting me know my presence was not needed.

I learn so much from them.  Beyond expanding my knowledge of western history, I learn perspective about  my daughter’s own strengths and weaknesses in the light of her friends.  I learn more about the challenges and struggles they each have and they have together.  I learn how each of them has grown and changed since I last had concentrated time with them.  But I get to teach too.  I teach them that it is important to be kind to each other.  I teach them that we don’t have and Elf on the Shelf, because our family thinks the elves are creepy, but we don’t judge their family for having one.   I teach about our joint Christmas and Hanukkah celebration.  I teach them the wonder of making something with your own two hands and using your brain to take an idea and make it your own.  I hope I teach them that even as a grown up there are lots of different ways of having fun with your friends.

This is the one party every year when I don’t worry about what to wear, I don’t need a drink to loosen me up, and I don’t want to hide in my basement to recover.  Cleaning up from the event I love the dustpan full of yarn bits and googly eyes.  My daughter, having helped and chatted with her friends, starts her projects in earnest when everyone leaves.  She’s watched her friends and picked her favorite ideas to make over and over.  My extroverted daughter and her introverted momma are both energized when the evening comes to a close.

You can have your cocktail dresses, your high heeled shoes, your signature drinks, and your white elephant gifts.  Me?  I’ll take a group of kids and some glue for as long as they will have me.

No more angry holidays

I had an amazing, beautiful Mother’s Day.  I ran with a dear friend.  My daughter made me a sweet card and gave me some yarn so I can make her a hat for when she goes to sleep away camp.  She picked out not-itchy yarn to guarantee she will wear it.

I spent a few blissful hours alone before my mom and I had our traditional buy flowers until the car is full then buy some more shopping trip.  This is a picture of her car before our last stop where we bought three more flats of plants.  (She had one on her lap and one under her feet by the end.)  We decided our million dollar idea is to build a double-deck car plant stand.

We went back to my house, unloaded the car, and picked up my daughter.  Then after a quick visit with the grandparents little Afthead and I headed home.  I cooked dinner, and we enjoyed our evening as a family.  There was a card on the dining room table with my name on it.  At bedtime I said, “I’m going to open this card from Daddy and then let’s get ready for bed.”

Daddy said, “Oh, that’s not from me.  It’s from my brother and sister-in-law.”

My head explodes.  My husband and I have this fight at least once a year.  We’ve had it on Mother’s Day, my birthday, Valentine’s Day and our anniversary.  He has a variety of lame excuses such as he didn’t know he was supposed to buy me a card or he forgot or whatever, but at least once a year he totally ruins a holiday for me.  I know it’s going to happen, so I’m mad at myself for letting it bother me, but I feel like I’ve given up so much.  I don’t expect a present.  I don’t expect flowers (because I have plenty, thanks.)  I don’t want chocolate.  I don’t expect breakfast in bed.  I expect a card which is available at any grocery store, card store, book store, and even most convenience stores.  When you can’t even bother to get me a card it’s like a giant middle finger raised with a “you don’t matter at all” tacked on top.  My husband knows this.  I am not a shrinking violet when he forgets the card. We have been together for twenty years, but this year I gave up.  He is never going to remember the damn card.

I went to bed furious at myself for letting him ruin my great day and at him for forgetting the card, again.  I made plans to run off with the cute lifeguard at the pool, or the cute bagel store guy, but when I woke up I tossed those ideas and solved the problem: I went to Target and bought my own cards.  There was one decent Mother’s Day card left, so I got that.  I picked up 4 birthday cards, a few generic “I love you cards” appropriate for Valentine’s Day, our anniversary, or just because he loves me. I bought some “I’m Sorry” cards, because he really freaking needs those.  I got some blank cards.  The Target bag was full of cards, and when I got home I handed them to him explaining that if he couldn’t even manage to open a drawer and sort through these cards I really would kill him.

He wasn’t offended.  My husband is aware of his shortcomings, but he was smart enough to have a card of his own waiting for me.  A “thank you” card because he figured that was what he should have said on Mother’s Day, and because the grocery store was out of Mother’s Day cards.  I may have to pick up a few more “thank you” cards for him.  It was a nice sentiment.