Half a Lifetime Ago

josepunkin

 

 

catonarainyroof1

 

 

bobbie9614

 

 

bobbiewindow

 

 

On Halloween day in 1985, I packed up my clothes, a roll up mattress,  grabbed one lonely pumpkin from our small garden, locked our rental house door for the last time, climbed in my car to head north out of Seattle. I don’t recall looking back in the rear view mirror at the skyline after nine years living in the city. My husband had moved to Whatcom County two months earlier to start his new job. I had stayed behind to wrap up my Group Health family practice in the Rainier Valley of Seattle. I was leaving the city for a new rural home and a very uncertain professional future.

I knew two things for sure: I was finally several months pregnant after a miscarriage and two years of infertility, so our family was on its way, and we were going to actually live in our own house, not just a rental, complete with a few acres and a barn. A real (sort of) starter farm. Since no farm can be complete without animals, I stopped at the first pet store I drove past and found two tortoise shell calico kitten sisters peering up at me,  just waiting for new adventures in farmland. Their box was packed into the one spot left beside me in my little Mazda. With that simple commitment to raise and nurture those kittens, life seemed very complete.

I will never forget the freedom I felt on that drive north. The highway seemed more open, the fall colors more vibrant, the wind more brisk, our baby happily kicking my belly, the kittens plaintively mewing from their box. There seemed to be so much potential even though I had just left behind the greatest job that could be found in any urban setting (the most diverse zip code in the United States): an ideal family practice with patients from all over the world: Muslims from the Middle East and Indonesia, Orthodox Jews, Italian Catholics, African Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese. I would never know so much variety of background and perspective again and if I could have packed them all into the Mazda and driven them north with me, I would have.

We started our farm with those kittens dubbed Nutmeg and Oregano, soon adding an ethnic diversity of farm animals:  Belgian Tervuren dog Tango, Haflinger horse Greta, Toggenburg goats Tamsen and her kids, a few Toulouse geese, Araucana chickens, Fiona the Scottish Highland cow, then another Haflinger Hans and another, Tamara. I worked as a fill in locums doctor in four different clinics before our first baby, Nate, was born. Again, we had new commitments and life felt complete– but not for long, as we soon added little brother Ben and seven years later,  sister Lea. Then it really was complete. Or so I thought.

Thirty three years later our children have long ago grown and gone to new homes of their own, off to their own adventures beyond the farm.  Our sons married wonderful women, our daughter is in her third year of teaching fourth grade a few hours away and we have a granddaughter growing up in Tokyo.

A few cats, two Cardigan Corgi dogs, and a hand full of ponies remain at the farm with us. We are now both gray and move a bit more slowly, enjoy our naps and the quiet of the nights and weekends.  My work has evolved from four small jobs to two decades of two part time jobs to one more than full time job that fits me like a well worn sweater 24 hours a day.

My husband is happily retired now,  volunteering, serving on boards and being a full time farmer on our larger 20 acre place of fields and woods.  Retirement looms closer for me:  I have never not worked outside the home and don’t know how I can stop when the need in health care is greater than ever.

There was freedom that rainy Halloween day over three decades ago as Seattle disappeared in the rear view mirror. I would no longer sat captive in freeway rush hour bumper to bumper traffic jams.  I celebrate my daily commute through farm fields, watching eagles fly, and new calves licked by their mamas. I am part of a community in a way I never could manage in the city, stopping to visit with friends at the grocery store, playing piano and teaching at church and serving on various community boards. Our home sits in the midst of woods and corn fields, with deer strolling through the fields at dawn, coyotes howling at night, Canadian geese and trumpeter swans calling from overhead and salmon becoming more prolific every year in nearby streams. The snowy Cascades greet us in the morning and the sunset over Puget Sound bids us good night.

It all started October 31, 1985 with two orange and black kittens and a pumpkin sitting beside me in a little Mazda, my husband waiting for my homecoming 100 miles north. Now, thirty three years and three grown children and one granddaughter later, we celebrate this Halloween transition anniversary together, still pregnant with the possibility that life is never truly complete when there is always a new day just around the corner.

 

 

punkinslyinginwait

 

 

bobbieeye

 

 

bobbie

 

 

bobbieclose

 

 

 

October

Whirling in Circles

yinandyang

 

kittensjuly27172

 

waspnest11

 

Now all the doors and windows
are open, and we move so easily
through the rooms. Cats roll
on the sunny rugs, and a clumsy wasp
climbs the pane, pausing
to rub a leg over her head.

All around physical life reconvenes.
The molecules of our bodies must love
to exist: they whirl in circles
and seem to begrudge us nothing.
Heat, Horatio, heat makes them
put this antic disposition on!

This year’s brown spider
sways over the door as I come
and go. A single poppy shouts
from the far field, and the crow,
beyond alarm, goes right on
pulling up the corn.
~Jane Kenyon, “Philosophy in Warm Weather” from Otherwise

 

web1

 

spiderdrizzle

 

Whether weather is very or very cold, so go our molecules — indeed our very atoms are constantly awhirl to keep us upright whenever we sweat or shiver.

This summer my doors and windows have been flung wide open; I’m seeing and hearing and feeling all that I can absorb, never to forget the gift of being human witness to it all.

Like a dog trying to catch its tail, I’m whirling in circles, trying to grab what will always elude me.

 

frillypoppy

 

sunsetcornfield

 

homermaple

 

homerroll2

The Lesson of the Vetch

sunsetvetch

 

 

kittensjuly27172

 

 

vetching

 

Hot humid summer days are barely tolerable for a temperate climate sissy pants like me.  I am melting even as I get up in the morning, and at times our house is two degrees warmer (~90 degrees) than the out of doors.  So distractions from the heat are more than welcome.

For me today it started as I drove the ten miles of country roads to get to work in town, running a bit late to an important meeting.  I was listening to the news on the car radio when I puzzled over why the radio station would be playing cat meows over the news of the Trump and Putin meeting.  I turned off the radio, and realized the meows didn’t go away.

As soon as I was able, I pulled into a parking lot and surveyed my car from back to front, looking under seats, opened the back, scratched my head.  Then the meowing started again—under the hood.  I struggled with the latch, lifted up the hood and a distressed bundle of kitten fur hurtled out at me, clinging all four little greasy paws to my shirt.  Unscathed except for greasy feet, this little two month old kitten had survived a 50 mile per hour ride for 20 minutes, including several turns and stops.  He immediately crawled up to my shoulder, settled in by my ear, and began to purr.  I contemplated showing up at a meeting with a kitten and grease marks all over me, vs. heading back home with my newly portable neck warmer.  I opted to call in with the excuse “my cat hitchhiked to work with me this morning and is thumbing for a ride back home” and headed back down the road to take him back to the barn where he belongs, now with the new name “Harley” because he clearly desires the open road.

At that point, my meeting in town was already completed without me so I went out to check fence line as the hot wire seemed to be shorting out somewhere in the pasture. The mares had decided that the wire interfered with their hearts’ desire and had broken through, so it clearly was not hot enough to discourage them.  It has been a very hot few days with persistent drying breezes so as I approached the fence line, I heard numerous snaps and pops that I interpreted as hot wire shorting out in the dry grass and weeds, creating a fire hazard and certainly potentially dangerous with the winds whipping up.

I walked closer, puzzled to hear snaps all up and down the fence, but no sparks.  I approached and heard a little “snap” and a tiny seed pod burst open in front of my eyes, dropping its contents very effectively.  It was dried common vetch seed pods that were snapping and popping, not hot wire shorting out.  They were literally exploding all up and down the fence line in a reproductive symphony of seed release.

I put the broken wire back to together, plugged it in and all was well, at least until the next Haflinger decides the adjacent pasture looks better.

Returning to the barn,  I saw one of our Haflingers pawing furiously at his round black rubber water tub in his paddock, splashing water everywhere and creating quite a spectacle.  I went up to him to refill the tub with the hose and he continued to paw and splash in the tub and actually went down on his knees in the tub and then tried to lower one shoulder into it and his neck and face.  By this time he had created quite a mud puddle of the thick dust around the tub and his splashing and thrashing was causing mud to fly everywhere, including all over me, my hair, covering his mane and tail and belly and legs.  I took the hose and sprayed the cold water over him and he leaned closer to me, begging me to spray him everywhere, turning around so I could do his other side, facing me so I could spray his face.  I drenched him completely, and he was one happy horsie and I was laughing my head off at what he had done to me.  Both drenched, muddy, dirty, but happy and much much cooler.  What a sight we were.  This is the Haflinger that slows down at water hazards on the cross country courses because he wants to splash and play in it.

So even on a hot day on the farm, there was plenty else to occupy my mind.  It is never dull here and there are always lessons to be learned:

Remember to bang on your car hood before you get in~
keep the hotwire hot~
and share a mud bath with your Haflinger.

But especially, listen to the vetch and don’t let it fool you that catastrophe is about to happen.  The vetch is simply exploding in noisy reproductive ecstasy.  It can’t get much better than that.

 

wally617

 

vetch

 

wallysolstice

A Residual Celestial Heat

grumpyfinch

 

“Somehow the question of identity is always emerging on this farm. I found the body of a barn swallow lying just inside the barn the other day. There was no telling how it died. I noticed the intense particularity of its body, its sharply cut wings, the way its plumage seemed to glow with some residual celestial heat. But it was the particularity of death, not the identity of life, a body in stillness while all around me its kin were twittering and swooping in and out of the hayloft.”
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from “A Swallow in the Hand”

 

 

crowdedout

 

molepaw

 

Stumbling across death on the farm is always startling.  The farm teems with life 24 hours a day: frogs croaking, dawn bird chorus, insects buzzing and crawling, cats stalking, coyotes yipping, raccoons stealing, dogs wagging, horses galloping, owls and bats swooping.  Amid so much activity, it doesn’t seem possible that some simply cease to be.

An ancient apple tree mysteriously topples over one morning, a beloved riding horse dies of colic, another dies of lymphoma, an old cat finds her final resting place in the hay loft, another old cat naps forever under a tree,  a newborn foal fails to break free of its amniotic sac, another foal delivered unexpectedly and prematurely lies still and lifeless in the shavings of the stall, a vibrantly alive dog is put to sleep due to a growing tumor,  an old dog passes during an afternoon nap, a predator raids the dove cage and leaves behind carnage, our woods bears its own tragic history.

Yet, as often as it happens,  there is a unique particularity about the end of life.  The stillness of death permits a full appreciation of who this individual is, the remarkable care that went into creating every molecule of its being.

The sudden presence of absence is a stark and necessary reminder of what I myself want to leave behind.

In truth, we will glow with residual celestial heat, still warm even after our hearts cease to beat.  We are distinct individuals in our own particularity:  living and dying at a particular time and place as a unique creature, given a chance in the cosmos of infinite possibilities.  The Creator knit us together specially, every feather, hair, bone and sinew a unique work of His Hands, and what we do with what we are given is the stuff between our first God-given breath and our last, handed back to Him.

May we not squander our particular role in the history of the world.

 

redfinch

 

evening72182

 

ladderup

 

 

This Doctor is Open For Business

yinandyang

 

pinksunset52019

 

Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time.
Let it be.
Unto us, so much is given.
We just have to be open for business.

~Anne Lamott from Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers

 

pinksunset520181

 

ticklethemoon

 

scar

 

I have the privilege to work in a profession where astonishment and revelation awaits me behind each exam room door.

In a typical clinic day, I open that door up to thirty plus times, close it behind me and settle in for the ten or fifteen minutes I’m allocated per patient.  I need to peel through the layers of each person quickly to find the core of truth about who they are and why they’ve come to clinic that day.

Sometimes what I’m looking for is right on the surface: in their tears, in their pain, in their fears.  Most of the time, it is buried deep, often beneath a scar I must search to find. I need to wade through the rashes and sore throats and coughs and headaches and discouragement to find it.

Once in awhile, I actually do something tangible to help right then and there — sew up a cut, lance a boil, splint a fracture, restore hearing by removing a plug of wax from an ear canal.

Often I find myself giving permission to a patient to be sick — to take time to renew, rest and trust their bodies to know what is best for a time.

Sometimes, I am the coach pushing them to stop living sick — to stop hiding from life’s challenges, to stretch even when it hurts, to get out of bed even when not rested, to quit giving in to symptoms that are to be overcome rather than become overwhelming.

Always I’m looking for an opening to say something a patient might think about after they leave my clinic — how they can make different choices, how they can be bolder and braver in their self care, how they can intervene within their own finite timeline to prevent illness, how every day is just one thread in the larger tapestry of their lifespan.

Each morning I rise early to get work done at home before I actually arrive at my desk at work, trying to avoid feeling unprepared and inadequate to the volume of tasks heaped upon each day.   I know I will be stretched beyond my capacity, challenged by the unfamiliar, the unexpected and will be stressed by obstacles thrown in my way.  I know I will be held responsible for things I have little to do with, simply because I’m the one who often acts as decision-maker.

It is always tempting to go back to bed and hide.

Instead of hiding,  I go to work as the exam room doors need to be opened and the layers peeled away.  I understand the worry, the fear and the pain because I have lived it too.   I know the limitations of a body that wants to consume more than it needs, to sleep rather than go for a walk, to sit rather than stand.

Even now in my seventh decade of life,  I am continually learning how to let it be, even if it is scary.  It is a gift perhaps I can share.

No matter what waits behind the exam room door,  it will be astonishing to me.

I’m grateful to be open for business.  The Doctor is In.

 

bleedingheartsclose

 

rosedepth

 

 

Earth Day Lament

allalone 2

 

kittensjuly27172

 

 

 

More often than not, I’m still groggy every morning when I step out the front door onto the porch to make my way down the gravel driveway to fetch the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM.  More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.

The front porch cat (as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and an average of 3 additional stray cats), predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….um, body parts.  Mousey body parts or birdie body parts.  I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak,  of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder.  I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper.  Yet I do and I have.

I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat.  Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” –kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them.  Nonsense.  The welcome mat is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans.   Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…

 

Josetractor

 

So humanity is not alone of earth’s creatures to create garbage heaps of unwanted stuff.  Not only cats, but barn owls are incredibly efficient at tossing back what they don’t want out of their furry meals.   Our old hay barn is literally peppered with pellets, popular with high school biology classes and my grand-nephews for dissection instruction.  These dried up brown fuzzy poop shaped objects are regurgitated by the owl after sitting in one of its  two stomachs for a number of hours.  Bird barf.   It’s fairly interesting stuff, which is why these pellets (which we recycle by donating by the  dozens to local schools) are great teaching material.  It is possible to practically reconstruct a mouse or bird skeleton from a pellet, or perhaps even both on a night when the hunting was good.  There is fur and there are feathers.  Whatever isn’t easily digestible doesn’t have much purpose to the owl, so up it comes again and becomes so much detritus on the floor and rafters of our barn.  Owl litter.  There should be a law.

 

owlpellets

 

Then there is the rather efficient Haflinger horse eating machine which leaves no calorie unabsorbed, which vacuums up anything remotely edible within reasonable reach, even if reasonable means contortions under a gate or fence with half of the body locked under the bottom rung, and the neck stretched 6 feet sideways to grab that one blade of grass still standing.  The reason why Haflingers don’t eventually explode from their intake is that Haflinger poop rivals elephant poop pound for pound per day, so there must be a considerable amount ingested that is indigestible and passed on, so to speak–like part of a tail wrap, and that halter that went missing… you know, like those black holes in outer space–that’s what a  Haflinger represents on earth.

 

tonynose

 

noblesse11316

 

This is quite different from the recycled “cud” of the typical herbivore cow who regurgitates big green gobs of  grass/hay/silage to chew it  again in a state of (udder) contentment and pleasure.   If humans could figure out how to recycle a good meal for another good chew or two, the obesity rate would surely drop precipitously.   So would attendance at most happy hours. But then, how many skinny cows have I seen?  Probably as many as purple cows.  I never hope to see one, but I’d rather see than be one.

In my daily walk through life, I have my share of things I unceremoniously dump that I don’t want, don’t need,  can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so the rest can rot.  Today is Earth Day, and I feel properly shamed and guilty for my contribution to landfills, despite my avid recycling efforts for the past 40 years.  Nonetheless, I am in good company with my fellow carnivores and omnivores who daily leave behind what they don’t want or need.

I now need to figure out that herbivore cud thing.  I can go green and just might save on the grocery bill.

 

redbelt

 

cowmorning

 

When Worry is a Terminal Disease

kitty2

 

Considering myself a Dr. Doolittle of sorts, always talking to the animals, I reached out to pet a stray cat sitting quietly outside our barn one evening while doing barn chores.  This is a grayish fluffy cat I see around the barns every few months or so–he doesn’t put in frequent appearances and reminds me of a kitten we raised on this farm a few years back, though his markings are a bit different,  so I know it is not our cat.

We have 6 cats to pet here who claim “us” as their home and family, so there is no lack of fur balls to love.  There are probably that many more who hang out,  now and then,  considering our farm fair game and looking for an occasional free meal.  This cat just seemed to need a reassuring pat at that moment or maybe I needed the reassurance.  Wrong.

I found myself with a cat attached to my wrist by teeth and claws.  It took a bit of an effort to shake him off and he escaped into the night. I then surveyed the damage he inflicted and immediately went to wash my wounds.  They were deep punctures near my wrist joint–not good.  Lucky for me I was up to date on my tetanus booster.

By the next day the wounds were getting inflamed and quite sore.  I know all too well the propensity of cat bites to get badly infected with Pasteurella Multocida, a “bad actor” bacteria that can penetrate deep tissues and bone if not treated with aggressive antibiotics.  After getting 6 opinions from my colleagues at clinic, all of whom stood solemnly shaking their heads at my 12 hour delay in getting medical attention,  I surrendered and called my doctor’s office.  I pleaded for a “no visit” prescription as I was up to my eyeballs in my own patients, and he obliged me.  I picked up the antibiotic prescription during a break, sat in the car ready to swallow the first one and then decided to wait a little longer before starting them, knowing they wallop the gut bacteria and cause pretty nasty side effects.  I wanted to see if my own immune system might just be sufficient.

So the bacterial infection risk was significant and real but I was prepared to deal with it.  For some reason I didn’t really think about the risk of rabies until the middle of the night when all dark and depressing thoughts seem to come real to me.

I don’t know this cat.  I doubt he has an owner and it is highly unlikely he is rabies vaccinated.  My own cats aren’t rabies vaccinated (and neither am I) though if I was a conscientious owner, they would be.  Yes, we have bats in our barns and woods and no, there has not been a rabid bat reported in our area in some time.

But what if this cat were potentially infected with the rabies virus but not yet showing symptoms?  Now my mind started to work overtime as any good neurotic will do.  Last summer a rabid kitten in North Carolina potentially exposed 10 people when it was passed around a softball tournament, no one aware it was ill until it died and was tested.  Lots of people had to have rabies shots as a result.

This cat who had bitten me was long gone–there was no finding him in the vast woods and farmland surrounding us.  He couldn’t be kept in observation for 10 days and watched for symptoms, nor could he be sacrificed to examine his neural tissue for signs of the virus.

I called the health department to ask what their recommendation was in a case like this.  Do they recommend rabies immune globulin injection which should have been done as soon as possible after the bite?   I talked with a nurse who read from a prepared script for neurotic people like me.  Feral cats in our area have not been reported to have rabies nor have skunks or raccoons.  Only local bats have been reported to have rabies but not recently.  This cat would have had to have been bitten by a rabid bat to be rabid.  This was considered a “provoked” attack as I had reached out to pet the cat.  This was not a cat acting unusually other than having wrapped itself around my arm.  No, the Health Dept would not recommend rabies immune globulin in this situation but I was free to contact my own doctor to have it done at my own expense if I wished to have the series of 5 vaccination shots over the next month at a cost of about $3000.   Yes, there would be a degree of uncertainty about this and I’d have to live with that uncertainty but she reassured me this was considered a very low risk incident.

I knew this was exactly what I would be told and I would have counseled any patient with the same words.  Somehow it is always more personal when the risk of being wrong has such dire consequences.  I could see the headlines “Local Doctor Dies From Rabid Cat Bite”.

This is not how I want to be remembered.

Rabies is one of the worst possible ways to die.  The cases I’ve read about are among the most frightening I’ve ever seen in the medical literature. Not only is it painful and horrific but it puts family and care providers at risk as well.  It also has an unpredictable incubation period of a up to a month or two, even being reported as long as a year after an exposure.  What a long time to wait in uncertainty.  It also has a prodrome of several days of very nonspecific symptoms of headache, fever and general malaise, like any other viral infection before the encephalitis and other bad stuff hits.  I was going to think about it any time I had a little headache or chill.  This was assuredly going to be a real test of my dubious ability to stifle my tendency for 4-dimensional worries.

I decided to live with the low risk uncertainty and forego the vaccination series.  It was a pragmatic decision based on the odds.  My wounds slowly healed without needing antibiotics.  For ten days I watched for my attacker cat whenever I went to the barn, but he didn’t put in an appearance.  I put out extra food and hoped to lure him in.  It would have been just be so nice to see his healthy face and not have to think about this gray cloud hanging over me for the next few months, as I wondered about every stray symptom.  No gray kitty to be seen.

Almost a month has gone by now and he finally showed up last night.  I could have grabbed him and hugged him but I know better now. No more Dr. Doolittle.

He is perfectly fine and now so am I, cured of a terminal case of worry and hypochondria which is not nearly as deadly as rabies but can be debilitating and life shortening none the less.

From now on, I’ll be contented to just “talk to the animals” like any good Dr. Doolittle.  I don’t need to cuddle them.

 

kitty1

catlikeobservation
photo by Nate Gibson