Rose Parade

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Fuzzy faces I have known and loved

It's turning out to be a bad year for beloved kitties. Over the weekend I found myself moping over pictures of the late, great Wilma. I miss her terribly. Yesterday, Liz had to have the Amber Kitty put to sleep. When Wilma died, I felt like putting in for bereavement time. With names like Wilma and Amber, we might have gotten away with it. Those precious fuzzy faces and everything that comes with them sure have a way of latching onto our hearts, never relinquishing their hold, even after they're gone. I've come to the conclusion that a pet's lifespan should be in direct correlation with the number of years its owner has to look forward to. It occurs to me that I may have to acknowledge that I must be getting old if for no other reason than the sheer number of deceased pets I can reminisce about. First off, Meadowlark, my first horse. The old bay mare. I was the proverbial horse-crazy girl. Anything that had anything to do with horses was embraced heart and soul. I drew horses and named the fictional equines I had designed. I read all the horse books I could get my hands on, including the bibles, Misty of Chincoteague and The Black Stallion. I followed horse racing and studied race results so thoroughly that I got pretty good at picking winners. I was twelve and buying The Racing Form. I collected the Breyer model horses and for years thought that was as close as I would get to actually owning a horse. I watched parades just to see the mounted units. Even now I get a thrill seeing the police horses that patrol Hollywood Boulevard during special events. When I was in junior high I finally got to start riding. My instructor was a short-tempered woman named Roxanne. She was as rough on her students as she was on the horses she trained. I picked up a number of bad habits from her, including one that eventually earned me my only serious horse-related injury, but I did learn to ride. I went from being rigid with fear that first day to riding in my first couple of shows. I also distinctly remember one time in the car on the way to a lesson, discussing my future horse with my mother and I wondered aloud if my horse had even been born yet. I would soon discover the irony of that question. We moved the summer before I started high school and there was a stable just a few blocks from the new house. It immediately became my hangout and I quickly got to know the boarders and their horses. Then came the September day that my dream came true. I got a horse. She was an unspectacular twenty-two year old unceremoniously dumped by a trainer who didn't want to bother having to sell an elderly horse. He had orders from a doctor who boarded several horses there to get them sold and didn’t want to waste his time with a geezer who would only bring a minimal seller’s fee. He suggested the stable take her as a lesson horse, problem being there weren't a lot of lessons going on there. She was known as Granny, although we later found out her real name was Tomboy. The ranch manager was named Patti and she didn't want the old bay mare either. She turned to me and said, "You can have her if your mom says it's alright." I was fourteen and horse-crazy. This was too good to be true - I was being given a horse. I ran all the way home with the big news. And my mom said yes. Granny obviously wasn't her real name, nor were we enamored with it, so my mom dubbed her Meadowlark. The name came from a rural place she had once lived, a place that had horses. By the time we found out about Tomboy it didn't matter because she was definitely Lark. Under any name, she was the perfect first horse. Lark’s stability and dependability meant I was able to make my rookie mistakes on her without suffering the consequences - except once. That was the morning I decided to mimic Roxanne's "swing your leg over the horse's neck instead of the hindquarters like you're supposed to" dismount. Roxanne would dismount this way in front of her students and it looked very cool, but of course we weren't allowed to do it. For some reason this particular day I decided to do it and it earned me the only stitches I've ever had. Lark normally carried her neck straight out quarter horse style, but just as I swung my leg over something caught her attention and she raised her head just slightly, just enough for me to hook my heel on her neck. What followed was a less than graceful belly flop. The funny thing is what hurt was my stomach - but a glance down at my bloody shirt tipped me off that my gut wasn't the only thing that had connected - I'd hit my chin as well, and that's where the stitches went. A few hours later, with orders from the doctor to make sure I didn't get my stitches wet, I headed back to the stable...to give Lark a bath. It was on the trails that Lark was at her very best. She was calm and steady, I can't remember her ever bolting at anything. Even if something startled her all she did was perk her ears and take a really good look at it. On the trails we encountered streams, coyotes, snakes, even a dead cow at one point. She never shied, never threw me, never tried to run away. I was safe aboard Meadowlark. On the trails with my old bay mare I could let my mind wander. It was better than therapy. Meadowlark died a couple days before Christmas 1984 at the age of thirty-one. I had always assumed that when her time came she'd go the easy way - just not wake up one day, that just seemed to be in the cards for her, she deserved an easy way out after all those years of service. It was what I hoped for her because I didn't want her to suffer, and what I hoped for myself because I didn't want to have to make the decision to have her put down. We didn't get that lucky. It had been raining and Lark slipped in the mud late one afternoon and fractured her leg. My roommate couldn't reach me because I had gone out after work with some co-workers, so she called my mom. It was all over by the time I got home. I felt terrible that I wasn’t there for Lark at the end. I've always wondered what she must have thought, did she wonder where the hell I was? Did she resent my absence? Was she scared, and would my being there have eased her fear and pain at all? Or was she typically stoic to the very end? I still miss her. I miss the solid dependability, how she put up with me, how she provided me with some of the most content moments of my life. Years - no decades - later, I miss hearing her whinny when I called out to her to let her know I’d arrived, and the way she'd follow along even if I wasn't holding her leadline or reins. I miss her beautiful face with those big sweet liquid brown eyes and the big white blob in the middle of her forehead that I was never able to outline because it was overwhelmed by white hairs reflecting her advanced age. I miss her and I miss riding. I miss the way the reins feel in my hands, the smell of the saddle leather, the sound of hoofbeats, even the unpleasant burning stench produced out of the farrier's truck. And the more time that goes by, the more I worry that I'll never get it back. Man, it sucks having expensive hobbies. I would drop any and everything to just saddle up and hit the trails. Then there were the dogs, which in a way is funny because I've never actually had a dog of my own and won't for the foreseeable future because I don't believe in keeping them in apartments. So I guess dog-wise, I've always lived vicariously through my family's dogs. Funny, I've never thought of it that way before. I've had cats, birds, hamsters and horses of my own, but never a dog. Hmmm. When Sunny and Casey died they were both well into their teens and they had long, pampered lives, so it wasn't as tragic as it could have been. They were the last two dogs my Grandma Loomis had and they made me realize that I can segment my life by the dogs my Grandma owned over the years. When I was a baby there was Heidi, a German Shepherd I only remember through pictures. From what I've heard she was woefully unprepared for the arrival of the first grandchild and so I was in constant danger of being bitten. It was the first and last time that my relationship with one of my Grandma's dogs would be contentious. And oddly enough, I've always had a thing for German Shepherds. One of my life's goals is to have one. I have no idea if this has anything to do with Heidi. The better part of my childhood and early adulthood featured Smokey, a smallish Shepherd mix. The better part of a lot of people's lives featured Smokey. It seemed like he lived for decades. In one year of his long reign, on Mother's Day, when my Grandma was vacationing in Hawaii, my dad and uncles called her and put Smokey on the phone. My Grandma and Smokey howled together as they often did, across thousands of miles of the Pacific. For years afterward the friend Grandma was traveling with would complain that she didn't hear from her kids, "but Vi's dog called her on Mother's Day!" Smokey I think was Grandma's undisputed favorite and always would be. But after he died my uncle Bob decided she needed another dog, preferably one very different from Smokey. Enter an unlikely candidate, a royally bred little Sheltie. His father was a major show champion, but Casey Windwalker was being sold as pet quality rather than as a show dog. No matter, because he was Sheltie perfection, no ribbons needed. Gorgeous long coat, shiny, beady little dark eyes, but best of all were his ears. They would have handicapped him in the show ring, but out in the real world they were irresistible - one stood up, the other folded over neatly in perfect Lassie fashion. No one could ever take Smokey's place - that would have been asking the impossible. But Casey managed to accomplish the near-impossible: he filled in Smokey's place and over the years made it his own, no matter how many times my dad dismissed him as a "rat-faced little dog". He was hyper and gorgeous and spoiled and always impeccably groomed. He made my Grandma happy, so I never held it against him that he had better hair than me. Lord, he had fabulous hair. Running alongside Casey in my life during these years were my Dad and Stepmom's dogs, Sunny and Laki. Sunny had been adopted from the local pound after they lost the lottery drawing for a much in demand cocker spaniel. She was a good-sized, multi-colored, solidly-built thing and over the years her weight fluctuated more than Oprah's. And she had the best brown eyes, over which were brown smudges that worked like worried eyebrows. It made for a fantastic effect. Sunny was eventually joined by Laki, a similarly sized blond mutt who was taken in after sucking up to my dad in the parking lot of a bar that had left him feeling particularly warm and good-samaritanish on that particular night. Laki was a stray who appeared to have recently come out second best in a fight and as a result was in desperate need of veterinary attention, which he soon got. At the animal hospital they commented on how lucky he was to have found help when he did, which led to his name, the Hawaiian word for lucky. It would be prophetic, he would live out his life in a dog's paradise. My stepmom was a serious animal lover and when she was dying I sat by her hospital bed and wondered, did she know she was never going to see her house again? And did she know she would never see any of her beloved animals again? In addition to the dogs, at that time there were also three cats. There probably would have been more if she'd had her way. Diane didn't go home to see the animals again and Laki had to be put down a couple years later. My dad resisted as long as he could, in fact probably longer than he should have. Laki had been going downhill for some time, losing his hearing, his sight, his balance. For years, in the morning, you could open the back door and call both dogs and they would both come bounding. Eventually Laki couldn't hear anymore. Then you would just call Sunny. When she came bouncing up you would tell her to go get Laki. She would run back to the doghouse and roust him up. But then he started to slip on the kitchen floor. It was terribly pathetic. Eventually he would slip and couldn't get himself back up. He'd just sit there splayed until you helped him up. At some point you both know that it just isn't working anymore. Eventually that knowledge came to Laki's increasingly cloudy eyes and he finally got his out. My dad finally retired to Hawaii. They require a six month quarantine for animals entering the state. There was no question that Sunny couldn't and wouldn't be put through that. So when dad retired to the island, Sunny retired to Grandma's. By the time Sunny relocated, advancing old age had slowed Casey down considerably from the hyper little rat faced dog he'd been in his glory days. And my Grandma and the uncle who lived with her could barely get around themselves. I was convinced that adding Sunny's aging and considerable bulk to the mix was a recipe for disaster, but I was in an apartment and couldn't take her myself. But she settled right in and became an irreplaceable member of the household, as if she'd been there forever. If she resented being left behind she showed no sign, except for snubbing my dad a bit when he visited. While Casey wound down slowly and deliberately, Sunny on the other hand apparently felt the need to sound a few false alarms before checking out for good. She had cancer that was handled with surgery. Then there was the day she lost her sense of balance, a sure sign of a stroke. My uncle, who could barely carry his own weight, hoisted her considerable self into the car and off to the vets office for what he thought would be her final ride. It turned out to be the false alarm to end all false alarms - she only had an ear infection. The ancient old broad's balance was being thrown off by an accumulation of fluids. This was dealt with, but for the remainder of her life she carried her head at a comical tilt, as if still afflicted. It only added to her considerable charm. Then her cancer returned, inoperable this time, and Casey wasn't in much better shape. They were both falling apart. And this was when I realized I could segment my life so far by the dogs my Grandma had owned. Sunny went first, and she went quickly and mercifully. She was out in the yard and just keeled over. Less than two months later Casey followed. When Christmas came it wasn't the same without them. There was no one for me to stick cheap bows on. There was no one for me to sneak food to. There was no rat-faced dog curled up on the brick fireplace. And now my Grandma is gone too and so is her house in Arcadia and Christmas is weird without them. And that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of beloved pets now gone. There's Hubba and Freebie and poor lightweight Sasha with her terrible ending and Sir Buttons of San Dimas. There's Scoobie Doo and Bon-Bon and Sophie and the gorgeous Himmie whose name escapes me at the moment and the countless other cats and dogs Amy and Jennifer have had over the years, plus Anne's beloved little lapdog Bill and Amy's horse Shasta Mountain Springs and Sebastian, the horse I took my first lesson on back in the day. All gone. Man, that's a lot of animals. Yep, getting old. Or maybe just feeling that way.

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