Like the Fourth of July: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 45

You just gotta ignite the sky, and let it shine
Just own the night like the 4th of July

From “Firework,” by Tor Erik Hermansen, et al. Performed by Katy Perry

We had a nice Fourth of July weekend. I hope you did, too, or a nice Canada Day weekend for the Canadians among you. But before I get to that…

An Update on Xander

Just five days after we took him to the animal hospital for his skin and ear infections, he gave us another scare. Wednesday morning right after Beth gave him his medicine, he fell down and seemed to lose control of his back legs. Well, this is exactly what happened to Matthew the day he died (and they were brothers), so Beth and I feared the worst.

Beth had been scheduled to go into her office but she let her colleagues know she wouldn’t be in and we were packing for a day in the animal hospital garage and debating whether we should wake the kids and ask if they wanted to come, when, after about a half hour of partial paralysis, Xander got up and started walking around as if nothing were wrong. Beth called and left a message for the animal hospital, explaining what had happened, and asking if we should bring him in. The answer was no, though of course, this doesn’t seem like a good sign for his general health. He had an appointment already scheduled at our regular vet’s office Friday, so we’ll see what the vet thinks then.

Meanwhile, almost a week has passed and he seems in good spirits. The infection on his stomach seemed to clear up, then it relapsed a little, but it still looks better than it did originally. The eardrops make his ears so greasy, it’s hard to tell if the crud is gone. He’s able to jump on and off the bed and climb stairs. He’s been going out into the yard occasionally to enjoy the sun and soaking up all the extra love and attention everyone is inexplicably bestowing on him. He’s always been an easy-going cat and he’s not letting the indignities of old age get to him.

Kayaking

Beth had a three-day weekend for the Fourth. She took up kayaking this spring and on Saturday morning, Noah and I went with her to Black Hills Regional Park to try our hands at it. Partly that’s because Beth wants to go on a dolphin-watching kayaking tour of the Chesapeake Bay when we’re at the beach later this month and I was unsure, having never kayaked, or maybe we did just once in our twenties or early thirties. Beth thinks we went canoeing on the Potomac. I thought it was kayaking on the C&O canal. Our youth is shrouded in mystery. The point is, if I’d ever been in kayak at all, the last time was more than twenty years ago.  Noah decided to come along, too, but North opted out. They attended a kayaking-and-canoeing themed week at Girl Scout camp when they were nine and thought they remembered it well enough.

It was a beautiful morning, sunny and remarkably mild for July, in the high seventies. The little lake was very busy with people in kayaks, canoes, rowboats, paddleboats, and paddleboards. It turns out Noah is a natural at kayaking. He got the hang of it right away. It took me longer. I found it tiring, and I was much slower than Beth and Noah, and I kept drifting to the right and needing to correct course.

We slipped through a tunnel under a berm to emerge in a smaller area where there were no other boaters. There were a lot of turtles, however, swimming and sunning on logs, and a family of geese, two adults and five half-grown goslings. There were also a lot of tree trunks poking up out of the water, because it’s an artificial lake that was flooded around thirty-five years ago. I think it would look eerie on an overcast day.

After we’d explored that area, we crossed back to the other side to go down a fork of the lake where Beth had seen a beavers’ dam on a previous outing. I was worn out, though, and didn’t think I could make it that far so I decided to rest at the mouth of the fork while Beth and Noah went ahead. (Neither of them ended up making it to the dam this time.) The wind sent me drifting further down the fork than I meant to go and I started to worry how I’d paddle out against the current, but when I turned around and started back, something clicked into place. I sat up straighter than I had when I’d been using the backrest and I found it easier to paddle. We were out of time, though, having rented the kayaks for two hours. I decided I’d like to come back and try it again before hitting the Bay in a kayak.

After we left the lake, we had lunch at Noodles & Company, and then ran a series of errands, including but not limited to stopping at Butler’s farm market for fruit, vegetables, pasta, and pastries, going to the animal hospital for a refill on Xander’s eardrops, and picking up my newly resoled Birks. It was a very nice outing.

Fourth of July

Sunday was the Fourth. For the second year in a row there was no parade and no fireworks in Takoma. It was actually the third year for no fireworks because there have been renovations going on at the middle school that usually hosts the fireworks for that long and there’s no comparable open space anywhere in town. I wasn’t sure why the parade was cancelled, because our vaccination numbers in Montgomery County are very good—98% of seniors and 88% of everyone age twelve and up has had at least one shot. But Beth pointed out, the parade probably takes a long time to plan and when the call needed to be made, it wasn’t clear what things would look like in July. And of course, there are the under-twelves to consider.

However, there were fireworks in D.C. (There were fireworks there last year, too, but it seemed inadvisable to go to the mall.) So our plans for the day included a picnic dinner in our backyard and a trip downtown. There’s a good view from the roof of Beth’s office building and it was open this year, so that’s where we went.

Until dinner, the day was a pretty normal summer Sunday. Beth went grocery shopping and I put the groceries away. Beth worked in the garden, putting our zinnia seedlings and watermelon vines into the ground, and assembled most of the picnic dinner, while I made the deviled eggs and the sour cherry sauce for ice cream. We all missed Takoma’s quirky and spirited parade. Beth said it didn’t feel “like the Fourth of July” without it.

We left for the fireworks around eight. On the drive there I observed people having cookouts in tiny yards in front of rowhouses, and large groups of twenty and thirty-somethings walking to the mall, which reminded me of when I was a twenty and thirty-something who lived within walking distance of the mall.

When we got to Beth’s office building we had a choice of two different levels and we chose the lower one. The penthouse deck has a portico design and Noah thought the columns might block our view. All the other CWA employees and their families chose the higher level, though, so we had the lower deck to ourselves. We got our chairs set up and Noah took pictures of the Capitol. We could see fireworks from various suburban municipalities and D.C. neighborhood displays all around us in a sort of panoramic effect.

The official D.C. fireworks began at 9:08, right on schedule. When they were in smiley face patterns the little kids up on the penthouse deck exclaimed and when they were in heart shapes they just about lost their minds. During some of the classic circle displays, one of them said, “It looks like the coronavirus” and then I couldn’t unsee it. Fortunately, the next few looked less spiky and more like dandelions. The display lasted about twenty minutes. On our way out of the building, I asked Beth if it seemed more like the Fourth of July, now that we’d seen fireworks, and she said yes.

On the drive home, we saw quite a few more neighborhood fireworks, and as we drove down North Capitol Street, we could see people setting them off on a side street. Noah played his Fourth of July playlist. It starts with Katy Perry’s “Firework,” but it grows every year. Beth and I sang along with Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” which may have been added for our benefit. Traffic wasn’t horrible, so by the time the playlist ended we were just blocks from home.

Date #4

There was one day left in the weekend, so Beth and I had a date that lasted from late morning to late afternoon. We went to see the Rita Moreno documentary at AFI, which I recommend, and then out for arepas. The original plan was tapas, but that restaurant wasn’t open for lunch. We got tequeños (because Beth loves the cilantro-garlic sauce that comes with them) and two arepas to share, one with avocado and cheese and the other with black beans and cheese. I tried the sugar cane juice, which was very sweet. I probably wouldn’t get it again, but I was glad to have satisfied my curiosity.

We swung by the house so I could cycle laundry and then we went to swim at Long Branch pool. We invited the kids along to this portion of the festivities and while we weren’t surprised Noah said no, we were surprised when North did. They are usually up for a trip to the pool. But since we were alone, I guess it was an extension of the date, though we were separated for most of it, as I was swimming laps.

Later I posted on Facebook that it was our first date since the pandemic started, but then I remembered we went out for pizza one night in late May when Noah was at YaYa’s and North was sleeping over at Zoë’s and that was definitely a date, so I corrected the post to say second.

But it made me wonder exactly what constitutes a date? How about the picnic of takeout Greek food we had on under a park shelter on a rainy day in late March on our way back from being vaccinated in Western Maryland? Or the walk through the snowy woods in Blackwater Falls State Park on Christmas day? My cousin Holly, who’s widowed, said those both count, so I will take her word for it. But I draw the line at counting the trip to Ikea we took a couple weeks ago. However many dates there have been, I’m optimistic they will become more frequent in the months to come. And that’s a happy thought.

When You’re a Jet: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 44

When you’re a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You’re a family man…

From “Jet Song” by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim

Monday

North’s musical drama camp was held outdoors for the second year in a row and that meant I was keeping an eye on the weather, both for heat and rain. In late June in Maryland, you’re likely to get both. Last year, all the rehearsal days were able to go on as scheduled for the two-week camp, but the final performance had to be pushed up a day because of a predicted storm.

This year the camp was just one week. Monday was supposed to be hot and humid and Tuesday rainy, but the rest of the week looked pleasant. Monday was indeed hot and humid—the county issued a heat warning from one p.m. to seven, but camp ended at one, so North would only be out in the worst of it for the time it took them to walk home from the park. It’s only about a fifteen to twenty-minute walk, so when they didn’t get home until 1:40, my assumption was camp had run late. (That wouldn’t be unusual.) But when North got home, they collapsed into the easy chair by the front door and informed me they’d hurt their knee during one of the dance numbers.

When they tried to get out of the chair, the knee was stiff and painful and for the rest of the day they were using both forearm crutches to get around the house. (These days they use crutches only when they leave the house and usually just one.) This was discouraging, because while they still have chronic pain, they’ve gone a long time without an injury that exacerbated it.

While they were resting in the chair, I was straightening up in the living room and decided to take all the spring birthday cards (North’s, Noah’s, and mine) and the Mother’s Day cards down from the mantel. When I took down our birthday card to North I remembered they’d never registered on the Donor Sibling Registry site and I asked if they wanted to do it. They said yes, so I handed them the card with their donor number written inside and after filling out the online forms and entering my debit card number, they found they have thirteen half-siblings on their biological father’s side, all born between 2003 and 2007, including one half-brother who is within a month of their age. However, all the messages were from parents and none were more recent than 2013. North left a message in hopes of hearing back, but I warned them it might not be realistic to expect anything soon as no one seemed to be monitoring the site closely.

That night we watched the first half of West Side Story and North let us know which songs in that part would be in the revue (“Jet Song” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”). They hadn’t been cast yet, but some of the possibilities Gretchen, the camp director, was considering for them were Tony, Diesel (called Ice in the film), and Velma. I was impressed with the idea of them being Tony but they pointed out it would be mostly songs, with just a little dialogue, and everyone sings, so there really wouldn’t be any leads. This did turn out to be true.

The show was going consist entirely of songs the Jets sing together because the group of kids who come to this camp year after year tends to be mostly white and the optics of a bunch of white kids playing the Puerto Rican Sharks wouldn’t be good. In another adjustment, North and two other kids talked Gretchen into cutting these lines from “Gee, Officer Krupke”: “My sister wears a mustache/My brother wears a dress/Goodness gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!” Gretchen tried to argue for historical context and satire but the kids thought in a three-song performance that just wouldn’t come across. They did keep this lyric: “’Cause ev’ry Puerto Rican/’S a lousy chicken!” which North said was unnerving to sing repeatedly in a public park, with passersby.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning was rainy as expected. Gretchen emailed early in the morning to say camp would end early, at noon, or possibly 11:30, and it would be held mostly on her sheltered patio– as her back yard borders the park where camp takes place—but they’d probably have to spend some time dancing in the rain. North was still having difficulty getting around so I helped them get their script and lyric sheets printed and in their backpack and I made their mid-morning snack (a fruit salad) and packed it. Beth drove them to camp.

Three hours later, Beth brought them home. They weren’t soaking wet and said the campers had spent most of the morning sheltered on Gretchen’s patio, working on lines and sewing the letters JETS onto the backs of the hoodies they’re all wearing as costumes. Eventually, they’d embroider the names of their characters on the front. In North’s case, this would be Tony, as they’d be playing the lovelorn Jet after all.

North said the campers did leave the shelter to dance for about an hour when it wasn’t raining too hard. I asked if they’d been able to dance at all with their hurt knee and they said they managed to adapt some of the moves. Because Gretchen’s known North since they were three, she has plenty of experience adjusting her choreography for North’s various mobility challenges, often with very little notice. I figured it would all work out.

After camp that afternoon, North reported, much to our surprise, that the mother of one of their half-sisters had already sent them a brief message. So we know the girl’s first name, and that she’s eighteen years old, but not much else about her. North wrote back and is waiting to hear more.

We finished watching West Side Story that evening. I noticed that in the movie, Tony’s not in “Cool,” the last song in the lineup (and neither is Riff, because he’s dead). I asked North if they’d be in it, because I guessed with just three songs, Gretchen would put everyone in all of them, and I was right.

After the movie was over, we discussed how the body count is lower in West Side Story than in Romeo and Juliet and North observed it’s odd that all these gang members seem to have classical ballet training. But I have to say that even as problematic and outdated as parts of it are, it’s still a compelling film, with a tight plot (thanks, Shakespeare) and so many wonderful songs. It will be nice to have seen it recently, if Beth and I make good on our intention to go see the Rita Moreno documentary soon or if we see the new West Side Story when it comes out this winter.

Wednesday-Thursday

By Wednesday afternoon, North was walking around the house without support. They said their knee wasn’t very painful but still pretty stiff. (They felt steady enough on their feet to make  a blueberry sauce for some vanilla ice cream we had on hand.) While the kids and I watched an episode of Shadow and Bone, North embroidered a T and an O on the hoodie they’d be wearing in the show. They did the N and the Y while I made dinner.

After diner, North received another message from the mother of a different half-sibling (age seventeen) and this mom passed on the kid’s email address, so the ball was rolling on getting in touch. By Thursday afternoon, North was scrolling through the newly found half-sibling’s Instagram feed and showed us some pictures. There’s a slight resemblance, especially in the shape of their faces, though Noah says he can’t see it. This one, who I’m going to call Alexis for now, though that’s not her name, has two moms and lives in Michigan and uses female and gender-neutral pronouns interchangeably. Because the sperm bank we used is located in Virginia and there are so many siblings I’ve been wondering if any will live nearby. I guess we may find out soon.

Thursday night, shortly before we went to bed, I noticed that our cat Xander’s belly was bare of fur and the skin looked inflamed and was oozing in places. That re-arranged our plans for the next day.

Friday

After Beth dropped North off at camp, she and I headed for the animal hospital with Xander because there were no appointments available at our regular vet and the hospital takes drop-ins.

When Matthew got sick last summer, they had people drop their animals off and leave and they’d call you when it was time to come back. Beth had called and found out that you’re still not allowed inside, so we expected something similar. Instead they wanted us to wait in the garage. (I could see the privacy screen in the corner was still there, which brought back bad memories of Matthew being euthanized in that very parking garage. I guess they’re still doing it there.)

Beth called inside and found the procedure was different now. She talked to someone on the phone who asked questions about Xander’s condition and medical history, then a tech came to the car to get him and take him inside and we were told to wait, and given an estimate of two hours. To make a long story short, it was more like four hours, and Beth had not brought her laptop because she didn’t expect any wait. She had to write something for work and was trying to draft it on her phone, “like a young person,” but it wasn’t going well, so I went to a nearby CVS and got her a pen and a notebook, so she could write on paper, like an old person. Shortly after that, almost an hour and a half into the wait, I caught a Lyft home, leaving Beth to write and take calls in the car, because we thought at least one parent should catch the drama camp performance, which was at 12:30.

I had just enough time to 1) talk to Beth on the phone and find out the vet thought it was itching from some kind of skin condition that was making Xander lick and scratch his skin raw, but that they needed to run some tests, 2) charge my phone for ten minutes or so, and 3) find some camp chairs before Noah and I left for the park. He had his camera, a tripod, and a microphone to record the performance. We got there about fifteen minutes early so we could talk to Gretchen about where he should set up and we caught the tail end of a final run-through of “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

The performance started twenty minutes late because we were waiting for all the parents to arrive, so I had time to read my texts from Beth about Xander. The lab tests showed he had both a bacterial infection on the skin of his stomach and a fungal infection in his ears (which have been looking kind of scabby). That he has two separate kinds of infections made me wonder if his immune system is suppressed for some reason, other than being old. He’s eighteen and showing his age in various ways—he’s arthritic and half-deaf and possibly a little senile. (He’s still plenty strong, though, as we learned when we gave him his medicine.) So, in the short run, he should be fine, but it’s a reminder he’s no spring chicken. The day before his vet adventure he spent almost the whole day napping on a chair in the back yard, enjoying the sun.

The actors waited in the shade of a tree and I could hear North talking about how the high of performing always makes the rehearsals worth it. This might have been for the benefit of the two newbie campers, aged ten and twelve. The rest of the cast ranged from fifteen to almost seventeen and they’ve all been acting together for years, in North’s case since they were five.  All the actors were in black hoodies and black or denim shorts or pants. North’s hoodie was actually part of their Halloween costume, and had glow-in-the-dark paint spatter on it. (I didn’t see the point in buying a second black hoodie and North agreed.)

The show consisted of a wordless prologue and the three songs, with a bit of introductory dialogue. Gretchen incorporated the playground equipment into the choreography at the very beginning. The kids emerged from the corners of the playground or slid down the slide or climbed down a ladder to converge near a bench. It was a good use of the space. Based on the dancing in the prologue, I asked North later if any of the actors had ballet training because I wondered if a couple of them might have, but North said no.

North had a solo in “Jet Song,” singing the first two lines in the stanza quoted above. They also had to take two stage falls in “Cool” and managed it well. “Gee, Officer Krupke” was last, which surprised me a little because it put the songs out of order, but without much plot to link them, it probably didn’t matter. The kids skillfully mined the song for it comedic content, especially Grace, who was playing A-rab, the much analyzed boy at the center of the song. It also let the show go out on a high note, because it really is a fun song.

Here’s the show, if you have a spare fourteen and a half minutes and you’d like to see it.

Watching it after the fact, I’m impressed with how much choreography the kids learned in a week. In a way the camp has come full circle. It started as a one-week, half-day camp when the kids were tiny and as the shows got more ambitious it grew to a two-week, full-day camp in which they produced scaled-down versions of shows that were recognizable as plays, not just a few songs from a play. But the pandemic and older kids’ busy schedules have shrunk it down to something resembling its original form. However, preteens and teens can learn a lot more complicated lyrics and dances in that amount of time than when they were preschoolers and kindergarteners.

After the show was over, the actors wanted to linger in the park and socialize. There’s a post-performance pizza tradition, so Maggie’s mom ordered pizza from Pizza Movers, which caused North to point out what we’ve all lamented many times this spring and summer, that they no longer offer delivery, so they can’t really be said to move the pizza. Maggie pointed out “They move the pizza from the kitchen to your hands,” but the general consensus was that this wasn’t good enough.

Noah and I didn’t stay for pizza, because in all the commotion of the day I’d forgotten to bring money and I was already letting North freeload off Maggie’s mom, and there weren’t a lot of other parents staying, which might have been what the kids wanted. Gretchen’s been saying this might be the last year of the camp. She said the same thing last year, but in case it is, I wanted to let them enjoy each other’s company, after North’s eleventh year of putting on a show with a gradually changing, but largely stable group of kids.

Some of these kids North’s known even longer, as North met Gretchen’s daughter Grace in Gretchen’s preschool drama class when they were both three and they met Maggie in preschool when they were both two. Speaking of Maggie and preschool, both North and Maggie are going to be counselors at tinkering camp at their old preschool the same week in July. I’m glad North has these long-lasting connections, even as they find new ones through school and activities and now the sibling registry. Keeping old friends and meeting new family members is a good thing.

Beth got home shortly after Noah and I did, with Xander. We rubbed his belly with antibacterial wipes and gave him an oral antibiotic, but it turned out the anti-fungal eardrops weren’t in the bag of supplies, so Beth had to drive back to the animal hospital after dinner to go get them. Xander is family, too, and we want to take good care of him, for as long as we’re lucky enough to have him.

A Greater Need: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 33

Before Valentine’s Day

Some years I really like Valentine’s Day and some years it leaves me lukewarm. It’s not like Halloween, which consistently delights, or Christmas, which can make the whole month before seem cheerful. This year, though, I guess we all needed it. Ten days before the holiday, Beth went to the grocery store. Part of her mission was to pick up some heart-shaped boxes of chocolates for North’s three best friends—Zoë, Miles, and Maddie. While she was in the candy section, she picked up a rainbow-striped box of chocolates for me, and gave it to me as soon as she got home.

It had six pieces. I picked the two most unusual—Roman nougat and molasses chew– to eat right away. I had to look up what Roman nougat is, so there would be no surprises—it’s cherry with nuts. I recommend it, if you’re not one of those anti-nougat people. I offered Beth the chocolate cream, but she declined, so I had it the next day with the coconut cream. I gave Noah the caramel and North the vanilla cream, because I was feeling generous.

We were all full of Valentine’s plans, more than a week before the holiday. Sunday is Beth’s cooking night and she wanted to make a special dinner, though she hadn’t decided what to cook yet. North volunteered that Valentine’s Day dinner is often a tomato-based soup and grilled cheese cut into heart shapes. I said I thought Beth might have something fancier in mind and Noah said, “What could be fancier than heart-shaped grilled cheese?”

Inspired, I think, by the pretty pink-frosted cookies my blog friend Nicole makes every Valentine’s Day (Hi, Nicole!), I was planning to make heart-shaped sugar cookies with pink frosting. North said they wanted to help. I posted on Facebook that it seemed we had “a greater need of Valentine’s Day than usual.” And who wouldn’t, after eleven months of semi-quarantine? Beth also has some pent-up snow frustration, I think, because she wants more snow and less sleet and freezing rain, which she considers “a waste of precipitation.”

At the end of my last post, I mentioned there was a chance of snow for six out of the next nine days, and it so happens it’s been exactly nine days since then. Well, we didn’t get six days of snow. We had a half-inch of slushy snow on Wednesday and an ice storm on Saturday, and that’s not counting whatever fell while we were asleep or not looking, because often it did look as if something wet had fallen from the sky but it was hard to say exactly what.

The ice storm was pretty, though. Everything in our yard was encased in ice. I knew it would melt quickly, so I suggested to our resident photographer that he go out and take some pictures of it and he did, even though it was sleeting. I didn’t think I’d have to go out in the messy weather, but just as North and I were getting started on the cookie dough, I noticed we’d caught a mouse in one of the humane traps in the lazy Susan. Its tail had gotten stuck in the door and it was struggling, so I didn’t think I could in good conscience set the trap on the porch and go release its occupant later. I left North to finish the dough, pulled on my boots, grabbed my umbrella, walked down to the creek, crossed the bridge, and walked a little bit into the woods where I released it into some dry leaves in a hollow under a stump. I left the peanut-butter smeared crackers that had lured it into the trap there, too, because North thinks that’s only fair. On my way back, I noticed the first crocuses I’d seen in bloom this year, closed, but poking up out of the icy grass.

The dough had to refrigerate for two hours, but we managed to get the cookies cut, baked, and frosted by three-thirty, at which point Noah and I watched The Shining. We’d read the book over Christmas break, so it was fun to see the (very different) film version, especially on a day of wintry, if not snowy, weather. He told me the song played in the opening sequence, “Dies Irae,” is often used to signify death in film because it’s played at funerals, and then he wondered if the overhead shots of the car on the mountain road were taken with a drone, because 1980 seemed too early for drones, but the shots looked too close for a helicopter. ( I looked it up. It was a helicopter.)

Noah and I made dinner—pasta with a turmeric cream sauce and a salad—and talked more about the film. I contrasted the characterizations and symbolism in the novel and film versions. I used to teach the novel, so I had a lot to say and he was a good listener. After dinner, the four of us finished watching 9 to 5, which we’d started the night before. North was continually surprised by the lawlessness of the main characters.

It was a nice day, with one-on-one time with both kids, and some family time, too. It was marred only by the Senate acquitting former President Trump in the impeachment trial. I mean, I wasn’t surprised or anything, but it’s still galling. I really wouldn’t care if I thought he was just going to crawl under a rock and never be heard from again, but I’m not counting on that. Can I say, though, how proud I am to be Representative Jamie Raskin’s constituent?

Valentine’s Day

The big day was Sunday. Beth left to go grocery shopping before both kids were up, so we decided to exchange gifts after lunch. Our usual Valentine’s Day protocol is that Beth and I get each other presents and we also get presents for the kids and the kids get a gift, usually food, for the whole family. It ended up being a festival of chocolate. I got chocolate caramels for Beth and she got me ganache-filled chocolate hearts. We got chocolate frogs for North and chocolate-covered almonds for Noah. Noah got the family two loaves of bread, one sourdough, and one chocolate sourdough. He suggested we freeze the chocolate sourdough loaf so when we finally finish all the chocolate we won’t have to be sad because there will be more. It seemed like a good idea.

Even Xander got some cat treats, because we celebrated his eighteenth birthday on Valentine’s Day. We don’t know the exact day of his birth, but the shelter said he came from a mid-February litter and at some point North decided his birthday should be Valentine’s Day.

After the gift exchange, Beth drove North to deliver baggies of heart cookies and boxes of chocolate to their friends and they had a short, outside visit with Miles and Maddie. I took advantage of the relatively empty house to take a nap because I hadn’t slept well the night before and I was tired. The nap was short but restorative. Beth got home just as I was waking up and she told me, laughing, that the twins had made a pan of brownies for North. You might think more chocolate was the last thing we needed, but I, for one, was not going to say no. I had one, and it was gooey and good.

I had a nice talk with my mom in the late afternoon. She’d gotten her first vaccination the day before. We capped off the day with a tasty Lunar New Year’s-themed dinner Beth made, consisting of a tofu and vegetable stir-fry on curly noodles and shiitake mushrooms braised in oyster sauce and then Beth, Noah, and I watched an episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which we do every Sunday now, much to my delight. While we watched, North was baking little chocolate lava cakes with powdered sugar hearts on them. It was their gift to the family and we ate them all together. It was a very satisfying Valentine’s Day, and just what we needed.

A Goodbye: Coronavirus Chronicle, Part 13

On Friday morning around eight, North found our cat Matthew lying on the living room floor near the front door, half-paralyzed and crying in distress. We were all quite surprised because the day before he’d seemed perfectly normal, but now he had no control over his back legs. The first thing that came to mind was that he had type 1 diabetes and this was exactly how it first presented when he was about a year old. We’d just switched him and his brother Xander from high-protein kitten food to regular cat food and one day his legs just gave out and he collapsed onto the kitchen floor. After some short-term insulin, we got him on food for cats with diabetes and he never needed any more insulin or diabetes medicine. At the time, the vet told us as he got older, the special food might not do the trick anymore and then he’d need to go on insulin. That was sixteen years ago, so I thought that the time had finally come for more aggressive treatment.

We carried him to our bed, which is his favorite place, and brought him some water, which he drank, and for the next few hours, we took turns sitting with him alone or in various combinations. He seemed to calm down and stopped crying so much, but every now and then he’d try, unsuccessfully, to stand. Mostly he just lay quietly, breathing more quickly than usual, occasionally napping a little.

Beth was trying to reach the vet’s office but they never picked up the phone so she drove over there to see if there was anything posted on the door about holiday weekend hours. As it turned out, they were closed for the whole day, so she called an animal hospital in the city. It was the same hospital where our first cat, Emily, received treatment at the end of her life and died, eighteen years ago.

After asking a few questions, the staff person at the animal hospital asked us to bring Matthew in. We’d have to leave him in his carrier at the door and they’d take him inside and talk to us by phone as we waited outside. Even though we knew no one was going inside, North and I came along with Beth and Matthew, just in case we knew the answers to any questions, and for moral support. There weren’t many questions, though, and pretty soon after we left him, they told us to go home and said they’d call us.

Late that morning, the vet called with the bad news. It wasn’t his diabetes. It was heart disease, very advanced. They did an ultrasound and found fluid around his heart and lungs. The immediate problem was a blood clot that was preventing him from moving his legs, but his overall prognosis was poor.

We decided to go through with the euthanasia that day. This time all four of us went to the animal hospital. They are putting animals down in the parking garage because of COVID. This sounds really horrible, but they did their best to make a private space. There was a folding screen making a little room out of a corner. It was near a vent blowing cool air, so it wasn’t oppressively hot, and there was a wooden bench with a cushion on it and side tables with boxes of tissues and water.

Only one person was allowed to be there during the procedure, but we were all allowed to visit with him beforehand. The vet brought our loudly meowing cat behind the screen and stepped out, saying we could take as long as we liked and to call her when we were ready. We sat on the bench and petted him and talked to him and kissed the top of his head. He was wrapped up in a white fleece blanket and part of one of his front legs had been shaved, just above the paw, and the port for the drugs was already attached. My heart sank a little further when I saw that.

When we’d said our goodbyes, everyone but me left, and Beth called for the vet to come back from inside the building. I held Matthew while the vet administered the two drugs, the first to render him unconscious and the second one to stop his heart. They took effect more quickly than I thought they would. The vet listened to his chest with a stethoscope and said, “He’s gone.” She told me it had been the compassionate decision. Or at least that’s what I think she said. Between her face shield and her mask and the fact that we were in a garage, it was hard to hear. I just nodded and she asked if I wanted to stay with him for a while and I did. When I finally lay him down on the bench, I found Beth outside and asked her to call someone to come pick him up and I went back to wait with him again because I couldn’t bear to leave his body alone.

It’s three days later and we’re all sad and kind of shocked. One day we thought he was reasonably healthy for a seventeen-year-old cat—his most serious problem seemed to be a tendency toward constipation and some weight loss we thought was due to his digestive issues—and the next day a vet was telling us he was fatally ill.

We spent a quiet fourth of July. The Takoma Park parade and fireworks were cancelled months ago, so our observation of the holiday consisted of watching Hamilton and having a backyard picnic.  And because it was the most patriotic thing I could think to do, I wrote a small batch of postcards, encouraging Florida voters to enroll in the state’s vote by mail program. (I’ve written over a hundred postcards for this campaign alone.)

The next day, Beth, Noah, and I went to another park. We’ve continued to do this every weekend since mid-May and we have yet to repeat a park. The weekend previous we’d been to a charming little creek off the Middle Patuxent, where we could hear what I think was a good-sized bullfrog croaking underneath a mass of submerged tree roots and we could see dozens of these beautiful black-winged, turquoise-bodied dragonflies.

This week we went to South River Farm Park, which as you might guess from the name is on the South River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. We waded in the salty river and in a little pond (until some kayakers warned us out of it, telling us there were snapping turtles and snakes in there). We saw a Great Blue Heron in the pond, and picked some of the plentiful raspberries we found growing along the trail.

I was sorry North had elected not to come because I think they would have liked it but we weren’t sure whether or not the park had beach access when we set out and they didn’t want to come without knowing for sure. (And actually, this park wasn’t even the one we thought we’d visit. Our first and second choice were filled to capacity and closed.) I was timing how long it took to walk from the parking lot to the water and noting the firmness and slope of the path for future reference. Speaking of North’s condition, after the MRI last week, we learned that they have a herniated disk. It may sound like an odd reaction, but Beth and I were both really happy to learn this because it means there’s a concrete reason for their pain and it should guide the physical therapist’s plan. They already have some at-home exercises to do and they’ll have their first full-length PT session on Thursday.

After we left the park we stopped at a nursery, where I got two dwarf sunflowers and a thyme plant, then we went to a farm stand and got some excellent peaches, peach jam, cantaloupe, and tomatoes. We each ate a sweet, juicy peach in the parking lot before picking up some Chinese takeout for lunch and following it up with frozen custard and Italian ice at Rita’s. It was a nice outing and kind of therapeutic to spend so much time outside.

We brought home some extra fortune cookies and gave one of them to North. It said their luck was about to change.

“That could be good or bad,” I observed, but given that they’ve been on crutches since February, our country’s been in the grip of a pandemic since March, and a cat they loved dearly just died, we decided to read it as a good sign.

RIP, Matthew Simon
Circa February 14, 2003-July 3, 2020

He was a beautiful cat and more than a little neurotic, he loved to play with lanyards, which I think he pretended were snakes, and he was a good mouser, even in old age. We will miss him very much.

When We Grow Up

Three and half weeks ago, while we were still at the beach, I received the sound files and lyrics for the songs June needed to learn for her musical drama camp production of Matilda. But she was too busy having fun to practice much while we were on vacation. As tryouts were the first day of camp (a few days after our return), the day we left I urged her to listen to the songs in the car and sing along “for as long as you can stand it.” Little did I imagine she’d sing for nearly the whole drive home. She put a lot of heart into it, especially certain lines like, “If you’re little you can do a lot./You mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you.” I think she identified.

But there were other lines that resonated with me during the two weeks she was at camp and I was hearing a lot of them. Here’s a bit of “When I Grow Up,” I particularly like: “When I grow up/ I will be strong enough to carry all/the heavy things you have to haul/ around with you when you’re a grown-up.” There have been a lot of those things lately, haven’t there? Multiple high-profile police shootings, both police on civilians and vice versa, a terrorist attack in Nice and another one in Kabul, an attempted coup in Turkey and the Turkish government’s response to it, the shooting in Munich, and the truly alarming spectacle of the Republican National Convention.

I had more personal worries as well. It may seem small in light of national and international events, but our cat Matthew has lost weight and he passed some bloody stool and I went on the Internet and found it could be anything from constipation to cancer, and so for a while I was very worried about him. We took him to the vet twice and they palpated his belly, and took blood the first time and urine the second time. Everything came back normal, but one of the times I was at the vet’s office there was a father with two girls there collecting the body of their cat, who had been put to sleep during exploratory surgery for cancer, so it felt like a near miss indeed. And we’re still not sure what’s caused his symptoms, so I have some lingering unease, even though he’s acting normally.

Meanwhile, while June was at drama camp, Noah was home most of the time doing his summer school computer science assignments, as well as summer homework for pre-calculus and English, and helping me with housework and yardwork.

This year we let June walk to and from drama camp. She did this with another day camp nearer to the house last year, but this represented an expansion of her roaming range and it also involved crossing a slightly busier street than she’s ever crossed before. I took her to camp the first day because I needed to turn in a form, but that afternoon she came home red, sweaty, and proud of herself. About half the time, I ended up taking her on the bus in the mornings, but most afternoons she came home alone, sometimes buying herself a snack at a convenience store on the way.

Auditions were on the first day and for the first time in six summers of attending musical drama camp, June tried out for the main character. She had a reason for not doing this before. The camp director divides the main role up between various actors to spread the acting out more evenly across the group. Nonetheless, June prefers to own her role. But there wasn’t anyone except Matilda she really wanted to be, besides possibly Lavender, Matilda’s best friend. She found out on the second day she got the part. In fact, twelve of the twenty kids in her age group were playing Matilda. (In addition, there was a chorus of nine younger kids who sang along with June’s group but didn’t play individual parts. In the video, they’re the ones in the vests.)

The last few days of drama camp Beth was away for a several days at Netroots Nation in St. Louis. This conference was inconveniently timed because she wasn’t available to drive Noah to his summer school computer science midterm in Gaithersburg, she missed our twenty-ninth dating anniversary, and worst of all, she would miss Matilda.

Noah successfully took a cab to his midterm, which inexplicably turned out to be a mid-class review session and not the test they were told they would have. Then he found his way home on public transportation on an unfamiliar route (bus to train to bus). Even though he was irritated that there was no test and felt like the whole thing was a waste of half a Saturday, I thought it was a good life skills experience. As a kid with a non-driving parent, he’s had to be pretty self-sufficient about getting around, but the cab was a new twist.

As for the anniversary, Beth and I exchanged gifts after she got home, a couple days after she got home actually because she was pretty busy. Before she left on her trip, she told me she’d had a good idea for me and forgotten it, so I asked if she’d been planning to get my Birkenstocks resoled because they need it and she’s done that before. No, it wasn’t that, she said, while Noah stage-whispered, “Go with it.” She took his advice and gave me a card with before and after pictures of Birkenstock soles tucked inside. I got her some wind chimes she’d admired. My aunt Peggy got us some at the beach as well, so now we have two new sets on the porch.

On the day of the performance, we met June’s best friend Megan in the auditorium. She was going to watch the show and come home with us for an extended play date, which would start at our house and then switch to Megan’s house for a sleepover. Noah set up his video camera on his tripod and I reminded Megan, who kept up a pretty constant running commentary during the Frozen performance last year that she had to keep quiet because unlike last year, we were all sitting together and she was near the camera. Megan promised she would and she was true to her word. She whispered everything she had to say.

The first song was “Miracle,” in which a group of spoiled children sing “My mummy says I’m a miracle” and other expressions of parental overindulgence, to be contrasted with Matilda’s sadly singing, “My mummy says I’m a lousy little worm/My daddy says I’m a bore.” The kids were in different costumes, a ballerina and a soldier are called for in the lyrics, but for some reason June wore a dog costume. She was not able to offer much of an explanation for this, but I think it must have been meant to indicate a child whose whims are humored. The choreography in this number was more complicated and ambitious than they’ve tackled in previous years. In some of the other pieces they used parts of the Broadway choreography, but this was the camp director’s invention.

June had her solo in the first lines of the next song, “Naughty.” The camp director, Gretchen, complimented her after the show for “setting the tone” well in this song. Here’s a clip of the first two songs of the show.

For the rest of the show she was singing along with the group, with an occasional line of dialogue. June especially liked the part where they rode scooters up and down the aisles of the theater. The show was well done, as usual. This year the girl who really stole the show was one of the director’s daughters, who was playing Miss Trunchbull, the evil headmistress. Lottie really nailed that role.

This camp is always a highlight of June’s summer, but the kids’ artistic endeavors were not over. The next week Noah volunteered at a day camp at the kids’ old preschool and he filmed and edited a zombie movie there, with the campers as actors. It was unscripted and pretty much consisted of him filming their play. He played it for them on the last day and it was a hit. This is a link to the camp director Lesley’s blog post about the whole zombie experience. The movie is included in two parts.

That same week June was away at Girl Scout camp and the theme of her program was “Artistas,”so she came home with a lot of art, including a tie-dyed t-shirt, a lot of ceramics, and a bracelet she made for Megan.

It was her second year at sleep-away camp and it was considerably easier to drop her off and drive away, both for her and for us. I did miss her while she was gone, though, and I was happy to pick her up on Friday. We drove to camp straight from the settlement of our newly refinanced mortgage to beat the rush hour traffic and settled down to wait for pickup time in a nearby Starbucks. On the drive down through Southern Maryland, I noted a lot of flags at half-mast, and wondered if they were all down for the same reason and if so what it was—there are so many possibilities—and also observed the predominance of Trump yard signs with unease. (My friend Onika later informed me the flags were lowered for the police officers in Baton Rouge, there’s an official website you can check.)

We were there at five on the dot, and when they called June out of the dining hall where the girls were waiting, she barreled out to give us hugs. Her hair had been French-braided by a counselor, no mean feat given how short it is, and even better, the counselor managed to do it so that most of the faded blue and pink left in her hair from having it dyed two months ago was is contained in one of the braids. It was a cool effect.

On the drive home and at dinner—we stopped at Pizza Hut and then Rita’s for Italian ice and frozen custard—she told us about camp: she’d been canoeing and had done archery once each, they did an art project and swam every day. She’d been in the lowest swim group for the second year in a row, despite having taken swim lessons this spring to avoid this fate. She mostly liked the food, and tried Apple Jacks for the first time ever, but the vegetarian lasagna was worse than last year—it had eggplant instead of noodles! (Beth surmised it was doing double duty as the gluten-free option.) She learned the camp is inhabited by mermairies, mermaid/fairy hybrids who grant wishes. She made a wish (to find her missing swim bottoms) and it came true. She thought she might have spotted a mermairy’s head in the pond while canoeing. One of her best camp friends lives in Silver Spring and she got her phone number so they can have a play date. She missed us but she didn’t get homesick.

All in all, June was very happy with her camp experience and we are happy to have her back. Even if she’s grown up enough to spend a week away from us without much worry or fuss, it’s still good to have her home.

Cyclone

Every summer I write at least one blog post about how summer discombobulates me, the different camps every week, with different locations and different drop off and pick up times that mean I need to construct a new routine from scratch every week, only to start a another one once I get into the rhythm of the current one.  (Although two Fridays ago, on June’s last day of art camp at our local community college, I had so successfully turned my mind to the next week that I went much too far on the bus to pick her up because I was thinking of drama camp in Silver Spring, which was the next week.)

Then on the weeks when June doesn’t have camp, there’s the scramble for babysitting and the stress of trying to work while she’s at home.  I haven’t actually had that kind of week yet this summer because June’s been in camp five weeks out of six and we were on vacation the other week.  But as of Friday she’s finished her last camp.  Noah has one more week (a week of theater design, starting Monday). While he’s doing that, June will be having a three-day visit with Beth’s mom in West Virginia and then the next week we all head to Oregon to see my folks.

The last two weeks of break neither kid has camp.  I’ll be working, but fewer hours and I think knowing it’s the very end of break I’ll be more motivated to be the kind of summer mom I often wish I could be, full of fun projects and outings or lazy afternoons reading or playing cards on the porch.

Transportation was my main challenge this week. Early in the summer Noah was volunteering at June’s tinkering camp (located at their old preschool) and he walked her to and from camp most days.  It worked out so well I had him handle about half her drop-offs and pickups to musical drama camp the next week and a couple of the art camp drop-offs the week after that.  The first day they walked off the front porch steps together, June thrilled to be heading out into the world alone with Noah, and Noah seeming quietly pleased at the responsibility, I had to stop myself from running down the block after them.  But it was amazing how quickly I got used to the convenience.  Soon they were stopping at a pizzeria on their way home and bringing home pizza for dinner, and riding on public transportation together as if they’d been doing it for years.  And this week, when he had band camp and couldn’t pitch in with June’s transportation, I really missed the help.  I had to remind myself that when he was eight, I would have been getting him at camp every day while wrestling with a stroller, a diaper bag, and a nap-deprived tantrumming preschooler on the bus.  So it really does get easier, I assure you, if you are currently raising small children.

That said, I will note for the record that my circumnavigations between June’s drama camp, the library, June’s music school, and one trip to Noah’s band camp took me on twenty-two buses and six trains this week. And some of them were late, as is inevitable when you take that many buses and trains. Yet I was never late for a pickup or a drop off (well, once, by about three minutes, but does that really count?) and I only lost one SmarTrip and one umbrella. I think that’s a decent score.

But what I really intended to write about here was band camp, or mostly the band camp concert, as I was there but I was not at band camp.  Camp started on Sunday afternoon with a three-hour orientation. In addition to daily sectional practice with the other percussionists, Noah was taking three electives—technology, movie music (his friend Sasha was in this one with him), and composition. He was glad to get into that class because he’d wanted to take it last year.

Camp lasted from nine to four Monday to Friday and ended with a ninety-minute concert (thirty minutes for each age group) on Friday afternoon. The truly impressive thing about this camp is how they pull together a polished-sounding concert in just a week.

On Sunday night at bedtime, Noah said, “I should have practiced.” I asked if they’d been instructed to and he said no, but he thought he should. I was heartened to hear this, as he hadn’t touched his drums all summer and I’d hoped he would, if just to fool around with them. Anyway, for the rest of the week after a full day of band camp, he practiced, mostly on his orchestra bells, which were standing in for the marimba and vibraphone he’d play in the concert. He didn’t tell me much about camp and Beth, who was driving him and Sasha there every morning, said they were not talkative in the car either, but he seemed happy.

Friday afternoon I picked June up from drama camp an hour early to take her to Noah’s concert. She had to miss her own performance but we’d decided earlier in the summer that each child would have one performance that everyone in the family would attend. For her it was Cats; for Noah it was band camp.  Because the campers spent the afternoon rehearsing skits June would not perform in, the counselors gave her an “assistant director” role. She sat in the back of the room and told actors when they needed to speak more loudly.  She seemed pleased with this duty.

We met Beth at the College Park Metro stop, where she’d left the car in the morning and we drove to the performing arts center on campus. I really like this auditorium (especially when compared to listening to concerts on folding metal chairs in a middle school cafeteria). The seats are comfy, the ceiling soars and is a pretty golden color and an interesting shape, and best of all, there are risers on the stage so you can see the percussionists. We had fifteen minutes to wait, so I read June part of a chapter of The Wide Window, (book three in The Series of Unfortunate Events.)

The fifth and sixth grade band went first.  Among their numbers were “De Colores,” which made Beth and me smile because if you have two children attend a Spanish immersion elementary school you get to know this song very well.  They also did “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” which I thought would be June’s favorite, but she said she liked “Creatures in the Attic,” which was full of spooky sound effects.

We finished our chapter while we waited for the seventh and eight grade band to take the stage. The conductor came on stage holding a large goose puppet. Noah later explained he did it so if any of them made a mistake they would know they were not the only ones who were embarrassed.

As I mentioned, we could see Noah better than usual, although I couldn’t always make out what he was playing if it was at waist level. The triangle and cymbals were pretty visible. (He’s the one playing cymbals in both pictures.) Consulting with him later I found he’d also played cabasa, wind chimes, and vibraphone. He liked “The Falling Rain” best.  He played cabasa and wind chimes in this one and there was audience participation—we had to snap when the conductor signaled for it. I liked “Cyclone,” but maybe just because the week I’d just had felt like one.

I was thinking as they played about a question a friend recently asked me about Noah and percussion.  I’d been explaining Noah’s slow processing and how it causes him difficulty at school sometimes.  Kevin wanted to know how he plays drums if it’s all about timing and doing things at exactly the right time.  I said I thought it was practice, that by practicing a piece over and over he learned how to come in at just the right place, which might be part of the reason he finds it satisfying, as coming in at the right time can be challenging for him, say, in class discussion, and you don’t get do-overs then.

I remember how when he was just starting to play, when he was nine, how every new song used to frustrate him—sometimes to the point of tears—because he wanted to be able to play it right immediately and he couldn’t. He’s still a perfectionist and could tell you every mistake he made in concert if you wanted to know, but he takes it in stride now. He knows mistakes come with the territory.  Plus there was a grown man with a goose puppet on stage, so how could he be embarrassed?

The ninth and tenth graders finished up the concert. Their last piece was called “Instant Concert” and consisted of snippets of well-known songs all strung together. “Thirty melodies in three minutes,” the conductor said. Hearing “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” in July made June laugh, but every familiar tune was fun to identify.  Here’s the full list.

After the concert we had pizza at a place I used to frequent when I was in grad school at the University of Maryland and then ice cream.  And so began a busy weekend featuring getting our middle-aged long-haired cat Xander shaved because he can’t reach his back to lick it any more and he had gotten mats in his fur, our annual berry picking expedition (always to the same berry farm) and my annual blueberry kuchen baking that follows said berry picking expedition, the kids running a lemonade stand/bake sale to benefit endangered species—June’s friend Megan helped with this—and music lessons for both kids.

In fact, on Friday night, going to bed, Noah said he thought he’d play his drums in the morning.   The next morning he had his first summer drum lesson—one of several he’ll have at June’s music school over the next few weeks to tide him over between band camp and the beginning of the school year.  Even though he’d been playing percussion all week he’d never actually played a drum and he said he felt rusty. Sure enough, Saturday morning around nine-thirty, I heard the controlled chaos of Noah’s drumming rising from the basement.

Noah and I are alike in many ways. I know my tendency to get rattled by admittedly small changes to my routine and my (closely related) need to think everything through carefully is just a milder version of his emphatic need for routine and his information processing challenges.  Even one of our cats, Matthew, can’t bear change.  Ever since Xander got shaved, Matthew’s been hissing and running away whenever he sees him, which leaves Xander looking completely baffled because it’s not their usual dynamic. I’m hoping it’s just the lingering smell of the shampoo the groomer used because his fur won’t grow back completely for four to six months. By then, I will be out of the cyclone and back in my comfortable school year routine and Noah will still be providing the steady back beat in the soundtrack of our lives.

Xander in the House

We have two cats, Matthew and Xander. They’re brothers, from the same litter. We got them the summer Noah was two, from the county humane society.  The shelter said they were four months old but I didn’t believe it. They were much too big to be that young, I thought. But then they grew and grew and grew and soon I realized it was no error.

They are now ten years old, big, black, golden-eyed cats.  They look similar to people who don’t know them well.  To me they look different: Matthew has short, smooth, glossy fur and he’s black all over, while Xander’s fur is medium-long and fluffy, with a white patch on his chest and another on his belly.  After their rambunctious kittenhood, personality differences began to emerge as well.  Matthew is shy of strangers, prone to anxiety, and a homebody. He’s happiest curled up with Beth or me or the kids while we read in bed. He ventures outside occasionally but he wants back in the moment the door closes and he never leaves our yard.  Xander is bold and friendly, twining around the leg or jumping into the lap of almost anyone who comes into the house.  The video of our wedding includes a moment when Dan stops officiating the ceremony and bends down to pet Xander, who’s rubbing up against him.

Xander’s also a wanderer, with notched ears to show for it.  From the beginning it was almost impossible to keep him inside and after a couple years we gave up trying. We had both cats micro-chipped and hoped for the best.  Xander even went out after the big blizzard three years ago when we had a few feet of snow in the yard. He walked under the eaves, exploring where he could, though he kept his ears back much of the time to express his disapproval of the unaccustomed state of his realm. Beth made a Facebook album of him entitled “Xander Goes Out and Stubbornly Refuses to Admit His Mistake.”

Xander spent the night outside on Monday.  This is not unusual, though in the winter I do try to see if he wants back inside before we go to bed.  By Tuesday night he hadn’t returned and that was strange, especially given the cold, wet weather. (It hailed that morning.)  By Wednesday Beth and I were both quite worried. He’d never been gone two nights in a row.  Beth reported him missing to the micro-chipping company and they contacted local shelters with his description, screened leads and passed them on to us, and generated posters we printed and put up around the neighborhood and distributed at June’s school bus stop. As June and I tacked posters to telephone poles, we put almost all of them underneath posters for another neighborhood cat, Neko, who had been lost for weeks.  I’d noticed these posters everywhere before Xander got lost and I impressed with her people’s dedication to recovering her.

Beth and Noah responded to the problem with electronic communications.  Beth posted to the neighborhood listserv and made a Facebook page for Xander where people could leave messages and Noah made a Google Plus page. I thought it was fitting Xander was now on more forms of social media than I am, given his highly social nature. Noah also made a poster with one of those QR codes you can scan with a smart phone to get to one of Xander’s web sites. We started getting phone calls about sightings, but they were either of a different cat (one with a docked tail), or of a cat seen startlingly far from home, or on our block but days ago.

Meanwhile, Beth and I were imagining all kinds of unhappy endings to this story.  Had he really crossed our busy street as one of the sightings indicated?  Had he crossed any other busy streets? Had he encountered a fox as one of our neighbors unthinkingly suggested?  She meant well, I think. She was after all calling to say she’d seen him in her yard two days earlier.  Was he lost?  Had he had a heart attack? Years ago the vet noticed an irregular heart rhythm and told us that sometimes cats with that heartbeat up and die of heart failure with no warning in middle age.  Beth, who’s good at worst-case scenarios, was even imagining he’d fallen into the clutches of a gang of cat-torturing kids.

I told June happier stories.  Maybe he got lost and another family was taking care of him until they figured out where he lived.  June thought this was likely, and that he might have even planned it that way, in order to expand his social circle. She was not particularly worried and confident he would return.  Noah made no predictions, but he did tell me quietly that he missed Xander.  Matthew was unsettled and howled so much at night that Thursday night we let him sleep with us, and that seemed to calm him.

Meanwhile, June determined to take matters into her own hands and make her own hand-lettered posters but she only had time to make one before school Thursday so after long discussion, she decided to give it to the bus driver because she goes all over the neighborhood.

Friday morning June made another poster and Noah and Beth helped her scan it and make enough copies to give out to all the kids who ride her bus, as they were the most likely to live in the neighborhood. (June’s in magnet Spanish immersion program so some of her classmates live in other parts of Takoma Park or in Silver Spring.)  Beth was trying to get Noah to stop helping with this project and focus on getting ready for school.  He was so late she had to drive him to school. While they were walking down the driveway, Beth thought she heard a meow.  She hesitated because she’d been thinking she heard meows all week, especially while in the kitchen, which faces the driveway.  “I hear meowing,” Noah said.  So they started looking in the windows of the house next door until Noah saw Xander’s face in a basement window. Noah came dashing into the house to share the news and soon all four of us were crowded around the window, looking at and talking to Xander, who was howling back at us.

I need to stop here and tell you about the house next door. It’s been vacant since we moved here, in the spring of 2002. It’s not abandoned precisely because the owners do occasional, slapdash maintenance on it, but it’s in bad shape. In fact, it’s been condemned for a year or two. In the time we’ve lived next to it there have been squatters in the house and its garage. Once I saw a raccoon climb out a third story window onto the branch of a tree.

There’s a broken basement window at the back of the house that seemed to be the only entrance into the boarded up house.  As I was peering into the basement I noticed another cat, an orange cat with a pink heart-shaped tag on her collar. It was Neko! We had found not one, but both missing cats.

The problem now was freeing them.  From the broken window they must have used to enter the basement to the floor was a long drop. The window was unfastened and swung inward but there was a metal frame dividing it in two.  It wasn’t clear if we could get a ladder through it or if an adult would fit.  We didn’t know how to reach the owners of the house; we don’t even know their names. Beth called the police non-emergency number and they referred her to animal control. She was informed they only come rescue feral cats and as neither cat was feral, they couldn’t help. Next she called Neko’s people, one of whom came over at once to see if it really was Neko. It was.

By this point Beth had left to drive Noah to school.  I showed Neko’s person, Kevin, how the window swings inward and he said, “You know, since the window is already broken, it would only be entering.” I agreed, but said we should wait for Beth to get back.  He went home to change clothes and fetch his fiancée.  Beth got back before he did and we started looking for other points of entry into the house.  I noticed the windows around the corner were much closer to the floor.  We couldn’t open the first one we tried, but the second one was open and covered with wire mesh that looked like it would come off pretty easily. I went inside to get her a hammer and she set to work.

She had it almost off by the time both Neko’s people arrived, Kevin now wearing a sweatshirt that said, “Deny Everything.”  Xander came out with minimal coaxing.  I carried him back into our house and June cried, “Xander in the house!” I hear it was a little harder getting Neko out because she was more spooked but eventually Kevin was able to reach in far enough to pull her out and wrestle her into her carrier with his fiancée’s help.

I had just enough time to pack June’s lunch and get her to the bus stop, where I shared the joyous news with everyone.  When I came back I saw Xander made a quick tour of the house then collapse under the dining room table and fall deeply asleep. Oddly, he didn’t seem ravenous. He’d eaten some food I lowered through the window in a small plastic tub on a string before we got him out of the basement but he didn’t finish it and he didn’t eat again immediately upon getting home. I am still wondering what he ate and drank in the three and half days he was gone.  And how long he was in that house.

We are all happy to have him home, though Matthew was initially angry, as he often is when Xander’s been out of the house for a while. I’m not sure if it’s the strange smells Xander brings back or if he’s mad at him for worrying him. Anyway, there was a lot of hissing yesterday but they have made up enough to sleep on the same bed.

I went for a walk this morning and took down all our Lost Cat signs as well as quite a few of Neko’s.  And this afternoon Beth went to the hardware store to buy wire to cover the broken window because while we probably can’t keep Xander in our house forever, we do want to keep him out of the house next door.