The Washington Post
Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lostby Barbara Abercrombie
Because “grieving for an animal can be a pretty lonely place,” Barbara Abercrombie created this joyful and poignant, funny and smart collection of commiseration. Readers meet the cat who liked to fish tampon tubes out of the trash and then appear “jauntily holding one in his mouth as if smoking a cigarette,” the dog who demanded down pillows, and even a coyote who became part of the family. The sometimes surprising things animals add to a household — and how their loss reverberates — are highlighted, and because these are such fine writers, each essay also reveals larger truths about life. Whether the reader is grieving a loss, cherishing a current companion, or simply relishing a tale well told, the message is clear: it is better to have loved and lost...
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21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost
By Barbara Abercrombie
New World LibraryCopyright © 2011 Barbara Abercrombie
All rights reserved.
* * *
When my life partner, John Espey, and I first moved into a new little house in Topanga Canyon, we found ourselves out in the sticks — literally. It was a rough part of the canyon, arid, parched, unwelcoming. John killed maybe six rattlesnakes in the first two weeks. Tarantulas jumped in the basement. Scorpions were plentiful. It was, as my old Texan dad would say, hotter than a policeman's pistol. My daughters, eighteen-year-old Lisa and eight-year-old Clara, were highly skeptical of the whole project. I think we all had second thoughts in those first weeks. This was the first time we'd tried to live together as a family.
Raccoons, possum, more snakes of the harmless kind. Our house was at the top of a cliff, at one end of a crescent of raw earth. From the back our view was literally endless. In front, a narrow road ended in a cul-de-sac. Every night at the end of the crescent, maybe a dozen coyotes gathered to howl. And there was another animal, not readily identifiable — probably half coyote, half German shepherd — starved down to the bone, cowering, skulking, skidding back into the underbrush whenever she saw one of us looking at her. But she began to look marginally better after a few weeks. That was because separately we'd all been feeding her on the sly.
John named her Isha, a feminization of the Indian name Ishi, which was the name of the last member of an Indian tribe that Kroeber, the anthropologist, had immortalized. But Isha had it better than Ishi, by far. Since she played so infernally hard to get (what else could she do, really? She was wild, she was mad as a March hare), we competed slavishly for her attention, talking baby talk to her, handing her little treats, trying mightily to get her to eat from our hands. All this took weeks. And it took over a year to coax her inside the house. People anthropomorphize their pets all the time, and it's a trait I scorn in others, but it was hard not to project human meaning on her diva ways. She was mistress of the injured look. She cringed every time she got near John, until he raised his voice to a falsetto. "She must have been mistreated when she was young," he said, but who was really to know? She'd already had one litter of pups before we knew her; during that first year when she prowled the borders of our house, she had another — she ate a few and squashed the rest. She had a different frame of mind than the rest of us.
Finally she'd come inside the house, but the house was tall and narrow — three stories. The living room was eight steps up from the kitchen: what a production to cajole and wheedle and generally carry on to get her to the living room level! We all adored her, but her plain favorite was Lisa, who was as hard to get as she was; they spent time giving each other scornful looks. But then as we'd be watching television, John and I on one couch, Lisa and Clara on the other, Isha would come up and lay her head on Lisa's knee. Lisa would reciprocate by bopping Isha on her snout (can't there be a prettier word for the space between a dog's eyes and her nose?), bopping her gently but negligently, then doing it with more and more decision, until it might have been called abuse by an animal rescue person, but Isha loved it, pushing her head up under Lisa's hand, wanting more. It had a particular sound, like a champagne cork coming out; celebratory.
Stories about pets often carry something silly and intrinsically embarrassing about them. Lisa, a bestselling novelist now, used to spend fifteen minutes bopping Isha's nose, while we all watched fondly? Unimaginable, really. But once, when I was cleaning up the living room, Isha was sitting on the couch and I wanted to sweep off the dog hair. I said "Down, Isha," and said it again. And again. Then I put my hand to her body to give her a little shove. She laid back her ears and snarled, showing all her teeth, and she wasn't a dog anymore. She was Isha, and she could lie on the couch as much as she wanted. She was also Isha when the coyotes, about ten o'clock at night, would gather in the cul-de-sac or out on the crescent and howl, and Isha, living her dog life, would pause on a landing and pitch back her head and howl along with them. I would watch the hair on my forearms rise up.
One morning a Chinese moving man brought a new easy chair for the living room. The house, as I've said, was on three levels — the kitchen at ground level, then eight steps up to the living room, then another eight to where the bedrooms were. The chair was enormous, and John helped him push and pull the thing from the kitchen level up those first eight stairs. John took the "up" side, pulling the chair with all his might. The moving man took the "down" side, pushing the chair up. His muscles strained; his legs were bowed. Isha was outside, but the door to the house was open. As I watched from the kitchen, she sped past me so quickly I couldn't focus on her, ran up about four stairs and chomped down from behind on the mover's defenseless crotch. Then she hurtled back out again.
The mover, in the living room by this time, let out an ungodly yowl and yanked down his pants, sure he'd been castrated. John and I were mortified, and also afraid he'd sue us for everything we had, which would have been totally appropriate. But the poor guy, once he found himself in one piece, only said mournfully, "It's because I'm Chinese. Some animals don't like that smell." We weren't going to argue with him.
She was wild! We had to learn it over and over again. By this time she would jump on our beds and cover us with "kisses," and push at Lisa to bop her on the head, and greet our cars coming up the driveway with all the doglike signals of delight. One day we gave an afternoon party full of journalists, and one of them, Digby Diehl, brought along his daughter, Dylan, a pretty but willful little girl. I went out into the yard to stock up on more lemons for rum drinks, and Dylan ran out and put her arms around Isha. Isha laid back her ears and stiffened. Dylan was still small, so that her throat was just about at a level with Isha's teeth. I remembered the Chinese mover and was filled with dread. "Dylan," I said in the low voice you reserved in Topanga for talking in front of rattlesnakes, "let go of the dog and come over here." Of course, Dylan tightened her grip. Isha began making a noise. "Dylan, the dog is dangerous. Take your hands off her, and come over here!" That little girl wouldn't do shit. It took four or five attempts, and to this day Dylan doesn't know how close she was to an unpleasant death.
The question comes up: Why did we keep her? We were crazy in love with her is the answer. But I don't think it was for all those "unconditional love" reasons you hear when people talk about their beloved pets. I think it was more the part of her that would happily tear the balls off a Chinese mover, or eat up a few of her pups because she was hungry or she felt like it. The part of her that left Dylan Diehl alive only by whim, the reach into a world we don't talk about but know is there — the part that's acknowledged by a howl, and not by any means a heartbroken howl — in the depths of the night.
Remember that when we moved in together, good manners had to be the order of the day, and they were. Maybe Isha made all that good behavior bearable.
About thirteen years after all this started, Isha died. The household had changed. Lisa had married a deeply respectable husband and was living a life of extreme rectitude. She had children and a fine career. Sweet little Clara was old enough to be in college and have a darling boyfriend, Chris. John had changed from a man strong and sure of himself into a tentative person in the last four years of his life. He fainted frequently, walked slowly, seemed far away. I remember myself as brash and pathetically ignorant of the fact that the best times in my life were about to be ending — the years with John, the whole freewheeling existence that was Topanga, all of it.
John and I went to Australia for a couple of weeks. John said later he'd said good-bye to Isha, but I left without a thought. Things were the way they were, just swell. Nothing else crossed my mind. Several days passed before we even got in touch with Clara, who was taking care of the house with Chris. They had woken up one morning to find Isha really ill. Had gone down to the general store to get some ground meat for nourishment. It was one of those monumental August-in-Topanga days — about 120 degrees. Out by the side of the house, in the dirt, Isha died in Clara's arms.
Clara and Chris dug a hole in the brick-hard ground out on the crescent, wrapped Isha in an afghan that had belonged to Lisa's old boyfriend, a Vietnam vet, and covered the grave with large flat stones to keep the coyotes away. Then they called Lisa, who was heartbroken. In a few minutes, Lisa called back. "Are you sure that dog's dead?" she asked. And then, in a few more minutes, the phone rang again: Chris picked up this time, and Lisa impersonated me. "This is Carolyn See. I'm calling about my dog, Isha. Are you sure she's OK?" And finally, one last call to Clara: "FYI, Clara, you know mom and John have only been gone a few days. And then the neighbors see you and your boyfriend digging a shallow grave out on the point. Don't you think they'd be justified in calling the cops?"
Just Lisa, bopping Isha's head in the last way she knew, the sound of a champagne cork opening at a party that's already stopped.CHAPTER 2
A STORY ABOUT THE GENERAL
* * *
I'm preparing for the first meeting of my creative writing class this semester. What I've been doing so far this morning is selecting a group of quotes I want to hand out. The quotes, from famous writers, are about why we write and what the real subjects of writing should be. They offer tips about the best way to get emotion into your fiction and poetry, mostly, it seems, by not looking directly at it.
Every hour or so, I take a break from quote harvesting and go out to the garage. Our sixteen-year-old cat is curled on a blanket out there. He has an awkward cast on one of his hind legs. I broke the cat's leg three days ago when I accidentally backed over him in my car. The cat is deaf, or nearly so. He was sleeping under the car and must not have heard it crank. I felt the little bump of the wheel going over his leg and then saw him limp away, dragging one useless leg.
James Merrill says, "You hardly ever need to state your feelings. The point is to feel and keep the eyes open. Then what you feel is expressed, is mimed back at you by the scene."
After the first day in the cast, the cat — his name is General Sterling Price, after a cat in a John Wayne movie — did not move off his blanket. I have to put his food on a little paper plate and place it near his head. He eats what he can reach without getting up and then pulls the plate closer with one paw. Once I came out and he was asleep with his head in the plate.
Charles Wright says, "What you have to say — though ultimately all-important — in most cases will not be news. How you say it just might be."
On the day I broke the cat's leg, my fourteen-year-old son said, "This cat has been with us for all my life." Though he said it in a surprised tone, as if he'd just realized that fact, I thought, thanks, that's something I really needed to hear.
Before the accident, The General — for some reason we always referred to him with the article — was looking elderly. He had lost weight and was finicky about what he ate. Like I said, he had mostly lost his hearing, and his eyesight wasn't great. A little dog in our neighborhood would sometimes escape from his fence and come to bark at The General. The General would be asleep in his favorite spot and the dog would come up behind and let go a tremendous chorus of soprano barking. The General would continue to sleep peacefully.
"All you need is one emotion and four walls for a short story," says Willa Cather.
The General doesn't like it in the garage. He's an outdoor cat. The first day he was in the garage, he would drag himself toward the door when I opened it to get the car out. In his youth, he was a real fighter, a night prowler. I know for a fact that he once tangled with a raccoon and held his own. He would slink in mornings with patches of fur missing or a gash in his shoulder. His ears are ragged as old battle flags.
Even as a kitten, The General was the bold sort. One Saturday afternoon when we had had him for only about two weeks, I was lying in a hammock in our backyard. The General, just a little orange rag of a thing, was chasing down grasshoppers. I think I dozed for a bit. Then I heard The General's plaintive meowing. At first, I couldn't locate him. Then I saw him perched on a limb of the pine that held up one end of the hammock. He was twenty, thirty feet off the ground.
I didn't have a ladder that long. The trunk of the tree was limbless nearly up to where The General was stranded. He was starting to panic, and so was I. I dashed into the house and grabbed a pillow from our bed. I got back just in time to see the kitten hanging by his forepaws on the limb. His claws lost their grip, and I caught him in the pillow, a Hail Mary for sure. He seemed unfazed and went back to stalking grasshoppers.
Just now I had to clean up a place in the garage where he crawled off the blanket and urinated.
"It begins with a character usually," William Faulkner says. "Once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil [or pillow] trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does."
When my son was an infant, The General, when we weren't looking, got into his crib and peed on his head. I think the cat was feeling ignored, and probably territorial with this new animal. Though neutered, The General always remained a tom, aggressive, combative. When we played the catch-the-string game, I would suddenly find him halfway up my arm, his claws fastened to the sleeve of my shirt. He played rough and would quickly lay flat his ears and yowl threateningly. He was a biter. Given all that, and his dislike of our newborn, The General became a full-time outdoor cat.
"A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality," according to Flannery O'Connor.
We moved from our small starter home when The General was about four years old. He had been curious about all the boxes and commotion of moving, but curious only in the offhand way of cats, sniffing a crate of books or climbing through the maze of a disassembled bed. I had devised a plan for how we would move him. He would be the last thing to go. When we had everything ready at the new place, I put him in a cardboard box. Except for his first ride to our house as a tiny kitten, he'd never been in a car before, because we had a vet who would actually make house calls (it was his marketing pitch). So, I got The General in the box and we went to the new house, some eight to ten miles away.
"A poem is one of the few opportunities you have to say two things at once," according to Robert Frost. "For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn't know I knew. No surprises for the poet, no surprises for the reader."
After three days, The General disappeared. Not even the old trick we had of shaking the treat box would bring him running. We shook the treat box all over our new neighborhood. We put up signs and offered a reward. We called "Gennnnneral" as we walked, like frightened soldiers calling for their leader. But to no avail.
The next week the people we had sold our old house to called. "Didn't you have a big orange cat?" the man wanted to know. "Yes," I said.
"Well, he's here. He's hanging around in the shrubs." The General had not been able to see the route we took to the new house. He would have had to cross a sizable creek, railroad tracks, and a half-dozen busy roads to get home. How he did it I will never know. I retrieved him, and he decided that the new place was home.
The General has pretty much stopped drinking. He'll lap up a little milk if I put the bowl under his chin. The broken leg has developed an infection. When I took him in for the cast, the vet said that his kidneys were failing. He hasn't moved off the blanket for two days, other than to try to pull clear of it to relieve himself. I know how this story is going to end. Pretty soon, I've got to decide when it will end. The General's story will be concluded, but it won't be finished. That may be the truest thing about a story. Even when it's over, it's not over.CHAPTER 3
* * *
Last night I dreamed I placed a classified ad. "New home needed for our cattle dog, Mercy." A kid came over sporting a backward baseball cap and baggy shorts, his body language spastic. "Totally!" he belted. "Totally! I love dogs! I'll take her!" And before I could hand her over — the canine love of my life, her smell like bark-o-mulch and oil, her rounded forehead and puppy eyes — I woke up with a start.
"That is a horrible dream," said my boyfriend, Don. He looked at me ruefully, judgmentally, as if I'd actually done it, given away the one being that reliably gave us joy.
Excerpted from Cherished by Barbara Abercrombie. Copyright © 2011 Barbara Abercrombie. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Meet the Author
Barbara Abercrombie teaches in the writing program at UCLA Extension. The author of novels (Good Riddance and Run for Your Life), children's books, and many essays and articles in national publications, she lives in Santa Monica, California.
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Once you have loved an animal, your life is enriched. When they die, a little bit of you dies also.
The loss of a beloved animal is often best commiserated among fellow pet owners. Those who do not have a four-legged family member in their lives often cannot comprehend the inconsolable void that accompanies the death of a pet. When the earthly bond of unconditional love is shattered, only the memory of it remains. That is the empathetic feeling that is captured in the short story collection, Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost edited by Barbara Abercrombie. It is a heartfelt look at bereavement and grief throughout the animal spectrum. There is no defined limitation as to what constitutes a pet, and each of the contributors reflects on the specific losses they have endured. For many, it is the first time they have turned to writing in order to express the emotions that accompanied their final good-byes. The standout piece of the anthology is "True Love" by Samantha Dunn concerning her horse, Gabe. In a fitting description, she writes, "I see him again each time I go to a movie theater and the logo for TriStar Pictures appears on the screen - the strong white chest, the thundering legs." What makes this relationship even more remarkable is that at the time, Samantha was living in a trailer park - not the typical residence of a horse owner. Throughout her teenage years, Samantha enjoyed riding and caring for Gabe. It is not until she returned home during a college break that she learned that her grandmother had sold the elderly equine to a children's summer camp. Samantha never found out if this story was true, or just something her grandmother told her in order to comfort her about Gabe's final resting place. Choosing not to uncover the truth, this unresolved ending still effects Samantha to this day. In "Party Girl," Monica Holloway explores the animal-autism connection between her son, Wills and their shepherd-collie mix, Hallie. Monica shares, "there was a deep love between them, but it was as if Hallie were a protective aunt, standoffish but fiercely protective." When Wills was 12-years-old, he returned the favor. After Hallie fell into the pool and her arthritic body sank like a stone, it was Wills who jumped in and saved her. Pretty impressive for an autistic boy who didn't like getting his clothes wet. As the selection comes to an end, Hallie is rapidly approaching her final days. Monica ends with a poignant thought, "Hallie ... has been the one constant through the years, completely devoted but asking nothing in return." It is a fitting summation of love between pets and owners everywhere. The subject matter of the book may be one that many readers will be afraid to approach. The loss of one's pet is hard enough without having to endure the blow-by-blow accounts of other owners for over 200 pages. The repeated scenes of physical deterioration and subsequent euthanization do not make for happy reading. The ending of each story is known before diving in. While it can lead to an experience of continual heartbreak, the collection's intention is to help a pet owner through the grieving process by being able to gain insight from the coping strategies of others. Whether this is a helpful strategy or not is up to the needs of the individual reader.