Sunday, December 13, 2009

Roxie was quite a girl

Roxie was a tortoise-shell cat with odd, scary yellow eyes, a perpetually peevish expression, and long hair that tended toward impossible mats.

She didn't particularly care for human companionship, even that of the humans who fed her. She didn't scratch me when I tried to hold her (usually), but she objected quite vocally, with a low growl, gradually escalating into a piercing yowl, which continued until I set her back down.

In recent years, she was old and skinny and she slept a lot, but when she was a young and vigorous cat, she made a habit of attacking the first thing to come down the stairs each morning. Sometimes that thing was my leg in a new pair of nylons I had just put on to wear to work. Sometimes it was the hapless Caitlin, stumbling half-asleep toward breakfast on a school morning.

Eventually Cait figured out that if she threw a shoe down the stairs ahead of her every morning, Roxie would leap on it, and would be so busy trying to kill it that Cait could slip past her unnoticed.

We were all a little afraid of Roxie, including Remy, who learned as a young pup that she had no sense of humor whatsoever. The first time he playfully tried to jump on her, she hooked him in the lower lip with one of her fearsome talons, and he dripped blood all across the kitchen floor. After that, he always gave her a wide berth, and frequently found himself trapped in a room, whimpering but unwilling to risk her wrath, when she chose (deliberately, I'm sure) to park herself in the doorway.

Roxie was a good mouser, and although she liked to devour her prey, she was always kind enough to leave their heads in a convenient place for me to find, often by stepping on them barefoot in the dark.

As a mouser, she was both clever and cruel. She used the bathtub in our second-floor bathroom as her own personal Coliseum, where she would dispatch mice like Christians thrown to the lions by the ancient Romans. She would catch a mouse, sometimes as far away as the basement, carry it up two flights of stairs, and drop it into the tub, where she would proceed to torture it to death. There were many mornings when I pulled back the curtain to step into the shower and found the tub covered with tiny, bloody footprints. (Yes, it's horrible and gross, but you do have to admire her resourcefulness.)

Roxie died last Friday, December 11th, sometime between 7:30 in the morning, when I left for work, and noon, when Tony checked on her.

It was not unexpected. She had essentially been in hospice care here at home for about a week, and she had gradually been eating less and less, until she had stopped eating altogether a couple of days earlier.

Up until a few weeks ago, she had been as active as ever (which is to say, not terribly active, sleeping most of the day, but with occasional bursts of energy). I actually saw her chase a spider across the kitchen floor with great interest just a couple of weeks ago, but it had been pretty clear for a while that she was nearing the end of her life.

She didn't seem to be sick: she didn't cough or wheeze or throw up. She didn't seem to be in any pain: she didn't cry or wince when I petted her. She just got very skinny.

There are probably people who will read this and think that I should have taken her to the vet when she started losing weight, to see if anything could be done to get her eating again, to prolong her life. To those people, I will point out that Roxie did not like cat carriers, car trips, or vets--well, really, Roxie didn't much like anyone, but she had a particular aversion to strangers who pinned her down on stainless steel tables and treated her in undignified ways--and there was a special notation on her chart at our vet's, reminding them not to attempt to examine her without first donning shoulder-length falconer's gloves. Since she was quiet, calm, and apparently comfortable, I considered allowing her to die on her own terms, without all of that upheaval, a kindness.

Also, she was old. I didn't realize just how old, because I have heard of cats living to age 20 or beyond, but I did some research and learned that 12-15 years is the average life expectancy for an indoor cat, and Roxie was nearly 17.

I could say a lot here about our (human) health care system in America and the sometimes ill-advised heroic measures we take to prolong life long after it should be prolonged, but for now I will just repeat two things I heard recently:

1) Nearly 30% of Medicare is spent during the last year of our lives, and half of that is spent during the last 60 days, trying to prolong what in many cases is no longer a reasonable quality of life.

2) Nearly everyone who is polled on the question says he hopes to die a "natural" death, at home, surrounded by family, yet the fact is that most of us die in intensive care units while undergoing complex and often invasive medical treatment.

I will miss Roxie, but I'm glad I let her die peacefully at home, and if I'm ever in her position (which is to say, old, tired, peeing on the floor, and no longer interested in mice), I hope someone will do the same for me.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Aunt Bertha

On Friday the 13th of November, Aunt Bertha died.

She was 99 years old, and had been living in a nursing home for the past couple of years. Before that, she lived in a seniors apartment complex in South Paris for several years. But before that, for about five decades, she lived in the oldest house in the village of Locke Mills, which was on the corner of Route 26 and the East Bethel Road, and directly across the street from our house, until the state tore it down to reroute the road and make the corner safer. And before that, she lived about a mile and a half away, on Bird Hill, where she was born and raised.

When Tony first bought our house, a few years before we were married, he told Katie that the old lady across the street was a witch (a good witch, of course). I'm not sure Aunt Bertha really knew how to take that, but she was a good sport--she dressed up as a witch every year for Halloween to give out candy.

Aunt Bertha didn't have any kids of her own, but she enjoyed watching all of ours grow up, just as she had watched the three Swan boys grow up in this house for the previous 30 years. She had an unobstructed view of our driveway and the front of our house from the kitchen window over her sink (she kept one corner of her cafe curtains pinned up, just to be sure) and she didn't miss much that happened over here. The photo above was taken on the day we got married (the ceremony, which was performed by a justice of the peace who also sold fish from a truck in the mill parking lot on Saturday mornings, took place right here in our yard, beside Tony's vegetable garden). She was 79 years old then, and had recently had surgery (hip? knee? I can't remember, but whatever it was, she bounced back from it very quickly), but she came across the street with her cane, and when Tony and I walked down to meet her, she scrunched up her face in one of her almost-perpetual smiles and asked, "Did you two just get married?" with a characteristic twinkle in her blue eyes.

Aunt Bertha loved to talk, and it didn't matter if you had places to go or things to do--a "quick stop" at her house never lasted less than half an hour. Tony used to take her vegetables from his garden and say, "If I'm not back in half an hour, come rescue me!" She loved to tell about her most recent visits from the many members of her extended family, about her trips to Eastern Star events, about the man on the phone who tried to sell her aluminum siding. When the kids were old enough, we sent them across the street to deliver the vegetables, and although they sometimes complained, they also quickly learned that, in addition to her stories, Aunt Bertha usually had a stash of cookies to share with them.

We loved having Aunt Bertha living across the street, and missed her badly when she--and her house--were gone. When the road was moved (it now goes right through what used to be her house and driveway) we gained a lot of front yard...but we would rather have had Aunt Bertha.

There's a hill in our front yard now that used to be her side yard, on the other side of the street, where she used to hang her laundry. A couple of Aunt Bertha's old rosebushes still grow there. Tony says that from now on we're calling the hill "Mount Bertha."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Alligators love dog meat."

“Alligators love dog meat” – just one more thing I’ve learned from faithfully reading Mark Trail.

Years ago, in the 1960s and ‘70s, I used to read the strip in the New Haven Register. Now I read it in the Lewiston Sun-Journal, where it vies with Nancy for the title of Most Boring Comic Ever (and wins, hands down, for Most Badly Drawn).

From Wikipedia: “as noted by Jack Hill [the son of cartoonist Tom Hill, who drew many of the Mark Trail strips from 1946 until his death in 1978], ‘the quality of Mark Trail declined after 1978,’ with a loss of accuracy and detail and ‘a free-floating approach to perspective.’ In addition, time froze: scenes and plots have been recycled from the past. According to King Features, Mark now stays ‘forever 32’. The characters no longer evolve or show much of their earlier personalities. Ironically, these changes, along with predictable villains (who invariably have facial hair with especially pronounced sideburns), uneven art work, quirky dialog, and misplaced speech balloons (often pointed at foregrounded animals), created an amusing charm that attracted a new following among fans called ‘Trailheads’.”

As bad as it is, reading Mark Trail is like watching a train wreck—as much as I don’t want to, I just can’t pull myself away.

And I’m not alone. A couple of years ago, the Sun-Journal dropped the strip, along with Spiderman (the only comic I never even bothered to glance at), and replaced them with Baby Blues and Crankshaft—one strip that resonates with parents of young children, and another that speaks to middle-agers looking after their own parents—a nice balance, I think.

It probably wouldn’t have taken me long to stop wondering whether Andy, the loyal St. Bernard, would arrive on the scene in time to save Mark from the latest sideburned villain, or whether the competitive, immoral, and annoying Kelly Welly would make yet another play for Mark’s affections. But after about three months of fielding vociferous complaints from loyal Trail fans, the newspaper reinstated the strip by moving Dilbert to the business page. (Now if only we could get them to bring back the TV Preview that used to come in the Saturday paper….)

Come to find out, Mark Trail is a pretty popular guy. Over the years, he has appeared in a number of coloring books published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, aimed at educating kids about conservation and the environment. (Although I don’t personally know anyone who ever owned the coloring book Mark Trail Tells the Story of a Fish in Trouble, I’m sure it was an exciting and informative read.)

There were two different Mark Trail radio shows in the early 1950s, one on ABC and one on Mutual Broadcasting System. A third radio show, Mark Trail Radio Theatre, ran for 11 years, from 1991 until 2002, on

Minneapolis-St. Paul public radio station KFAI.

In 1991, Congress designated 16,400 acres along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia as the Mark Trail Wilderness. (Do you think they know he’s a comic strip character?)

And in 1997, Mark became the official mascot of the NOAA, and the voice of the National Weather Service. (“What th’?! Another hurricane?!”)

Of course, Mark has also garnered his share of less than flattering attention. The blog Nobody Loves Rusty, which is devoted entirely to the strip, calls it “one of America’s oldest and most terrible comic strips.”

Then there’s the website that offers five “Bad Guy Rules,” just in case you should require assistance in recognizing Mark Trail artist Jack Elrod’s cleverly drawn Bad Guys for the villains they are:

If a character has long sideburns, he is always evil to the core.

Men with hair any longer than collar length are bad news.

Any character, even if innocuous in appearance, is suspect if they hesitate when responding to a legitimate question.

Unless smiling and of a friendly visage, Heavy-Set Bald Guys are always villains

Bad guys often have bent or broken noses.

Here are a few other tidbits I learned today:

The strip was drawn in a second floor studio in creator Ed Dodds' home (which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). The studio overlooked a 130-acre forest in suburban Atlanta guessed it--Lost Forest.

In the early days of the comic strip, Mark was rarely seen without a pipe clenched in his teeth, but he gave it up in 1983 under pressure from anti-smoking activists.

Mark and Cherry finally got married in 1993, after a 47-year courtship.

Supposedly, according to numerous websites, Andy was neutered in 2000, although I wasn’t able to find out any more details, such as whether Doc performed the surgery (he is a veterinarian, after all) or whether the procedure was prompted by any specific behavior on Andy’s part, such as a propensity for humping the furniture or a dalliance with a neighbor’s poodle. In any case, Andy had better watch his step because, as we keep reminding our dog Remy when he misbehaves, “Alligators love dog meat.”