Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering the little gal I left behind

"It's funny how silence speaks sometimes when you're alone and remember that you feel" (Creed, "Faceless Man")

There is a stretch of US 11/15 south of Selinsgrove that is particularly scenic by day but quite desolate by night. On one side of the road is the Susquehanna River, which sparkles through the trees on any sunny day. On the other side of the pavement, craggy cliffs rise. Only occasionally are they punctuated by villages that haven't changed much in the past century. This time of year, candles wink from the windows, and evergreen wreaths hang on the doors, of the federal and gothic-style homes. Seeing them, you might be convinced that you've been transported into pages of a old sentimental novel. Yet when it's late on a Saturday night and your car is running on fumes, the same place can seem frightening. You might encounter an adult video store or Amish gone a-courting in their buggies -- sights that seem to be equally probable on rural Pennsylvania byways. But on this part of 11/15, you won't pass an open gas station for miles. Say a Hail Mary before you try to call someone on your cell phone. 

I was speeding along this road, groggily sipping the flat dregs of a Coke Zero when my car's low fuel light came on. My range was approximately 35 miles. And then I passed a highway sign that said Harrisburg was 42 miles away. "I guess I can walk 7 miles if I need to," I told myself. 

Yeah. In utter darkness. In 20-something degree weather.

In order to take my mind off my dilemma, I commanded my car to shuffle and play some favorite tunes I'd downloaded to my phone. I commanded myself, "think happy thoughts." 

I mentally climbed above the nitty-gritty of my recent trip to Williamsport and wandered broadly over all the sites I'd visited. Having been on the road for more than 3 months, I had a choice of terrain. I thought with gratification about an outline of a book that has been forming in my head. I also remembered some of the fantastic hiking I had done, especially at Seven Springs Resort in Fayette County,  and on the Pine Creek Trail in Clinton County. 

At that moment, a favorite song by Creed blasted from my speakers. As the lyrics begin by describing a walk through nature, it matched my thoughts. I cranked up the volume. Yet, perhaps  because of my fueltank anxiety, my thoughts began to crawl down a thorny path. Ultimately, I think "Faceless Man" is about having the courage to acknowledge and confront who you are, where you have tread, and how you respond to your experiences. 

It had been nearly a month since my cat Filomena had died, but I scarcely acknowledged her passing. My stomach turned when I imagined her unburied ashes still in their small cardboard box on my fireplace mantle. She had been ill, vomiting regularly and losing weight for several months before my sabbatical began. Multiple veterinary visits only offered a continuum of uncertain diagnoses ranging from irritable bowl syndrome to cancer. No treatment worked. Just before I left home for Warren in early October, I held her in my arms, gently fingered the protruding bones along her shoulders and spine, touched my forehead to hers, and commanded, "you must get well." I prayed for her. 

Then I left. 

I was in Franklin about a week and a half later when my husband called and somberly suggested maybe I should come home. Fili hadn't eaten for days and was barely moving at that point. I laid on the floor beside her that night, awakened repeatedly by her pained cries. I brought her to the vet the next morning and had her put down. 

It took a week for the crematory to return her to us. By that time I completed my next research site, Lebanon. I didn't have the guts to bury her, so I left her on the mantle and headed on the road to Williamsport. 

Driving home from Williamsport on a dark night with nothing but my thoughts, the enormity of what I'd lost -- and what I might be losing by undertaking such an intense project -- hit me. 

Filomena hadn't stayed with us long, but as her name suggests, she was much loved. As many pet adoptions are, meeting her was happenstance. One night I was mourning the loss of another cat and procrastinating an errand to Home Depot when I walked into the PetSmart in the same plaza. I hadn't meant to visit the adoption area but soon found myself on the other side of the glass, peering at the sleeping kitties. I quietly opened the door, and "Floppsy"'s ears and nose twitched. She stood, arched her back, and reached with a white-tipped paw through the cage. Among a dozen or so animals, she alone seemed interested by my presence. We silently looked into each others' eyes, and then I acknowledged, "you don't belong in a cage." The next day, which was a few days before Christmas, I brought her home. She was my 2nd most loyal friend (yes, humans included) until her death.

Fili on her first night with us, December 2010. 
And I left her. Again and again.

Driving home from Williamsport, I realized  she would no longer greet me at the door or curl up in my lap when I arrived. I pulled to the side of the road and bawled as I should have done weeks earlier. Guilt, anger, and despair washed over me. Research seemed bloody well pointless, really. I couldn't help but imagine a future where hundreds of unsold copies of my stupid work shared the $1.98 bargain bin with Sarah Palin's damned Christmas book. 

So what to do? 

After wiping the snot from my face, I opened a window and gulped the icy air. I started up the engine and resumed driving. It's all you can do. All I can do. 

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