Friday, December 27, 2013

Holiday Reflections

We wished each other a very Merry Christmas over the phone and then fell into an embarrassed silence.

Did I just tell my friend Mary, whose husband is so ill and increasingly disabled, to have a Merry Christmas?

And her greeting to me fell on a heart a little heavy with extended family far away, with a spouse who prefers solitude to celebration and with my frantic work schedule crowding out the possibility of much holiday partying this year.

Mary broke the silence with a wistful "I put on all the old Christmas music I have listened to with such joy since I was a child and it just didn't sound the same to me this year. That spirit of the holiday wasn't there. Some of the people I most want to be with can't be here..."

"Christmas is so quiet this year, for both of us," I said.

And we both looked back to different times: to times filled with family and presents and feasts and song, to tables where all the seats were filled, to small children excited about Santa, to cuddling and firelight, to parents alive and well, to work friends at 'TEEN, all of us crowding into our boss's office on Christmas Eve to sigh together over his war stories and football stories and strange jokes and to keep him company when he didn't want to go home alone and to enjoy each other's company in our shared plight. Mary thought back on the years when the children were young and when the grands were little and thrilling in the season, to a time before families moved to distant places and schedules became so complicated. I thought back to all those holidays with Aunt Molly, both in childhood and adulthood, when just being with her, laughing with her, celebrating with such joy was the greatest gift I could have imagined.

We reflected on how it's not the same, has never been the same, since the kids grew up and the grandkids hit busy adolescence and Aunt Molly passed away, since years and stress have taken a toll on our stamina and we wonder whether it's even worth it to put up the lights, the tree, all the trimmings stored so carefully for each year's celebration.

And we came to the conclusion that happy holidays are a matter of celebrating what is: what is wonderful in our lives today, the ways we deal with current challenges, the blessings of health and hope, and new ways of finding joy in our days.

Mary reflected on how she cherishes her mornings as her husband sleeps: lingering over coffee, talking on the phone with friends, walking along the beach with her dogs, enjoying the sunshine and the hint of salt and chill in the ocean breezes. Christmas morning was another day to enjoy all of that before eldest child Matt and his wife Patti and friend Rosemary came over bearing food and good cheer for a delightful Christmas feast.

I reflected on my gratitude for a book deadline once again after too many years of no writing assignments, for generous invitations from friends that we turned down this year due to my work schedule and Bob's increased need for solitude. Although I was initially disappointed that Bob didn't want the holiday feast I've cooked every previous holiday season, I reframed it as a precious gift of time to do something else. And what I did on Christmas was to give myself a day off from my work and to spend it reading two highly praised novels I recently checked out of the library -- "The Interestings" and "Life After Life".  Both -- one about long friendships and the emotions, compromises, challenges and joys they bring and survive over time as we redefine the meanings and the value of ordinariness and success and the other about the infinite variations life can take and how tiny decisions can make such major differences in one's life -- are so congruent with my life and experiences and feelings as I celebrate this quiet holiday season. How delicious it felt to read not one but two excellent novels back to back, cover to cover, in one sitting.

And there was the blessing of loving, longtime friendship as Mary and I said "Goodbye...I love you..." that day and in signs of life growing on in a variety of ways. There were the enthusiastic cuddles with my wonderfully affectionate cats Gus and Hammie. There was an excited email from my little niece Maggie, so far away in Bangkok, Thailand, writing to tell me that Santa had brought her an iPad of her very own so that we could do Facetime. She invited me to check in with her that very minute to have a virtual breakfast with her and the family, 14 hours ahead of Arizona time.

The holidays are a time of remembering and missing what once was and what can never happen in quite the same way again. But the warmth can stay with us in memory and in the present. Our happiness this holiday season depends on finding joy in change, in growth, in what is -- whether it's a walk in the sunshine, a day of uninterrupted reading or an excited email from a little girl half a world away with an invitation to a virtual breakfast.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Pain of the Holidays

Bob showed me a New Yorker cartoon series the other day that featured a numerical scale for measuring the pain of family encounters during the holidays.

Despite our recent excellent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles with dear friends, we laughed with recognition and recollection at the pain-o-meters. There were some holidays past that brought us to the edge of despair  -- and our experiences were not uncommon.

What kinds of family interactions bring the anticipation or the reality of holiday pain?

There is the pain of hanging onto holiday traditions that no longer make sense: insisting that your home be celebration central when the family has grown to embrace and include others, when grown children have in-laws to consider, when young families yearn to start their own traditions.

There is the pain of finding yourself alone this holiday season, either after the deaths of family members or the pressure of new obligations in their lives, and you're reminded so painfully of holidays past, when all the seats around your table were filled by loved ones.

There is the pain of clustering in close proximity to family members you rarely see except for holidays, sometimes for good reason. These may be the family members who set your teeth on edge with sexist, racist remarks or stubborn clinging to old family roles no longer relevant to your daily lives. Or your family may have a volatile mix of Tea Partiers and dedicated Liberals, raising havoc at family gatherings.

There is the pain of crushing boredom as a holiday wears on, hour after hour, and you sigh over the same old arguments, the same stories, the same annoying children, the super boring family drunk, the card games that make you wish you had stayed home with the covers over your head and the cell phone turned off.

There is the pain of feeling that a holiday is never really yours. Do the holidays feel more like a frenzy of pleasing others instead of relaxing and enjoying this special time the way you'd like? This can be particularly true of younger families who still have parents and even grandparents living, who sprint from one family home to another to put in an appearance and please the folks.

How can you cut the pain you've experienced and dread living through again through holiday season 2013?
  • Insist on a truce for the day. In the interest of family harmony, put relatives on notice that there will be no baiting, no grandstanding, no confrontations of a political, religious or lifestyle nature. And if it starts, there should be designated family members who step in and call a halt before tempers get out of control. On the other hand, some family disputes are simply part of holiday tradition and legend. I read about one family that gathers every year in the kitchen to hear the matriarch and patriarch have their annual argument about how the gravy should be made. There was a traditional argument in our family -- mostly in jest, only occasionally getting heated -- about Aunt Molly's cheerful holiday spirit and her brother's (my father's) complete lack of interest in Christmas or New Year's celebrating. It's essential to know the difference between recreational or traditional skirmishes and family fights that mar the holiday for everyone. 
  • Don't insist on 100% attendance. Traditions are great, but people need a break. Especially young couples, with so many parents and others to please, can feel pulled a number of ways during the holidays. Be gracious if a son or daughter needs to spend a holiday elsewhere this year. Plan to do something fun together before or after. Don't assume that everyone shares your vision of how the holiday should be. A close friend of mine dreams of spending Christmas in her pajamas, listening to Christmas music, reading a fat novel and eating pancakes, cookies and sandwiches made from a Christmas Eve pot roast. Instead, her husband has committed them, once again, to spend the holiday at a raucous party with acquaintances who drink to excess, make hours of small talk and play bridge -- which she hates -- relentlessly. We all have our times when we chose to please others for the holidays, but that needs to be balanced with pleasing ourselves -- or allowing dear ones to do so. Another friend actually encourages her daughter to have an intimate Christmas alone at home with her husband and two young children "because they need to build their own holiday traditions as well as celebrating with us on the 23rd -- which has become our special day together."
  • Plan activities and a designated family member to keep the kids entertained.  One really can't blame little ones for getting restive and bored at largely adult celebrations. Perhaps one or alternating family members can take charge of playing games with or otherwise entertaining the kids to cut down on the emotional chaos that can come from children feeling trapped and hopeless as the day drags on.
  • Tame the wildlife. Many very good and loving people are nevertheless not especially enamored with animals. Relegate the cats to a bedroom and close the door. Separate the dog from your feasting guests. Struggling to keep one's holiday meal out of the jaws of a slathering beast who keeps popping beside guests at the table or trying not to see the cat's tail dipping into the gravy boat does not make for much holiday cheer for many otherwise amiable people. 
  •  Start new traditions. This could mean getting together with relatives and agreeing on stress-reducing new holiday traditions: like drawing names for gift-giving instead of budget-breaking gift giving  extravaganzas or agreeing on a day -- the actual holiday or not -- for a big family get together with smaller celebrations for individual families on other days. It could mean, too, that you make some adjustments within for celebrating in your own ways on days that you find yourself home alone.  Or it could mean creating some preventive new traditions -- like establishing sober holiday celebrations if alcohol is a major family issue or a trigger for fierce family feuds.
  • Get real -- and revise your holiday expectations. Some people harbor the wistful fantasy that this holiday season, this time will be the charm. This will be the year when everything goes right, when everyone shows up, gets along and peace and good will are in abundance. Don't set yourself up for disappointment once again. Expect less. Expect that there will be some uneasy moments, some conflict, some boredom. The certainty of some family interactions may be oddly reassuring if you put a positive spin on it. If you keep your expectations for the holiday realistic, you're less likely to be disappointed. You might find yourself happily surprised!
  • Plan a special holiday treat for yourself. After a season of pleasing others -- which may be fun and rewarding or largely an exhausting marathon of pain and frustration -- plan a day or a way of treating yourself. Plan a day to do something special: a spa day, a hike with friends, a day relaxing, reading or listening to your favorite music, a trip to a museum or art gallery, a quiet dinner at home with friends, your dearest love or even happily alone, with your favorite menu. 
New traditions, revised rules and special treats can ease holiday pain and make this holiday season well worth celebrating!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Life Lessons From an Aging Cat

As yet another Christmas and New Year approach, I'm so thankful that someone especially dear to me is still here, purring by my side, to share the celebrations.

Our elderly cat Gus, frail in the middle of his 16th year, is still a pivotal member of the family, still a model of calm, of loving acceptance and resilience with some important life lessons to teach.


What kind of life lessons am I learning from my aging cat?

The pleasure of daily routines: Gus has an internal clock that keeps exquisite time. And he's always looking forward to something -- like breakfast at 5 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m.  Like mandatory cuddles just as I sit down with the morning newspaper. And promptly, at 7:30 every evening, a quarter-sized dollop of whipped cream on a saucer. After the whipped cream, he is sated -- content with a last cuddle just before bedtime. His routine rarely varies. He lives from pleasure to pleasure.

The rewards of generativity: Since losing his brother Timmy to melamine poisoning in middle age, Gus has raised a series of kittens. The first was Maggie, a scraggly little black Bombay discarded into rescue by a Beverly Hills breeder. We brought her home to console Gus, who was howling every night for his deceased brother, and the bonding was immediate. He embraced her, groomed her, held her as they slept and taught her by example to be a calm and caring young cat. He had a bit more of a challenge with a later addition, Sweet Pea aka The Rabid Badger, who is the wild, erratic element in our feline family. With time and patience, he and Maggie helped to tame her fierceness without trampling her spirit and now Sweet Pea cuddles up to him, grooming him, as Maggie does. Perhaps Gus' happiest mentoring project has been with young Hammie, a male Siamese mix who looks a little like Gus's late brother Timmy, and who adores Gus. Since Hammie came to us as a two-month-old kitten, Gus has befriended and embraced him. Now Hammie takes wonderful care of him, growing into a gentle and loving young cat.   

                                             Gus with kitten Maggie

                                           Gus with kitten Sweet Pea

                                           Gus with kitten Hammie

                                           Gus and Hammie, his little buddy

                                          Relaxing with Maggie and Sweet Pea                                    

                                          Young adult Hammie cuddles aging Gus


                                           Hammie now grooms elderly Gus

The wisdom of stoicism about the aches and pains of aging: Unlike many of us here in Sun City, Gus rarely complains about his geriatric condition. His arthritic pain is visible only briefly, when he jumps down from the bed or couch and has to pause as his back settles, or as he pads across the cold tile on newly tender paws. But aches and pains don't keep him from essential activities. He is still there quickly when called, when he wants attention or affection, when it's meal time or when whipped cream is served. And a brown paper bag or a feather on a string channels his instant inner kitten.  He shows the younger ones how to chase a laser or how to conquer a moving feather or a tented newspaper. He feels his years, some days more than others, but he never lets pain interfere with his play.

The advisability of not getting involved in things that don't matter or are toxic: He steps back from squabbles and has little interest in Sweet Pea's hissy fits or Maggie's territorial growlings. He ignores Hammie's tail-biting antics. He stays resolutely above the fray -- and is the one cat that all the others seem to love and with whom they seek rest and refuge.

                             A peaceful group cuddle with Gus, Hammie and Maggie

The wisdom of living fully in the moment. Gus lives to savor life. He stretches out at the front door screen, basking in the warmth of a summer evening or inhaling with puzzled pleasure the scent of mesquite after an autumn rain. He finds a spot of sun streaming from the bay window and turns his face to it. He stakes out a napping place among the lush decorative pillows on our bed. He slides with particular pleasure into the battered little donut bed he has had since kittenhood, curls up and snores through the night. He licks every trace of whipped cream from his saucer every night and comes to say "Thank you!" with a gentle rub of his head.

                     Savoring the summer evening with Hammie and Sweet Pea

Gus is especially happy each Thanksgiving and Christmas when he smells a turkey in the oven. He lounges by the oven much of the day, enjoying the warmth and the scent and re-discovering with delight, once again, how much he loves small scraps of dark meat.

The joy of savoring relationships that matter. Gus is kind and affectionate with anyone who seeks him out these days. But certain people mean the most.

Gus loves to soothe Bob when he's not feeling well

Or to keep him company during a big football game

Many times a day, Gus comes to me, looks in my eyes and wants to cuddle, to be touched, to be cherished -- and to give this back. There is always enough time to enjoy his family and special friends. And he reminds me to take time when I'm too absorbed with the newspaper -- which he will stand up and bat away or reach over and pull down until we are face to face. When I'm sitting at the computer, oblivious, he'll stand up and gently tap me on the shoulder or rest his front paws on my thigh, mewing quietly to remind me that I can always type or read. But I may not always have the pleasure of simply cuddling with Gus.


Whatever time we have left together, Gus will continue to teach me what it means to enjoy every moment, every experience of life and what it means to love -- in the moment and forever.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Holiday for the Ages

Coming home for the Thanksgiving holiday was an invitation too tempting, too wonderful, to refuse.

It came from Mary Kate Schellhardt, the actress daughter of my dear friend Tim, and her boyfriend filmmaker Matt Palko, who are renting my Los Angeles area childhood home from my brother Mike, who now lives with his family in Bangkok, Thailand.
                                      Mary Kate and Matt, our wonderful hosts

It was a chance to spend time in familiar territory -- a house that my parents bought when I was 18 months old and where my brother Mike and sister Tai lived from birth, experiencing both love and terror as the children of a sometimes violent, sometimes nurturing alcoholic father and an always loving, but often terrified mother.

It was a chance to spend the holiday with another family comprised of some very special people -- Mary Kate, one of my favorite adult children of dear friends, her Dad and my close friend Tim, who was flying from Chicago for the occasion and Mary Kate's wonderful sister Eliza, traveling with her husband Chris from Colorado to celebrate the holiday.

It was a chance to give up control of a holiday I hosted for years and to just enjoy being a guest -- with only a brief stint in the kitchen making the dressing.

It was lovely.

Imagine crossing a threshold you had toddled over and stormed past, walked through in hope and in sorrow, and now with happy anticipation, to be enveloped in loving arms and words: "I'm so glad to see you...How wonderful to meet you...I'm so happy you're here...I love you, dearest friend..." And to hear yourself saying the same....

Imagine feeling an instant ease without a trace of awkwardness not only with long-time friends but also with the significant others in their lives whom you're meeting for the first time.

Imagine the delight of finding that the innate eccentricity of a place you once called home lives on in its current residents.  Matt, who counts tomahawk and knife throwing among his many interests, has set up a target in the backyard and before dinner there was a lively contest where an assortment of young people -- Chris, Chris' brother Tim and his soon-to-be bride Kristen, Ryan, Bob's grown up Little Brother whom we call our "surrogate son" -- all trying to master the skill that Matt makes look easy.

  Pre-dinner tomahawk lesson with Matt Palko, Tim Yarbrough and Ryan Grady

Tomahawk Throw Wind-Up: from left, Tim Y. and Kristen, Chris, me, Matt,
Mary Kate, Ryan and Eliza

Imagine the pleasure of stories told, fun and intimate conversations with friends old and new, over a candlelight dinner and the flickering glow of a backyard firepit where we settled, wrapped in blankets and holiday cheer, to continue talking and laughing together for hours after dinner.

Imagine a late night dessert by candlelight and being stunned that it's nearly midnight when it seems the holiday just began an hour or two before.

Late night candlelit dessert

Imagine the seamless passage of time when a few of us found ourselves the elders, surrounded by lively thirtysomethings with growing careers and families. Mary Kate's friend Lacy was there with her husband and baby son Jackson -- whom my friend Tim entertained through the evening with songs and stories and countless hugs -- partly a warm up exercise for being a grandfather when Eliza and Chris' baby girl is born in April (and when his grandson, thanks to eldest daughter Laura, arrives in March) and partly pure joy at meeting and spending time with this delightful little boy.

             My dear friend Tim Schellhardt with his new little friend Jackson

Imagine the wonder of spending time with some young people -- like Ryan whom I'm seen grow up at close range since he was a droll little nine-year-old to the fine young man -- and psychotherapist -- he has become. And with some young adults like Mary Kate, with whom I enjoyed some time together when we both lived in Los Angeles, and with her sister Eliza, whom I watched grow up and came to love in a lovely series of Christmas pictures over the years. The real life Eliza, filled with intelligence, wit and warmth, and her equally wonderful sister, the beautiful and ebullient Mary Kate, were a joy to be with -- and to watch as they enjoyed each other, joining forces to whip up culinary delights in the kitchen and later on sitting, knee to knee, talking with great enthusiasm and love. Chris and Matt, so welcoming and kind and quick to share a warm hug and fascinating story, added joy and fun to the magic of the day and evening.

                                  With two of my favorite men, Ryan (l) and Tim

Imagine a quiet celebration of a long-time loving friendship. Tim and I enjoyed time together, celebrating and rediscovering all the elements that have built our nearly 50-year-friendship. I have always enjoyed his intelligence, his kindness, his warmth and fierce loyalty, but I had forgotten, as we've aged, just how wonderfully uninhibited, silly and funny he can be in the company of people he loves. Watching him sing, joke and reach out with warmth to Ryan, whom he was meeting for the first time, took me back through the years to our college days and what it meant to me to meet a man, a journalism classmate, who was both brilliant and kind, ambitious and generous of spirit and what a blessing it has been to be his friend over the years.

                                     Tim and me, celebrating a 50-year friendship

Imagine an acceptance of the cycle of life and of aging -  sitting on the porch where I celebrated my second birthday, now, all these years later, celebrating with friends both old and new.

Tim (c) with daughters Eliza (1) and her husband Chris Yarbrough
and Mary Kate (r) with boyfriend Matt Palko

Imagine falling in love with an entire family that so exudes love and resilience, tolerance, humility (despite a myriad of professional achievements among them) and genuine joy in being together.

It was, indeed, a holiday for the ages!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Best Laid Plans...

It was a trip we had been eagerly anticipating: a drive over to Los Angeles to see some of our dearest friends. There was Thanksgiving at my childhood home, now rented by actress Mary Kate Schellhardt and her boyfriend filmmaker Matt Palko, with her Dad, my dear friend Tim, flying in from Chicago for the holiday and her wonderful sister Eliza and husband Chris coming from Colorado for the festivities. We planned a stay at The Pierpont Inn in Ventura, our favorite oceanside inn, as well as visiting with Ryan, our beloved surrogate son, and a couple of lovely visits with my dear friend Mary.

We did everything right in our planning -- packing wisely and well in advance; arranging for a reliable pet-sitter;planning to leave for L.A. on Monday in order to avoid the worst of the holiday traffic; setting the alarm so we could be up pre-dawn for a 6 a.m. departure.

We prepared for bed early on Sunday night. Bob went into the bathroom to take a shower and came back looking puzzled.

"I can't get any hot water," he said. "Maybe the pilot light's out in the water heater."

He threw on a robe and we went out to the chilly garage. There was no pilot light. We tried repeatedly to re-ignite it. Nothing. I went online for an informational video from Roto-Rooter on how to get a pilot light lit. We had been doing the right thing. I decided to call Roto-Rooter for emergency service.

"We can send someone out," the operator told me. "But it will be several hours before he can get there. You're really out in the sticks. The technician will be there about 1 a.m. Is that okay?"

Sharp intake of breath. "Yes," I said at last. "We'd really appreciate it."

I told Bob that he ought to go to bed and get some sleep since he was driving the first leg of our journey while I could catch up on sleep in the car as he drove. He nodded and went into the bedroom, closing the door.

The technician, Brian, showed up right on time, just after the water heater began gushing water, flooding the garage. It didn't take long for him to ascertain that we needed a new water heater. What? Our first water heater in Los Angeles lasted 18 years! The second was still going strong when we moved after 11 years and counting. This one was only four years old! "But the water here is so corrosive,"Brian said. "It's quite common for water heaters to fail after three or four years. We could install a new one for you later today -- or whenever you'd like."

After awakening Bob for a quick consultation, we decided that the new water heater would be installed in a week, after our return.  Brian gave us a date and time and left about 2 a.m. after draining what was left in the defective water heater.

I went to bed for three hours of fitful sleep, arising with Bob at 5 a.m. By 5:45, we had packed the car and pulled out of the driveway. But two blocks into our 500 mile journey, Bob turned around. "I think I need my warmer coat," he said, shivering in the early morning chill.

When we walked into the house, we were greeted by our young female cat Sweet Pea, who was whimpering and limping. I called the emergency vet line. She couldn't be seen until 8:30. Bob and I looked at each other and made an instant mutual decision: we would delay our long-anticipated trip for a day to take care of business.

We arranged for the new water heater to be installed that afternoon. Bob admitted that the pressure sore on his (bony) rear end was bothering him and he made a doctor's appointment while I took Sweet Pea to the vet.

The most tightly wound of our four cats, Sweet Pea usually screams and hyperventilates for the duration of the 15 mile journey to the vet's office. This time, the screaming stopped after just a few blocks and she lapsed into profound silence. I jiggled her carrier to make sure she was still alive. There was a yowl of protest. Reassured, I drove on.

The various crises were easily resolved: salve for Bob, rest for Sweet Pea's sprained foot and a new water heater was installed by 3 p.m. We enjoyed hot showers that night and got a sound sleep before heading off Tuesday morning.

We not only felt more rested, but also a bit wiser. Our experience had taught us several important lessons, such as:

The importance of listening to one's body. Bob admitted that he had been experiencing significant discomfort for several days before our planned departure, but put off going to the doctor because he didn't want anything to interfere with our travel plans. Getting medication and reassurance from the doctor that his condition was not serious helped him to enjoy our trip even more.

The importance of taking action rather than procrastinating.  Taking care of the water heater as soon as possible minimized our discomfort and inconvenience, giving us hot showers to return to after a  very long journey home. We were thankful that we had had the heater replaced before we left.

The primacy of family -- and all creatures in the family -- over well-laid plans. Seeing Sweet Pea in pain was the deal breaker for our original travel schedule. We couldn't leave her like that. We didn't want to shift the responsibility of seeking care onto the pet-sitter. Sweet Pea, who is terribly afraid at the vet's, needed to nuzzle into my arms during the examination. We owed her that. And one night lost at our ocean-side inn was minimal compared to her well-being.

The importance of gratitude -- even in challenging times.  As we got ready to head out Tuesday morning, we were overcome with feelings of gratitude about how fortunate we had been. What if the water heater had flooded the garage while we were gone? What if we hadn't returned for Bob's coat and noticed that Sweet Pea was injured? What if Bob's discomfort had increased and necessitated emergency care in California instead of with his regular doctor here?

Running through the various alternative scenarios, we found ourselves giving heartfelt thanks two days before Thanksgiving as we hit the road -- newly carefree and anticipating good times ahead.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Growing in Gratitude

Reviewing our imperfect, complicated lives as yet another Thanksgiving rolls around, there is still so much cause for gratitude.  But there are times when the negative crowds out the positive, either due to an immediate crisis or to lingering pain over a long ago wound.

Now is the time to let the positives come to the forefront, to count the blessings of your life. Cultivating gratitude in the present means growing past the negatives.

If you came from dysfunctional family, there is a time for letting go of the past in whatever form that takes -- and that time is now.  It may mean forgiving (if not forgetting) and going on with your life. It may mean creating a safe distance between yourself and the ongoing dysfunction. It may mean concentrating on what and who was good and loving in your family of origin. And you can feel blessed today that you're no longer a powerless child, but an adult with the power to make positive choices. Letting go of past pain, not allowing it to define your life, makes room for joy.

If you're not as fortunate in life as you had hoped, it's time to look at what has gone right in your life instead of focusing on how things have never measured up to those long-ago dreams. As time passes, our dreams change -- or often need to change. Maybe what we dreamed in our youth just wasn't realistic. Perhaps the dreams were reasonable, but life as it unfolded didn't oblige. Sometimes we can make a dream happen with hard work and determination. But sometimes, because of random luck and circumstances beyond our control, a dream eludes us. But even dreams that don't happen can take us to unexpected places and even positive surprises in our lives. It's a time to feel gratitude for those random happy surprises and for the dreams that did come true, perhaps in ways we couldn't have anticipated.

If you're in pain, it's time to treat yourself gently, to listen to your body's needs and limitations, and, at the same time, to challenge yourself to stay as healthy and active as possible. It's a blessing to have a life to live despite physical or emotional pain and your own personal challenge  to live as full and loving a life as possible.

If your current family situation isn't perfect, it may be very much on your mind these days: there may be that son-in-law you find trying sitting there being relentlessly himself during the holiday meal or those empty chairs at the table signaling family members who have died or become estranged or who for a variety of reasons can't be with you to celebrate this year. It's a time to celebrate what is instead of grieving what could or should be. Open your mind to try to discover why a dreaded in-law might be so loved by an adult child.  Send loving thoughts to those who aren't with you -- those who have passed away and those who are at a geographic or emotional distance. Celebrate those who are sharing the holiday with you and the wonderful variety of love we have in our lives.

If you're alone this holiday, make this Thanksgiving your own creation, your own singular celebration. Perhaps, just for today, you will choose to feel warmed (rather than sad) by the memories of holidays past when your holiday table and your heart were filled with family and friends. Maybe, just for today, seize the opportunity to celebrate exactly as you wish -- no pressure, no obligations, no long hours of cooking (unless that pleases you). Maybe your celebration will be curling up with a good book and reading it cover to cover. Or it could be listening to your favorite music and calling distant loved ones to wish them a happy holiday.

It could also be a time to warm your heart by reaching out to others: many churches and charities sponsor Thanksgiving meals for the homeless and disadvantaged. Some bring holiday cheer to those who are hospitalized or in nursing homes for the holidays. You might find your own happiness this holiday by joining in and serving others.

It can help, too, whatever the circumstances of your imperfect, complicated life today, to count your blessings in the ordinary aspects of your life: a warm home sheltering you from a winter storm; a sweet dog or cat warming your lap and your heart; good, healthy food; a family that may be scattered geographically but that can bring you joy by simply thriving wherever they are; the strength to do what you need to do and, often, what you want to do.  Maybe you're not able to be as active as you once were. Maybe health concerns have begun to multiply. But you're still breathing, still aware, still able to welcome yet another holiday season.

When we grow to see and savor the blessings in the ordinary, our lives can become truly extraordinary.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Life-Changing History - Live

Fifty years ago today -- how is that possible? 

Every moment is so clear in my memory.  It was a deliciously sunny, crisp November day in Chicago. I was an 18-year-old freshman at Northwestern University, just returning to the dorm for lunch when the news came over my roommate Cheryl's radio: "President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. The president has been shot and wounded."

Cheryl and I sat down, staring at each other in complete shock. How could this happen? Especially to such a young, vibrant President? How could it be? We struggled to process what we were hearing. 

"Maybe he's not that badly wounded," Cheryl said at last. "Maybe he'll be all right." But the tears glistening in her eyes betrayed her doubt.

Because I didn't know what else to do, I went to my 1 p.m. class which the professor canceled with a shake of his head and a gesture for us all to go. A classmate, Vern Haase, and I went for a walk along the lake, praying and hoping and wondering who could hate so much. As we approached my dorm, a young woman sat on the steps, doubled over with grief, holding a small radio to her ear and sobbing loudly. "Oh, no," Vern whispered, squeezing my arm. "Oh, please, God, no!"

We all spent the weekend in the dorm's television room, watching in stunned silence as the events unfolded: the President's casket and blood-stained, traumatized widow arriving back in Washington; Lee Harvey Oswald being shot to death on national television; a tiny John Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father as the casket rolled by him.  And, to this day, everything is so vivid: what we saw on television and what we experienced ourselves.

It rained heavily in Chicago the day after President Kennedy's death, as we cried and grieved, each in our own way. Lorraine, who lived across the hall, sat quietly staring out her window, tears rolling silently down her cheeks, smoke curling up from the lengthening ash of a forgotten cigarette. Cheryl was on the phone to her parents, weeping and making arrangements to go home to Michigan early for the Thanksgiving holiday. I was in a fog of grief and disbelief. For many of us, it was the first time in our young lives that we had experienced the death of someone we knew.

 Yes, President Kennedy did seem like someone we knew. He connected with us on television in a way no other president had before with a singular optimism and vitality. In those years before cynicism and disillusionment, before political divisions running impossibly deep, before tell-all tabloids and outing of personal failings by press and opponents alike, Kennedy was our President -- the man who urged us to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

We all knew, the moment we heard the news of his death, that we would always remember this moment, seared into our collective consciousness. Even today, after all these years, with Cheryl, Lorraine and Vern all dead for some time, I look back and remember every moment of that afternoon shared with them -- and see once again the shock and sorrow etched on their young faces.

Of course, that first report of JFK's assassination wasn't the end of the shocking news for our generation.

We didn't have to wait for John Lennon's violent death or the terrifying news on 9-11 to have life interrupted and forever changed once again. 

Not quite five years after we mourned our fallen President, just as I was finishing graduate school at Northwestern, we were rocked with the news of Martin Luther King's and Robert Kennedy's assassinations.  What many of us felt by then was not so much shock as deep sadness.  Violence against leaders wasn't quite the shocking event it had been just a few years before. 

It was no longer "How could someone do this? How could this happen?" but rather "Oh, no! Not again!"

And, somehow, in a process started on that crisp, clear November day and culminating with this realization during the turbulent spring of 1968, we were never really young again.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Unexpectedly Great Thanksgivings

Have you ever had a Thanksgiving (or other holiday) that you dreaded or were sure would be less than wonderful -- and it turned out to be one of the greatest?

What plans do you have to make this Thanksgiving special?

Thinking back over the years, two special Thanksgivings stand out for me -- and, in both instances, the joy of the day was a surprise.

Just before Thanksgiving in 1982, my cousin Jack, who was then living near us in the Los Angeles area, lost his wonderful wife Tanzy to breast cancer. She was only 35 and had fought the disease for nine agonizing years. Despite the fact that her death wasn't totally unexpected, we were devastated. She was such a vital and beloved member of the family who was so loving, so generous with help and praise, so wonderfully alive even through her years of painful illness.

Jack's parents -- my Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Elmer -- as well as Tanzy's widowed mother and her surviving daughter traveled to Los Angeles for Tanzy's funeral. As we were visiting afterwards, I invited them to my place for Thanksgiving two days later. Initially, they declined, too overwhelmed with grief to imagine a holiday meal.

But the next day, Jack called. "We've been thinking about your offer and would like to take you up on it," he said. "It would be so comforting to just be together, all of us."

And so it was -- and was one of the most intimate, joyous and loving Thanksgivings ever. We talked and cried and laughed together. We shared favorite Thanksgiving foods and many hugs and kisses. We talked about our favorite, funny memories of Tanzy and our sadness over her loss. We teased each other gently and laughed over favorite family stories, aided by Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Elmer's shared, sly sense of humor. Tanzy's mother became a friend of mine that day -- and we kept in touch until her death many years later.

Our lovely day together also taught us an enduring lesson that Jack remembered during a recent visit we both made to his sister Caron's home in Kansas City.

"Our family has remembered that lesson all these years," he told me. "And the lesson is: the times you feel least like celebrating are the times when you need family most."

Bob and I didn't exactly feel in a celebratory frame of mind as Thanksgiving 2009 neared. We were caught up in the details and logistics of winding down our working lives in Los Angeles with a targeted retirement date of April 2010. We had purchased a new home in Arizona and were making once a month trips over, moving gradually from L.A. to Arizona, while preparing our Los Angeles home to put up for sale. We were frazzled. That's when Ryan, Bob's former Little Brother in the Big Brothers program who grew up to be like a son to us, proposed that he and his partner Sean prepare and host Thanksgiving that year with me responsible only for the dressing, which he insisted he simply could not live without.

And that's how Bob and I ended up spending a wonderful Thanksgiving with Ryan, Sean, Ryan's college friend Shar and about a dozen of their closest gay male friends. It was, in a word, fabulous!

We felt so welcome, so loved, so joyous that all the worry about the details of our lives in transition simply slipped away. We told stories, joked, had serious discussions and savored a meal that reflected the diversity of this group of friends coming together. We were so relaxed, and so thankful to be part of this warm and delightful group of people, a group so inclusive and embracing.

As Thanksgiving 2013 approaches, life has continued to change. After spending last Thanksgiving with us, Ryan and Sean ended their five year relationship just before Christmas. Bob and I are well settled in Arizona. My proposed "Therapy Cats" book just sold to a major publisher and the publisher wants the finished manuscript early in the New Year. It all seemed to add up to a prescription for a quiet holiday season.

Then an invitation too good to refuse came from my dear friend Tim and his delightful daughter Mary Kate -- inviting Bob, Ryan and me to "Come Home for the Holiday" -- and celebrate with them in my childhood home, which Mary Kate and her boyfriend Matt are renting from my brother Mike, who is now living and working in Thailand.

Tim will be flying in from Chicago and another daughter Eliza and her husband Chris, expecting their first baby in April, will be coming from Colorado. Friends of Mary Kate's who have a one-year-old baby will also be joining the festivities.

Joy will not come as a surprise this year.

This Thanksgiving promises to be another of the memorable ones as we celebrate in a special place with people we love -- and a few loving people we have yet to meet -- for a day of good conversations, song, laughter and an incredibly evolving feast being planned by all concerned via email -- and, yes, I'm bringing the dressing!

I expect that it will be a wonderful celebration of the past, the present and the future -- with two happily-anticipated grandchildren for Tim (his eldest daughter Laura is also expecting) on the horizon!

Without a doubt, this is going to be one of the great ones!

What makes a holiday great? Spending it with loved ones, having an open mind and heart, sharing and celebrating the ways that our lives are evolving and changing as we give thanks together.

Now that I've told you my Thanksgiving stories -- I'd love to hear yours!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

When Inside and Outside Selves Don't Match

Whatever our ages at the moment, there's a young, able and frisky spirit within.

During a phone visit with my cousin Caron lately, she mentioned her current disability with more surprise than regret.

"I still feel so frisky," she said. "I've always been active. It's just recently that I've started to look old. When did this happen? And so sudden! It's frustrating that my spirit is so youthful and my body is so weak."

There is that struggle between inside and outside personas that exists within so many of us.

Sometimes reconciling this conflict means going with what is and letting go of life as you wish it could be.

Our neighbor Phyllis has loved travel all her life, even working as a travel agent for some years. But now her need for thrice weekly kidney dialysis keeps her tethered to home base.  It's something that she has come to accept most of the time, only occasionally thinking wistfully of places she has yet to see and often she is comforted by vivid memories of the wonderful adventures of her life.

There are times when outside reticence masks inner shyness or when outside arrogance masks a terrible fear and insecurity -- and make it sadly likely that the person will be misjudged by those who rush to accept face value as the ultimate truth.

Sometimes our inner selves learn to hide out of necessity.

Seeing a recent video that I recorded for Northwestern University, my dear friend Sister Rita McCormack, one of my two favorite nun teachers who has known me since I was 8 years old, exclaimed " That shy little girl I knew so many years ago is gone and it's a miracle!" It is a miracle that I have learned over the years to feel shy but still do what I need to do anyway. Somewhere inside, that shy little girl still lives, sometimes cringing with fear, but she steps aside when I need to look confident and outgoing.

At a block party yesterday, an attractive woman who appeared outgoing and confident sidled up to me and introduced herself, telling me how uncomfortable she was coming to the party alone. "Part of me has one foot in junior high and fears being a wallflower..." she said while I nodded with total understanding. A lot of us carry the insecurities and fears so rampant in junior high with us for decades. They stay dormant until a challenging social situation brings them insistently to the surface of our consciousness and we feel anxious once more. But our growing wisdom has taught us to triumph over these fears by going to a party or giving a speech anyway -- and not being embarrassed to admit that stage fright and social anxiety can, at least temporarily, nibble away at our outer confidence but will not keep us from doing what we want to do.

Sometimes the discrepancy between our inner selves and outer realities is rooted in wishful denial of the present.

During my most recent visit with my dear friend Mary and her husband John, who is increasingly disabled by dementia, heart disease and other medical conditions that make walking almost impossible for him, John turned to me and smiled brightly before retiring to bed the last night I was there.

"I'll ask Mary to set the alarm to get me up early tomorrow morning," he said. "I want to give you a proper send-off and carry your luggage to the car for you."

There is no disability in the soul.

Even as a body begins to shut down, the spirit can soar with the vigor and passions that defined our younger selves.

When she was 86, my beloved Aunt Molly struggled with a variety of physical ills that she tended to minimize in conversations with us but which started to overtake her as her steps slowed, her heart pain increased and her fears of dependence and disability far exceeded any fears she might have had about mortality, about not being.  And yet, she remained a powerful writer, her gift of observation and her facility with words unabated by her physical frailty.

After she died of a heart attack just after New Year's in 2004, we found her last poem on her desk and in her computer. It was written only a few days before she passed away, inspired by her last ever trip to her local beauty shop and the sight of a woman representing what she most feared becoming.



                                                           Elizabeth C. McCoy

Has dressed her as carefully
As a very favorite doll.
The white tennis and socks
Immaculately snowy.
The blue cotton pantsuit
On the frail twig of a body
Fresh as a good child's.
Hands quiet in her lap, she stares ahead
Oblivious of the bustle of other women
Being noisily translated to multiple dialects
Of beautiful.
Has brought her here to be collected
When the hair is washed and brushed
Into the proper soft, thin curls
With pink scalp showing through.
She sits self-contained as still water,
Patient as stone,
Withdrawn by time from sentience and
The irrelevancies of communication.
Before long
Someone who still loves what is left
Will come to get her
And then in some other place
She will wait.

We were comforted by the fact that, even as her body was shutting down, Aunt Molly's mind was still active, still creative, still facing her fears of death and decay in the poetry that she had written since childhood.

Even as we all face the challenges that aging inevitably brings, we can live life fully, mindfully and meaningfully by paying attention not just to our aches and pains, to ways that we are slowing down, but also to that ageless, feisty, life-affirming and vibrant spirit within.

Friday, November 8, 2013

What's Your Story?

It was a moment of insight for my friend Kim when she was talking with a neighbor she barely knew the other day: we all have life stories and scripts by which we live our lives.

"My story used to be one of a divorced mother, alone in the world, keeping her two kids safe," the woman had said. "And then came a day when I realized my story was out of date and needed to change."

Kim and I discussed the concept of living by a life story and how what one does with that story can cripple or facilitate change.

Some cling relentlessly to a story line, citing the old excuse "That's the way I am and it's too late to change."

But is it?

There is always time to change and grow if we wish to take the risk of change and to do the hard work involved in personal growth.

But, for some, clinging to an outdated life story is a habit, an excuse not to risk change.

Some have a story that is an endless loop of victimhood.

One woman here, well into her fifties, clings relentlessly to her feelings that her mother is the root of all her discontent. She has felt tormented since by her mother's faults and failings, erupting in fury recently over a minor disagreement. Her volcanic anger was frighteningly out of proportion to the precipitating event. But, of course, it was not really about the event, but about the pain of a lifetime. Until she is able to let go of the story of her mother as tormentor, this woman will never know peace.

Some people get an emotional payoff as they see others react with shock and sympathy to their difficult life stories.

A former patient would come to therapy each week, presenting some new horrendous affront from her ex-husband or one or both of her ungrateful adult children. She would present it and sit back, waiting for commiseration. After two weeks of this, I told her that she could get expressions of horror and sympathy from her friends for free, but she was paying me to help her to move on. "So," I would say. "Let's talk about how you're building a new life for yourself that isn't ruled by them and what they do to you, but by your own choices and preferences." What she needed to do was to change her story from victim to a woman with the freedom to make her own decisions and choices. It was a scary place to be at times. But it could be exciting, too.

Some obsolete stories complicate family relationships in a myriad of ways.

A woman I'll call Elaine has a 50-year-old son she still treats like a wayward adolescent, second guessing every personal and career decision he makes, offering to pay his cell phone bill and then feeling that gives her the right to weigh in on his other financial decisions. And she wonders, with more than a little exasperation, why he doesn't like to call or visit and bemoans the fact that she has such a immature, ungrateful son.

Changing one's perspective and one's life story can be difficult and painful, but can lead one toward growth and a more satisfying new life.

It may mean taking responsibility for your own choices.

If, for example, you chose to stay home with your children, this decision -- while it may be one you'd make again in a minute -- may have been costly for your career as you originally envisioned it. Faced with such realities, you have a choice: you can cling to bitterness and regrets that your career wasn't what you had hoped or you can acknowledge the reality of hard decisions all women make and make peace with a decision that seemed right for you and your family at the time. Period. It doesn't make sense cling to a life story of missed opportunities and to blame your spouse or children or to expect a lifetime of compensation from them for the career that didn't happen as you might have liked.

It may mean letting go of old pain to make room for new possibilities.

If you had a less than ideal experience growing up with a parent or parents whose flaws were all too apparent, you also have a choice: you can choose to cling to the past, blaming your parents for your continuing misery, often long after they are gone, or you can seize the power and control of your own life now and grow beyond the challenges of your early life.

Sometimes it means letting go of even positive life stories if they have become obsolete.

When I was a child, I loved holidays, which my parents dreaded and hated, but which were nevertheless merry if Aunt Molly joined us and made the holiday special for us.

I vowed back then that, when I grew up, I would make holidays wonderful for my family of origin. I started cooking Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners when I was in my twenties. As long as Aunt Molly was alive, there was at least someone who was as interested in celebrating as I was. The others? Not so much. Both of my siblings, for many years, were uneasy with the whole concept of Christmas, preferring to spend it on the ski slopes or working for triple time.

In time, I came to realize that I needed to acknowledge that my Hostess for Family Celebrations was largely a fantasy -- my fantasy -- and that I needed to let go of this and just let holidays happen for me, my brother and sister.

It has worked wonderfully over the years as spontaneous celebrations have replaced dreaded obligations.  Bob and I spent one Christmas and New Year's in Bangkok with my brother and his family and it was truly memorable. One of the most fun recent Thanksgivings we've had was via Skype when we savored simultaneous turkey dinners during a video visit between Los Angeles and Bangkok with my brother Mike and his wife Jinjuta. In recent years,  too, Bob and I have taken turns hosting holidays with neighbors who also live far from loved ones and want to celebrate together.

Giving up the story of myself as family uniter, party planner and perpetual hostess has been a relief, I'm sure, for all concerned.

Now my story is that I simply love to stay in touch with loved ones, whatever day it is, and remember good times with them whether or not we are together this particular holiday season.

Letting go of old family roles can be liberating and lead to better relationships with kin.

Letting go of bitter life stories of victimhood can open your life to new strengths and opportunities.

Letting go of old anger can create room for joy.

When you change your story, you can change your life.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Alarming Headlines and a Story Behind the Headlines

The headlines look achingly familiar:



The story is this: Pet jerky treats, coming mostly from China, have sickened 3,600 dogs and cats in recent years. A documented 580 dogs and 10 cats have died as a result of eating these treats which can cause kidney failure, gastrointestinal bleeding and a rare kidney disorder, according to the Food and Drug Administration.  The agency is now appealing to pet owners and veterinarians to send them information on animals who may have become sick after eating the treats. A pet may have  suffered from decreased appetite, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea after ingesting the jerky treats sold under a number of brands as jerky tenders or strips made of chicken, duck, sweet potatoes or dried fruit. So far, FDA officials have not been able to identify the ingredient causing sickness and death in too many beloved pets.                  

Before you turn the newspaper page, skimming the contents, stop and consider the stories behind those statistics. What if the unimaginable happened to your beloved dog or cat?

I remember when the first headlines appeared heralding another pet food alarm in 2007. During that scare, the ingredient was identified: in a wheat/protein filler, manufactured in China and used in dozens of U.S. manufactured pet food brands, the plastic substance melamine was substituted for higher-cost natural ingredients. Thousands of dogs and cats were affected -- with many thousands ill and hundreds dying. The FDA set up a section of their website listing popular pet food brands that had been found to have this lethal melamine ingredient. Alarmed, I went online to the site and checked the pet food brands recalled. I breathed a sigh of relief. The brands we were feeding our nearly 9-year-old feline duo did not appear on the site. Timmy and Gus were safe.

Thank goodness! These two brothers, adopted from our vet after she had spent a month nursing the 3-week-old abandoned kittens to good health, came as a mandatory pair. They were so bonded, she said. They should not be split up. So we took them both, loving and enjoying them so much, we could hardly wait to get home from work each night.

Timmy (l) and Gus (r) their first night home

Loving brothers sleeping curled up together

These two brothers were quite different -- different personalties, liking different types of food -- and yet they were warmly bonded with us and with each other. Gus is a love, a sweet, cuddly cat. Timmy, a bit more complicated, still loved to cuddle and talk incessently and ride on Bob's shoulder. He was so outgoing and affectionate that he worked as an occasional therapy animal in my private psychotherapy practice. Timmy and Gus curled up together to sleep each night. We became a loving family of four.

                                                Timmy with his buddy Bob

                                                Timmy and Gus as adults

Still I worried.

I mentioned my concern about tainted pet food and my daily website checks to an acquaintance who had a dog. "Oh, yeah," she said. "My husband did a web search and the serial numbers of the recalled food matched our dog food batch. But we bought a whole case of it. She has eaten three cans and hasn't died yet, so I guess we'll give her the rest and hope for the best. That stuff is expensive. We can't just throw it out." (Despite her thoughtlessness, her dog survived.)

I shuddered at her words and vowed to keep checking the mounting list of contaminated pet food online.

I remember lying on the bed that Mother's Day -- not my favorite day of the year -- snuggling with Timmy and Gus and thinking how much I loved them and how much I wanted to keep them safe. Timmy looked at me thoughtfully, directly, as he often did. "Please live for a long, long time," I said, feeling suddenly tearful. "I can't imagine life without you two."

That Tuesday, Bob and I returned home from work to the sounds of retching. Timmy had thrown up in three places, but seemed to perk up as the evening went on. Gus was fine. I checked the website again. The foods we gave Timmy and the food we gave Gus were not on the list. A virus, we guessed. We'd keep an eye on him and call the vet if he vomited again.

Wednesday we got home to find that Timmy had vomited in five different places throughout the house. As he began to vomit again, the retching came between piercing screams. We rushed to embrace him and tried to find help. His vet's office was closed for the night. We took him to an emergency services vet who found nothing of note wrong with him except that he was a little dehydrated. She suggested giving him plenty of water and taking him to his regular vet first thing in the morning. When we got home, I went online, checking both the government website (still no mention of Timmy's food) and vomiting as a symptom. Timmy lay on my lap, watchful and trusting. That night he insisted on sleeping with us, cuddling up for comfort, purring and rubbing his face against ours.

I met his vet as she arrived at her office at 7 Thursday morning. She said she would run some tests and that it might be a virus. Timmy had never been ill in his nearly nine years of life. She suggested that I leave him with her and pick him up that night.

Two hours later, she called me at my office at UCLA. "I can't believe it," she said, her voice choked. "He is in total kidney failure. Has he been in your garage? Could he have ingested anti-freeze?"

"No, he hasn't," I whispered, sitting down, shocked.

"He has a urinary blockage and I don't have the diagnostic equipment here to discover the cause," she said. "Could you come get him and take him to West Los Angeles Pet Hospital? I know an excellent doctor there and they have the equipment." The hospital was three blocks from my office but 35 miles from Timmy. I called Bob at his office in downtown L.A. and we raced for our cars, getting to the vet's at the same time. We bundled Timmy into his carrier and Bob drove frantically through heavy traffic to get to the hospital.  The hospital receptionist demanded $1400 in advance. The doctor smiled and cradled Timmy, remarking on how beautiful and well-behaved he was and said they would need to keep him overnight for tests.

Bad news came Friday morning: his kidney failure was complete, his blockage -- of mysterious origin -- was immobile. "We're going to try one more thing," the vet said. "But if that doesn't work, we will need to put him down."

Put him down! But he was fine a few days ago! But he was my therapy cat. But he was our love.

Worse news came promptly. There was nothing that could be done to save him. He was in horrific pain. Euthanasia would spare him further agony.

It was a nightmare. Timmy brightened when he saw us, ready to go home. The vet said he had been given the maximum amount of morphine to dull his excruciating pain. Timmy raised his chin for the vet to scratch it and cuddled with us. Then he saw the needle and began running around the room, dragging the catheter behind him. Twice he wrenched the needle out of the catheter with his teeth. He hissed at the vet. He looked at us imploringly.

"Timmy, my love, come sit on my lap," Bob said quietly. Timmy obeyed. The vet attached the needle. And then he was gone. And our hearts broke, the pain indelible, even more as we listened to Gus howl in the night, every night, for his brother, until, a month later, we adopted a kitten named Maggie for him to embrace.

Bereaved Gus clings to kitten Maggie

The necropsy reports were painful to read, but not a surprise: Timmy's kidneys were destroyed and his urinary system completely clogged and solidified with melamine crystals -- yes, the plastic material. Timmy was yet another victim of melamine poisoning.

                                    Last photo of Timmy a few weeks before death

Timmy's food appeared on the FDA list a week after his death.

There were class action suits. We joined them. The settlement would be limited to a percentage of the expenses of the last illness. No other compensation was possible because, well, pets are property according to the law. Timmy's last 24 hours had cost $4,000. We would have spent much more if there had been a hope of cure. Our final settlement amount was $1,643. It could have been
100 times that and it wouldn't have touched the magnitude of our loss.

Gus, now nearly 16, is still with us, though he seemed to age prematurely, perhaps as a result of ingesting a bit of the tainted food or perhaps as a result of losing the brother/littermate with whom he was so bonded.

Maggie, now six, looks after Gus with great care.

And I look in his eyes and wish he could live for a long, long time. But I don't say it. I just take his head in my hands, tell him how much he is loved and listen to him purr.

                                          Gus in 2013 with Maggie and Hammie

And so now there is another round of tainted food, another growing number of sick and dying pets.

I no longer give our cats treats or cat food with any fillers. I'm monitoring their health closely. And I'm hoping, somehow, this new problem ingredient will be identified and removed from pet foods before many more beloved pets die.

What else can I tell you?

Please read the headlines. Go to the FDA site to keep current and report any illnesses promptly. Throw out any jerky treats. Watch your pets closely and get them to the vet at the first sign of illness.

My only wish as I read these headlines is that you and the animals you love so much will be spared the anguish that is with us still.