The House That Raised Us

The House That Raised Us

Leaving the place where so many memories had been made turned out to be much harder than ever imagined

I despised the first house I ever owned. When my husband and I bought it, in 1991, we were coming off a decade of frequent m moves and my deepest desire was to settle down. I had dreamed of something large, old and graceful with lots of wainscoting and beveled glass. It would have two stories, a big porch and trees shading a yard for the children we hoped to have.

Unfortunately, in West Los Angeles, where I live, you don’t get those things unless you’ve got several million dollars. Instead, our savings bought us a 1,200-square-foot postwar box. It was sturdily built, had oak wood floors and was bright, airy and well laid-out, which made it the best of die scores of places we’d seen. One option had a windowless bathroom lined in brick; another had cheap paneling as far as the eye could see. There were all kinds of practical reasons to buy the house we bought: Local prices and interest rates were down, I needed to apply for a loan before filing my tax return in order to get the deduction and I was writing a book that year and had earned practically nothing. But romance and grace? Forget it. Every room was plain and small. The backyard was mostly concrete, and the cramped kitchen had speckled green tile. Worst of all, we’d badly underestimated the amount of traffic on the street. Cars roared by from dawn until dusk, and though friends said I’d get used to the noise, I never did.

Over the years we worked hard to make improvements, jackhammering concrete and landscaping with bird-of-paradise and flowering vines, installing crown molding, retiling, repainting, sanding the floors until they were caramel gold. It helped. Each day the sight of sunlight on our deep-peach dining-room walls and masses of magenta bougainvillea blooming outside gave me a thrill of sensual pleasure. A budget remodel made the kitchen sleek and more functional and since the design was my own—despite the fact that I’m artistically challenged and I had never before dared such a venture — I felt insanely proud of it.

But in the end, nothing could turn the place into airy thing but the plain wrap starter house it was. I came to view it as the home equivalent of the “nice boys” my parents always wanted mc to date: I could appreciate its good qualities but it never turned me on. Instead, even as life continued — as my husband and I had a baby, as that baby turned into a toddler, preschooler, school child; as we lost a cat, got a dog, planted flowers and fruit trees, bought furniture, art, a barbecue and the myriad other possessions that define middle-class life — I looked to the future, reading the “home for sale” ads in the newspaper, always dreaming of the day we’d be able to move on.

Then the day came. After eight years of my complaints and two years of searching, we found a house that, given our budget, was as close to our dreams as we were ever going to get: a 1927 fixer-upper with trees, space and a living room with arched ceilings and stained-glass windows. Wc made an offer, thrashed through complicated negotiations, put our house on the market and sold it in two weeks. And suddenly I was frantic. I had groused about my house but for nearly a decade I’d coddled and cared for it. How could I trust that its buyer, who was young and single, would do the same? Would she listen when I told her the lemon tree needed fertilizer? Would she, too, carefully pick caterpillars off the rosebush in front and hose the whitcflics that plagued the hibiscus? Would she watch for scratches on the wood floor, wax die kitchen tiles? The week the deal became final, I found myself walking around the rooms I’d waited so long to leave, muttering, through tears, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

Not since I was a teenager and my parents moved, I realized, had I said good-bye to a home. All my earlier moves as an adult had been as a single or part of a couple; none of the places I’d left were woven into the fabric of my life, as this one was. The specifics of the house itself were irrelevant. It could have been a mansion or a tiny apartment. What mattered was that it held literally thousands of memories. When I looked aiound the well-furnished living room, 1 could sec its barren early days, when my husband, Bill, and I, having jettisoned our thrift-shop furniture, had nothing. The dining room had been the site of nearly a dozen Christmas Eve dinners and Passover seders; my office in the garage was the place where I’d completed my first book. In one bedroom we’d conceived our daughter, Melissa; the other was where we brought her home. I couldn’t see one bathroom without remembering the days she’d been so tiny I could …. bathe her in the sink. The wood floors still held the thumping echo of her feet—how many years had she woken at 6 A.M. and hit the ground running? The patio was where she’d blown out eight sets of birthday candles and broken eight piñatas, where she’d practiced jumping rope and playing handball. The marks from her serves still smudged the garage door.

Melissa was 8 now. I knew she’d grow up no matter where we lived, but I still felt her younger self in this house, and my heart told me that when I left, I would leave it behind. With the move, our time here would close, become an era, a phase of our lives, with a beginning, middle and end. I didn’t doubt we’d be happy in our new home but it would never be the place where we started and became a family, where we were young.

The day the movers came, Melissa wrote a note about herself (“I have lived in this house my whole life”) that we hid in the attic, with a photo, for some future child to find. She went off to school ayirig. After every thing was gone, I cleaned the kitchen and bathrooms, swept the patio and polished the wood floors until they shone. The deal was done so there was no need, except my own, to pay respect, and claim ownership a final time. Then the new owner arrived. I gave her a tour and instructions, handed over the keys and took one last look before walking away, letting go-as someday I’d have to do with Melissa-of what I’d so carefully tended, entrusting its future to strangers.

I cared for my dying parents. How is caring for my dying dog just as bad?

 

 

I thought it would be easier to care for an old dog than an old human — or maybe harder. But almost a decade after my husband and I cared for and lost three parents and an aunt, tragedy has repeated itself as farce in the form of our aging dog.

Casey, the handsome, thickly furred red dog we brought home as a puppy, is 15 — in canine years, what gerontologists would call “the old-old.” Suddenly, we’re back in the place we named Elder World, as managers of his decline.

The bulging disc in Casey’s back has outpaced the medication we’ve given him since he was 12, and he struggles to sit and lie down. His tail won’t wag; his gait stutters. His hearing is shot, and cataracts have left him nearly blind. The past six months brought “canine cognitive dysfunction,” a.k.a. doggy dementia. He gets stuck behind furniture, paces at night, has forgotten there’s a backyard and will only pee in front.

 
 

I never imagined that senior dog care would prove a weird resurrection of something I already knew. Instead of the shower chair, water bowls set atop risers, to make drinking easy; instead of the walker, a sling. A trail of absorbent puppy pads leading to the front door to catch the inevitable accidents takes the place of adult diapers. The mental changes hold echoes, too. Casey, part chow, ornery and snappish, has forgotten that he hates the dog down the street and strangers who presume to pat his head.

The newly agreeable Casey evokes my once sharply critical aunt transformed into a matron who marveled, “Look at the size of it!” in reference to a ShopRite. When Casey starts his evening shuffle, to the door, outside, back in again, his endless search for something that eludes him, I hear my father-in-law’s voice: “What day is it? Where’s my checkbook?”

As we did then, we ask ourselves the same questions: “What does he want?” Who knows? “Does he suffer?” We don’t think so. “Is he happy?” We don’t think that, either. “Does he want to die?” Our old people held fiercely to life, and to their habits of living — endless cups of weak coffee, coupon-cutting, a daily vanilla ice cream cone. In August, Casey fought his way back from a facial abscess we thought would kill him. Every single day, around sunset, his old walk time, he staggers to his feet and demands to go out.

 
 

We move through the weeks, trapped at home because we’re afraid to leave Casey alone; sleep-deprived from listening for the sound of him trying to get up in the night. We are driven to rage by the click-clicking of his nails as he turns in endless circles. In Elder World, we told each other, “If they were dogs, we could be merciful and end this.” Now it is a dog, and we can’t pull the plug. Which makes me think of the old people again, and how insistently the will to hang on demands respect. And another thing they taught me: that although caregiving feels endless, it always ends, though the empty space after doesn’t.

When Casey disappeared a few nights ago, I searched the house, then the yards with a flashlight, increasingly panicked, calling his name, though I knew he couldn’t hear me. Finally, after 20 minutes, I found him hidden behind a plant, frozen in place at the very edge of our back deck. He sensed the drop before him but couldn’t figure out what to do next.

“This can’t go on,” we tell each other; it goes on. When Casey doesn’t make it outside, we wipe up the mess. We help him to his feet in the morning, feed him by hand. We walk him, coax him to the end of the block — 30 minutes for what used to take five. We watch him sleep, looking for movement to signal he’s still alive. Think “how much longer will he last?” — and “It would be better if it wasn’t too long.”

Then we carefully turn away from those thoughts and get out his dinner, because the old man will probably be hungry when he wakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opinion: U.S. cities are overrun with feral cats, and magical thinking isn’t the solution

Los Angeles Times

 

The alleys, parks and vacant lots of this country are alive with so many stray and feral cats that we don’t even know the precise number. Thirty-two million, says one estimate; triple that, another. The felines are the offspring of pets we didn’t bother to “fix,” the animals we adopted then dumped or left behind.

In the past, we called them pests and tried — brutally, unsuccessfully — to wipe them out. Today, the accepted strategy is to catch and sterilize them, then send them back outside, where they were. “Trap-neuter-release,” as the approach is called, has been hailed by the no-kill movement, which opposes routine euthanasia by animal shelters. And it has been adopted by animal control departments in more than 400 cities and counties. (Los Angeles has its own plan in the works.)

In theory, the tactic seems like an easy solution that lets us all sleep well: We don’t want these animals, but we also don’t want their blood on our hands. In reality, and as emphasized by a recent flare-up over the practices of Orange County’s public animal shelter system, it’s not that simple.

Originally, the promise of trap-neuter-release was to reduce stray and feral populations by curbing their prolific breeding — cats are fertile by six months of age and can give birth multiple times a year. But for cat populations to fall, more than 50% of the females in a given “colony,” or living group, need to be sterilized. That’s not easy, given cats’ ability to hide — and the fact that known colonies become dumping grounds for more unwanted, often unfixed, pets. As a result, herd sterilization hasn’t ever been achieved on a mass scale.

The approach has skeptics for other reasons, too. Many scientists, birders and wildlife managers oppose trap-neuter-release programs in general, noting that free-ranging cats are destructive predators, annually killing billions of birds and mammals, while also spreading diseases like toxoplasmosis.

The programs have been successful in one way, however. They have enabled shelters to sharply reduce the number of feral cats they impound, then euthanize, at a time when public shelters face immense pressure to reach a no-kill ideal, usually defined as not euthanizing any healthy or adoptable animals. An added bonus is reduced taxpayer cost: sterilizing and releasing cats costs less than housing, feeding and then killing them.

How well the cats themselves fare is less clear than you might imagine. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not self-sustaining. That means colonies under the watchful eye of caretakers willing to devote considerable time and money to their welfare may thrive. Those without human guardians may suffer from malnutrition, infection and parasites. Some of the cats get hit by cars or eaten by coyotes. Even the authors of a paper lauding trap-neuter-release programs acknowledged that “the welfare outcome for cats returned to location of origin were not tracked … [and] little research on this topic could be found.”

Some shelters run neuter-and-return programs in which individual strays that are brought in by concerned residents aren’t put up for adoption, but rather are neutered and returned to where they were initially found. In October, a lawyer representing a group of animal rescues and individuals sent Orange County Animal Care, the county’s government-run shelter network, a demand that it stop its practice of “abandoning” these cats.

According to signatory Sharon Logan, some of the more than 1,000 cats Orange County released between September 2018 and June 2019 weren’t feral, but roaming, lost or abandoned pets, or kittens still young enough to be socialized and made adoptable. Some were sick, she said, and in many cases, communities where the cats were returned weren’t told the felines were coming. There was often “no obvious presence of a feeder or caretaker.” As a result, she said, the animals suffered. Carol Barnes, another signatory to the letter, shared photos of one cat she said was released by Orange County and later found malnourished, with broken ribs, an upper respiratory infection and an injured eye crawling with maggots.

An Orange County Animal Care representative declined to comment, but a research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, which runs similar programs, has called some of the critics’ claims “misinformation and scaremongering.”

The answer? No one who’s ever loved a house cat or felt moved to feed a hungry feral (that includes me) wants to return to mass killing. And well-run trap-neuter-release programs may be an important part of dealing with our national cat problem. But increased and organized efforts to educate humans about their responsibilities to their animals are also crucial. So is more rigorous enforcement of existing spay/neuter laws and far more access to affordable services.

Maybe most of all, we need to abandon what one cat lover described to me as “magical thinking” — pretending that the only thing that matters is keeping stray cats alive; believing that any one effort holds a simple, painless solution. These fictions serve mostly to comfort those responsible for our cat problem in the first place. That is, us.