The Things They Left Behind

More March 2016 coverThe Things They Left Behind

“WOW,” I would hear from people who hadn’t been to my house in a while, “the place looks… different.” “Of course,” I’d answer. “That’s because we’re now the museum of dead people.”

The line was a cheap shocker, sure, but also the truth. Every room in the house my husband and I had owned for more than a decade contained dozens of items that were ours only because their owners had died. My bitter undertone was honest, too. I wanted what I inherited, and I felt lucky to get it, but sometimes it felt less that I owned these things than that I bore them, like a weight.

From 2006 to 2011, one by one, everyone went: my husband’s mother, then his father, then my aunt and my mother. (My father had died years before.) The last years of their lives were an extended, painful decline—cancer, lung disease, dementia, loneliness, fear. We (mostly me) served as long-distance caregivers, and the experience left a bleak, grinding sadness; I learned about the reality of aging in a way I wish I hadn’t. The deaths, more tangibly, brought a lot of stuff. All our relatives had lived in well-furnished homes, and except when it came to my mother, we were the sole heirs. We sold the houses—in Fort Worth, San Diego County, upstate New York—and sold, gave away or threw out a lot. But much of what I saw filled me with longing. I stood in the dismantled rooms, pointing: I want that. That, that, that.

Across the miles, loaded trucks rumbled to our Los Angeles house, bringing from my Aunt Clarice a collection of 1960s abstract art, old cookbooks and knives, heavy saute pans, Waterford hurricane lamps, vintage wool blankets and a 1960s KitchenAid stand mixer, as heavy and solidly built as an old Buick. From my in-laws, Jo and Bill, we got dining room and bedroom sets, antique mirrors and a staggering extravagance of old sterling, china, crystal and cut glass. From my mother, Gloria, I took a couch, a wall storage unit, the 1950s Swedish blonde wood hutch, a table and a bedroom set that I’d loathed through childhood for its spare lines but now saw as Mad Men cool. Plus dozens of 1940s books with teeny-tiny print, a set of avocado-green Pyrex casseroles, boxes and boxes of crumbling photo albums and ancient diplomas and birth certificates.

Behind my greed was a logic. Clarice’s paintings filled many of our previously empty walls; my in-laws’ immaculate furniture replaced our embarrassing secondhand funk. We actually needed Gloria’s Mad Men bedroom set for the guest room, where there had never been a place for guests to put their clothes. All the kitchen items were serviceable, so why waste them? The photos and documents were family history. You don’t just toss such things in a Dumpster. And yet: I hadn’t foreseen the heaviness of it all. I’m not talking about literally feeling buried, though sometimes I did in my small home office, jammed to bursting with my old desk and file cabinets augmented by my mother’s Swedish hutch and end table, a chair from her den, my father’s 1935 handball trophies and a huge chinoiserie lamp. (Of course, nothing matched.)

What haunted me were the shadows. I’d spent so many hours in my relatives’ homes over the years, visiting when I was young, caregiving later on, when the knowledge that time was running out gave a luminous density to all that was said and done. Things from those places carried the memory of where they used to be, ghost images that rose unpredictably to throw me out of time. I’d open a drawer for one of Jo’s forks and suddenly see them in her yellow-and-white kitchen; I’d look at Clarice’s mixer and see it on her counter. I’d reach into one of my parents’ night-stands and catch a smell I recalled from childhood, and for a second felt I could look down to see my father’s carefully folded undershirts.

The old places, evoked, made the people rise so vividly, it was as if they were in the next room. The realization that they weren’t, and wouldn’t ever be, would hit like a slugto the gut, as if I’d only just heard the news. Living among other people’s things means you never stop thinking about them.

Ah. What I didn’t get when I booked those moving vans was that holding on had always been the real point. The unexpected blessing of caring for the old is how deeply you come to know them. The endless hours you spend listening to their stories creates an intimacy very much like that of early romantic love. You lean forward, begging, More, please. Who were you before I met you? Tell me what you know and have seen, who you are. In that intimacy, my relatives were transformed for me, their inner selves risingfrom their failing bodies, revealed in all their singular power.

Until you lose someone that close to you, you don’t understand the meaning of gone, and until you empty their cupboards and drawers, you don’t grasp how easily every physical trace of a life can be erased. When I grabbed what remained, I was seeking talismans, magic objects to stave off the disappearance. The battered dictionary my mother got as a gift in 1937, just before she became the first in her family to go to college, contained her, poor and ambitious and 17. A collection of figurines from Mexico, Europe and Africa held Clarice, traveling far and alone in the 1950s, when women just didn’t do such things. All that I kept, the diplomas, the photos, the perfume bottles, an ormolu jewelry box and the battered strainer my mother used to serve peas, carried a force field of human desire, decades of struggle and triumph, children born, journeys made, moments that I couldn’t bear—that I wouldn’t allow—to vanish on the wind.

Four years since the last death, I’ve learned that with their exile from life’s flow and change, the dead recede, whether you want them to or not. To live in the present, you have to turn away. I now keep Clarice’s mixer out of sight in a cabinet, have had Jo’s dining chairs reuphol-stered, have stashed boxes of paper in the attic. I let the dogs sleep on my mother’s couch—she’d die if she weren’t already dead.

Loosening my grip isn’t the same as letting go. I’ve given nothing away. At Christmas, I summon Jo’s thin, blue-veined hand to hover over the cut-glass bowl of cranberry sauce, listen for the whisper of Clarice’s cigarette-hoarse voice when I use her chefs knife. My parents’ nightstand drawers still have that distinctive scent, and sometimes I lean down to smell it—for the painful comfort of feeling them near.

The dead always cast shadows; the challenge of midlife, when their numbers accumulate, is to see them and yet face forward, so they fall behind. The act is its own kind of faithfulness: to what and who was, and to whatever comes next.

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.