16 Aug Late Summer Update from the Farm: Holding Steady With Ice Cream and Cats

I sleep on the couch in my study every night, mostly because Jill is up late, reading her phone in bed and I’ve got to get my sleep if I’m going to be of any use around the house. She used to be asleep by 10:00. Now her medication might keep her buzzing until 1:00 or later. She takes trazodone as a sleep aid.

We’re in holiday mode nowadays, meaning we’re living in the time of exceptions. If Jill wants frozen custard from our local favorite, The Cow, or a homemade ice cream sandwich from Hoffiman’s, our other local favorite, we go get it. No waiting. I can’t deny her anything. When we’re running errands once a week (Jill stays in the truck), we’ll stop at Mastellone’s for an Italian sub or Lebanese Taverna for a falafel sandwich.

Her latest request: a new cat.

I told her we should wait six months or so before getting another housecat. Jill said she’d like to look anyway. I knew what that meant. Within a week, she had a shortlist of ideal candidates and the next thing I knew I was in suburban basement, sitting on a couch surrounded by cats. Their keeper sat nearby on the floor and Jill next to me, all of us masked. Two kittens were chewing on my shoelaces; another–a beautiful white longhair–was nibbling at my right elbow. Grownup cats were padding about or perched on their high shelves or playing with their feathery toys. There must have been twenty cats in a space the size of a bedroom. It was impressively clean and relatively odor free. This was the keeper’s full-time job.

Most of the cats got along remarkably well with one another, though one sour puss had been sequestered in his own annex elsewhere in the basement. We were looking for a cat that could tolerate a lot of attention because Masie and Oliver would regularly give her a snouty going-over. Our alpha barn cat, Scrapper, knows how to keep the dogs in line, swapping them if they get too nosy–you know how dogs love a good butt-sniff. (Side note: This week, Masie, the sneakier of our two bassets, used a kitchen chair to get up to the table and gobble down half a blackberry pie before Jill caught her.)

The white longhair kitten, now cradled in my hands, tempted me. But the thing about kittens is that you don’t really know what you’re getting. They’ve got a lot of growing to do and, like teenagers, they could go left or right or zigzag until they realize their full potential. I can’t take that kind of risk. We knew we needed a female because Scrapper is now living on our porch and he wouldn’t abide any competition. Our cat would be strictly indoors but we had to account for the fact that Scrapper often gets inside.

Jill is crazy for animals. She wanted a field of sheep, a brood of chickens, a couple of goats, and a little donkey. She’s been really good about accepting this dashed dream. So you shouldn’t be surprised to learn we got two cats: Paisley and Lilly. All I can do is shrug and smile and say, “Sure, two cats, no problem.” Three times a day we visit them in the basement to acclimate them. In fact, they’re now starting to roam the house furtively, a good sign. So here we go: a busier house with two spry cats flitting about, tails up. Under normal circumstances I’d have voiced some resistance, insisting that “we’ve got time, Jill.” But now: time?

Which brings me to our travel trailer. It arrived from Arizona a month ago. I couldn’t work on it until I finished the Hen House Cottage. Happily, I have completed the Cottage, a huge job, nothing more than a shell when I started. When I consider the distance I’ve gone–it was the first complete dwelling I’ve constructed, testing the entirety of my skillset from flooring to plumbing, tiling to carpentry, involving dozens of daily adjustments, calculations, and dilemmas–I am quietly amazed.

So next: the Silver Streak trailer. Founded by exiles from the famous Airstream company, Silver Streak manufactured aluminum travel trailers from 1949 until 1992. They competed with Airstream, though were not as expensive.  We send a big virtual hug and our profound thanks to the donor who helped us buy this lovely relic. Jill really wanted something old because we love antiques. The trailer immerses us in the kind of project we’ve always been best at. Jill does sourcing and design; I do the building. I’ll log a separate post about the restoration as I get deeper in. The plan is to get it on the road in October. Do I feel pressure about that?

Jill has concluded that her radiation treatment hasn’t worked. She’s feeling pain in new places, so it’s hard to say what comes next. She’s not eating much these days and has lost about twenty pounds. Nonetheless, her numbers have improved slightly. I have to remind myself that this is the easy part. Her pain medication is still effective; she can get out of the house on occasion; and she remains sharp. The other night I dreamed Jill was driving us up a mountain on a rutted, muddy single-lane track. To one side of us was a cliff that fell thousands of feet into a foggy mist. Though I was scared, I knew Jill was an excellent driver–she’d get us there. never mind I didn’t know where we were going or why. The van jounced and bucked as we wended our way higher. At a certain point, I saw that much of the road had iced over. How high were we? Did the truck have four-wheel drive? Jill kept her eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel. Though we now rode in silence, I got the sense that we’d been talking, remarking on the dangerous route–another adventure we’d speak of fondly some day. Then at last the road ended and Jill rolled to a bumpy stop. We had arrived, together and intact, seemingly safe, though this cold alien place was anything but comforting.

Medical bills are coming in, mounting up; we’re keeping them at bay with partial payments and help from Jill’s GoFundMe account. If you know anybody who might contribute, please send them here: Jill’s GoFundMe

Sometimes when I’m taking a nap or early in the morning, as dawn brightens the windows of my study, I think I hear Jill calling. I’m a light sleeper anyway, but now especially sensitive to her call. I’ll jump up and go to her but often it’s just my imagination, and I’ll find her sleeping, the two dogs nearby on the floor, raising their drowsy heads to check me out, and then I know that long after Jill is gone, I’ll be hearing her voice, sometimes calling me from upstairs, sometimes from across a field, forever an echo I won’t be able to answer.

We’re very gentle with each other these days, careful to avoid the typical couple’s bickering. If you’ve been with someone for a long time, you know what that’s like–you can tussle over the smallest things: I like this green fabric. What? Blue? How can you say it’s blue? Really? You must be color blind. . . . Well, actually we bicker just like that almost every day but it’s always in good humor. Life goes on, in other words.

Jill hasn’t been to the kitchen garden in four months. It used to be her pride and joy. I planted only half as much as Jill would have; and still I can hardly keep up with it. It got to the point where, if I missed a couple of days tending the beds, I’d be reluctant to return for fear of what I’d find–monstrous zucchini, rampant cucumbers, weed-cluttered strawberries. As we edge into fall, it’s getting a bit more manageable. Already I’ve covered several beds in preparation for winter. Alas, I haven’t had time to do any canning, though I did make some refrigerator pickles this week (good for about four months in the fridge). I had no idea cucumbers were as prolific as zucchini.

Though we’re home every day, Jill and I keep separate work schedules. She continues to counsel clients online three days a week. The paperwork keeps her busy an added day. I’m usually working three or more chores at once. Fortunately, I’ve been able to recruit a few volunteers via “Nextdoor.com.” Without their help, the farm would be overgown. Jill and I come together for meals, which I prepare; we often eat outside, in the shade of the sideyard, where we talk about many of the things we’ve always talked about: national politics, plans for the farm, human frailty, etc. and then there’s the newest topic: Jill’s imminent death.

We think we know how this will end, with Jill ensconced in a hospital bed in our dining room, which is just off the kitchen and adjacent to the downstairs bathroom. We don’t get into details because they seem obvious. Jill says she’ll be so doped on morphine she won’t know what’s happening and this fills her with sadness because she worries about my time alone as she’ll drift farther from me day by day. When Jill’s feeling ill, she fears she’ll be gone in six months. On good days she hopes for three years.  Covid-19 throws our hopes out of kilter, needless to say. We know it’s coming. It’s like waiting for a knock on the door from a visitor we’d never invite home.

Jill’s imminent demise creates some interpersonal/social complications, which is to say some people can accept it at face value and some can’t. I mean no criticism of those who can’t. Most everyone has been incredibly kind, thank you. But let me clarify the situation. Once you’ve announced that you’re dying soon, some people may be afraid to ask how you are because, out of courtesy, they don’t want to invite more bad news. Still others may stay away altogether (not even emailing good wishes) because, in their minds, you’re already gone. It’s like you’re contaminated and can’t be seen. A fitting metaphor for our times, alas. But here’s the thing: Jill is very much alive and wonderful and funny and saucy and a joy to be with. We don’t wallow in doom and gloom. We don’t let depression swallow us whole. We’re living the fullest life we can in the time we have remaining. Which is why I’ve got to get that travel trailer on the road.

The Hen House Cottage

Hen House Cottage Kitchen