Monday, October 23, 2017

Toby

The summer of 1998 found me living alone in my first own house with two little kittens.  Growing up, we'd always had cats and for years I'd wanted my own, but I was living the life of a young person: moving regularly for college, working abroad, and renting apartments.  I felt it wasn't a stable enough life to bring little ones into (and trust me, by that I mean the feline - not human - kind).  Months after buying the house, litter mates Dodger and Daphne joined me.  My home was complete. And then one month later, I bought the wrong box of cereal and it changed all our lives. 

Actually, the box of cereal I bought was the one I wanted, it's just that the wrong cereal was inside the box, and it was the kind I didn't like.  No, I'd never had this happen before either, not in cereal or canned fruit or anything for that matter, and to top it off - it had dried dates in it which I didn't like as they annoyed me by getting stuck in my teeth.  Miffed, I decided to exchange the box at the grocery store on my way home from work that evening.

I was working as a riding instructor in those days and it was common to head home from the barn about 9 pm after the last student left and the horses were cared for and put away.  Cereal box night was no exception.  Being the Pacific Northwest in summer, even that late it was still light out.  Walking through the store's automatic doors, I noticed a teenage girl sitting near the entrance with a box on her lap.  I don't recall if she called out to me, or was talking to someone else, but somehow I heard the word "kittens" and turned on my heels - just to have a look.  Inside the box were two teenie kittens: one black and gray tabby with a white nose and tuxedo and an even tinier white one with gray patches.  They were each smaller than my hand.  She explained that they belonged to her neighbor who had already drowned their mother in a bucket and was planning to do the same with the kittens. The girl saved them from this vile man and took them to the grocery store to hopefully find them homes.  But now it was after 9 pm, she had to get home and there were two left. Her parents forbade her from keeping them.  I explained that I already had two little kittens and I certainly couldn't keep four.  Thankfully she was persistent and convinced me that if I just took them that night, tomorrow I could take them to a pet store where she was sure they'd be happy to have free kittens to sell, but she just couldn't bring them back anywhere near that horrible neighbor.  

I think you know what happened.  Minutes later with a new box of cereal in hand, I took the box o' kittens and drove home.  
Toby and brother Froggy soon after we met.
Not knowing if they were sick or how Dodger and Daphne would react to the newcomers, I set them up in a spare bedroom for the night.  I estimated they were about one month younger than my two, but they seemed to be eating and drinking on their own just fine. 

The next morning I began to call local pet stores who let me know politely, but firmly, that it just doesn't work that way.  They'd be over run with kittens if they simply took in litters that people couldn't give away.  Call a shelter. Or hey, adopt them out yourself.  
Knowing they were still too young to be separated, I decided to foster them until I could find them proper homes.  With a schedule full of riding students - there had to be someone who would take one or two darling kittens.  I can't remember how long it took me to name them, but the little white and gray became Froggy because he was kind of bullfrog shaped with itty-bitty bowed legs and a bigger body. The fluffy tuxedo with his anime eyes became Toby as he was so sweet and I'd had fond memories of two horses I'd known over the years named Toby.  But anyway, they were just a placeholder names until their new families were found.  It only took about a week to see they weren't sick, and the little two were incorporated into the pride and instantly accepted by the "big cats." 

Shortly thereafter, I found a future home for Toby.  The grandmotherly baby sitter of two of my riding students decided she'd adopt him when he was just a bit bigger and I agreed to keep him a few more weeks. She said he'd be called Sylvester and I was happy to know that the little girls I'd see each week in lesson would also be with him each day and be able to give me reports. 


Just try to tell me that's not the cutest kitten you've ever seen. I dare you.
Then suddenly Froggy went from frisky and boldly exploring the garden with the others, to puny and not eating.  I took him to the vet who told me he couldn't even draw blood from him because at his size - it would have been too great a loss to his little system.  In a very short time, and despite our desperate efforts to save him, he died on his own.  The vet simply said that some kittens were "poor doers" and there was nothing that could have been done.  It was crushing to lose the little guy after he had been doing so well. I buried him in the garden under the plum tree in a pretty little box and decided right then that there was no way I was losing Toby, too.  I told the babysitter lady that I was afraid she'd have to find another Sylvester and Toby became a permanent member of the family. 

His personality grew along with his unusually large paws and his luxurious coat.  Soon, there was no size difference between the three of them and they got along marvelously.  Toby's penchant for sleeping in what I called "kitty porn" poses resulted in a series of centerfold photos spanning his whole life:


Toby the Kitten Pin-up Boy

Have some shame man, really!

Teen Toby and his magnificent stripey belly


Even as a geriatric kitty - he couldn't resist.
Although he was shy and headed under the nearest bed when company came, with family he was all about the on-contact purr as he melted into a boneless bundle in my arms or on our laps. 
Post-Thanksgiving dinner? I don't remember him quite this... fluffy.




Let me tell ya' 'bout my best friend...


As each of the other Tabbies did, Toby also collected a list of nicknames. For a while he was "Tub-pee" for self-explanatory reasons. My husband figured if he was going to "think outside the box," the tub was the best place to do it and we just rinsed out the shower before stepping in.  Later he was Tobias T. Cat, Toblerone, Hoss or Big Beef (because of his big boots), Buddy and T-Bone after a particular Seinfeld episode. Over the years, he and Dodger became the best of buddies.  In fact, the whole clan got along famously; Daphne mothering the boys and each one taking turns cleaning the others' hard to reach spots. 

The three of them were already 13 years old when we signed up for a Foreign Service life and packed them off first to FSI (just the boys with me, and Daphne stayed behind with my husband for six months), then to Bogota, FSI again, Juarez, FSI again and finally Bucharest.  By their teen years they were no longer shy, no more hiding under beds when company came and while I can't say they liked it - they traveled very well and adapted to their new environments quite quickly.

But last Christmas, around the same time we lost Dodger, Toby's health changed.  It started with occasional incontinence, then regular incontinence.  We removed the apartment rugs and invested a king's ransom in doggy pee pads, paper towels and Nature's Miracle.  In June, around his 19th birthday, my husband gave Toby his last nickname -  Captain Underpants - and he became a true Pampered elderly gentleman.


Captain Underpants in his de-luxe bed. 
Diapers? Why not! Toby never ever complained and just pulled his rabbit-thumper paws up to his ears when it was diaper-changing time. 
 It was about this time, as our Romanian adventure was winding down, that he was also diagnosed with mesenteric cancer. There was a mass in his abdomen, perhaps in his bladder and lymph nodes. Even with this diagnosis, outwardly he looked great: maintaining his usual personality and strong appetite.  At his age, full exploration to treat the cancer was simply not something we wanted to put him through. My husband and I decided that he'd have palliative care for any symptoms that came along and we'd just love and nurse him at home, as he'd known all his life.  

Late this summer, the cancer progressed and he began exhibiting visible signs of the disease.  Despite a strong appetite, underneath his still-luxurious coat his muscles were wasting away.  Then the seizures started.  My husband was home with him for each one and comforted him through the fits and the single yowl that punctuated each episode. We tried anti-seizure medications, but they made him too groggy and wobbly to walk well and unwilling to eat, so we stopped them.  Two Fridays ago and sleeping in our bedroom, he had three seizures in the course of one night.  By morning, my husband and I knew that it was time.  

Two buddies hanging out on the balcony, October 2017. 
We'd been referred to a service called Lap of Love that has veterinarians who will come to patients' homes to help pets through their last moments.  We made an appointment for 3:00 that afternoon and spent the day with him.  It was a perfect fall day so we took him out to the grass on the grounds of our apartment building and let him sniff around, feeling the sunny breeze in his fur.  He plunked down on his side and just hung out with us instead. After a bit, we gathered him back up and returned to the apartment for his appointment. The vet was delayed 15 minutes, and at 3:00 exactly, Toby had one last, bad seizure which erased any lingering doubt we may have harbored as to whether or not this was the right time.  Dr. Stephanie was exceptionally kind and patient, and talked us through the peaceful procedure as Toby stretched out on the couch between my husband and me.  We pet him and talked to him until his last breath.  The vet let us take our time in saying goodbye, then wrapped him sweetly in a blanket, put him in a basket and took him to be cremated.  His ashes arrived a week later. 


Toby's last day on my lap, as relaxed and beautiful as ever. 
The pain of having to put a beloved fur-family member to sleep has two sharp edges: the grief of their loss from our lives and the horrible second-guessing, guilt and doubt that comes with wondering if we made the right decision that he wouldn't be with us anymore.  With all three Tabbies, the sharp deterioration in their health helped ease this second part as we saw how their lives had become more about the disease than life.  (However, having said that, I still feel a stabbing "what if" about Daphne and guilt that her last week was spent at the vet instead of home with us.)  With the last one gone, what remains is the emptiness of not having their little furry selves at home.  For the first time in 19 years, I woke up the next morning, walked into the living room and kitchen, and simply didn't know what to do with myself.  There was nobody to feed, nobody to greet me entering the room, nothing to scoop or wipe up, no one to scoop into my arms and step onto the balcony to greet the day - nothing; it was just our furniture and a stack of unpacked cardboard boxes.  I walked aimlessly from room to room a bit, put the kettle on, and took a shower. That was it. 19 years as the Cats' Mother was over. 

So much of my adult identity had revolved around these three - heck, look at the name of this blog. I've always been that cat lover. Picking a cat-themed gift for me has been a sure bet for two decades. I still hear myself saying, "Oh, we have cats, too!" in conversations, and at home catch movement out of the corner of my eye when it's actually just slippers. 

I do know that we gave them the best lives they could have had in terms of love, care and attention. I am proud of that. And I know we'll have cats again; I can guarantee that.  
But not now. Not for a while.  My husband and I need time to just be able to walk out the door, get in the car and go away for the night without planning for their care and fretting over how they're doing the whole time we're away.  I feel a little sad for the next kitties that come into our lives, frankly.  They'll have huge shoes to fill and I can't imagine they'll ever be as funny, sweet, loving, cuddleable as Dodger, Daphne and Toby.  

As for the title of the blog? We remain Tabbies in Tow; these three will never leave us. 




Saturday, September 2, 2017

Becoming Domesticated

It's Saturday of Labor Day weekend in the American capital. 
BBQs, a long lazy lakeside weekend, maybe a camping trip, still wearing shorts, a big glass pitcher of lemonade and the sound of pond frogs in the evening - right?

For some, I'm sure.  But for us, it's pouring rain and feels more like late October than early September. I have an urban view from our temporary Oakwood apartment of thousands of other peoples' apartments. Our car is still somewhere on the Atlantic mid-way between Belgium and Baltimore where hopefully the cargo ship won't get hit by Hurricane Irma, and all our BBQ stuff is in our HHE (household effects), which have arrived on US soil - but are awaiting customs clearance and then delivery to our permanent apartment in two weeks.  And I just spent an hour assembling evidence for my case against Telekom Romania proving that I did indeed cancel my account and stop using their cell service in early July and therefore shouldn't have to pay the $100 bill they're trying to stick me with because THEY failed to turn off the service when requested. 
(But at least I had a nice cup of tea while doing it.)


THIS is what I pictured when imagining returning to the US.

And this is what we got.

Hurrumph.  It's all part of becoming domesticated. 

Once the fun of home leave and the novelty of living back in the US wore off (read: I quit being on vacation and went back to work), the reality of life in a crowded, expensive, sprawling metropolitan area hit us.  With six weeks at my new assignment already in the can, it feels like we're still living in limbo.  This no-man's-land covers both personal and professional territory:

On the work front, oh sure, it's to be expected that finding one's place in a new job is accompanied by a period of unsettled adjustment. Like borrowing a friend's well-worn flip-flops - it feels like I'm trying to fit into someone else's footprint and haven't made my own yet. I'm getting to know my new co-workers and my boss, and am trying to make a good impression without it feeling forced - like when you tell all your best stories in the first half-hour of a date and then just have to smile and pick at your fries the rest of the evening. Then there's the concern about how the hell I'm going to reach the high watermark left by my beloved predecessor.  I should also mention it took 9 (count 'em NINE) work days before my computer account was transferred from EUR Bureau to WASH Bureau to CA Bureau, all the while I just sat like a decorative plant in my cubicle and read over my co-workers' shoulders.  I find myself lost in meetings chock full of updates on acronym-titled-projects with unfamiliar people whose name and spot on the org chart escape me. I keep referring to my new civil service colleagues as the Locally Employed Staff and I'm still turning the wrong way off the elevator to get to my office. Geez.  

(Sidebar: I just Googled "new job confusion" to find an image that might fit this description and nearly all the returns were pictures of medical or military workplaces. Oh dear.)

But who am I to squawk? At least I HAVE a job.  
My husband started his search about an hour after my DC assignment was confirmed. That was last November.  He began by applying for federal jobs that would utilize his four years of specialized training and experience picked up in both the Juarez and Bucharest consular sections. Then came the federal hiring freeze.  While still scraping the barrel for the few federal jobs which are sneaking in under the freeze's radar, he added a layer to his search by including any type of ESL teaching work. This makes sense as he hopes to gain more experience in a field that could be both freeze-proof and valuable at our next overseas post. Still nothing (so far), but a good volunteer gig starting in a few weeks.  Like bringing home a new baby, every well-meaning friend is full of "Well have you tried...." tidbits of advice, which at first were graciously received but now are verging on annoying because yes, he has tried that, he is signed up with that service, he does visit that website, and he has considered that angle - and still the outcome remains the same.  The reality is that it kind of sucks to be middle-age and stumping for a job in a highly competitive field in a very expensive city. Period.


The kind of advice that never makes you say, "Thanks! I hadn't thought of that!"
 On the personal front, we're taking advantage of the Department's Home Service Transfer Allowance which gives us per diem to help with the costs of a temporary apartment, meals and "incidentals" for 60 days.  During this time, we'd expected to be apartment searching, but as it turned out - while on home leave in Maryland, we found an apartment advertised online and popped over to Virginia to see it and sign a lease.  Fortunately, it seems to be an easy commute to my new office and very close to FSI in case we have language training for our next assignment (see that - always looking ahead to "But what comes next?").  The place will be ours in mid-September at which time we'll receive our HHE and re-take possession of all stuff the Department stored for us when I was hired 6.5 years ago.  All that stuff that I didn't know what to do with but couldn't bear giving away and didn't realize would come home to roost in a small apartment some day.  My husband has been looking forward to culling this assortment of treasures for years. 



With all this griping - I must admit that I do really like my work and DC is a great city to live in. In fact, the only reason we considered a domestic assignment was because the particular job seemed to fit me perfectly - and once I've feathered my nest and have asked my boss the requisite 5,476 questions about how to do everything, I imagine I'll start feeling like my old self.  They say ("they" = nearly every speaker who gave advice in nearly every Entry Level Officer training you've attend since joining the Foreign Service) that our third tour should be in DC. This is so we learn how the Department's sausage is made and can meet people on whom we will hopefully make positive impressions who can then recommend us for our next overseas tour.  

Yup, that's pretty much how it works.

In the meantime, I've decided to treat this domestic assignment like an overseas one. Instead of just putting my head down and serving my time while paying over half my salary in rent, I look forward to exploring parts of the country we've hardly seen.  Taking the train to Philly or Boston while we're so close.  Flying to Miami for a long weekend in January.  Maybe even seeing NYC at Christmas alongside thousands of Romanians I've issued visas to for the very same thing. Who knows - maybe my husband will find a wonderful and fulfilling job and we'll want to extend our DC adventure for another tour.  

But until then, I'm just going to make another cup of tea and enjoy watching my favorite American re-runs without having to log into the VPN.  



And what's not to love about free museums?!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Home Leave II - Maryland Edition

Subtitle: Greetings from  the Mosquito Coast

Just outside the door.  

We successfully made it through pack-out, pack-up and 20 hours of transit to arrive in the DC area.  My husband, Toby and I are spending two weeks near Chestertown, MD. As described in detail here, for me home leave is that delicious time to set aside the backpack of responsibility and bask in unstructured time.  From the State Department's point of view, it's our time to become "re-Americanized" after years of foreign immersion. Rather than returning to our home state(s), we've decided to spend home leave trying out new regions, seeing if there might be somewhere new we could see ourselves living after all is said and done.  Besides, our own house currently has tenants and love family as we do - weeks of uninterrupted time as house guests (with Toby) isn't quite the vacation it sounds like. Home leave 2015 was a winter month on the Florida panhandle living among the snowbirds, and this time we're learning about life in the Chesapeake Bay. 

Our first four or five days found us still under the influence of Romania's time zone, which is seven hours later than the East Coast.  This meant that were bright eyed at 3:00 am and forcing ourselves to stay in bed until the far more decent hour of 5:45 am when we were raring to go, tea and coffee poured and planning the day. Woohoo!  The flipside of this early start was that we had to nap in the afternoon to even stay awake for a 6:30 pm dinner.  Now fully acclimated on the 13th day, it's breakfast at 9:00 and out of the house by 11:00 if we really push.  

Earlier this spring, as soon as I was able to nail down a departure date from Bucharest, we searched for accommodation.  We were lucky in 2015 to be renting during low season (February), but in the height of summer - the costs are about double.  We didn't want a place where after the arduous flight, we'd then have another connecting flight or a long drive for Toby; therefore, this quiet, rural area only 90 minutes outside of DC fit the bill. We've rented a mother-in-law apartment on a large, shady lot fronting a tidal tributary of the Chester River.  I hadn't anticipated how agricultural this area would be, and combined with the charm of colonial towns - I'm finding it the perfect combination to re-immerse ourselves in Americana.  

Morning stillness.

It seem everyone has a boat here.

Americana in downtown Chestertown, MD.

Corn fields and white steeples.


Colonial architecture along the Chester River. 

Wide horizons = mental peace of mind. 

Toby on his daily constitutional. 

Fountain in Chestertown center.

Dimming of the day over the Chester River. 

Sunset over the reeds, full of Red Wing Blackbirds.
Eager to get to know our new surroundings, we filled our first week with daily outings in all directions. We were very fortunate to find hosts we really like and who have not only given us great recommendations for places to visit and eat, but who also have invited us out on their own boat and sailing as part of the crew on their friends' schooner.  Besides riding on commercial ferries, I really didn't have any prior boating experience, so this has been an education into the water life that is so much a part of the Chesapeake Bay culture. 


Log canoe races on Chesapeake Bay - a regional specialty.

The boards are slid from one side to the other as the boat changes tack.




Schooner "Martha White" where we spent a 9 hour day sailing. 

But this area is more than just boats and seafood - it's also amazing for the variety of bird watching, either from our front garden or the wildlife refuge just a short drive away.


This one needs no introduction.  


Great Blue Heron just outside the house.

Osprey are as common as park pigeons here.

Buzardly welcome.

Butterfly garden resident.

Speaking of wildlife, we also hit the Delaware/Maryland coast in search of what I had imagined were going to be towns bursting with Romanians. What? See, our Consular Section just spent the past three months issuing over 7500 J1 Summer Work and Travel exchange visitor visas to Romanian university students to work in tourist destinations from Maine to Alaska, with perhaps the highest concentration ending up in Ocean City, MD. Back in May, while I was interviewing thousands of these kids, I was pictured them seeing only other Romanians and questioning just what type of American experience they were going to have.  So we took a day to head to the coast in search of some J1s and darned if after a few hours of walking from t-shirt stand to fudge factory to souvenir shop - we found exactly four.  I expected at least a few of them to recognize me and exclaim something like, "Hey - it's that nice lady from the Embassy!" But it didn't quite go down like that. Instead, it was more like:

"Hello Romanian student! Remember me from your interview? 
No, the interview at the Embassy.  Yes, in Bucharest. 
I was one of the ladies behind the window? 
Remember - the ones asking you a bunch of questions in English? 
Maybe I altered the course of your life by issuing your visa and you said it was the happiest day and then skipped out the door to tell your friends?
Really? Still nothing?" 

But when they saw my husband they were all: 
"Hey - it's the fingerprint guy!"  

Ah well, I guess that 39 seconds of their life didn't make quite the impact I'd imagined. 
But they looked so happy in their salt water taffy shop right there on the boardwalk, surrounding themselves with other J1s from all corners of the globe (we met Ukrainians, Jamaicans, Bulgarians, Chinese, Lithuanians and a Kazakh) and living the American summer life. 


Three Romanian J1s on the job at the seashore. 

Because it's called the Summer Work and TRAVEL program!

Rehoboth Beach, DE
"You should see what Americans eat!"

As we go around visiting, I feel like we're on a first date with the region. 
Physical beauty? Yup. 
Interesting history? Check.  
Similar political beliefs? 50-50.  
Fun things to do? Definitely.  
Diversity? Indeed.
Attractive architecture? Yes.  
So far so good. But there has been one less-than-wonderful aspect of life on the water's edge: it's been perhaps the hottest, muggiest and buggiest place I've ever visited. Like waking up to the house windows already fogged up and dripping by 7 am. It's been in the mid-90s nearly every day with up to 100% humidity and all this greenery and wet means bugs bugs bugs.  I'm sure the birdies I love to hear and watch are thriving on all these creepy-crawlies, but the ongoing battle with the no-see-ems (we sure feel-ems!), ants, skeeters, spiders, ticks etc... has "dampened" the experience somewhat.  And my hair has never been wavier.  Ah well - part of the experience, right?

This weekend we move back to DC. Back into Oakwood temporary housing until we can move into a permanent apartment.  Back to work on Monday and slipping on the backpack of responsibility. 

I think I'll just enjoy the bugs a little longer. 


One more window-side cat nap.