Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Remembering Zhenya

She had the most amazing eyes I've ever seen.

Zhenya -- the cat that made a dog lover love cats, the coolest cat I've ever known, or will ever know -- passed away on December 26.

It all came about so suddenly. She was diagnosed with Chronic Renal Failure a few weeks ago. Daily eight-hour infusions and antibiotics and special food failed to improve her well-being. She briefly bounced back, but then just as quickly worsened.

The doctor said we could keep giving her daily infusions and keep her alive for a few more days -- weeks? -- that way. He didn't recommend it, and anyway, that wasn't living.

She wasn't the sociable cat we knew and loved in those last days. She was obviously miserable. She would drink a few drops of water, but she wouldn't eat. She sat hunched all day in a corner of the room, unmoving. She wouldn't purr when we petted her.

She had always been a talkative cat, but in the last few days, she stopped meowing altogether. Her back end wouldn't lift up when we ran a hand down her back, as it always did.

As hard as it was, we knew we had to put her down. It was a terrible, heartbreaking day. She was only 10.

Daisy's ex-husband, Gonzalo, and his wife, Bara, wanted to be with Zhenya at the end. All five of us -- Emma, too -- were in the room with Zhenya when she passed away so quietly.

A good friend and fellow cat-lover recommended that we honor her memory by remembering all the joyous things about her.

We'd start by simply saying she was a true family cat. She was shy around visitors, but around her day-to-day humans, she was cuddly, sociable, and insistent on being part of the action.

When we came home from work or school, she would meet us at the door, and tell us, meowing for minutes at a time, about her day.

When Emma would get ready for a bath she would run into the bathroom to listen to the running water and the bedtime stories that followed.

At night, she'd insinuate herself on our chests as we were lying in bed, her beautiful face blocking the pages of whatever we were reading. And then she'd want us to lift the covers so she could burrow down to the foot of the bed and sleep in the closed-in dark.

Other things we remember are her funny habit of licking cellophane or plastic when we returned from the store and set the groceries on the kitchen table. Or the way she'd let Emma place her in a baby carriage and push her around our old flat.

If our other cat, Chicho, is a traditional sleeper and eater, she was a player -- she loved to run and jump, to chase after scraps of paper and catnip mice.

She was also a fighter, as we discovered last summer, when she accidentally got outside and spent a hard month on the street before we found her, nicked and scraped and happy to be home.

And in addition to those eyes, she had the softest, most luxurious caramel-colored fur. It was one of the things that stood out as she squirmed amid a box full of kittens at a pet market in the Russian city of St. Petersburg in 1999, where Daisy and Gonzalo found her.

Daisy and Zhenya in St. Petersburg.

We'd run our hands through that fur as we went up the stairs to bed. She'd often be sleeping on a toy sofa that used to belong to a fancy doll but that she claimed as her own.

We put the little sofa on top of the radiator next to the stairs, and she'd snooze for hours there, warm and snug.

We buried Zhenya in the back garden, beneath the fruit trees.

As Gonzalo and I dug, Daisy went inside and got the little couch. We placed it in the grave and gently lay Zhenya in her favorite spot.

Sleep tight, sweet cat.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

For Love Of Luke (A Christmas Story)

My old dog Luke

I almost died 30 years ago this Christmas.

I am prone to exaggeration, but in this case, it's the truth. My dog Luke had fallen through the melting ice on a pond where we used to live near Syracuse, New York, and I jumped in the water to try to save him.

I do remember clearly, when I had no more strength to swim and I couldn't breathe, and my whole body sank beneath the dark, icy waters, that I thought I was going to die. And I remember feeling very calm, almost resigned to my fate. I might even describe it as a peaceful feeling. The idea of death hasn't been so scary since then.

I was 18 years old and a budding writer and journalist at the time. I decided to write about my near-death experience and try to sell it to a magazine. "Dog Fancy" bought it for $50. It marked the first time I'd ever been paid for my writing. I cherished that check (which didn't stop me from quickly cashing it, however).

Unfortunately, the editors got my byline wrong, spelling my surname as Pedelco, which means my first published sale started with a typo!

I've kept that January 1981 copy of "Dog Fancy" ever since, and I hope they won't mind if I reprint the story here, these many years later. (I believe the title of the story was mine, but the picture they used to illustrate it was a stock photo. That's not really me running in silhouette with Luke.)

Reading it now, it's obviously the work of an amateur, and it's unintentionally funny in places. But it does a decent job of capturing the high drama of that Christmas night in 1979.

A few things you'll need to know before reading this story (which I should have made clear in the original story):

-- Carol is my younger sister.
-- In addition to Luke, we had two other dogs at the time, Joe (a female mix), and Ike (a German shepherd stray).

As the story hints at, my parents seem more concerned with Luke's fate than my own, once the rescue was over. They obviously hadn't realized just how bad off I was. I was shivering uncontrollably, and I lay on my bed in my basement room, alone, numb, naked, wrapped in a blanket, listening as they ministered to Luke upstairs.

Anyway, here I am, and here's my story. I hope you enjoy it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


It was six o’clock on Christmas day. The many gifts lay scattered beneath the tree, temporarily abandoned, and everyone was reflecting sadly that Christmas was drawing to a close for yet another year.

Suddenly, Joe began to bark.

This was nothing unusual in itself, except that this bark possessed a sound of urgency, of danger or warning, a summons to anyone near that something was awry. My father, sensing her distress, stepped outside to investigate.

He located her standing anxiously on the bank of one of our large ponds, which are situated conveniently just a few yards from the house. The unseasonable temperatures had succeeded in softening the layer of ice that had covered the pond during colder weather, and all of us had vented our concern that one of the dogs, while venturing onto the ice, would accidentally fall through.

It was by this time completely dark, with not even a glimmer of moonlight visible through the clouds. The flashlight my father carried could penetrate no more than a short distance into the night. He listened carefully, hoping to catch the sound of whatever was causing her concern. From somewhere in the pond came a muffled whimper and the soft splashing of a drowning dog.

“Luke’s in the pond! He’s fallen through!” he exclaimed.

My mother had joined him along the water’s edge.

“Go get Grant and some rope!”

I was in Carol’s room when I heard the commotion of my mother’s entrance. I hurried to the door, sensing that something was amiss.

“Put your boots on! Luke’s fallen through the ice!” she said excitedly, searching frantically for some rope.

Without a moment’s hesitation I began ripping off my sneakers when I realized that heavy boots would only hinder a rescue in 12 feet of water. I replaced my shoes and raced out the door. Momentarily consumed by my love for the mutt Luke and my gross underestimation of the task before me, I ran into the frigid waters, all sense of reason temporarily erased from my mind.

I was already waist deep when I heard my father’s call, “Go get the raft!”

Of course! The small inflatable raft which we kept in the garage. It was our only hope. But was there still air in it?

The water was too cold to waste precious time blowing it up, and who could say how long Luke had been floating amid the broken ice before our arrival? I dashed into the garage. It was still inflated! But where was Luke? The noises had ceased and he remained swallowed by the night.

When I reached the water I climbed atop the raft, stomach down, my head and arms extending from the front. With Luke’s location still a mystery, I began paddling, plunging my hands into the icy water, trying to maneuver to a universal vantage at the center of the pond. The melting ice was half-an-inch thick and I pounded by fists and arms against it, breaking a path for the raft to follow. My hands swiftly became numb.

Meanwhile, my father was shining the dim flashlight across the water, hoping to spot the reflection of light in Luke’s eyes.

There he was! Twenty long yards away, only his head protruding above the surface. There wasn’t much time!

“I’m coming Luke!” I cried out over and over again. “Hang on Luke! I’m coming!”

I wanted him to know that I was there in his time of need.

“I love you so much,” I thought. “Please don’t die!”

My hands hurt terribly now, but I continued to beat them against the ice, hacking a crude channel toward my beloved mongrel. I was oblivious to everything but rescuing Luke. The encouraging shouts from the shore were lost amid my shouting and splashing. I wouldn’t have heard them anyway so intense was my concentration on reaching Luke before he disappeared forever.

When he was in an arm’s length of me, I reached out with numbed hands and grabbed his coat. So lifeless and frozen was he that he made no attempt to climb into the boat or resist my efforts. With all of my remaining strength I lifted him from the water, intending to pull him into the raft with me, but my fingers lost their grip and he slipped beneath the surface.

Then the horrible happened.

The raft, responding to my awkward movements, drifted directly on top of Luke, smothering him under my weight. Realizing that he would die if I remained, I jumped into the slush, refusing to quit so soon.

My lungs heaved for air as the icy water surrounded my chest. I was overcome by the shock and managed to breathe only in short gasps. I shoved the raft away, grabbed Luke, and began swimming back through the ice, trying valiantly to keep Luke’s head above water while I myself was slowly sinking. My breathing was forced and my legs were leaden with my waterlogged jeans and shoes.

I would never make it.

My sole option, besides a watery grave, was to return to the raft.

With Luke limp and heavy in my arms, I reversed my course and headed back, wondering how I would manage to get us both within the safe confines of the boat. I had to consider the factor of darkness and how it would affect the ultimate outcome of each plan once it was set into action.

I decided to lift Luke above my head and throw him in, somehow keeping myself above water as I did so. Twice I raised him from the water and twice the raft floated farther away the instant it was touched. My body aching from the cold, my fingers unable to tell how tightly I held him, I grabbed Luke and with a final display of strength successfully threw him into the raft. He made no effort to move, his body shaking uncontrollably.

Luke in the snow outside the house in Cuyler, New York, where we were living when this story took place.

Clinging to the rear of the boat, I gradually propelled us forward using my feet and my one free hand. I struggled toward the distant glow of the flashlight, a faint beacon of safety forming eerie silhouettes of my parents along the shore. It was difficult maneuvering through the route that I had previously broken, the darkness deceiving me time and time again and loose slabs of ice continually scraping across my upturned neck.

I was growing increasingly weaker with the passing of each second and more hopeless with the realization that Luke was slowly slipping out of the boat. There was nothing I could do but pray that he would hang on until we reached the others.

A person can remain alive only three or four minutes while totally immersed in icy water. I had exceeded that crucial limit. Drained of energy, gasping for air, and with Luke almost in the water, I could no longer force myself to paddle. With but five yards separating me from safety, I felt myself sinking.

“Help me!” I choked barely able to talk and breathe simultaneously. “I can’t make it.”

My father, who had been coaxing me on from the end of the dock, jumped to my rescue.

Instantaneously, Luke fell completely in and I slipped under, remembering before I submerged only the exaggerated intake of air when my father entered the water. I gave up, unable to fight back the freezing water that was pressing against my head.

I believed that I was going to die.

Then, miraculously, I felt a hand pulling me to the surface and ashore.

Totally exhausted, I collapsed on the grass, my hands and upper arms numb and bloody. I was useless to assist any further. But before I lost consciousness, I was witness to the emergence of a latent section of my mother’s character that I never knew existed.

The water’s extreme temperature had proved too much for my father and he was forced to abort Luke’s rescue. But my mother, seeing Luke floating helplessly in the water, his muzzle beneath the surface and dead for all apparent reason, jumped in the empty raft, regardless of her own safety, and paddled the short distance to his motionless form.

I could only pray, as I struggled to the house, that she had succeeded where I had failed.

And indeed she had.

The carried him unconscious into the warmth of the house, his breathing shallow and labored. For almost an hour they rubbed his wet fur with towels, attempting to massage some life back into his frozen flesh. The other dogs paced the floor, wondering as we did whether it was too late.

Slowly Luke regained consciousness, his blood once again circulating, his contracted muscles loosening their icy grip on his bones. We watched, joyously, as he strove painfully to walk, wondering if he had sustained any brain damage from his terrifying ordeal.

There was one sure way to find out. We spoke his name.

And Luke wagged his tail in recognition.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Winter's Hike

Emma and I went on a winter's hike today, from our house in the hamlet of Černý Vůl, to the neighboring village of Únětice.

The sun was shining, the snow was sparkling, and all seemed right with the world.

We threw snowballs, crossed a frozen pond, watched fat snow birds in the trees, and had lunch in a cozy hostinec (or inn) in Unetice, where we ate spiced pork and dumpling and schnitzel, washed down with a cold beer (Emma had a sip).

I also had a little fun with the Camera Bag application on my iPhone.


Here's another weird shop sign I spied out at the Šestka shopping mall, near the airport in Prague.

I'm not sure if this sentiment exactly captures the Christmas spirit. Or maybe it does, in a really odd way.

Or perhaps it's a commentary on the state of the economy in the Czech Republic.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Audacity

I was shopping the other day in the weird Šestka mall out near the airport and noticed this funny sign in a perfume and jewelry store.

It appears to be a unique mix of Obama's campaign slogan and bad English mixed with a dash of old-fashioned Christmas consumerism.

Very strange indeed.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

This Rubbish Is A Load Of Art

Too much junk in the trunk?

Stewart and I went on a hike a few days ago and came across a house in Roztoky whose yard is adorned with all sorts of sculptures with a decidedly mammarian theme.

The home of a fetishistic artist, I suppose.

I was thinking that this is the sort of thing that I don't think you could get away with in a typical American suburb. Someone would call the cops or report you to the morality league or write graffiti across the sculpture or something.

There's definitely more tolerance here for this sort of eccentric behavior.

A Černý Vůl Christmas

We carried our tree home today from the garden center down the street.

A rare treat. No tying it on the top of the car or wedging it in the trunk.

Just hoisted it on my shoulder and lugged it home.

It's a beaut.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Value Of Pie

Daisy's Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, and my apple pie, made from scratch.

I like to bake. Go figure.