“A Baby Story”

We recently got cable service installed after almost a year without television. Since moving to Bowling Green, we were able to pick up somebody else’s WiFi, free of charge. It was rather nice, and we could watch the shows we liked on Hulu, so we didn’t really miss the tv. About a week or so ago our luck ran out and our unknowingly generous neighbor no longer provided us a signal, so we decided the only thing to do was break down and get our own hookup. Since the internet alone would be just as expensive as a tv/internet package because of the bundling discount, my husband decided to go ahead with the cable hookup and we secured a tv from his mom to use as long as we needed it.

I’m not a tv person. I like to watch nature shows and certain dramas if they are available, but I am just as content to go without tv altogether and do something active, artistic, or useful. My parents got rid of their television when I was ten and we didn’t have anything like that until I was about 17 when my little brother got a desk top computer for gaming that we were able to watch DVDs on. Even when I moved out on my own, I only watched tv if somebody turned it on and I would watch what they were watching or I would do something else. (I had roommates, or when I was at a friend’s house, and even when Josh and I first got together.)

We happened to have tv through the first 8 months of both of my pregnancies. I found a show that came on in the morning when I was not working and got into it. “A Baby Story”, a kind of documentary type show that follows a couple or family through a pregnancy, labor, and bringing the baby home. When I found out I was pregnant with Skye, I watched this show to try to prepare for labor by keeping all the different situations and techniques fresh on my mind. Ironically, not one of those shows prepared me for what happened with my first baby. The labor, the breathing, the actual delivery – that I was prepared for and seemed to ace. The part where I receive my little bundle of joy all wrapped up and pink and warm – that never happened. My first real look at my baby was just a tiny face, everything else was wrapped in sterile gauze because of her condition, and she was in an isolet being transported two hours away to a bigger hospital.

She had an immune disorder/skin condition that left her with the top layers of skin coming off at birth. There was a high risk of infection, fluid loss, heat loss, and the condition was so rare that it remains undiagnosed to this day, despite many different specialist teams in many different states over a 17 day period trying very hard to figure out the puzzle. We had no clue about her condition as all my prenatal tests came back normal and there was no reason to do additional tests. It is not even clear if there were additional tests that could be done. Other than her skin, she seemed fairly healthy, but after just a few hours there were issues with her blood counts and platelet levels. The doctors had a very hard time with “chicken or egg” syndrome. Was her immune condition a result of her skin, or was her skin a result of the immune condition? Did the fact that her exterior was compromised signal her body’s blood cell production negatively, or was it the blood cells that were the root of the problem? With no real idea of an approach to take the doctors were flying blind and treated for many different things at once.

Wrapped in plastic to retain heat and moisture until the specialist team arrived, this was Skye's first picture.

I’d like to stop here and say that while I feel this story will one day be told, I cannot go down that road today. I can only say that the loss of a child for a mother is NEVER forgotten, even as the memory dims for friends and family, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my baby girl who was taken from me so soon after she had arrived.

That was in 2008. In 2009, I found myself pregnant once more. Because of my previous history and the possibility of it being a genetic condition, I underwent many more tests, ultrasounds, doctors’ visits, and had a higher level of emotional stress. If you stop to realize that during my pregnancy with Skye we moved cross-country, opened a restaurant, worked it almost single-handedly, lost the business, moved back from Colorado to Kentucky, and moved in with my parents because we had literally nothing, you can maybe begin to imagine how stressful that was along with being pregnant for the first time and completely isolated from any family except my husband. Now – my second pregnancy was more emotionally stressful than all that, for me.

I can’t really explain my feelings here, there just aren’t words. Only somebody who has watched their tiny baby die in their arms, the little chest stop rising and falling, the tiny heart stop beating, can understand the terror of it happening again. Even though most of my prenatal appointments had all good news and I did not have a deep feeling that there was something wrong (I did feel there was something unexplainably wrong when I was pregnant with Skye ) my second pregnancy was terrifying. For starters, it was completely different from my first, my body did different things. My doctor said it should be fine to exercise regularly, but I decided to go with my own gut instinct and remain as physically unstressed as possible.

I felt my first Braxton-Hicks contractions very early, at about 20 weeks. Shortly after that I had to go back to serving at Applebee’s for a time and every day had me on pins and needles as my contractions became a lot stronger. By the end of most days, I was not even sure if I was in labor or not, they were that strong, and I waited for my water to break, praying it wouldn’t happen as I was not even 30 weeks. I did a lot of praying and I just willed myself to believe every day that my baby would be fine, that I would get to hold her and kiss her.

At 29 weeks I was able to stop working and in the next few days an ultrasound showed a possibility that the baby might be affected by intrauterine growth restriction as she measured a bit small. (This later proved to be a false scare when she arrived at a normal weight with normal head, chest, and thigh measurements.)  This gave me new waves of anxiety, but I was not working and I just rested and stayed as calm as possible. We had never even begun to recover from our losses in Colorado or the death of our first baby. To make matters worse my husband, who was still dealing with unexpressed grief, was having trouble securing a permanent job that could support us, we had only a mattress set for furniture, and we were behind on bills.

I escaped all of this stress, whenever possible, by watching “A Baby Story”. I would cry every time the baby was laid on its mother’s chest, longing and aching to feel that and see that miracle in my arms. I did finally have that beautiful experience. After months of worry, weeks of ultrasounds (1 every week for the last ten weeks of my pregnancy) days of waiting, hours of labor, I experienced that one moment as if it was in slow motion. It was breath-taking. Tiny flailing arms, a turned down lip at the cold reality of the world outside her protective womb, bare and beautifully naked, with perfect skin and a mop of brown hair, crying heartily her displeasure at this disruption of her former life, Christian Faith Champion entered the world on August 19, 2009. She has been my dream come true ever since.

Christian Faith, moments old.

With tv service once more, and an active little girl who likes to wake up no later than 6am, I have found my old stand by tv show, the one program of interest nestled between infomercials at such an ungodly morning hour when a normal body is craving that last sweet hour of slumber. I feel the birth pains with those poor women and wonder why I am putting myself through this emotional discomfort. Then that beautiful little baby enters the world, breathes its first breath, and every one is so happy and there are tears every where. I remember my little moment and I can be joyful for people I’ve never met and who I don’t know.

Even as I look at my second baby girl, now nine months old and still healthy and beautiful, I realize that I’ve never really had a normal pregnancy experience, nor will I. The strange circumstances of our life during my pregnancy with Skye were a far cry from the easy, doting, blissful ignorance of a first pregnancy and my second was not nearly the clear, sure experience of a normal second pregnancy. Because of the history, I will never have a normal pregnancy, there will always be worry, extra tests, more fanfare. The chances of Skye’s condition being genetic have generally been dismissed as slim, but there will always be a terror in the back of my mind, creating stress.

Josh and I have talked about the pros and cons of having another child. Having my first two so close together took a toll on my body. I still have no desire to go through this process again, but I don’t know if it is too soon to tell for sure. I always saw myself with two. It was never the plan to lose one, it never is, but the fact remains, I’ve had my two. I never thought past that. There are friends and family who tell me it’s just a bit soon, that I’ll want another down the road, and there are others who tell me to quit while I’m ahead. These are the general extremes, and while I value the advice of people who know me well, I know that it is only mine and Josh’s decision and no one else’s.

I guess the hardest hurdle to overcome for us is the “trying”. Neither of us can imagine setting out to conceive a child on purpose. We were “trying” with Skye and actually “not trying” with Faith. The emotional step it takes to decide, with your actions and not just your mind, to create life, is just not one we are ready to take. We may never be ready to take it. We are both o.k. with this. If we never have another baby, we are more than thrilled with the two beautiful gems we have, one here with us and the other waiting on us in Heaven. If we are blessed with another pregnancy unexpectedly, we will pray and believe that God will deliver that child safely into our arms too.

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Brownie (Part 3: Ghosts)

Winter slowly ebbed somewhere around the end of May and June brought the budding of the cottonwoods that grew along Ute Creek. The San Luis Valley is the largest alpine valley in the world. It spans 8,000 square miles and has an average altitude of 7,500 feet. It takes a little while for the warm weather to get established but it can get up to 90 degrees farenheit at midday in the dead of summer. The sun at that altitude is very intense. Even someone like myself with a darker skin tone can get a sunburn in the dead of Winter on a sunny day if you stay unshaded long enough. (My mom used to get sunburned while driving on long trips in the car. The sun streaming through the windshield coupled with the snow reflecting its rays was a stifling combination.)

Brownie was approaching a year old. This milestone did not affect her playful character. She would still chase a string at the drop of a hat, or anything else that moved. One of her favorite past times was pouncing on Sandy’s tail. Our trusty dog was getting older and had long since abandoned the frivolity of puppyhood. His favorite thing to do was lie down close to one of us and quietly listen to conversation or watch the babies play while keeping a safe distance and out from under feet. If somebody happened to look his way he would politely wag his tail for a second, but he wouldn’t even bother to lift his head from his front paws.

Brownie was often crouching behind a wall or the couch, waiting for his tail to move, her eyes fixed intently on it and a devilish gleam could be seen in them as she waited. The moment came, that poor, innocent tail knew not the danger that lurked out of view, and a startled Sandy would jump  when she pounced and bit the moving tip. He would get up nervously, sniff her back and she would let out her signature “Purrr?” ever so innocently playing coy at his investigation of her offensive tackle. She’d lick his nose as if to say she was sorry and would not do it again, but as soon as he settled back in to his comfortable spot she would scamper to her hiding place and the whole thing would begin all over. Sometimes she would wait till he was all stretched out, napping peacefully, and she would charge him head on and jump on his face with all fours and claws bared. He was a good sport, he never once snapped at her or got mean, he just looked from her to us with worry in his eyes as if begging us silently to intervene. They were good friends though, many times curled up together for a nap, her head on his paw.  They defied the traditional cat/dog stigma.

With Brownie’s physical maturity came the male cats. The prospect of her having kittens was exciting for me, and for my brothers too, because I had promised each of them first pick of the litter. They saw how special Brownie was to me and felt a little left out, I think. They wanted a pet that could be all theirs.

Brownie was more than just a pet for me though. She was my friend, my silent companion who seemed to understand me with almost human perception. She knew how to read my moods. She knew when to be playful and when to curl up next to me quietly when I needed comforting. She was an active part of my imaginary games and she followed me like a puppy where ever I went. She sat next to me when I was studying and purred softly as I read, batting the pages of my book gently as I turned them, as if she was helping me turn each one. She was as adventurous as I was and greeted each new experience and all new surroundings with a head on approach.

We had bought property high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains while we lived in Stone Wall, but that Summer of 1997 was the first real chance we had to spend time up there and live at 11,000 feet in elevation. We packed up our old Avion, borrowed a truck to pull it, and we tugged that poor old friend to its final resting place at the top of a mountain – literally. It is there to this day, nestled inside the walls of our unfinished log cabin, a den for animals of all kinds. I know this because in 2008 my husband and I made a couple of trips up to our old property to see if it was still there. Sure enough it was, in a sad condition, left for over ten years to the severity of the elements in a place where humans only frequented during the Summer to gather firewood and poach elk illegally. Seeing it so diminished from its former humble glory brought a wave of tears as I stood there with my husband and seven months pregnant with my daughter Skye. The cabin, with all the memories and tears and sweat built into its walls, now lonely and unkept, decaying back into the fir forest that surrounded it, was almost more than I could bear, and yet I am so glad I made the trip to give it the one final goodbye that had been so long in coming. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself….

Ah, that Summer! At the time, I never thought I would look back and wish so desperately for that Summer to return, to go back in time to the beauty and innocence and simplicity of those few short months on “our mountain”. We actually owned a little over five acres, but the remoteness of its location and the lack of human habitation made it seem like so much more. We could hike the rough dirt roads up there for miles in any direction and never see a sign of another person for days at a time. It really was like owning the whole mountain and having it to ourselves.

Pulling our trailer up those steep roads and then placing it among the trees on our property, on a very steep grade, is a story that time won’t allow me to go into. Let me just say that it was an indicator of the immense family effort we would have to under go to fulfill my dad’s life long dream of living out west and building a real log cabin, by hand, just like the pioneers.

Perhaps of all my family, I was the most genuinely enthusiastic about this endeavor because it meant we would finally have the garden and animals and lifestyle my dad had been telling us about. His interests had found an unlikely soil deep in my soul in which to take root and I couldn’t wait to grow things and milk goats and have chickens. Naturally, we couldn’t do all that until we had a place to live.

Even with my excitement about our “pioneering”, the work it took to achieve the desired goal was hard. For machinery we had a chainsaw. Granted, a very big chainsaw, but there was no bulldozer, no crane, only sweat and sheer will. Looking back I am amazed that we accomplished so much with so little and in such a small amount of time. From mid June to the end of September we raised that cabin from foundation to just shy of putting a roof on and closing in the gables. I’m talking about the main frame, none of the inside and finishing work. For man power we had mostly my mother and my older brother who was only fourteen. My dad was still working full-time logging. He was only able to spend the last thirty minutes of daylight sawing down logs for the cabin, the weekend putting them together, and sometimes we’d turn on a flood light powered by generator to do work after dark. That left us to do preparation work while he was gone all day. This included dragging those logs down the mountainside to the building site.

Once again, time does not permit me to go into great detail on the building itself. I will take the liberty of inserting a post here from my mother’s blog that goes into more detail on the construction of the cabin. It is written from her perspective, of course, so for those of you who are unfamiliar with this part of my story, take a moment to read this and you will have a better understanding of what I’m talking about. ( http://itisrighttowrite.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/the-cabin/ ) I want to paint a picture of the other activities we engaged in while waiting for Dad’s direction and help on the next steps in the building process.

It was not all work, there was some play, especially for me. I usually had charge of watching Noel and Naomi while the others were working on the cabin. I liked this job and since it was a very important one, it worked out well for everyone. I would take the girls down below the building site to a sunny spot where my dad had cut trees, intending to build there first. He later pushed the cabin site further up the hill into the trees and a bit closer to the natural mountain springs that flowed on the edge of our land. (Best water you’ve ever tasted, crystal clear, flowing over a granite gravel bed, pure right from the source.)

I would build little rock houses with Noel while Naomi played contentedly with some bark or sucked her pacifier and watched us. The houses started out very simple, but slowly evolved into rock labyrinths just the right size for a cat. We would spend hours making these “cat hutches” with roofs and doors and windows and then we would shut Brownie inside to explore. For some reason she didn’t think it was as fun as we tried to make her believe and she always made her escape through some tiny hole we had left unconsidered. She would just bully her way through into the open air, scamper off a few feet and then look back as if to laugh and tell us we needed to step up our game. We would improve our construction, put her in again, and she would once more escape. It was great fun and especially entertaining to Noel who was only coming up on two years old.

We also went exploring, the boys and I, when the babies were napping and mom was resting at midday. Not too far off our property we found a cluster of boulders and we built forts and pretended like we were orphans surviving on our own after running away from the orphanage  because the bad people were going to separate us. (Don’t ask me where we came up with our ideas, I don’t have a clue.) One day during this type of game we became aware of a multitude of wild mushrooms and fungi growing in the woods and somehow we ended up having a hide-and-seek/ tag/ mushroom war. It had very specific rules that I don’t remember now, but bombing each other was the object of the game and you had to stand still and count to 50 before you could resume playing once you were hit. Your opponent knew you were hit because most of the projectiles left either a brown or yellow smear on your clothes. Mom was not happy when she discovered how we were passing the time. She issued a cease-fire…..permanently.

We went on hikes, we picked wild strawberries and raspberries, we found a stream and went fishing, and all in between building a cabin by hand and other daily living, such as doing laundry with a bucket and washboard and cooking on a wood stove and open fire. At 11,000 feet, where just breathing can be difficult, we were frolicking like deer, having uphill races, and hiking to where it was too high in elevation for trees to grow, and higher. Needless to say, our lungs grew strong, our muscles stronger, and we all lost a lot of weight.

There were plenty of times when my brothers tired of the games I liked to play and I went off by myself with only Brownie for company, wrapped in a world of my own. This was usually ok with me, but every once in a while my feelings were hurt that they didn’t want to play with me, or I was angry about an argument we had. I always took comfort in Brownie. I knew she was always there for me and didn’t think my ideas were stupid.

About a couple of weeks after moving up to the mountain, Brownie gave birth to kittens. I had always wanted to witness this miracle of birth and I knew it was animal nature to go off in the middle of the night and quietly bring their young into the world away from prying eyes. As Brownie got bigger and it became very obvious that she was due any day, I became nervous that I would miss this important milestone. She was always off hunting or exploring and it would have been very easy for her to slip away to some secret hiding place and let nature take its course. My mom prepared me for this disappointment by reminding me that it was very likely to happen. All the same, I always tried to follow her and keep an eye out to make sure she wasn’t going too far, but it was impossible to keep track of her.

One morning I woke up and she wasn’t her usual energetic self. She just layed at the foot of my bed, only going out briefly to use the bathroom before coming back to meow at the trailer door. She seemed tired and wanted to stay curled in a ball and sleep. Somewhere around noon it became apparent that her time had come and I can’t even describe the excitement I felt that I would be able to be present for this event. I marvelled that she had chosen, of all places, my bed. It was wide open, in the middle of the traffic zone, between the living area and the bathroom, and not at all a quiet or secluded place. However, she seemed not only comfortable, but insistent that she stay right there, so we made her a nest of old towels and let her be. I stayed by her side, like a sympathetic mother, and as I gently stroked her head she would pause between contractions to lick my hand. She was perfectly content to have me close and touch her. She seemed calmed by my presence.

By evening, there were three little babies and a very proud mother purring contentedly over her new family. I was thrilled, there was one for each of my brothers and one for me. My joy was short-lived, however, the little boy kitten didn’t make it through the night. I had promised my brothers first pick, and while I was a little disappointed that I would not have a new little charge, I had Brownie and that was fine with me. I was sad for the little one that didn’t make it though, he was orange and his two sisters were brown tabby, like their mother. They looked almost identical with only a streak of white on one’s face to distinguish them. My brothers named them Kiki and Kitten and they soon became just another part of the family.

With two little mouths to feed, Brownie went into hunting over drive. Small game was plentiful up there on the mountain and after several days of watching her bring in her catches I started keeping a journal of all the little critters I saw her bring home. There is really no telling how many she caught that I wasn’t able to see, but the list I had by the end of the summer averaged one or two different animals a day and included mice, chipmunks, shrews, birds, and even snowshoe hares. She was a regular lioness, taking it upon herself to feed the whole family. Perhaps she thought we were going to eat them too!

Those days flew by surprisingly quickly. As the cold crept up on us we hurried to finish the cabin to the point where we could winter in it, but it just was not to be. As the heavy frosts came and then snow, we realized we had better move back down to the valley before we got snowed in completely and found ourselves unprepared to deal with months of waist-deep snow and no supplies.

We found that the trailer we had wintered in the year before was rented, but just down the street Karen had another mobile home for rent. This one was a double wide, a three bedroom with more space than the first. We moved in just as Winter’s full fury hit us with a two-day snow storm. A storm of a different kind hit us too. Every single one of us came down with a horrible flu, from Dad all the way to little Naomi who was just about to turn a year old. The babies got it first and we thought it was their teeth coming in, but as it hit Mom, my brothers, and finally me, all we could do was lay around in a decrepit state. The strongest person of the hour would drag themselves from one person to another administering cool, wet clothes, emptying bowls, and bringing sips of water until they were too weak to continue and then somebody else would take a turn. It was dreadful. It lasted for several weeks, cycling through each of us and leaving us even thinner than we already were. Just as we started getting back to normal another sickness hit, this time the kittens.

It started as something mild, a little drop in energy, but then it quickly turned to listlessness and not eating, and finally dry heaving. We were not set up to pay veterinary bills, we weren’t even set up to pay human bills, so to this day I’m not sure what exactly it was, but I suspect distemper. About a day before the kittens succumbed to their illness, I let Brownie out for a while and she never returned. It wasn’t like her to stay out all night, but I thought since the kittens were about five months old, maybe she had gone into heat again and she would be back in the morning. All the morning brought was a worsening in the kittens’ condition and later that evening they died, first Kitten and then Kiki. We were all heart-broken, we cried, but I had an even deeper pain inside and I frantically pushed it down, way, way down, where it could not choke me so badly.

Even as we buried the kittens together in a shoebox under the cottonwood tree out back, I held out hope that Brownie would return. Days went by, and then weeks. My mom had long since told me Brownie had probably been sick and gone off to die. I tried to face this realization, I tried to be brave, especially in light of the fact that my brothers had also lost their little friends. I cried several nights but I prayed hard that it wouldn’t be true, that she would just come back.

I know now that I was dismissing the inevitable, that I just didn’t want to face my fear and loss, but I got this notion in my head that Brownie had loved the mountain and had gone back up there to hunt and wait for us next summer. The movie “Homeward Bound” replayed in my head and I made myself believe that this must be true. I kept these things to myself lest I be laughed at by my brothers or even worse, told it wasn’t true. I prayed every night that she would be safe up there and I bargained with God that if He would just let me have her back I would do anything He wanted. I missed her terribly. I missed her silly antics, her funny questioning purr, her companionship and comfort – I missed my friend. I was approaching those awkward teenage years that seem to magnify the littlest problems and nobody understood me. We found out my mom was pregnant with baby number six and my dad had to break from logging because of the weather and take a job trucking over the road. Many times he would take my mom and keeping the household running was pretty much my responsibility while she was away for two-day trips. I felt lonely and wanted so badly for Brownie to be there.

I remember the day we finally got to go back up to the mountain. I think it was July before we were able to make it up there since my mom gave birth to Nevada in mid June, the usual date by which the snows were melted enough to make the roads passable up there. I remember getting out of the car in the cul-de-sac at the end of our road and running off to the boulders that lined the edge of the hill. It was a place where we had constructed cat hutches the Summer before and where Brownie and I had played by ourselves. I waited for the rest of the family to head up the slope to assess the condition of the cabin and see how it had wintered, then I called, “Kitty, kitty, kitty,….” quietly at first, then a bit louder. I waited for Brownie to appear, praying with all my might, calling her again and again. Of course she never came. After about fifteen minutes I stopped calling and just looked around at the world we had shared so closely that summer a year ago. There was an ache in my chest that had been shoved down for a whole Winter and now it slowly floated to the surface where I could feel it, pounding against my ribcage and tightly gripping my throat. I heard my mom calling my name to come help out with something and I turned away, knowing I could not say what I had been doing since everyone had long since thought I was at peace with the truth of the matter, that Brownie had died last Winter and wasn’t coming back. I knew it now, but I was far from at peace with it.

That Summer of 1997 was really the last one of my childhood. Caring for my sisters had a way of making me grow up and mature quickly with responsibilities. The loss of my friend only added to the reality of growing up. It was my first hard lesson. I learned that no matter how hard you wish for something, it doesn’t always mean it will come true. I also learned that it is the ones we love the most that have the capacity to bring the greatest pain.

We never did find the time to finish the cabin or fulfill the dream of living simply, like pioneers. Not in Colorado, anyway. In the beginning of July,1999, we moved to Kentucky…. but that is a story in itself.

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As I mentioned before, I revisited many of my old haunts in 2008 with my husband while pregnant with my first child. I had done a short four months in Colorado on my own in 2005, but had never ventured over the La Vita pass, and certainly had not gone to visit the cabin. When my husband and I had our restaurant in Colorado, we somehow found time to make this important journey a couple of times. I say important because my husband knew very little about my life growing up and it was so unique that I found it frustrating to try to explain. As we drove the same roads I had driven ten years before and I pointed out all the places of interest, all the memories came flooding back to me. I was a little girl again, ten and eleven years old, looking at this new and exciting world through fresh, innocent eyes. My daddy was my hero, life was an adventure, and there was nothing that hope and dreams could not overcome.

As we stepped out of the car onto the cul-de-sac, I looked off into trees that rose up next to the stream and I could almost see Brownie scampering out of the vegetation with her latest kill proudly in her jaws. As we climbed the short distance to the cabin, my little reverie slowly vanished like smoke on the breeze. Our pride and the object of our love and toil stood with ten years of age in the severest of weather conditions. The walls stood, as they probably will for another ten years and more thanks to my dad’s hearty use of oversized logs and re-bar, but the floor was mostly unsafe to walk on, the trailer enclosed inside was a shambles, it’s carpet and upholstery ruined with dirt and animal droppings, clearly a den for porcupines or even a mountain lion. Any human belongings had long since been torn up for mouse nests, cabinets scavenged for any remnants of food, everything was just a mess.

 I didn’t take pictures as I had planned. Maybe I forgot, but more likely I could not bring myself to capture our once mighty fortress, now brought to its knees by the elements and time, in such a permanent manner. I preferred to picture it the way it is in my memory, along with that happy summer and my friend Brownie. I did, however, take pictures of the prints we had put in the cement “chinking” between the logs. They remain to this day as a testimony to our love and hard work. They are personal messages from each of the ones who labored there, every day for a whole summer, even my little sisters have their part in the memorial. Noel’s chubby little hand print and Naomi’s foot print are engraved there along with my mother’s and brothers’ etchings, right next to mine. Only my dad does not have something written in that cement, but his finger prints are all over that five acres. From the trees he cut there are stumps, now weathered gray and awaiting their sentence of slow decomposition. There is a hollow etched deep into the earth where we began to construct a root cellar. There is a trench about seventy feet long that ends in a deep, dry depression where a little reservoir once offered us clear, cold water much closer to our cabin than the springs originally were. Silt has plugged the mouth of the trench, drying up this life line to our little pool and leaving the springs to flow in their original paths uninterrupted once more. And of course, there is the cabin itself, a slowly decaying testimony to one man’s dream and the sheer strength of the human will.

As I stood up there on that property that day in 2008, Josh and I talked about buying it back from whoever owned it and finishing the cabin, but I knew deep inside that it was just a nice thought. It was neither monetarily feasible nor practical to build on this one of a kind structure, drawn up in the unique mind of my father. No, this dream had died a long time ago.

That was the last time I would see the ghosts of my childhood, we left Colorado shortly after that to come back to Kentucky. I am so glad I went up there though. Even though it was painful and I cried, I got some kind of closure that I had needed. Looking at all those memories, one by one, but through the eyes of a grown up me and in retrospect, I could find a smile even in the pain. I could find joy in thoughts of my first dear friend. I realized I still missed her and always would. She could never be replaced and I would never try. She will forever remain in my heart the Brownie of  the last years of my childhood, along with the ghosts of that Summer, 1997.

Brownie (Part 2: Best Friend)

 In retrospect, it was no coincidence that Brownie was the only kitten left out of the original eight. She was extremely special and I’ve never met a cat quite like her since. She came to me at a time in my life when I really needed her. She was a loyal friend and bestowed an affection that was reminiscent of a dog. For all those who are not familiar with cats, this is rare.

That day my dad said I could keep her was one of the best days of my life. I made a litter box out of the dryest dirt I could find considering the wet weather, I think I got it from underneath the trailer, and an empty cardboard ramen case box.( Ramen noodles were a staple back then on our meager budget and with four kids always whining about being hungry, my parents bought it by the case. ) I placed it in the tiny bathroom in the back of the trailer. I smile as I think about it now, it was really a bit absurd, our living arrangements were so crammed.

Brownie spent that first night in my bed, snuggled up on my pillow, purring happily. I was in Heaven! This little creature was all mine, dependant on me for food and warmth and shelter, but mostly love. She was a fighter, a survivor, she may have made it just fine without me just like I may have been just fine without her, but we seemed to have common personality traits and we began to form an incredible bond.

The make shift litter box didn’t last too long, we soon discovered that cardboard isn’t the best material to hold wet litter. On one of our trips into town we picked up a plastic box and a litter scoop. From day one, I don’t remember Brownie ever messing on the floor. She always went right to the litter box even though she had never seen one in her life in the barn. She was like that, always quick to adjust and very instinctual. I remember the very first mouse she killed. Her mother had disappeared before the kittens were even supposed to be weaned and they made it on the milk I would bring them and other little scraps. She was not around to show them how to hunt or bring them kills, yet only days after I brought Brownie in I saw her with a big fat mouse, struggling with it out from under the trailer. It was about a quarter of her size, as big as her head and then some. It was still alive and she was not playing with it, she was trying to kill it. That task was proving difficult for her tiny frame, but she eventually got the job done, then she proceeded to quickly eat the whole thing. I couldn’t believe it and I was so proud of her. This was just the first of many successful hunting expeditions.

As predicted, we moved from Stone Wall just as the weather began to change and the aspens took on  that vibrant gold. There is nothing as beautiful as the Autumn days in Colorado, perhaps because of their fleeting nature. It is either Summer or Winter, there is precious little in between. One day the aspens have just turned gold and the next the winds that make them rustle so familiarly bring their leaves fluttering to the ground, leaving the bare white skeletons to stand vigil over the snow-covered landscape for many months until Spring rolls around again, a season just as fleeting as Autumn.

We rolled over the La Vita pass, out across the San Luis Valley to Del Norte, a small bump on the map situated next to the Rio Grande. This part of the Rio Grande is a far cry from the mighty barrier that separates Mexico from the United States. This far north it is rather small and shallow. If it was not late September and getting cold we could have waded across it easily. It was no deeper than three feet, crystal clear with a stoney bottom, and perhaps thirty feet wide on average. We had parked once again at a camp ground that had trailer hook ups. While my dad continued logging all day, my mom homeschooled us and probably worried about the newest addition to the family arriving soon and the cold Winter that was looming on the horizon. My brothers and I were young and carefree, our biggest worry was getting school over with so we could run down by the river and have “river races”. Picking out just the right stick to race from one point on the water to another  was a serious and skillful endeavor. It didn’t have to be a stick, it could be a leaf, a bottle, anything that would float and that was big enough to see. We would place them in the current and see who’s little ship would pass the finish line first. There were many obstacles to overcome, eddies, rocks in the path of our little champions, getting hung up on each other, and even getting water-logged and sinking beneath the surface before the destination was reached. The winner was as triumphant as a war hero and bragging rights were sweet.  Satisfaction was short-lived though, we always tried to find a better and faster item to race, and oh the  horror when a favorite item was lost in the current or slipped through our grasp as we tried to retrieve it!

By my side at all times was Brownie. The water didn’t deter her at all. She would sometimes sit on the side lines and watch our antics casually, as if she were above such goings on. Other times she would be scampering along the water’s edge along with us as we followed our vessels to the finish line. If she got a paw wet she would shake it in distaste, but it didn’t stop her. After she got her fill of river racing she would often disappear into the reeds to hunt, lured by the call of the last red-winged blackbirds that lingered before heading south a little late. She’d show up later with some mouse or other little creature, dragging it out of the reeds and heading toward home with her catch.

We stayed a short time at Del Norte, maybe a month, before backtracking about sixty miles east to Fort Garland. This little town, population 600, had been an army fort in the 1800’s, frequented by Kit Carson and other historical figures. The old fort is kept as a museum today with period artifacts and rooms set up the way they were almost two centuries ago.

We parked our trailer at the only camp ground/ trailer park in town. It was just about the last thing you saw before you headed out of the city limits on the western side of town. The Ute Creek ran through the property, lending the name Ute Creek Campground. It was privately owned by Karen and Frosty Smith. (I revisited Karen and Frosty in 2008 with my husband while pregnant with my first daughter, Skye. They remembered me and my brother Naaman, who was with me at the time, and we reminisced over the past years. It had been ten years since they had seen us. )

My dad’s job had him logging on the other side of the La Vita pass, but the mill he delivered to was west of Del Norte, in South Fork. Driving time alone, from point A to point B, was about five hours. That didn’t factor in getting loaded and unloaded, D.O.T. stops, food and bathroom stops, and the weather condition up on The Hill that made the going slower and more dangerous. My dad would usually leave loaded from Fort Garland early in the morning, drop the logs at the mill just as the sun was rising, travel all the way back to The Hill to get loaded, and usually have just enough time to make it back over the pass a little after dark. As the weather got colder and snow factored in, sometimes he would have to spend the night at his employer’s ranch to avoid the treacherous pass after dark in the ice and snow, and often he wouldn’t be able to work at all.

Our logic was to camp out in Fort Garland as this was more or less the half way point in the drive. When Karen realized we planned to spend the whole winter in our little trailer  she recommended we move into one of the mobile home units she had for rent. It wouldn’t cost much more than hooking up the trailer, there would be a lot more space, and we would stay warmer with less effort. With my mom due to deliver at any time, my parents decided this was the best thing to do. They even got the deposit waved by cleaning the freshly vacated home themselves. By late November we were set and none too soon, my mom delivered her fifth child, Naomi, on Thanksgiving Day.

Living in that humble single wide mobile home with Ute Creek bubbling along in the back “yard” made some wonderful memories. It was a two bedroom unit, still small for six people, a dog, and a cat, but it was so much bigger than the tiny travel trailer that we felt all spread out and rather cozy. My parents decided the easiest thing was to give me and Noel a bedroom, the boys a bedroom, and they would stay in the livingroom with the baby as it was the biggest room and since it would also be viewable by any company that might chance by, they decided there was a better chance of them keeping it neat rather than any of us kids. By some miracle I’m not completely sure of, I got the master bedroom in the back of the home, much more spacious than the boys’ little cubby off the hall. We didn’t have any furniture and didn’t intend to get any as we were only supposed to be wintering there.

The whole trailer was carpeted in a worn earth tone motif made to look like carpet tiles except for the back bedroom, it had a very plush tri-tone blue. As soon as I saw it I liked it I decided I was going to fight for that room. It was not the extra space or the bigger closet, it was the carpet. Blue is my favorite color, always has been. I told my parents that I would share the room with Noel and Naomi, so I needed the bigger room. I remember the boys protesting, but Mom and Dad ruled in my favor. I was an adolescent girl and my room had a door, the boys’ room didn’t. I think that was my mom’s ultimate reason for making the call. At any rate, I ended up having it all to myself because Noel was still young enough that she wanted Mom in the middle of the night and it was easier for my mom to deal with that if Noel slept in the livingroom with her. Of course, Naomi was so little that she stayed with mom too.

That left just me and Brownie. My kitten was growing into an adolescent cat herself. She was still very playful, but there was very little peaceful sleep at night. Her nocturnal instincts were beginning to mature and when we all went to bed it was her cue to stalk through the house like a zephyr and find any kind of mischief she could. In the quiet of the night when everyone was sleeping she would scamper through the hall, her feet making a light drumming noise on the trailer floor as mobile home construction tends to be flimsy and minimal. The hollow space between the trailer and the ground made for some interesting acoustics. This was not very noticeable in the day when every one was up and about, but at night every sound was magnified, and for my mom, who was a light sleeper anyway because of years of listening for children in the night subconsciously, the sound would wake her immediately. This was not the worst sound though. As my mom soon found out, the sound of a kitchen cabinet creaking open and metal pot lids crashing against each other was deafening. Mom’s bed was literally three feet away, the livingroom was open to the kitchen.

“Brownie!” my mom would growl in an almost whisper.

“Prrrrr?” the cat would pause in her lid swatting.

“Get out of that cabinet!”

Little kitty feet would be heard scampering into the obscurity of the hall. My poor mother would just begin to drift back to sleep, only to be wakened with a start to lids crashing again.

This time my mom would rise with a wish to kill. The cat, sensing her imminent demise, would magically disappear into a space between the wall and the back of the cabinet, completely out of reach. Mom would give up, go back to bed, and just fall asleep when the lids would again start banging as if controlled by a poltergeist.

After one night of this, my mom insisted I keep her in my room with my door shut at night. This I did, only the door’s hinges were bent and the door did not latch. It could be pushed open fairly easily, both outward and even pulled inward a few inches. Brownie, once again waiting until the house was completely quiet, would work with her little paw to open the door, scratching at the carpet, pawing at the wall, until she finally got her paw into the crack and worked the door open. I tried putting something heavy in front of it, but that was worse. She would climb up on the heavy object, work the door knob with both paws, and the door would swing open, freeing her from her prison to work her mischief.

The situation became desperate as my mom threatened to leave her outside at night if I didn’t figure something out. I didn’t want her to get eaten by a coyote or any of the town dogs that roamed around half-wild at night, so I resorted to having somebody shut me into my room at bedtime, placing a heavy object on the outside of the door to keep it shut. I still had to place something heavy on my side too because she learned how to get her paw under the door and pull it open. I stayed up to make sure she wasn’t able to get out and as soon as I was satisfied that she could not escape, I crawled into bed, quite relieved.

I was not even able to fall asleep before I heard  an odd sound in the middle of the room. It was dark and the light switch was on the other side of the room by the door. I didn’t want to get out of my warm bed so I strained to see into the darkness. I made out a kitty silhouette by the moonlight streaming through my window and soon realized what the sound was. Brownie had found the heating vent on the floor. It was not screwed down and she had pried it up with her paws, and rather quickly at that. I swear that cat had a human mind.

I jumped up and threw on the light. I had just enough time to catch her by a back paw and pull her out of the heating duct. I then rummaged around to find something heavy to place on top of the vent. In retrospect, I think we should have invested a little time and energy into fixing the door and screwing down the vent, it would have made life a lot easier. Shutting myself in, securing the door, and blocking the vent became an every night ritual. I even had to be carefull to go to the bathroom before bed so I didn’t have to go in the middle of the night because I couldn’t properly secure the perimeter by myself and the cat would make a run for it as soon as I opened my door. My mom has told me many nights she would be making her own midnight trip to the bathroom and she would see a little nose and whiskers and two paws squeezed up under the door crack, like an inmate in a cell trying to soak up the tiniest shreds of the outside world.

Once I got this newest problem contained, I got back into bed and soon fell asleep. My sleep was short-lived.  I was startled out of my dreams by what felt like needles pricking my eyelids – several needles. Brownie had given up her attempts to escape and had decided to make the most of her incarceration by torturing me. She had detected the fluttering of my eyelids while I dreamed and had stalked them as she would a mouse. With one fell swoop she had jumped into the air, all four paws off the ground, and had landed on my face, claws out.

Now I was starting to get aggravated.

“CAT!”

“Prrrrr?” (In an ascending tone, as if to say “yes?”)

“Get off my face!” My voice was as loud as it could be while still being a whisper.

“Prrrrrr.” (This was a descending tone.) She retreated and let me go back to sleep only to do it all over again when I began dreaming once more. I tried keeping the blanket over my entire head, but she would pull it off my face. I tried turning face down and putting my pillow over my head and that crazy cat would reach one paw way up under the pillow and blindly feel around for my eyes, claws out, until I swatted her away. In the end, I had to sleep with my head under my pillow and blanket, facing the wall, and keep my hair tightly secured in a bun because when she couldn’t get to my eyes she started using my ponytail like a piece of string, clawing it, biting it, you name it.

I began hanging an empty cardboard toilet paper roll from a string attached to a hook on my ceiling, anything to distract her from torturing me. It worked – until she had finished shredding the whole thing into confetti sized pieces and scattering them to every corner of my room. I have had several cats since then, kept them in my room with me at night, and not one has ever behaved the way Brownie did.

 Whenever it got to be just too much and I was ready to explode, she would always put her claws back in, lick my nose and purr softly before cuddling up next to me. It was like she knew my exact breaking point and could see that I was really mad at her. As soon as she saw I meant business, she would be a perfect angel and go to sleep next to me or at least leave me alone.

In the morning I would emerge from my room, hair in a rat’s nest and snagged from where she had pulled pieces of it from the bun, light scratches on various parts of my face and arms, dark circles under my eyes. I would hobble to the coffee pot like a wounded soldier while my tormentor would stroll casually down the hall and sit next to the dog just as calm and serious as a sphinx. She would look from me to my mother with such innocence, as if to say, “What? I was asleep all night, what happened?”

Even with this character flaw, I loved my cat and wouldn’t dream of getting rid of her or putting her outside. Instead I was constantly devising new ways to keep her busy at night while I slept and I learned to adjust to her rambunctious nocturnal activities.

Brownie (Part 1: A Wish Fulfilled)

There is nothing quite like a first pet. They remain in our hearts over the years long after they are gone. No future pet quite measures up to them, especially if that first pet is entwined with your childhood.

I had just such an experience with my first real pet. She played a major part in my life. The lessons she taught me and the companionship she gave remains with the fondest of my memories, tucked away. The whole journey is entangled with the person I am today, from wanting my own pet to losing my first real friend. It is another one of those stories that must be told in order to truly understand me, past and present. I will try to tell it in a manner that does it justice.

I have had many pets through the years. My earliest memories are of hamsters when I was about three years old and my older brother was five. We lived in Florida, so we also had iguanas and turtles off and on, and the family dog Sandy, a Golden Retriever mix. However, none of these pets were strictly mine. The hamsters and reptiles were more like a group project for me and my brothers, teaching us responsibility and distracting us from asking for something more costly and involved. Sandy was more my dad’s dog than anything, a grudgingly accepted companion for my mother when she went on early morning jogs (my mom is NOT an animal person and definitely not a dog person)  and the general guardian of our property when we were absent.

These pets were not my particular flavor of companionship anyway. I had two animals I liked above all others and that was horses first and cats second. As we were never able to even begin to accommodate a horse when I was growing up, I pretty much admired them from afar. Some of my very earliest memories are of taking bicycle rides through our neighborhood in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. Back then it was barely developed swamp with many dirt roads and houses spaced a good ways apart from each other. You were just as likely to see an alligator sunning himself lazily in the middle of the road as you were to see a neighbor mowing his yard.

We would all ride, my Mom, Dad, brother Nick, me on a bike with training wheels, and baby brother Naaman in the infant seat on the back of Mom’s bike. It always seemed like a long way, but it couldn’t have been too far to ride with little children and training wheels, but to me it was worth it. Our destination on those warm summer evenings was a small pasture where a neighbor kept two horses. We didn’t know the person or the names of the horses, but to this day I remember the names I gave them. The brown one was Joppa and the gray one was Grady. I don’t have any idea where I got the names, but they would eagerly push against the fence when they saw us coming as we always brought them a carrot.

Life took us away from Florida the month after I turned nine. We packed five people into a tiny 31 ft. travel trailer and headed west. That left little room for a lot of our belongings, let alone pets. Besides, we already had Sandy. I was excited about this move. I saw it as an adventure and couldn’t wait to explore my new surroundings.  Strange barren land replaced the swamps, mountains rose up instead of the endless ocean view, and dust replaced the humid heat.( See my earlier post, “My Western World”.) It kept me very entertained, but I hoped that with this new life my parents would finally let me have a kitten.

Probably from the first week on the road I think I was trying to breach the subject. I started with my dad first since I knew already what my mom would say. She wanted nothing to do with animals.  We had owned Sandy for about eight years and she still just tolerated him. I know now that on top of her dislike of animals in general, she was thinking about being crammed into a tiny living space for an indefinite amount of time in a strange place. I was just a kid though, I didn’t think about it like that. I just heard my dad talk about getting property and farm animals and I would always slip in, ” We’ll need a cat for the mice…” but I thought sooner would be way better than later.

We lived in that trailer from mid August of  1994 to October of 1995 with only a forty day rest when we sojourned for a tiny period in Tucson, Arizona. ( Different story altogether.) We then moved into a rental that was attached to the office of the motel my parents began managing. The owners were gone to California most of the time, but there was a strict “no cat” policy. The dog was fine, but the owner despised cats.  Despite this fact, I wheedled my way into adopting a full-grown male stray and keeping him in the basement. My mom didn’t have to see him and my dad kind of turned a blind eye to him. My joy was short-lived though, the owner came home after about a month to check on things and he immediately detected the cat. I had to get rid of him. I was upset, but there was nothing that could be done until we had our own place. That’s what my dad would tell me. For me, owning property and building a cabin was a long ways off and I wanted my own cat, preferably a kitten, that I could raise and it could be my friend. I didn’t want to wait.

 I was a little distracted from this disappointment by my little sister, Noel, who was born just days after taking the motel job. As I’ve stated in an earlier post ( Maternal Instincts ) this arrival had been long-awaited and much welcomed. I still had my heart set on having my very own kitten, though.

Fast forward to seven months later.

We were again living in our trusty, old ,silver Avion trailer. This time we had migrated into the mountains. We had parked in a camp ground in Stone Wall, Colorado. This is not even a town, more like a cluster of buildings on the side of scenic Highway 12. It has not really changed in the last couple years from how I remember it in June of 1997. ( I revisited it in 2008.) There is a general store/cafe that is very over priced to cater to summer tourists, a couple of sparsely strung camp grounds in ready access to Monument Lake, and not much else. The biggest attraction is the hummingbirds that flock to that area in the summer, feeding on the display feeders that beacon you pay an exorbitant $20 for an $8 feeder, and the native columbine flowers that grow up there.

A piece of the "stone wall" that lends its name to the town, Stone Wall. It runs from northern Colorado along the Sangres into New Mexico.

We camped next to the Purgatoire River, but it was little more than a stream that far up in elevation, close to the head waters. My dad went to work driving a log truck. At that time, logging was the big business in southern Colorado. The mills were booming, and it was hard and dangerous work, but my dad had been out of work off and on since moving Out West and this steady stream of income was just what we needed. These days the mills are shut down and logging is almost non-existant in that part of the country. The new boom is the natural gas wells in the coal rich foot hills. The trees remain untouched, though not for lack of timber, there are still plenty of them.

I could take a whole book and just describe our four months or so in Stonewall. It was so different even from Trinidad, where the plains meet the foot hills. It was cooler up there and slower paced. The camp ground was very small, it was actually a Christian retreat community that had some spaces that could accommodate trailer hookups. There were barns and a pasture with a couple of horses. Naturally I was drawn to the horses. I would watch them every day. I’d go over and pet them at the fence and wish I could have one.

And that’s where I met Brownie.

A wild stray cat had chosen the barn to have her kittens. I discovered them peeking their tiny heads out from under the door one day when I went to see the horses. I was thrilled!  I spent hours coaxing them out to sit in my lap and I slipped them bowls of milk when my mom wasn’t watching. There were eight of them and besides being a bit puny, they were rather playful and I loved them. I began begging my dad for one, much to my mother’s dismay and hearty protest. She had just discovered she was pregnant with her fifth child, a surprising four months along, and we were still living like nomads in a tiny trailer with no idea of what our next move would be, but certain it would occur by the time the icy winter arrived in a few short months.

My dad didn’t give in right away. He loves animals and he knew I’d been asking for years now, but he couldn’t deny that my mom had a very valid point. Still, I kept at it every day. I had the one I wanted all picked out and everything.

There are a lot of predators up there, owls, coyotes, even bears and mountain lions. The big cats are shy and don’t usually make an appearance, but the bears were a regular nuisance, getting into the dumpsters and trash cans. One even made a midnight snack out of the contents of our cooler, the much prized first watermelon of the season. That cooler was tucked up under our trailer with a weight on top, but there was no stopping the bear.

I’m not sure which predator was the culprit, but one by one those little barn kittens disappeared, even the cute white one I had wanted. (The mother had long since disappeared.) Every time I went to visit, fewer of them showed up to play until one day, only Brownie greeted me. (I had named them all, of course.) What is strange about this is Brownie was the runt. I originally thought she was a boy, so I had not really been interested in her or paid much attention to her. She was also just a plain brown tabby, not as outstanding as the white one or the little orange one. Several of them were brown tabby and she had blended in with the pack.

As I rounded the corner and called for the kittens, only Brownie came scampering out from under the door. She looked absolutely thrilled to see me and there was none of the shy hesitation the kittens usually exhibited, she jumped right in my lap and started to purr as if to tell me about the horrible perils of the night before. My heart melted and I did something I had not dared to do before.

I remember that morning, it was very wet from rain the night before and there was a heavy mist in the air, something uncommon for the typically dry climate. My dad was home, perhaps because “The Hill” was too wet to pull logs off of, but I came through the door, a little muddy, holding a damp, scraggly kitten, and I started blurting out how all the others were gone and Brownie was all alone and I HAD to save her from being eaten too.

I remember my mom just looked from me to my dad with a look that said she fully expected him to tell me to go take that cat back to the barn, but to both of our surprise, and her dismay, he reached out to pet the little orphan and then simply said, “Ok.”

I was thrilled, I couldn’t belive my ears! I finally had my kitten, not just a grown cat with its own attitude, but a cuddly, playful, sweet little kitten.