The Fox

I saw a fox yesterday morning! He (or she–I couldn’t tell) sauntered across the back patio, turned his head to look at me, and trotted across the neighbor’s lawn and under his carport. He was a youngster, hadn’t gained all of the red coat he’ll sport in a few months. But the tip of his tail was white.

We haven’t seen foxes on the property in years now. The first year we lived here on the ravine we counted sixteen, eight of those babies born to two mamas. We watched them play from the window in Mom and Dad’s den. Mom would call, “Dad says come over here. The foxes are out.”

He loved the foxes. He was miserable and depressed that first year here from the farm, and what saved him the next spring were the foxes and his garden.

One sunny day, one of the mothers brought all eight kits up from the ravine to the south lawn. These two vixens seemed to babysit for each other. One of the kits aggravated this mother-in-charge so much that she finally smacked him into a somersault. He didn’t seem to be hurt, but he did stop jumping all over her. Dad laughed. “I guess she straightened him out!” Our six-year-old grandson said, “They look like little grey dogs!”

Too soon, the foxes grew into young red dogs who scampered around the back of the property and watched our every move. Very often, we’d see little heads pop up from the ravine to check us out when our own grandkits rolled a ball or staged races in the back yard. They kept Dad company from a short distance while he worked in the garden. Sometimes we’d hear him talking to them and they seemed to listen. At night, when driving in to the garage, shiny eyes appeared in precise formation along the bank.

And then they were gone.

At the time, I wondered if they left because Dad cleaned out too much of their cover from the ravine. Clearing the banks was his favorite thing to do next to growing his huge vegetable garden. I also saw somewhere that if a fox is sick, the others move away from him. Then I read some good wildlife research that said foxes only live communally when raising young. When the kits are ready to hunt alone, the skulk breaks up and each one goes his separate way. That made more sense.

Dad asked about them several times a week. “Have you seen any of the foxes?”

We did see two scraggly yearlings and researched treatment for sarcoptic mange in red foxes. On a trip to the co-op, I purchased injectible Ivermectin and began to lace bait. This is not a simple thing to do as the medication kills the mange mites but does not kill the eggs. So the Ivermectin has to be given consistently over a long period of time.

One of the two seemed to improve and the end of the second year, the only fox we saw was a very sick one not long for this world.

I told Dad, “Maybe they’ll come back and raise another family.”

I’m hoping the one I saw yesterday homesteads somewhere in the ravine.

Tuesday, November 19, was the first-year anniversary of Dad’s passing. I thought about it every day during the prior week, but it did not cross my mind until afternoon of the actual day, while driving to an appointment for cortisone injections in my knees.

I remembered taking Dad to the orthopedist at St. Thomas to look at his knees. I knew there would be no surgery, but Dad wanted to ask for replacements for his deteriorating joints. I even had the nurse put a sticky note reminder on Dad’s chart. “Dr. Shell, please note that Dad (Mr. Blair) has scleroderma.”

Dr. Shell is a loving doctor. He never mentioned the scleroderma but said, “Ernie, we don’t want to do any surgery, because I think it would just be too hard on you.”

Dad answered, “You’re the doctor,” and agreed to the cortisone shots. After a couple days, Dad said they didn’t help at all.

*

I was early for my appointment so I pulled in a shady parking lot off Woodmont Avenue close to the hospital.

“So what do I feel?” I asked myself. If someone had asked, “HOW do you feel?” the answer would have been “Okay” or “Fine, thank you, and you?” But what I really felt was a hard ball of emptiness in my middle, an insistent necessity to remember, and a full-body strangeness I could not identify. Perhaps it was just a self-protective disconnect.

I’ve tried to do what Dad asked. We moved my writing place from The Cellar to Dad’s study, not a small job. My new place is now labeled The Study. I’ve made it through all of the books, sorting boxes into Sell, ThriftSmart, Give-to ____, and Keep. A bookseller carted off 500. I’ve browsed through fifty-plus years of well-filed sermons, pulling out those with special meaning. A dear friend who teaches a men’s group wants the rest. We’re giving him the file cabinets, too. He’ll need to bring his big truck.

*

After a few minutes, I entered traffic to St. Thomas and parked three levels down in the basement. It’s the Heart section. The other parking levels are Star and Clover. I always park in the Heart section so I’m sure to remember where I parked.

I was still early but the nurse came to get me right away, deposited me in a room, and asked if I needed shorts or could I pull my skinny pants legs above my knees. I took the navy blue disposable shorts and laughed out loud when I pulled them on and climbed on the stool to the exam table.

I was overcome with grief so suddenly. In the room alone, I remembered the three weeks of absolutely mania in this hospital. On the third day, Dad turned combative and kicked an ultra-sound technician. He had to be restrained. He disowned me for allowing such treatment. I remembered trying to get him to eat. All he wanted was either a brownie or chocolate cake. Doctors and nurses alike brought him chocolate somethings. He finished none of it except for an entire brownie one day that a nurse brought from home. I remembered how he popped his heart monitor sensors as soon as the nurse who had reconnected them left the room. He took his clothes off and scooted down the bed several times a day. He begged me to give him “a shot to end all this.”

There was so much craziness managed as best they could by the well-trained, caring staff. I was so hopeful that my father would get out of this world soon, but it took a while.

*

Jonathan, the Physician Assistant, is talkative. He always has something topical to relate the moment he walks into the room. He shook my hand and patted my shoulder.

“How are you today? I mean, really.”

I started to cry. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Today is the first anniversary of my dad’s passing.”

He patted my shoulder some more. “Ah, that’s rough. Go ahead and cry. There’s nobody here but me and you.” He handed me a box of tissues.

“This is the same room where Dr. Shell saw Dad.” I explained that just being in the hospital triggered my emotion. He said he could understand, especially, you know, being this same room. Then he told me about his father’s passing. I think he said it was three years ago and that he still remembers. He said he feels something on the anniversary date but he doesn’t weep. His father was wracked with dementia for almost three years.

I said I was grateful that Dad’s three years prior to his death weren’t like that. I said three weeks was plenty. Jonathan said his dad wasn’t mean or combative and that three weeks of that would be plenty for anybody.

I noticed I had stopped crying. Jonathan said, “Well, should we get going on these injections?”

I thanked Jonathan when he left the room. I hope he knew that I was grateful for much more than the medication.

I thought about keeping my paper shorts. That made me laugh and I tossed them into the trash, left for check-out, and scheduled another appointment in February.

For some reason, I got off the elevator at the Clover level, two floors up from where I parked the van. When the elevator door closed, I started crying.

I plopped my purse on a bench in the hallway and sat beside it. A woman came by and asked, “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I’m okay. Thanks for asking.”

Then a woman pushing an old man in a wheelchair stopped beside the bench. “Honey, is there anything I can do for you?”

“No. Is that your dad?”

He grinned and answered for her. “Yes, I am. She has to do so much for me she probably wishes I wasn’t.”

She just shook her head and smiled.

“My father died a year ago today,” I said.

“Oh, dahlin’, you just cry all you want. Do you have a Kleenex in that big old bag?”

“I do.” I pulled out tissues and wiped my eyes.

The woman bent over and hugged me. She smelled of musk and vanilla.

“Okay, you gonna be okay, fine even. Now we got to get on up to the sixth floor.”

I thanked her and she said she knew I’d do the same for her.

When I got to the van, I remembered I needed to pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy. I re-applied mascara, eyebrow pencil, and tinted lip balm. I decided I looked fairly presentable.

*

I still feel the unnameable strangeness. Maybe it’s grief, or stress, or a bit of depression, I don’t know. No need to try to get rid of it but just live into it, as a pastor friend says I must.

I feel grateful for those people who “live into” my grief and comfort me.

My father’s spirit wafts over and through The Compound, this odd old place where we live, the house, grounds, and ravine. His presence permeates The Study. A chickadee hops around on the Rose’o’Sharon bush outside the window. Squirrels bury walnuts in the spot where the foxes played. This room is peace. My mind is quiet.

And yesterday morning, I saw a fox.

***

ROAR: wRiting On the Ravine

I started this blog in 2009 with the intent to document what I knew was a major change in our lives—mine and Dave’s, Mom and Dad’s. I knew we had committed to a job that could be described as “challenging”. Most of what I’ve posted here is directly related to multi-generational relationships, caretaking, or the natural lives of the creatures that live and visit here.

I’ve not said too much about my writing life. It’s time to work that into the story.

I hope to assemble a collection of the On the Ravine writings for a memoir—someday—but right now I’m writing a novel. I’ve been writing a novel for over six years, so it would not be a surprise that I’m much closer to finishing said work than I was six years ago, or even four years ago when we claimed this spot On the Ravine.

During the time that I have been working on the novel, I’ve been in four different writing groups. About two years ago, I found “The One”, “The Fit”. There are five of us, one leading, mentoring, and teaching the other four of us. We each started with a novel, mine the furthest along since, after all, I had written the thing three times already. We are five talented, smart, experienced, and wonderfully supportive women—and we know it. I also know that I am incredibly lucky to have found this group. I’d rather miss a party than to absent myself from our Monday night reading and critique sessions.

So why now? Why talk about the writing?

For one thing, I feel the need to explain the decreasing frequency of my postings. I have plenty to write about without bringing up my wannabe-isms, and I do make notes and journal entries about hospitals, gardens, and wild animals. You won’t believe this, but in the middle of that last sentence, I jumped to my window to make sure that I was really looking at a hawk under one of the bird feeders. It was, indeed, a Cooper’s Hawk—and he wasn’t there for the safflower seeds.

I started a piece on what happens when all the ravine residents get sick at the same time, a recent experience. I wrote a few paragraphs on the title “Comings and Goings” about a dear old friend’s passing the same week in January that grandson Jaxton was born. I made an account of a pharmacy clinic visit with Dad. I jotted a few lines to remind myself of several funny scenes from an overnight visit from Jameson and Carly. I may yet publish the hilarious story of the strawberry cake I made for Vicky’s birthday. Given some dedicated time, either one of those pieces could be posted.

I find that the story I am telling in long form just takes over. It leaves any personal accounts in unfinished condition while all spare energy is directed toward what happens to my make-believers, the characters; these are true friends of mine for some seven years. I go to sleep with them on my mind and I wake wondering what they’re up to. They invade my favorite TV shows and I think about them even when I am not writing but staring out the window which, any writer will tell you, is also writing.

There are other renderings about ravine life that will wait for months, or years, to be published. I avoid complaining about the weightiness of responsibility. I don’t mention the fear of the time when my parents will leave me, something else that is closer than it was four years ago. I do write about some of the more difficult issues, even the painful ones, but you don’t see those stories—yet. The words are only spoken, quietly, when I share these experiences with Dave or my closest friends, until it is more appropriate to include a broader range of readers.

There is another, not frivolous at all, reason to say “I’m writing”. This responsibility to my parents, my other family, and my husband, combined with the commitment to writing, creates a need for more hours than I can count on. I hold frequent sessions with myself devoted to developing a better routine, wasting less time, doing a better job of this and that. In the competing pulls and pushes, every whatever-sized thing is much larger than I ever imagined and something gets left out or dismissed.

It is difficult, and sometimes downright useless, to try to explain why I can’t often meet for lunch, and maybe not even for coffee. I’ve lost friends by my inability to explain, and by their inexperience and lack of understanding. There is no blame in my heart; I see what I might look like from the other side.

My husband keeps on trying, helping, doing, being, and there are those persons of soul-kinship who understand, and if they happen to not understand, they accept. It would be grammatically incorrect to say “They BE” but that’s what they do. They just be—with me, for me, around me. “They just be” seems so much stronger than “they just are”.

I won’t be talking about details of the novel or specific writing concerns, but I cannot help describing the feelings I got this weekend at the Celebration of Southern Literature in Chattanooga. There I was, not just close enough to touch, but sometimes actually touching writers like Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina), Lee Smith (what didn’t she write), Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha), Jill McCorkle (Going Away Shoes), Maurice Manning (Bucolics), Randall Kenan (The Fire This Time), Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All), Bobbie Ann Mason (Elvis Presley)… They talked about their work, they read from their stories and poems and plays. That list I just wrote—they’re just the ones that popped into my head as I sat here. There were so many more.

I toggled between two opposing responses: “I am a storyteller” and “Who am I to think I could possibly write?” Tony Earley was at the conference, too. (Jim the Boy, Somehow Form a Family, The Blue Star) At another event several years ago, Tony told us that he doubts his ability every time he sits down to write. I’m so glad he said that, and even happier that I remember it.

I like to summon him up from time to time, this Tony Earley.