A Little Cat Who Kept Trying

Harriet, a blue heeler who charmed her way into our hearts, made life miserable for an unnamed young feline I’ll call Persie. That’s short for perseverance, the defining trait of a little cat who kept trying.

Persie’s story is not as spectacular as some. She’s living proof, however, it pays not to give up too easily.

In November of 2021 I published a column titled “Dirty Jobs” about my mother’s childhood home. Renters had moved out and gifted us with two grown cats.

Alger and Benjamin were named for my late grandfather, A. B. Hill. Benjamin, however, turned out to be a girl. We never settled on a new name, so I’ll use Benja for today’s column.          

Living at a vacant house near critter-filled woods was not ideal, but we fed the pair daily and hoped for the best. Alger looked tough enough to take care of himself. Benja’s demeanor suggested she could also. 

Dr. Baker couldn’t tell if she had been spayed, but after several uneventful months we assumed that was the case. When three kittens surprised us, I learned that female cats arrange for their young to be born during warm weather. Some mothers make exceptions, but not Benja. Conflicting goals probably explain the strained relationship we noticed between the couple.   

Before the kittens were born their father disappeared. We don’t know whether he fell prey to something in the woods or left home because he couldn’t handle parental pressures. Benja may have kicked him out, or maybe he went looking for love. 

One morning as I was about to leave home, I saw Benja crouching under my truck. I had no idea she had hitched a ride the day before, a trip of about 16 miles. I put her in the passenger seat and slid under the wheel.

Benja had a history of peculiar behavior. She could be affectionate but at times seemed poised to attack, so sharing a cab made me a little nervous. I was hardly out of the driveway when she crawled into my lap, causing me to wish I had buckled her seatbelt.

She extended her claws a few times through my pants legs. It didn’t hurt but led to considerable anxiety about her further intentions. I’ve never spoken so tenderly to a cat. “You’re a good kitty,” I kept repeating in my most soothing voice.  

I pulled into Grandmama’s yard, opened the door, and eased her onto the ground. The rest of the morning I spent working inside the house, and wondering why Benja had become a stowaway the day before.

After making sure she wasn’t hiding in my truck, I left Grandmama’s and drove to my mother’s for dinner. I went home after the meal, parked my vehicle, and let the tailgate down to get a paintbrush out. That’s when I saw something baffling.

Under the mounted toolbox was a dark furry mass partially obscured by leaves. I was shocked to find three black kittens. Benja had apparently put them there the day before, trying to find a safe place for her babies.

The kittens and I took a fast ride back. A pet carrier, already on the screen porch, was hastily converted to a bed. It concerned me that Benja might not want me handling them, but the transfer went well. Kids and mom settled in on a soft pile of rags.

We waited until they were four months old to take the kittens and Benja to the vet. They all recovered fine from the surgeries, but eventually Persie was the only cat left. One sibling I found in the woods, several days too late.

Our young cat was living alone when Harriet showed up in September and chased her off the property. We spotted her in the area a few times but couldn’t get close and knew the prospects of survival were unlikely. One day while Harriet was visiting neighbors, Seth saw Persie and made a quick rescue. A nice family provided a safe home and put her in charge of rat patrol.

That blissful transition followed a lonely month of hiding and scavenging for food. It was probably tempting to give up at times or at least become dangerously distracted by hunger or fear. Ability and instinct surely helped her survive, but there’s no doubt attitude played a vital role. 

Persie’s story is not as spectacular as some, but her example of perseverance is worth remembering. Whether our challenges are mild or severe, temporary or enduring, Persie showed what can happen if we don’t give up too easily. Life turned out splendidly, much better than could have been expected, for a little cat who kept trying.       

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Memory Pills

D-L-R-O-W. In case no one has ever told you, that’s “world” spelled backwards. My mother began reciting that reverse sequence several years ago when she learned it’s commonly included in cognitive impairment tests. Now I’m practicing it too.

Mama’s remarkable memory has lost some reliability, but she’s still sharp with her thinking. When she tells me something important she adds, “You better write that down.”

Memory has never been a strong point of mine, plus it’s oddly selective. Some things stay with me while others quickly dissipate. Nonsense is easily retained, but useful information tends to have a short lifespan. Perhaps that reflects my priorities.

Countless ads for Prevagen convinced me it might be worth a try. My confidence in its effectiveness was bolstered by knowing it contains a special ingredient replicating a protein found in jellyfish. Nothing symbolizes mental acuity like gelatinous marine blobs.

An online site ranked several products reputed to possibly have some beneficial effect on memory enhancement. I have no idea if the information is accurate, but they listed Prevagen at number five and Stonehenge Dynamic Brain at one. The prospects of having a dynamic brain were thrilling so I started at the top.

The 30-day regimen of two pills per day was planned to begin October 1st, but I forgot. Sadly, I’m not kidding, despite putting the bottle at my place on the table. I should have used a sticky note.

November 8th concluded my experiment, eight days longer than expected. Apparently there were 16 extra pills in the bottle, or I missed taking some doses. At times of uncertainty I left it off rather than risk the effects of doubling up. The idea of becoming a genius at this point in life holds little appeal. Throngs of seekers looking for advice could bring on a lot of pressure.

After the month-plus trial the results are astounding. I can now name all the capitals of states south of Georgia. Maybe I should clarify that by saying states south of and adjacent to Georgia. For the sake of full disclosure, I lived in Tallahassee 12 months, six before marriage and six afterward.

During the bachelor phase of being a Floridian, Jane was staying with her parents in Thomasville, only a 35 minute drive away. I would leave Tallahassee on Friday afternoons and spend two nights at the Horne residence, then return to my apartment at 2600 Miccosukee Road late on Sundays.

On Friday nights during football season, Mr. Horne and I would walk the short distance from their home to watch the Thomasville Bulldogs. Running back William Andrews was in his senior year, breaking tackles and records each week, leading them toward a state title. It was an exciting time to be a fan.

My clearest memory, however, doesn’t relate to Andrews’ magnificent runs or anything that happened on the field. Those highlights faded long ago. The most distinct recollection I have involves peanuts. Jane’s father loved peanuts and took plenty of boiled ones for us to snack on. His were dug with a shovel, picked off by hand, and of impeccable quality.

Milton Callaway was superintendent of schools at the time and routinely sat a few rows behind us on the top row. I didn’t know him well but we’d met at First Baptist Church and exchanged greetings a few times. He was a member there and I attended on Sunday mornings with my future wife and in-laws. 

Mr. Callaway brought a generous amount of parched peanuts to one of the games and passed them around our section. His brown paper bag was identical to ours, so I decided to make a switch for the return trip.

He stuck his hand in the bag and pulled out a boiled peanut which he curiously examined. He grabbed a few more and had a rather bewildered look on his face until he spotted me grinning. We shared several laughs over that small caper, so maybe that’s why I haven’t forgotten it. Even nonsense sometimes has lasting value. 

For a brief moment I expect he questioned his memory. That’s kind of where I am today, hoping my increasing lapses are a natural part of the aging process. If this dynamic brain boost doesn’t pan out, I may try Prevagen. I used to want a memory like an elephant. Watered-down aspirations are now represented by jellyfish. 

If memory pills don’t lead to substantial improvement, I’ll resume practicing reverse spelling and hope they don’t change the test. D-L-R-O-W. In case no one has ever told you, that’s “world” spelled backwards.           

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Seventy came much sooner than expected. It doesn’t seem that long ago a freckled-faced kid was pedaling his bike through sinking sand. When our country road was paved with gravel a good life got even better. Standing on the pedals became an option for speed rather than a necessity to stay upright.

But life in the fast lane can be tricky. When the road was dirt it took considerable effort to make the short trip to Joiner’s Store. With a hard surface, however, the downslope beyond beckoned me onward. The ease of coasting downhill felt marvelous until the chain grabbed my pants and tossed me into the ditch.  

With scrapes and a slightly sprained ankle, I slowly pushed my bike up the hill to the store. Uncle Emmett knew just what to do. He took the padlock off the kerosene tank and turned the crank enough to dispense a few ounces. Medical science may not be able to explain my sudden improvement, but kerosene dabbed on the wounds and a cold drink in my belly relieved the pain. 

I don’t remember what kind of soda it was. A strawberry Nehi would be my guess. I thought they were exceptional back then but my taste buds changed over time. What once seemed perfect lost its appeal long ago. Or maybe I abandoned the sweet bottled treat when I decided it was for kids. Real men drank Coke or something akin.  

It doesn’t seem that long ago Joe Sanders and I made a ramp for launching bikes. Joe was an innovator, always figuring out how to do things beyond the ordinary. He pedaled the one mile trip from his house to ours where we used an old board and some cement blocks to construct an incline. That was before Evel Knievel’s motorcycle jumps, so I don’t know where Joe got the idea.

It doesn’t seem that long ago I used clothespins to clip cardboard to my bike fenders so the wheel spokes would slap out a tune. The bike seemed faster with its subdued roar and perhaps it was. Maybe the rhythmic sound quickened my approach to the pedals. Immediate reward is a strong incentive. Ask any dog who will sit on command.    

It doesn’t seem that long ago I parked my bike and began riding a used Moped. Sears sold them new, but I don’t remember where Daddy found this one. Red paint was severely faded but the moped would still hit 31 miles per hour as originally advertised. New paint, I’ve come to realize, is often overrated. 

A year or two later Uncle Emmett gave me an upgrade with a second-hand Allstate Compact scooter. He bought it from Mr. Bruce Poole, who delivered the mail on Route One, Unadilla. There were no road names, box numbers, or zip codes back then, just three rural routes which Mr. Bruce faithfully navigated. Uncle Emmett was his assistant and I was Uncle Emmett’s assistant. He drove and I put mail in the boxes.   

The scooter was a major step up from the moped, even though first gear didn’t work. With a little push it took off fine in second. Shifting to third allowed it to reach its full potential of 42 mph. That was before we knew it was unsafe for youngsters with no licenses or helmets to drive motorcycles.        

Cushman scooters were common in our area. There must have been a dozen or so in the community. They had an open area for your legs and feet and no gears to shift. The driver just gave it the gas so it would steadily putter away. Cushmans weren’t flashy but were very dependable, a good quality in things as well as people.

David Dunaway and I, on a Cushman and a Compact, took an unapproved ride to Tippettville one Sunday afternoon. We didn’t know where we were going, just answered the call of the open road. The main thing I remember is running over a rattlesnake. The snake was too close to dodge so I held my legs up hoping he wouldn’t catch a ride on a tire.  

It doesn’t seem that long ago our bathroom mirror could reveal a hint of that young boy who loved rambling country roads. But the glass no longer offers childhood reflections. The only way to see that kid now is to close my eyes and be still. And even then he’s harder to find.

I don’t understand why reaching three score and ten caught me off guard, but somehow it did. There’s only one thing about this milestone I can say with certainty. Seventy came much sooner than expected.          

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After losing Dude, our beloved mongrel, we had no intentions of acquiring another dog, at least not for a while. A blue heeler, however, changed our plans. Harriet didn’t realize we weren’t in the market, just wagged her tail and flashed a million dollar smile.

I pulled into the yard of my mother’s childhood home to feed a young black cat that was homesteading on the porch. My truck was still rolling when a strange looking critter pushed the screen door open and scampered down the steps. Despite her innocent face, I suspected this was not good news for the unnamed feline.

Seth and I spotted the cat on the edge of the woods a few times and left food hoping she would find it. She ventured into the yard twice recently but Harriet wouldn’t let her stay. As I was about to submit this column, however, the kitty landed on her feet, a story for later perhaps.               

Except for chasing cats, Harriet is ideal. We don’t know where she came from but hope she’ll stick around. Harriet had no collar and the vet didn’t find an identification chip. Her name is courtesy of our grandson, Walt, who noticed her resemblance to a character in a children’s book, Harry the Dirty Dog.   

She seems to have been well cared for and has shown no signs of being mistreated. It’s possible she wasn’t abandoned but jumped out of a passing truck. Either way, her timing was perfect.

Life has been a bit unsettling this year. Dude joined the canine choir as my brother’s health was sharply declining. Shortly after Jimmy’s unexpected death a fractured sacrum put my mother in the hospital then rehab. And COVID caught up with several in our family including me.     

I’m not complaining and hope it doesn’t sound that way. Countless others have long-term situations that are far more challenging. I know I’ve been blessed beyond measure, but some days it didn’t feel like it. Then Harriet came along and helped me sort things out.  

It had been several months since I’d worked in the woods. Harriet was lonely, though, so I returned to clearing underbrush and vines with hand tools. The exercise helps me and having company thrills her. 

There’s a small stream on the property which Harriet loves. I’ve never seen a dog who enjoys running through water so much. She especially likes pools which are deep enough to swim in or take a quick bath. Besides her affinity for cleanliness, she’s exceptionally smart.

The first time we met I discovered she had been taught to sit. Since then I’ve trained her to jump up on me with both paws and to shake water on my pants. That may not sound impressive but Harriet and I have an understanding. Our friendship doesn’t require obedience from either party. 

Snakes are one thing she’s clueless about which concerns me. In mid-September I was walking toward the branch while she ran ahead. As she splashed through the water, I was watching her instead of my feet and stopped just short of what appeared to be a moccasin. Its raised triangular head and thick body sent a chill up my spine. The situation became complicated when Harriet came to investigate.  

My warnings were ignored as she inched closer, so I took a hearty swing with my hoe. After flipping the monster over, a partly-white belly revealed it probably wasn’t poisonous. In my defense, the snake passed up a chance to swim away, unaware I suppose that consequences of impersonating a moccasin can be severe. It’s best not to pretend to be something we aren’t.

Our gentle-natured blue heeler has made friends with the neighbors, which was quite a relief. They have a chicken coop so I was a bit nervous when I saw her in their yard. Not only is she tolerant of their hens but the couple’s young son, still a toddler, adores her. There’s a lot to be said for a child having a dog in his life.        

Spending time with Harriet has been good for both of us. She needed a home and I guess I needed a dog. I can’t explain it, but somehow it’s become easier to count my blessings again. Maybe it’s because Harriet is grateful for every little thing, like a pat on the head, a bite of leftovers, or a walk in the woods.     

We guessed at Harriet’s breed based on her peculiar coloring and coyote-like features, but my thinking is she’s a slight variant, a descendant of dogs with a special purpose. I can’t find anything to document that opinion, but my heart says Harriet is a blue healer.    

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Ruru – Part 2

Ruru left Dooly County with our granddaughter, Abby, and moved to Southwest Georgia. She got along fine with the three females in their household but attacked Clay at each opportunity. Ruru has a long history of doing things that are hard to understand.

A few months later, when Abby went to Disney World with her family, Mama volunteered to keep Ruru. I’m not sure who initiated the permanent change in residency, but the two of them bonded and Abby was agreeable to transferring ownership. Clay didn’t object either. It’s hard to live with a dog who constantly snaps at your ankles. 

That was almost ten years ago and Ruru has not mellowed. She loves Mama and gets along fine with all the women in our family. The men she tolerates, except for Seth, who came from California with a chihuahua named Louise. Although Ruru sees him daily, two years have passed and she still considers Seth an intruder. She thinks even less of Louise.  

She barks when Seth enters Mama’s house and chases him when he leaves, biting his pants leg with her four remaining teeth. Ruru’s had major dental problems so Mama cuts her food into tiny morsels. Soft food has been tried but without success. Buddig ham or turkey slices are on the daily menu which often features fried chicken. Ruru gets what Ruru wants.

I retired from banking in December of 2015 and began going to the farm five days a week. Ruru didn’t welcome me to the dinner table but eventually stopped barking except for brief reminders I was in her domain. Mama had me begin putting the food in her bowl at mealtimes, hoping to improve our relationship. She’s never bitten the hand that feeds her, but warily keeps a little distance between us.

Ruru will allow me to touch her when she’s in Mama’s lap. Otherwise she scoots away if I get near. Over the past year or so there have been a few times she has stayed in her bed as I held my hand out for her to smell it, then scratched behind her ears. Gaining her trust is a slow process.

Mama’s sacrum fractured in August, which required four nights in the hospital then three weeks of rehabilitation. With her constant companion gone, Ruru’s attitude toward others slowly improved. She began trotting to her bed when I stopped by the house, an obvious invitation to sit with her. Ruru appreciated the company but remained apprehensive. 

Thursday, September 8th, however, marked a turning point. On the way to visit Mama in rehab, I stopped by the farm to serve Ruru her breakfast, the same routine I’d had for several days. She ate a few bites then went to her bed, knowing I would soon follow.

For reasons unknown she’s always been afraid to let her guard down. That morning, though, was different. I gently patted her head and assured her Mama would soon be returning home. And Ruru unpredictably rolled over on her back for a belly rub. 

When a dog rolls over on its back, that’s a sign of trust. There’s no semblance of a defensive posture, no hint of fear, no expectation they may need to suddenly flee. As I rubbed and scratched her belly she became so relaxed her eyelids were drooping. Loneliness can be a tiring thing.    

As soon as Mama walked through the door Ruru resumed her skittish ways, but we’remaking progress. She’s more accepting of me and for her sake I’m glad. It’s hard when your only friend isn’t around and you don’t understand why.  

She was a sad dog while Mama was gone. On the morning of the belly rub I spent a few minutes in the kitchen before joining her. A heartrending wail from her bed seemed out of character for a dog prone to barking and biting. But perhaps that’s not so different from human behavior.

Sometimes people can seem unapproachable or even antagonistic. They bark or give a menacing growl as a warning to stay away. But some of them, like Ruru, aren’t really mean. They’re just insecure or perhaps misunderstood. Unexplained issues often warrant a compassionate response, especially if the miscreant only has four teeth. 

Rolling over onto her back was Ruru’s way of telling me she wants to be friends. Why it took a decade for her to come around I have no idea and don’t expect to find out.

Ruru has a long history of doing things that are hard to understand, but I shouldn’t be too critical. She probably thinks the same thing about me.     

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My mother’s chihuahua is ferocious for a tiny dog with only four teeth. She’s timid off the premises but at home Ruru rules the roost, a trait which suits her peculiar name. She’s fearless when my mother is nearby, which reminds me of a kid who grew up with my dad.

Johnny Martin’s childhood home was within sight of ours and still standing during my youth. Daddy would grin and reminisce about Johnny scampering home with others in pursuit.

He’d stop running as soon as he reached his yard and confront whoever was on his trail. “You can’t touch me now,” he’d say defiantly. “I’m on Ma’s land!” I don’t know who chased him or why, but the races ended at the property line. Apparently his mother didn’t cater to trespassers.

I met the grownup version of that legendary character when he stopped by Joiner’s Store during my childhood. Nicely dressed and wearing a big smile, there was no hint of his rowdy past. He and Uncle Emmett had a good time catching up and laughing about Johnny’s capers. I’d love to know more details but waited too late to ask.     

Ruru joined our family about ten years ago after my wife saw a sign in a veterinarian’s office. Our oldest granddaughter, Abby, was looking for a chihuahua so Jane called to inquire. 

Late that afternoon we made a half hour drive, then took a dirt road which transitioned to a field road with dense woods on each side. Jane and I were wondering if we were in the right place until the swarm greeted us. There must have been fifty chihuahuas barking and racing toward my truck. “Lock the doors and don’t make eye contact,” I said.  

“Do you think we should leave?” Jane nervously asked. “Too late,” I replied. “We’re surrounded.” The adorable little puppy the lady handed my wife was freshly bathed and wrapped in swaddling clothes. She held her snugly all the way home, tenderly calming her pitiful trembling. As we approached Vienna the shaking finally stopped.   

Abby, 12 at the time, was en route to our house with her sister, Melanie, and their mother, Carrie. Jane spoke lovingly to Ruru as she gently put her down on the grass. That’s when the trouble started. 

That little rascal took off like a rocket toward the overgrown woods down the road. My long legs were no match for her speed. The thoughts of telling Abby that Ruru was gone were intolerable. That’s why I traipsed into the snake-infested underbrush.

As darkness approached I quit searching, troubled by knowing a bobcat or coyote would likely put a tragic end to Ruru’s adventure. I walked toward home, dreading to give Abby such heartbreaking news. Thankfully, I didn’t have to.

 Carrie had pulled into our driveway as Ruru was running toward our neighbor’s garage. She had circled back through tall weeds without me seeing her and decided to stop next door. By the time I reached the group, everything was copasetic.

We took her inside where everyone had a chance to hold her. Jane, Carrie, and Melanie later went downtown, despite their concerns with the twosome left in charge of security. They cautioned us multiple times not to let our guards down. 

At some point Abby went outside for something and so did I, but we made sure Ruru didn’t dart through the doorway. That’s why her sudden disappearance was a mystery. Abby said she didn’t let her out and I knew I hadn’t, but Ruru was gone and we were the only suspects.

Thinking Ruru needed some quiet time, we had put her in the laundry room with a baby gate in the doorway. It seemed impossible she could have climbed over, so I checked the closet and behind the appliances but she wasn’t there. I even opened the cabinet doors below the sink. She had escaped and left no clues. 

Jane, Carrie, and Melanie returned home and joined the search. They suspected a lapse of attention might explain the missing dog. That’s when I decided to look in a highly unlikely place. Somehow Ruru had wiggled her way under our upright freezer and wedged herself between wires and copper tubing. I unplugged the freezer and pulled her to safety, thankful that Abby and I had been proven innocent.          

I’ll try to finish Ruru’s story next week. Why she ran away, circled back, or hid under the freezer I don’t understand, but here’s what I can say with certainty. If Ruru were being chased today, she’d stop running at the property line. Ruru is like that kid from my father’s childhood. She knows you can’t touch her when she’s on Ma’s land.       

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The Queen

My 95 year old mother recently spent 21 days in rehab due to a fractured sacrum. The discharge doctor was quite pleasant but his heavy accent left us guessing throughout the conversation. It took several attempts for me to understand his parting comment, which I translated to Southernese. “He said you look like Queen Elizabeth.” 

“Yes I do!” Mama quickly affirmed with a smile. “She’s sort of average looking and so am I.”

Queen Elizabeth and Mama were born a few months apart and shared some similar features and styles. Mama’s silver hair is natural and I’m guessing the recently departed queen’s was also. Of both it could be said, “What you see is what you get.”

Other ladies from that generation also remind me of the beloved monarch. Their resemblance goes beyond physical attributes to common values. Queen Elizabeth was known for her strong Christian faith. The same is true of my mother and many of today’s senior ladies. An active and abiding faith is the norm. 

Resilience is another characteristic of women from that era. Growing up with oil lamps, fireplaces, open wells, and outhouses molded their perspectives. Plus the lingering effects of The Great Depression were not forgotten as World War II began.

An ongoing role of those ladies was being in charge of the kitchen. Much of what they served was homegrown. Daddy tended to our cows and hogs and sometimes helped feed the chickens. It was Mama, however, who caught the hens and fried them for dinner. 

I never saw either of my grandmothers wringing a chicken’s neck, but Mama Joiner reportedly had a quick wrist motion that only took a second. My mother, however, was not as efficient. After several revolutions of her arm she’d finally get up enough speed the chicken’s headless body would sail toward the clouds.

A few flaps later the show was over. There was nothing left to do except pluck the feathers, clean, cut, cook, serve, then wash dishes. Looking back it’s quite remarkable that Mama never complained or even asked for the pulley bone.

During my lifetime we’ve witnessed two major transitions involving meal preparation. The chicken-catching phase gave way to grocery store convenience. Then came the option of choosing a drive-through and selecting the sides.

Vegetables were also the domain of women. Mama and Daddy shared the same philosophy when it came to the garden – “We might not make any next year.” That’s why our freezers were packed so full during summer the lids would hardly close. 

A lack of enthusiasm was evident in my approach to gardening. Knowing we had at least a two year supply on hand, I’d sometimes think it might not be so bad if the harvest fell short. With that attitude it’s not surprising I wasn’t very good help.

Peas were easy to pick but butterbeans were aggravating. Low to the ground, they were tedious to gather at the perfect stage which Mama considered essential. She wanted them just right, not too young and not too old. With my careless efforts I’d sometimes get dismissed early. “I’ll finish picking these,” she’d mercifully say. “Why don’t you go help your daddy.” 

“Are you sure?” I’d mumble as I hastily fled beyond hearing range.  

After picking came the shelling. I mentioned rumors of automatic shellers but Mama had no interest in a process she was certain would mash the vegetables. We all helped shell, but it was Mama who washed, blanched, and put the end products in freezer bags. She put such zest into her efforts, I took her hard work for granted. My appreciation was rarely expressed except through hearty eating.

Corn was another staple in our home. One memorable year Daddy filled the bed of his pickup truck with 800 ears he had pulled. He knew it was a lot but  figured next year’s crop could be short. Some of that creamed corn is probably still in the freezer.

I don’t suppose Queen Elizabeth ever caught chickens or put up vegetables, but my impression is she would have if there was a need. She was born into royalty but appealed to people from all walks of life. Her exceptional character endeared her to the world. Without a crown, she would have still been worthy of admiration.  

There’s a definite resemblance between Queen Elizabeth and my mother. Too many people have mentioned it to be otherwise. When the doctor told Mama she favored the queen she was amused and somewhat flattered. 

And if Queen Elizabeth had spent time in the garden with my mother, or helped in the kitchen for a while, I have no doubt she would have felt the same way.            

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Today’s Medicine – Part 2

An ancient tenet of medical practitioners is, “First do no harm.” Though widely embraced, it’s not always applied in today’s medicine. Surely such ethics should extend beyond healing and dictate a compassionate ending.   

My brother, Jimmy, died around 7:15 pm on Monday, July 25, 2022. I understand why, but I’m troubled by how. Whether it was poor procedures, legal issues, or profit motives, I can’t say. I just know it was wrong. 

A massive heart attack around six a.m. on Saturday, July 23rd caused his heart to stop beating. He was shocked then connected to an impella, ventilator, and a barrage of IVs. Jimmy had been hospitalized, except for a brief stay in rehab, since June 13th. He was exhausted physically and emotionally.

His bladder function had been increasingly problematic since March 14th when he fell at home due to a diabetic episode and couldn’t get up. He had tolerated the discomfort of a catheter almost constantly since May 12th.

On July 20th he had emergency surgery for a severely distended abdomen. The surgeon removed two sections of dying colon tissue and performed an ileostomy, leaving him with a bag we hoped was temporary. 

The day before his heart attack he sat in a recliner in the ICU for a couple of hours. It was the first time he’d been upright in over two weeks. Saturday’s plan was to walk a few steps but his heart had other ideas.  

At best Jimmy was facing a foreboding future with major health issues. He asked me twice, while in the hospital, about a living will. He had asked before but I had procrastinated. From his room I did some online research and found Georgia has a standardized Advanced Directive. But it’s 28 pages, too much to discuss I thought. 

So, I’m partly to blame for what I consider inhumane treatment. Shocking him was not the merciful thing to do, but what followed was worse. Regardless of my failure, Jimmy suffered needlessly for two additional days. 

An impella, I learned, is a tiny propeller inside a stent that’s placed in the heart via the groin and connects to an exterior pump. Jimmy’s impella was doing about 90 percent of the heart’s work. It’s a temporary device for hospital use only. You can’t take it home.

My bigger concern, however, was the ventilator, not that it was initially employed but that it took two days to have it removed. On Saturday Jimmy couldn’t talk due to several tubes down his throat, but he was alert. Padded mittens on each hand prevented him from pulling the vent out.

For hours he motioned repeatedly to remove it. With medical staff present, I made sure he understood he probably wouldn’t survive without the vent. When I asked if he still wanted it removed, he nodded and clearly affirmed he did.   

A nurse, however, told him they really wanted him to try it another 10 or 12 hours. She said additional medication could make him comfortable, so he agreed to the overnight trial.    

I spent the night by his bed, but Sunday morning couldn’t get anyone to discuss removal of the vent. They said my request would be made known, and someone would come to discuss the situation. I continued to inquire but no one came.  

A second night passed and Monday morning was more of the same. Everyone said they would pass my request along, but at four p.m. no one had come. By then Jimmy could no longer move his fingers or toes and his eyes remained closed.

My wife saw a door with a DIRECTOR’s sign and found an angel wearing a uniform. I told her if there was a possibility of Jimmy improving we wanted to do everything possible, but otherwise he’d been through enough. She was unaware of our dilemma and lovingly attended to my brother. He was disconnected and lived over two hours, long enough to smile briefly at our mother and try to say, “I love you.” 

I don’t blame the hospital for Jimmy’s death, but I do fault them for prolonging his suffering. The wishes of a patient with no hope for an acceptable quality of life shouldn’t be circumvented by artificial means. And if the patient agrees to a short trial, the terms should be honored. 

It’s unlikely the musings of a small town columnist will bring about change, but I believe the focus of today’s medicine is frequently misdirected. We keep people breathing without considering if it’s the compassionate path. Today’s medicine often fails to practice what has long been accepted as the gold standard of care. “First, do no harm.”  

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Today’s Medicine

My brother died on July 25, 2022. Jimmy had experienced multiple health issues over several months. He was dealing with diabetes, a dysfunctional bladder, and gastro-intestinal issues that led to an ileostomy. Then came the heart attack.       

Jimmy had lost about 30 pounds before being hospitalized. On June 13th I drove him from a urology office in Warner Robins to Atrium’s Emergency Room in Macon due to severe nausea. He spent 12 days in the hospital before being transferred to their rehab facility on June 25th. On July 8th he was transported from rehab back to the hospital due to chest pains.

Problems would improve then reappear or something new would develop. A bout with COVID added to the complications but earned him some privacy. Sick folks separated by a curtain and having to share a bathroom seems an odd approach to rehabilitation. Maybe it’s meant to inspire escape. 

The people were excellent. Doctors and others tried diligently to resolve Jimmy’s health issues. Nurses and support staff were compassionate and efficient. I was on a first name basis with the friendly ladies at the check-in desk. And a nice young man in scrubs showed me how to buy a bottle of water with a credit card. My card wouldn’t fit into the cash slot. 

The process, however, is often frustrating. In my opinion today’s medicine needs a major overhaul. If I’m wrong, I’d love to hear an explanation. Here are some thoughts.      

I completed a survey about Jimmy’s first stay but many of the questions weren’t relevant. A better method would be a short discussion before discharge. What could we improve on? What did we do well? What else do you need from us? 

Some issues probably stem from insurance restrictions. Jimmy was sent to rehab before his bladder function was restored so left the hospital with a catheter. A scope said he was okay but his bladder wouldn’t listen. It’s hard to pay attention when you’re under pressure.  

As he headed to rehab, my understanding was they would try to retrain his bladder. Once there, however, they said his urologist could address that later. He was miserable, so I called the urology office which made arrangements for intermittent catheterizations.

That’s too much information, but it points to a flawed system. If a patient leaves a hospital with a catheter, a follow up plan should be in place. I’ve learned not to take anything for granted and that every patient needs an advocate, which brings me to my next concern. 

Specialization is beneficial, but it lends itself toward focusing on narrow areas rather than the big picture. Computers are filled with more information than anyone has time to review. Everyone is looking at something but I’m not sure anyone is looking at everything. Standard procedure seems to be oriented toward a quick assessment then working out a plan for someone else to implement the next day.

Dr. Joe Christmas spoiled me. He was a family practitioner who knew my history and sometimes what I was having for dinner. There’s a lot to be said for the country doctors of yesterday. Today’s medicine is a revolving door of hurried professionals juggling a plethora of patients they only know from a chart.

On a related note, I don’t know what all Jimmy was screened for. I asked more than once if he’d been tested for celiac disease, salmonella, diverticulitis, and C diff. The standard answer was, “We’ll need to check on that.” When no one writes your question down the answer is predictable.  

And when a patient has procedures like endoscopies and colonoscopies, it would be nice to get a report that same day. Otherwise you’re left to guess what time someone is coming and hoping you don’t miss them. Even a text would suffice.          

I have three suggestions for now and a fourth for next week. One improvement would be to provide a brief written summary each day in layman’s terms. Tell what’s been done and what’s planned. The second idea is to designate someone to answer questions. Patients need a liaison with access to information and ten minutes of time. My third recommendation is to stop wasting the weekends. Jimmy spent two days with a badly distended abdomen taking morphine to mask the pain. The search for solutions shouldn’t be paused on Friday afternoons.              

That’s my two cents worth on today’s medicine, an opinion guaranteed to be worth every penny. If people in charge of corporate healthcare are reluctant to take my advice, I can’t blame them. It would be hard to put confidence in a man who needs help using a vending machine.      

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A View From Above

July 22, 2022 – If you’re looking for a getaway with intriguing scenery, you may want to consider Room 807 in Atrium’s ICU. A big window offers a splendid overlook of Macon and beyond. It’s amazing what you can see with a view from above.

To the south there’s a large smokestack, but it looks harmless so I’m hoping it’s steam. Whatever it is blends nicely with today’s cumulus clouds. Jimmy says it’s Macon Kraft. 

The plant’s unpleasant smell greeted us on every trip to Macon during childhood. Now it’s so rare I’ve almost forgotten the scent. When my cousin, Rooney Bowen, Jr., was a young boy, his father suspected him of being the source of the stench that filled their car. He narrowly escaped a spanking. 

Just across Hemlock Street is a single story building with a simple maze on one side. Its secluded center hides some peculiar metal structures. A square green block, maybe 3 feet on all sides, is accompanied by a blue ball of similar proportions and a red pyramid. The hideaway isn’t visible at street level so I’ve spent part of the morning wondering what its purpose could be.

I only have one theory that seems credible – a mental health testing facility. My guess is the initial screening is based on whether you can find the inner room without assistance. If you make it that far they ask a series of questions. 

“Which of these pieces might be used as a serving table for a picnic? If you wanted to roll something down the street which shape would work best? Do any of these items remind you of something that’s found in Egypt?” 

Answering all three questions correctly is likely rewarded with a certificate. Getting two right probably lands you in some kind of therapy. If you miss all three, there aren’t any good options. My best guess is they encourage you to run for public office.

A young lady in a pink top is jogging. She’s not fast but this isn’t a competition. That reminds me of a conversation my mother had several years ago with our son-in-law, Matt. He’s an avid runner and was training for Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race. 

Mama had no idea the race draws thousands of competitors from around the globe. She innocently asked Matt, “Do you think you’ll win?” 

“No, mam,” he politely replied, which prompted her to follow up. “Then why are you running?”

 Cell towers, or something akin, must number a dozen or more. Not too many years ago tall towers were usually for television and radio stations. Now most of them are for cell phones.

I didn’t have a cell phone until I retired from the bank in 2015, unless you count a bag phone that plugged into a cigarette lighter. It was hard to imagine then that a hand-held device would come along with a zillion uses, including a few that are worthwhile. 

Several ancient buildings are distant but easily seen. One property has part of a defunct concrete block silo. Another is home to a rusty cylindrical water tower, the style that was common in my youth. There aren’t many of those left so this one is probably on the historical society’s watch list. If not, I apologize to the owners for leaking the information.   

Two churches are within a few feet of each other. One is a simple white frame building. The other is brick and very ornate, probably from the early 1900s or before. It’s amazing how people with hand tools handled construction jobs that would be challenging even today. If Jimmy is still in this room on Sunday, I hope to find both parking lots overflowing.

There are a lot of other old buildings within sight and some newer ones too. I have no idea what most of them were built for or what their purpose is now. Yet I find it interesting to look them over and wonder. There’s a story behind each one, as well as the lady in pink who gradually jogged out of sight.

Scanning hundreds of acres from that eighth floor window was captivating. Although I have no personal connection with any of it, I wanted to know more about what I was seeing.

It’s hard to imagine how God must feel as he watches over what he created and loves. Scripture says he knows each of us by name, even the ones that are hard to spell. I unexpectedly gained a somewhat better appreciation today of what an awesome God we serve. It’s amazing what you can see with a view from above.   

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