Conan’s Death

This was an email I started to write to some close friends, to let them know what happened. I decided I couldn’t send it. Although posting it here means sharing with strangers who cannot understand the heartache, it feels better than sharing with close friends who cannot understand.

No one can understand. How could you? I don’t.

My leave of absence at the sanctuary started March 7th. I have worked there for 5 years. For over 2 years my commitment had been that of a second full-time job. Between that and the physical labor involved, I needed a break.

I will not lie. I have enjoyed the freedom in time and responsibilities.

And I knew before I left that this day would come.

I went to the sanctuary on last Saturday for database work and received word that my tiger had not been well. He was an old circus tiger, retired on a contract they have with us to provide a home for when the cats no longer perform.

When I went to see him, it was afternoon. While I will admit he did not always come at my call (he was a cat, after all), it was mostly his late-rising temperament that precluded an early morning conversation as I did rounds. In the afternoons, he always could be counted on to show off for tours in his pool, or just check out whether I came to do training or even feed early.

He was in his den, breathing heavy. He would not move, although I know he saw me. He had been staring into space and when I called, he shifted and his eyes caught mine. After a brief stare, he closed them. I did the only thing I knew to do. I sang to him.

The new boy suggested I visit him during the week. I arranged to be out Wednesday after work. When I got there, GM and the VP of the sanctuary were attempting to coax him into an transport cage to go to the vet hospital in Gainesville.

While my heart a leapt to see him respond and actually come to me, I was immediately distraught by how slow and little he moved. Five feet and he wished to rest.

It was a grueling task to get him into the transport cage. He did not go willingly and was not pleased with my participation in the endeavors. Once we had him situated, I left briefly in hopes that even a small amount of time would lend some forgiveness and memory loss.

He chuffed at me on my return. It is a tiger’s way of saying hello. I’ve never had a chuff almost make me cry before.

We talked some, mostly my promises that he would not have to endure anything unnecessary.

Thursday, around 2 or so, he passed away under anesthesia. An inoperable tumor had been found above his heart that was causing fluid in his lungs. No action was taken to revive him. It was like he just went to sleep and never woke up.

I wrote this in hoping that I’d stop feeling numb. I’ve become pretty practical about death out there. After all, we pride ourselves on being the last resting stop. A good home for as long they live. Which means we see them all die.

But with all deaths before this, I was there. Whether I felt things could have been handled differently, more could have been done, or less should have been, I witnessed it, could learn from it, and go out the next day prepared to give the animals left a better life for it.

I abandoned him. He had two months left and I did not spend them with him. Don’t tell me that I couldn’t have known. I did know. I suppose I hoped that in knowing, in preparing for the worst, it wouldn’t happen.

I left because I felt used and broken. I felt as if everything I did was wrong, imperfect, and substandard because I simply could not carry the load I was carrying any longer.

I have not determined the weight of this load or how long I will carry it. I know that more than anything, I wanted to be a volunteer again last Friday. And I know I am not ready.

Blue Drinks

Just got in. Last call at Ballyhoo’s was at 10. (Blue Margaritas – or “blue drinks” as we refer to them at the sanctuary) At 11 we realized that every chair that didn’t contain one of our asses was upside down on a table. Damn it was good to see them.

And no, I didn’t mention the new boy. Didn’t have to. Closest question asked was a perpetual, “What *else* is up with you??” To which I talked about the divorce, LA, Orlando, and the whole job/subletting/summer stuff. Although MC made a request. Or, um, demand. The next boy must pass an IQ test. And a common sense test. And she wants to administer it.

Have I ever mentioned I love her like a sister? It was hard to be back there. And not be *back*. But I anticipated that. You should always have people and places in your life it is hard to leave, let go, be apart from.

Otherwise, what do you really have?

A Typical

So yesterday was a typical Jessica day. As in, went to the mall and bought stuff at Vickie’s only to find an item missing from the bag when I got home. Could not decide on dress at the Gap for wedding. Could not find CD I wanted at FYE or fragrance at Bath and Body Works.

At Target, I braved the bikini section only to be miserable in the fitting room. On my way out I noticed that what I thought was a Large (from the tag on the hanger) was actually a Small (tag on the suit). That is just cruel.

I also stopped at PetSmart, Eckerd’s, and then had to do grocery shopping. I got home too late to work out.

And that morning I had been asked to bring extra stuff I hadn’t prepared to the sanctuary tomorrow when I go out to do some filing. Which in itself is a doozy as I don’t know 1) how I’ll feel being out there 2) how people will react to me being out there 3) what the hell to say to MC when she asks if I’m dating anyone. Because, um, the new boy is also a volunteer.

What? W got a newer model. Shouldn’t I?

Seriously, the new boy never knew W (W took a leave of absence before he started) and we rarely got to interact or volunteer together. It was only through emails after my leave of absence that the attraction flourished.

I was very leery of asking his opinion because that sort of seemed like too serious of a question to be asking after just two dates. But, it totally seemed unfair to just decide on my own if I’d say anything and have the possibility of gossip get back to him.

So my mind was buzzing in a million directions as I tried to just finish up something on my list to feel accomplished. In that, I returned the new boy’s last email. I was distracted and apologized for it. I really just wanted to write so that I would get a response and have something to brighten my inbox.

He wrote and then called. Wanted to check in because I sounded like something was wrong. We talked for an hour. He asked me out for Saturday, said that whatever I wanted to tell MC was fine with him – my call completely, made me laugh over his family, listened to me complain about mine, and just was basically the sweetest thing you could have asked for.

I am starting to feel spoiled. I feel like my order from the guy store just showed up. A little late, and with some of packaging torn, but so far everything on the receipt is in there.


Should I tell you that the re-zoning was approved?

Or that I drove to the sanctuary afterwards, straight into a thunderstorm and thought, “This is so appropriate”?

Do you want to hear about the tour I did, in the rain and the mud, with guests so taken by the animals and our mission that they didn’t want a rain check?

Or perhaps about the new boy? The one who asked question after question about what I do, why I’m taking a leave of absence, who I am and what makes me tick?

I think I’ll just mention this: if you can get someone out of the shower to buy you a hot chocolate by simply asking on a walkie talkie, you’ve got it pretty good.


Since I now have a rental, I was able to make it to the sanctuary after work to feed the animals (before the trip was too far for my crippled car).

I fed mostly by myself, which is almost holy to me. As usual I was near tears at the idea of leaving these animals. Can you look a retired circus tiger in the eye and explain that you’re not going to be able to care for him for a while?

Don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying the time I still have there. And I’m excited over the time I will have to concentrate on other things. But I’m one huge sentimental fool.

The GM said maybe MC would do the perimeter check with me. Even though it made me late for dinner, the three of us had a good walk, impromptu canoe ride, and some time to feel like friends again. With all the personal crap going on, they’ve kept their distance. Now that W is on a leave of absence, perhaps that allows them to open up a bit.

Oh yeah, W showed up for a while. His girlfriend was still feeding. Isn’t there some kind of medal for putting up with stuff like this?

I raced home, showered, and was at the restaurant in 20 minutes. Good food, good company. But a little weird hanging out with work friends when I have to censor myself. Didn’t help that I was asked about my ex-boss and his favorite female co-worker.

I am just not an office gossip. I don’t follow it (which has bit me on the ass but oh well), I don’t listen to it, and I certainly don’t contribute to it. Nothing against the people who do, just not my bag.

And since I had stated this up front with the first tidbit of information, I was a little, “Um…hello?” when posed with the question.

But anyway.

I wimped out on the movie because I’d volunteered the weekend before hungover (snakebites) and on little sleep. It’s just not a fun way to spend the day out there.

I had bad dreams last night. First thing I thought when I woke up was, “I need to pretend that he’s here.” And I’m not quite sure who “he” is. Who offers the most comfort with the least confusion? I haven’t thought of someone in my bed because I haven’t been able to answer that question.

I guess I have my work cut out for today.

(This is the first pre-caffeine post I’ve ever posted and may be the first one I take down as well. I’m going to go make cappuccinos and decide)


5:30am (or earlier) alarm, 6-7 days a week.

Hour and a half commute, 3 – 5 days a week.

7:30pm quitting time, 3 – 7 days a week.

My life for the past five years. A year and a half of that, I lived in a trailer on the property of the sanctuary. There was a leopard in my back yard.

I don’t know when it got too much. At first it was just a Saturday or Sunday. Then some weeknights feeding. Then both Saturday and Sunday. Then the Time System, the enrichment committee, medical data entry, and special caretaker.

If I could make it not too much, I would. In a second. And I certainly rebelled against my body, mind, and concerned onlookers as I continued.

I used to go out Sunday nights to care for a disabled lioness. It was a beautiful time to be there, just me and 200 or so animals. After entering her stats for the evening, I sat in the white lawn chair by the medical cabinet and sobbed. I would stare at the bottom clip of the “Authorized Personnel Only” gate, scared as hell over how much it was going to hurt to bend over and latch it.

I had to suck it up before I left because my husband was waiting for me at home, and my mother would be making her weekly call in a few hours.

Where do you start with something like that? What kind of person does that to herself? Who carries that much burden alone? What sort of mentality do you have in order to live like this?

Maybe if I got a different job, one I really liked, it would be different. Maybe I could work part-time, scraping by, and happily take over all of my old responsibilities plus more.

Maybe I’m scared shitless of letting go of something that defined so much of me for so long.

Maybe I’m scared that all I’m proving is that I’m a failure – at volunteering, at self-care, at career-building, at relationships.

I know that’s not true. Just like I know once I get settled with my seatbelt fastened I will enjoy the plane ride. But neither truths offer any comfort until the no-turning-back action stops me from worrying about the past or the future, and I simply live the present.

I handed in a letter yesterday, stating my intent to take a leave of absence from volunteering. I have no idea what the response will be. The drama queen is clutching her tiara and imagining silent treatments, yelling, and tears. If you have a little extra, please send good vibes my way this weekend.

Overnight French Toast

I believe I’ve mentioned that this is my first Christmas home in a long while.

Which means it will be my first Christmas not volunteering in a long while.

No bundling up in four layers at 6am. No hours of picking up feces and leftover meat while other families open presents. No umpteen water dishes to be scrubbed and filled, spilling on my sneakers. No mixing vitamins into frozen hamburger meat until fingers crack off.

No overnight French toast.

For the past two (three?) years, myself and another Mom-type volunteer have made Christmas breakfast.

(We are not, btw, Mom-types in the sense of actually wanting to push babies out of the womb. We are organized caregivers that find plenty of 20 and 30-somethings to clean up after. We even married and divorced a few of them.)

She makes an egg casserole. We get orange juice and arrange for coffee and hot chocolate.

I make overnight French toast.

It’s not quite French toast. It’s just a dollop of whip cream away from being a dessert. It has a base of butter and brown sugar on which slices of Challah bread are laid. A cream, egg, and liqueur soup is poured over top.

I love making it because it’s so decedent and all I have to do in the morning is slip it in the oven for a half-hour. That’s the reason I tried the recipe in the first place. It became an instant hit. I go over the top and warm up berries to pour over it and bring a sifter of powdered sugar.

Yes. I am a Martha Stewart wanna-be.

Christmas morning, when the volunteers eat their egg casserole and I am sleeping past 7:15, I wonder if they will realize they are losing me. If I will finally admit it’s time to move on.

This vacation is going to be unbelievable. I will see friends who know ghosts my co-workers and fellow volunteers would never place in the same room with me. I will trim a Christmas tree with ornaments older than myself. My little brother and I will carve oranges (family tradition).

I am walking into the past.

Is it too much to hope that it will be the switch that allows me to see the future?

It Jumped on Her Head!

Evidently my way to handle pain is to watch movies. Spiderman, to be exact. (I thought it was OK) And “As Good As It Gets”, one of my favorites.

I got about a third of what I had planned accomplished. Then I went to volunteer. In the middle of evening chores, the cold front came through, raining. Only a new volunteer or a bitch complains about the rain. Everyone else cracks jokes (wet T-shirt contest anyone?), splashes through puddles, and huddles together for warmth. I provided comic relief by way of my frog phobia. (It jumped on her head! Clearly it was going to eat her brains out!)

I did speak up for myself and state I could not work a 12-hour day tomorrow. Morning or afternoon, take your pick. Afternoon was picked, which was a win-win situation. I get to sleep in (Vicodin, here I come!) and they get me for a longer period of the day.

Now that the rain has stopped, it’s nice and chilly outside. Pajamas…Mexican hot chocolate…pizza on the way…painkillers…5,000 words left…and tomorrow morning off from volunteering. I’m in heaven.

Pity Party or Revelation?

I’m ignoring something. I’d consider it the biggest step I need to take in my life right now, after the divorce.

The volunteer I work do is not good for me. Over the years, more responsibilities have crept up, official and unofficial, on and off-site of the facility. It’s too much.

I’m not blaming anyone but myself. I love to be needed. I am a caregiver. And the work I do not only cares for the animals, but for the other volunteers whom I consider family. I am always willing to consider a heavier load if it means someone I love can stand a little straighter and wipe their brow in relief.

But there is too much load to go around. I pile more and more on my crippled back, and the people I want to see stretch and smile and joke just pick up another, heavier load to tote around themselves.

I don’t miss the people or the animals until I walk in the door. My entire drive there I think about how normal people don’t work such an insane schedule.

Then, I am there and caring for the animals and people and I scold myself for ever thinking I could leave.

All of that is subjective. My emotions, my guilt, it’s my perception of the situation. On top of that is a raw fact that I have been ignoring.

I volunteered yesterday morning. An hour into it, the right side of my back was spasming. By the afternoon, I could not sit still to watch “Finding Nemo”. I took a painkiller for the first time in two weeks. And the pain did not go away. Now I’m sitting here, 700 NaNo words behind with a huge to-do list on the counter top, and I’m still in so much pain I cringe at the idea of picking up a cup.

If I were good at listening to my body, I would have left my husband a long time ago. It was telling me I wasn’t happy long before I took that vacation and felt that twinkle in my smile and said out loud, “Oh! THIS is who I am!”

My body has been screaming at me to quit for over a year. It begs for time to heal, relax. I beat myself up for beating myself up, but continue on. I can’t believe that there’s not a compromise here. Surely if I just twist this way, or only carry the buckets in this hand, or take a five minute break and use an ice pack…

No. Nothing has changed the fact that I am causing myself pain.

But if I quit, how will I be important and special? Caring for the animals makes me different. Without it, I’m just some woman who lives alone and works a job she dislikes.

I’ve been struggling with this for a few months now. I’m trying to learn how to be good to myself. Really I am. I hope I learn soon.

First Mention of the Sanctuary

Well, about 4 hours into my day I stopped caring about my job again. It was bound to happen.

I’m 14,000 words away from “winning” NaNoWriMo and I stopped caring for my novel about 10,000 words ago. This will change. I will finish, then begin editing and fall in love with the beginning again. I just hope I find the plot along the way.

I didn’t care about volunteering until I did it this evening. Driving there, I thought about how I was sick of not putting myself first, refusing myself the freedom to actually have a life. I had been away for two weeks. An animal had died. Instead of there being six of us to do evening chores, there were three. One trainee, the manager, and myself. Driving home in the dark, I felt like the reason I woke up this morning was to live those 2 hours.