Saturday, February 9, 2008

Murphy and more

When I have a New York audition, I sometimes drive the extra 50 minutes north of Manhattan to the little town of South Salem, where my sister lives in rustic suburbia. "The Pond House," as I've nicknamed Joan's home, sits on a cul-de-sac, far removed from the street and behind a little pond which comes complete with fish and, in season, ducks and geese. Families of deer can often be seen crossing through her back yard.

It's usually a home of pleasant chaos. At any given time, the large house will be home to a husband, two step-kids, and a small menagerie of four-legged critters. From her third floor office, Joan runs her non-profit, AnimalKind, an organization which helps with animal overpopulation. Until recently, her own zoo consisted of two dogs and two cats, all of whom are treated as her children.

Murphy lived a golden life, though her beginnings were inauspicious. Joan found the shivering puppy in the woods behind her home in Raleigh, where she was living over ten years ago. Murph joined an already crowded house, which at the time included only one human (my sister), an Irish setter mix named Abbey, and two cats, Eugene the King and the newly arrived kitten, Guinness. All of them had been rescued in one way or another by Joan.

Murphy was the "middle child," and displayed a remarkable enthusiasm for life. She and the others in the menagerie traveled with Joan when my sister married her husband and relocated to New York. There is no doubt in my mind that the presence of her pets eased her very difficult transition from Single, Independent Career Woman, to Executive's Wife and sudden Stepmother to two pre-teens.

It's been said before, but it is the truth: people who do not have children of their own transfer all those parental instincts to their pets. Joan's animals are her children. So when Eugene the elder cat wandered off and did not return, it was sad, but we all understood that he probably wanted to die alone, as cats usually do.

It was the first in an inevitable series of losses which Joan and her brood have had to endure.

It was a bigger, more traumatic loss for my sister when Abbey, the senior dog, became seriously ill, several years later. A long period of various maladies forced Joan into the difficult but necessary decision that Abbey's time had run out. She died in Joan's arms, sitting peacefully and contentedly on the back deck, in the sun, where she had spent so many happy hours.

Several months before Abbey died, Joan made a long road trip from NY to Raleigh to rescue a poor puppy mut who had been chained to a tree by impoverished owners, who then deserted him. She stopped at my place to spend the night on her way back, and this large, furry critter would not let Joan out of his sight, he was so panicked that he would again be abandoned. So, Joan's family was joined by Balto, who was welcomed by the other animals. (Even years later, Balto maintains some of the effects of his traumatic puppyhood, including an absolute frenzy whenever a storm hits. Joan has spent countless nights hugging this poor dog while he shivers in the empty bathtub, as the weather rages outside).

Abbey's death elevated Murphy to the role of senior statesman, and she rolled out the welcome mat for the newest member of the tribe, a one-eyed kitten named Wink. I was present at Wink's rescue (in fact, I named the lad), and he couldn't have found a better home than The Pond House. After almost two years, he has grown from a friendly ball of fur into a real hoodlum, who spends most days outside wreaking havoc, and causes consternation for poor put-upon Guinness, now the elder cat.

Only a few weeks ago, Murphy, whom Joan considered the heart and soul of her current brood, took ill and died. It was a huge loss for Joan, and for the other canine in the house, Balto, as well. I could tell a palpable difference in the atmosphere of The Pond House during my short visit this week. Joan was not her bubbly self, and exhibited very little of her normal buzzing curiosity about my life and adventures.

And I noticed Balto spending a lot of time on the back deck, looking out at the driveway, watching for his friend and mentor Murphy to come back.

It's a quiet, sad time at The Pond House. Joan is a realist, though usually an optimistic one. She knows the life expectancy of "her children" can't match our own, but as her animals age, I think she is also losing her last ties to her younger life, when she was living happily and fulfilled in Raleigh, in her large ranch-style house with the huge back yard and surrounding forest, no neighbors in sight (she loved that), with her animals swarming around her whenever she returned from the day's work. She was single in those days, but never alone.

She isn't alone now, of course, but the only remaining vestige of those Raleigh years is grumpy, geriatric Guinness the cat. Balto and Wink are part of her current, more mature world. I think she sees the ending of that freer, younger life, made all the more real by the deaths of Eugene, Abbey, and now Murphy, and is sad.

A melancholy visit.