Katja Elk Writes

‘Hallo?’ his voice sounds muffled.

‘Hallo, lieber Papi, this is Katzi!’ I say. ‘How are you doing, my dear one?’

‘Shhh! I can’t talk right now.’ my father whispers. ‘They found me.’

‘I’m sorry?’ I say.

‘They got me now. They’re right outside.’ he says in a breathless voice.

‘What’s going on?’ I ask. ‘Are you ok?’

‘I’m in great danger.’ my father says. ‘I can’t talk right now. ’  I can tell he means it.

‘Is there anything I can do?’ I ask.

‘No. That’s all I can say. I’ve got to go now.’ he says.

‘Ok, Papi.’ I say. ‘I hold you dear, Papi.’

‘Thank you for the flowers. Goodbye.’ he says and hangs up.

I sit in my chair, put down the phone and take a deep breath. My dad has Parkinson’s disease. As the illness progresses his delusions often take him into worlds filled with danger, corruption and people who mean him harm. He’s caught in places where bombs are just about to go off, collapsing buildings threaten his life and thugs with weapons hunt him down. It must be hellish to think you are in terrible danger, and everyone around you either tells you that you are imagining things or placates you to calm you down. I try not to talk him out of what he sees and feels. It doesn’t help and aggravates him more.

At least he knows I sent him flowers. Sometimes my dad tells me that he has an unknown beneficiary who keeps on sending him baked goods, chocolates, books, clothes and all sorts of useful things. I tell him I am glad.

The hallucinations aren’t always malevolent. Sometimes he tells me about a dog, a big salt-and-pepper stray, that comes to see him. And there are two cats that climb up on the outside of the building and sneak into his room through the window to visit him.

‘I never feed them.’ he says. ‘But they always come back.’

Sometimes the cats are there when I call him, and it’s in those moments when he lets me join his world. I’ll ask him where the cats are, and he’ll tell me they’re sleeping on his bed.

‘They’re very, very quiet.’ he’ll say. ‘You know, they don’t allow pets in this place here. But they are so quiet, and so smart!’ I can hear the smile in his voice. ‘No one ever notices them.’

I know that calling him back right now wouldn’t make things better. It’s evening in Germany, early morning here in California, and the spells that hi-jack him into a different dimension of reality usually get worse at night. Sometimes I can bring him back to the here and now, but there are places he goes where I can’t reach him. Today he’s there. I’ll call again tomorrow to see where he may be.

It’s time to turn out the horses. My dad’s words echo in my mind. I’ve been through this and worse with him before. My brother, a physician himself, oversees my dad’s medical treatments. Several specialists are doing every possible thing to help him, but the inevitable truth is that he’s not going to get better. The medication that treats the Parkinson’s disease increases his dopamine levels which in turn amps up the hallucinations.

I’m trying to get out of my head and check in with my senses. My right hand feels a slight tug backwards. It’s holding the lead rope that’s fastened to Tinker Bell’s dainty, red halter. Taking small, leisurely steps toward wherever we might be going this confident, bay Shetland pony is in no particular hurry. Chewing on some left-over hay in her mouth, batting her long eyelashes, she takes the occasional look to the left, and then to the right, as we are walking down the tree-lined dirt path. The tender morning light breaks the spell of the night.

The leash that keeps my charcoal-colored Border Collie, Bagheera, from running and barking at anything larger than herself, sends surges of energy through my right hand. She’s still a puppy, and all she wants to do is run and play. Sun rays dance as bird songs celebrate the brand-new day.

On my left side, Tux, my spirited, black, eighteen-hand Thoroughbred, towers over all of us. The lead rope dangles loosely between us as his long legs keep in perfect step with mine. A gentle breeze moves leafs and bees and other fairy creatures.

The four of us are walking down the long road from the barn toward the pastures where, speckled with wildflowers, precious green grass will keep the horses grazing and happy for the rest of the day. Calcified oyster shells and other fossilized sea creatures imprint the sandy ground beneath our feet. We’re walking on what used to be an ocean.

I look back at Tinker Bell. She makes me smile. Trailing behind, she owns her space and takes her time. When I was little my mom would read the story of Peter Pan to my brother and me. Tinker Bell, the little fairy who mended pots and kettles, was so tiny that she could only hold one feeling at the time. One moment she’d be terribly ill-tempered, jealous or spoiled, and then she’d be incredibly sweet and helpful to Peter. No warring emotions in that little elf. What you see is what you get — shapeshifting and all — but only one feeling at the time. Sort of awesome. Talk about being present!

As we walk past the riding arena, I look up at the pile of natural rocks underneath the old oak tree that spreads its arms as if to say ‘I’m here for you.’ Those rocks mark the spot where my Kelly, my sage and cherished Border Collie, found her final resting place last summer. Sometimes I feel her spirit linger where she used to sit and watch me ride. A soul wiser than many, her death, paired with my beloved mom’s passing last year, left tender markings on my heart. Waves of loss and sadness wash over me. I breathe and let them pass. There is a sweetness in this moment. I see Kelly rest in the sun by the oak tree. I see the wind blow my mom’s hair from her smiling face. There’s kindness in the past as well.

Bagheera, my ember-eyed familiar, tugs on my right hand now.  She keeps my thoughts from drifting straight into never-never-land. Let’s go, who cares what might have been? Her movements free and weightless, she keeps my footprints moving, away from dark and gloomy moods.

One morning this spring, I woke up, and I knew it was time to find her. A specter of this dog that was going to come into my life had landed in my conscious mind. It had nothing to do with replacing Kelly or getting a ‘new dog.’ Kelly is irreplaceable. And the word ‘new’ in the context of connecting with someone— dogs, horses, humans or other animals — in meaningful ways often seems strange to me. The longer I live the more I trust the deeper knowing, that place of almost instant trust and recognition I feel when I meet a ‘new’ old friend… again.

I spent hours scanning animal rescue websites, dog profiles, stories and photos online. When I saw the picture of a black dog with yellow eyes behind a row of thick metal bars, I knew I had found ‘my dog.’ Bagheera was located at the police animal shelter in Hollister, a four-hour drive up north from where I live. The officers at the shelter were surprised that I was calling to adopt this dog without coming to see her first. They cautioned me that the fees for the adoption, spaying, vaccinations, micro-chipping and registration were non-refundable and to be paid upfront. It was fine, I said. And she is, they said, almost completely black. Black dogs were often passed over by adopters and last to find a home. I filled out forms, paid and waited for the process to unfold.

When it was time to bring Bagheera home, it felt, indeed, as if we’d both been lost and found. I cried, I couldn’t help myself, when this beautiful, black hurricane came flying toward me. ‘Bagh’ means tiger in Hindi. She resembles her namesake, the black panther in Rudyard Kipling’s popular story ‘The Jungle Book,’ in more ways than one. I guess it’s not surprising that people like to name animals after characters in fairy tales, stories involving fantastic forces and beings such as fairies, wizards, and goblins.

Bagheera turns her head. Her eyes touch mine. This energy, this easy love, the wild abandon in her play! She makes things brighter, lighter, leaving darker scenes behind. There’s magic in her stormy joy, her bold exuberance, and this sense of not a care in the world when, suddenly and with utter trust that all is well, she’ll fall asleep right by my feet.

What if this dazzling energy, this untamed, wolf-like creature, has come to be my wizard and my teacher? What if, in some strange way, she’ll wake me up to be this worry-free and young again? We play, we run, we roll around. She makes me laugh so loud, at first it seems to echo. In play, I find, there is no past and no tomorrow. And yet, there’s room for innocence and knowing, a slow and fast awakening to utter bliss right here and now.

My black horse stops. His head so high above us, his muscles taut as arrows, it seems absurd to think a few pieces of leather and rope could contain this unbridled power frozen in time. Absolute alertness, absolute stillness, absolute readiness to move, or not. We’ve all come to a halt with him. We melt into this stillness, all minds and bodies one. The quiet moment seems to stretch, for how long I don’t know. Then, out of nowhere, as it seems, three deer are climbing up the brushy hillside. Tux snorts and clears his palette. The moment passes. We breathe and walk again as one.

Tux. My beloved horse. He is presence. His given name is ‘Wunderkind’ (Wonder Child) which turned into ‘Tux’ (Tuxedo) as he grew older. Bold, black, with four white socks and a diamond-shaped, white mark on his nose, he is a vision to behold. His movements big and silken, he started out as one of those horses whose potential put a price tag on him that was well beyond my reach. His exuberant temperament, his dominant character and his unyielding intelligence paired with the early onset of arthritis in all four legs changed the course of his life, and mine, in strange and wonderful ways.

Tux and I, since we first met, have come a long and sometimes challenging way. We carry each other, often walking side by side. Unfazed by health and other matters, this horse with his larger-than-life presence and his incorrigible sense of joy has inspired people’s support and kindness over and over again: Tux’s breeder, her heart as big as the sea, decided to buy Tux back from the ‘wrong person’ so that he could stay in training with me. A kind surgeon at an acclaimed veterinary clinic, well aware of my inability to pay the twenty-thousand dollar fee for the service at the time, decided to go ahead with Tux’s colic surgery when he was young and subsequently refused to accept any of my attempts to pay my dues. A precious group of friends and mentors supported my emotionally charged decision to buy this horse (how can you buy a soul mate?!), and have stood by us when my own health issues and stubborn mind allow for nothing but a very simple life.

Three years ago, two of my most treasured friends invited me to move with my animals to their ranch because they ‘had always wanted a beautiful, black horse in the pasture’ that spreads out in front of their family home. Granted, that may not have been the only reason, but who’s to say what makes true magic really work?

Another morning dawns, and I try to reach my dad again. The ringtone sounds weary, monotonous and sterile. No answer. I’ll try again later and go to feed the horses. When I come back I see a text message from my brother on my phone.

‘Hello dear Katzi, Unfortunately Papi was so aggressive and combative with the caregivers at his facility yesterday that he had to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. He has been taken to a very good, new clinic in Preetz. I will keep you posted.’

I sit and try to understand what all this really means. A row of inhospitable and down-right scary images flash in front of my mind’s eye. My dad is in a psychiatric hospital. How can this be? It doesn’t seem that long ago that this vibrant, funny, smart, kind man was, despite all of his troubles, still boisterous and for the most part at peace with his fate. And he’s only eighty-four! Isn’t that supposed to be ‘not that old’ these days? A bunch of feelings try to flood me. Breathe, I think, try to be present, think of Tinker Bell. One emotion at the time, please. After a while I find the place in my head where I can hope that my Papi may be able to get better care in a modern place that specializes in psychiatric disorders than in a regular senior home. My heart goes out to him. I hope they’ll help him not to live in fear. I hope he took his virtual pets, the dog and the two cats, with him. I read somewhere that people in the final stages of dementia often see furry creatures that come to soothe and comfort them. It makes complete sense to me. And who’s to say what’s real or not?

I humbly bow to all the animals — goblins, wizards, spellbinders — light bearers all of them. What better teachers could we ask for? What better soothers of our hearts? What kinder builders of our trust? I cannot think of any. Although the darkness claims its places and offers contrast to the light, our lives are rich and filled with magic. Let’s open our eyes and see each world for what it is, one miraculous moment at the time.

 

[First published 06-02-2017]

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