Livermore Public Library staff picks for September 2012
Margaret Gonzales reviews Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat
Dog lovers beware! This book is about a common cat, Oscar, who just may win over your heart. This a heartwarming story, however, it is mostly about coming to the end of life. The topic of death is not particularly uplifting, but it is inevitable. As the population ages, some we know, whether grandparents, parents, aunts or uncles, will be approaching the stage of end of life sooner or later. This story about Oscar may bring some tears, but it will also bring some smiles.
Now what is the relationship between a little ordinary cat named Oscar and the end of life? It seems that Oscar could sense when a patient was nearing their final hours. It started at the Steere House Nursing Home in Rhode Island. While Steere House was being built, a stray cat took up residence even before the elder residents came to occupy the facility. After the cat passed, the staff adopted a few more stray cats from the local shelter because the residents seem to like their presence. Oscar was one of the cats adopted and appeared no different than the rest. In fact, he was aloof, liked to be brushed on his own terms and of course, liked to bathe in the sun. Sounds just like a little fur ball we all may have, except, the nursing staff began noticing Oscar only visited patients during their final hours.
Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician of Steere House, was alerted to Oscar’s behavior. The doctor came from a family of doctors. He considered himself as a rational thinker and believed everything has a logical scientific explanation, including Oscar’s behavior. He begins to interview the surviving relatives of patients of Steere House. The stories he recounts stories are incredible. Dr. Dosa may not find an explanation to Oscar’s behavior, but he gathers many stories of love. All of the surviving relatives believe Oscar not only provided the patient with comfort but also their families in their most challenging time. In some cases, if Oscar was not present, some patients would have spent their final hours alone. Hand me a tissue, please.
As a life-long animal lover I have always felt that animals are capable of complex feelings. I have witnessed my own pets form deep bonds with each other and the members of their human family. I know that they are capable of feeling happiness and sadness. Unlikely Friendships is a wonderful book filled with heartwarming stories of relationships that animals have formed with animals of a different species.
One of my favorite stories is that of Koko the gorilla and her kitten. Koko is part of the Gorilla Foundation research project and her teacher, Penny Patterson, taught her to communicate using American Sign Language. Koko “tells” Penny that she wants a cat for her birthday so Penny gives her the pick of a litter of abandoned kittens. Koko chooses a small gray male and names him Ball. As their relationship develops the depth of the feelings that Koko expresses for her kitten always amazes me. If you haven’t heard this story get the tissue box and check out the book.
Gorillas are so closely related to us it’s easy for me to believe that they are capable of “human” feelings. But how do you explain the relationship between an owl and a spaniel, a dog trained to flush out and retrieve birds, or the tortoise and the baby hippo who became inseparable friends on a game reserve in Kenya. Do they seek each other for comfort? Are they lonely? Are they capable of feeling love? Obviously there is a lot going on here that we don’t understand and for now this is another one of those inexplicable delightful animal mysteries for us to wonder about. If you love animals you will enjoy reading this book.
Sometime the unimaginable happens; sometimes life throws you a curve ball which comes out of nowhere and results in permanent change. Your reality is altered, your assumptions challenged and life as it was once know ends. Life is a precious gift that can be lost in a flash. When it does crease, how do our loved ones manage to go on? How does a young wife function after losing her soul mate, best friend, lover and the father of her three very young children? Dream New Dreams leads the reader on a journey that describes how one young woman was able to create a new life for her and her family after such an unimagined and immense loss.
Jai Pausch is the inspiring widow of Randy Pausch whose Last Lecture recently became a national phenomenon. On September 18, 2007 computer science professor Randy Pausch stepped in front of an audience of 400 people at Carnegie Mellon University to deliver his lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” On stage Randy was youthful, energetic and seemed invincible but he was, at that moment, dying a gruesome death. This fact was visually portrayed by the slides of his CT scans, showing the advanced state of his pancreatic cancer. His lecture was inspirational to all, as was his best-selling book. Both are based on the same principles of celebrating the dreams we all have and to find ways to make them come true.
Randy Pausch’s lecture was not about dying but rather about living– especially, how to have a full life. He said: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” He discusses the importance of seizing every moment because that is all we actually have. Also to overcome obstacles that will inevitably appear in life and to honor, respect and enable the dreams of others. As hard as it was for Randy to accept his imminent death and to leave his family when the children were so small, on some level he could accept his death because he had had such a fabulous life. He had achieved so many of his diverse childhood dreams. Randy’s life echoed the sentiment that he shared with Walt Disney who said: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
But this is Jai Pausch’s story, not Randy’s. In Dream New Dreams, she offers a candid picture of her life during the last few years with Randy including his treatments, mental state and her feelings. She describes many of the daily difficulties of living with a dying husband and their three young children. The consuming tasks–of researching medical treatments with her husband, living with him while he was ongoing chemo, along with daily care of the children–were formidable ones. If Randy did not take his pills and they were found on the floor, the children could pick up and take them by accident. Jai faced a myriad of extremely challenging situations and persevered. Not one to ride on her husband’s fame or accomplishments, Jai has won a hard-fought battle to find her own direction and calling, based on her ability to re-imagine her own life.
Dreams are powerful tools: coaches will encourage players to visualize success, as do job counselors. The power of dreams is highly valued in many cultures and I am trying to tap into this power as well. Recently our older son was married–a beginning for our family, but every day I assist my mother with the decisions involved in the medical, physical and emotion care of my father, who is on hospice. Life and death exist side by side and the cycle of life goes on. This is a time of new beginnings and the end of life as it once was. Now that it is September and the start of the school year, this is a time of many beginnings. There are new challenges to be faced and a time to dream new dreams. Dream New Dreams: Reimagining My Life After Loss provides inspiration, encouragement and validation to all caretakers and others who are seeking their direction and new dreams.
“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn to grow, to love–and then we return home.”
Australian Aboriginal Proverb
In Unpacking the Boxes, Donald Hall writes, “One’s life begins on so many occasions, constructing itself out of accident derived from coincidence compounded by character.” Hall, former Poet Laureate of the United States, candidly recounts those occasions, accidents, and coincidences in his most recent memoir, and the book’s title seems to reflect less a rifling through the past than a moving in and settling down in the present.
Unpacking the Boxes covers some of the same territory Hall covered in The Best Day the Worst Day and Eagle Pond, two of his other remarkable memoirs, but Unpacking the Boxes is unique in its focus on Hall’s experiences moving between disparate worlds. He writes, “My conflict of geographies–two parents, two cultures–shaped the devices and desires of my heart.” With a father from suburban Connecticut and a mother from rural New Hampshire, Hall learned at a young age how to shift between two realms, and the experience helped him develop keen powers of observation and an appreciation for solitude, traits that have served him well as both a poet and a human being. Unpacking the Boxes is also extraordinary for its unflinchingly honest account of Hall’s evolution as a poet. As a member ofThe Harvard Advocate editorial board, Hall participated in “late-night furious arguments over acceptance and rejection.” He explains, “Our attitude toward print was continuous with attitudes of the old poets….We wanted, like Keats, to be among the English poets when we died.” Hall also describes his revelation about the effect of poetry readings on his work. He admits, “One morning as I revised, I set down a word that I knew was not right, and I heard myself think: But I can say it so that it’s right. Immediately, I knew that I had understood one of the hazards of reading aloud.”
When Hall resigned from teaching to write full time, he considered the move “not a departure but an arrival.” He “traveled to solitude…to a life of poetry, to the desk and the shelves behind my neck, to twenty-minute naps, to pounding out three or four books a year,” and this is the rhythm and routine he chronicles movingly in the final chapters of Unpacking the Boxes. He writes of his wife’s death, his physical decline, and his “thoughtful life on antiquity’s planet.” Hall’s literary accomplishments are undoubtedly impressive, but readers may be most inspired by his dignity and self-acceptance, not to mention his unflagging support of the Boston Red Sox.