Archive for the ‘animal-human bond’ Category

Hannah & Sam greet our resident lady bug.

Hannah & Sam greet our resident lady bug.

Summer has been flying by…I just returned from the Tin House Writers Workshop in Portland, Oregon, where I was in a memoir workshop led by the author Cheryl Strayed. I left Hannah and Sam in the care of a wonderful cat sitter, a woman who works at the vet clinic. It was the hottest, most humid week of the year here in Boston, but Hannah and Sam did well in my absence. Sam actually made friends with the cat sitter, emerging from his hiding spot under the bed to rub up against her legs and meow a few hellos. Hannah took everything in stride, but this was another first for Sam.

It’s been a summer of new beginnings. Can’t wait to see what August brings.




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Hannah turns 10 years old today.

Hannah turns 10 years old today.

We met during a crisis – I was coming to terms with a life-long trauma; she was abandoned by an abusive owner. It was May 2, 2006 when she was dumped at my feet at Saint Meow’s shelter in Cambridge, Ma., at the estimated age of three. I stood there, stunned.

She looked up at me with her green eyes and let out one long cry. Before I could think, I told the shelter manager, “I’ll take her.” She was my first pet. Together, Hannah and I learned what it meant to love safely again.

Hannah, post-adoption, age 3.

Hannah, post-adoption, age 3.

Hannah almost died of life-threatening pancreatitis in 2008, when she was five, but today she turns ten, and she’s healthier than ever. When I asked what she wanted to do for her birthday, she said,”sunbathe.” So be it.

Happy 10th birthday to Hannah! We thank all of this blog’s readers for continuing to follow our story as it’s developed over the past three years. Stay tuned…



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Hannah, guardian kitty.

Hannah, guardian kitty.

Last Friday, April 19, at 6:45 a.m., I awoke in my tiny attic apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, startled by the sound of an incoming text. I’d been having a dream in which I was running from two assailants who were bent on killing everyone in their midst with guns and bombs. I was frantically trying to find a place to hide, but nowhere was secure.

Such a nightmare is not unusual for me: I have PTSD. I didn’t know the reality that’d been transpiring while I was sleeping.

I sat up quickly and reached for my phone. The text was from the New England Conservatory of Music, located in Boston, where I’m liberal arts faculty: “Due to public safety concerns, NEC is closed…”

Seconds later, I received a text from a friend in Jamaica Plain: “Are you at home? Just checking in case you haven’t gotten the news to stay in. It’s all very unsettling.”

DSCN1275Was I awake, or was I dreaming? I turned on the television and saw the reports of bloodshed that had occurred in my town overnight, the death of one of the marathon bombers, the current search for his armed-and-dangerous brother. “Shelter-in-place”: I was not to go outside or answer the door.

What was happening was real. Surreal.

I began to panic: could the suspect on-the-run be hiding in the basement of the house where the garret was located? In the basement, there is a washer/dryer machine accessible to tenants in a neighboring house through a cellar door, which I’ve frequently seen left unlocked or open to the outside parking lot. As I watched the news, I was suddenly alarmed. My nightmare was still fresh in my mind: I needed a reality check, so I messaged a friend who knows I have PTSD.

My friend assured me that it was near impossible that the suspect was in my basement at that time, because the local news reported he’d been seen on foot in Watertown, a few miles from where I live, around 6 a.m., however it was a good idea to check the door. She wrote, “Be quick.”

In times of stress, Hannah and Sam serve as my danger gauge. If an intruder (or even a friend) were in the vicinity, I knew that Sam would be hiding under the bed. Hannah would have her nervous facial expression and twitching ears. But now neither exhibited signs of anxiety – they were curled up, relaxed on the bed.

I went downstairs with my legs shaking, holding my breath. The cellar door, to my relief, was shut and locked. Quickly, I returned to my unit and secured the triple locks on my door. Even though I live in an attic, I left the shades drawn.

In the days after the bombing, I’d witnessed so many Bostonians experiencing a mental state I’d had as my “normal baseline” for years: intrusive memories, intense fear, anger, sadness, shock. Over the course of my decade of recovery treatment for PTSD, I’d accumulated a stockpile of mental artillery to respond to the aftermath of traumatic events. I put them into practice.

On Wednesday, when a friend told me she couldn’t concentrate and was “in a fog,” so much so that she accidentally dropped a plate of food where she thought there was a counter, I recommended she avoid the media. How many times did we need to see the bombs go off, or hear the screams of terror as we watched spectators and runners collapse or flee? Once was enough: we understood the depth of destruction and pain.

In our attempts to mobilize, to emotionally arm, there’s a fine line between facing facts and re-traumatizing ourselves, the latter of which causes further harm.

But Friday, I couldn’t turn off the TV or Internet. As I watched events unfold, I felt numbness climb from my feet to DSCN1278my limbs to the top of my head. I trembled with the fear of traumatic experience.  The tenants who live below me weren’t home. Hannah and Sam, the “rescue” cats, were now sleeping.

I felt isolated.

For a time, I couldn’t receive or make calls – phone service was flooded – though I could get voicemails and texts. I posted status updates on Facebook. Thirty-nine and single, I tweeted, “It’s 1 of those times when I wish I didn’t live alone.”

I wanted to hug someone. I wanted to be hugged.

To my surprise, people I knew and people I’d never met reached out: Novelist Sarah McCoy responded, “I empathize. One of the scariest few days of my life was being in apt alone during hurricane.” Boston Globe blogger and professor friend Delia Cabe wrote, “Yes, at least you can talk to us here. I’ve had those moments when I was isolated like that.” Author Jenna Blum tweeted, “You’re not alone. The Twitterverse is with you.”

For the next several hours, social media was my home base. I baked a pumpkin loaf cake and posted a photo. Others listed what they’d contribute to our “lockdown potluck.” Sam came into the living room then, begging as usual for dinner. I opened a window: Hannah hopped up to look out at the world.

DSCN1271Saturday morning, the terror over, I left Hannah and Sam, and my apartment, and walked down the street, reveling in such basic freedom. I took the T to Harvard Square, where I ran into an acquaintance and her friend at Starbucks. We shared a table and our shellshock. As we chatted over coffee and tea, I learned that they too lived alone, aside from their one or two felines. While our pets always provide us a source of companionship, during the lockdown we felt a keen separateness from the world, a longing for people.

We were relieved now, in arm’s reach. We embraced each other, and the simple pleasure of living.


cs-gy-88x31-4 What were you, and your pets, doing during the lockdown? Share your experiences and other comments below.


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Hannah, the contented.

I still haven’t mastered the art of the vet visit.

This week was Hannah’s annual checkup. Last year, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that affects the liver, and includes such symptoms as vomiting and a lack of appetite. After months of steroid treatment, in October her liver level tested at the higher end of the normal range, so Dr. Parker recommended a re-test in six months, before then if her eating habits or behavior changed. During these past few months, Hannah’s appetite has remained normal – although she won’t eat her entire meal in one gulp (in the fashion of her brother Sam), she does finish her food, most days. Of course, the night before her annual vet visit, when I took out the cat carrier, she refused half of her dinner, and, for hours, Sam hid under the bed.


Sam, always the prankster.

Going to the vet holds a host of anxieties for the cat, but for the human, especially this human who has PTSD, it’s a whole production of mental and physical coordination. In years’ past, a vet visit would completely unhinge my ability to hold a thought in my head, and would send my mind back into the terror of my childhood. I’d have to refer to my pre-scripted (on a Post-It) list of statements and questions for Dr. Parker. Now, I manage to “keep calm and carry on” as well as can be expected when one is trying to get an unwilling cat into a carrier and transport her to a vet clinic in time for the appointment: layers of fur on one’s shirt, and some sadness and/or guilt for the inability to explain to the feline that she is safe and you’re not giving her away, will always be a given (for me, at least).

Five years ago, Hannah almost died of life-threatening pancreatitis and I’ve tiptoed around her ever since, fearing I might otherwise upset her to the point of psychosomatic-induced death. I worried about her wellbeing at times to the point of driving friends (and Dr. Parker) crazy. It’s taken a long time to work through my visceral fear of losing this being whom I love.

DSCN1224This year, on the verge of her tenth birthday, Hannah, at a trim 7.95 pounds, has received a clean bill of health. Dr. Parker says she has one of the best teeth he’s seen in a ten-year-old kitty (and I’ve never brushed her teeth, as I have to do for Sam). And, the great news: Hannah’s liver is functioning normally. She has exhibited a change in behavior – she has become quite insistent on cuddling on the garret chaise, during which time she rubs her wet nose and mouth, forehead and ears, all over my hands until my palms are drenched and my arms are covered with fur; she has also begun a practice of sticking her butt in my face for minutes at a time, which, Dr. Parker says, is simply her way of asking me to scratch her back near her tail, something she never liked before. I’d thought she’d been trying to tell me something was wrong, like she was the time she developed struvite crystals in her urine and kept running her tail (which was wet with pee) along my hand.

“Do you have any questions?” Dr. Parker asked.

For the first time in a long while, I didn’t. I felt suddenly relieved and happy, and my body relaxed. “I guess I just have to get used to the fact that Hannah is healthy.”

“Yes,” said Dr. Parker. “No more kid gloves for her.”

I tend to think of a cat’s lifespan – both physical and emotional – as reflective of a human’s, but at warp speed. Hannah has reflected to me the salvaged life of an abuse survivor, a kind of healing I never thought was truly attainable. I’ve always questioned its veracity. Now, I know such recovery is real, and to be trusted.




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Hannah, after feeling the earthquake.

Where’d the last month go?

After my post about taking Hannah and Sam to the vet, life seemed to get a little more than crazy, beginning with Maine’s 4.0 earthquake on October 16, which caused the garret to shake quite noticeably.

Hannah was on edge for hours, anticipating an aftershock, while Sam simply went back to playing.

Mother nature struck the east coast again two days before Halloween with Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately, the garret never lost power, nor did it sustain any damage, though it did sway quite a bit due to the high winds. I was saddened to see so many places I knew as a girl growing up on Long Island ravaged by the storm, with some areas obliterated. Many of my friends in New York and New Jersey are still without power. We’re hoping for a speedy recovery for all who’ve been so badly affected.

When what we’ve always had is taken from us, our lives are shaken. Our sense of how the world works, our daily routine, is turned upside down. It’s during disorienting and grief-laden times like these that it’s important to remember what we do have, what we can hold onto: our connections with others, both human and animal.

This past week, after getting the flu shot, I became quite ill, which meant I was stuck in the garret for many days. Hannah and Sam kept me company: Hannah hopped up beside me on the garret chaise, where she curled up for hours, purring and nudging her head and paws into my arms. Sam, on the other hand, provided comic relief, entertaining himself (and me) by dashing back and forth through a toy tube. For the video, click here.

As these November days bring us closer to Thanksgiving, I’d like to express my gratitude to the family and friends who are a part of my life, to Hannah and Sam for teaching me every day to appreciate the little things, and to all the readers who keep tuned in to the Hannah Grace blog. Keep your comments coming.

And for another Sam video, click here.


Please share what you’re grateful for in the comment box below!


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Who doesn’t dread the annual vet visit? This morning, we had Sam’s. And Hannah came along for her three-month liver level blood test re-check. Ten minutes in, my shirt was covered with a full coat of orange tabby fur.

I removed the carriers from storage yesterday evening to reinforce a “we come in peace” vibe, but Sam didn’t buy it. He hid behind the cat tree for hours, from time to time letting out a few tiny mewls that sounded like “no, no, I won’t go.” He came out of hiding only when it was time for his nightly dessert of crunchy duck and green pea kibble, and even then he was wary, snatching a mouthful and then dashing into my room and under the bed. Hannah, on the other hand, hopped up beside me on the chaise and purred to her heart’s content. I don’t know if that was because the carrier didn’t bother her, or because she was happy Sam wasn’t bothering her.

Sam: “I’m NOT going to the vet.”

This morning, I knew Sam was going to sound like a human being who was in the throes of bloody murder. But somehow I thought it wouldn’t be that bad. I put Hannah in her carrier first, backing into the bathroom and lowering her down into a soft over-the-shoulder bag she fits in quite prettily. Because Sam, when confined, tries to ram his body to freedom with a running leap, the hard plastic carrier with the metal door is reserved for him. This morning, he whimpered and cried when I approached, and, although I spoke to him quietly, he took out his hind claws in fear. I had to scruff him in order to prevent injury to myself and to him from all his flailing of limbs. Then he began to scream.

His tones were blood-curdling. As quickly as possible, I went down the Alfred Hitchcock-steep no-railing garret stairwell with them both, hoping the neighbors weren’t thinking I was actually murdering someone. When I got them both and myself into the car, I took a few rounds of breaths before turning the key in the ignition. Such screaming triggered the adrenaline rush and thought-racing symptoms that characterize my PTSD.

The garret living room furniture, during my attempts to get Sam into the carrier.

“It’s okay, Sammy,” I said. “We’ll be home soon.” Then Hannah began to whine. “I don’t like this either,” I said, as if they could understand. Then I shifted the car into gear and drove the few blocks to the clinic.

I’d brought a sample of Sam’s stool in a couple days earlier, having found a suspicious worm on the garret bathroom floor and again where Sam had been sitting in the living room. It wasn’t roundworm, that I knew (from having seen one of those last year when he tested positive), but I needed to be sure it wasn’t another kind of parasite. Thankfully, the results were negative, though Dr. Parker, our vet, said it might be a false negative if the infestation weren’t yet too far along. For precautionary reasons, he gave Sam a dewormer. Now I get to watch for (more) worms. If I see any, Hannah will have to be pilled as well.

The vet tech came and went with Hannah, and returned her while Dr. Parker was examining Sam: all was well. Sam climbed up on my shoulder then, and tucked his nose into my neck and wailed while we discussed his at times aggressive behavior with Hannah, and how to manage it. I told Sam he could go back into the carrier then, and he started to climb the walls (literally), and scream. For a moment, however, he found comfort in the scale, which stated he weighed a healthy 11.3 pounds.

After what seemed like forever, the visit was over. As I stood at the checkout counter to pay my bill, I thought I smelled something foul. Was it Sam’s breath? Dr. Parker had said I was brushing Sam’s teeth well. Perhaps it was a wet dog. When I got into the car, I smelled it again. It was raining outside, I told myself, it could just be my musty old car. But I knew: someone had pooped.

Back at the garret, I let Hannah and Sam out of their respective carriers, and there I saw Sam’s panic-induced diarrhea in the darkness of the large plastic crate. He somehow managed to pile it all deep in the back, under his leopard-printed foot rug.

I’m sure Sam will forgive me… at least by dinnertime. Hannah, meanwhile, nudged her forehead into my leg a few times when I collapsed on the living room floor. We’ll find out her liver test result tomorrow. For now, it’s nap time.


How do your pets react when you bring them to the vet? How do you cope? Share your experiences and comments below.


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My days tend to be crowded with “productive” things to do: preparing for the upcoming teaching term, going to PTSD treatment, working out at the gym, paying the bills, picking up cat food, revising my new book. So I decided August would be the month I would finally get myself a “fun” project: clicker training.

Clicker training is something I’ve tried once before – a few years ago, as a volunteer at the Animal Rescue League, I went to a one-time seminar on the subject, specifically geared towards training cats for adoptability: acceptable behavior as well as cute tricks. Dogs are known for doing quite well with the clicker; cats are a little more difficult to train, but it’s done. At the time, I brought home my complimentary clicker to see if I could train Hannah to sit on my lap. As soon as I depressed the clicker, however, Hannah flinched at the sound. Some cats need a few clicks to get used to it – pair the sound with a delicious treat and they’re supposed to associate pleasure with the clicker. Not Hannah. So I tossed the clicker, and let Hannah be.

This past June, one of my writing mentors in Washington, D.C. emailed to tell me she was successfully clicker training her two cats. She taught them not only to sit and “come here,” but to do tricks such as standing on their hind legs and raising their front paws. She described how much fun it was for both her and her cats. I thought about Sam, how he cries for me to feed him an hour before mealtime and tries to steal Hannah’s food, and how he gets territorial and aggressive at times when I’m brushing Hannah. I’ve tried to ignore him, put him in a “time-out,” and otherwise not reward the behavior, to no avail. So I thought I could train him and as a result alleviate a growing tension in the garret household.

I bought a new clicker and the training book Naughty No More!, a publication put out by Cat Fancy, which my writing mentor recommended. (Of course when I typed in the title on Amazon, it came up with rather pornographic literature before I finally realized I ought to type in the additional word, “cats,” along with the name of the book.) I also bought two bags of treats, which I tested out on Sam before the arrival of the clicker and training materials – he thought they were scrumptious.

Once the clicker and book arrived, I read the instructions from cover to cover, excited to begin. The book’s foreward discussed the idea behind changing unwanted behaviors through positive reinforcement: “”Clicker training is actually fun for both you and your cat. …It’s a win/win situation for the cat and [his] human family.” Unfortunately, Sam did not make it even to the first trained behavior titled “Please Touch The Target,” because he was terrified of the clicker. When I clicked the clicker and tossed him a treat, he ran faster than I’ve seen him run since he was a kitten, and hid under my bed for the next hour. I thought, ok, perhaps he needs to get used to the sound. No – Sam’s reaction got worse. After the fourth total click (spread out across three days), he acted as if I’d administered an electric shock. As a sort of post-script, the book does say one can use a retractable pen for a more gentle “click” sound, should the cat be “shy” around the clicker, however when I took out a pen Sam took one look at it and ran away to hide for another hour. Hannah, on the other hand, simply sat there watching, as if she was bored.

The next time Sam began to cry for his dinner, I took out the clicker and clicked once. His crying ceased for thirty minutes after that. So I decided to keep the clicker and to use it for the complete opposite reason for which it was made: to deter behavior, not to reward it. I’m not sure how long this will last. Honestly, I hate depressing the clicker, because Sam seems so chagrined when I do.

I have trained Sam to sit, but not with the clicker. When I’m carrying a dish of kibble, Sam meows and quacks and dances around my feet. I tell him “sit” and he circles my legs and taps my calves with his tail. I say it again, “sit” and he lowers his rear and looks up at me, continuing to quack. “Shh,” I say, “no meowing or quacking.” He can hardly contain himself. Finally, when he’s sitting and quiet and almost bursting with delight, I deliver his reward: dinner.


Have you tried to train your pets? Share your experiences and other thoughts in the comment box below.


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