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Treethanasia

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“I have a tree, which grows here in my close, that mine own use invites me to cut down, and shortly must I fell it…” ~William Shakespeare (Timon of Athens, V, i)

A few days ago I had to have a huge shade tree in my backyard cut down.  Not just pruned, but completely cut down.  I still feel pretty bad about it so I thought writing about it might ease my timbering guilt a little.  This is the tale of its treethanasia in pictures.

My house is almost 30 years old; I’m pretty sure the tree, a Bradford Pear, was planted when the house was built or shortly thereafter, because all the arborists who looked at it for me (to assess its health and give me bids on taking it down) told me they estimated its age at 25-30 years.  All of them also said it was at the end of its life span, that Bradfords rarely (and/or safely) make it past that age.  Here’s a picture of it at its full shady glory in my backyard:

IMG_5522It provided a huge canopy of welcome shade for the walkway on the side of my house and a large portion of my backyard ever since I moved in 4 years ago.  It also protected me from some rain when going back and forth to my flower shed.  The tallest part of it was easily twice as tall as my house.  I liked the dark glen it provided to look at outside my windows on that side of the house.IMG_5521As much as I liked the shade, I was equally very frustrated by its continual leaf drop seemingly twelve months out of the year, covering the porch and backyard in leaf litter and clogging my rain gutters, leading to muck and mosquitos.  Branches would rub against the roof and chimney, waking me up during windstorms and allowing creatures such as armadillos and squirrels an easy route to ramble along the roof whenever they wanted.

IMG_5524But then in the fall, it would redeem itself with an explosion of color for a short while, leaving a pool of nature’s confetti to slush through.

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IMG_0304I’ve learned over the past few months that Bradfords are very rapidly-growing trees and because of this, they often grow with many points of instability.  They split into many different joints and trunks and because of this, water and leaves pool in the wells in-between those joints and trunks, causing rot and weakness.  They are often the first trees to fall and/or split during wind or rain storms, especially as they get older like my tree was.  I learned this the hard way a few months ago, when this happened:

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IMG_5193A huge portion of the tree just split at the ground level and fell crashing through the fence into the neighbor’s yard (onto their porch roof).  It was several days before I could get some guys to come remove that part of the tree and repair the fence.  They painted the open-faced wound with “tree scar” tar to try to prevent it from rotting further, but they told me that eventually the whole tree would probably have to come down.

About two months and an arkful of Austin rainstorms later, I noticed a disgusting oozing amber gel-like substance on the other huge tree in my backyard, a pecan tree.  All the arborists who came to look at it said it was a harmless jelly fungus due to all the rain, but they also all pointed out that the Bradford was in imminent danger of now falling again, and that this time it was going to fall onto my roof and house because all the weight was now on that one side.

So, a few weeks later I found a company that would cut the tree down for a reasonable price.  On the morning of its imminent demise, before the worker guys showed up, I went outside to put my hands on its trunk; it was a living thing that had survived several decades, and I felt guilty that I was the one taking away its livingness.  Maybe I should have felt silly saying “I’m sorry, tree,” but instead I just felt sad.  (I knew however that I’d be much sadder if and when it fell on my house and I had to shell out an even bigger sum for my home insurance deductible, so it had to be done.)

The tree guys showed up and didn’t waste any time.  One guy harnessed himself high up in the tree and started cutting branches, which quickly covered the yard and porch; the other two guys would use their own chainsaws to cut the branches down even further and drag them out to the trailer behind their truck.

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Can you see him there in the middle of the tree?

IMG_5528It went pretty quickly after that.  I tried not to watch but I couldn’t look away.  I figured I was the one ending its life…I might as well document it and be there to face it.  The chainsaw whittling continued and the tree got stubbier and thinner.  More and more of the green part of the tree disappeared each few minutes.

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IMG_5533Until finally all the green was gone and only branches were left.

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IMG_5536And then only the bottom of the trunk remained.  When he cut into it horizontally for the very last cut at ground level, part of the huge trunk split in two vertically on its own, that’s how weak it was at its lowest level.  I had made the right decision; it really was on its last legs.

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This part of the trunk sat there for a long time while everything else was cleaned up. I felt a great sense of loss.

30 years of growing into the skies had now been reduced to a large leafy pile in a trailer to be hauled away.

IMG_5541And what was left was a large empty spot, a blank fence, and…sunshine.  So much sun, shining down on my two Mountain Laurel trees and ground jasmine that probably haven’t seen or felt true sunshine like that in decades.  And sun shining through my windows, making my house lighter than it’s ever been.

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IMG_5543I know it was just a tree, and that it didn’t have a brain or nerve endings so it couldn’t feel pain, but did it somehow know that its life was coming to an end?  I don’t know…I also don’t know why I’m worrying about this, I should just be annoyed that this tree has cost me about 40 times what someone probably paid for it back when it was planted.  It had a good life.  And life does go on, from the dark into the light.

IMG_5517And as I sit here writing this, streams of sunlight are shining in my eyes through the window for the first time.  It’s nice.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

I Miss the Smell of Popcorn Paws

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“Now the dog all this while sheds not a tear nor speaks a word; but see how I lay the dust with my tears.” ~ William Shakespeare (Two Gentlemen of Verona II, iii)

This is a tough post for me to write, and warning: may be tough to read. There have been some walloping events in the past few years that each made up the individual cogs of my emotional tailspin machine from which I’m now slowly emerging. A painful separation and divorce started it all. Less than a year after that, I lost my rambunctious four year-old dog Teddy too soon. One month later I left the hometown I’d known all my life and moved everything to Austin.

But what really shook me to the core, the final straw, was losing my remaining dog Foxy. A miniature poodle with the official AKC fancy-pants name of “Kristi’s Foxy Sox,” she was my faithful companion for 15 long years. She had one white back foot (hence the Sox part of the name), a white chest, and soft curly light red hair – just like a little fox. She was one of three in her litter, the only female and the only redhead. I picked her out when she was only 3 weeks old, and brought her home two weeks after that, the day before Thanksgiving 1995.

The day I brought Foxy home, 1995.

The day I brought Foxy home, 1995.

I’d been divorced for less than a year from my first disastrous marriage when I brought Foxy home to an apartment with green carpet but no yard. I taught her to use a litter box instead, which was weird but effective. For the first few months, I drove home 25 minutes one-way from work each day at lunch to let her out of her crate and play with her for ten minutes before driving back. She became everything to me that I needed: a distraction, a friend, a companion, a shoulder to cry on sometimes…something to love, that loved me back.

And she was so smart! She knew each of her toys by name and could fetch them when called for. She aced her puppy obedience classes with flying colors. She traveled with me on the road when I was recruiting for the university, and knew to be quiet in her crate when I was giving talks to groups of students. I hung a bell from the front door knob and she learned to ring it with her nose when she wanted to go outside.

"I'm posing for you in my snazzy red sweater."

“I’m posing for you in my snazzy red sweater.”

When she was six months old, we moved into a house with (finally) a big yard space for her and a doggy door. She was my impetus for even buying a home in the first place, and I picked the house with her in mind. When, three years later, I left to go to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, leaving her behind was by far the most emotional part of the journey. I’ll always be grateful to my family members for keeping her and taking care of her while I was gone during that time. My Dad told me that in the first few days and weeks after I left, Foxy would sleep upstairs in “my” room on the sweatshirt I’d left for her, and during the day would wait watching at the front window and door for me to come home. (I cried like a baby when I read that in his letters he sent to me in Africa.)

Waiting patiently.

Waiting patiently.

I never had (human) children of my own. And yes, I was one of those pet-owners that doted on their dogs as if they were kids. Time passed, and when Foxy was ten, I decided to get her a companion; I’d read that adding a puppy to a household with an older dog could help prolong their lives. So we got Teddy, a chocolate-brown miniature poodle who was seriously obsessed with tennis balls and pretty much drove poor Foxy crazy with her frenetic energy.

Foxy & Teddy

Foxy & Teddy

But in a cruel twist of fate, Teddy was the first to go; unbeknownst to us, she’d been born with an auto-immune disease that led to eventual kidney failure. I had four great years with her, but much of that time was spent taking care of her illness and watching her go in and out of remission. She was the first dog I ever had to euthanize, and it was incredibly difficult. I found myself hoping that Foxy would just go peacefully one day in her old age, but that didn’t happen either.

Less than a year after moving to Austin, I noticed a weird brown growth in the corner of Foxy’s eye as I was grooming her one day. Her regular vet referred us to a canine ophthalmologist (yes those exist) and after a biopsy result, confirmed that it was a rare type of optic cancer, in the lining of the eye socket. Over the next eight months, she would have four eye surgeries to remove the tumor that kept growing back. She was a trooper through it all, taking it in stride and seeming content to just lay on my lap as much as possible and continue to be my little shadow.

Back Camera

She was 15 now; she walked slower, ate less, slept more. She needed steps to get up on the bed that she once leapt on with ease, and started losing weight. She also went almost completely deaf. After the fourth surgery, the vet said there was no other option left other than to just take the eye completely out, and even that was not a guarantee that the cancer would not return. I waffled, knowing full well I was doing most of this for my selfish benefit; I didn’t want to let her go. At first I agreed to do the eye-removal surgery. Then feeling guilty, I cancelled it.

Two days after my birthday, and in the middle of the Tour de France while I was on a three-week vacation from work, I watched as Foxy no longer could go outside through her doggy door; it was too painful to her sutured and bruised eye to use her head to push the door open. She turned and looked at me with such a sad look on her face as if to say “I’m so sorry,” and it was then that I knew. My heart broke into a million pieces as I picked her up and carried her outside. While she stood there looking at me, I called her vet and somehow formed the words to ask if he’d meet us the next day at his practice. He said yes.

Foxy slept that night as she had for much of the past 15 years – curled up next to me on the bed, in the crook of my arm, under the blanket. She didn’t know it was her last night, but I did, and it was agony. I watched her for most of the night, remembering everything we’d been through over the past decade and a half. I cried an ocean of tears over those next twelve hours. I took a hundred pictures of her. I held her as we lounged on the swing outside, sitting in her favorite swath of sunshine.

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At the vet’s office, I apologized to her and thanked her, and held her tight on my lap as I told her how much I loved her. She looked at me with quiet eyes and leaned into me. Her soft ears were wet with my tears and our faces were touching as she went to sleep for the last time, just me and her together as we’d been for so long. I held my dog child in my arms as she died. It was peaceful for her, and her pain was gone. It was the most gut-wrenching experience of my life.

I slept on the couch for the next month. I dreamed of her, a lot, and she would appear to me so real that I’d reach out to touch her. A few times I woke up swearing I’d heard her collar tags jingling in the hallway. Her dog bowls and daytime sleeping bed remained in their places, empty, but comforting somehow. But how I ached. Physically, emotionally, I was just drained completely of everything. How can that be, one might ask – she was just a dog. She wasn’t human.

And yet it broke me. Losing her felt like losing the rest of everything.

Now, all of a sudden, it’s been two years. Last year on that day, I was in rainy England, and found myself sitting on a park bench outside the church where Shakespeare is buried. I sat under a weeping willow tree and gazed out at the rising river, and remembered Foxy. Leaving the riverbank, I wandered along the deserted wet roads and eventually found myself in a cluttered antique store. As I was looking through a case at a tray of silver charms all jumbled together, something caught my eye. Down in the right hand corner, looking up at me through the glass, sitting just above a heart-shaped charm: a little silver perfect poodle. Yes, of course I bought it. You don’t ignore a sign like that.

My view that day.

My view that day.

I wore that charm on a chain around my neck almost every day for the past year. Until today – when I looked down at my chain and the charm was gone. Inexplicably, sadly, just gone. The other charms are still there, but not that one. Another sign? It’s what prompted me to write this post today. I’d been thinking of writing it for cathartic reasons, but couldn’t bring myself to do it until now.

Many have asked why I haven’t gotten another dog yet. Sometimes I think I am ready, especially now that I have this extra time on my hands and am not away from the house ten or eleven hours at a time. I remember how fun it is to have a dog who loves you no matter what and is so happy to see you when you get home, no matter how long you’ve been gone. I remember the joy of having something to take care of and be responsible for, the comfort and the companionship. It’s definitely one of life’s UNunhappy experiences, when it’s good.

But it’s a lot of responsibility, having a dog. Vet bills, grooming, walks, training – it’s a commitment that takes a lot of work and for me, a lot of worry. And, the memory of the nearly-unbearable pain when you lose something that you love so much is still pretty fresh. Especially when we as owners have to make that choice to humanely take their pain away, it’s an indescribable heartache – and one I’m not sure I want to or can go through again. I don’t know what to do. Is Foxy is giving me a little nudge from wherever she is, saying it’s time for a new start…a new charm?

I just don’t know. I miss Foxy like crazy, including the little things like her prancy walk and the butter popcorn smell of the pads on her feet. She was such a good dog, and no other one could ever take her place. But – I’ll keep you updated if and when any wet noses and furry feet make their way into my life again. I’m starting to think it’s possible. And maybe I’ll look for another charm too, when the time is right.

Thanks for listening and reading. À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Extreme Foxy close-up

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