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  • Writer's pictureValerie Brooke, MD

Make Friends with Reality

I had been looking forward to going to Yosemite for years. We finally lived in a place that was within easy driving distance. I could look upon El Capitan, that shard of a peak a seriously crazy climber had scaled without ropes and National Geographic had made a documentary about. The previous summer’s Yosemite trip was postponed due to the forest fires causing many weeks of smoke and ash that stirred up my asthma. This year was about to be a carbon copy of last year, when not one but two fires broke out near Yosemite. I was going to lose half of our deposit on the cabin we rented, and I was so disappointed. Another week off from work that would end up being a COVID-like isolated “staycation.” The world had opened back up, but I would be stuck at home.

As luck would have it, one fire was rather quickly contained, and eventually the other, slowly over the days and weeks prior to our scheduled trip. The skies were clear. It was a go. I packed with excitement and bustling energy, imagining all the stunning views I would take with my new camera lens. I needed to brush on my photography skills, but there would be plenty of time for that. I anticipated photos of Half Dome, lush meadows, and scenic waterfalls.

We got the car all packed up, a little behind schedule, but we would be there in time to do a short hike to a waterfall that my daughter had told us we could not miss. We looked around for our cats, Bandit and Strider, to say goodbye and reassure them they would be in good hands with our cat sitter Debi. Bandit was in his usual spot, curled up in a ball in his cat stand, oblivious to all the scurrying around, barely opening his eyes when we rubbed him. Where was Strider?

We looked in his usual places. Not there. We looked in his hiding places, figuring he was probably scared we were going to take him to the groomers again, something he despises as much as a bath. Not there either. We got out the treat bag and shook it all over the house, something that usually would cause him to come running, like kitty crack. Huh. Maybe he got outside somehow when we were loading up the car. So, we looked outside, calling his name, shaking the treat bag. Nothing. No Strider. And he didn’t have his collar on.

I quickly went through the first few stages of Kubler Ross’s stages of grief and loss. We left the house to go get a bagel, thinking that maybe we were scaring him, and he was hiding just outside the home. We would return from the bagel shop, and he would be waiting for us. This was my denial. When we returned and he was still nowhere to be found, I was so pissed off that he had disappeared. How could he do this to us on the day we were supposed to leave for Yosemite? I vowed that if he was truly gone, I would not allow us to get another cat. This was my anger.

Then as the reality sunk in that he was gone, for how long who knew, I bargained with my husband. How about if I left for Yosemite and he could wait a day or two to see if Strider showed up? Then he could drive and meet me there. What felt worse? Staying home and missing our vacation, or leaving with the possibility that he may show up and we would not be there to let him in? It was reminding us of a traumatic time in the past when we moved from Yakima to Reno six years earlier. Several days prior to our leaving, our cat Smoky disappeared. We searched and searched, put up flyers, drove around the neighborhood countless times, went to the humane society to see if someone had dropped him off. We cried as we drove out of town, and he never came home. Would Strider be added to the list of cats we had lost? Were we bad cat owners?

I dropped onto the couch out in the garage while tears rolled down my cheek. I was not crying over the lost cat. I was crying over the lost vacation. Even if it was only missing a day, a day in the restorative power of the mountains, the place I needed to fill my soul, I was crushed. I felt so defeated and powerless. Just like that, a missing cat changed everything. We decided to go inside and watch some TV, to get our minds off reality. First, we unloaded the perishable groceries from the car and returned them to the fridge. As we settled into the couch, I realized that it wouldn’t be so bad to just spend the week at home. A staycation would be fine. I would make the best of it. I had accepted and made friends with reality. It is what it is, I told myself.

After finishing up a great series Irma Vep, I called my daughter to tell her the news. It was lunchtime by now, the sun high in the sky. I was standing in the kitchen and telling Erinna how we had lost Strider and couldn’t go to Yosemite in case he showed up. She asked me if we had looked in all his hiding places, and I assured her yes, we had. Bandit rubbed up against my leg as he headed over to the automatic food dispenser to get his lunch. I looked down at him, and there, instead of Bandit, was Strider. I shouted out “There he is!” He looked up at me as if to say, “yes, I’ve been here all along, what’s the problem?” I started laughing and crying at the same time. He must have disappeared into some black hole in the house and now had magically re-appeared. All was not lost. Strider was not lost. Our vacation was not lost. Definitely delayed but nothing we couldn’t adjust to.

I struggled so hard with the reality of temporally losing Strider. I passed through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, sorrow, and then briefly, acceptance. I wondered, if I had skipped all the in between stages and moved right to acceptance, would he have showed up earlier? It was all a lesson in disappointment, expectations, and acceptance of reality. And now, here I am in Yosemite, polishing off my camera lens, heading out to see the majestic mountain peaks.

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