Princess Gantt—For The Birds
By: Casey Gauntt
January 6, 2012
I awoke—well I got out of bed, I’d been awake for a half hour or so—around 6:30. I went downstairs to turn on the heater (we hate the autopilot), got the papers and came back upstairs to make coffee. Dating myself, I know. We continue to receive daily delivery of two newspapers made from real paper and ink: the San Diego Union Tribune for local sports and news, and the Los Angeles Times, because the Tribune otherwise sucks. Jimmy’s 21 year old cat Princess was curled up under our kitchen table in the throw blanket from the couch we had placed her in the night before. She had spent most of yesterday in that same spot. She hasn’t been able to go up or down the stairs the last two days. Her food and kitty box are in the garage. She hadn’t moved an inch from the night before. Her eyes were half open. I thought she might be gone. I called to her—no response, but I momentarily forgot, she’s deaf—and then I touched her tail sticking stiffly out from under the blanket. She lifted her head sluggishly, made a woeful whimper and put her head back down on the throw rug.
Hilary got up about twenty minutes later. We had discussed the night before taking Princess to the vet this morning to have her put down if she wasn’t any better. I asked Hilary if that was still the plan. She resisted—was hesitant—”I’m not sure…” and then emphatically stated “I can’t do it!” I asked her if that meant she didn’t want Princess put down. She initially said she didn’t know, but then quickly added “No, it needs to be done, but I can’t go. I can’t do it. You’ve never been to the vet before—it’s horrible—she hates it, she moans and cries the entire time—I don’t want that to be my last memory of her. Most of my friends have their husbands do this.”
Ouch. I nudged, “So, you’re OK with it if I take her in and have her put to sleep?”
“I think so. I don’t know.” Hilary was very upset.
“I’m going to go downstairs and get on the computer” I said. “Have some breakfast and think about it.”
I went downstairs and as I turned on the computer I could hear Hilary crying upstairs. It had already been a hell of a week. My 90 year old mother had fallen down in her house in Encinitas where she lives alone the day before New Year’s. I spent all night with her in the emergency room at Scripps Hospital in Encinitas and then Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla where she was later transferred. She fractured her left arm and was having difficulty breathing. Two days ago we’d moved her into a skilled nursing facility in Del Mar where she was promptly diagnosed with pneumonia. I was shocked when they weighed my mom at the emergency room—108 pounds. She’d lost more than 30 pounds within the last year and at 5’9” she was literally skin and bone. Just like Princess.
As soon as I sat down at my desk in “Jimmy’s room” that we’ve kind of morphed into a home office, and flicked on my computer—within a matter of seconds— a little brown bird, a finch I think, flew up to the window pane in front of me, at eye level, and sat briefly on the narrow sill. He (maybe she) then flew back to a perch on a nearby hedge. A few moments later, the bird flew back to the sill of the same window, this time making a few pecks on the pane before buzzing off to the top of a tree trimming tool leaning up against the hedge. The bird was highly excited and possibly agitated. There was another finch, maybe a mate, flitting around but that one didn’t come up to the window. We have lots of finches around the house, particularly at the northern end of our property where we keep a regularly stocked bird feeder, and they hang out, and probably nest, in the eight foot ivy hedge that separates our back yard from our neighbor’s to the west.
But the behavior of this particular bird—I had never seen anything like it. In the three minutes I sat at my desk, this tiny brown bird flew back and forth to the same window pane at least twenty times. Upon landing upon the sill, he (I don’t know why I assume it was a male) would peer in and look at me and peck on the window—completely unafraid. It was as though he was deliberately trying to get my attention—desperate even. I knew this wasn’t a coincidence. This had never happened before. Never has a bird flown up and sat on the sill, looked in at me and pecked away as though he was trying to get inside. Something was going on and I was quite certain it had everything to do with Princess.
“What is it?” I asked the bird. “What are you trying to tell me? Do you not want me to take Princess to the vet? Or do you want me to? What is it? Tell us what to do.”
I grabbed my camera from my desk, and when the bird flew back to the window I snapped off a couple of photos. I thought it might be important to keep a record of this.
I ran back upstairs and in a fit of excitement told Hilary about the bird.
“You’ve got to see this bird downstairs! I’ve never seen anything like it. I think I’ll take Princess downstairs to see it. Maybe Jimmy wants to see Princess.”
So I knelt under the kitchen table, and gently removed the blanket I had tucked around Princess the night before. Beneath her head was the partially digested cat food Hilary and given her yesterday afternoon. Hilary said she dragged her hind legs as she made her way over to the food dish she placed upstairs. Princess had thrown it up. When I picked her up her hind legs and forepaws were stiff and one was covered with vomit which Hilary quickly cleaned. “I think she’s paralyzed,” I said. I carried her downstairs to see the bird. We stood before the window for a minute or so, but the bird didn’t appear. Princess was having a hard time breathing and I could tell she was very uncomfortable with me holding her. I took her back upstairs.
Hilary was already on the phone to the vet’s office. It was now almost 8:30. Hilary cupped the mouthpiece and relayed that we could bring her in at 10:30 but I told Hilary I didn’t think she’d make it that long. Hilary asked-begged to bring her in right away. The nurse said she would call us back as soon as the doctor got in. I lay Princess back in her blanket. Five minutes later the vet called back and said they could see her now.
I went down to get the box—the dreaded box—we, that is Hilary, has used over the last twenty plus years to transport Princess to the vet or the pet ‘resort’ that she detests with equanimity. There was a strip of masking tape on the box that must have been put there by the vet or the resort-detention facility upon which had been written with a black magic marker “Princess Gantt.” Royalty. “Gant” is how our surname was spelled when the clan arose in Belgium in the 11th century. I never thought of Princess as having our last name. Neither had I seen before her misspelled name on the strip of masking tape, but then again, before today, I’d never actually manned-up to take Princess to her abodes of dread.
There was a dish towel of some unknown vintage and level of cleanliness at the bottom of the box which I delicately removed. Hilary found a soft, blue blanket that had been given to us many years ago by Kit and Karen Sickels. I know that because it had their Lost Man clothing line logo emblazoned on a corner. I folded it up and placed it in the bottom of the box—never ‘her box’—Princess would roll over before staking a claim to this pathetic piece of cardboard with cute dainty paw prints stamped on the outside. The inside of the box was scarred with the scratches and tears fueled by terror. I gently lifted Princess and placed her in the box on the pillow-like blanket. She didn’t make a sound. She was in very bad shape. I carried her and the box downstairs, placed them in the back of my not even one month old black Prius IV and headed off to the vet only a few minutes away with the simple directions Hilary had supplied.
It seems strange to me that I remember every single detail of what happened over the course of the next twenty minutes—as if each moment was a singularly significant point in the continuum we refer to as time. Every moment as clear as a photograph in my mind—as if I was compelled to remember this—a compilation of memories inventoried for instant access—like my vivid dreams.
We were expected when we burst into the reception area of Academy Animal Hospital and it looked like we were the first patients. Dr. Lou Serrano immediately met us and took us back into one of the examination rooms. He quickly examined Princess and sadly surmised the obvious “She’s almost gone. Would you like for me to ease her suffering?” I did. He left the room for a moment. When he came back with the syringe and a vial of something he asked me kindly “Would you like to be here for this?” I did. He soothingly found Princess’ barely beating heart and deftly slid his needle in. Princess didn’t move and gratefully did not appear to feel a thing. Her heart stopped within seconds and peacefully slipped over to the next.
I barely got out a “Yes, please.” My throat was constricted and something was filling up my eyes. I wanted to tell him “I can’t believe I’m starting to cry. She’s not even my cat!” Dr. Serrano patted my shoulder again, closed the door behind him and I completely broke down into sobs. Everything flooded in. Princess and I had our routines—she depended on me for some things, and I her, more than I’d cared to acknowledge. We more than tolerated one another. She’d been part of our family for a long, long time and I already missed her. She was a Gauntt. She was family. She lived in our house longer than either of our children.
But of course there was a lot more going on—I’d felt it the moment I woke up and I really felt it now. I knew it instantly when the bird showed up and was flying back and forth to the window. Jimmy was all around us. Of course he would be here to help his Princess over and make sure she was taken care of in this momentous transition in her life. I cried because I so felt him and his love all around, and I missed him more than ever. But I was also happy that he and Princess were now reunited. I imagined her doing her coy little dance, Jimmy tracking her down and stroking her back, pressing his face into her fur and both of them grinning ear to ear. I admit I was envious. All in good time.
After more than a few moments, I wiped my eyes, composed myself and went back into the reception area. The two nurses-assistants were very consoling. They were genuinely sad. I filled out some paperwork and signed up for the private cremation option. The thought of Princess being cremated with several other animals I did not know was somewhat appalling to me. Dr. Serrano came out with Princess’ box and the blanket. I reluctantly took them. I thanked them all for their care and help and left. As soon as I got into the car I called Brittany to let her know what happened. I started crying again and she did too.
I came straight back to the house, threw the box and the blanket in the trash bin and went upstairs to be with Hilary. Hilary mentioned “That bird is still here. He’s been flying back and forth to that same window next to your desk non-stop since you left with Princess. It’s really unbelievable.”
I went downstairs and sat at my desk. Sure enough, within seconds the bird flew up to the same window, looked at me, pecked at the window several times and flew back to the hedge trimmer. Back and forth, back and forth…
What a morning! What a day, week….
But of course the story doesn’t end there.
After another hour or so, I headed downtown to my office. I first stopped by Emeritus in Del Mar to visit my Mom. The antibiotics seemed to be working and she was breathing better. But she was in a lot of pain from her broken arm and very weak and beat up. I’d never seen her like that in all of my almost 62 years- so fragile and vulnerable. I didn’t tell her about Princess—the similarities of their stage in life and disintegrating vessels were too obvious and raw. She sent me on my way after fifteen minutes she so detested being seen in that condition. I told her Hilary and I would be back around 5:30.
I spent a couple of hours or so at the office and can’t remember a single thing I did. More of a distraction than anything else, I suppose. I returned home in the middle of the afternoon. I was exhausted. I went to my desk and turned on my computer. The bird wasn’t around. I downloaded from my camera the photos I’d taken earlier of the bird onto my computer and gave them a quick look. I was disappointed. There was only one photo of the bird. I was too late with the others- the bird had already flown back to the hedge. Then something caught my eye in one of the photos. There was no bird in this frame—it was just window pane and ivy—something in the hedge on one of the leaves—framed by the same pane of glass the bird had been flying up to all morning. What is it? I wondered.
I zoomed in and my heart almost stopped. “What the f____?” I said out loud. It was a man. The head and face of a balding man, in his late 30s, early 40s I guessed, with a full beard and dressed in a collared shirt. I zoomed back out and I could still clearly see the face in the leaf. I zoomed back in and looked around to see if there were any others. Nope, just this one. I looked through my window pane and tried to find the leaf and the face. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I ran outside and examined the ivy where I thought the leaf was. I looked and looked—nothing. No faces, no heads, only plain old leafs of ivy.
I summoned Hilary to my computer and shared the discovery. She was equally blown away and incredulous. So many questions and doubts galore. Was that why the bird was frantically coming to the window? To draw our attention to the leaf beyond? Was it a case of just too much magical thinking—wanting to see something that really wasn’t there? I’ve always imagined faces in the clouds or seen the outline of a face in a rock formation or things like that. Mankind has been doing it forever—seeing bulls and dippers and swords in the stars. A uniquely human trait. And maybe that’s all it was—just my imagination… running away with me. That would make a great line for a song.
But we didn’t imagine the bird or the passing of Princess. There was a lot of energy and emotion swirling around all day. And the thing of it is, I wasn’t looking for a face in the leaf. Usually I only see a face in a cloud or some other mosaic of images after staring at it for awhile—I’m working on conjuring up an image—I’m trying to see something. But in this case, it was the leaf—the face—that caught my eye—as though it/he wanted me to see him. He was looking for me.
Take a look at the photo and judge for yourself. I really don’t have the time or the energy to dwell too much on it. We lost one old Gauntt gal in our family today and I have to quickly refocus on the other one fighting for her life over at Emeritus. I told Mom we’d be there at 5:30 and it’s already 5:25.
The birds hung around for four months. They followed us around the house. When we were in Jimmy’s room they’d take turns flying up to one of the windows there—not necessarily the same one as in the beginning. When we’d go upstairs, they’d fly up and perch on the sill of the large picture window in our dining room, or one of the windows that is off our deck beneath the hummingbird feeder. One of the birds—has to be the same one I saw for the first time on Princess Day-the day that I have officially named to commemorate January 6—was rather maniacal in the way it would flit from one of the chairs on the deck up to the window pane—peck—and then fly back. It would do it hundreds of times, particularly first thing in the morning right after I got the papers. Like an alarm clock. I thought this little creature might be a tad insane.
A friend of ours said she read that birds like to fly up to windows because they are drawn by their reflection in the glass. I did observe on more than one occasion a finch flying up to the side mirrors on my Prius and pecking at its image.
Maybe that’s all this is- a couple of slightly crazy old birds bedazzled by what they so wish to be real.
But, once again, there’s the timing of the thing……
My mother, Barbara Case Gauntt, the regal Queen of our family, passed away on June 11, a few weeks shy of her 91st birthday. Like Princess, her body -but never their minds or spirits- finally gave out. Our next stories, “Happy Birthday, Sis,” and “Happy Birthday, Barb” involve, once again, some of the darnedest things that happen on Birthdays.
Princess Gantt- Postscript No. 2
We recently discovered that something else took place on Princess Day, January 6, 2012. There is frequently ‘one more thing’ that seems to unveil itself in these stories sometimes even months after we thought we’d reached the story’s “end”. This time it was our very talented webmaster, Keith Bennett, who uncovered this one. So, here’s what happened. After I finished editing Princess Gantt- For The Birds, and as I typically do, I sent Keith the story and some of our photographs that go with the piece. I included a couple of photos of Princess—we had surprisingly few— and of course the ones of the bird flying up to the window. I identified for Keith the photo where I spotted the face. Keith, as he does, ran with the story and found some other photos and pertinent information such as the photo of the vet, Dr. Serrano, who took care of Princess. Keith cleaned up the photos, creatively arranged the text and pictures, offered some of his own edits and sent me a preview of the post before publishing it on the site. We are a team.
Everything looked fine except for the photo in which I had seen the face. He had placed the caption that contained my quote from the story about when I discovered the face “When I zoomed in my heart almost stopped “What the f___!” under the wrong photograph. He had paired it with the photo of the little finch flying off the top of the hedge trimmer. ‘How unlike Keith to make a mistake like that’ I thought. I sent him an email pointing out that he had the wrong photograph, and to please call me if he had any questions. I didn’t hear back from Keith the rest of the day. He has many clients and gets very busy. I was in no rush and I wanted to get the post right.
The next day, last Friday, Keith published the post on the site and he had not corrected the photograph nor, as I had requested, zoomed in on the leaf that contained the image of the face I had seen. Rather, he had included some yellow arrows on the same photo of the bird flying from the hedge trimmer with my quote of surprise at discovering the face. I was a little miffed. Why did he post the story with this same mistake? Rather than email, I felt we needed to talk this through and try and get on the same page. I gave him a call.
I explained to Keith the problem I had with the post and that he had identified the wrong photograph. “Keith, that’s not the photograph with the face,” I reiterated. Pause.
“But, Casey, there is a face in that photo. I saw it immediately when you sent me those photos, and I was certain that was the photo and face you were talking about, “ Keith explained.
We both opened the photo of the bird flying from the trimmer on our respective screens. Keith tried to walk me through it. “Do you see the face? It’s soft-feint- and to the left of the bird as you look at the picture. I first saw his right ear—that is the clearest feature—and the mouth, jaw line, eyes looking slightly down and to his left. Do you see it?” he implored.
I looked and looked and I couldn’t see it. I then asked Keith if he saw the face on the leaf in the other photo I had sent him. “No. The only face I saw was the one in the other photo.”
I asked him to open it up so we could look at it together, but he couldn’t place his hands-mouse- on it. I said I’d resend it to him and suggested we each take some time studying the photos and figure out if we could see what the other had discovered. We hung up. My frustration had turned into more of a sense of incredulity. “What the heck is going on here?”
I went back to Keith’s photo and poured over it. He said the face wasn’t on a leaf—it was bigger than that. I looked and looked for at least a couple of minutes……and then I saw it. Oh my God!!! The face was soft and feint, just as Keith had said, but it was very clear. I had been looking for something smaller and more like the face I had seen on the leaf. This one filled up a large portion of the pane of glass through which I had taken the shot. There was the right ear—very pronounced—the mouth, closed lips, with a slight smile, the eyes cast down, wispy thinning hair, and what appeared to be a high collared shirt buttoned to the neck—an old fashioned style collar. Clean shaven- no beard. I did not recognize the face.
Before I could fire off an email to Keith, he had already sent me one including the photo I had sent to him which he had blown up and hi-lited the leaf with the face of the man I had seen. He found it!
I then sent my email to Keith congratulating him on his discovery. There was indeed another face. I also shared with Keith my observation regarding the face he had found.
“As I look at the face you found in the photo—the softness of it, so very feint— I’m looking at the photo from the very spot I shot it on January 6th—at my desk in Jimmy’s room where I’m sitting right now and writing you this email—and as I re-position myself, and move a few feet to my left, and look into the pane of glass, I see the feint reflection of my face—roughly the same size as the face in the photo you found—and it dawns on me that the face in the photo could very well be the reflection of a face of someone who was sitting next to me that morning Princess died, to my left, looking at the window pane, and watching with me the excited little finch flying back and forth up to the window.”
I was not alone that morning. At the time I felt it deep in my core with all of my senses. And I’m so grateful to Keith for his discovery of perhaps what might be just a little more proof of what I already knew to be true.
But there was something else about Keith’s discovery. I had so wanted Keith—and everyone else for that matter—to see what I had seen in the ivy. To be as amazed as I was—and not think I’m a little off my rocker. And Keith then stumbles into an altogether different face in a separate photograph. It was a validation to be sure of all that was going on that morning, that day, but also another reminder of how much we never see that’s happening all around us, and in my case that day, literally right in front of me. I was so grateful that I have Keith and his ever vigilant mind and eyes. And it makes me wonder: What if even just a few more of us paid closer attention and were not afraid or embarrassed to share what they see?
Postscript No. 3?
P.S. 3? Just as I finished writing Postscript 2 at 11:15 a.m. this Sunday morning, October 28, I looked down on our lawn and a black cat which could be Garfield’s twin strolled across our back lawn. I had my window open and called out “Garfield. Is that you?” The cat looked up at me casually with an attitude of slightly annoyed indifference. And perhaps there was also a slight smile—no smile—just indifference. I lunged for my iPhone tethered to my computer for a charge to take a photo, but before I got the chance he had slinked through a hole in our back wall that supports the hedge and out of sight into our neighbor’s back yard. I’ve never seen that cat before—at least not for several years.
What is it with these Cats?
I’m not making this up, I swear.