Thursday, January 19, 2017

Phenology Post: January Thaw and Neglecting Elders


(Warning: this post is mostly about the medical squick associated with a long, warm January Thaw.)

The rule I was taught was that if you have symptoms that are not primarily from the gastrointestinal system, you're ill, and if you have symptoms primarily located in the gastrointestinal system, you're sick (or upset), and if your objection is to something other than the medical condition of a living creature, it's bad. People who've spoken English in different times and places have used different rules. In some parts of the English-speaking world people have complained of "ill weather," and there's an ancient and honorable tradition of reminding people that almost all weather conditions serve some useful purpose for somebody.

(To get in our obligatory Amazon link, here's a classic novel in which characters sing that verse of the old song: "Ill is the weather that bringeth no gain, nor helps good hearts in need...")



On Tuesday I grumbled to a friend, "Have we had even one day without rain, so far, this year?" Yesterday we had. Naturally lots of house and yard chores had been waiting for this weather. I just had to take the morning off to catch up on those things. Oh it was lovely. It felt like spring. I even found some yummy fresh veg in the not-a-lawn:

On Tuesday night I hadn't heard or seen evidence of a rodent in the actual house, but had heard and smelled evidence of one, I suspected an old sick one, down cellar. Highly concentrated mouse odor, sounds of cats chasing mouse....not for long.

Yesterday afternoon both cats were sick. Usually if there's a wound or a fever I put a sick cat in a nice roomy cage with a solid bottom, a chore I'll regret when it's time to crawl inside and scrub the bottom of the cage with disinfectant later. Yesterday there were no wounds or fevers. If both cats hadn't been sick at the same time, just after exposure to the mouse, I would have suspected hairballs.

Heather has, however, been recruiting me for lap-naps much more extensively since Ivy and Irene are no longer available to curl up in a purr-ball with her. (Tickle does that sometimes, but he's younger and takes fewer, shorter naps.) Policy on that is that she's allowed to take a nap on my lap for as long as she's actually nestling or napping. When she wakes up and wants to explore the world, she goes back outside. So I let her come in and purr and cuddle while I did some unpaid writing.

One of the drawbacks to bonding with a cat is that, when they feel sick but not sick enough to think they may be dying, they really try to show their human godparent exactly what the problem was. If possible they'll deposit what was making them sick right on their human's shoes. (Wild cats seem to feel that humans smell disgusting, and it's possible that tame cats look for the strongest available source of human odor in addition to eating grass when they want a purgative effect...)

Heather is, however, a truly wonderful cat, and when she bolted up from her nap, coughing and choking, she went straight to the stack of old papers from which she's seen me transfer papers to a garbage bag after copying an item to a file. Almost all the nasty stuff went right onto a half-page torn out of a newspaper, immediately before it was scheduled to be trashed and burnt.

And I said, "Mercy, Heather, what is that horrible smell? Don't tell me that came out of you!" It was not normal carnivorous-animal breath, which is nasty enough. It was not normal sick-cat odor, as observed when cats cough up hairballs. It was not even a bacterial-infection odor. It reminded me of a kitten who died slowly in a box in the office room during the weeks after her mother died, and I was ill, following glyphosate spraying along the highway. It was on Heather's breath all right. I said, "Is that that mouse? Did you eat a mouse that smelled like that? Do you think charcoal would help?"

Heather had charcoal stirred up in water as a home remedy for enteritis and during the glyphosate exposure nightmare, and if she didn't learn that word, I swear she couldn't have acted more as if she remembered the word and wanted the remedy. She took it the way a thirsty person takes a glass of water. Then she took another nap, in a position that's not typical for her, with her long legs stretched out. Then she woke up, curled into the tight ball position she usually favors when napping on my lap, and took another nap. She spent almost six hours, including the dusk hours when cats are normally most active, sleeping--the longest nap I've ever seen her take.

Then she woke up...no fever, bright eyes, fresh breath...and nonverbally said "I'm going out to the sand pit, now." (She doesn't sit by the door and "meow" to ask to be let out, and she doesn't make herself sick, as some cats do, by staying indoors and holding inside what needs to come out. She runs to the door and does the burying gesture. I've never failed to respond; don't care to find out how serious this threat is.)

So I went out and burned the foul paper, and then both cats approached from the direction of the sand pit, nonverbally saying, "We are completely empty now and would like a bit of dinner."

I gave them half their usual ration and, after weighing the pros and cons of keeping them indoors overnight--they weren't feverish, the temperature was balmy, and if they weren't as well able to digest food as they thought they'd be better off feeling free to rush to the sand pit as needed--I left them in the cellar and turned in for the night.

I woke up feeling just a tiny bit sluggish, just a tiny bit grumpy. So maybe that rice I cooked on Monday was just a tiny bit contaminated, I thought as I walked out to work. The cats seemed normal. The possum must either have found something good to eat, or have agreed that that mouse was too foul for anything to eat; it hadn't eaten anything left in the sand pit, which is where the resident possums get a substantial part of their winter diet. (Possums are designed to digest fresh excrement--that's why even other possums don't like to spend much time very close to them.)

Then as I walked down the unpaved road below the Cat Sanctuary I saw a deer lying in the road. No antlers, sides just barely convex--pregnant female? So why was she lying still in the road? Had she been hit by a truck? I couldn't see a mark on her; she looked as if she might jump up and run, but no, when prodded, she was stiff and dead.

Then as I sat down at the computer...I washed my hands last night. I put on recently laundered clothes. What am I smelling now? My hands smell like soap. My clothes smell like detergent. My shoes smell like shoes that have been worn, but not splashed through gutter-flooded streets. I am smelling bacteria and it's not coming from outside me. They were a minor component of the nastiness I breathed in when I sniffed the cats' breath. The mouse might have been poisoned or had a more serious disease, but yes, that too...and what was the matter with that deer?

Most healthy adult humans have evolved high resistance to most bacteria, and I was born with better resistance than average; sometimes I notice the odor without even noticing a "low" mood. Like most healthy humans I'm a walking culture of bacteria and virus that could kill a person with AIDS, even when I don't smell like a locker full of unlaundered gym socks. When humans do smell like that...well, I personally like to neglect my (few surviving) elders for their own good.

Ten or fifteen years ago I had a writing client, a retired sea captain I adored in a niecely way, who was "medically fragile." I didn't want to be around him after being exposed to anything so I'd beg off working for him if someone else had been sneezing in their office. One winter when a lot of people had a hard time with flu, and I'd had the benefit of my husband's flu shot and was fearlessly shovelling snow, the Captain vented mild irritation with all those excuses I'd been making in a courteous way: "What they taught us in the Navy was just to gargle with Listerine before and after we'd been exposed to germs! The real thing with all those nasty herb extracts as well as the alcohol, original formula Listerine, really works."

It had for him, up to the age of eighty-five, and it does for me, and I ate my medicinal garlic last night and this morning as well. And I feel fine. But if the Captain were still alive, I still wouldn't go into his house today. Nor, even if I had guaranteed transportation in both directions, would I go into Grandma Bonnie Peters' house today. Nor my Significant Other's. I might visit the homes or businesses of some older members of my own generation, today, but not without fair warning...so this post is it.

I think the afternoon high temperature broke the 70-degree mark yesterday, at least in town. It was close anyway, and if it didn't I'm sure it will today. (Tomorrow they expect rain and colder temperatures, so enjoy it while it lasts.) Everybody loves the January thaw (except for apple and cherry trees). Fresh chickweed, dandelions, and wild garlic in the yard? Spring peepers calling attention to every local "creek, creek"? Delicious! But beware...the oldtimers were right about thaw weather breeding disease bacteria, which can easily ripen into pneumonia if you get chilled before your immune system has killed them all, too.