I met my old friend Sheila in Colo Spgs in 1988 at a church singles group. She was an introverted, bookish, "left-brain" Mississippian -- in short, pretty much the polar-opposite of me. But we became friends, and over the years, we've hiked the vortexes of Sedona, AZ, explored Aspen and soaked in the Glenwood Springs mineral pools. She and I saw the movie "Pretty Woman" together when it first opened -- seems like a century ago. Our paths have diverged and reconverged over the years as jobs, marriage and moves intervened. But for some reason, we've stayed connected. Most recently, she gave me a place to land when I came back to the US. Without her, I might be living under a bridge somewhere.
Two years after I met her, Sheila moved to Los Alamos to take a job as a technical editor at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Occasionally, I drove down from the Springs on long weekends and she introduced me to Tesuque Village, Indian pow-wows and the old Santa Fe flea market. We once rose at dawn on an Easter Sunday to watch the sunrise over Baranca Mesa.
When Sheila first moved to Los Alamos, she lived in one of the odd barracks-like houses constructed during the Manhattan Project. Her furnishings consisted of an odd mix of family antiques, garage sale cast-offs and spectacular art prints by Bev Dolittle and other Southwest artists. Martha Stewart, she isn't -- she'd much rather be holed up in her bedroom reading a sci-fi novel. In those days, her window treatment in the guest room consisted of a blue plastic shower curtain liner. Once I grabbed a towel in the bathroom, and discovered it was covered in cat hair. But macht nicht -- no big deal. I always looked forward to coming to Sheila's. Her homes have always felt like sanctuaries to me; sweetly dishevelled, warm and welcoming -- places you could sleep, meditate and just "be". I used to sit cross-legged on an old couch in her living room and gaze out on the scraggly fruit trees in the front yard as that famous New Mexico light streamed in, bathing everything in an ethereal glow.
Sheila has always loved her cats. When we first met, she had three black cats -- Ditto, Sinbad and Broadway. She doted on them for over 20 years. As they grew old, she patiently nursed them, giving them insulin injections and medicine for their ailments, until one by one, they all passed away. You know it's an old friendship when it outlasts the long, natural life of a pampered cat.
The Big Burn
In 1999, forest fires raged in the Jemez Mts., fanned by high winds that drove the flames beyond Bandelier National Monument where the "controlled burn" started, and toward Los Alamos, fueled by thousands of acres of pine forest. Those pines backed right up to Sheila's house. Sheila was in Mississippi at the time, traveling with her boyfriend Dick, when the flames barreled over the mountain behind her house moving as relentlessly as a lava flow.
The three cats were in the house at the time. Somehow, the catsitter managed to get past the road barracades as the fire crept closer, and rescued all three cats just before the house went up in flames. Sheila lost everything else: heirlooms, family photos, her beautiful art. I came down to visit in the months after the fire. She was living in a FEMA trailer with her three kitties, wading through a bureacracy of insurance claims. We drove over to her old neighborhood, a patchwork of houses, some untouched, others burned to the foundations. We picked through the whitened rubble, searching for souvenirs. We found the marble top to a Victorian side table--turned to sandstone by the fire's heat, along with her mother's china, shattered when it hit the ground as the china cabinet burned. She recovered a couple of gold rings and some twisted silverware.
A few years ago, Sheila rebuilt. You would never recognize her lot from the old days. It's been bulldozed and reshaped, planted with native plants and flowers which are just now reaching maturity. Her artisan home is a two-story adobe masterpiece, contemporary and airy, with soaring ceilings and designer touches. Her back patio faces the denuded mountains, beautiful now in a different way. Blackened tree-trunks have gradually toppled on top of one another like piles of pick-up sticks. The foothills are covered in mountain flowers and sage.
18 months ago, Sheila took in an elderly cat from the Los Alamos animal shelter. Bizarrely named "Mozart," the ladylike little kitty must have led a forlorn life. She limped from a hip injury, was deaf and mostly blind. She spent her days curled up either on the living room couch or in a closet. Sheila fed her tiny portions of Fancy Feast or little pieces of shaved ham. When I moved in the middle of May, Mozart had a tumor on the side of her jaw that was just starting to show. Sheila administered doses of love and antibiotics to bring some comfort and quality of life to Mozart in her old age. And I believe she succeeded. Mozart was mostly silent, but she purred a lot.
Yesterday, Sheila made the long-postponed decision to have sweet little Mozart put to sleep. The tumor was growing, she'd stopped eating and there was blood in her urine. I drove them both to the vet clinic, where the vet gently administered drugs to send her into a deep sleep, and finally, release. We both cried as she slipped into a coma and her heart stopped.
Love Made Visible
Sheila is perhaps the gentlest, kindest person I have ever met. She is encoded with compassion for damaged strays -- the ones nobody else wants. Perhaps because she felt like one herself growing up invisible in an atmosphere of parental neglect. One night I was tearing off pieces of a roast chicken for dinner, and she said, "That's okay, just give me the wing." She told me how as a child at the family dinner table, that's what she usually ended up with -- the wing. I pictured a meek little girl picking shreds of meat off a chicken wing...and it made me want to cry for her, and for all the invisible strays in the world.
I've been deathly ill at least twice in Sheila's company. Once, from food poisoning from a bad taco at the flea market, and most memorably, during a cold, snowy weekend in Durango, Colo., after we'd ridden the narrow gauge railroad. The night before we were to head home, I developed a nasty virus that made me violently ill for 24 hrs. We were stuck in Durango for an extra day while I recovered. She never once complained.
Sheila loves her solitude, but she agreed to let me stay with her these past few months because she felt it was the Christlike thing to do. I'm sure that having me here has not always been easy, convenient or comfortable. But I thank her with my head bowed and my hand folded over my heart. Thank you, Sheila, for your grace, your tender heart, your listening ear -- and for showing me what being a Christian is supposed to look like.