Who has the bigger brain? The spider, I'm thinking...

I came to yet another crossroads in my life recently (They seem to be coming frequently these days…), and made some decisions. I made the decisions slowly and very thoughtfully, trying to listen to my deepest instincts.

Let me back up just a bit. These past few years, my memory and my ability to plan, organize, and multi-task have declined sharply, affecting my ability to function in my life the way I would like. I ponder and study the situation, trying to come up with some definitive reason for all my muddle-headedness. Of course, I’ve seen doctors—lot’s of them. I ask myself if the culprit is depression, which I have fought on and off for many years. I ask myself if this is the result of radiation treatments years ago. Or if this is just typical aging (but I seriously think not). And lately I wonder if this could be some sort of early-onset cognitive decline, as in dementia or Alzheimer’s.

I’ve made an appointment with a psychiatrist for the end of the month to start the process toward a definitive diagnosis. I need to know the core of my decline so I can make good choices as I age. If I’m going to continue spiraling down the mental drain, I’ll need to plan for it.

This spring, I decided to give away all my chickens and rabbits. Keeping caged and penned creatures was something I deeply sensed was over for me. I had become more and more sensitive to feelings of guilt and anxiety about having animals in situations that were far from optimal for them. I no longer have the stamina or the focus to provide a rich, diverse life for all the critters I needed to keep confined. So, off they all went to better circumstances. My sorrow in seeing them all go was mitigated by an overwhelming sense of relief that I would no longer have that nagging sense of inadequacy about their daily care and confinement.

Yes, I could have built roomy ground pens for the bunnies, and somehow constructed a much larger roaming pen for the chickens—who were becoming cranky and mean in smaller quarters.

And yet, I couldn’t. Money, energy, and ability were no longer at my fingertips for such an undertaking. Everything inside me said, “Let go. Don’t expand and don’t fret. The time for these tasks in your life is over. Just let go.” And so I did.

Slobber slobber. Lick lick lick.

You must be wondering what any of this has to do with Pepper Possum. Bear with me. It all comes around.

Just after the chickens and bunnies had left, the baby opossums came to me. I loved their presence in the house. Possums are such creatures of deep peace. At the same time, I noticed with dismay that organizing their feeding and care routines—which are intensive for wild orphan babies—was stressful beyond measure.

I used to be able to do such tasks with one hand tied behind my back, juggling six other projects at the same time. I couldn’t anymore. You can’t imagine what it took for me to be honest with myself about all this. Because caring for animals is who I am and I’m damned good at it. Or at least I was. Once.

When the possums went on their way to their “teen weeks” at WildCare, I told Carter that I realized I was no longer good at this work that had been a part of my life on and off since I was six years old. I decided I would bring home no more animals that needed intensive care for longer than a week. The decision felt right down in my bones, and yet in my heart, I felt like I had amputated the best parts of me.

The garden would be my summer focus, and helping it to grow took all of my mental and physical energy. But it was good work, suited to me and my current mental/physical abilities—or lack thereof. I felt no guilt about keeping the cabbages confined to a bed, nor about being late for a morning feeding for the tomatoes.

A week later, I discovered Pepper, writhing in the leaves behind my house. In my experience, it usually takes about a week to see if a critical care animal is going to turn itself around. I’ve been lucky that way. One hard and mind-boggling week, and then you know if the journey will lead to healing, or to death.

Pepper Possum came to me more compromised than any wildling I had ever taken under my care. Any one of her problems was more than enough to deal with. In concert, they were overwhelming. My ‘normal” life went away in caring for her. My new routine became phone calls and research and trips to the drugstore. My already fogged brain just sort of imploded, but somehow, my hands kept functioning, a day—an hour—at a time.

“Give it three weeks and we’ll reassess her, if she survives that long,” Patty, the Big Kahuna of Opossums, advised us.

Three weeks?? How could any living thing survive such misery for that long?

Pepper survived her first full week with me. By the end of it, her rectum was healed, her pouch was drying up nicely, and she was eating well. The worms in her poop were showing up in slightly lesser numbers. But she could still only crawl around in a tight circle, her back legs dragging along behind her.

I hit the Internet and read up on Besnoitiosis, the parasite condition in Pepper’s system that was creating all those white, hard bumps all over her body. It can also affect neurological function. The news was not good. Normally a disease of cattle, this particular parasitic infestation had no definitive cure—just vague talk of “improvement.” None of the articles said how long that improvement might take.

Each morning, I bypassed my meditations and early morning exercises to stumble downstairs and check on Pepper’s status. Each morning, she remained alive but very still. I learned to make up her day’s food the night before, and make sure her laundry was always fresh and clean. Our day would begin with me holding a dropper of cherry-flavored antibiotic to her nose. The heavenly scent would wake her up and she’d lick lick lick the medicine. Next came a dropper of Geritol. Lick lick lick. Then some worming medicine. Lick lick lick lick. And finally breakfast, accompanied by much lip-smacking. I held her on my lap so she could put her long nose down in the food dish. She also liked to put her hands into the dish, and smear the food all over herself and me. She was weak and spastic, but she was enthusiastic, God bless her.

Next usually came a bath or some sort of cleanup. Then bedding changes, dishes, and perhaps some time on the floor for her to see if she was moving any better. She wasn’t. Then came my bath and cleanup. We did this same routine three times a day, interspersed with more bedding changes, a dose or two of subcutaneous fluids, and lots of gentle pats and strokes and baby talk.

I told my husband I had not planned for this. I told him I was tired and uncertain about what came next. My hands kept up the work. Pepper hung on. I was told to keep her on her medication for at least three months. THREE MONTHS!! And I knew in my bones I was really only good for about a week. Three months?

Pepper on the move

One morning, she pushed herself up clumsily in my lap and managed to slobber all over her pink hands and wash her face. It was a celebratory moment—I took them where I could get them. A couple days later, she actually managed to get her back legs beneath her and crawl jerkily across the carpet. When she flopped on her side, she managed to right herself with a great deal of effort, and crawl a couple more inches. I gave her a tablespoonful of strawberry yogurt for her efforts. Lick lick lick. Slobber slobber. Big yawn. Pee.

In the midst of Week Two, Pepper’s skin began sloughing off some of the white bumps. Her back is now covered with orange, crusting skin. One eye continues to weep milky liquid. Between feedings and cuddles, she lays quietly. I read that the parasites cause a lot of discomfort and pain. She is still not able to shut her eyes.

Last night, her chest became congested and phlegmy. It came on instantly. This morning, I hurried downstairs to see if she is still breathing. She is.

I am tired and muddle-headed, struggling daily to do what I cannot do well anymore. I reflect often on why she has come to me, and then reflect on why I even try to reflect about this. I search for meaning, and watch myself search.

I try to look ahead and imagine some kind of resolution for Pepper, and for myself. Best for Pepper would be if she could regain her ability to walk, and perhaps become an education animal. Best for me would be a diagnosis of chronic depression and a new course of medication that actually works. Yet it will be months before either of our situations become clear.

I consider having a pow-wow with the folks and WildCare to see if there is someone who can take on Pepper’s journey for a longer term. But I don’t. Not yet. Because Pepper is special to me. I am drawn to her courage, her good humor, her unstoppable will to heal.  She is my mentor right now as I wander along my own foggy path of healing.

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