Marching Toward Oblivion, Part 1

In a few short years I won’t exist anymore.

That’s true of everyone, obviously. To the best of my knowledge, everyone dies in the end. Some of us are fortunate enough to die happy, surrounded by family, secure in the knowledge that those they love are provided for and that all will be well. Lots of people die alone, sad little pathetic deaths, and are remembered by nobody.

When it became obvious to me a few years ago that there was no way I would ever have children — when it was absolutely clear that that ship had sailed — I started to see the world differently. I know that Carole and I might live for quite a few years more, or we might die in an accident tomorrow. Either way, there’s no one to remember us. No “next generation” to pass the baton to. When we die, the world ends.

When my father died (Mom had died years earlier), my siblings and I had to empty out his house down in Florida, take what we wanted, donate the rest to charity, and get the house sold and out of our hair. It took years. Thank heavens for a cousin who lived across the street from Dad, and an unusually helpful local realtor. Without them on the scene to take care of immediate nuisances as they arose, we’d probably still be tearing our hair out.

Well, when Carole and I die, there’ll be no one to do that for us. There’ll be no one to sort through our stuff and go “I want this, but I guess you can have that” and so forth.

That’s why I kept telling my siblings, each time the question arose of “who gets the silver, who gets the jewelry, who gets this, who gets that” that I didn’t want any of it. If I inherited Mom’s silver, it’d just pass out of the family for good when I die. If my sister, the only one of us with children, got it, one of her kids could inherit it. I know that when I’m dead I really won’t be in a position to care where some old shiny eating utensils wound up, but right now, it’s vaguely comforting to know that in a strange sense, there’s still going to be some continuity from generation to generation. Mom’s stuff to my sister. From my sister to her kids.

But as far as my stuff goes, there’s no one to leave any of it to. I’ve sort of figured that at some point I’ll write up a will. It’ll be the usual thing — Carole gets everything, of course, if I predecease her, but if I’m the second to go, I’ll probably just leave everything to my sister or her surviving heirs. Let them empty out the house. It’ll be good for them.

In the meanwhile, though, I’ve started looking around the house and going “that brings me no joy, it’s just clutter and in the way” and getting rid of things. We have a local community mailing list network here in Vermont that comes in handy for saying “hey, anyone want X?” (I will never hold my own yard sale. As far as I’m concerned, when really bad people die, they’re sentenced to roam the Earth attending yard sales.)

I no longer have a lot of unrealized ambitions. I’m really, really good at my job and have about as much job security as one can have in this day and age, but … famous last words, right? I’m very happy with my house and don’t feel a need to pore over real estate listings in Hilton Head. I have no urge whatsoever to spend a chunk of money on a fast car. I know that nothing I can do at this point is going to get me into the history books.

I have a few simple desires: provide for Carole and make sure that she doesn’t want for anything, take a vacation every year or so to someplace fun that I’ve only ever read about in books, and if I can, not make the world a worse-off place before I go. Anything else is gravy.

Well, okay, that’s not 100% true. There is one thing I’d really like to accomplish before I die, but it’s hard to explain without sounding like a complete wack-job and it’s extremely unlikely to come to fruition. Forget I mentioned it.

The life and death of a tabby boy

Last Saturday, January 13, 2018, we said farewell to our beloved tabby boy, Huck. He’ll be sorely missed. Carole and I don’t have children of our own so our cats have always been very special and precious to us.

Carole and I adopted a cat in the summer of 2005, a fine healthy recently fixed tabby cat that we promptly named Huckleberry. He was our second tabby — we had adopted another tabby boy that we’d named Freddy the previous fall only to tragically find him deceased on the hallway floor the Saturday before Memorial Day. We never did figure out why Freddy passed so quickly; the veterinarian suggested it might have been a congenital heart defect or something similar.

Huck joined our other two cats: a ginger and white short haired female named Thursday and a tortoiseshell short haired female named Starlight. Thursday was about seven, Starlight was about four, and we assumed Huck was something over a year old, but it was hard to say by how much.

He had to be fixed before we could adopt him, so he was still quite full of testosterone during his first few weeks with us. Translation: he was quite the bitey-bite-bite cat at first. If you petted him, he was as likely to try to eat your hand and disembowel your wrist with his hind feet as he was to sit there and enjoy it. But he wasn’t like that all the time, and as he got used to living with us, he calmed down.

He had some very interesting quirks that neither of us had ever encountered in a cat before. He loved to climb up on the bed pillows when one of us was lying in bed and would then paw at the tops of our heads, sometimes even drooling on us. Carole figured that he’d been taken from his mama cat too early and that he was looking for a nipple.

When we first got Huck we’d already gotten our other two cats, Thursday and Starlight, little beds that we kept under the living room coffee table, and we knew that eventually we’d need to get one for Huck. He kind of forced the issue, though, by walking in to the master bedroom, looking around, and plopping down directly in front of Carole’s dresser at the foot of the bed. Every night. Every afternoon. We’d come in to the room and find him there and he’d give us a look like “you know, this spot right here would be just great for a little bed.”

So, after a couple of weeks we got around to going to the pet store to get him a little bed and we put it right where he’d indicated that he wanted it. He was so happy when he saw it for the first time; he came trotting into the room, spied the little bed at the foot of the dresser, and gave us a look that spoke volumes: “Finally.” And that was where he spent almost every night the entire time we had him.

Huck was definitely a “people cat” in that he always wanted to be where the action was. Not standoffish at all. I was very fond of picking him up and toting him around from room to room with me in a way that we called “portaging the Huck”. His “elevator butt” skills were unparalleled; he got so into being petted that his rear legs almost lifted off the ground.

He was also notorious for wanting to get out. We had to be very careful when bringing groceries in from the car to keep an eye on where he was. If we weren’t vigilant, he’d sneak out into the garage, and if we really screwed up, he’d make it all the way outside and be off to the races. If you’re wondering why we considered this a problem — well, we’ve always kept our cats indoors. There are lots of things in the Vermont woods that would eat a cat, and all things considered equal, we preferred Huck whole and undigested.

Like any cat, he could be a bit … destructive at times. He was a mighty deconstructor of boxes; if we left an Amazon box sitting in the dining room, it was more or less a given that he would chew it to pieces. He was also a fierce and mighty hunter, and once in a while we’d find all the books on the bottom shelf of a bookshelf pulled off onto the floor. Whenever we saw that, we knew he’d been a-mousin’ and had been trying to get at a mouse that’d taken cover. And when there were no mice, he found other things to hunt. He was particularly interested in Christmas ornaments, so much so that we eventually got him his own set of relatively shatterproof round ball ornaments that we could hang on the lowest levels of the tree for him to bat down and kick around the room.

He vigilantly protected our house from all enemies, foreign and domestic. If he wasn’t in his little bed or chilling on a sofa, we could count on him sitting in a window or hanging out on the credenza in our dining room (which we’ve always called “the cattlements”).

He was a very friendly cat and always got along with everyone, saving only those first few weeks we had him when he was still a bit rambunctious. When we walked into a room he was in, he’d give us a look that we interpreted as “‘Sup?”

Huck was kind of my cat; Carole preferred our two girlcats, Thursday and Starlight, and considered Huck a big ol’ friendly lummox of a cat that properly belonged with me. Carole had had many tabbies when she was a kid; tabbies were nothing special to her. But I’d never had a tabby boy before, not counting poor Freddy who was with us for such a short time, and so I found him charmingly companionable.

We had a lot of pet names for Huck. He rarely got called by his full name,”Huckleberry”, but once in a while we would call him “Huckleberry Sassafrass Q. Puddytat Furr”. He picked up the nickname “Droolbarge” during the first year or so we had him when he was so fond of drooling on our heads. Sometimes I called him “Huckletrousers” and now and then I referred to him as “the Delegate from Tabco Unlimited”. At mealtime he tended to get called “Hoover” for the vacuum-cleaner-like way he sucked up his food. Once in a while he was referred to as “The Hucken” as in, “RELEASE THE HUCKEN”. But the one that I probably used the most was “Rupert”, as in “My assistant, Rupert”. No idea where I got that from, but Huck didn’t seem to mind. So long as he had his little bed to sleep in, three squares a day, and warm places to lie around philosophizing in, we could call him whatever we wanted.

He would always greet us in the basement when we came home, sitting on the stairs up to the dining room as we came in from the garage, like a little welcoming committee. If I got up in the middle of the night, he’d often come strolling out to say “Heya” and to see if might be persuaded to toss some cat treats his way. He was a loyal, faithful, friendly cat.

Unfortunately…

A few days after Christmas Carole noticed that Huck’s abdomen was swollen, like he was retaining a lot of fluid or had … well, something. We’d noticed that he was eating less, but he was an older cat, at least 13 and probably closer to 14, and we know that appetite drops off with age in many cases. But the swollen tum was a concern. We took him in to the vet and the vet’s reaction immediately told us we had a problem. Our local vet recommended ultrasound, so that necessitated a trip to one of our two local vet hospitals, and that’s where the really bad news came down. Huck had a tumor on his spleen that was already fairly far along, and probably more tumors on the lining of his abdomen, and was retaining a ton of fluid. I had the odds presented to me in a kindly, but very matter of fact fashion. We could prolong his life through heroic measures but probably just make him suffer, or we could try to make his last days comfortable and show him all the love we could.

Carole took Huck in to have the excess fluid drained one day last week. Huck perked up a bit and showed a bit more appetite, but still clearly felt very bad. I know very little of cat physiology and tumor growth, but he’d gone from acting more or less as he always had to looking very peaky and sick and afraid in a pretty short amount of time. The fluid draining only seemed to help for a day or so and then he was back hiding in closets and showing the characteristic behaviors of a cat who would like to be allowed to go off somewhere and die with dignity, as Carole put it. She had him drained again last Friday before I came home from an out of town trip so I could see him somewhat lively one last time, but I think by that point it was already too late. He looked absolutely miserable.

And that’s why we lost him last Saturday. We took him in to the local vet and Carole stayed with him while the vets did what they had to do. I was so sad that I stayed sitting in the waiting room. I knew that if I’d gone in I’d have just bawled. I felt bad about not going in, but I knew I’d feel even worse if I did go in — the memory of watching his eyes close for the last time would have haunted my dreams. We’ve lost Thursday and Starlight in a similar fashion, euthanization after realizing there was no hope of recovery from a wasting illness, and so I know perfectly well what it’s like to see a cat go to sleep for the last time.

It was different with Huck, though — as I said, Carole always said he was my cat, just as Starlight was hers. I really wasn’t able to grasp that I’d never again come home from an out of town trip at 1 am and find him sitting on the stairs, that I’d never again have him come climb on top of me as I lay in bed reading. That I’d never again see his elevator butt. Or scritch his head. Staying in the waiting room was about all I was up for, and I was barely keeping it together even so.

We haven’t buried Huck yet. The ground in Vermont is thoroughly frozen and it’d be impossible to dig a grave. But his body is stored in a freezer at the vet, and come spring we’ll say our proper goodbyes to him. We’ll bury him with everything he’ll need in the afterlife, as befits a proper cat funeral — his food bowl, and of course, his little bed.

I’m going to miss that tabby boy.

Remembering

As of this April 16, it’ll have been ten years since the horrific events that took place in Blacksburg, Virginia on April 16, 2007.

In the ten years since a mentally ill young man ran amuck with his guns and took the lives of 28 students and four faculty members — and wounded seventeen others — members of the Virginia Tech university community have gathered each year on April 16 to stand vigil and to remember those we lost.

I’d like to be there in person for the remembrance (I grew up in Blacksburg and received my masters degree there), but unfortunately, I have to be in Lubbock, Texas for work that day. In fact, I’ve never yet managed to be there for the memorial despite my active travel schedule. I’ve always hoped that I could route myself through Blacksburg on my way to Seattle or San Francisco or Tucumcari, but it just hasn’t worked out.

I wish I could say that the Virginia Tech massacre served as the Pearl Harbor-like wake-up call for the American people that finally got us to realize how out of control our love affair with firearms has become.

I wish I could say that the National Rifle Association realized that there are more important things in life than maximizing gun manufacturers’ profits.

I wish I could say that we, as a society, took a look at what happened in West Ambler-Johnston Hall and Norris Hall that awful day and decided “this far, and no further.” That it had to stop.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that. Blacksburg wasn’t enough. Sandy Hook wasn’t enough. Aurora wasn’t enough. Orlando wasn’t enough. Ten thousand gun homicides a year in the United States aren’t enough. Nothing’s enough.

Nothing’s ever going to be enough.

Our society has “addict brain” where our fetish for firearms is concerned, and the only thing that satisfies the craving, however briefly, is…

More guns.

So, hey, Dad’s cremains are over there in that box

Dad's cremains

Not to be unduly morbid, but there’s something weird about sitting down at the dining table in your deceased parents’ house and going “Huh. What’s in that bag over th… oh, it’s Dad’s cremains.”

Mom’s are in a cabinet a few feet away. At some point both sets of ashes are going to be mixed together and scattered under the big oak tree at the house in Virginia I grew up in. Apparently the current owners are okay with some strangers showing up and scattering their parents’ ashes around; I think I’d find it odd if former residents of my house in Vermont made the same request.

At least my parents made a semi-reasonable request instead of asking to be scattered off the top of the Empire State Building; I hear building security gets pretty cranky when people try that.

Aaron Keith Furr, 1932-2016

Aaron Keith Furr, 1932-2016
Aaron Keith Furr, 1932-2016

Dr. Aaron Keith Furr, 84, of Brooksville, Florida passed away on Thursday, March 31, 2016. Born in Rowan County, NC on March 5, 1932, he was a longtime resident of Blacksburg, VA before retiring to Florida. He was the son of Carl Albert Furr and Sue Howell Furr and grew up in Salisbury, NC. He attended Catawba College, Emory University, and Duke University, graduating from Duke in 1958 with a PhD. in nuclear physics. The love of his life was his wife, Dora Mondon Furr, of Brooksville, whom he met at Duke and was married to for over 50 years, from March 22, 1958 until her death on September 1, 2011. Dr. Furr is survived by his daughter, Elizabeth Furr of Brooksville, his daughter Julie Furr Youngman and her husband Paul and their children Alex, Madeleine, and Lily, of Lexington, VA, his son Joel Furr and his wife Carole, of Richmond, VT, and his son Rob Furr, of Calgary, AB. Dr. Furr spent his entire career at Virginia Tech, as Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and then as director of the campus environmental health and safety department, retiring in 1998 to Florida. Dr. Furr loved books and reading, science, cats, and sharing his firmly held opinions on a variety of subjects both serious and trivial. He had his silly side, periodically tormenting his family with caterwauling renditions of the song “Blood on the Saddle” and other classics. He will be missed.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, May 28 at 2 pm at Dr. Furr’s house, 201 Sunset Drive, in Brooksville. In lieu of flowers, donations are encouraged to Jericho Road Ministries (http://www.jericho-road.net/), the Hernando County Public Library (http://www.hcpl.lib.fl.us/), or the Southern Environmental Law Center (https://www.southernenvironment.org/).

Farewell, Dad

Mom, Elizabeth, and Dad
Mom, Elizabeth, and Dad at Mom’s 70th birthday party in 1999

My father, Keith Furr, is, to put it bluntly, dying. He has been suffering from pretty severe dementia for several months now, not recognizing anyone and not really knowing where he was, and showing no signs of improvement. However, in recent days he took a severe turn for the worse. He has had only very short periods of consciousness, and has refused food and water, and has been suffering from pneumonia. His physicians have placed him on palliative care, meaning no drugs other than what would keep him comfortable, no food or liquid.

Over the years, he has repeatedly expressed wishes that he not be kept alive after all hope has gone, and we feel this, the palliative care and quiet end,is what he would want. He has been very sad in the four and a half years since my mother, Dora Furr, passed, and though he was never very religious, in recent years he spoke of having something of a change of heart and hoping that he would get to see her again.

Dad reading to me after work when I was about three years old
Dad reading to me after work when I was about three years old

Dad was a good man. He was the only child from his family of four to make it out of the North Carolina Piedmont and to college and wound up with a PhD in nuclear physics from Duke University, where, incidentally, he met Mom. He spent his entire career working as a professor at Virginia Tech, first in physics and mechanical engineering, directing the Virginia Tech research nuclear reactor, and then, when the reactor was closed down, switching to head the university’s occupational health and safety services program. Under Dad’s leadership, the Virginia Tech campus safety department became a model for others across the country. Dad authored many publications during his career, but one he was particularly proud of was the CRC Handbook of Laboratory Safety, which went through multiple editions and sold very well.

He was married to Mom for over 50 years and when she passed, he was never the same. They argued and fought as any couple likely does, but at the end of the day they knew they’d always have one another.

He is in a nursing home in Florida. My siblings and I just said our goodbyes via cell phone, with the exception of my sister Elizabeth, who lives in the same town as Dad. We’re very grateful to our cousin Anne Bartlett who’s been there through thick and thin for Dad, and who has been acting as a go-between and many other things besides to keep us informed and in the loop and aware of how Dad is doing.

My sisters Elizabeth Furr and Julie Furr Youngman, and my brother Rob Furr plan to hold a memorial service for Dad, very likely at the end of May. We will all miss him very much, and we’re very sad that his time has come.