Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Dad and The Trampoline

I bounded not once but twice on the trampoline, hoping to get the height and momentum needed to flip my body forward on the next jump over the edge and into the pit of foam cubes.
That’s just what a random five-year-old kid did on the turn before mine. And it looked easy enough.
Besides, I’ve been known to do forward flips off the diving board with regularity, if not with grace. How different could it be?
Once the kid before me cleared the landing area, and the teenager with the whistle signaled it was my turn to go, and my daughter watching gave me a supportive “whoop,” that’s what I set out to do – a forward flip. Yes. It was decided.
Yet somewhere between my second bound on the trampoline and the final launching one, all the courage I had mustered sprung right out of me. Rather than a final bound and a flip, my frightened legs absorbed the momentum like old shocks, and I stuttered cautiously to the edge and lamely fell face first toward the waiting foam.
I imagine there’s a moment growing up when a kid realizes their parents aren’t super heroes; when it dawns on them that the person they’ve held in special regard all these years is just normal, and not even terribly cool.
If it hadn’t happened already, that moment certainly occurred for my eldest daughter as my uncoordinated, hulking mass of trepidation gingerly leapt over the edge of the precipice and landed awkwardly in the pile of foam cubes. 
No height to my vault. No gracefulness. No flip.
Of course, she would tell you the moment she realized my failings had happened much sooner. And many times over.
Pink-panted blur in the middle is our 7 year old.
The boy is the one literally bouncing off the wall.
Still, that particular display of my mortality and well-earned humility on our family’s outing to Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park certainly put an exclamation point on it.
Our family found ourselves at the trampoline park during the kids’ recent February break – a traditional week off in the middle of winter when most upstate New Yorkers high-tail it for Florida. We, as usual, did not. Instead, we bounced.
Luckily for us we live in a place where people would go insane if someone didn't design and build lots of indoor entertainment facilities -- like the indoor ropes course at Canyon Climb, or the 26,000 square foot kids' play arena at Billy Bees, or the field o' trampoline at Sky Zone.
The trampoline park, built inside a cavernous rectangular space that used to be a Hechinger’s, is divided into sections: a general bouncing area with many small squares for individual jumping; three “dodge ball courts” for specific age groups and private parties; a basketball dunking section with two hoops; and then the infamous foam pits. You pay per person for passes to the whole park in 30 minute increments, and are required to wear specific trampoline “SkySocks” with sticky bottoms – which you can buy for two bucks.
There are lots of safety rules, like only one person per trampoline square and no double flips (no worries there). All bouncers are divided by age, so that little kids are only jumping around other small people, which makes sense but can create some logistical challenges for bigger families.
It can also get crowded quick, so it’s a good idea to call ahead on busy weekends and over the holiday break.
For the most part, the kids liked bouncing around the park (and that they got to keep the brightly-colored orange socks we had to buy to enter). Not exactly “Disney ears,” but certainly a useful addition to the sock drawer. Hey, you never know when you're gonna need trampoline socks that match absolutely nothing you own.
It was fun for all. Though next time we’re bringing a friend for our oldest so she has someone her size to bounce with – or they can just pout and roll their eyes in unison.
No matter what we do, I’m going to avoid the foam pit of disappointment. 
Then again.  Maybe I’ll try to redeem myself. How hard could that be?
Yes. It’s decided. I will do a flip … next time.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Lucky Seven

Today is our wee Sadie’s birthday. Our creative, zany butterfly-trapped-in-person’s body of a child is lucky seven years old.
To put it mildly: she’s a personality. As my sister describes her, she’s what you might imagine Tina Fey was like as a child. Sadie's hilarious, and so in her own world. She can draw better than any kid I’ve ever met, and does a mean robot dance.
Me: "I want to take a picture for your birthday."
Sadie: "How about one with me drinking apple juice."
Me: "Sure?"
Celebrating her birthday also reminds me of what I was doing when she was born. Seven years ago I was working on the toughest campaign I’ve ever been a part of, a special election in February in Upstate New York.
But it was most memorable to me for one thing that happened – and it involved our then three-day-old little girl.

I wrote about it a few years back, as I tend to do. The story has lived in a file on my computer since. Here it is:  

It was February 12, 2008. I was in the basement, lost in my work world, editing a press release on yet another subject, when I heard a scream.

“She’s not breathing!”
The words were being yelled by my mother-in-law. She was frantic.
“The baby’s not breathing!”
When the scream registered, I moved without thinking. I bound up the basement steps and burst into the living room, my mother-in-law was holding three-day-old Sadie in front of her. The baby’s face was deep red, and she looked like she was on her way to blue.
Frantically, “She’s not breathing.”
She handed her to me.
“Was she drinking, spiting up, anything?”
I took the baby, and quickly swept my finger through her mouth to remove any possible obstruction. Nothing.
“Call 911,” I barked to my wife.
Then I flipped her quickly, but gently, onto my forearm with her face down in my upturned palm, her legs up my arm. She was so tiny. I patted her back to see if anything was lodged. Two pats, and nothing was there.
I turned her back over. She was still dark red. “C’mon, breathe.”
I held her up right, close to my shoulder, looking into her face. “Please breathe! Please!” I pleaded.
I caressed her back, and begged and begged her to take a breath. I didn’t know what else to do.
Time was ticking, and I knew it. I thought, this is what it’s like to hold a child that is dying. No, she can’t be.
“Breathe, my Sadie. Please.”
Then I felt it, and saw it in her face. She took in one tiny breath. It was a struggle. Then she took in another.
“She took a breath,” I announced in relative relief. She was still struggling.
Her color was returning to normal, but breaths were hard to come by. I walked in circles in the living room, past the windows, as her labored breaths continued.
A police officer arrived first, and came through the door as I paced in tight circles, rubbing the baby’s back.
When the ambulance pulled up in front of the house, the baby’s breathing was almost normal again but not quite. The breaths weren’t deep or regular. It was like she forgot how.
The paramedics came through the door, a large man and a small woman, dressed in blue. They took her from me, and began asking what happened. My mother-in-law and wife described the scene, as I continued to pace the same circles.
I looked into the next room and saw our two other daughters, age two and five (at the time), huddled under the dining room table, hugging each other in fear.
I coaxed them out from under the table.
“Is everything going to be okay, daddy?” the oldest one asked, looking shaken, scared and lost.
I didn’t know the answer.
“I hope so, dear. I hope so.”
The paramedics placed a tiny oxygen mask on our baby and asked my wife and I to go with them.
They radioed in as we walked behind them to the awaiting ambulance. “Infant child in respiratory distress.”
We climbed into the ambulance, numb from the last several minutes. Sadie was too small for the stretcher, instead the women paramedic held her, keeping the oxygen mask in place and watching her breathe closely. My wife was shaking, and looked white as ghost. I’m sure I looked the same. We’d only left the hospital the day before. And now, we were returning the same route in the back of an ambulance.


The emergency room bed looked gigantic with a three-day-old baby in the middle of it.
Cords as thick as her fingers ran away from her feet and her hands to machines and screens, letting out piercing beeps and drawing jagged lines. A green line, a blue line and white line all crossed the screen together, jumping and bouncing to separate but in sync rhythms.
Everything looked normal, said the doctor. She was tall and attractive, with long curly red hair and serious, attentive eyes. Other doctors and nurses came and went, seemingly at her direction. Running tests and awaiting orders.

The room was small, and sterile, with the beep every second or two drowning out the noise from the busy emergency room hall outside, and the chatter from the nurses’ station within a few feet. I guess they like to keep newborns in the ER close to the nurses. Our older daughter would’ve called it a money spot. But it didn’t feel like money.

My wife and I sat and watched our baby, watched the screens, and listened to the sounds of normalcy. The beeps and the blips were steady and reassuring, but we were consumed with wonder and worry about what had happened to take our baby’s breath away. We hugged, and cried, and tried to absorb it all.  

The doctor asked repeatedly how long it lasted. I counted out in my head all the actions I could remember. Mother-in-law noticing. 10 seconds, maybe. Scream registering, 6 seconds. Climbing the steps, 4 seconds. Taking baby, 2 seconds. Sweeping the mouth, 2 seconds. Back compressions, 3 seconds. Holding her upright and begging her to breathe, 18-20 seconds. It was for less than a minute, we guessed, but at least 45 seconds. Maybe more.

She asked what shade of red Sadie had turned. She wanted to know if it was blue at all. I knew what she was getting at. It was dark red, not blue. Maybe a little blue around the lips. But the rest of her face was dark red, not blue. That was good.

She called it an Apparent Life Threatening Event – ALTE – stressing that was a description, not a diagnosis. The cause was unclear, and could be a number of rather mundane and ordinary things.

As time passed and the beeps stayed steady, the activity in our little emergency room ebbed. Nurses came less often, and the doctors focused on other patients. Was it nothing? A one-time incident? Were they going to give us a clean bill of health and send us home with a baby, who not that long ago, forgot how to breathe? How were we supposed to just leave? Go home. Live normal.  

Then in a moment, it changed again. One beep became sustained, the lines on the screen dipped, her heart rate dropped, the baby went limp on the bed. The redhead doctor and two nurses were at her side before I could even stand up from my chair. She turned red. Then took a small breath. And then another. The doctor hovered over her closely, as she slowly remembered how to breathe again.

ALTE number two.

The doctor turned to us, even more serious than before.
“We’re going to admit her.”
She was uncertain what had happened, just then and before. There were a series of potential causes, some very manageable. They would need to do tests.

“Keep us here as long as it takes,” I replied.

The battery of test lasted four days. We stayed at the hospital on the 5th floor – three floors down from maternity. Once a baby’s out in the world, they can’t come back to maternity, even if she’s three days old.
My wife slept in the room, on a fold out chair next to Sadie’s industrial looking crib, with appropriately sized wires and screens for an infant under constant medical care. The nurses were there at every moment, all day and throughout the night. But only one parent was allowed to sleep in the room. So I slept in the waiting room on the same floor in another fold out chair. I had my own television, a few coffee tables and lots of magazines to read.
After the doctors witnessed the episode in the emergency room they gave it a more descriptive name than just an Apparent Life Threatening Event: they called it Infant Apnea. Of course, this too was descriptive and not a diagnosis telling us the cause. Apnea just means a cessation in breathing. In adults it can be normal during sleep. In infants, it is more of a threat and there is usually a cause. There are many potential causes, actually. Some manageable, as they said, and some more challenging.
Every few hours there seemed to be a new potential diagnosis. And each time I was convinced this was it, until the tests proved otherwise. Epilepsy was thought possible. It could be seizures. I remembered times during pregnancy when my wife would say it felt like the baby was moving rapidly. That must be it, I thought. Then the doctors in a small room in the basement of the hospital attached little tweezers and suction cups electrodes to her head and tracked her brain waves for almost an hour. Normal. No residual trace of seizure activity. They did a CAT scan to rule out brain tumors. They ran blood work. They did a spinal tap.
I’d had a spinal tap once. It was painful. This time the patient was my tiny newborn, and I had to hold her still while the doctors probed repeatedly looking for that small pocket of fluid at the base of the spine. It took a few times as I held her firm and still and my wife wept.
Each time the doctors would analyze the results and rule out a cause. Each day new possible causes would be presented, and ruled out. And each night, I would go home to get us a change of clothes, tuck our other daughters into bed, and return to my waiting room on the 5th floor for another night.
Increasingly the doctors implied that we might never know. That after all this, we would have to go home with our child and keep her hooked up to an apnea monitor, in case it happened again. I couldn’t stand the thought. We’d be nervous forever. We had to know what happened.
Late on the third day of tests, through the process of elimination, a new diagnosis was presented.
A new doctor sat us down and told us it could have been the unlikely result of a rather common problem. Many premature babies and a few full-term ones are born before the muscle atop their stomach is fully formed. This is the muscle that closes to prevent food and acid from flowing into the esophagus. This common condition is known as infant GERD, or gastro-intestinal reflux disease.
Reflux? Really? My baby has reflux. That’s it?
The doctor continued. This condition usually presents itself in the form of frequent spit up, discomfort after eating, even what is traditionally called colic. Occasionally the reflux can be so intense that it stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs along the outside of the esophagus. When the vagus nerve becomes stimulated, it can cause a cessation in breathing as well as a drop in the heart rate. It was manageable and would go away with age.
The day’s diagnosis had arrived, and it was one we could live with. The doctor then said there was a test to make certain of the diagnosis. It was up to us if we wanted to do it.
“Do the test.”
It would require them to insert a tube up her nose and down the esophagus to measure PH above the stomach.
“Do the test.”
And the baby would have to stay in the hospital for another night.
“Just do the test.”
On the final night in the Hospital, they did the PH test. During my stop at home to get clothes, I searched the internet to learn about GERD and the vagus nerve. I ought to know better than to do that. But I wanted to know. It was manageable, but GERD and the vagus nerve were also cited for a possible correlation with SIDS – Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Crap. I guess we weren’t going to be sleeping all too soundly for a while.
When the test results came back, she had passed. Or failed, depending on what result was desired. Her stomach acid was off the charts. She had an acute case of GERD, and that was causing her to stop breathing.
We were going to go home. She would need medication. She would have to be hooked up to the apnea monitor for the next few months. But we were going home. And we knew what had happened.
When we got home that evening, my wife and I took turns holding Sadie and just looking at her. The other girls wanted to hold her too. We let them.
We sat with our children on our couch, in the living room of our home, and just tried to enjoy the fact they were all there with us.  

The campaign I was working on at the time ended two weeks later. For the next few months, we barely slept as her apnea monitor and our nerves kept us up most nights. But, after a year of taking medicine, Sadie was still fine.

Each year on her birthday, we celebrate a little extra that she’s with us -- in all her wackiness.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Secret to Making Chicken-Pot-Pie Flavored Mush

Sometimes, you plan to make a nice meal and it ends up a big pile of mush.

I wish that was an analogy, or some sort of lame metaphor. But it’s actually a true story.

This past week I was wandering through the grocery store when I found a whole chicken for a pretty good price. I often buy whole chickens and give them my version of Thomas Keller’s roast chicken and vegetables. It’s a simple, sophisticated meal that both kids and parents enjoy.

Yet, for some reason, when I spied this particular chicken, I had a different idea entirely.  I decided this chicken wanted to be … no, needed to be … the star in another dish: Chicken Pot Pie.

When I say Chicken Pot Pie, I’m not talking about a flaky little pie with chicken in it, a la Stouffers or Chicken Run. I’m talking about Pennsylvania Dutch Chicken Pot Pie.

What a proper PA Dutch Chicken
Pot Pie looks like.
Note the lack of mush.
It’s an amazing stew with a savory broth, chunks of chicken and vegetables, and the trademark fluffy, yet firm noodles that remind every descendent of a Pennsylvania Dutch cook of cozy Sunday evenings surrounded family, sitting by a warm fire, and covered with blankets.

Those noodles. Oh, those noodles.

When I go on an extended low-carb kick, I dream of those noodles. Those fluffy clouds in your mouth, that happen to taste like chicken. ... Sorry. Too much? 

For those who don’t know, my mom is part Pennsylvania Dutch and makes a legendary Chicken Pot Pie. I’ve always thought that if I opened a food truck – which I have no immediate plans to do – I’d just sell her pot pie, and I’m sure the food network would broadcast live from our little culinary trailer.

There’s only one problem with the food truck idea and with my more immediate plans for this one well-priced whole chicken I brought home from the store on a recent Wednesday: I don’t know how to make Chicken Pot Pie.

Some of my other siblings have had the good sense to invite mom over specifically for a pot pie tutorial. Apparently, I lack good sense.

My wife and I have my parents over often. Yet despite my self-proclaimed abilities in the kitchen (I could have been a chef if things had worked out differently; or a pro running back, but that’s a different story), I have never learned the fine art of chicken pot pie making.

I know how to make a fair chicken noodle soup, of course, which is a start. And when I called my mom that night – first to invite her over, then, upon being refused, just to ask how to make the dish – she told me the a good broth was the key.

I can do a broth, I said to myself. So I decided, “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead … on my pot pie meal plan” -- a quote that surely made the whole endeavor sound more important than it was. But heck, both the meal plan and this story left "good sense" in the dust two paragraphs ago.

Luckily, my sister, who lives nearby and has had the pot pie tutorial, called that same evening to inquire about dinner. Her husband was planning to work late, so her and her kid were looking for some company. The invite was extended.

She brought more potatoes, a pastry roller, and critical knowledge.

We were all set. 

So we thought.

Unfortunately, we made a few miscalculations. The first misstep being the amount of time it takes to make pot pie. There’s a reason Dutchie moms (and progressive Dutchie dads) make pot pie on Sundays. Because the darn thing takes a long time to make. Not to cook, but to make. No self-respecting Pennsylvania Dutch chef would make pot pie on a school night.

I’d started the broth earlier, so that was fine. But the noodles – those damn noodles. It took quite a while to get the noodle dough just right, with the rolling and the cutting and the fussing and the flouring.

Out next miscalculation also had to do with time: that being how long to cook the darn things. Not the broth or the vegetables, but the noodles – again with the noodles.

Once we got the noodle dough right (we thought), we added them one-by-one to the boiling broth, which was brimming deliciously with veggies, chicken and potatoes. 

“Let it go 20 minutes,” we were told over the phone by our remote Pennsylvania Dutch consultant, “or until the potatoes are done.” The potatoes were added right before the noodles, and were therefore a safe barometer of noodle doneness. In theory, anyway.

The only question we had was, do the noodles boil for 20 minutes or just simmer. Cooking potatoes in that time requires a boil, we thought. But we worried the delicate noodles couldn’t withstand the heat for that long.

We chose a full boil.

We should have called and asked yet another question. Damn, we should have asked!

Whenever you look back on something that ends up all wrong, there is usually one fatal error. There can be lots of smaller errors, and pre-errors. But there’s one fatal error. That was ours. We boiled the hell out of those noodles.

In the end our little family, and my sister and her child, gathered around the table to eat my first attempt -- solo or otherwise – at the family favorite: the well-revered, the often-exalted, the rarely-imitated Chicken Pot Pie of the Pennsylvania Dutch variety.

What I served them was a pile of mush.

I guess it's time for that tutorial.


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Monday, January 5, 2015

Ending the Holidays With Style ... and a Splat.

Some kids are barfers. Let’s just get that out there.  

It seems every family has one. I remember growing up in our rather large family that my younger brother was our designated barfer. Whenever even the slightest cold would work its way through the gaggle of siblings, he’d end up hung over a bucket for a few hours or a few days.

In more recent years, my own kids have had a fairly open competition for who would carry the mantle in our family. They’ve all done their share of regurgitation.

But as I look back over the years, and read the related posts, I realize that one particular family member has dominated the competition of late. And if there was any doubt, the crown was officially won at a recent holiday gathering.

The Boy holding his new Paw
Patrol figures -- yet unable to
hold down his stomach contents. 
Let me briefly set the scene. For the past decade or so – roughly since my siblings and I began getting married and starting our own families – my parents have hosted a post-Christmas family gathering and gift-exchange known as Ruddy Christmas. It usually happens the first weekend after the actual Christmas. This year, however, due to the strange alignment of the holidays and weekends, and the various travel plans of those involved, the gathering did not take place until three days after the New Year. While other families were busy preparing for the return to school and stripping their houses of holiday décor, we were engaging in one last Christmas bash.

Since its inception, Ruddy Christmas has always been a bit of a show – if only due to the sheer number of people and gifts crammed into one modestly-sized home. We have a big family, which has only grown over the years. Two parents (now grandparents), seven adult siblings and their significant others, some seventeen grandchildren, and add in our uncle and/or aunt on occasion, and let’s just say we’re probably violating the local fire code.

To outsiders, our raucous little gift exchange can seem like quite an “ordeal” – as it was famously described by one former attendee. But it also has an order to it.

This year’s orderly ordeal seemed to be going as planned. Most of the adults were tightly packed in the kitchen and dining area, sharing stories, enjoying cocktails and some even playing cards.  The kids had just settled down to a movie after an initial hour-plus of rough housing and chocolate milk. A few of the parents – myself among them – found a spot on the couch, with our offspring draped over us, as we watched the latest Netflix offering.  My 4 year-old son settled onto my lap, and even started to fall asleep.

Dinner was about to be served, and the gifts waited in a hulking mass around the tree. That’s when the soon to be crowned barf champion slid off my lap and turned to me with tears in his eyes and a telltale ghost-white expression.

“My tummy hurts,” he whined.

I’ve learned the hard way to take him seriously when he says such a thing. When he’s not feeling well and tells me this, I know I have less than a minute before he’s going to hurl.

The weird thing, though, is that he’d been perfectly fine all day. In fact, he was rolling around with his cousins on the floor just moments before we decided to calm them with a movie.

Still, his look and whine level told me this was serious.

“Let’s get you to the bathroom,” I said as I leapt from the couch.

My parent's first-floor bathroom lies across the kitchen/dining area from the family room and down the hall. It was going to be long trip, especially navigating all the legs. So I hurriedly began the trek walking him in front of me across carpeted rugs toward the hardwood expanse crowded with adults.

We'd just crossed onto the hardwoods when I -- and everyone else at the gathering -- heard that special combination of sounds: a gag, a gush, and a splat. I froze, as I’m apt to do in these situations, as curdle chocolate milk and bile spread across the floor like a Rorschach on steroids.  

I saw sorrow in it.

I also saw splatter hitting a jacket that had unfortunately found its way to the floor and also the back of someone’s leather boots. A person was in the boots, too. Luckily it turned out the boots belonged to the up-chucker’s mother – my wife – who was standing at the island between the kitchen and dining room putting the final touches on a beautifully planned salad.

It was a Beautiful Salad.
Well, to say a pall fell on the festivities would be understatement. With all the hors d'oeuvres and beverages that filled our stomachs, and the acidy aroma that filled the air, I half expected my boy’s actions to kick off an epic Stand-By-Me style Barf-o-Rama. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Though it felt like it had.

Instead, the evening forged ahead. We cleaned up the vomit, washed the soiled clothing, and finished making the salad. My wife I considered leaving immediately, but the snow outside had just turned to freezing rain, and inside the consensus was that his voluminous vomit must have been caused by excessive amounts of chocolate and horse play. At least, that’s what we chose to believe.

Dinner and the gift exchange happened according to plan. Though neither the salad, nor anything else, was as beautiful as before.
Still, lots of toys, books and clothes were opened and enjoyed. And one less celebrated crown was bestowed, as the boy officially became our family’s Barf King and forever added his name to Ruddy Christmas lore.


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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Cat, a Pine Tree, and a Christmas Wish

Christmas miracles come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, some quite small. Some are furry. And some involve men with bucket trucks.

Before we get to that, let’s just establish that I don’t consider myself a cat person. I’ve even been known to poke fun at friends who use Facebook as their cat’s personal online photo diary.

Growing up, my family always had cats and dogs, and I always leaned toward the barking variety – in part because I found them more manageable and thus more easily loved. Don’t get me wrong, I adore kittens, with their rambunctious playfulness. But the aloofness of older cats always struck me as a less than desirable trait for pets or companions -- though it’s a quality I can also admire.

So it was with great trepidation that my wife and I finally caved last fall and brought a kitten into our family’s world. Our four kids had been bugging us for a kitty for a while, to go along with the family dog and various fish.

We found one through the local cat rescue group, the CNY Cat Coalition, and their program at PetSmart. I was the one who wandered alone into the coalition’s corner of the store one fall day wondering if they had any kittens to adopt. I found mostly older cats and just one pair of older kittens – sisters Luna and Tic. They were a bit bigger than I’d envisioned, but a few moments in the “get to know a cat room” and I knew I had to bring the wife and kids to meet the cats.

With the family in tow, I returned to the cat adoption center later that day. As expected, the kids fell in love immediately. Luna, in particular, seemed such an affectionate little being. While Tic bounced around the little padded room, causing as much mischief as possible, Luna introduced herself to the kids, rubbing up against their legs and settling onto their laps.

There are few better examples of pure joy than that of a kid meeting a kitten. My kids all fawned over their potential pets, and my wife and I just watched them enjoy it.

Luna was the favorite, but Tic, too, earned some admirers. Suddenly, we had a new dilemma: do we get one cat, or two?

After much back and forth, we determined we could only handle one cat. So we applied to adopt Luna.

A few days later, she went home with us and joined our family. Though I continued to stop by the adoption center for the next few weeks to check on Tic, hoping she found a home. Eventually, she did. We still think of her.

Fast forward a year, and Luna is fully a part of our family. She’s grown up a bit, but she's still as affectionate as that first day we met her. She sleeps in our eldest daughter’s bed each night, play/attacks us through the banister at the top of the steps, and pushes the dog’s buttons.

She’s gotten in a bit of trouble at times, as family members do. She’s had to learn not to get on the counters – or more likely, not to do it when my wife or I are around. And we’ve had to learn to keep the doors to outside shut. We knew going into the cat thing that we wanted ours to be an indoor cat. It’s just safer that way.

Luna didn’t quite understand the need to stay indoors and has been darting out since early last Spring. The first few times she got out, we scrambled into full panic mode – DefCat 4. The entire family would put on shoes and go out to herd the cat back indoors. We got good at it.  “Luna’s out!” Would be sounded, and we’d all jump to our jobs.

Then, one time this summer, we couldn’t find her. We fretted and worried, and I paced the yard while my daughter watched the doors. Still no cat. We went inside to assess our options. A few hours later, into the evening, Luna came back. She meowed at the door and walked in like nothing had happened.

After that we continued working to keep her in, but when she got out we didn’t panic. She always came back. Sometimes she even did it when we called her name out the back door. And, as the snow fell this fall, she seemed less eager to escape.

Then, on Monday, she got out again. Being just a few days before Christmas, and the kids off of school for the break, we had a lot going on that day. After her escape, no one panicked. My wife and I kept on working, and the kids played and watched TV.  Once I had a break in the work action, I took them to the YMCA and then to the Library.

The day passed, as each tends to, and before long we were getting dinner ready when someone mentioned they hadn’t seen Luna lately.

“I think she got out earlier,” my wife said. “Has she come back?”

It was then that our eldest daughter, who has a special connection to Luna, started to panic.

“She’s still out?!”...

“It’s freezing out there!”...

“She’s been out all day!”

All those were from her.

“Calm down!” I yelled.

I’ve been trying to impress on our pre-teen the need to stay calm during times of crisis, as a clear head is essential. I teach her this by yelling at the top of my lungs things like Calm Down and Just Chill.

Still, I figured Luna was likely fine and needed to prevent my daughter from freaking out and putting the whole evening into a tailspin.

She gathered her thoughts a bit, and went to the door to call for her. When she opened it she could hear the distant yowl of a cat.

“I hear her!”

She started to panic again. I did not. A few months back, Luna had gotten herself stuck about 6 feet up a tree in our yard. She yowled then too, and we quickly retrieved her. It was comical.

This time my daughter and I got on boots and jackets and went out the back door into the darkness to find and retrieve our cat.

The yowls and meows were near constant, making it easy to track. First the sound drew us toward the trees between our house and the neighbors. I shone my iPhone flashlight while my daughter circled the grove of trees.

Another meow sounded out, and my daughter turned and looked even further into the neighbor’s yard.

“She’s over there,” she pointed in the general direction of the neighbor’s porch and the much taller grove of trees separating them from the next house.

We stealthily entered our neighbor’s backyard.

Another yowl came and I figured she must be stuck under their wooden deck, maybe unable to get out through the mesh under-fencing meant to keep skunks and raccoons away. But then another came, and my daughter started looking almost straight up and pointing through the darkness to the tall trees.

“She’s in those trees!” she whisper-screamed.

No way, I thought.

We hurried across the yard and found ourselves at the base of a 45 foot pine tree.

A “Meow!” came down through the branches.

“Luna?!” my daughter returned.

I shone my iPhone light up the trunk of the pine. Through branches and needles, it illuminated the first twenty feet or so. Yet, no visual sign of the cat. Still, we knew we had the right tree; It was just a matter of how high she was.

That white spot that looks like a star
is actually our cat atop a 45-foot tall pine.
We assessed our options. Could we climb? The tree was tall, but the first few feet seemed climbable. My daughter grabbed a lower branch and started. Like I said, she loves this cat.

I convinced her we needed to get a visual first, even though it was dark out. We hustled back to the house to get a proper flashlight and brief my wife on the situation.

“Luna’s up a tree!” our daughter informed the family. Cat up a tree? Big deal, right? Was the general reaction. Just get her down.

I got a better flashlight and returned with my daughter to the neighbor’s yard. From a distance away from the tree, I shone the light slowly up through its midsection as I called the cat, hoping she’d look my way and return the shine through her eyes. Up and up I scanned. Then, almost to the top, I saw the telltale reflection of cat’s eyes in the dark: she was way up a tree.

By my calculation, the tree was close to 45 feet tall. Luna’s eyes showed her to be about 5 feet from the top.

My daughter gasped when she saw, and started to freak out again. I didn’t stop her this time.

Back at home, I told the family that Luna was really up a tree. Like, we-can’t -get-her up. After coming to assess the situation and a debate about whether we could actually climb the tree – which we couldn’t, and even if we could, it wouldn’t be smart – my wife and I returned to the house to research what to do. My daughter stayed with the tree and her cat in the cold.

For research we turned to the usual source: the internet. My wife Googled “how to get cats out of trees,” and I posted a general request to Facebook. The internet/social media world responded and advice flooded in.

We soon discovered people are divided into two camp on this subject: The put-sardines-at-the-bottom-of-the-tree camp, and the I’ve-never-seen-a-cat-skeleton-in-a-tree camp.

Input and anecdotes came from both the “Coaxing” and the “Tough Love” world views. All of it came with genuine concern (well, most of it).

Put a bowl of food at the bottom, and she‘ll come down when she’s hungry. My friend’s cat was up a tree for three days before it decided to come down. Have you tried spraying her with a hose? Throw snowballs above her? A laser pointer? I have a 40 foot ladder you can borrow. Call the fire department. Give me a 12 gauge and I’ll get your cat down (No one really said this last one, but the sentiment was there).

Most of the advice from friends came without them fathoming exactly how frigging high the cat was. I couldn’t throw a snowball that high with accuracy. Even the tallest ladder was too short, taking into account the angles. Plus, there was nothing sturdy to lean it up against that high in the tree.

The main problem with most of the advice was that it also came with the assumption that the cat was just being stubborn. I knew from the yowls that she wasn’t stubborn, she was panicking too. Maybe even stuck somehow, with a leg between branches or something.

We kept reading and researching.

It turns out – based on what we read-- that cats don’t always come down. Their claws are great at climbing up, and not so good at climbing down. If you’ve ever seen a cat try to shimmy down a tree backwards, you know it isn’t pretty. Could she do that from 40 feet up? Not likely.

Fear, immaturity, and old age can all contribute to a cat getting literally stuck high up in a tree. If the cat can’t figure out how to get down, the elements, other animals, hunger and thirst are all threats. The internet holds a number of examples of cats atop tall pines in particular that didn’t end well. Then I began to panic.

At some point, my wife called the local fire department, which seems kind of cliché, but was clearly worth a try. They said they were on a real call, but we could call back later. Then they said they’d most likely spray her with water. I knew the temps were supposed to hover around freezing that night, and figured spraying her now was not the best option. Plus, one anecdote mentioned a cat jumping from a tall pine to avoid being sprayed and dying from the fall. It seemed we weren’t there yet.

Meanwhile, I found a story in the local paper from a few years back that said another family got their cat down from a tree with the help of an unemployed arborist. These are expert tree climbers, among other things. And it just so happens that the local college – SUNY ESF – has the best arborist program around. I found a list of New York State arborist and sent a longshot e-mail to one listed as living nearby.

Willing to try some of the other advice found and received, I went to the store to buy wet food (which has a more pungent smell), a laser pointer, and a better flashlight.

The better flashlight gave us a solid visual on the cat. She was moving around a bit, even seemed to climb up higher from when we first found her. At least she wasn’t physically stuck, I thought. The laser pointer was cool, but failed to draw her attention. So, we set the wet food at the bottom of the tree and then gathered on the sidewalk with a few neighbors who’d come to inquire about the drama – the cat’s meows transmitted throughout the block.

We learned from neighbors that she’d been crying like that since at least 2 p.m. It was getting close to 9:00 p.m., by this point, which meant she’d been up the tree almost 7 hours already.

We talked again about the fire company. And the water spraying thing. Then another neighbor mentioned the local utility company, National Grid. They have tree trimming crews. And I remembered seeing a few Grid personnel on the list of arborist. Sounded like a good next option. I stepped inside and sent another kindly worded, but desperate, e-mail to an arborist.

It kept getting later and we exhausted the options we could reasonably pursue that night without potentially causing more harm than good.

After some more tears, and threats of sleeping outside by my daughter, we left the food at the foot of the tree and shut the rescue operation down for the night.

My daughter was distraught. I wasn’t particularly optimistic either. It was going to be a cold night and, by the time I went to bed, I’d determined in my mind that Luna wasn’t going to come down without help. If she made it through the night, we’d need either the fire company to send a ladder truck or an arborist to get our cat back alive.

That night, my daughter cried herself to sleep while my wife assured her we’d solve this. I slept on the couch by the French doors, hoping to let her in should she find her way down. Eventually, we all fell asleep.

At about 1 a.m., I woke with a start and heard the rain pouring through the gutters. Crap. I checked the temperature, 32 degrees. Well, at least maybe this would force her down – like the fire company’s hose. I put on boots and a jacket and went into the back yard, shining my new flashlight to the tall grove of trees across the neighbor’s yard. Luna’s eyes shone back. And then she let out a yowl. She hadn’t succumbed to the elements yet. But she hadn’t budged either.

I went back to the couch. And I worried that if we didn’t solve this, we may have seen the end of our wee kitty.

The next morning, as the sky was just starting to lighten with the soon-rising sun, I returned to the tree. It was silent.

“Luna?” I called up.



Then she meowed back. She was still there.

The light of day made things seem better, but not much. I still knew we’d need some help to get this cat down. We had to find someone with the means to get her down and some Christmas spirit to spare. And, frankly, I didn’t know if it would happen. To top it off, Christmas was just two days away. Would this be known as the Christmas the cat died? Thoughts like that had been creeping into my head since I first saw her 40 feet up a pine. But I’d kept them at bay. Now those thoughts were winning.

I’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes things don’t work out. That sometimes that glimmer of hope isn’t a glimmer at all. But, I also know that sometimes it is.

About 7 a.m., I checked my e-mail. And I found a glimmer.

A National Grid arborist had written me back:

“Good Morning Mr. Ruddy.  Did your cat come down?”

I wrote back:

“No, sir.  She has not budged.  I just checked on her and she's still up there crying. We tried can food at the bottom of the tree, a laser pointer, waiting and it rained. I've believed for a while we have to find a way to get to her. Thanks for getting back to me.”

A few minutes later, this came:

“This is well outside our service mandates but call my cell …”

I woke the family and within half an hour a service truck from National Grid was parked in my neighbor’s driveway as a crew of three men used a bucket truck with 70 foot reach to retrieve our little Luna.

While they were working I asked the arborist if people were calling them all the time with this sort of thing. He said that in 20 years, this was just his 5th cat rescue. 

In all it took them about fifteen minutes, but it meant everything to our family. We cannot thank them enough.

Christmas miracles do come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, some quite small. Our was furry. And it involved men with a bucket truck.

Merry Christmas.