When the tears start

The setting sun cast an orange glow over the Southwestern Virginia Mountains Friday as I sat in the gazebo in our front yard and let the glow of nature drains away the tension of the week.

Earlier in the afternoon, I loaded my yard tractor and a lawn roller onto a trailer and trucked it over to a friend’s house so he could use the roller to flatten out a new load of gravel in his driveway. After returning, putting the tractor and roller away and unhooking the trailer, I saw the setting sun, grabbed a cup of coffee and walked over to the gazebo to enjoy the moment.

Our house sits three-quarters the way up a ridge, 2500 feet above sea level, overlooking a valley, rolling hills and the crest of the Blue Ridge in the distance. The setting provides a peaceful, tranquil respite far from the hustle and bustle of Washington.

We came here in 2004 to get away from Washington and retire from some 40 years of writing about – and working in – politics.  But while I may have escaped Washington, I cannot escape the problems that those who remain there create for the nation and the world.

Yet, as I watch a family of mallards work their way across the lower part of our front yard, those problems fade into both the sunset and the beauty of nature.

Earlier this week, we lost a six-month battle to save a kitten Amy fostered from the wild – a loving bundle of fur named Loki. He suffered irreparable damage from two growths in his brain, couldn’t walk without stumbling and falling and wasn’t always aware of his surroundings but we loved that cat and hoped, against all odds, that we could find a way to save him.

But Loki’s already-fragile health failed on Tuesday, forcing us to make the painful decision to put him to sleep. When the time came and we turned him over to the doctors at the Virginia-Maryland Regional Veterinary Hospital at Virginia Tech, I broke down and bawled like a baby, the sobs washing over me in convulsive waves.

I thought about that moment as the sun dipped below the horizon of the mountains. I didn’t cry when my stepfather died or when we laid my grandparents to rest. I didn’t cry when other loved ones died before their time nor did I shed a tear for the 3,000 who died on September 11, 2001 or the 2,500 plus Americans who have died in Iraq.

I have watched friends and loved ones die over the years. I’ve faced death more than once without emotion. I’ve photographed it and written about it for four decades. At the Pentagon on 9/11, I went into autopilot, photographing the death and destruction around me, ignoring the stench of kerosene and burning flesh that permeated the air.

Yet when a veterinarian asked me if I wanted to be present when they put a kitten to sleep, I couldn’t take it and retreated into a nearby bathroom to sit in a stall and sob.

Have we, as a culture, become so used to death in the human race that it no longer affects us? Is human life so dispensable that we accept it without feeling, without caring and without remorse?

I realized I didn’t know the answer to such questions.

Then I realized the setting sun had become a blur.

I was crying. And I couldn’t stop.