I learned something about grief when my cousin Normie died. He was like a big brother to me—the kind of big brother who tolerated you because you were family, not the kind who actually liked you. When I heard about his death, my sadness was way out of proportion to what I felt for him. I was deeply depressed before it even occurred to me that someone I knew might die. I was failing to cope with—was withdrawing from—the challenges of being away from home at college for the first time. I was flunking, circling the drain, and I knew it. The news of Normie’s death triggered wave after wave of unbearable grief.
I didn’t know it then, but I mourned for myself as well as for him, for my lost dreams, for my lost path in life. Normie’s death gave me permission to be overtly sorrowful, to have my pain acknowledged by friends and roommates, to receive whatever comfort they could give and I was able to accept.
This was my first hint that grief is never simple, it’s never just about your most recent loss. It can be about every loss you’ve ever experienced, anticipated, and imagined.
Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for every one.
We’d bury her in the yard she loved—the yard that was her place—but, by the time of her passing, we’d moved to a condo; and there’s no way the Association is going to let us bury her in the common area of the complex. Failing that, we just want her body to be treated with a modicum of respect. Her illness has been expensive, so we opt for the cheapest cremation option. She will be cremated with other cats, and their ashes scattered on a dedicated natural area. This seems like an acceptable solution, until we get a smarmy card from the company that handled the cremation—which offends me because they are strangers to us, and their picture of a peaceful California savannah seems too good to be true. It feels as if we have delivered ourselves up to an “industry” that would provide, were we willing to pay for it: embalming, with aesthetic touches; a full open-casket funeral orchestrated by a lugubrious funeral director; a cemetery plot and headstone. Shades of The Loved One. Well, it’s a wrong note, nothing more. In lieu of her ashes on the shelf, I keep a photo of her in the one place where I see it every day: my computer desktop.
Miss Kitty, who adopted us, was called Salsa by her previous owners. She just appeared in our yard one day, and I started feeding her, to encourage her to return. When I realized whose cat she was, I asked our neighbor, Marielle, to come over and see Salsa in her new hangout. Marielle hadn’t seen Salsa lately, and was mystified by her disappearance. I asked,
Do you want me to stop feeding her?
No. If she likes it better here, she should stay.
Salsa had been a loving pet, had slept on Marielle’s bed and seemed satisfied with her home and her humans. But she had been less than thrilled with having to share them with two other cats, so now she preferred our patio and back yard to Marielle’s bed. She’d found her balance, her equilibrium point in the equation, the sweet spot in the world she knew, where all the feng shui was aligned and the forces of attraction and repulsion were optimized. Who were we to interfere? Then she got an abscess on her tail and we took her to the vet. It was official: she was our pet.
I love the mellow self-confidence of big tom cats, but it’s the timid little-girl cats like Miss Kitty who really melt my heart. It wasn’t easy for her to trust a human many times her size. Her trust was a tribute to my capacity for gentleness, for consistency, for kindness. Her acceptance made me feel like a better person. Her company made me, in fact, a better person.
The most calming thing I know is to pet my big gray tom cat, Basil, while he sleeps. He often sleeps right through my caresses, and I wonder: is he aware of me? Does he dream that someone is petting him? Does he dream it’s me? Miss Kitty was made of more jittery stuff. For a long time, whenever I approached and petted her, if she was lying down, she would get up. I wanted her to remain still, but she didn’t have it in her. Finally, when she began to feel the effects of her illness, she became less jumpy, and would lie still when I approached her with soft words and caresses. She’s right where she wants to be, so why get up?
III. Dies Irae.
As my father lay dying in his bed, the immediate family gathered in my parents’ home. Each evening, I took a walk in the neighborhood, a tract of modest frame houses on tree-lined streets. It was always fine northern-California fall weather; open windows and doors brought me the sounds of everyday life: cooking, eating, conversation, TV-watching, and sometimes the boisterous play of kids and high-spirited dogs. On the evening before my father died, I resented all this activity, the buzz and bustle of each individual household, because my world was holding its breath, waiting for the inevitable. I told myself,
They should show more respect, and keep the noise down.
More fitting for them to speak in lowered tones and muffle the clatter of cooking and eating implements, close their windows and doors, still the crass chatter of their televisions. It would do them good to sit in silence. It wasn’t right, this failure to recognize the drama in my life and the lives of those I cared for most in the world. How could they be so insensitive?
She’s a cinnamon tabby: black and gray stripes, an undercoat of various shades of golden brown, a cinnamon nose and white muzzle. As I face up to losing her, I am shocked to realize that I have a more physical relationship with her than with any other living creature. Pat and I are an old married couple; and it has been a long time since Dana sat on my lap to help hold the book I read to him, and look at the pictures. With them I share human affection, more fulfilling than the human-to-pet kind; we communicate complexly and accurately; we’ve pulled together through good and bad times that our pets lacked the capacity to understand. With my human family I share the occasional hug and kiss—but I have daily prolonged full-body contact only with my little cinnamon tabby. How can I survive her passing? She’s slipping away from us before her time, and it’s not fair!
I in my chair, reading, and she on the floor next to me. If I invited her, and that’s what she wanted, she’d jump lightly up on my lap, arriving there at the top of her trajectory, when all motion momentarily stops—as if she’d calmly stepped onto me while hovering in the air. She’d stand with her back to me until I rubbed her rump—the part of her back just in front of her tail—to her satisfaction. Then she’d lie down, always facing to my left, and tuck everything in around her. I’d stroke her head, ears, face, and back while I continue with my reading. She liked it best when I wore jeans, because the heavy fabric resisted a light touch of the claw. If I wore shorts, her sharp little claws could hurt me. Responding to caresses by extending her claws seemed like a reflex, but we extinguished it with gentle reminders.
For a long time, because of chronic back pain, I took daily hot baths. Then I’d lie on my back, on the floor, to cool off. Miss Kitty loved to have me down there with her. While I rested, she’d circle me and be petted, and sometimes beg for attention by wedging her head under my hand as it lay on the floor. Then she’d flop over on her side next to my hip, facing away, and let me rub and stroke her chin, neck, and tummy. She never got tired of this; but when I started doing stretches, she’d go away.
She seemed her normal self when a routine test showed impaired kidney function. The vet told us what this meant, how it would progress, how a special diet could slow down the disease. We got the prescription food, but she hated it. So instead of pushing it, we supplemented her usual kibble with wet food to give her extra water in her diet. For months she seemed fine, but then she started losing weight. The disease ran its course in about two years. Then our pity for her, in her obvious discomfort, overwhelmed our desire to keep her with us.
I liked my father-in-law a lot, but we were very different people, and I felt no real intimacy with him. Pat and I viewed his body at the funeral home, and my strongest impression was of his absence. His corpse was an empty husk, the inhabitant I remembered and mourned was gone.
I had, and have, a much closer relationship with my father. When he died, I squeezed his inert hand and kissed his forehead. I loved his physical, was well as his emotional and intellectual, being. He was still present to me after his spirit had fled.
Miss Kitty, in death, is still present to all who love her. We caress her in a reassuring way, and nuzzle her fur with our faces. Pat strokes and squeezes her paws, and they are not, for once, indignantly withdrawn. Our tears flow freely, we choke back sobs. Pat says,
I feel as if we’ve let her down, as if we might have done more to save her.
I hold Miss Kitty and soothe her when the first needle—the sedative—goes into a large muscle of her leg. She falls into a deep sleep, and I lay her carefully on her side. Her breaths come and go steadily, and we crowd around her, smoothing her fur, caressing her in all the ways we know she likes. The vet says,
Next I’ll find a vein close to the surface to inject the Nembutal, which will stop her heart.
When you’re ready.
The vet hangs back respectfully. I nod and she turns on the softly buzzing clippers, swipes them over Miss Kitty’s wrist, and brushes away a neat packet of fur.
My son’s childhood asthma kept us from having pets; so until he outgrew his allergies we’d go for walks and pet all the friendly neighborhood cats. I was a cat magnet, but Dana didn’t have the knack of keeping his body quiet and letting them come to him. The pair of us sent excruciatingly mixed signals to many a gregarious cat:
It’s all right/DON’T YOU BELIEVE IT
You know you want it/DANGER! DANGER!
We were amused and distressed in equal measures to see the indecisive agonies of those poor cats. Eventually, Dana learned to be aware of his body language, and became a cat magnet in his own right.
After my father passed away, I took the train home, the Coast Starlight from Oakland to Santa Barbara. I plugged in to my iPod, and listened to Mozart’s Requiem, Brahms’s German Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, and Verdi’s Requiem. I’d heard them many times before, but never like this, one after another, all on the same day. I kept a book open in front of me, but didn’t read much. Music and solitude were a refuge for my spirit. I, an unbeliever, found the requiem’s frank recognition of sadness, the ritualized but tender offering of solace, in perfect keeping with my mood. The music, like Philip Larkin’s church[ii], was a serious house, where
all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
When her bowl was empty, or there were ants in her food, Miss Kitty would sit on the floor near me and stare. If I ignored her, she’d reach out a paw and rest it on my leg, and extend one-claw-only, and prick me with it. Then I’d stand up and say,
OK, what is it? Show me what you want.
And she’d lead me to the problem. Often, there was nothing wrong—she just wanted to get a bite to eat, and she wanted me to pet her while she started in on it. I thought this preference of hers, to eat while being petted by the hand that fed her, bespoke an insecurity about food, as if she were saying,
Here’s my bowl. You can tell it’s mine because I’m eating from it. Keep it full! Don’t forget me!
To make her feel better, I’d sometimes add a few pieces of kibble from the bag even if her bowl was full.
VII. Agnus Dei.
Miss Kitty never liked to be held, and she’d struggle to get down almost at once if I picked her up. But if I cradled her like a baby, on her back, she would be perfectly calm. I could nuzzle her head with my nose and mutter sweet nothings, and she would remain cool and relaxed until I shifted her position or let her down.
With kidney failure far advanced, Miss Kitty had lost almost 40 percent of her body weight, her joints and muscles were stiff, her feline ease and grace were only a memory. We gave her a step so she could climb onto our bed without jumping. She could no longer relax; even in her sleep, she held her body stiffly, as if afraid of falling. Her fatigue from constant muscle tension must have been terrible. She must have been in pain, but gave no sign of it, wasn’t irritable, still trusted me to pick her up (though she still didn’t like it). I wondered where she found the inner resources to be so patient and gentle.
My grief is tempered with relief when the vet gives her the sedative, and Miss Kitty’s body, long stiffened with pain, relaxes. Her ease and suppleness is pleasant to feel under my hands, and remind me of better times, though in truth I have never known her to be this limp. For the moment, she is more like her old self.
VIII. Lux Aeterna.
As my father lay dying, there was a gathering of the immediate family in my parents’ home. Each evening, I would take a walk in the neighborhood. It was always fine fall weather; open windows and doors brought me the sounds of everyday life. On the evening of the day my father died, I heard the murmur and commotion of each household, and said to myself:
Life goes on, as it should. I am comforted.
I felt at peace; all the suspense of the death watch was over. There was nothing left to do but mourn.
Miss Kitty, in death, is still present to all who love her. We caress her, and nuzzle her fur with our faces. Pat strokes and squeezes her paws. Our tears flow freely, we choke back sobs. I say,
I feel like I’ve done it right for the first time in my life. Every other cat I’ve owned, I had to give it away, or it was killed by a car or taken by coyotes. This is the first time I’ve seen a pet through to her natural end. This is the way it should be.
In bed, I almost always lie on my back with pillows under my knees, and Miss Kitty liked to lie on my chest, everything all neatly tucked in under her meatloaf-shaped body. Her eyes would close, and her chin slowly drop to her paws, and she’d sleep lightly with her stripey cinnamon face inches from my own. If one of us gave a spasmodic jerk as we drifted off toward sleep, the other would wake in alarm, and I’d put two reassuring hands on her and say,
It’s all right, it’s just a hypnagogic startle, it happens.
While I slept, I no longer felt her on me, my autonomic respiration easily adjusting to her weight.
When I woke she was gone.
[i] In the libretto of the Latin mass, by convention, the titles of the sections are not translated even when the text of the sections is translated. For the reader’s convenience, the title translations are:
Missa Feli – (Requiem) Mass for a Cat
Introit – Entrance, Prelude
Requiem [Aeternam] – [Eternal] Rest
Dies Irae – Wrath of God
Recordare – Remember
Lacrimosa – Tearful
Offertory – Offering
Agnus Dei – Lamb of God
Lux Aetera – Eternal Light
[ii] Philip Larkin, “Church Going”. Pp 35-37, The Complete Poems, London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2012.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**