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Category: grief

A Weekend in Blacksburg

My friend is studying to be a wild life scientist, a trapper and catcher of information about the world’s dwindling carnivore populations.  He’s approaching his graduation date, but I am only just now getting in a trip to visit him, because after two and a half years, I am finally ready to be separated from Baba overnight.

And so, I find myself on an airplane by myself.  It’s a puddle jumper, as Virginia Tech is only a two hour flight away from home, and the plane is so small that I have managed to get myself a seat that is both window and aisle.

Glorious time, for an introvert.  Two and a half hours of the kind of solitude that I have become accustomed to, the type where you’re surrounded by strangers who need nothing from you.  Although I should be writing, instead I read the last 40 pages of Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave, the third in her famous Neapolitan novel series.  Somewhere near the end of the flight, I close the book on the last page and sigh, knowing that I can’t check out the fourth and final book from the library for another week.

But then I look up, to see that I have been lucky enough to arrive in the mountains in late fall, where the land is carpeted in hundreds of thousands of trees that are all turning red and orange and yellow.  Suddenly it strikes me how little I’ve noticed the turn of the season and how few trees really live on my street, although one thing I loved about my neighborhood when I moved to it were the size of the suburban trees.  But compared to a real forest, the  paltry sidewalks plantings of the suburbs are nothing.

When I land at 6 p.m., it becomes clear that we are the last scheduled plane and the airport is closing for the night.  There are cafes and bookstores in the terminal, but the employees have shut off all but the emergency lights and they chat with each other in a way that doesn’t encourage customer interruptions.

It is a relief to be out of New York City, to retreat to a calmer place, where the accents are slower and businesses shut down for the night.

In the morning, we go to Virginia Tech, which is a glorious campus, with serene and stately stone buildings nestled among majestic trees that create a campus that feels more like a well-kept city park than a university.  But you can’t go far without running into a memorial for the students and faculty that were murdered here a decade ago.  It is a too-solid reminder of the attack on New York last Tuesday, which hit me and mine closer than any would ask for.  But we try to move past it, darting between buildings in the gray rain, and watching the Virginia Tech undergrads like zoo animals, because the 15 years that separates us makes them seem like alien creatures.

I am here for a short visit – not quite 48 hours – and most of it is spent on friendship, asking about people that no one else remembers, reminiscing about the people that we were when we were the same age as the students around us.  We can’t help but wonder – is the world less innocent now than it was then?  Are we less safe now than we were then?

Then the news of the Texas church shooting breaks, so we know.

 

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The American Legacy

My daughter crinkles paper, blows
on the tree to make it live, festoons
herself with silver.
So far she has no use for gifts.

What can I give her,
what armor, invincible
sword or magic trick, when that year comes?

How can I teach her
some way of being human
that won’t destroy her?

I would like to tell her, Love
is enough. I would like to say,
Find shelter in another skin.

I would like to say, Dance
and be happy. Instead I will say
in my crone’s voice, Be
ruthless when you have to, tell
the truth when you can,
when you can see it.
Iron talismans, and ugly, but
more loyal than mirrors.

from “Solstice Poem”, Margaret Atwood

 

 


 

On the radio this morning, the hushed voices of NPR reporters break the news that the largest mass shooting the country has ever seen happened overnight. The details are still sparse, but I wait for the body count. In the back seat, Baba babbles about the birds she heard singing, while I wonder what new words she’ll pick up from the radio this time.

After the barest details turn into empty radio filler, I turn down the volume. There is time later to obsess about the increasingly competitive rampages of men with guns who want to die over and over again on the front page of every newspaper. And we fall into the trap, as we must, feting the murders on every radio station and in every newspaper in terse and gently probing tones. The President issues a speech that manages not to insult anyone. On social media, the cringey and meaningless posts about thoughts and prayers are echoed over and over.

We are helpless. We are hopeless. But yet, we want to be seen having compassion for people we would not know walking down the street, because the situation is so terrible that we must be observed to publicly mourn to protect our decency. And so we perform our grief, but it feels false. How can you have grief left to give to strangers, when we’ve done this show so many times?

This season, it doesn’t even have an intermission.  Hurricane, hurricane, horror, hurricane, slow response, mass shooting, horror.

Later in the day, Tom Petty dies, because how could such a well-loved American artist live out this terrible day? Although we know by now that it is simply not safe to go to work or ride a train or dance in a night club, music had been safe.  If you weren’t French.  Now, thanks to yet another white man with far more guns than anyone should ever own, that too has been defiled. Even Tom Petty’s death is ruined, because our thoughts and prayers are already taken.

Tomorrow, his record sales are sure to spike, because that is what happens every time. And we will do nothing else. Nothing and nothing and nothing.

 


 

About a month ago, I told Baba that it was time to leave to go to school.

She says, “No, Mama. I no go school. I have to murder my tiger.”

“You have to what?” I ask, as I walk into the living room, where I find her holding a long piece of plastic across the throat of a stuffed Disney-shaped lion that we have yet to identify.

“Ehm,” I say.

“Ehm,” I say a little louder.

Baba interrupts her sawing and looks up with curiosity on her sweet and feral face.

“You seem to be murdering,” I say, in what must the epitome of good parenting.

“Yes, Mama,” she says happily. “See, I murder my tiger! Like this!  You want murder my tiger too?”

“No, baby. Murder is not nice.”

“Murder is not nic-CEEEEEE?” she asks, cocking her head with an overdone smile that usually makes me laugh.

“No love, murder is not nice. Tell your tiger that you’re sorry, honey. Then we need to go.”

 


 

We have a madness that we cannot seem to shake off.   Already the old conversation about gun control has started. I think more about personal risk.  I don’t worry for myself, because I have walked through high-risk halls on my way to work so many years that I long ago accepted the chance that some violent man will take my life. After all, I ride trains. And, in 2017, we all know that bombs and trains go along very well.

Hopefully not my one, but you never know.

But no parent considers sending their child to school without also imagining the day when that decision became deadly. Because you never know.

And this is the world that I must explain to Baba. Now she is so young that her innocence about the world constantly surprises me.

One day she took down our Bernie Sanders card from the bathroom mirror and said, “Who dat?”

“That’s Bernie Sanders, love.  He reminds us to look out for one another.”

“Who Ernie Sandbars?”

I thought a while about how to explain it. “He’s a man who wants to make sure that everyone can go to the doctor if they get sick,” I said.

“Why you no can go doctor?” she asked.

“Well…” I said, at a loss for words.

What a world I have to give you, my Baba, my innocent and feral child. And that is my deepest grief. All I can arm you with are the words and poems of the fighters and the heroes and hope that you stay as courageous
as you were born.

And do better, child. Do better than me.

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A Stone, A Tree, A Memory

When I was fourteen, I went to live with my father in Scotland for a month.  He had been stationed there for some time, but this was my first trip to Europe.  I was beyond excited to finally go to a country that I had romanticized since birth.

Being a moody fourteen year old that was prone to poetry and rambling walks, I often rose while the mist was still burning off of the lanes of the tiny village where we lived.  I would walk down to the river, through a graveyard littered with historical signs boasting about the medieval round tower on the church.  At the river, I had ducks for friends.

I was only visiting.  I didn’t know a soul in town.  And it was a small enough place that a month wasn’t nearly enough time to get to know anyone new.  And so I would walk and visit with the ducks and watch the other people, as they walked their dogs and played with their children.  It was lonely, but it was a very peaceful loneliness.

I have been thinking about that place a lot and wishing to visit it again, even though I suspect that it would not at all be the same to return there with the knowledge of an adult.  But metaphorically, my heart is there because, unbelievably, I put my other cat to sleep two weeks ago.

No, not the one I just blogged about at the end of March.  The one that survived her, my beloved, wonderful tabby Nevyn, who has been my constant friend for the last 20 years.  Nevyn of the sweet and fearless personality, who was once held for ransom (I paid!) and prone to wandering into the arms of strangers and making them fall in love with him.

So here I am again, writing a post that I have no heart to write, because I don’t really know how to be an adult without him there in my life.  I have never had to do it before.  We have been together that long.  Now, I dread walking into my house, particularly when no one is home.  For the first time, the house has no life on the floorboards, no soft feet pattering around behind me.

An 18 year old lover.

No one cares about you like your cat does.

It has been hard.  Perhaps it has been harder than it should be.  It’s been two weeks since I took him to be put to sleep because it’s taken this long to be able to look at the pain of losing my cats with any kind of insight or eloquence.  There’s a distance needed before words can form.  I’m not sure I’m there yet, but it’s a little closer today than it was yesterday.

Although it is brutal to lose two animals so close together, it is comforting to know that they weren’t without each other for very long.  They had been together for 18 years and I am certain that Nevyn felt all of the grief that I did when Morghan died.  His illness – kidney disease – began to progress more rapidly.  Suddenly, the cat that everyone exclaimed over as being unbelievably young for his age became an old man.  He spent more and more time napping on the couch and lost most of his interest in going outside.  He absolutely refused to stay upstairs, which is where Morghan had slept until her final illness made moving her closer to the litter box a necessity.  When I carried him up the stairs, he immediately ran back down them, in a burst of energy that was becoming rarer and rarer.

Nevyn Sleeping on Morghan, February 2017

I’ll never know if taking him to be put to sleep was what he wanted.  I’m told that it was the right decision by everyone who saw him in those last few days, but I can’t help but agonize over it.  The vet told me he might have had a few more weeks, if we tried to keep him going.  I know they would have been lonely.

But I miss them both terribly.  I know that there will be other pets in my life down the road, but right now it feels like I’ll never love again the way that I loved these two.  In some ways, it is like a first heartbreak, before experience makes you put your guard up the next time you fall in love.  You can never again not know how much loss hurts.  They weren’t the first cats that I’ve lost to time, but they are the first cats that I raised myself.  I paid the bill when Morghan was spayed.  I took them every year for shots and check-ups.  I worried for them when they were sick and I held them when they needed to be held.   And now they’re somewhere else, in a place where I cannot hold them any more.  I cannot protect them, which was my job for so long.  It feels like failure.

The Remembering Tree

All I can do for them now is remember them.  I brought them both home and put them in our front yard, wrapped in blankets and lying side by side under the Japanese maple, just as they were always doing for all of those years that we were all together.

Now they return to the earth.  And, somehow, the rest of us go on, drinking coffee and walking to the train, sitting in the office and doing what we always did for all of those years.  Squirrels run up and down their tree, looking for lost nuts in the mulch that covers their graves.  Songbirds — cardinals and robins and sparrows and starlings – fill the air in the garden over their bodies.  And I walk past the final resting place of my kids each morning as I emerge again out into the world.

 

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Cancer Sucks: A Goodbye

I had a dream the other night about a woman who was coming after my family.  She was long haired and thin and she kept knocking on the door to our house, which kept opening, over and over and over.  I tried relentlessly, but I was powerless to stop her as she walked in and she would touched my family, wrapping her long fingernails around the face of a child that I was supposed to protect.  I was so afraid of her, because I knew that that this woman was a murderer — and try as hard as I might, I could not keep her out of my house.

I woke up, in the guest bedroom, terrified and shaking.  It took me a moment to remember where I was, as I’ve only slept there once or twice.  Each time was so that I could sleep with my younger cat, who has been very, very sick.

And that was when I realized that the woman in the dream was cancer, coming after my family again, so relentlessly.  It has been less than a year since I lost my young uncle and my brother-in-law to different forms of cancer.  And last week, on St. Patrick’s Day, our vet told me that my cat Morghan had it too.

It could be cancer or a polyp, he said.  And since she’s 18 years old, he said, we’re not going to do surgery to remove the tumor in her bladder.

No, I agreed.  We all know that I’ve been lucky to have her in my life this long.

So you have two choices, he said, you can manage her pain or we can talk about euthanasia.

Ah.

My beautiful Morghan.

I opted for pain management, though I know I will spend many hours wondering if that was selfish.  When I picked her up from her day of examinations, the vet who met me asked me if I had any questions as he explained the regimen of pills.  I know she’s terminal, I said.  I know that.  But how do I know when it’s time…?

Oh, you’ll know when, he said.

This last week has been a hard one, as I woke every morning to check on Morghan and see if the tumor had done terrible things to her in the night.  It hadn’t, and since she was still active enough to chase me around the house just waiting for me to sit down, I tried to convince myself that she would be okay, for a while at least.  Then she stopped eating. When I took her back for her check-up a week later, she had lost a full pound, which she didn’t have to lose in the first place.  When the vet tech weighed her in at six pounds, I cried again, because I had told myself that if she’d lost weight, then I’d really know that it was time.  I took her and her anti-nausea medicine home with me, but I still could not get her to eat.

When had come.

Eighteen years is a long time to share your life with someone.  I have no one in my life who has been there as long and as constantly, as steadily there for me as my two cats.  The wonderful thing about a pet is that there’s no judgement; no matter how terrible your day was or what terrible mistakes you made, your cat just loves you.  She has been there for my entire adult life, ever since I took her home as an 18-year-old to my first apartment.  She fit in my hand that day, a tiny little creature that had been dumped in a parking lot, weeks before she should have been separated from her mother.  I taught her how to bathe, to some extent, and spent hours and hours detangling her fur and picking out knots.  She was never very good at being a cat — she never caught a thing in her life — but she was a wonderful companion and friend.  She came with me when I moved around and then, finally, to New York. I cried in her fur at every terrible break-up I went through.  No matter what the problem was, coming home to pick her up comforted me, because I clearly mattered so much to her.  Her quiet purr, broken and nearly silent at the best of times, was always there.

I have never had to put a cat to sleep before.  I’ve dreaded the idea of having to make that decision for years now, hoping that Morghan would pass the way my fifteen year old cat Mushu did right after Hurricane Sandy.  My Beloved discovered Mushu outside, looking  as surprised as a cat can.  We presumed it was a heart attack and buried her under a pear tree in the yard, comforted knowing that her last moments were brief and out of doors.  Selfishly, I appreciated that I did not have to choose when, that that decision had been made for me.

But not for Morghan.  I said goodbye to Morghan in the car outside of the veterinary office.  I had let her roam free in the car on the drive over, which she took full advantage of, peering out the window and making me wonder if I was making up how sick she was.  But then I held her bony body, which had once been three times the size that she was on Saturday, and I could no longer deny that it was time.  I thanked her and kissed her and cried some more, in the quiet space of the car.  Then we went inside, where the staff were quick to usher us into a room.

Still, Morghan shook in fear, the tremors running down her thin shoulders.  I put her in my lap so that she could put her face in my elbow, which has always calmed her down.  Don’t be afraid, I said, petting her thick fur and desperately wishing that I believed in some sort of afterlife.  Please, love, just don’t be afraid.

When the vet gave Morghan the anaesthesia that knocked her unconscious, I was holding her against my body.  I felt her muscles relax as she crumpled against me, falling down onto the soft yellow blanket that I had insisted on.  I gently caught her and laid her down, pulling her tail out from under her and settling her legs into a more comfortable position.

Don’t be afraid, I said.  Please, don’t be afraid.

As the vet released a vial of bubble gum pink barbiturates into Morghan’s leg, I put my hands on her, holding as much of her as I could.  She did not twitch or shudder and, after a moment, the vet put her stethoscope up to Morghan’s thin chest and told me that she was gone.  My sweet girl had gone completely still, but her body was still warm and it didn’t seem like it could be true.  I tried to close her eyes, but I couldn’t, and that’s when I knew.

Morghan and Mushu, a lifetime ago

I brought her body home, keeping a hand on the box she was in for the entire drive.  I left her body in the car while we put Baba to bed for the night, and then my Beloved dug a hole in the front yard underneath the Japanese maple tree that made me fall in love with this house we bought.  We put her in it, placing her carefully, since when my last cat passes, it will become a double grave.

And so I carry on, holding my sweet girl in my heart, since I can no longer hold her in my hand.  When I walk to and from my door, I look at her grave and I am comforted that she is home.

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So Many Miles to Go Before I Sleep

A winter scene, a cold creek through a snow-covered forest.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

I know that I am grieving, because poetry keeps running through my head.  A fragment here, a stanza there.  It is a dark season, made darker this week by the passing of my brother-in-law, who was a fine, big man that I’d been planning on having in my life for another 20 to 30 years, at a minimum.

Tonight, we will get on a plane, a red eye flight that will take us over the dark waters of the Atlantic.  We’re travelling with Baba and have taken enough red eye flights with her now that I do not think that I will be sleeping for the better part of 24 hours, because toddlers do not understand things like ignoring all of the distractions on the plane for some much needed rest.

There are, indeed, many miles to go before I sleep.  Many of them will be spent walking my 30-pound toddler in my arms up and down the narrow aisle of the plane, begging her to just, please God, please just close her eyes.

And I am reluctant to go and see my brother-in-law.  In April, my brother-in-law was a healthy man.  I saw him this summer, after the brain tumor had started to destroy his body function, but when he was still talking.  A seriously ill man, but an alive one, who was asking about the madness that has infected American politics this year, who had opinions about movies and wanted to tell you what you needed to watch next on TV.

As far away as we are, it doesn’t yet feel possible that he won’t be in Dublin, waiting to greet us when we get there.  I have no experience of Dublin that does not include dinners at his house, his hugs and kisses, the feeling that he always gave me that I was truly a part of the family, that the in-law part of our names for each other was just a stupid formality that only mattered to other people.  He was the first of my in-laws to call me his sister. I will never forget the happiness in his face as he did it, because it must have reflected mine.

Once I see him, then I know that it will be real that he won’t be there anymore.  Not this time, nor the next.

And I do not want that.  I desperately do not want to talk about him in past tense.  I want to keep him in the realm of “is” and not “was.”  It’s impossible.  It’s just impossible that such an alive person could no longer be with us.  It’s impossible that there will be no more beers in seaside pubs and stories of his motorcycle cop days and eating takeaway fish and chips at his dining room table, listening to the fire crackle and pop.

Cliché, cliché, cliché.  But things become clichés because they are true.

And that’s where poetry comes to save us, to say things for us in beautiful ways, to express our grief in words that seem worthy of it.

And so, Joe, let me share with you the stanzas that I’ve had stuck in my head since I heard the news of your death.  The poem reminds me of you, you who spent your weekends sailing yachts, because it was what you just loved to do.  You, who took scuba trips to Caribbean islands, who worked in Croatia for a year, who finally found the adventure you were always looking for in the love of your life.  You were never too modest to share how happy you were about the fine adventures you had! — and that gratitude, that spirit is something that we should all learn from you.  And so I think of Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society, again, telling a classroom of young boys about the preciousness of each day, because you, Joe, you were the essence of carpe diem.  And so I say, to all of you…

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to make much of Time

 

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