Yesterday, the tenth day after my cat Sable died, I woke up happy for the first time in a long while. Today I wake up in the almost dark, Venus still vibrant in the southern sky and the solar Christmas lights glowing on the guayaba tree outside my window. It’s the first morning I don’t cry. The shock has lessened, though in moments I still reel. Sofia died in September. It’s hard to believe it’s only me here now, our little family of three gone. I glimpse things I’ll be able to do now without them, visits to friends, to Wilbur, to Mami, even just here in town, gone long hours, nothing tugging me home. Small snatches of excitement spark in me, mixed with a kind of guilt it’s easy to brush aside. I know I would gladly have stayed put to care for them forever. I miss those gentle tethers. Now it’s just me and the birds and the field mouse I met the other day in the shed. The house finch are loud and cheerful through the open kitchen window as I write. It makes a difference. My best truth today is knowing how much I cherished them, knowing I didn’t take them for granted. Sitting under the umbrella in the courtyard, the two of them napping on their pillows nearby, their furry forms relaxed in boneless cat abandon, and me knowing life didn’t get better than this. The sound of Sable clomping down the hallway, a galloping horse, the only way to run on this laminate flooring, and my heart lifting for his mad cat glee. And waking on a cold night warm beneath the down blankets, their small weights pressed against me making me feel like the luckiest woman in the world. I feel it still. And I know sweet things lie ahead. I cradle my big loss low in my arms, soft against my belly, grateful and alive. May the year ahead lie easy and dear to each of us.
Yesterday was midwinter’s day. It’s a day in our year that holds magic. I remembered in the early morning hours, and then I forgot again until I was writing on the bus in Desert Hot Springs. The day was almost over, the clouds tinged pink, our longest night of the year about to begin. The fist time I remembered, I woke up in the dark and realized I had no one to tell. It was something I did, waking up sometime after midnight, the official beginning of a holiday or one of our birthdays, greeting the cats, maybe kissing them on the head before I rolled over and went back to sleep for the real dawning of the day. “Happy winter solstice, you guys,” I whispered to the dark. “I love you both so much.” And then a moment later, “So much.” When I woke up again I’d forgotten. But I did spend the day at the hot springs, feeling like I was in heaven, so maybe I soaked up some of that magic, felt that thinning of the veil between the worlds. I didn’t make an altar. But maybe that has more to do with not spending time in the courtyard. I realized yesterday evening I haven’t sat out there since Sable died. It will be something to take back with the ending of the year, I think, or the beginning of the new one. Annie called me from the vet in the afternoon to tell me Sable’s ashes were ready. I thought I’d leave them until I returned, but I decided to go pick them up last night. When I pictured leaving for Christmas, I knew I’d feel better if both sets of ashes were together at home. I know it doesn’t matter to them. But the thought of walking out the door knowing their two little wooden boxes will be sitting beside each other on the tiny kitchen altar makes something rest easier inside me, a more peaceful turning of our world.
You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to walk on your knees for 100 miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. You only have to gentle enough to understand: even you are only human. You make mistakes. You hurt the ones you love. You let people down. You carry these things with you in a life. You were unkind to your father that late afternoon on his big stone porch in Echo Park the last time you saw him. You yelled at Sofia bare months before she died when she began peeing on the floor instead of using the cat box. You thought Sable had ear mites, that he missed Sofia, that he was losing weight because of his irritable bowel disease. You didn’t think kidney failure until that Saturday morning when he was dangerously dehydrated and you rushed him to the vet. Now he’s dead, and you think you should have known. You should have saved him, could have had him here beside you for another handful of years like you always imagined. But now he’s dead. We carry these things with us in a life. We live with them, wrestle with them, these deep regrets. If we are lucky we make peace with them, let them lay down on the moist earth inside us, our rich decay. If we are lucky, good things grow.
[Editor’s note: The first three sentences here are from a Mary Oliver poem titled “Wild Geese.“ This came from a writing exercise in a workshop I attended called “The Way of Story” by Catherine Ann Jones.)
Coming home tonight in the new dark takes me by surprise. I start crying as soon as I unlock the door. No one is here. It hits hard. It strikes like physical pain, has me bending partway over in the doorway. I am so foggy I left this afternoon without my wallet, only the dollar for bus fare I had in my pocket this morning when I decided to walk home from the vet, the carrier light in my hand. Sable alive and purring, tangible moments in the little room. After, I carried his small limp form to the back, laid him down on the table, tucked his ratty catnip mouse near his chin. Way too many layers to touch on much of it now, eyes drooping from our near sleepless night together. Harder, though, than any of the others, I think. There was so much life in him still, my vigorous little boy cat, my big love. Later I will try to do you justice. Tonight, when I settle in without you, I will see what comes. I have been pulled away by work, by people, much of the day. I am looking forward to returning to you tonight while you are still fresh in me. I know how quickly you can fade. When I lie here in the dark I will hold to me sweet memory, the small weight of your tiny form pressed against me in the night, the way you purred almost until the end. My brave little one, I am so proud of you. My dear Boo, sweet dreams.
Yesterday I made a wish on Venus, the morning star caught in the early half light through the louvered windows above my bed. Coming home last night I saw the southern cross hanging in the dark sky, and I stopped in the middle of the road near our home. I stood there for a long time talking to the heavens, beseeching the cat gods. Both times I was stunned by how big hope is, how core to humankind. And so, again and again I banish my fear and turn away from the draw of agonized remorse. I open to hope. I want to grab hold wth both fists, hang on for dear life, but I know it doesn’t work that way. We have to open to hope even when it hurts. We hold our arms out wide while feathers brush across our open palms. My little one is poised between the worlds, so I open to hope, to true dreams of having him home again, playing with his ratty catnip toy I have waiting on the pillow, racing across the courtyard in mad cat abandon, happy and well. When I visit I send him mental pictures of just that, and of sleeping curled together on our bed. I open to hope, and beside the deep sweetness and the ache of it sits the knowing I may lose him, the knowing I may need to let him go. So, I hold them both and pray. And as I write, it feels important to send this out into the world, my prayer made manifest, like a kite breaking free of its tether, or a bright red balloon drifting across the sky, whispering to the gods. I whisper, too. “I love you, Boo.” And, “Please stay.”