Room for Grief and Joy

My most influential pet growing up was our cat named Smokey. We had her before spaying  and neutering cats was commonplace. Smokey had a litter of kittens every spring and every fall. We would find the place where she had chosen to birth her kittens – maybe in the rafters of the garage, once in the playhouse – and we would play with them endlessly. These kittens are a big part of my summer childhood memories. I remember my bathing suit having little snag marks from kitten claws. Smokey had a home in the corner of our garage. During the cold winter, my dad put a lightbulb in Smokey’s styrofoam cooler-turned-cat-house to keep her warm. My husband grew up with an indoor cat who sometimes ate at the kitchen table with his family. Two cats, who lived different lifestyles, both loved, and both formative to the children in their lives.

2018-11-24 14.41.00Me as a child, with our kittens!

When my husband and I got married 16 years ago, we got a kitten from my sister’s cat. We named her Abby. She was central to our lives from the start. Always playful and adventurous, we watched her explore, flip over in the air as she tried to catch a toy, climb up on anything she could. And she snuggled. She sat on our laps and purred, usually stretching out to sleep with her belly up in the air, with a comfort I wished I could attain.

Abby always loved food. Sometimes, when we ate supper, she would sit on a window sill nearby, behaving herself perfectly by not going on the table. As we watched her, we saw her eye the table and spot her favourites: there’s the butter, there’s the chicken. Then, if we dropped our guard for just a moment and stepped out of the room, she didn’t have to lose any time finding what she wanted. She would make a mad dash for the butter and get all she could before we came back in the room and shooed her off the table.

Abby taught us how to care for a little one. I remember one occasion when she threw up. I watched my husband gently place a magazine under her to catch whatever came up, and he stroked her gently while she threw up. Being with her in an un-fun moment. She did the same for us. I remember a time when I was very discouraged, and I was crying. Abby was absolutely adamant about sitting on my lap as I cried. Her presence was so comforting to me.

Before we had kids, Abby could be aggressive with little ones who came into our house. When my son was born, Abby adjusted and accepted him. She adjusted to having kids in the family just like we did. After a day of giving all my energy to parenting, I would often sit down on the couch, exhausted. Sometimes Abby would come to sit on my lap, purring. On days when I just didn’t have any more giving left to give, I would shoo her off. On those days, she would non chalantly accept this, and move on to sleep on the rug nearby. Without any begrudging, the next time, she would sit on my lap and accept whatever love I had to give. She was gentle, tolerant and playful with our kids. She had fully adjusted.

In her last couple of years, she remained playful and affectionate, sometimes purring contentedly just by our presence in the room. She settled into our laps.

More recently, we noticed her finding quieter corners to sleep, away from the busy action in our household. She moved more and more gingerly. We learned that her kidneys weren’t working well. Several weeks ago, we realized that she had gone blind. It seemed that she also wasn’t smelling or hearing very well. She kept going, without complaining, doing her best to adapt. When we picked her up, she melted into our arms, purring. It seemed that the safety of our arms felt extra comforting. Our kids learned to be compassionate towards Abby as she aged.

With the bright eagerness of children, our kids began asking for a kitten. My husband and I weren’t quite ready to think about that, but our children were watching Abby decline and opening their hearts to new possibilities.

This past week, our sweet Abby died. In her last days, she declined steadily. The evening before her last day, she went behind the sink in our basement bathroom and got stuck between the sink and the cold basement wall. My husband went looking for her, and Abby responded to my husband’s calls with a meow of response to each call. Abby was stuck, and with heartbroken realization that she was near the end of her life, we helped her out. After this, she melted onto my chest and laid there for an hour. That evening, she had difficulty walking. She lost the ability to get up, and she stopped eating and drinking. We knew her time had come.

In Abby’s last day, my husband held her as much as possible. We told our children it was the day Abby would die. My 7-year-old son came home from school and lay down beside Abby on the floor. Being with. Holding compassion for another life.

2018-11-20 08.41.38My 7-year-old son, being with Abby on her last day.

Caring for Abby in her last days is my first experience of being responsible to care for someone in their last days. The gift of holding her on my chest the night before she died was such a strong experience of valuing what she had given us by being part of our family. Watching my husband hold Abby in her last hours left me knowing that she felt so much peace and love with our presence. Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Look at flowers, butterflies, trees and children with eyes of compassion. Compassion will change your life and make it wonderful.” Thich Nhat Hanh was an advocate for animals, so I know he meant that about cats, too.

On the evening Abby died, our family brought her to the vet together. We held her, we hugged her. We petted her as she died. This was my first time being with someone as they died. My 7-year-old and my 3-year-old were also with Abby as she died. I wonder if they will remember this for the rest of their lives? My daughter cried a big, hearty cry. And then later in the evening she said, “I’m not sad.” She experienced the moment, she cried, she was comforted, and the feelings moved on. When we got home, both of my kids started drawing pictures of Abby and of our family with Abby. They drew picture after picture, and we turned them into memory books.

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When we brought Abby to the vet, two little kittens were in a cage, waiting for a home. Those little kittens weren’t meant to be ours, but seeing them there in that moment was a strong experience for me. One life ends, another life begins.

I’ve always loved James Harriet’s book The Christmas Day Kitten, and seeing the kittens at the vet on the day Abby died, as the Christmas season was beginning, sparked a feeling of seeing how my heart had ample room to hold grief for Abby and to welcome the kittens our kids had been asking for.

So, just a couple of short days later, we called to inquire about some kittens that we had seen advertised. Kittens whose pictures made us want to take them home. The kittens were all spoken for. But, 15 minutes later, I received a call back – there was a kitten for us afterall! A kitten who we, and the owner, both felt was meant to be ours. The next day, she asked if we would take two. And we gleefully and giddily said yes. We decided to wait to tell our children about the kittens until yesterday evening – today was the day we were picking them up! I was counting the sleeps and couldn’t stop looking at their sweet pictures. And then I would look at Abby’s picture and cry. My heart had room for grief and still ample room for joy.

Today was the day we met our kittens! The drive home from picking them up was magical. After exploring the car for a little while, one kitten fell asleep on my son’s lap, and one fell asleep on my daughter’s lap. And that is where they stayed for a full hour. My son said, “I’m so happy I could cry.” My daughter said, “This was a good idea!” My son said, “We are making them feel safe.” My daughter said, “They like our family!”

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And then, after hours of chasing strings and pushing balloons around the room, it was time for bed. The kittens were tired, too. One went to bed with my daughter and they fell asleep together. The other fell asleep with my son. As I laid with my son in bed, we decided that being with these little kittens is so much better than any “thing” you could get for Christmas. So there it is, the first, and wildly important lesson these kittens have taught my son. Being with is so much more important than stuff.

The first Sunday of advent represents expectation. And so, with advent close by, we welcome our Christmas kittens into our lives, sweet little Cinnamon and Holly. The difference this time is that right from the start, I have a deeper sense of how these kittens will touch my life and the lives of my children. I know they will teach us life lessons of loyalty, compassion, playfulness and love. Welcome to our family, Cinnamon and Holly!

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