Tag Archive | grief

Auntie Rita

I’m grateful for my Auntie Rita, who died a year ago today. Here, we stopped by her friends’ house at happy hour, but they weren’t home. So we sat on their chairs out by the Rappahannock River on a blustery fall evening, and she pulled out her snakebite kit. I’m grateful for the many zany fun times I got to have with her. I’m grateful that her daughter asked me to write a eulogy to read at the memorial service today, which many of us family members joined by zoom. Here is what I shared with her surviving friends and family.

When Rita was trying to decide where she would move from her last house, and considered leaving Kilmarnock to come up to Knollwood, I said, “But Rita, all your friends are down here!” She wasn’t worried: She told me, “Oh, you make friends wherever you go!” And she was right: She made many new friends here, and she found old friends from as long ago as high school: and here many of you are today.

Rita made friends wherever she went. She kept friends once she made them so that wherever she moved to she carried old friendships into her new ones, building relationships among many people. She was ebullient and generous, funny, playful, and above all, she was authentic. She loved fine things, luxuries, and comforts, yet she adapted with courage and resilience to losses of all kinds, from losing almost everything in a flood, to the death of her son, and so much else in her 93 years. 

She loved sleeping late, rum and cokes, taking naps, reading, doing her nails, Jeopardy, creating art… She didn’t like: pictures of herself, chipped fingernails, swallowing pills, being ‘incarcerated’ during Covid, or meanness in any form… 

Leslie remembers her creativity, generosity, and humor, recalling that when she was young, her mother happily made all her clothes because she was too small to fit in store-bought; and she remembers her putting cotton balls inside homemade fudge drops to give out on April Fool’s Day! She recalls Rita as ready for anything, any time. 

One of our more remarkable cribbage hands…

Robin remembers her aunt as giving the most fun and appropriate presents for every occasion, keeping her company when she was sick in bed, and that she was always up for a game of cribbage, any time, anywhere.

Rita taught me so much about how to be in this life, throughout her life. When I was a child, I learned more during one meal at her dinner table about how to treat animals than I did from anyone else: she treated their dog Duchess, who may have been begging just a little bit, with such tenderness and respect. I watched her through the years turn this utter devotion toward all her dogs and cats, toward her friends and family, and even to her houseplants. 

Many would be reluctant to have dogs on their furniture, but Rita made them welcome on beds, couches, chairs…
Raven and Stellar on her good couch…
Stellar shares his chair at Rita’s house with Amy visiting. Any friend of mine was a friend of hers, and vice versa…
Rita (center) with her old, dear friends Polly and June.

When I was a teenager, she modeled for me as no one else, how to be a strong woman: One of the most magnificent things I ever saw a woman do came after a big family dinner at her brother John’s home. John took all the men upstairs for cigar time, and Rita became impatient, wanting to spend time with her new husband Ford. She changed into her tennis outfit, opened the door to the study, and smacked three balls across the room. “Tennis, anyone?” she asked with a sweet smile. 

As an adult, she was my favorite drinking buddy—she was many people’s favorite drinking buddy, perhaps even some of you here. One time when I had over-partied at their island home, and she found me in bed in the morning still drunk, she didn’t judge: she comforted and revived. She never judged me, or anyone she loved, fully accepting us with unconditional love just as she did her animals. 

Rita (left) and Ali on a double date in their late teens

When I was an older adult, and helping her sister, my mother, through a grueling dying process, Rita was my strength and my sanity: We provided mutual support during this devastating loss for both of us.

Through my whole life until she died last summer, as she did for so many of us, she provided inspiration, refuge, boundless love and countless laughs. It is a source of lasting joy that I got to spend many months over the previous fifteen years visiting her in the Northern Neck. Some of the happiest memories of my life come from these times: simple lunches, jigsaw puzzles, quiet cribbage games, deep talks, spontaneous adventures, sunset cocktails along the bay or the Rivah at the beautiful homes of her many friends, even if her friends weren’t home! She always kept a snakebite kit for emergencies, pulling out a couple of airline hootch bottles as needed. 

With her perfect fingernails, assembling my first Liberty puzzle after she introduced me to them.

Her gifts to me, and to others, were boundless, and live on in the values of compassion, unconditional love, joy, mischief, humor, strength, and acceptance that she modeled for me and for everyone whose life she touched. 

I’m not alone in my adoration of Rita. To know Rita Wherry Cleland Stephens was to love her. I speak for her daughter Leslie, for her sister-in-law Clara, for her nephews and nieces: Leonard, Bruce, Robin, Gary, Jack, Bill, and Amanda, who knew her all or most of their lives. She made each of us feel special with her love and attention, and she will always hold a singular place in all of our hearts.

After struggling for months to recover from a debilitating stroke, she courageously chose to relinquish her attachment to living. She was at peace with her life ending, and made time to say goodbye to as many of her beloved family and friends as she was able. In death as in life, she was a remarkable person, wise, courageous, adventurous, ready for anything.  

She would have hated this picture, but I love it. Always in my heart, favorite auntie…

Allowing

I woke feeling sad, after yesterday’s descent into the stark reality of climate chaos. I thought I might feel sad forever. I’m grateful I’ve learned to accept sadness, and impermanence: I’m grateful for allowing things to be as they are in each moment, and for the reassuring knowledge that everything changes, nothing remains the same for long.

Nothing external has changed, of course: insects are still in decline worldwide. But I trudged out on this crisp, damp morning with Stellar and Topaz by my side, and strolled to visit this split tree. I felt better already, just letting myself be sad, and finding beauty at the same time, balancing grief and gratitude within equanimity.

Despite the poignance of seeing this western tiger swallowtail, I felt profound gratitude and tenderness that it chose to feed on zinnias I grew from seed. Every little offering we can give back to the planet seems essential.

And then there’s the cheese sandwich, cookout edition. I’ve been thinking about this for days. I had frozen a hot dog leftover from Michael’s memorial, which I thawed and sliced. All the hot dog condiments slathered on wheat bread, sliced cheddar, and potato chips completed the assemblage: a whole cookout in a single sandwich. Yes, it’s a temporary pleasure, lasting only as long as the sandwich itself; but, the making of it, the thinking it up, and definitely the eating of it, all while remembering Michael and last week’s party, lifted my spirits. Life’s simple pleasures. I’m grateful that my life includes the conditions to have on hand all the ingredients of a cheese sandwich, the technology to keep them fresh, the leisure to dream about then make one, the awareness to savor the process and every bite, and the reasonable expectation that I will eat again tomorrow.

Saved by a cheese sandwich.
I am always grateful for the infinite possibilities of the cheese sandwich. The extra slice of hot dog of course went to Stellar for last bite. I’m grateful for another sweet day with my dear old catahoula leopard dog.

Insects

I’m grateful for insects of all stripes and sizes, from the tiniest kitchen ants to the fattest bumblebee, the most dramatic dragonflies to the most humble butterflies, like the juniper hairstreak–which I’ve seen none of this summer. I miss them. Nor was there a single Mourning Cloak. Ironic. There haven’t been as many moths at night, either. Nor bumblebees, nor honeybees, and the very few dragonflies I’ve seen have been in the phoebes’ beaks. Come to think of it, there haven’t been as many spiders in the house as usual, just the same annoying black flies. And even the flies, those massive hatches that used to happen certain seasons, I’ve not seen for a few years.

I’m grateful that we’ve never had a huge mosquito problem here, and that I’ve never gotten a tick bite at Mirador. Grateful that fleas have never plagued my pets as they used to in Florida. But this recent dearth of insects has me horrified. I’ve mentioned a few times in past years that bees have come later than they used to, in fewer numbers. But with my all-too-human capacity for denial, I’ve noticed, mourned, and moved on to the next soothing delight. Flowers; what bees there are; chocolate…

I’m grateful that I’ve spent a year intensively cultivating equanimity, coming to terms with the future I’ve known my entire life was inescapable. I saw it in dreams when I was still in single digits. I’m grateful that since I was a child, I’ve been friends with most insects, saving spiders and flies from my mother’s swatter, carrying them gently outside; avoiding stepping on ants; refusing to pin butterflies. I’m grateful that through the years I’ve paid attention to insects, noticed and cared about them. I grieve the insect apocalypse for so many reasons. I weep for the wild world, large and small.

Patience… Heavy Sigh

Ojo in early August, living the prime of his life.

At last, another one of those recently-all-too-rare days when I can heave a sigh and enjoy the benefits of months of practicing the skill of relaxation; awareness that there has only ever been and will only ever be one thing in Life that I can control: my response to anything. This is true freedom.

A negative Covid test has released me from four months of holding my breath. From Covid only incidentally, the pandemic being one equal part among many distressing external conditions that have cascaded over me this year, and that’s only the overwhelming sadness of a single particle of humanity, the insignificant itchings of a lone flea on a small dry patch of the planet’s skin.

I’ve tried so many ways to say this, and it’s kept me silent since August. Ojo was eaten by a mountain lion.

Lots of Life went on, as usual and unusually, all summer in the garden and the forest: the roller coaster careened through weeks and months of joy and sorrow, contentment and compassion, and the grueling, rewarding practice of mindfulness. Bees pollinated, flowers bloomed and went to seed.

Life began and life ended in the wild.

Don’t look closely if you’re squeamish. If you have a scientific curiosity, however, about the wild world…

All summer long I have accepted deaths, and threats to the lives of others, those I love and those I’ll never know, with equanimity. Years of practice have really helped develop a calm abiding, regardless of what happens. Ojo didn’t come home on August 24, and two mornings later, after numerous searches, I followed a magpie and Stellar’s nose to a grisly scene not far beyond the yard fence in the woods. I felt calmed, knowing what had happened to him, and that it was quick, and he probably didn’t suffer. I suffered less, knowing, than I would have wandering the woods for weeks, months, years, looking for some sign of him.

I gathered up what I could find, three legs stripped of muscle, and his sweet, perfect head, and brought them home to bury under the apricot tree. The shock of finding his remains. The finality of it. A small black cat left a huge black hole in my life, into which, in my darkest moments, all hope and love and light vanishes. On the surface, I’ve kept my sense of humor, and joy in the fawns growing up, satisfaction in the garden harvest, pleasure in connections with friends and family mostly online, interest in my vocation. I’ve rejoiced in Stellar’s unexpected improvement with a new magic potion from his holistic vet, and Topaz has grown fatter and furrier than ever in her brother’s absence.

For weeks I saw him everywhere in the house that he used to perch or sleep. He filled the house and the garden with his remarkable energy. I struggle even now to write any more about him because when I do the ache swells inside and mutes me. One might say, the cat got my tongue.

Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on, infecting more and more people I know, taking the lives of friends and relatives of friends, and as of today more than 1.6 million others around the globe, including 2500 Americans just today. The malice and ineptitude of the Trump regime’s lying, denying, misguiding, and dividing also renders me speechless. Thank god for the integrity of scientists the world over, for the dedication of healthcare workers, for the kindness, compassion, creativity, and fortitude of people everywhere, delivering the best that human beings are capable of during this monumental crisis.

Add to the current regime’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic their escalating onslaught eviscerating environmental protections: It’s been hard to grieve the death of a single cat in the midst of such overwhelming human and planetary suffering. I search my soul for something I can do. I meditate. I pray. I try to offer help and comfort where I can, and fight as I am able. I cherish the wild world that surrounds me, I love the lion that ate my cat, I surrender my self to the larger body of the living Earth who spawned us all. I wake up each morning determined to celebrate the miracle of being alive, choosing to turn my attention to gratitude for all the beauty and joy that each day offers, even in the midst of suffering and loss.

I listened to an interview with Joanna Macy that reminded me that Hope is a verb, Apathy is the refusal or inability to suffer, and “Unblocking occurs when our pain for the world is experienced and expressed.” I recommend it as an antidote for anyone else who feels despair at the suffering of the planet, panic or paralysis induced by this pandemic or the climate crisis, or the isolation of living in a fragmented world. We belong to this Earth, our mother. Hang in there. Happy Solstice.

Missing Topaz

Topaz, Stellar and I take a rest on a walk last September

This is not the post I meant to write this weekend. I’ve been planning to write about Stellar’s last days, but fortunately that can wait awhile. Little Topaz did not come home Wednesday night. She’s stayed out late a few times through her nearly five years, but never all night, never in winter, never for three days.

When a cat disappears on this mesa it rarely ends well. Neighbors have seen big cats and their tracks this month, both bobcats, and a lioness with cubs; foxes abound and vixens are no doubt eating for pups on the way, while the coyote population seems to be rebounding. The first night, when I still thought she was out late napping somewhere, or hunting, I heard an owl not too far off. Maybe she was napping, and came when I called, and got swooped on her way home, making a good meal for an incubating owl pair.

Though beautifully camouflaged in the juniper woods, she is not immune to predators.
They have each been through around a dozen breakaway collars in their first four years but the last two have lasted almost all of their fifth year. Sometimes I find one caught in a branch or on the ground. I’m hoping I’ll find the last one she wore, even if I never find her.
A morning cuddle

When was the exact last time I saw her? She got in bed for a morning cuddle, which she’s been doing more frequently this winter. She left half a bowl of food, which was unusual. Was she here after lunch? I left at four, and came home at dusk. Her brother waited by the door. I called, shook the kibble bag, stayed up til one. Nothing. Twenty degrees out. Acceptance settled quickly, a dark cape tied with a shred of hope.

Shortly before I brought her home, July 2015. Thanks, Mary, for the photo.
Topaz at six weeks, eyes changing from blue to gold

In some ways I was just beginning to get to know her. While very affectionate as a wee kitten, she became an elusive young minx once I let them go outside. She couldn’t stop hunting grasshoppers her first two summers, and needed twice weekly doses of powdered psyllium husk in her food to help eliminate their bountiful exoskeletons. She brought lizards and birds, which I discouraged, and rescued when possible. She spent most daylight hours of her first few years outside. She always came when called, but sometimes not til a few hours later after I’d resort to shaking the kibble bag.

On her bed in the sunroom table, holding down the garden calendar.

Only last summer did she begin to come inside before dusk regularly, without enticement. She’s always let me hold her on her back, but only this year did she actually seek more attention. She loves her creature comforts and napped away many a day this winter on her bed on the sunroom table, rather than spending them outside. She was growing up, and I was loving it, my peace of mind growing reliant on her skillful behavior. If she could come home to me, she already would have.

It is so sad, so fucking sad. She is just gone. I know nothing about where she is or how or when she went or if she’s still alive. In this moment, I know nothing of the only single thing I care to know. I tremble with recognition that this is only one peak in the ever flowing terrible unknowing that is sentient life: all our moments and all our days stink of this unknowing and yet we mostly manage to smell only roses.

Below, Topaz at 4 days, 5 weeks, 6 weeks, and 2 months.

My heart breaks with the not knowing, and with the loss of her. At the same time I acknowledge, If this is my worst suffering I am indeed blessed. She is a cat, however special, beautiful, unique and loved, she is a cat and not a child. Her demise is not the end of the world. She is one minute life in a teeming world on a collision course with human ingenuity. Chances are that a predator caught and killed her swiftly, and she’s returned to the cycle, some youthful lion making her first kill, or food for a den of wriggling fox pups. Though there remains the nightmarish possibility of some lingering death by inextricable entrapment, or the even more far-fetched possibility that someone picked her up and took her away. Or, yes, that she may yet return home.

I could stretch and blame myself, as I have rightfully in other animal departures. But in this case, though there were a couple of impatient moments in the past few months, You coming inside? You going outside? I can’t hold this door open forever… there is one thing this Topaz cat has always known for certain: this is her home, she is loved here, I love her. I’ve taken the precaution, some surely laugh at me while others understand to do the same, of telling each cat, each time it leaves the house, I love you, come back to me. I’ve never pushed this cat outside in anger, as I did once decades ago and never saw that cat again. Whenever the last time I saw her was, I am certain she knew that I love her and she intended to return. So I can’t agonize over any potential role in her departure, and that is a blessing: for all my life I have blamed myself when things are simply the way they are.

Often entwined, these two have been inseparable since they came into the world.

These were the cats who were gonna grow old with me, the precious pair of them. Ojo garnered all the extras with his dramatic health episodes during their first four years. Topaz was the easy one. Only around when she wanted food, never sick a day in her life, as long as we kept those grasshoppers, bones and feathers moving through. Always let me pick her up without complaint, sometimes draped like an alpaca shawl across my knees when I sat on the fire stool in front of a freshly-lit stove, either her spine draped along my pressed-together thighs, head lolling back over my knees, purring while I rubbed the soft flan fur on her tummy, last year’s weeds having rendered her lower belly fur-free like a brand new baby cat and just the merest fuzz regrown overwinter; or lying on her side across my thighs dangling her ends down along each calf, her front legs and head, her back legs and tail, hanging soft, relaxed, just hanging out letting me groom her, fire growing hot beside us, we shift, now heat behind us. She always chose her cuddles, and was skittish with most people and other animals, except our two dogs.

Weeds were so thick all last summer that Topaz groomed her belly furless, and even this winter it barely began to grow back.

It’s not going to be different, just because I don’t like it. It isn’t unfair. I had no reason other than happy complaisance to believe it would be otherwise. But why her? Why not some cat who was less beautiful, less loved, less appreciated? Some feral stray without a person grieving in its absence? Why not her? You sign up for this when you adopt a cat in a rural setting, and ever let it out of its box, your house. I decided Thursday night that Ojo will be the last outdoor cat, period, forever. If I ever adopt another cat once he’s gone, it will stay inside. I want to feed birds again.

Her eyes, more gold than green orbs, with an amber ripple around the outer edge of iris, her pupils narrow vertical slits. Her fur she kept clean and free of mats and burs with her extensive grooming, and it was soft as owl feathers, especially in her little armpits. Around her nose dainty short hairs on her soft muzzle and long whiskers white brown and black. She was a beautiful creature who graced us with the surprise of her life for almost five years.

Above, the most recent pictures of Topaz, including the last known shot of the missing person taken on a driveway walk two days before she disappeared. Our little family will be missing Topaz for a long time.

This loss is hard not because I thought it can’t happen to me, I didn’t, but because it happened out of the blue, as these things do. Meanwhile, I’ve started counting up the benefits to one less mammal in the house. Half the cat food cans. Half the interruptions throughout the day, let me in, let me out, feed me, and no more cat piss in the bathroom sink. For the past six months, when she doesn’t want to go outside, she pees in the copper sink. So less scrubbing of the sink now, and less fur to vacuum up, wipe out of my mouth in the morning, wash from blankets. I’m sure I’ll be conjuring positive spins on this scenario for some time, just to assuage the grief.

Topaz wants her mother and brother Benito to have her scratching post…
…and she leaves the rest of her kibble to her brother Spider and sister Idaho.
Her brother Ojo she leaves bereft, and also she bequeaths him all the beds in the house.

Bittersweet

Sugar, née Stella, gone with Spice to live with Pauline way out in the country. Way out.

Sugar, née Stella, gone with Spice to live with Pauline way out in the country. Way out.

The kittens have all gone to their new homes. It was a whirlwind adventure helping to raise them to three months. Fred and Mary were the best grandparents anyone could have been. It was a privilege and a delight to participate in their unexpected kitten bonanza. Over the course of their short lives they moved up one box, one room, one home at a time from their humble birth in an inverted wine box, to a bigger box, to a refrigerator box, to a storage room in the shop, to free run of the whole garage. Then a couple of weeks ago, Idaho and Spider went to live in first the tack room and now the whole barn at the Bad Dog Ranch; Stella and Blaze were whisked away to live even farther out past Crystal Creek with Pauline, who recently lost her old cat, and renamed these kittens Sugar and Spice; Sammy, née Oreo, now called Benito, stayed at Fred and Mary’s with his mama, once and again called Shelley now that her Heidi Ho days are over. But not before she went into heat not once but twice after the kittens reached six weeks old.

Fred called one morning while Mary was out of town. “Can cats go into heat while they’re still nursing?” he asked. “I think so,” I said, and turned to ask a friend who happened to know. Indeed they can! Patricia said she once fostered a cat who’d gone into heat when her kittens were ten days old! Fred recited the behaviors he was seeing: snappish to him for a couple of days, then frenzied (for what turned out to be a week) whenever she saw him, weaving around his feet yowling, rubbing her neck on his ankles or hands with her butt in the air, desperate to get outside; a big black tomcat was hanging around the yard except for a few times when a big orange tom with a white face like two of the kittens’ was hanging around the yard. With due diligence we kept her inside with her babies the whole time. She is now recovering well from the surgery. We have put an end to a long line of feral cats on Fruitland Mesa. And four families in the neighborhood have new adorable companion animals. The little all-black boy kitten Ojo, and Ajo, the sweetest girl of all, came to live with me. Things unfold in the most remarkable ways sometimes.

After deciding that morning they were born, after burying the little cold dead one, the eighth kitten, a black and white that surely would have been another boy, that I would not succumb to the temptation to take any kittens, I gradually began to reconsider. Gradually, as in, the next day. I weighed pros and cons for weeks, considering all imaginable angles. On my yes days and on my no days, I always maintained that I would not choose my kittens (if I got them) based on their looks, how cute or how stunning they were. I held off deciding until the whole community was impatient with me. After we celebrated their six-week birthday with champagne cupcakes and adult beverages, I concluded that I couldn’t take any. The next day I was very sad. So I reconsidered again. And again. And we finally settled on this plan: If I could successfully introduce them to Brat Farrar, my dear old diabetic cat, that little orange kitten that saved my soul once upon a time, and assimilate them into the household, I would take two kittens; If Brat would not accept them within one week, I’d return them next door and my good neighbors would find them another home.

And then things became acutely more clear: Doc said it was finally time for Brat Farrar to have some troublesome teeth removed. His blood sugar was good, he seemed strong and stable. I got cold feet, but then agreed to the procedure when I was informed that most kidney and heart failure in pet cats derives from bad teeth. On a Friday I dropped him off; the next Thursday he died. Maybe it was inevitable, maybe some better decisions could have been made. He came home from the surgery in shock and never recovered. With a scabbed mouth he ate a little, but by Sunday morning his vital force was leaving him. Monday afternoon a blood panel revealed multiple organ failure. “So, we’re saying goodbye?” I asked Doc. “Yes,” he said, leaning on his forearms on the exam table. “I’m sorry.” “I know you are,” I said, my voice catching, and I touched his solid shoulder. Some more words, and I took my sweet cat home. I kept him comfortable and witnessed his death with dignity. It was both grueling and peaceful. I came to terms with death in a new way.

All through that painful week I kept in mind that there were two little bundles of joy around the corner that would be mine at the end of this sadness, two new little lives to love and nurture. No one ever takes the place of a companion animal who dies; but in this world of ferals and strays, I’ve realized, there will always be another cat, another dog, a kitten or puppy coming my way, as long as I’m alive. The timing this time could not have been more perfect. As sad as I was I’m now happy.

Benito

Benito, who stayed at home with Mama (once and again called Shelley now that her Heidi Ho days are over).

Ajo, one of the two that came home with me.

Ajo, one of the two that came home with me.

Ojo, the other one who came to live with me, little black brother of Ajo.

Ojo, the other one who came to live with me.

Mama at the end of a takedown, after Ojo pounced on her, vigorously washing his face.

Mama at the end of a takedown, after Ojo pounced on her, vigorously washing his face.

Mama washing Stella.

Mama washing Stella.

Benito (of the perpetual exclamation point!) and Spider romping.

Benito (of the perpetual exclamation point!) and Spider romping.

While I am already enjoying and look forward to years ahead of me inhabiting life with the two new kittens, I’m still unpacking the shocking death of Brat Farrar. Reflections on all that the many facets of the little orange kitten, iCat, Ferrari, Brat Favre, Culvert Kitty, Puma, the complicated cat, brought to the past eleven years of life will continue to churn and settle for some time to come.

the little traveler

The good little traveler: Brat Farrar on his way home from Virginia with me in the Mothership, spring 2005, on the River Road from Moab.

Brat Farrar, the cat of many names and many lives, last April.

A decade later, last April in the house that matched him. Rest in peace, little one, under the apricot tree.