Rocky the Dog brought delight, joy, laughter, and love to people around the country, in person and virtually. On Fruitloop Mesa he was everybody’s favorite neighbor. He wore with dignity and pride the titles of Honorary Bad Dog and The Littlest Catahoula, among others. It is with great sadness, and deep compassion for his beloved Deborah, that I relay that Rocky transitioned today to his next big adventure. He passed with peace and grace, and is relieved of ongoing suffering. He was fifteen years old.
From his very first days in this community, Rocky loved everyone, and everyone loved Rocky. I’ve shared numerous stories and pictures of him through the years, and this remains one of my favorites: the moment Rocky and Raven met, when he was less than one year old. He stole my heart from the first moment I met him. He brought joy and laughter to a dear old lady in her last months, and when she died I was grateful to be able to help find him a perfect person with a perfect home and life for the rest of his years.
Rocky’s effervescent spirit will be missed and long remembered. Our hearts are hurting. Fly, little man, fly into the great unknown.
Even for someone with almost everything (except true love) life can be hard from time to time. There is so much suffering in the world that I can do nothing about, and then there’s my own personal, ego-centric suffering. This or that didn’t go my way, this or that person doesn’t care about me the way I wish, this or that beloved has just died. Just this evening, I learned that one of my best high school friends died the first summer of Covid, a month after Michael died.
I hadn’t known him well for the past ten years or so. His beloved wife was radically opposed, I think, to our friendship, as she was to virtually every belief I held about reality, except the love of dogs–and Wayne. He was a great guy. We grew apart as our political differences fueled that awful cultural divide that plagues the country now as pestilentially as Covid 19. The last time we connected, jovially, on Facebook, was about a year before Covid arrived. I’d been thinking about him quite a lot this weekend when I cooked a batch of cheese grits, and served myself some leftovers with a lot of bacon. The last time we were really close was not long before the Colonel died, when Wayne and his wife visited at The Home, and we all wallowed in the endless bacon buffet at Sunday brunch. Grits and bacon, a Sunday brunch tradition for us for all the years my parents lived in The Home.
Why they feed old people all this fatty awful food I have never comprehended, but us younger folks sure enjoyed it. I remember that last time we were all together, before they moved to Phoenix and then the Colonel died, they were in the buffet line in front of me, and I heard her make some unkind remarks about the old folks in front of us, and he laughed. He fell a little bit in my estimation then. He never used to be unkind. Anyway, they moved, and we corresponded a few times, but then Trump happened, and they were pretty rabid supporters of his, and so that was essentially that. I went on Facebook this evening to try to promote my upcoming Mindfulness course, but was so distressed by the divisive comments on a post I’d made a couple weeks ago from ‘friends’ I don’t even really know, and from some crassly commercial spam on our high school page, that I decided not to share my course information on that platform.
But I did look up Wayne, having him on my mind from the grits and bacon, and was stunned to see some posts from his wife referring to his death. I followed his timeline back to his obituary in July 2020, to learn that he died after a two-week struggle with Covid. That news has exacerbated my already prevalent sadness as I begin to face the grief of the many other losses sustained in ‘my little life’ during the first two years of the virus. None of them, til now, have been directly related to Covid, but they have all contributed to an uncomfortable sense of aloneness–some might call it loneliness, but I eschew that word and concept–that has only kept growing since Stellar’s departure last November. It is becoming harder and harder to care. I keep checking in to see if I’m experiencing equanimity, or indifference. Peace with impermanence, or simple despair.
Wayne introduced me to my first real high school boyfriend, his best friend Mike, who I think turned out to be gay, but oh well. I spoke some French, and one night Mike played me a song he couldn’t understand in which a phrase sounded to him like Shut the door. It was actually Je t’adore. We had a good long laugh about that. Mike gave me perfume and roses, and played the total romantic, but he couldn’t get into sex with a woman. Or at least with me. Wayne and I stayed friends for decades after Mike had disappeared from both our lives. Every time I flew back east he’d pick me up at the airport, and he was a rock during the time my mother was dying of PSP and I lived in Lorton, VA, for almost a year to help her through that.
There have been a lot of people around here that have died of Covid, but those few I was peripherally acquainted with were much older. Wayne is the first peer I’ve learned of to die from it. I’m not surprised, given their politics, but I was shocked in a different way to lose an old friend, and hold the regret that I hadn’t reached across the divide to him sooner, in time to share some love before he died. I messaged his wife my condolences, of course. And now I sit with this regretful loss, on top of all the other grief I’ve been holding with equanimity until recently.
For the past week, I’ve been exceptionally tired, and my blood oxygen has hovered around 88, going up or down a few points depending on when I measure it. Relevantly or not, a week ago I was standing in line for the pharmacy, when an unmasked man passed a couple of feet in front of me and sneezed a giant, congested, snotty sneeze just two feet in front of me. He did sneeze into his coat sleeve, but still, I could practically feel the blast on my masked face. By Friday I felt hot and had some feverishly delirious all-night dreams. I didn’t have a fever, and I tested negative with one of my free government home tests, but I’ve been sleeping til almost noon the past few days, and going through daylight hours in a bit of a stupor. Who knows, I probably don’t have Covid or I’d have worse symptoms, but I do have some mental anguish.
Grief, for all the beloveds I’ve lost over the past two years, and missing the physical comfort of my precious black cat and my dear old big dog; anger at the stupidity of the human race who is so fucking impatient to be done with Covid that they’ve set it up so we’ll never really be done with it (see BA.2 variant doubling weekly in the US); bristling at the nasty, self-righteous pontification of near-strangers on ‘my’ social media; pure physical weariness and pain from the longterm effects of ancient tick bites and too much current sugar; sorrow at the metamorphoses of some significant relationships into less than my preferences; and overall resignation to the entropy of life on this fragile planet.
However, I’m grateful for the skills and perspective of the ancient wisdom of mindfulness, which enable me to get up out of bed every day no matter how late; to meditate myself into a place of calm abiding; and to be aware of, attentive to, and grateful for the ephemeral beauty, joy, connection, and love that flows along within this precious life. We are all grasping at straws–they can be straws of loving kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, gratitude, and equanimity, or they can be straws of rage, hatred, envy, greed, and aggression: the choice is ours to make.
I’ll choose the path of love and kindness any day, no matter how challenging. “On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.” ― W. S. Merwin
One of the two greatest men on the planet has died. Like so many, I am grateful for Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I’ve nothing to add to the global outpouring of appreciation hinted at in this Guardian article, which includes a four minute video synopsis of his immeasurable importance.
The other greatest man, his dear friend the Dalai Lama, called Tutu his “elder spiritual brother,” and mourned his passing with this message to Tutu’s family:
“…Archbishop Desmond Tutu was entirely dedicated to serving his brothers and sisters for the greater common good. He was a true humanitarian and a committed advocate of human rights. His work for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an inspiration for others around the world…. With his passing away, we have lost a great man, who lived a truly meaningful life. He was devoted to the service of others, especially those who are least fortunate. I am convinced the best tribute we can pay him and keep his spirit alive is to do as he did and constantly look to see how we too can be of help to others.”
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
For a few minutes of absolute delight, watch this heartwarming short video of their virtual meeting last July, celebrating the release of this movie about them, Mission Joy.
I’m grateful today for allowing joy, in the face of sorrow, in the simple things: making a batch of salsa verde with tomatillos and peppers from the garden; eating some on a burrito with fresh chopped tomatoes and sour cream. I’m grateful for having the burrito in the freezer from when I made it a few weeks ago, to pull out for a quick, delicious, healthful meal at a moment’s hunger; grateful for all the implications of that gift.
I’m grateful for finding delight in the creative work of others, being joyful for their success. I’m grateful for camp, for British humour, for the return of the Great British Baking Show, and Season 3 of Drag Race UK; grateful to surrender my grasping mind occasionally to the entertaining delusions of being human. I’m grateful also for an increasingly healthy relationship with death, and all the ramifications that carries for a more meaningful and joyful life; and grateful for my soul sister who sent me this article about precisely that. I’m grateful for my growing capacity for allowing joy in this world of impermanence, of constant, inevitable loss.
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.
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.
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.
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 theRivah 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.
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.
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.
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.
We passed Ditchley House after an evening drive around the interior of the Northern Neck Peninsula, to entertain the dogs and to enjoy the last of the fall colors.
“Have you been to the ferry?” Auntie had asked. I hadn’t yet. So the Corotoman River ferry provided our initial destination. The river flows softly flat past the ferry dock at the end of the road. Beside the dock lies a small triangle of river sand, below a bluff with opulent private homes on top. We let the dogs out to run on the sandy beach before continuing our ramble.
We wended our way back east and a little south, in the general direction of home, along small roads getting smaller, crossing the peninsula on Goodluck Road. It was almost my last day there, and I hadn’t yet taken a detour to see the hamlet of Ditchley, on a point flanked by two creeks.
I saw Ditchley from across the creek on my walks out to Hughlett Point sanctuary along the Chesapeake Bay. The historic Ditchley mansion, up Dividing Creek from the bay, was once the home of Jessie Ball duPont, a teacher and philanthropist who helped create the Hughlett Point Audubon preserve, where I walked as often as possible during my autumn in Virginia.
From the sanctuary parking lot in the woods, you walk east through a short strip of lovely swampy forest, cross a grassy strip and a low dune, and arrive at the Chesapeake Bay, a couple of miles north of Hughlett Point. There’s nowhere to go if you turn left, but if you turn right, it is a different walk every day, every tide, every weather. The dogs run, Stellar flies, Raven runs away, and I walk and walk barefoot in wet sand or dry, wade in turnunder waves or tidal pools.
Most days I walk all the way to the point, savoring sea and sky and solitude. From the very tip of Hughlett Point I can see Ditchley, so I’d always wanted to drive down Ditchley Road and check out Hughlett Point from there.
It was cocktail hour when we drove past the mansion’s driveway toward the village dock, so we didn’t turn in, though Auntie insisted we should do so on our return. I thought it looked more like a private drive and I said so a couple of times, but she said, “No, this is Ditchley, it is a private home, but they use it for all kinds of public functions. I just want you to see it. We can drive through, there’s a turnaround.”
Then she pulled another friend out of her magic hat and said, “Let’s go have cocktails with Jan.” Jan lives on Dividing Creek, almost to the bay. She wasn’t home, but we walked out on the dock behind her house and watched for a few minutes as the water pinked up, then greyed over, and the sky to the west lit up. The dock had a great view of Hughlett Point, our main objective anyway, so after enjoying that we headed for home. It was dusk, and I was hoping she’d forget about Ditchley House.
As we approached the Ditchley mansion driveway, a sporty red car turned out of it and zipped past us toward the bay. I didn’t like the idea of turning in while they could see us. I was hoping nobody was home. I resisted.
“Turn in, turn in!” Rita insisted, so I made an acute right turn and drove slowly down the colonial-style brick drive through a huge lawn, toward the brick mansion on the right. The driveway narrowed suddenly as it approached the mansion, and passed directly below the foot of the front stairs. I saw with dismay that there was in fact nowhere to turn around but the perfectly smooth green lawn, that the driveway went right up to and around behind the caretaker’s cottage, across a concrete carport, with a grill, bikes, a basketball hoop, and worst of all, a pack of barking dogs. The moment I saw the dogs, I said, “Cover your ears!”
The driveway funneled us through this very private domain: we were bayed up by a large black lab, a midsize gold dog, and a little cocker spaniel. Our dogs were snarling and snapping and barking their heads off trying to get through the car windows. It was a tense cacophony. Our car was so big, and the carport so small and so crowded! I was afraid I would hit one of the dogs snapping at our tires, or knock over a garbage can, or that someone would run yelling out the door. After we slowly, carefully, rounded the back of the house I sped up as fast as I dared and we lost the gold dog, but the big and little dogs pursued us another few hundred feet, Raven and Stellar still snarling and barking.
When they fell off, my dogs settled down. We drove a long silent stretch under arched trees, both of us looking straight ahead, until we turned onto the road. Then Rita turned to me and broke the silence by saying, with a satisfied smile, “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley!”
I laughed so hard I almost lost control of the car. We laughed all the way home. We laughed through our cocktails. Six months later, we are still laughing about Ditchley, when one of us mentions it over the phone.
Auntie turned 85 yesterday. I cherish every laugh with her and every memory of our wonderful autumn together. What I treasure most about that moment, that smile, that “Well, now you’ve seen Ditchley,” is that it was utterly unexpected. I should know by now to expect the unexpected from my Aunt Rita, it has always been the way she rolls. But in that moment, after the violence of the barking dogs, the awkwardness of our intrusion through a private home, the tension of our escape from Ditchley, and my anxious sense of guilt, her sweet satisfaction was the last thing I expected.
Eight years have elapsed since I wrote that. I visited Kilmarnock again, but not for the past few years. Occasionally through those years Auntie and I will be chatting, and she will say, “Well… at least we’ll always have Ditchley!”
Auntie died Thursday, after months of suffering. She had a stroke three days after Raven died, the Sunday before her 93rd birthday. After struggling to recover, she courageouslychose to relinquish her attachment to living.
There’s been a lot of loss in my world since May. Of them all, I will miss the most my dearest Auntie Rita, my last mother in this world, my friend and role model, my drinking buddy, my favorite person on the planet, whose flair and humor and kindness showed me the way so brilliantly.
Going through photos from our visits through the years, a lot more memories are coming up, bringing laughter, tears, gratitude, joy. She loved to play cribbage, and delighted in a great winning hand…
After cousin Leslie told me that her mother had died, I hung up and walked a few steps farther into the woods, then laughed out loud: in my head I heard so clearly, in that sweet satisfied voice, “We’ll always have Ditchley!”
I’m not claiming that it was she speaking to me; just that I heard her, from within my heart at the very least, though I didn’t realize for two days how much that moment has helped me cope with the loss of her. Having this trove of memories is a gift beyond measure, an enduring connection with her beautiful, mischievous, loving soul.
It’s been a quiet week here in Lake Weobegone — wait, no! It’s been a challenging month here at Mirador. Lots of life happening hard and fast, life including death, of course. Without the garden, exquisite pollinators, and five years of serious mindfulness practice under my belt, the weeks since Raven’s death would have been even more tumultuous.
What with Raven dying, auntie’s stroke, Michael’s imminent demise, another friend in major-medical limbo, Stellar on his last legs… the cherry tree dying, the phoebe nest knocked down and chicks devoured… the little and the big, all against the national backdrop of socio-political upheaval (and hopefully, awakening), and the slow-moving catastrophe of climate chaos; it’s been like log-rolling in a swift river, but I’m no longer a beginner: I’ve stayed afloat, dancing on the rolling crashing logs, keeping my balance. That takes practice.
Each spring, time with lilacs becomes more precious. Each year, time on earth becomes more precious. Various plants in the garden command their share of my attention during their unique brief windows, and my devotions keep pace as well as I can. A hidden blessing during this Time of the Virus for me has been more time, more time, what most people ask for on their deathbeds. More time than ever before with the lifegiving lilacs.
Suffering keeps going deeper, taking a turn you hadn’t anticipated. How does anyone ever think It can’t happen to me? The more I learn of what can happen, the limitless, infinite array of possibilities that might occur in any moment of any day, that expanding cone of possibility that flows outward, infinitely, from every individual sentient being based on the sum total of conditions present within and without that individual in that precise and only moment, the more gratitude I cherish for each and every moment of my life that holds beauty and serenity.
Of all the many things I thought I’d write about next, getting high on lilacs, Stellar’s last days, a neighbor’s sudden death, being an introvert on lockdown… Raven dying in my arms last night wasn’t even on the list.
Something must have happened while I was inside making dog food around six. When I called them in to eat, she didn’t come. I called and called, and saw her rise from a strange place by the fence, but she wouldn’t come. I walked up to get her, and coaxed her down and into the house, where she lay on her bed and wouldn’t eat even a cookie. She was moving oddly, all tight and slow. I thought she might have had a stroke.
Over the next few hours, she seemed to relax, then she got up on the sofa and I thought that signaled improvement. An hour later she got off the couch and collapsed on the dog bed next to Stellar, unable to move her back end. I lay beside her for the next few hours breathing deeply and calmly myself, massaging her spine and hips the way she likes, telling her what a good girl she has always been, and how I love her. She struggled to turn a few times, her breath coming more labored. Her gums paled, her paws cooled. Her breaths came farther apart, turned guttural, then thinned to a whistle. I prayed for her to be reborn in the best possible life, and rubbed sand from the monks’ mandala on her forehead, to guarantee her a human reincarnation.
In two weeks we would have celebrated her fourteenth birthday. She’s been a joyful, delightful, challenging, loyal companion since she came to me at six weeks old. She died peacefully in her own bed, in my loving arms, at 11:40 pm, of unknown causes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.