In Memoriam

January 15, 2009

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I have put off sitting down to write this entry. This story that began nearly sixteen years ago in a cardboard box at a veterinarian’s office when my kitten-to-be issued forth a three-week old howl letting everyone know that he was a force to be reckoned with. This story that ended on Saturday at 6:00 pm when the now elder-statesman of a cat let me know that no matter how much money I spent on vet bills or how many pills I forced down his little throat, or how often I treated him to fresh salmon and cream, that he was done. Tired of organic catnip and litter boxes, Boppho let me know that he was ready to move to a place where I could not follow.

The difficulty with losing someone or something you love is that they may be done with you before you are done with them. You are still in the same space waiting for them to put their key in the lock, clump down the basement steps, turn on the dishwasher or bounce up on the counter for the dinnertime bowl.

I have lost too many beloved people and pets in my life. Some to death and still more to misunderstandings, relocations and irreconcilable differences. The losses are starting to pile up one on top of the other and with each new grief the old griefs are pulled up again like a series of paperdolls joined hand to hand and foot to foot.

My griefs stack up like body bags on a military transport plane flying home from Iraq and all the other deaths from Vietnam to Tianaman Square, The Ghaza Strip and Virginia Tech, from American Airlines Flight 11 to the cancer ward at Rainbow Babies and Children’s hospital in downtown Cleveland, all those deaths rise up and remind me that I too am terminal, that one day I will be ready to go where no one else can follow.

But until then I will lose and grieve the losses of the ones who go before me. It seems much harder to be the one left behind, much harder to get up in the morning expecting the sounds that have become so ordinary that you don’t even hear them until they are gone: my father singing “Moon River” in the shower; the irritated meow of Boppho demanding his breakast at 6:00 am; the sniff-snuffling of Gretel as she noses along the kitchen floor in search of run-away crumbs; the husky soft voice of Ralph on the phone from Chico reassuring me that change is possible and I can, for the first time in my life at 41, live without depression; the clip-clop of Cousin Jan’s saddlebred outside the kitchen window as she puts Abu through his paces. Now there is only silence.

I start imagining more deaths. I see Laurence curled up on the side of the road, the victim of driver in an SUV who didn’t even notice my husband as he proudly rode his brand new bike home from work making sure to stay in the bike lane. I guess at what it will feel like to get the call from Cleveland letting me know that my mother collapsed on the steps of her church leaving a Sunday service and chatting with a friend about what she would be bringing to the upcoming Circle Supper.

And then I see my own death, hiding right around the corner of tomorrow, each new pain signals a rare form of cancer, a heart attack, a stroke. I check and re-check the tiny pink mole under my left eye convinced it is a fatal melonoma that will eat me alive before I even have a chance to see a dermatologist. I call my doctor and make an appointment certain that she will find something to cut short my life because why do I have the right to be alive when those that I love have been taken?

I close my eyes and see people and pets who I love who have died or just disappeared. I watch my childhood, my youth and my current middle-age winding and unwinding like a giant ball of twine trying to stay together but being pulled apart by the forces of gravity and death.

Kent State Unversity College Graduation

Mom & Dad: Kent State Unversity College Graduation

I remember my father on his hospital bed, watching the NCAA basketball tournament and flirting with a blond nurse, his lungs so damaged by cancer that to breath at all was an act of unrivaled courage. He told his girlfriend that he wouldn’t be there in the morning. She called me and I raced down to see him, to touch him, to question him. I called in a special hospice nurse who told me his vitals were strong, like an ox he could keep going and going. I asked “Daddy, will you be here tomorrow?” and he tried to smile, nodding his head up and down in the signal for yes. He had spent his life lying to me and everyone else who loved him, why was I surprised that he’d leave me with one more lie on his death bed?

Boppho my kitty had a death bed, or at least a death floor. The warm carpeted floor of my special room, my reading room, my writing room that is filled with books, a 1940s dressing table piled high with rhinestone brooches, Chinese bracelets and beaded earrings spilling out of a small purple glass that a friend carried gently home for me from Paris.

The room contains my enormous down-filled chair where I sit, snuggled into feathers and pillows, my feet stretch all the way out in front of me because the chair is so long. Boppho liked to sit on the top of the chair, right behind my head and purr to me as I wrote or read or fell softly asleep, my pets surrounding me, my husband peeking in every so often to make sure we were all still breathing.

Jan’s death bed was made of steel with moving parts and stood starkly on the 7th floor of Mass General as we surrounded her and the bed – the cousins, my aunt and uncle, my mother and me creating a family circle to hold her while she took longer and longer pauses between each breath. All of us holding hands and watching her long golden curls waving around the ventilator that had been forced down her throat one last time when her second pair of lungs finally failed. As they put the vent line in she mouthed to me “Let me go” and we did, after ten long years of collapsed lungs, pneumonia, one transplant and a permanent address at Massachusetts General Hospital, my beautiful 45 year old cousin with eyes the color of cornflowers and a grin that stayed with her through her fight with an illness with an unprounceable name, died in a hospital bed. Before she died I asked her how I would survive not having her to talk with and she replied “I’ll still be talking. You just have to learn to listen.”

Boppho & Laurence

Last Day: Boppho & Laurence

We brought Boppho home from the vet on Friday night after two full days of antibiotics and fluids being pumped into his little 11 pound body. His kidney functions were worse and we had all but decided to have our baby put to sleep in the “quiet room” at the clinic but the instant we got him in there he perked up, started exploring and head butting our shoulders. He purred and he ate bites from his food bowl and we scooped him up to take him home, hoping for a miracle. For his damaged kidneys to repair themselves, for his fever to go down, for him to stop sitting at his water bowl licking the side of the rim hoping for water but tasting only metal.

I wanted a miracle because people say there are miracles. That completely broken people or animals barely balancing on that line between life and death can choose life. Get up out of bed and go play tennis or plan a dinner party for eight. I’ve read reports in the paper, watched the interviews on TV, scanned the non-fiction accounts that detail the journeys of remission, return to consciousness, a trip to the light and back again to awareness and health. I’ve watched it in the movies, but I’ve never seen it in real life.

Death is cagey and likes to play games. It takes you to the edge of the end when you’ve just been told that not only does your dad have lung cancer but now he has brain tumors as well and suddenly your father looks up and suggests you go out for ribs at Tony Roma’s. Or your cat looks up at you and winks and gobbles down an entire can of food after refusing to eat for one full week. Or your dear friend and therapist in Chico, California talks with you on the phone and mentions he has a cold, never hinting at the fact that two weeks later you will get a call from his friend Shangra who tells you “Ralph is gone.”

And you scream “No. No. No. No. It’s not possible, it can’t be. I just talked to him and he was fine. He is fine. It’s not real. It’s not real.” And you call his cell,

Large Landseer Newfoundland

Large Landseer Newfoundland

wanting to listen to his voicemail message one more time or maybe to hear his live voice when he picks up the phone and you both realize it was all a misunderstanding and he is there waiting for you to come visit again. You drive down again and there he is, a turkey basting in the oven, his Newfoundland like a giant rug sprawled across his floor and you will go together to the Chinese restaurant one more time for chicken and almonds and read your fortunes and you will tell him that without him you wouldn’t have survived the many losses leading up to his loss and that he has saved your life if not his own.

And in this dream of life not to be lived he will drive away in his tan and cream van with the handicapped license plates, his oxygen machine pumping away and still, somehow, you don’t realize he is sick. That the small canisters of canned air he carries with him aren’t just for asthma or a bad cold. That I am so determined that he be well that I forget to remember he is slowing dying and that the one person in my life who truly understands the depth of sadness I have suffered is not waiting for me in Chico, nibbling on a muffin at the French bakery, drinking black coffee and asking me how I am feeling. And right now I’d say “I feel terrible. I lost my best cat friend,” and he would know exactly what to say but he’s not here and I search for the words but I’ll never find them without him.

Boppho lay on our bed, sandwiched between us, purring for most of Saturday as we read, we slept, Laurence played solitaire on his iPhone and we started to believe with the bravado that only comes from trying to cheat death that we would soon be cancelling the 4:30 appointment with the vet who was coming to the house to perform last rites.

And then amidst our relief and slight embarrasment that we had “jumped” too quickly to conclusion, Boppho gave us a sign. He began to pant and gasp and it took Laurence 30 minutes of holding and calming him for the pain to cease and his breathing to go back to normal. Laurence called the vet and asked them to try to come sooner and I prepared the room.

Kevin died last year. It had been decades since we had seen each other or even spoken but he was still so alive in my memories of my freshman year at Macalester College in St. Paul. An Irish-American, Catholic-born and bred wiry and skinny guy with red hair and freckles, giant blue eyes and a huge smile, he became my college sweetheart under the late lilac blooms in a Minnesota May. An actor, a hysterically funny raconteur especially when loaded with green beer on St. Paddy’s day, he traipsed across campus in overalls and a checked short sleeve shirt, a pipe in hand and gorgeous girls (far more beautiful then me) waiting for him as he trotted from dorm room to dorm room. And for some reason he picked me and we kissed in the privacy of lilacs, stayed up ’till 4:00 drinking champagne and sifted through family albums as he showed me pictures of his many siblings, cousins and friends.

Our love story lasted several years and ended in angry shreds when he kicked me into a closet at our rental home in Maryland where I had moved to live with him. I lost 20 pounds and he lost, or so he told me, the love of his life. Thirty years later I received a call from his best friend Marc who told me Kevin had died a week before his birthday in April 2008. He was found ten days dead, alone in a rented apartment near D.C. He died of cirrohosis of the liver, a full-blown alchoholic who had lost his license to practice law, his wife and two daughters and nearly everyone and everything that had ever mattered to him. And I wished for months to have the chance to transport back to my eighteenth year where I would warn him of the tradgedy that awaited him or at least have had the chance to say goodbye.

I lit candles in my special room for Boppho. The large candle we bought two years

Brid's Candle

Brid's Candle

ago when our darling pitbull Gretel was diagnosed with cancer. The smaller one, a Tuscan Blood Orange candle, was a Christmas gift from Laurence’s sister Brid. The beautiful auburn-haired Brid, with the lovely long neck and white skin like frost who had faced down the the worst that death has to bring – the illness and passing of her husband Jerry, her soulmate, her most beloved who was diagnosed with ALS shortly after we attended their wedding on the Cliffs or Mohrer on the West Coast of Ireland four years earlier.

I arranged pictures of Boppho at six weeks old, wrapped in my hands, a tiny, red-

Boppho & Rachel circa 1994

Boppho & Rachel circa 1993

nosed little elf of a cat, curled up in my palm as I tried to pose him for the camera. I also added the picture that Laurence took of him sitting silent and Boppho-like in the downstairs utility sink. Peering out over the top of the concrete sink, all the secrets of the unverse inside of him, unbeknowst to us since we don’t speak cat. I brought over a picture of my Buddha-dog Emma, the Akita I found at an animal shelter in West Virginia many decades ago. Emma was there even before Boppho and left me a year after we all moved to Portland.

Her death was the first of the many bad things that happened after I left D.C. for Oregon. I hoped that Emma’s spirit could help Boppho on his lonely journey. Alongside Emma’s picture sat Gretel’s beautiful Chinoiserie urn, filled with pitbull ashes, someday to be buried in a garden when we finally found a house we would stay in for more then three years. Gretel and Boppho spent 11 years together and although I’m not sure they actually liked each other, I knew she’d want to be included.

Laurence gently carried Boppho into the candlelit room and we sat with him for two more hours before Dr. Fletcher appeared at the door. I lay on the floor staring into his face and studying every detail, trying to memorize the little white tabby markings that covered his forehead, the soft white kitty eyeliner that emphasized his emerald globes, his racoon tail which flicked back and forth like a metronome when he was irritated. I stared at him for two hours and Laurence stared at me and every moment we did our best to be present with him during the last hours of his dear, sweet life.

Dr. Fletcher came at 5:15 and sat with us, letting us take our time. She explained that the euthanasia proceedure happened with two injections. The first was to bring him to an unconscious state where he wouldn’t feel the prick of the second final needle.

And nothing I could do at that point could stop it because the miracle never happened. He was resting quietly, too sick to purr or open his eyes or sip the water in his bowl. Dr Fletcher bent down to give him the first shot. His rest turned into a deep, unconscious sleep and I put him on my lap and Laurence held us both and the second shot was given and he left us. Peacefully if death can ever be peaceful.

We held him and stroked his little furry body, talking quietly with the vet, exchanging pet stories, listening to her tell how it was for her to lose her cat Albert, talking about how Boppho was one of a kind. A cat amongst cats. Of course we don’t know any other cats but Laurence and I are convinced that he was an entity to himself.

Boppho’s friends got in touch too. Diane sent an email we read out loud about how he was a great teacher and friend and Liz, the patron saint of all cats everywhere, lit a candle for him and meditated on his life and his passing. His pet sitter Lori sent a sympathy card and my mom put his picture on the dining room table to remind her of her favorite and most cherised grand-cat.

So many deaths in so short a time for life is short and each death is long and large and no matter how much we try to ignore it, death will always return to find us, our families, our friends, our animals, the pansies in summer and the primroses in spring. Death will take the trees in winter and the bees are fed to death after they dare to challenge the reaper with a brief, sometimes fatal sting.

I thought it would get easier but it doesn’t. It just gets harder as one death stacks up into another and another and they are linked together and each grief brings up the last grief and the one before and I imagine the deaths – real or emotional – of those I have loved the most and wonder if the reason I don’t make close friends anymore is because I can’t stand the thought of losing them.

Has death shut me down even while I am still living? Has death stopped my heart or is it still beating? Without death would I love more or less?
paper dolls

They are gone now. My dogs, my cat, my father, my grandparents, my cousin, my brother-in-law, my therapist, my first love, my broken romances, missed opportunities and long-lost friends. I have grieved for those living and dead who have disappeared or dissipated and I will continue to do so. For one death leads to another and one grief belongs to the next, like a row of paperdolls joined at the hands and the feet, forever linked and not soon forgotten.

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4 Responses to “In Memoriam”

  1. sbaird Says:

    this deeply touches me. all of the grief that resonates around the death of our animals, and the connections to our family members and friends, was written about so well. thank you for writing, keep it coming.

    • Bijou Says:

      you have made my day. the minute i saw i had a comment i felt that rush of happiness and excitement. thank you so much for taking the time to read my work and make a comment. i now feel inspired again.

  2. Brid Says:

    Rachel
    that was truly beautiful. I’ve been waiting for a time to read it when I wasn’t feeling rushed. I am really just now realizing how you have to make room for grief/loss/sadness and allow it to sit beside you. It will always be a part of everything.

    • Bijou Says:

      Brid, It means so much to me that you were touched by my words. Grief is something I think we have to accept instead of trying to get over or beyond. Perhaps we can find more peace if we let it co-exist with the now. I’m so glad you are reading the blog. Hope to see you sometime soon in Portland. I/we miss you.


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