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We lost our boy. Jaspurr was nineteen — that’s a long time to know a person, much less a cat (which is what Jassy was). His name (pronounced Jasper) stemmed from his loud and enthusiastic motor. He was a lover, a cuddler, a lap kitty. He was, as our dear pet sitter described him (and like Frankie whom I wrote about last week), the matriarch of the family: It was because of Jaspurr’s loving instincts that we were able to have eleven cats in our home at one time. He took care of everybody. Now he is gone, along with the rest of his adopted kin. He was, as my mother would say, the last of the Mohicans.

Sometimes terrible doubts grasp me: What if there is no heaven? It’s not fear for myself that motivates me — the idea of oblivion is terrifying, of course, but I don’t mind so much for myself as for Jaspurr and our other lost pets. Surely there must be a forever place for him? He did nothing but love with his whole heart every day of his life.

I find myself arguing transitive qualities, like a proof in geometry: If I love Jaspurr and God loves me, then…. But it’s useless trying to wrap my brain around it. Jaspurr was good, and if good survives beyond this life, then surely he does, too.

There is only one way to deal with this grief and it is to walk through it. I have to imagine Jaspurr in paradise, a paradise he understands, filled with dishes of cereal milk and all his friends. Here’s a haiku to celebrate:

A pause in heaven —
gentle tiger-striped rumblings —
a cat has come home.

Done in by the heat of setting up for the parish’s Cinqo de Mayo dinner, we sank gratefully into folding chairs. We talked about work — at 64, she figured she’d work “three more years. No, maybe five.” Then she laughed. “I like my job.” On the following Thursday, she showed up for the year-end banquet of the altar society (the same altar society she’d confessed to me she’d avoided joining for years because she felt she “wasn’t old enough!”), posing in a photo with all the other ladies. On Sunday, Mother’s Day, she was dead.

I tell this story not to cause panic, but to induce thought. None of us knows the day or hour of our death. So live big. Love hard. Don’t let things ride. Deal with your inner demons. Choose joy. Phone a friend.

We haven’t got time to dilly-dally, so let’s concentrate on loving one another. Okay?

I lost another friend this week. Her name was Banshee, and she earned the name from birth: Her mother was a stray cat we’d taken in, heavily pregnant, and when her kittens were born (Caesarean, on Mother’s Day), one of them yowled loudly into the face of our vet. With that, Banshee announced herself to the world. And she never stopped. She was a princess from the get-go, demanding attention, treats, toys. But she was also my companion. Most cats have their own agendas; Banshee’s agenda was mine. Wherever I was, she was. Whatever I was doing could only be enhanced (in her mind) by her presence.

All of my cats have been companions to one degree or another. Bella and Gwen liked to sit on my lap while I wrote. My gal pal Smudge always felt the need to use her box (located in the bathroom) whenever I needed to use the facilities. Mr. Beaumont would come running whenever I sang, no matter how off-key. Honkee (who we joked was part velociraptor, due to his scimitar-like claws) would have defended me to the death, had the need ever arisen. I miss them all acutely.

What are we to learn from grief? Maybe that life — all life — is worth something and capable of being mourned. Maybe that God reaches out to us constantly, sometimes in unlikely and furry ways. Or maybe it’s a chance to remind us that, even as we long for the world beyond this one, the physicality of our world, the warmth of a purring body, the texture of fur, are things to savor.

As I walk through this very vibrant — and sometimes dark — Lenten season, I am aware of the shadow of death and the stark contrast it provides to life.

Stand in sunlight,
but do not fear the dark.
There are nameless things there, sure,
but also the shades of things corporeal
and loved: a coat on a hook, a shoe,
a book. Nothing turns to dust. It only
transmutes: evaporation, rainfall, cycle
after cycle washing pure the air.
Holes in hearts are not mended.
Rather, the heart remolds itself,
taking in matter from daffodils, perhaps,
or the smell of a wet dog. It ceases beating,
then resumes. There is no death.

hillsWhen we are in the midst of trouble, whether it is illness or the death of a friend, it can be hard not to focus on our agony and our worries.  I tend to hold my pain close, too close to focus on it but also not letting it go. Fortunately, my husband is better at looking into the distance.

My friend died last Friday and although we had plans to go eagle watching, I wanted to cancel. Wouldn’t it be disrespectful? Staying home sounded really good.

My husband took me along when we dropped our son off at his friend’s, but we didn’t turn toward home.  Instead, we drove through the bottoms and between the rivers. We ended up at a historic fort for . . . can you guess? . . . eagle watching.

We stood on the bluff top in the icy wind and gazed up and down the river.  Geese.  A duck.  Song birds. Conservation agents with spotting scopes peered up and down the nearby riverbank.

Then my husband squinted into the distance. He’d caught sight of long, dark wings. He looked through our binoculars. An eagle! It perched in a tree, all but disappearing from sight. We watched the eagle for an hour, periodically scanning the trees for other telltale signs – white heads and flashes of white tails. Each time we looked back, there was our eagle, perched in the distance.

When we went to the wake, we looked at the pictures of our friend rafting, hiking, and at the Grand Canyon. Out in God’s world, sharing what she loved with those she loved.

Finding God and what is good when times are tough can be tricky. Close at hand, you may not be able to see anything but heartache.  But He is it out there, in the distance. All you have to do is spot Him.

–SueBE

I’m not going to lie: January 2016 has been — pardon my French — a crapfest. My last surviving uncle was laid to rest, my friend Mary passed away, my best friend’s brother died — suddenly and without warning — and two of my cats are sick, one near death. My father-in-law has been unwell and in the hospital, and I have cellulitis, a staph infection of the skin and tissue, but neither the doctor nor I know why. Bills are mounting; emergencies continue to emerge. What’d I tell you? Crapfest.

Once, many years ago, I was walking through a “haunted house,” staged for Halloween. Some dim bulb decided to paper over the staircase, and I slipped walking down it. Fortunately, the walls were also lined with paper, with hands groping through cut-out holes, in an attempt to scare people. One of these kindly disembodied hands caught me as I fell and held me up. It was a lesson in an unlikely place.

It is hard, when one is in the dark, to imagine light. And yet I believe that February will turn this impending trainwreck of a year around. Or, more precisely, I believe that God will. In any case, I am moving forward.

What lies ahead may be
a pebble or a boulder,
slope or sheer drop.
It is not for me to know.
Faith whispers only this:
put one foot out at a time,
test the air,
put it down. Repeat.
The light will find you.
The floor will hold you.
The roof will not collapse.
There is a hand
waiting in the dark,
fingers tensing for your touch.
Find it.

The news I received this morning demolished all possibility of the post I was going to write: My friend Mary is dying. I heard it straight from her daughter Tracy, one of two foster children Mary raised and later adopted. She was a “single mother,” in her own inimitable fashion. Mary never wanted to get married. She is too feisty for that, too independent, too…Irish.

I met Mary at church. She walked right up to my husband and me (we’re not the most social types), introduced herself and started talking, drawing us out. Why? I’ll never know. Pretty soon, we were meeting for dinner after Mass, on the regular, chatting on the phone about our cats (she has several, all strays, like ours were) and life and her ever-expanding rock collection. Mary’s a storyteller; you can’t help but admire her gift of gab. It’s a gift I lack, and appreciate in others. Mary has it in spades.

It seems like just a few days ago — and it was — that we were last talking on the phone, making plans for a long overdue dinner together (the holidays had gotten in the way). She was regaling me with the tale of how she foiled a break-in at her house. She’d been sleeping when someone broke her bedroom window. I was aghast, terrified just listening to the story. “Oh, don’t worry,” Mary said. “I sleep with a gun under my pillow.”

Mary may be petite, but she’s no delicate flower. It took cancer to knock her down — suddenly, and with great ferocity. The results of her biopsy aren’t even in yet, but she is fading fast. I want to be there with her, but I am battling an upper respiratory infection (again). Her daughter told my husband that her hospital room is like “Grand Central Station.” Everybody knows Mary and loves her. Her flow of visitors bears that out.

A light is going out of this world with Mary. It’s the kind of light that turns a group of parishioners into a family. This sort of light is badly needed in the Church now — in all churches. Young people are turning away from religion, not finding what they need there. Maybe if they could meet someone like Mary, a Catholic through and through, living by example what the Church teaches, they would begin to see that their faith can find a home.

Maybe one day I’ll be inspired to walk up to a couple of newcomers at church, introduce myself and invite them out to dinner. Mary would like that, I think.

 

 

Our Gus died this week. He was a common-looking tabby with uncommonly sweet green eyes, filled with the same uncomplaining gratitude as his mother’s, a stray named Elsa whom we also adopted and lost too soon. But I suppose all death feels too soon; Gus was a senior citizen by kitty standards. Still, we were not prepared for the tumor that quickly overtook his lymph node, growing monstrously in a week, and slowly choking him to death.

Gus was unbelievably kind-natured. He could not sleep alone; he had to be snuggled up against at least one other member of our household, and preferably several. He liked nothing better than to be petted, to bump his striped head against a person, or if necessary, any random soft thing. They say cats are loners. Gussie was proof positive that people say a lot of wrong-headed things about cats.

Although I love autumn — as do so many of us — I find that quite a bit of mourning is associated with this time. So many people I know have lost someone dear to them during these months, and the falling of the leaves, the dying of the light, all remind them of this loss. My friends Alice and Gina lost their mothers in the autumn. I lost my father, as did my friend Maureen.

Some say animals don’t belong in heaven; they have no souls. I cannot countenance such remarks. I think animals know God in a different way than we do, perhaps a more primal way — which is not to say a lesser way. In fact, they may know God more intimately than we can ever hope to. And I cannot believe in a heaven that does not include our pet friends. The day after Gus died, my husband wrote me the following message: “I like to think that when Gus-Gus isn’t teaching “Headbutting With Love” seminars and chasing featherstrings for hours without getting winded, he is snuggled in the middle of the biggest catpile ever.” It helped. But nothing can take away the pain right now. And nothing should. Every life should be mourned, however small, however furry.

Gus taught me that to be loving is a life’s work. And a darned good one, at that. I just hope that his passage was quick and painless, that in an instant, he found himself in that great catpile in the sky. In this season of death, sweet whiskered friend, I pray you found safe passage.

Mother Emanuel Church

On the day before, he’d felt that his life wasn’t going the way he’d hoped. He might have thought of getting his GED or enrolling in trade school.

On the day before, he was just another kid with an ill-advised haircut. Most of his free time was spent surfing the net, looking for something he couldn’t quite name.

In another version of this day, he might have found a supportive mentor. A teacher from his youth who suggested a project to help the community, or a friend who offered him a job.

But on this day, his life took a terribly wrong turn. Dylann Roof brought a gun into a church and killed nine cherished children of God at a prayer meeting. The whole world cried out in pain upon hearing of this senseless tragedy.

What happened next was astounding. On the very next day, victims’ family members addressed him directly and said they’d forgiven him and were praying for him.

Now he’s entered into the public consciousness as a perpetrator instead of a person. It’s possible that with education and encouragement, he might have gone down a different path, using his own sense of disenfranchisement to help others in similar situations.

If only he had felt that his life had meaning on the day before. If only he’d known that no one else stands in the way of the life he’d hoped to achieve. If only he’d known that God’s grace extends into the hardest of hearts on the darkest of days.

Now, on this day, may we take comfort in the words of this wise sage, and come together to heal as a nation.

“We ask questions, Lord, we ask why… But even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death….we can look through the windows of our faith and see hope and light, and we can hear your voice Lord, saying, I’m with you.”

Rev. John H. Gillison, Emanuel AME Church

Picture for Karma Post

Today, I noticed a husky trotting around the outside of my house to the fence in the side yard. It took me a second to realize that it was a neighbor’s dog named Karma. Many years ago, whenever he got out of his yard, he would cheerfully bound over to our fence and gaze lovingly at my dog, Sheena. Her tail would wag and they would “play-bow” to each other on opposite sides of the fence. After a few minutes of this sweet interaction, Karma would trot off, heading happily toward home. Sheena would watch him wistfully, never taking her eyes off of him until he was well down the road out of sight.

My Sheena has been gone for four years now, and I have to admit, seeing Karma again brought a tear to my eye. That’s Sheena, in the backyard in the picture, above.

Still, it made me happy that someone else remembers my girldog and thinks of her as fondly as I do, even all these years later. I said to my son, this sounds like the opening line of a novel: that was the morning that Karma came back.

And of course, it made me think of how we remember the people and pets we love after they’re gone. I’ve often felt that I didn’t fully appreciate them while they were here. But in the moment, with all the obligations and family-raising and bills to pay, we did the best we could.

The visit from an old four-legged friend reminded me not to grieve anew every time I think of those I’ve lost, but to remember the warm, fuzzy things: Sheena’s playful spirit and unconditional love (for me and for muffins!)

The way my father used to stand outside the garage of their house when I was coming over for a visit, where I’d pull up my car. I used to think it was his way of chiding, “You’re late!” but it was really his way of saying, “You’re the highlight of our day! Couldn’t wait for you to get here.”

My mother, quoting a favorite funny line from an old sitcom I’d never seen (“Azusa, Anaheim and Cucamonga!”) She’d also ask me every single time I’d visit, “Hey Ruth, have you got gas?” She meant in the car but I’d always punch my stomach and say, “Just a bit of agita, Mom.” She’d pretend to be exasperated with me, but she was smiling.

My cousin, Elaine, who even at our age (well into our “cougar” years) had a crush on actor Jason Momoa, and would send me email updates about his latest projects as if I was his biggest fan. I still wasn’t sure who he was until he had a role on Game of Thrones.

It was a crystal clear spring day when Karma came back. Everything was still and cool. There was no particular seismic shift in the planet. Just a small, sweet poke from Providence to be thankful for the people and pets I’ve loved and lost. Even though I don’t have a photographic memory, today, I was blessed with a photogenic memory. Beautiful times were all I could remember.

“Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” the police officer said, hiking up his pants and pacing slowly. “I just want to make sure I understand the situation.” It seemed as if he was talking to a jury, not a family that had just lost a loved one, minutes ago.

He was training a new officer, and it became clear that he was trying to impress the rookie with his “command” of the scene.

As he spoke, I realized that I knew this man.

“I don’t know if you remember me,” I said, and told him my name. “We went to high school together.”

He shrugged slightly, smirked and widened his eyes dramatically. “Geez. You got so big!” he said to me. He laughed as if to say, I’m so bad to say that, but it’s true!

Silently seething, I almost reflexively responded that I’d just had a child, but I realized you should never justify yourself. Bad behavior is just that. It’s unacceptable.

Outwardly calm, I did the math in my head. He could make this process even more painful if I got up in his grill, as we say in Jersey. Which I so wanted to do.

“You’re not one to talk, bud,” I said, pointing to the burgeoning buttons on his uniform, which might have fit a few years ago. But at this point, he looked like a sausage in a casing.

We semi-smiled and chuckled mirthlessly, knowing we’d both just insulted the heck out of each other, but tacitly agreeing to call it a draw.

Society had decided this guy was in charge right now. There in my parents’ home, with my dad lying cold in the other room. There in the house where I grew up. How can someone “pull rank” on you in your own home?

He went back to interrogating my mother about how my father – all of 90 pounds after being ravaged by cancer – had died. I guess the hospital bed, commode, wheelchair and medications would have been puzzling to anyone but Columbo, perhaps. This truly seemed to be a great mystery.

The thing that struck me the most about this ordeal was the fact that he was not a stunod (more colorful Jerseyisms) in high school. He wasn’t a friend of mine; we had a few classes in common, but from what I could surmise, he was an okay sort.

What happened?

Does the badge always change you? Does power corrupt people?

This may be oversimplifying the recent spate of police-civilian incidents, but I don’t see it as black vs. white. It’s not even the authority establishment against everyone else. It’s light and darkness. Compassion vs. callousness. Both are inside each of us, and it’s what we choose to tap into at any given time. I’m praying that somehow, some way…we could all turn the light on at the same time. And keep it on. Now that would be a shining sight to see.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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