My mother left us five years ago today, an anniversary that’s hitting me harder this year than it has the past couple. The five-year mark seems to be driving home the truth that she’s gone permanently. It’s one of those things you know in your mind, but don’t really know in your bones when the loss is fresh. Last night, I kept thinking, “I didn’t understand she was going to be dead for this long.”
When my mom took me for my first day of kindergarten, an eon ago, I was puzzled by the children in the class who were crying, distraught over their mothers leaving without them. I thought to myself, “Don’t they know they’re going to come back?”
Now I’m dropped off, the day has grown long, and I see she’s not returning for me. I’m on my own here. But she didn’t toss me upon the world with no provisions or comforts at all. She had a fascination with bells, and collected all sorts. I experience a lot of joy from this tangible item she left with me — a good part of her bell collection. I rang them all for her this morning.
“Ring the bells that still can ring.” — Leonard Cohen
Nine years ago, my oldest child — then thirteen — was visiting family in Oklahoma. And behold, there was a litter of kittens. I have never regretted saying yes when I received the phone call asking if one of the kittens could come live with us.
CJ Cat was my oldest child’s best friend through some difficult times, a consistent source of comfort and companionship. She was a talkative cat, leading us to speculate she may have been part Siamese. She was afraid of strangers and generally hid from company, but loved being with all members of the family. If we gathered in one room, watching a movie or playing a game, it didn’t take long before she’d establish herself in the middle of the group. And when there was a nap to be had, she helped with that, too.
CJ was part of home. She was so present so much of the time.
As she grew up, she developed a weight problem and I became one of those people I used to laugh at for spending ridiculous amounts of money on special, expensive food for a pet. Her weight was heading in the right direction, slowly. We had the goal to bring her down from a high of nearly sixteen pounds to twelve. She’d made it to thirteen and a quarter. We set up elaborate systems and plans to keep her from getting to the food bowls of our other two cats. But she was smart and always on the watch for an opportunity to get any extra nugget.
We had our morning rituals, and they normally culminated with CJ settling onto my and the husband’s bed for a nap about the time I left for work in the morning. When I’d come home, she’d hear the door and come thundering down the steps, directly to her food bowl in the kitchen.
Last Friday, a week ago today, I’d taken her to the vet for booster shots and a checkup. Everything looked good and she seemed fine. On Mondays, I work a split shift: 9-1 and then evening, 5-9. Monday morning, CJ was okay, eating her breakfast with the usual gusto, getting her morning pets and chin scratching, getting under the humans’ feet as we moved around the house. Then she got into her nap place on our bed.
That’s where I found her, lifeless, when I came home in the afternoon and she failed to run down the stairs to get her lunch. She looked peaceful and at rest, like she simply went to sleep and never woke up, which is what happened, I suppose, and the one comfort in the midst of the shock of losing her so unexpectedly.
My 19-year-old son was home, getting ready for an afternoon college class. I called my husband, who left work. We all agonized over how to break the news to our 22-year-old, CJ’s main human, the one who had brought her home as a kitten. They (our oldest uses they/them pronouns) work as an assistant manager in retail and were scheduled to be the floor manager for another three hours that day, unable to leave until another manager arrived. We all agreed they couldn’t get the news without being able to leave work.
My son went on to his class, as it was a couldn’t miss session that day. My husband and I wrapped the body in a towel and moved it to his desk chair, a place CJ loved to bogart, often jumping up to the seat the minute he left to go get a snack or use the bathroom. I washed all of the bedding and then sat vigil while my husband went to meet our oldest as they got off work and brought them home.
My heart is aching not only over the loss of our much-loved companion, but also knowing how devastating it is for my child. Let me tell you, seeing your child bereft and heartbroken is no easier when they’re 22 than it is when they’re 5, or 13.
We buried CJ in the back yard, in a spot where the morning sunbeams hit every day, because she loved basking in the sun when it came in the window.
Well, we’re ridiculous people who open our home and our hearts to a ridiculous number of small creatures. My oldest child, in particular, has always had an affinity for animals. When they passed the G.E.D. exam, for a graduation present, they wanted a pet hedgehog and even found a breeder about three hours away.
Haymitch Hedgehog lived in a largish, customized home in said child’s room, and often traveled around in a little carrier when his human went to sit in a park and write or eat lunch. He was close to six years old, which is elderly for one of these animals. Two days after CJ’s passing, Haymitch followed her across the Rainbow Bridge. At least this one wasn’t a surprise.
I’m not sure what the neighbors think, with my family out in our yard two different nights this week, wielding our flashlights and shovels. As we laid Haymitch to rest, it began to sleet on us, because of course it did. I actually laughed at the universe going so over the top. The precipitation lasted only a few minutes, ending as we were heading back indoors.
We still have two cats and also two pet rats, all of whom have been receiving lavish attention the past few days. But there are still big empty places. I know the pets we have now will eventually pass (one of the surviving cats is coming up on sixteen years old in the spring) and we’ll mourn again. I don’t see any of us changing our essential natures by not taking in animals as they come along. I grimly joked that some day archeologists will excavate the site of our home and yard and it will just be full of small animal bones.
That’s the nature of life when you like having pets around. They have shorter lives and you get your heart-broken over and over. Do you ever get numb to losing them? Not in my experience. It’s difficult every time. Is it worth it? So far, yes, absolutely.
Today is my last day of bereavement leave from work and I spent most of it canceling out my mother. I’ve spent the last four years keeping her current, making sure her Social Security money kept coming and was accounted for, updating her Medicare coverage, renewing her newspaper subscription, arranging doctor’s appointments, changing the calendar page in her room each month, replenishing supplies of her personal items at the care facility, maintaining her presence in the world.
Even with the funeral planning, it was about getting her cared for. Picking out her outfit, her favorite poem, the hymns she loved, getting her buried between my dad and one of my sisters, Mom’s baby girl.
And now I’m undoing it all. Erasing her. Canceling her out. She’s no longer on the Social Security or Medicare rolls. Medicaid and supplemental insurance have removed her from coverage. I still need to go to the bank and close her account. I never realized how many people I would have to tell, “My mother died.” How many times I have said it this past week, and it’s a wrench every time.
All of the clothes she’ll never again wear, her empty wheelchair, her calendar –they’re all sitting in my house waiting to be sorted and repurposed. And after that’s done, then what? I don’t know. I really don’t.
One of my uncles died yesterday. He had been married to my father’s sister, who passed away last year. I remember at my dad’s funeral, this aunt lamenting that she had none of her childhood family any more. I come from a large clan on both sides. My dad was one of five children and my mom one of nine. Now, of the siblings and their spouses in my dad’s family, my mother is the last one standing. That’s one of the drawbacks of living a very long life. You lose a lot of people along the way.
On my paternal side, it’s an entire generation gone. Yet another milestone where I realize I’m supposed to be a grown-up now, in a big way. In taking charge of my mom and her affairs, I failed to anticipate one significant responsibility. I’m the bearer of news, the one who sits with her over another loss. I never feel I’m competent enough for this and find myself thinking there must be some real adults around somewhere who could step in.
My mom still has six surviving brothers and sisters, including one older the she is. They’re hardy stock. I have a greater than average chance of making it to ninety. But I can’t think this without thinking of my aunt who was the last of her family of origin. She was the youngest by quite a bit and so am I. You never know what life will bring, of course. People don’t always die in chronological order. In fact, I wasn’t even accurate earlier in this paragraph when I said I’m the youngest. There was one sister who followed me by two years and never made it home from the hospital.
People always want to live a long time, but who really wants to be the last one standing? It’s a conundrum.
I don’t know if I have an end point to this blog post. I simply felt like sharing the ramblings of my mind. Maybe I won’t try to come up with some neat concluding sentence. I’ll let it be a little incoherent and messy, like life.