There are a few individuals on this planet whose humanity exceeds the arc of their life. BronxBoy55, aka Charles Gulotta …
How many ways can a heart break? How many jabs will it withstand before it simply stops beating? Whose heart am I worried about? It could be Ms. Poppy’s heart, which must surely—after over ten days of living primarily off the air she breathes—be ready to stop beating. Or it could be my own, with each hourly attempt to interest Ms. Poppy in a new flavor of food, a new preparation of food, a new combination of bowl to food to placement of food-filled bowl.
It was 18 years ago that this indefatigable little feline pried herself into my walled-off heart. At the time, my then-husband and I were still recovering from the drawn-out demise of three geriatric pets. I was counting forward to my retirement, determined to be fully unencumbered when that longed-for freedom finally arrived. A new pet would interfere with my plans! I was firm. No more pets!
Until the day Poppy locked her gaze on mine. I was on my letter carrier rounds, which took me to a run-down heating oil business that accumulated more stray cats than customers. The proprietors spent oodles on cat food, which they portioned out in pie pans for the myriad strays that proliferated on their desiccated, jungle. I had become inured to stepping through a swarming sea of fidgety, feral felines as they hungrily wolfed down crispies. But that August day, a small, self-possessed, square of tuxedo sat at the top of the stairs to the building, surveying the milieu below and willing me to bend down and pet her and then, of course, open the door so she could entertain the secretaries by jumping on their desks and knocking papers and pens onto the dilapidated floor.
Said smirking, smoking secretaries watched this tête-à-tête from the window of their break room. They grinned knowingly and encouraged me to take home the little black and white bundle of joy. “She’s already house broke,” they promised. “The only problem is that she likes to dig around in the potted plants.” (Potted plants that were half dead and fully disguised by stacks of paper and boxes of bookkeeping records.)
“Oh no,” I replied confidently. “I can’t have any more pets.” And I waltzed back out the door stumbling over the little black and white menace, who seemed quite entertained by my clumsiness.
The hex was laid. That night, a little black and white sprite danced behind my eyelids like Dasher, Dancer and Donner the night before Christmas. In the morning, as I rubbed my eyes open, I rolled over and cooed to hubby, “Mmmm, maybe we should have another little kitty?”
And so it began. And now it must come to an end. I will miss her curling up behind my knees, or in the curve of my stomach or, heaven forbid, my crotch as I snore the night away. I will miss her greetings, both the loud, after she lost her hearing, and her quiet little “prrrrew” as she jumps onto or off my lap, or more recently, when she’s had little energy for a larger greeting. I will miss the lengthy back and forth conversations we had before she lost her hearing. I will miss her pointing to the catnip stash, waiting for me to get the hint. I will miss her tiny paw fussing my face early in the morning, wanting to burrow under the covers to escape the icy cold bedroom. I will miss her crawling precariously up to the top of the chair behind my head for an elevated gander at the little black ants crawling across the screen in front of me. I will miss her strolling across the keyboard when my back is turned, or worse yet, lying on the warm keyboard, editing my copy and sending her own messages. I will miss the mat of cat fur accumulating under the keys of my laptop. I will miss her droopy form draped languidly over my wrists as I type, and her furry body perched in the center of the book I am reading. I will miss the clothing and décor quandary of what to wear with an ever-shedding black and white cat in the house. I will miss the rattle of her pawing through her basket of toys to find the one mousie she craves. I will miss the tidy black tufts at the peak of her ears, and the perfect weave of white hairs on the black backs of her ears. I will miss her adorable black heart nose and the question mark of her tail. I will miss cat box duty.
So much life we’ve shared. So many changes we’ve navigated together. Such mutual love and admiration. An era of my life is forever bookended by this little tuxedo cat. I will miss your beautiful little soul, Poppy.
I have ignored this blog for the past few weeks. It’s not that I haven’t lived. It’s not that I haven’t had things to think about. It is more that life and technology have come between me and my blog. First there was a death, for which I was present and greatly moved. Then, there was my own selfish and solitary adventure, during which, technology failed me completely. Then there was the memorial event for the deceased. And now there are a few moments for me to summon everything, all of the events of the past month, or perhaps for the past four years, in an to attempt to make sense of it all.
At this point, I must caution any followers—especially SJH— you may not be ready to read what follows. Last month, before technology gremlins made off with the data on my computer, I had begun to process my presence at the passing. Those thoughts, born in the moments of sheer terror and loss, have vanished into some cyber-space void. Now, the more recent memorial celebration inhabits my heart.
I had come to terms with the end of Tom. He had fought an extraordinary battle against cancer for over two years. Inwardly, I viewed his passing as a blessing for him and for everyone who loved him and grieved for the misery that had swallowed him. I assumed that I would sail through the hyped-up, emotion-squeezing formality of his memorial service with the dry-eyed aloofness that I am known for. After all, I’d only known the man for a few years and our relationship was filtered through the families that had brought us together.
Arriving at the Cathedral early, close family milled about, bouncing off one another’s raw emotions. I picked up a program and glanced at the familiar color image of Tom, piloting his fishing boat, cell phone to ear, intense blue eyes framed by the bill of his iconic KatMan Derby – Bush Point 2000 fishing hat. I opened the program and noted the image of the gardenia that had opened during the final few hours of Tom’s life. A Prayer of Faith, author anonymous, formed the image of a vase below the photo of the gardenia.
I scanned the contents the facing page and noted who would speak during the service. Then I flipped the program to the back, expecting a blank page. Instead, an arresting, full-color image of Tom as he is best to be remembered—a relaxed pose on a sun-dappled golf course, one hand on his hip, the other resting nonchalantly on a club, head cocked toward the camera with a grin of utter satisfaction and joy— jumped off the page.
My heart exploded without warning. Some emotion that I was completely unaware of boiled up and sent convulsing shudders to my chest and tears leaped from my eyes. I had to walk outside the building and down the street to allow this unexpected grief to run its course. It felt like all the unshed tears of an adult lifetime were gathering force to suck me under the current. Where did all this come from? I’m still bewildered. Was this unspent grief from my mother’s death? My divorced-husband’s death? My horse’s death? My cat’s death? My continuing life—the unfairness of such a life-force cut so short? Mortality in general? Commiserate misery for Tom’s fiancée, now widow? The moment passed. Most of my composure returned. I returned, warily, to the cathedral, to all the heart-wrenching events that followed.
Still, I’m left with the puzzle about what it all means. Rachel Naomi Remen talks about life on the edge and what the dying teach us, the living. She asks, “What if we are exactly what is needed to heal the world?” Her point is that, as we trudge through our daily lives, perhaps we expend far too much energy in the pursuit of perfection. We work to achieve wisdom, wealth, and success. But, the view at the edge of life is pinpointed to something more crucial than all those strivings toward perfection. Remen suspects that perfection may be the booby prize of life. Perfection is isolating; it is impossible to achieve. And in the final analysis, we are never loved for our perfections, but for our humanity, our ability to reach out and touch others with our lives.Our very imperfections become the link to those who remain. Reports of our imperfections and vulnerabilities illicit loving laughter and recognition that overwrite our formal achievments. The real story is the wisdom to live well.
Of those people who have departed from my physical world, the ones whose vitality lives on through me are those who lived life to its fullest; those who challenged themselves every day to extract the most out of life; those who faced challenges, not with resentment and pity but with vitality and courage, are the ones who hover somewhere above me, coaxing me, accompanying me through my own trivial rough spots. Those are the people whose stories continue through the ages, passed from one mouth to the next, from one generation to the next, living on through wisdom and love.
And perhaps the greatest lesson we can take away is that answers, like perfection, are superfluous. What if there are no answers? What if life is simply about living? We will always have questions. Each answer leads to yet another question. This pattern has shadowed mankind throughout recorded history. Perhaps questions are as important to life as stories are. Perhaps we need to be comforted by the inevitable presence of questions. We do not know what comes next or why we are who we are. We simply are and it is up to each of us to make the most of our time here and to live in the very imperfect now of this moment.
As I stare into the night, someone I know is watching the love of her life slip into the quicksand of death one agonizing millimeter at a time. Family and friends come and go, stretch their own grief to mingle with hers. But nothing stops that creep of darkness reaching toward the glow on the horizon.
There will be talk about how much living he crammed into a too-short life. It seems often the case: those, whose destiny will be cut short, seem driven to soak up as much life as possible, to accomplish more than the rest of us, to be ever moving and doing and laughing and teaching. But now, as he slips from their grasp, no one has words for what is happening. It is simply too shocking and too confusing. Words dissolve into a swamp. There is no help for the blunt truth of loss.
For the first time in over two years, his pain seems to have submitted to the master. Pharmacology has been the jailer, holding out the promise of relief, cures, and time, yet exacting untold discomforts and miseries as the price of life. Now pharmacology steps forward in its own morbid victory march, removing the pain but stealing the essence of the man.