I am currently in the midst of a deep dive of self discovery, which requires a review of my personal experience with death. I thought I had completed the task remarkably unscathed when another question in the curriculum was posed about comfort in receiving emotional support, such as a hug, from strangers.
At first, I couldn’t think of an instance… until I realized that I had only written about the humans that I have lost, and had not written about my beloved pets. In my adult and independent life, in other words, since I moved out of my parents’ home, I have loved, nurtured, and cared for cats. Of five furry babies that have blessed my life, I have lost four. Each loss was devastating. When I compare these losses to my human ones, I recognize that the suffering at their loss was extensive. I imagine the reason is multi-tiered, and multi-teared. First of all, I was completely responsible for their care and well-being. If they suffered, it was because of my neglect or inability to understand their needs. If only they could speak, or I could understand their language. That leaves a world of opportunity for self-flagellation. Secondly, unlike the people I have lost, my pets have been with me every single day, through prosperity and hardship, anywhere from two years to nineteen years. Finally, unlike most relationships in life, they loved me without condition, even when I felt unlovable… and they each played an important role in nurturing my identity, and possibly my self-worth.
I must start at the beginning, though the first cat-love that I lost was not by death. Stevie came into my life at precisely the moment that my whole life was changing, and in fact, she was a catalyst for some of that change. I was living with four roommates, when this Sterling Persian beauty found her way into my parents’ backyard. We figured she had been abandoned when someone moved away, but now that I reflect on how she appeared to us, and how she disappeared from my life four years later, I wonder. My living situation at the time was up for renewal, and when Stevie appeared, it was clear that my roommates were not agreeable to bringing a house cat into the fold, and so it was that this tiny angel entered my life to change the trajectory of my youth. I was 23 that year, and my parents co-signed for me to buy my own condo. That condo was not just our home, it was the birthplace of my Tribe, the hub of my new spiritual journey, a meeting place for my young adult group, a nest to welcome a loving partner, and a safe place for dear friends to rest their heads when they were in need. That level of independence enabled my freedom for growth and community building, which never could have happened while sharing a home with multiple people on different paths. I shall always believe that Stevie arrived for that purpose.
A couple of years later, I brought home a tiny black kitten, that I named Nightshade. Attention: Never name a pet after a poisonous herb… it may just live up to the title. Ha! This girl was a tiny terrorist. She was constantly getting into trouble. I have heard mothers of toddlers repeatedly urge their energetic child to stop what they are doing, and Nightshade was my source of empathy for them. I don’t think they ever really became friends, but Stevie tolerated the tiny tornado… for a while. When we moved out of the condo and into a house, there was a hole in the wall where the dryer would vent. We assessed it and foolishly believed there was no way they could get out, and in the morning, I was devastated to find that Stevie was gone. She had been in my life for four years, the entirety of my time in the condo that housed my becoming. I searched the neighborhood for her to no avail. I sobbed and wailed for my loss and abandonment, and for my failure to keep her safe. When I reflected on her time with me and why she had gone, besides the fact that I was sure Nightshade had pushed her through that hole, I determined that she was the resident angel to get me through that four-year period of transformation and growth, and that there was someone else in need that she was meant to serve.
In my grief for Stevie’s loss, came my partner’s desire for my comfort. Interestingly, I ran into a former co-worker I had not seen in a couple of years, since I adopted Nightshade from her. She shared that her daughter was moving back home, and that she had a kitten that she would not allow her to keep. Enter Gwydion. He was the yang to Nightshade’s yin… our bringer of light. She was mischievous and he was curious. She was independent and only allowed herself to be loved on her terms, and he was pure love and affection. Nightshade was a black domestic short hair and Gwydion was a Norwegian Forest Cat with long white with black and grey fur. The markings around his face, as a kitten, gave him a look that made you think of Barbra Streisand (I don’t know how, but I wasn’t the only one who could see it). As a baby, my goddess daughter could lean on him and he would not move or run, but just sit patiently in her support. After I had gone to bed, I swear he would call out to me, “Mama! Mama!” He would lie down next to his food dish and pull out one crunchy morsel at a time onto the floor, and only once out of the bowl would he consume his meal, which made for an adorable companion to Nightshade’s ‘water dance’, a funny way that she would tap her front and hind feet before she would drink from the water fountain. At twenty pounds, Gwydion wasn’t a lap cat, I think he was aware of his mass, and so he would only sit beside you to receive your affection. In his later years, I was finally able to convince him to sit on my lap. He would come to my feet and look up at me with love and expectation. I would lift him onto my knee, and he would sit, like a tiny human leaning against the arm of the comfy chair, with his elbow perched just so. From this vantage, I could rub his fluffy belly, and he would purr with delight… as would I. He liked to lie on the hardwood floor with his belly exposed, which is why my brother dubbed him – Throw Rug. It was in his thirteenth year that everything went wrong. It’s disturbing to me how many things I had missed in his decline. We tend to think that they are just getting older when they slow down or start to limp… must be arthritis. I had witnessed him lying down to pee once or twice, but his doctor and I assumed the typical male cat issue with UTI, and we treated with antibiotics. I should have taken him in for x-rays immediately, but his doctor came to the house, and I felt I was saving him the stress of being carried outside of the home and into a strange office with other animals. It wasn’t until I was sitting on the floor one night, stroking him as he sat upon the ottoman at eye level, when I slid my hand down his hind leg. There beneath white fluff, was a swollen mass above his ankle joint. My heart stopped. I called his doctor, and she arranged for him to be seen the next day at our local hospital. The tests reflected my worst fears… cancer. The only logical solution for a young cat would have been amputation, but Gwydie was not young, and there was something happening in his belly that couldn’t be determined without further testing, but it was likely the spreading cancer, hot to the touch. I am sickened to think about all of the things I could have done differently for his care. I struggled to get pills into him, and so I often didn’t force it. He couldn’t stand to pee, so I just kept papers on the floor. It was only ten years ago, why didn’t I have liquid pain meds and absorbent pee pads? My anam-cara, a soul friend I met that August in Ireland, had a friend who could psychically communicate with animals, and she sent me a written recording of what she received from her connection with Gwydion, as I sought his guidance for what to do for him. I would have given anything to hear his voice in a way I could interpret and understand. The following is what Mary transcribed:
“11/19/2008 pm / Communication with Gwydion for Melissa
I’ve been waiting… my person Melissa talks to me all the time. I’m one lucky cat.
Q: Are you in pain? A: Discomfort is a better description. My kitten days are long gone. This is my path now. I am like a butterfly – metamorphosis is what I am doing. Tell Melissa to notice butterflies, especially yellow ones. I am like that. I began as a cute kitten – became a loving cat – and now I am aged. It is natural. It is the design. I will be like the butterfly one day – I will be light and free and I will fly away. I’ll not be away from Melissa but I will fly away from this physical body that you see – handsome as it is. Its time has almost come. We’ll walk a few more trails together and face a few more trials together and then I’ll metamorphose.
Q: Is walking difficult? A: This body cannot do all it could but it still serves me. I do okay.
Q: Ok if Melissa carries you? Touches you? A: Love in any form is what I absorb. I try not to cause sadness. Now I am taking on a lot of Melissa’s sadness. It is heavy for me. I do not wish to bring her sadness. It is the way of things. I hear her tears and know she does not fully understand / grasp this metamorphosis. I’ll be here until she does. The shift will come and I will be free like the butterfly.
Q: Message for Melissa? A: We journey together. We always have. We always will. There may be a kitten in her future – sent by me (smile). But I must save that surprise until later. Blinky. Blinky. (note – no idea what this means and no clues were provided)
Q: Do you want Melissa to help you move onto spirit? A: She has lots of helpers. When the time is right, I’ll go on. It may be spring – like the butterflies. It doesn’t really matter that much – time – physical – cycling. It is time now for me to slow down. I don’t mind. Business as usual, for now.
Q: What can Melissa do for you? A: She is already doing everything for me. I am warm, well fed, and happy. This body will not last but I will. Melissa and I will always share a special warmth – our hearts beat together now and in spirit. WE are love. That is our language. Time for sleep now. G’night.
Another intuitive friend at work told me she connected with him, and that he said I would know it was his time to go when he no longer cared for his food.
When that day came, I was terrified. I tried liquefying salmon, but he refused to eat. And when I came home from work that night, he was sitting beneath the Yule tree, and looked back at me as I entered from the kitchen. I walked over and picked him up, carried him to the paper so he could release his bladder. Then, I carried him to the water bowl for him to drink. This was when I realized that the cancer in his leg had severed the bone. His foot flipped in an unnatural position. I screamed and cried, and called his doctor. She would come the next day, but couldn’t arrive before 2pm. I carried my beloved boy to bed, and there we would stay, our final spooning love fest. On December 11, 2008, I sent an email to friends and family and attached a picture of my boy. This is what I wrote:
“I let Gwydion go yesterday. It was time… We had a love fest in bed for about 18 hours… we talked about our many blessings… we cuddled and caressed, and both felt completely enveloped by our love for one another, as well as the love of our family and friends.
Dr. Martinez came to us in my room at 2pm. My parents and Julie (his beloved cat sitter) were there in person, and VJ, my Tribe, and others were there in spirit. I curled my body around his, and placed my arm so my hand was over his heart and my heart was mournfully beating against his back, as I whispered ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ into his ear with kisses. He left his body in my arms at 3:32pm. I was so lucky to have such a beautiful parting with him… not in some cold, bright office, but in the warmth and soft comfort of my bed… where I was safe to wail and sob, clutch and kiss him all the way to the other side.
I reflect on how he came into my life… and know that he was a gift from the Universe, and that somehow… our souls had chosen one another. I am so lucky he chose me. And we are so lucky that all of you love us… and we are grateful. Now Nightshade and I are finding a new way to exist. It is sad and quiet in our house… and so we invite you to stop by anytime to help fill the emptiness.
With great love and abundant gratitude for your love and support, Melissa”
I received dozens of supportive replies from family and friends. All were compassionate, caring, and offered their loving support to help Nightshade and me through the darkness. My sister-in-love often commented when visiting that last year, about how she witnessed my care for Gwydion in his infirmity. In her email, she affirmed, “You gave Gwydion (she actually called him Gideon, and often called Nightshade Lampshade, but I found that terribly endearing) so much love… more love than I’ve seen humans give each other sometimes…” I hope he felt it, because he deserved the world for all of the love he delivered. When he was gone, and because Nightshade was so limited in her affection, I realized what a love-sponge he was. I could pour everything I had into him, and he would receive it and reflect it back to me. Life was a great deal lonelier in his absence. But eventually, my girl and I found our way.
The day that came forward in my memory, with the question of how I feel about receiving comfort from strangers was a few years back when Nightshade died. She had been with me for nineteen years, and she was a cat that only a mother could love. She looked so inviting to pet, but then she would most likely snap and growl if you tried. She would follow my friends into the bathroom, but then hiss at them when she realized they were not me… and then she would hiss at them when they were feeling most vulnerable, if you know what I mean. She also had a thing for sharing her disdain with me by peeing on things. Seriously, no one taught me more about unconditional love and co-dependency than Nightshade. If she wasn’t happy, I wasn’t happy. Ha! She was an integral part of my identity, as I saw it. When it was time to let her go, she was nearly two decades upon the earth, and had lost her vision and her continence. I finally found the courage to have her doctor come, when she was waking each morning soaked in urine. That was no way for a goddess, as she recalled the Egyptians to have worshiped her, to live. Unlike my experience with Gwydion, I felt that this should be a more intimate release. Nightshade really didn’t like other humans very much, and so it felt right for it to be just the two of us at the end. She growled when the doctor arrived, she was never a big fan of her visits. She received her shot, and I pulled her onto my chest as her breathing stopped and only one broken heartbeat remained.
The next morning, I woke and felt overwhelmed by the emptiness of my home. She was so small, and yet she took up so much room. I couldn’t breathe inside the vacuous space of her absence. So, I got into my car and I drove. I figured I would just go somewhere for breakfast, but it was difficult to focus. I drove to one place, and they could not seat me… and so I drove to the opposite side of town, where I found a table and sat down. It was difficult to prevent my tears from falling, and throughout my dining experience, I would find composure and lose it again multiple times. Looking back, I feel sorry for the burden that must have been to other diners. However, it was in this place that I experienced incredible kindness and humanity. One woman came to my table and said to me, “If you would receive it, I would like to offer you a hug.” I couldn’t speak, but I accepted. She hugged me in a way that was not foreign or guarded. This perfect stranger held space for me, and she literally held me in my grief. When it was time to pay the check, I learned that a different couple had paid my tab as they departed. It was one of those moments that was life affirming. I know that had I reached, a whole host of friends would have come to my door to provide the love and support that I needed. And yet, I was so lost and confused in mourning, that I could not manage the thought required to do so. The Universe still managed to deliver exactly what I needed at that moment… a bit of kindness and compassion. What a beautiful world. So, to answer the question about my comfort in being hugged by a stranger… I am completely comfortable with the kindness and compassion of another’s embrace, be they old friend or new friend.