Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cracking the Code on Grief

I really felt like Kevin and I cracked grief.

The Steps:

1. Run away

2. Eat

3. Be in nature

4. Get a tattoo

I told Kevin that we nailed it, or are in the process. He smiled at me, "You know how it drives you crazy when folks tell you what to do with really complicated situations or how to feel when things are especially intense?" I nodded.

"Maybe keep your code to yourself."

Right. On my blog.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Hudson Journal

Years ago Kevin I landed in Banos, Ecuador. I felt an overwhelming urge to settle into that valley and write the stories around me, within me. Instead, I heeded the voice in my head saying, "Go on! You're in Ecuador for a limited time! Go to the Galapagos! See! Experience! Write later."

I regret that now. I didn't fall in love with that trip the way I did with almost every other. I think a lot why I felt off was because I didn't listen to something intuitive and something off the script.

I'm getting better about that.

The day we lost our beloved Lazarus, Kevin and I listened to his impulse to go north. He packed us bags, found some bed & breakfast online, and we drove north. The next day, we bumbled around the small town, let ourselves cry, ate food as we wanted to, and just listened. We found our friend Taina's poster for her concert the following weekend in the window of a bookstore. That seemed like an invitation inside so we heeded it. Kevin found his weird esoteric books and settled in with a hot coffee. I wanted to read about death as a beautiful, natural, and spiritual process. I picked up some Pema Chodron, a tea, and tucked in next to him. The book sat on the arm wrest and I felt the call to write. Instead of talking myself out of it-- "I write faster/better on a keyboard"-- I picked up my notebook and pen and let go.

Passages from what I wrote:

"Hudson is design-y, art-y, kind of industrial, cold, and beautiful. I like it but I don't think I'd be content anywhere right now.

But it's a place that feels like a place. It feels like 'America,' like it knows itself confidently. It feels dilapidated and charming.

I've been wearing the same clothes for two days. Kevin packed me fresh clothes but I just don't care enough to change.

Yesterday, I was nervous energy in motion; changing the bedding, as I've been doing multiple times daily. Airing out the pee pads. Washing the peed on clothing, bedding, and towels. More laundry. More ensuring Laz's haunts were comfortable and clean. Cautiously vaccuuming. I wanted this latest vet to be convinced of our care.

When the tasks were done, I took a short run. After healing from a broken foot, I'm so grateful to run. I breathed and the air was cold. My body felt warmer. My mind didn't feel settled, but like the volume of the buzz decreased.

The latest vet, a referral from our regular vet, came and confirmed. Inoperable tumors on tongue and gums. Renal failure. Thyroid, Rotten tooth.

I heard some. Kevin heard some.

In later reflection, I asked Kevin, "how did we miss this?" And he reminded me that she'd said, "rapid onset," "quickly developing." We didn't miss anything. We did everything we could.

The only option was pain management. Most cats with mouth tumors die of starvation.

The feeling I'd had for days was confirmed. It was time. It was simply time.

Ever since he was a kitten Laz couldn't abide confinement. He howled and escaped if we didn't give him access outside. We didn't intend him to be an outdoor cat. He insisted.

I felt like he was clawing for release again. In the worst moments of the last days he cried and howled inconsolably. I would prepare the softest food for him. He didn't want it. Fresher water? Sitting together? I think he was asking me to release him.

Kevin needed to hear that there were no options. I was so anxious seeing him like that-- I wanted him free. But Kevin was right. In retrospect, we needed the comfort of knowing it was time.

After, I finally felt calm. Depleted. Sad, but relieved.

We headed north and a wall of exhaustion hit on the NY Thruway.

Kevin and I are a good balance in crisis. Most importantly, we're good to each other. Some of my everyday worries wandered in and out of my thoughts. I simply don't care. Death feels more real. I keep thinking of the Mexican saying of putting bodies in the ground. Knowing we're all seeds."


The windshield wipers swung against the fast and wet snow while Kevin and I shot north to the Catskills. I crawled in the back seat and tried to make a nest out of our hastily packed bags. Kevin was going to put on his ear phones to hear podcasts on his iPod. It made me feel alone, so he turned on the radio and listened to podcasts he'd already heard. So we could hear the same thing.

I checked my phone and saw an email came through. Friends of ours made a donation to an animal shelter in Lazarus' name.

I get a lump in my throat writing this.

I never understood, before, how kind it is to make tribute at the time of loss.

I told Kevin and he shook his head. "Sometimes I don't know how to handle other people's kindness." I agreed and told them that.

There are so many rituals and cultural norms that I often feel like I missed out on. I don't quite get the importance nor significance. I'm starting to understand. These gestures make me feel like Laz was important to others, not just to Kevin and I. They let me know that we won't be the only two remembering. Others will remember too. It makes the loss less final. The impact of this precious being continues.

Kevin and I started talking about the herbs growing in our yard that we could gather to leave for Laz. I realized the practice we were discussing. It's a visit, a remembrance, an understanding of xantolo, that sometimes the veils between what is physical and what is spirit are thin.

I've lost before but this loss taught me how much I don't know about this experience. It's taught me how unique and distinct each loss is.

This loss is "clean." I never took Laz for granted. I loved the crap out of him and he absolutely knew it. I have no regrets. I just miss him. I miss him so much. The grief is adjusting to this new reality. He's OK. Everything is as it should be. It's simply a transition.

There are losses that are far more complicated.

The other evening Kevin and I held each other and looked at the portrait of Laz our friend Mike photographed. It hangs in our dining room and will stay there. I said to Kevin, "I keep thinking of the Rilke quote about our joy being proportionate to our sorrow. We're getting really joyful right now."

Mike's portrait of Laz

I think of the pain it takes to understand so many of these experiences that are universal, that deepen our understanding. I'm grateful for deepening compassion and trying to stretch into the discomfort. It hurts worst when it's resisted. When I make space to feel, the pain mutates. Nothing is permanent.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


We called him Lazarus R. Cat. We thought he spoke with a British accent. When Kevin rediscovered his love of baseball, and connected to his favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles, I joked that Laz was a Yankees fan.

He was regal and ridiculous.

I was told that he was a Persian Ragdoll and invented stories about that too. His long hair could elegantly disguise sand? (I know nothing about Persia.) We thought he deserved a pampered life with scented water and peeled grapes. I think he agreed.

He was born when I was 14, but we adopted him when I was 15. He wasn't quite a year, but he did stay with his mother longer than most cats. All of that time to nurse may have given him a foundation for the health and longevity he enjoyed.

His mother's family called him, "Co-Pilot," because he would perch on driver's shoulders in the car. We quickly ruined him on cars because we only drove him to vet check-ups. When he was 16 he got an ear infection. We had to drive him to the vet for his follow-up visit. He HOWLED. Afterwards, we found vets who offered home visits. That was his last trip in the car.

When I was 18, I went to college in Massachussetts. I got to see Laz on visits, but increasingly sporadically. I missed that cat. I lived the transitory life of someone in that age range-- various dorms, apartments, but never with permission to keep an animal.

When I was 21, I moved in with Kevin to shared house in Pennsauken, NJ. They had several rescue dogs and a big back yard. When I was 23 we got a message from my Mom: too many family members had cat allergies. She asked us if we wanted Laz to come live with us.

Kevin drove out to get Laz. As he parked the car, a big, white, fluffy cat ran from the pines and into Kevin's arms. He carried him to the door. When my Mom arrived she said, "Laz has been roaming for a few days! I wasn't sure we'd be able to find him!"

He found us.

We gradually transitioned him to living at our home. We had a big, beautiful, black rescue dog named Misa. We were clear with Misa not to corner Laz. She was so kind and gentle and gave him a wide berth while he acclimated. Laz took full advantage and found advantageous positions of height-- like a table or bookshelf, so he could swat at her knowing she wouldn't retaliate.

They loved each other. I would find them curled like Yin Yang symbols.

Laz loved dogs (some, not too rowdy) but hated other cats. It was like he resented that anyone would try to approximate him. He and our housemate's cat battled endlessly. Laz *tolerated* kittens we rescued when we found them and their mother, who passed in the woods by our house. Laz would bristle and back up, but he didn't mess with them.

He played his whole life. He had relay races in the upstairs hallway. My hoodie strings were always enemy combatants. Freshly washed locks of hair should be attacked too. He maintained his independence and spent a lot of time outdoors. He liked to hunt too, which often cut down on our responsibilities to him.

I know this sounds crazy, but he was funny. Not like, silly cat doing things I interpret as funny, like he knew what he was doing. Knew he was funny and was funny. Like, dry wit. 

When he was about 14, he roamed for two weeks. We were so nervous we coated the neighborhood with flyers. One night, I heard him. I ran down to his cat door and found him! I grabbed him and took him to Kevin. I remember that night laying beside him and praying, "I promise to never take him for granted. Thank you so much for bringing him back." I never did. I was so happy to come home to him and watch him run down the steps to say hello. Kevin and I always said he was the best part of coming home. On summer nights, we pulled up in front of the house to find him wandering the front yard. We would lie on the grass and watch the stars with him.

He had two health issues. Two. Once, he got some type of fever. We didn't know if he drank contaminated water or just had a virus. The vet treated him and he recovered.

The second time he had an ear infection that was treated with antibiotics. He had a proclivity to get ear mites, so Kevin and I became proficient at cleaning his ears. Which he absolutely hated.

Apart from that he was strong and solid. We would shave him in the summer so he could feel cool in our house without AC. He seemed to resent the process but enjoy the feeling once it was over. His coat always came back, thick and full, by late August. 

He was a huge and integral part of our life. In the early morning, he snuggled next to us and ran to the kitchen as we blearily woke. When we came home, he ran to the door to greet us. Our nightly routine was always Kevin and I fighting over who got to take him with us to bed. He laid between us until we fell asleep, and then he got up to do his rounds. We called him our "chaperone."

When we worked in the garden, he came with us. When I hung laundry on the line, he played by my ankles. If I weeded, he rolled around in the lavender and smelled delicious. He's our every day, domestic life. He made us giggle and want to be home. When I was sick, he laid with me to binge watch Netflix. When he saw us pull out suitcases for a trip, he turned his back and gave us the cold shoulder. He was communicative, smart, and hilarious. He was my best friend.

I'm so grateful to have grown up with him. He knew me since I was a teenager. Taking care of him made me a warmer person. Today I heard a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, "The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and ourselves." I'm thankful for him. I'm thankful that I've always known what a gift he is.

This is What Happened

Our beloved cat, Laz, was old as dirt, pushing up against 20. He may have even crossed over-- we can't quite remember when he was born. He came into my life when I was 15, but he was born when I was 14. Either way, old as sin. Old.

He was old, but solid and strong. I don't know what it was, but this cat made people fall in love with him. Multiple visitors and house-mates tried to steal him. I am not kidding. It's like, Laz knew himself. And he just compelled you to know him too.

In the last few weeks it seemed like he crossed over to being elderly. I noticed how much more frail he had become. I became much more gentle. I kept asking Kevin, "Is this new?" Kevin felt like I may have been a little blind, but it hadn't been long.

And then, overnight, it changed. 

Sunday morning I woke up and Kevin said that Laz had peed on the pillows he slept on. Laz has communicated his ire at us traveling or changing his food by peeing the bed before. This felt different. This seemed like an accident.

I called his vet immediately and she said she thought he was shutting down. He was likely in renal failure and probably had a bum thyroid too. 

At 2 am Sunday night/Monday morning, Laz yowled. I got up and found him bumping around the hallway, disoriented. He was upset and confused and it seemed wrong. I tried to console him with fresh food and water, but none of it satisfied. Eventually, I got him to come to bed with me, curled in my arm how we slept every night.

I didn't go back to sleep.

I got up normally at 4:45 am to teach 6 am yoga class. As I'd planned to, I began to lead chanting. The students in the class were experienced students who knew the chant and we sang together. Suddenly, tears were pouring down my face. I kept the chant going to give me time to pull it together. I was a little unsure that I'd be able to. I composed myself and taught class.

I knew. 

Something had changed. It felt like a switch went off. It was simply time. He was ready.

Everything escalated. Overnight, Laz's care intensified. Daytimes were hard. He would have his episodes of inconsolable confusion in the afternoons. Laz was always intolerant of confinement. We hadn't intended him to be an outdoor cat, but he insisted on it, escaped, and maintained his access to the outside world. I felt like he was howling to be let out of this experience. It felt like he was pawing at an intangible door.

Kevin and I were hit with waves of grief. Our lives switched to balancing cat care. I didn't know how to keep my "normal" life afloat, but I didn't know how long this intense care would persist, so I made appointments unsure if I'd have to break them. My sleep schedule began to mirror his. The middle of the night bouts of yowling and confusion became consistent. I would sleep a bit at night and try to nap in the afternoon if he let me. Towards the end, it was hard to get sleep.

The house was covered in pee pads as Laz could no longer control himself. Laz had stopped grooming himself, so we periodically cleaned him with warm, moist towels. We knew he had problems in his mouth, but were waiting to get confirmation on what exactly. We made his food as soft as possible. He didn't eat for two days, ate a lot, never ate again. He lost about 15% of his body weight.

We had glimpses of him as we knew him. Sometimes it gave us false hope.

I had this unshakable feeling that it was simply time. I became anxious and insistent that we euthanize him. I couldn't handle his pain and disorientation. I felt like I was betraying him. He'd had such a good life. If he wasn't released on his own, I wanted to help him have a good death.

It was like a switch had gone off in me too. Weeks ago my Aunt gently prepped me that this might be a future possibility. I was shocked and horrified. I hadn't thought of it. In retrospect, I'm glad that she let me know it might come to this. I'm glad that she prepared me.

Kevin needed certainty and he was right. My reflexes in crisis mode made me anxious to act, but after the dust settled, I might have had doubts and regrets. We brought in the second vet, the second opinion, at her earliest availability, which turned out to be Thursday. She confirmed everything our vet thought, but also clarified that the problems in his mouth were many: rotten teeth and inoperable tumors on his tongue and gums.

These type of tumors kill cats by starvation. Our only option was pain management.

(And then, how did we miss this? The vet assured us the tumors grew rapidly. We didn't miss anything. It was just his time.)

We knew. Three separate friends recommended House Paws. I called them and it seemed like they wouldn't be able to come until the following day. I felt a fresh wave of tears. I felt like he was trapped. He was suffering and I just wanted him to have peace. Then, the dispatcher saw there were vets in our area. They could be there in a half an hour.

The vets were there so quickly. They were kind and gentle. Laz yawned and was so at ease. He went quickly without any pain.

He's buried in our backyard. Kevin and I packed bags for somewhere. We decided Catskills. We found a well-reviewed bed and breakfast in Hudson and I drove. Snow started falling as we crossed the state line to New York.

We love that cat so much. I'm so grateful to have lived with him for so long. He was daily light and warmth. As hard as it was, I'm grateful that we could help him move from suffering to peace. As soon as he transitioned, Kevin and I felt calm. We knew we did the right thing. 

The night before he died I dreamt that I lived in an apartment in the top floor of an old Victorian. My apartment was all glass and kind of an atrium. I looked to the neighboring building. Same height and design. I saw Laz in the sun, wandering around, happy. I didn't remember the dream until I woke up in Hudson, NY Friday morning. I told Kevin. It gave me such relief. Laz can't be with us anymore but he's fine. This is simply a transition to navigate but he's at peace. It's all OK. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


Ram Dass: 'In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight.'

Kevin and I donned our teenage costumes once more: me as Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, Kevin as Henry Rollins of Black Flag. Not that either of us has actually been these people before (that we know of...?) but we both have been more overt in our love of punk. 

Senior year of high school I was inspired and saved by Riot Grrl culture. I listened to the music, went to the shows, pored over the zines, and announced my affiliation in fishnets and red lipstick. It was huge for me to watch women try on being girly, aggressive, hugely creative artists, and truly effective advocates. In 1998, Riot Grrls kind of had a uniform but also really didn't. There was a visible toying with performing womanhood. 

Kevin was politicized by punk music, shows, and the scene. He learned about class, race, and gender politics. He actually listens to the lyrics! When friends put on a Black Flag song Kevin automatically hit the ground, punching the floor in a accurate depiction of Henry Rollins, but also in a way that felt completely authentic to Kevin. "That's always an inch from the surface," he said grinning at his swollen knuckles.

Halloween is growing on me because it feels honest. I didn't really get it before but now I see that on this day we get to be up front about how much we perform. "I am trying to convince you all that I'm a fully functioning grown woman. I am doing my best impression of someone capable of this job. I am telling you I know who I am." On Halloween I'm a gremlin.

And we're all of that. We're fully functioning, we're a mess. We're our teenage selves, and we're our selves today. We're super hero characters and villains. We're our fears and we're angelic.

When one of my friends saw my costume he said, "You didn't dress up." I never wear make-up and I feel flummoxed by fashion. It felt nice that he still knows my heart bleeds loud and raucously.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Last of Our Fears

Were displayed over the weekends. Spiderwebs, we usually vigilantly shoo away, were spread across windows. Skulls, usually buried deep, hang on the walls.

Fear of social encounters? The doorbell rings ceaselessly.
Fear of presenting yourself? Maybe chose the costume of an employed functional adult.
Fear of ably caring for ourselves? Have some more candy.

Halloween feels like playtime with fear. Toying with harvest time, fallow fields, and stripped bare trees.

And then Day of the Dead. A celebration of those we've lost, a recognition that there not completely gone, a reconciliation with death. Remembering that sometimes we have the capacity to hold all of it.

I practice yoga. I lay in savasana. I play dead. I feel so peaceful and I pretend to be a corpse. I am a corpse. I am at peace.