The Mystery of Grace
November 25, 2014
I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us. Anne Lamott
November 17th: it is a chilly, clear afternoon, unusual for November in the Pacific Northwest. I am fortunate to be home in my studio after a weekend at work, and am piecing bits of paper into a portrait of dark Maine Coon cat. Many of my commissions are memorials, and today, I am glad to work with this beautiful cat who is still alive and well.
In my office, the laptop is tuned to the Tiny Kittens livestream, as foster mom Shelly speaks quietly to Dorothy, a soon-to-be mama cat beginning labor. From my studio next door, I cannot make out Shelly’s words, but her tone soothes me as well. Even at a distance, the experience feels intimate. This sweet cat makes her birthing nest in my soul.
In the living room, our beloved Siberia is resting in the sun. A year ago, Shelly gently coaxed him back to health from pneumonia. He was determined to survive, and with her help, he did. But now, with characteristic courage, he has embarked on his own journey to rejoin his brother. Feline Infectious Peritonitis, an incurable monster of a virus, claimed Jaguar Jake in April, and has now come for Sibs. Once again in this year of loss, our hearts are shattering.
Through tears, I do my best to focus on the paper cat in front of me, and I take frequent breaks, drifting back to the computer to see if Dorothy is any closer to having her kittens, and then to the couch to make sure Siberia is warm and comfortable. This last time, I notice that he has let his friend Sam sleep next to him. We adopted Sam in June, and he and Sibs bonded immediately. We were sure the two of them would have many happy, healthy years together. But fate has made other plans, and Sam is as confused and sad as we are.
On my way back to the studio, I remember something I wrote years ago while doing wildlife rehabilitation: Midwifery and hospice work are two aspects of the same work, both labors of love and life.
I am all the ages I’ve ever been. Ann Lamott
In the middle ground between birth and death, there is, with any luck, the chance to get older and wiser. In a few days, I turn sixty, an incomprehensible thought to me. As a teenager, I had a premonition of death at forty three. At forty four, that sped ahead to fifty eight. With a sigh of relief, I gave up my career as an oddsmaker last year.
Fortunately, I have never been afraid of aging. For sixteen years, I taught with Seniors Making Art, an organization started by Dale Chihuly to get working artists into retirement and care facilities. Always an inspiration to me, many of my students explored their creativity for the first time in their long lives, and they always celebrated when they mastered a new technique. Others already knew about expressing themselves artistically, and they generously shared their knowledge and enthusiasm. How could anyone fear age when surrounded by so much creative joy?
During that time, I did discover one important fact about aging. The elders who were most resilient and engaged with life were the ones who had always had a passion, who loved one thing or another with all their hearts, even if the rest of the world considered them to be eccentric. They were happy in their eccentricity, and many of them were still in service to others. Mythologist Michael Meade explains:
In old traditions those who acted as elders were considered to have one foot in daily life and the other foot in the otherworld. Elders acted as a bridge between the visible world and the unseen realms of spirit and soul . . . The old word for having a foot in each world is weird. The original sense of weird involved both fate and destiny. Becoming weird enough to be wise requires that a person learn to accommodate the strange way they are shaped within and aimed at the world.
Elders are supposed to be weird, not simply “weirdos,” but strange and unusual in meaningful ways. Elders are supposed to be more in touch with the otherworld, but not out of touch with the struggles in this world. Elders have one foot firmly in the ground of survival and another in the realm of great imagination. This double-minded stance serves to help the living community and even helps the species survive.
So here I am, about to celebrate a big birthday after some of the most wrenching months I can remember. This last year has broken my heart, and escorted me fully and irrevocably into the wyrd, the land of fate and destiny, where I may not have control, but I do have choices.
And I choose, without apology, to be an artist, a writer, and an apprentice to all of the cats I have loved and lost, the ones who are my mentors now, and the ones who will teach me even more about love in the future.
Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. Bones and lives heal. New blades of grass grow from charred soil. The sun rises. Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
In this fifty ninth year, the one I didn’t expect to experience, I have cried and laughed and loved more than ever. My partner and I found each other’s outstretched hands in the darkest moments as we lost members of our family, human and feline. We planted seeds in the spring, pulled weeds through the summer, harvested until the first frost, and prepared a space under tall trees memorialize our cats. I start a new decade knowing that I am loved and accepted. I could never ask for a better gift.
In this year, I fell in love with two amazing kittens. Jaguar Jake embodied devotion, and showed me that it is not just alright, but essential, to need someone to love without hesitation. He was with us for just two months, but his short life was full of joy and companionship. Read his story here.
In the spring, less than a month after Jaguar Jake died, we lost our intrepid Blackberry cat. She taught me about letting go of the past, about healing and trust. She was feral, seriously injured, and terrified the day we trapped her. For nearly a year, she hid from us and hissed when we got close, and then one day, she surprised herself, and us, by jumping onto my lap. Even as she succumbed to old injuries and age, she remained the most affectionate cat in our household. I will always miss waking up with her cuddled close and purring under the covers. I will forever be grateful for her willingness to take a chance with us. More of her story is here.
This autumn, Ani, the grand dame of our home, took her last breath at the venerable age of twenty two. As she aged, Ani lost her hearing, but never her sense of adventure. As her legs got stiff, she stopped chasing her tail and took up residence on the couch, where she welcomed our company with huge purrs emanating from her tiny body. My partner observed that as Ani’s world shrank, she expanded to fill new boundaries. Our little torbie had an expansive and cheerful spirit that will live forever in our hearts. Thank you, little one, for reminding me to take delight in life, even as my legs stiffen.
And then, at the end of this fifty ninth year, just a month before the beginning of a new decade, sweet Siberia was diagnosed with FIP. How would we ever be able to go through this again?
Years ago, a wise counselor shared her views about grief and aging. She told me that loss is cumulative, and that as we get older, the inevitable losses compound, one on top of the other. As we watched helplessly as Siberia began his process of dying, I felt the weight of all the other beings who have passed before him. With so much loss this year, that weight feels unbearable.
But, as my therapist also pointed out, we keep growing and never circle around to the exact same spot. Instead, our lives spiral outward and upward, and each time we come back to a familiar experience, we understand it from a slightly different perspective.
November 24: After a difficult weekend, Siberia has let us know his time is near. The vet is coming tomorrow morning. These hours are excruciating. We know this is the right thing to do, and at the same time, we do not want to let go. Home with him, aware of the clock, I have no choice but to surrender to grief, and to words.
Losing Siberia is the most painful experience of this fateful year. As I watched him on the Tinhykittens cam last year, he reminded me of another courageous gray cat, my beloved Possum who died a few years ago. I feel as if I am losing both of them twice. I know more than ever how losses compound, how they release grief from the dark places I try to forget.
But Sibs has not let me forget anything. We lost Jaguar so quickly we went through the process in a state of shock. But Siberia has stayed longer, and has not allowed us any emotional shortcuts around grief. Instead, we have been grateful for the gift of another day with him. He will live in the present as long as he can. He mourned for his brother, and then welcomed Sam into his life. He started to get sick, but he never stopped wanting to live. I will miss the intensity of his gaze, his presence to everything around him. He has been our watch-cat, keeping an eye on the birds in the backyard, and sounding the alarm when a neighbor cat challenges him outside the window. Even today, weak as he is, he remains alert, paying attention to Sam and Finn. I promised not to soak his fur in my tears, but as night falls, the last we will all spend together, I may not be able to honor that commitment.
In the last few weeks, I have worked from home as much as possible, just to be near Siberia. Most of the time, he has not want to be touched, so we have given him space, filling it with love and attentiveness. For a few hours last week, we were able to be closer. A client-turned- friend crocheted cozy blankets for Siberia and Sam, and the first night I spread one across my lap, Sibs climbed on, kneaded, and purred. I have created special quilts for countless cats, stitching each with intention. To have that gift reciprocated, and to feel Sibs receive it so fully, has touched me deeply.
Another new friend I met through this worldwide community of cat lovers made me a pair of earrings when Jaguar Jake died. She artfully wove beads together with black and silver strands to symbolize the connection between Jaguar and Siberia. I will wear them tomorrow as Sibs leaves us to join his brother. In those beautiful earrings is the embrace of everyone who watched the Jungle kittens grow, shared our joy on the day we adopted them, and our grief when we released them.
You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp. Anne Lamott
I used to dance a lot, but I did not get on the dance floor much in my fifties. I miss the feeling of freedom that comes through music and movement, and am eager to experience it again soon. But it will be different in my sixties. There is that limp, after all. There is also the gift of letting my heart break over and over, and in the process, finding my deepest passion renewed.
One night in September after Sibs started to get sick, I sat with him in the dark and made an offer to the universe. I whispered, “If you will make sure Siberia does not have FIP, I will start taking better care of myself. I want to grow old with him, and I want to do everything I can to help other cats.” This didn’t work out the way I envisioned, but I have kept my part of the bargain. Maybe the universe has as well, and I will indeed live a long and healthy life in service to the beings I love, guided by undying love for this little gray cat. Grace is indeed a mystery. Thank you, dearest Siberia, for helping me find parts of myself I thought I had lost. Loving you has changed my life.