I haven’t written in a while. I figure I ought to explain why — not because I presume anyone missed me or because I want your hearts to fall in sync with my own. I know my grief is mine alone and that, to some, it might not even be a grief that makes sense. I am not telling this story to make it make sense. I’m not doing it to air my feelings or make excuses or even to loosen this lump holding court in my throat. I did experience something that surprised me, though, and I think, where skywalking is concerned, the experience is exceedingly relevant. So I think I should probably write about that.
One month ago, I returned from an extraordinary family vacation in Panama. I came back ready to post photos of the Johnny Walker “Keep Walking” billboards I saw all over Panama City, to write about the canal’s locks and about getting lost on unmarked roads without GPS and about the way hermit crabs carry their houses on their backs. But I came home to one of my animals acting not-quite-herself and so I didn’t feel much like writing at all. Friends and family said that, if anything, perhaps Jem was giving me attitude as punishment for not taking her with me to Pedasí, where she would have gorged herself on just-fallen mangos and figured out how to sprawl in a hammock. Friends cradled those statments with “if anything” because mostly they said Jem was just fine. I can’t blame them. I wouldn’t expect them to decode her eye-talk. Hearts work best as ciphers when we love a thing completely and when the thing loves us back that way, too. The most marvelous kind of love lets us code-break without even sensing encryption. With Jem, I knew.
We went to the vet on June 23, 2013 — exactly 11 years to the day that I brought her and Scout home from the shelter, teeny sister kittens from the same litter, not yet six weeks old, not yet separable. Scout: a manic, squirrelly calico who made (still makes) bird-chirping sounds. Jem: the romantic, soulful good witch, all torti curves and bedroom eyes. (And yes, I let Jem be a girl’s name, just ’cause; and believe me, the Holograms played no part.) They stayed inseparable all these years.
But the vet found that there was a problem after all, and the problem was given a name: lymphoma. It had middle names, too: large-cell, lymphoblastic, multi-centric. Those words are the pits. Jem’s comfort was my absolute touchstone in her last few weeks. (Thank you, AJ.) I made every decision based on this. We just loved on each other like crazy, and I did everything I could to offer her the least stressful relief of symptoms for the most quality time we could salvage. I’ll spare you the details. I’ll spare myself, too. It’s been a sad-as-hell month, I’ll say that. I won’t drivel on with truths about her charms and worth, either. Those get to stay in my heart for now.
When she let me know she was ready (even though I wasn’t at all), I listened — and with fully-realized, purposeful determination, I brought her back to my hometown house with its blooming backyard, its fertile soil thick with worms, rich with life. This home had been Jem’s base camp — and mine, and Scout’s — between the past decade’s moves: Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago. Rock Island was where we sought in-between grounding.
I couldn’t believe how much it mattered to me to let Jem take her last breaths here, near gardens and wilderness. She was an indoor cat, after all. A city cat. She never knew the feral freedom of peeing on grass, of chewing up flowers that are actually attached to roots that are actually part of the ground. For some reason, though, the destination felt non-negotiable. (If immediacy had been paramount, I’d have defaulted to a vet’s office close by in Chicago. As it so happened, Jem’s last days allowed us the short drive home and we turned to a wonderful veterinarian there.) I couldn’t believe how much it meant to accept my parents’ help on that profoundly sad day or how much their voices comforted sweet Jem. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; she loved them like crazy. The surprise, I suppose, came from absence of doubt. I felt sure this was where we needed to be.
And then, to discover how much it mattered to me that we bury her with a bouquet of zinnias under her paw, with a few choice trinkets that would be of no value to anyone else but us, at best. It mattered so much that she be buried in a way that let her remains return to the earth quickly. And it mattered deeply that a redbud sapling with hungry young roots should be planted so close to her grave that same day. With an urgency I can’t explain, I needed to stitch an unraveling love story back into the ground with a swift ceremony and a carefully chosen plot. The place mattered. What I sent with her mattered.
On the one hand, I accept as fact that the things we do to honor a loved one after death are designed to comfort the living, not the dead. On the other hand, I made those last-day decisions with an almost inexplicable sense of clarity, as though I was following a trusted directive. I write about having a relationship with the land, but I’ve never heard it call to me quite like this before. I’ve never heard it sing with such purity and power. And in perfect harmony, I swear I heard Jem’s song, too, bright and clear, helping me know what to do next. Call it projection or transference or delusion if you must (although I really wish you wouldn’t). I call it heart-speak, auto-decrypted faster than the speed of sound. I call it love, alive and in stereo.
So that’s why I haven’t written in a while. I’ve been preoccupied with a life unattached to computers. I’ve been busy snuggling and laughing and crying and then hypocritically reattaching to computers in order to record sentimental videos that I won’t know what to do with when I come across them months from now. I’ve been focusing on the not-forgetting, on the being-there. I’ve been focusing on listening with my heart. And I am focused now on Scout’s relentless head-butts and strange new howls, because, well, they are relentless and therefore hard to ignore. But also because I love her madly, too, so her heart-code is easy to crack.