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Return to lately 2016.
to protect the ones i love
february 1, 2016
Back in 2002, about a month after Mary had her stroke, things started drifting back to normal in our lives. A new normal, but at least a better normal than it had been the thirty days prior.
Mary was home from the hospital, after nine days in intensive care. And that meant the most, for her and for me. Familiar surroundings, both of us sleeping under the same roof again, in the same bed. Joe, her dad, who had flown down from Milwaukee to provide moral support, had gone back north. I returned to work after a leave of absence to handle everything that needs being handled after an event like this, continuing to work from home so I could be Mary's caregiver. Each weekday morning I'd pack Mary's lunch for her, making sure her small brown paper bag had a sandwich, some fresh fruit, and a heart-decorated note from me, then drive her into the city for her eight hours of speech and physical therapy at an outpatient rehabilitation center, driving back into the city late in the afternoon to reunite with her, and take her back home.
Driving Mary to the rehab center each day was a bit like previously driving her to her job, where she was head of Human Resources and an officer of the company, so in a way the rhythms of our weekdays hadn't changed that much. We spent a lot of our free time learning new ways to communicate with each other, since the left-side stroke (her neurologist said Mary had an egg-sized clot in her brain at the time of her stroke), destroyed much of Mary's language center in her brain, leaving her with a medical condition known as Aphasia, which is the inability, to varying degrees of severity, of understanding language. (Initially, while still at the hospital, Mary did not know what her own name was, or what my name was. I'll leave it to your imagination to picture the look on my face, that first time, weeks after she nearly died, when her lips once again remembered my name.)
So life was starting to look friendly again. And then one day, pulling back into the driveway after visiting one of the specialists Mary now had to see, as I lifted the garage door to drive our car inside, a little gray cat came trotting over, rubbing against Mary's calf.
When Mary went down on her haunches to pet it, it jumped up on her lap. Pulling out all the stops, like cats do.
Eventually, we brought her into our home. We had three other cats at the time, Rudo, Chirper, and Sheba, all of them boys, and we weren't sure how they'd react to a new girl in town. Rudo, the oldest, a black long-hair, welcomed Lady, sniffing at her then walking away. Chirper, orange and white, like a Creamsicle, still mourning the death of the love of his life, Elf, shyly touched her nose, but then left her in peace.
Sheba, orange and gold, hated her. When we set a bowl of cat food down on the kitchen floor, Lady, as long and thin as a limousine from her year of scavenging food in the wild, immediately dug in. Sheba circled her at a safe distance, charged her in an attack. We pushed him away, stood guard while she finished that bowl, another.
It's always magical to have a new cat in your home. And I know it helped Mary while she was at rehab each day in the city, happily looking forward to coming back home to see Lady. Because Lady was her cat. I'd get a few perfunctory licks from her, especially around mealtime, but Mary was Lady's focus.
After a few weeks, Lady, who had been so skinny, started to really gain weight. To where there was a bit of a waddle in her walk.
One morning as I was preparing Mary's lunch bag, on my heart-decorated note I drew a crude drawing of a fat cat (I'm not good at drawing), drew a line from the drawing, and wrote, Lady: fat or pregnant?
That night, a Friday, when we were both back home and upstairs, I was petting Lady on the white carpet and at one point put my palms on either side of her body. After a moment, I felt something bump and move against the undersides of my fingers. I called Mary over. Slim fingers where mine had been, she felt it too.
We looked at each other. Could she really be pregnant?
The next morning, Saturday, we were in bed, drinking coffee, nowhere we had to go that day, watching the morning news, waiting for the weather to come on, and Lady suddenly hopped off the bed, touched noses with Rudo, then wobbled into our master bathroom off our bedroom, into the walk-in closet. We followed.
She flopped down onto her gray side, ribs rising and falling, letting out an unhappy yowl.
Front paws scrabbling in place across the carpet, as if trying to catch something. I don't know-- maybe trying to distract herself? Or trying to run away from the intense pain she knew was about to start?
It took about twenty minutes before the first shape burst out of the blood under her switching tail. She let out a howl of pain when it happened. Immediately got up, padded around on her paws to the writhing lump, licked it semi-clean, flopped back down on her side, squirted out another lump. And on and on. Between each birth she'd eat the afterbirth that followed, I guess for nutrition.
Mary and I sat on the carpet near her for this whole process, just watching. Stunned. It was such a beautiful thing to see, all this new life coming out of her. Each birth as tiny as a baby mouse, unable to rise yet on its tiny legs, still blind.
There are certain highlights to our shared life we'll always remember. Falling in love in Santa Barbara. Living in a small apartment over a garage in Burlingame, California for a few months before we had to find jobs, really getting to know each other. Making our Rob and Mary Movie in Maine. Travelling by car up western Canada to Alaska on the Alcan. Creating our garden in our backyard in Texas, so many hot afternoons out under the yellow sun, so many cold beers afterwards, under the trees at the rear of the property. And this quiet Saturday morning, watching five tiny kittens slowly being birthed.
Lady was a great mother, in that she was always attentive towards her kittens, flopping down on her side whenever their rows of tiny paws reached out to her to suckle, but she was also a mom who made some rather bizarre decisions.
Cats move their newborn kittens from one hiding place to another, I suppose to protect them from predators. And some of the places Lady chose made sense. Behind Mary's large drawing pads leaning against a wall in her project room, for example. Not a bad hidey-hole. But one time she moved all her babies to the kitchen floor in front of our refrigerator. Really?
That was a magical time for Mary and me, and we knew it, which you don't always. Sometimes you don't realize how special a time is in your life until years later, looking back. We had some stress in our lives back then, Mary struggling to recover from her stroke, both of us trying to adjust to all the changes in our lives that stroke brought about, so it was so comforting at the end of the day to get in bed, then reach over the side of the bed to haul up all these small, wriggling bodies and place them on our bed sheet, where they'd burrow under the blanket, huddling in a furry mass between our bodies, probably recreating their positions relative to each other when they were still inside Lady's womb. Once the lights were out, waking up in the darkness of the middle of the night, it was always a great moment to reach a hand under the blankets, blindly questing until we found the warm, huddled mound of little kittens, feeling tiny tongues licking our fingers.
Years went by and those kittens grew into cats, each with their own personalities.
Four females, one male. Beauty, Athena, Button, Sweet Pea, and Thor.
Beauty was clearly Lady's favorite. Her right hand cat. Jet black, gorgeous eyes. Beauty always followed her mom around the house, carrying out orders. The only one Lady would allow to sleep with her.
After a few years, we lost Athena. Cancer. Buried her in our backyard, put heavy white rocks on top of the dirt so she wouldn't be disturbed.
And life went on. My father died, and a few years after that we got a call from a cop in Milwaukee one morning telling us Joe, Mary's dad, had died.
You live and you live and you live, and you collect ghosts like a black branch, in the middle of Winter, collects snow.
There's often that moment, when you realize someone you love is marked.
And we saw it in Lady. I don't know. Did she know she was dying? Probably. Sometimes I think animals know a lot more about life than we do. Sometimes I think we're the stupid ones.
Your voice falters. You call to her, to come up onto the bed with us, not just now for the sheer joy of us frolicking together while the TV shows commercials, hands and paws playing with each other, but because you know there'll be a time, not too far off, where there'll be no point in calling, because she'll no longer be there.
Soon it reached the time where she could no longer jump up onto the bed. The height was just too high for our little long as a limousine kitten. We had to get out of bed, lift her body, less and less heavy, up to the sheets. She'd lie next to Mary, and stare up into Mary's eyes while the TV talked in the background.
She fought against her death. Each time we fed her, softer and softer food, until finally it was just liquid food, she'd charge at her bowl, trying to lap up as much nourishment as possible, to stay in this world.
But no matter how much she licked up, it was never enough. It never is.
She died two days after Christmas. It was clear her life on this plane was limited to hours.
We held her in bed between us, as she slowly shut down.
It lasted about two hours.
As we petted her, she breathed less and less, until it was hard to tell if she had passed, or was still alive.
That's the difficult thing about being in attendance when someone dies, that isn't talked about enough. It's really hard to tell when they're dead.
I thought she was dead at one point. Her pupils were fixed. She hadn't breathed in minutes. But then, suddenly, that huffing inhale.
After her last breath, we waited about twenty minutes. And fuck it, she was dead. Her little body was getting cold. Her mouth open, fangs frozen.
We went into our garage, pulled out a shovel, an orange-handled trowel.
It was cold outside. Leafless trees. Wind.
Wearing heavy jackets, gloves, we dug in the brown dirt for about an hour, talking very little. Creating a hole next to her daughter, Athena.
We have different rose bushes in our backyard, along with everything else. In the dead of Winter, that morning, one of our miniature rose bushes had bloomed a single pink rose.
Mary clipped that small pinkness off its branch. Placed it with Lady as we lowered her shell into the ground.
Digging a grave is the hardest part. Especially in Winter. You get out of breath. But burying someone? Pushing the dirt back into the ground, tamping it down? That's easy. Physically, at least.
We went around our cold backyard, hunting for large white stones to place on her grave, to protect her body from being dug up. It's what you do. And we have a lot of experience.
When you have cats, they get very protective of the home they share with you. Territorial.
When we had Elf, she'd be the one manning the windows, hissing, tail spreading like a raccoon's, whenever another cat dared enter our backyard. After she died, it was up to Sheba. After he died, up to Lady. And oh, how she'd trot urgently room to room, window to window, to hiss at any backyard intruder.
And now it's Beauty, prowling room to room, window to window, making sure our den is safe. Safe for Mary and me, safe for her siblings. And when we stop her in her four-pawed patrols, and hold her, we can see the same urgency in her eyes we saw in the ones before her, Elf, Sheba, Lady.
This is what I must do, what Mommy used to do, to protect the ones I love.