when the gentlest, dearest sounds of your day are gone
some days when i write, it feels like i need a crane to hoist my heart out of the deep-down depths, to vault to the heights where the words deserve to be. this is one of those days….
it’s been five days now. five days without the sound of his front right paw rubbing against the back-door glass, when every morning at dawn, his shadow etched against the fading darkness of night, he’d be waiting for me, waiting for me to let him back in, our night-prowling cat, to let him get back to the business of roaming this creaky old house as if it all belonged to him, his acreage to do as he pleased, to rustle under the covers here, to climb into the laundry basket, the shopping bag, the shoe box we accidentally forgot to put away. to plop himself squarely onto whatever book or newspaper we were reading, whatever keyboard upon which we were trying to type, shoving aside all distraction with his furry insistence, as if to say, forget that, pay attention to me.
it’s been five days since i’ve heard the faintest trot-trot-trot of his little cat paws, descending the stairs, coming round the bend to where he knew he’d find me, letting out one of his signature meows, the ones we’d learned to read as if particular declarations, and so we’d do as he ordered every time: feed him, scoop him into our arms, open the door to let him out into the garden he guarded so well and so long.
it’s been five days since we’ve heard the lap-lap-lapping of his tiny sandpaper tongue, scooping up the droplets of cream with which we indulged him (or, truth be told, the water from the bowl of the toilet he considered his own private pond). and it’s been five days since i’ve heard the sound of his four-pawed leap to the hardwood floor from the very high bed of the boy who’s never known a day without him, the old striped cat, the cat who came from the farm, the cat with more adventures than a conquistador or even huck finn. the cat we called “turkey” for short, the cat whose very long name — turkey baby-meow-meow-choo-choo-hi-cat-bye-cat — won him a contest just this year at a faraway vet school, where the vet students (one of whom used to work at our long-ago animal hospital) were asked to submit the best pet name they’d ever heard — well, sadly, finally, after nearly 19 years, our sweet little cat is no longer.
turkey baby meow-meow etcetera lay down and died on pi day, monday, the 14th of march, 03.14.16. curled up in a ball, face turned to the stars, he quietly softly slipped away, a dignified death for a most dignified fellow.
and it’s the absence of sound — those soft, barely-perceptible sounds, the ones that beg your keenest attention — that is so deafening, that amplifies the ache in all our chests, that defines — at least in small measure — the volume of the hollowed-out hole in each of our hearts.
in the blur that this week has been, here’s what happened: sunday afternoon i found out my dear, dear friend had died, and because i’d been asked to write her obituary, i slipped into that writing zone where i lost focus on nearly everything that wasn’t the words i needed to type to tell the world who she was. i do remember that later that night i scooped up the cat as he meowed at the bottom of the very steep stairs, and i carried him up to the bed of the boy doing homework beside the bedside lamp. as i walked in the room, the boy scooted over, away from the light, clearing a space on the sheets and the pillow. i asked what he was doing, and he matter-of-factly told me, “oh, that’s the side that turkey likes, so i’m getting out of his way.” when i countered that, actually, he — the boy with the hours of homework — was the one who needed the lamplight, he shrugged it off, said, “nope, turkey gets the side he wants.”
that’s the last that anyone remembers.
and then, monday, not long after dinner, when i bent down to scoop up my backpack, to head out the door to drive a carpool to soccer, i eyed the little cat bowl still piled with bits of the food that he crunched whenever he needed a nibble. and that’s when it hit me: i hadn’t seen him all day, or at least i suddenly didn’t think i had, though i couldn’t clearly remember. delaying carpool departure, i zipped through the house, spot-checking each of his usual places, an itinerary i knew by heart: atop the sleeping bag in one bedroom closet, under the bed blankets in the other boy’s bedroom, curled on the heated bathroom floor, snuggled on the bean bag by the back door from which he surveyed his lair. one by one, the spots came up blank. our cat was not in the house. so we took to the alleys, combed them up and down, back and forth till close to midnight. (i managed to squeeze in my carpool duties, worried the whole way, resumed my search with headlights on high beam once back home.)
and then, the next morning, in an early morning volley of email about wholly other matters, i mentioned to my across-the-street guardian angel of a neighbor that “on top of everything, we can’t find turkey.” and that’s when she shot back the news that felt surely heaven-sent: that reminded her, she wrote, that a friend of hers had mentioned seeing a cat who looked sick the day before, and it was somewhere down our very block. i had hardly finished sweeping my eyes across the words when i was out of my seat, and halfway across the room to the old tin bucket where we kept the cat’s mud towel, the one we’ve used a hundred thousand times to wipe off the rain or the snow or the puddles of goop he padded through, on his way to the door where he waited, always waited.
i ran out the door, and down the sidewalk, eyes trained on the distance, murmuring — almost a prayer — no, no, no! and then the lump i’d passed the night before, the lump that in the dark had appeared to be a pile of leaves, it wasn’t leaves in the early morning light; it was dear sweet turkey, curled in a little cat comma, his paw up and over his eyes, his face pointed up toward the half-moon, still fading against the early morning’s soft sunrise.
a whole 18.5 years after he trotted into our lives, he was gone. i wrapped him, and carried him home. my arms shook the whole way. we all huddled in the front hall, at the foot of the steps, and we cried. the little one’s knees went out, as he crumpled onto the stairs, and his face contorted in grief.
not one of us didn’t cry, and cry hard.
and just like that this old house is missing some of its most essential sounds. and surely an immeasurable chunk of its heart.
i heard the boys shouldering each other’s heartache. i heard one say to the other, “he was like our third brother.” they both said, in unison, as i carried him, stiff, into the house, “he was my best friend.” a cat can do that — a cat can be so loyal, so loving, so there when you need him, everyone thinks he or she is his favorite.
the older one, the one who rode out to the farm with me back in october of 1997, back when we were convinced there’d never be another babe in the family, he’s been around for every one of ol’ turk’s big adventures: the time he got stuck in the drug-dealer’s den just down the alley; the time he leapt and then tumbled from the third-floor skylight, and lived to tell about it, staggering along the gangway, dizzied but unharmed except for a droplet of blood that dribbled down his little cat chin; the time he was missing in action for six unbearable days, and then, minutes before the very-sad firstborn was supposed to shuffle off to his very first day of kindergarten, that old cat came bounding up the back steps like he was the hero in a hollywood western, the sheriff who rides to the crest of the hill, bringing on the cavalry, just in time to kill the villain, just before the credits roll and the sun sets on the five-hanky movie.
the little one — only 14 to turkey’s 18 years, six months and 21 days — he had never known a day without that old cat. when we moved to cambridge, mass., for a year, the little one said he was happy to tag along, but he had one non-negotiable caveat: “i’m not going unless turkey comes too.” and so, we tucked that old cat in a nifty little carrier, slid him under the airplane seat, and made him an apartment cat for one (rather miserable, far as he was concerned) year of his long and storied life.
so here we are: bereft beyond words. the reminders are tucked in a thousand places — the cat toy peeking out from the basket, the stacks of cat-food cans on the shelves of the pantry, the old navy bean bag still streaked with clumps of his fur. bit by slow bit, i’ve been subtracting, cleaning the shelf of the cat food, washing out his bowls one last time. i’m trying to think of these awful days as lessons in grief, and the insolubility of death. no matter how hard you wish, you can’t bring back the pit-a-pat paw sounds. can’t muster his face, with the ears perked just so, there at the glass still streaked with his mud prints.
it’s the valley of mirage and phantom echo, the raw and early hours of grief, as you imagine, make-believe — for an instant — you’ve just caught a glimpse, or just heard the sound.
it’s deafening. and deadening.
and i know that time, the sacred balm of all of life’s deepest heartaches, i know time will bring healing. i know the day will come when the thought of that old cat won’t sting quite so piercingly, the way it does now.
and so, for the second time this week, i am writing an obituary. and while the loss of a most blessed friend and the loss of a furry one are in no way comparable, i’ve realized this week that death is death. and “little deaths,” too, loom large, and they hurt sometimes in ways that riddle each hour with excruciating moments of missing.
and, yes, it’s only a cat, but a cat over time, a cat you’ve known and nuzzled and loved across the arc of your entire childhood — across the days when no one else understood your sorrows, and no one else curled across your chest, or slipped warm against your pjs quite the way your cat did — it makes it achingly hard to catch your breath, to steady your knees, to find your way forward without him.
our garden will be so empty this spring. the whole landscape is so empty right now. and it will take a good dose of time till we’re breathing deeply again.
i was thinking i’d write an “ode to one exemplary cat,” but for now i might simply point you toward posts from the past: in chronological order (he’s been a recurring character here at the chair over the years) the hunter (2007); starting the goodbye (2010); when the cat comes limping home (2011); and “will he make it home?” (2013).
if you’ve a furry or a feathered or a slippery or a hard-shelled friend, give him or her an extra squeeze today. and listen close to those sounds that animate your day. the silence will break your heart when those blessed little friends are no longer…..
dear turk, we loved you dearly. as sweet will said when he kissed you goodbye, “thank you.” thank you so very very much. xoxox happy hunting wherever you are. love, all of us.
and to louisey who insisted we needed the little striped farm kitten so willie wouldn’t grow up alone, and to dr. jane whom we adored and who tried to convince us a roaming cat wasn’t such a good idea in the bustling big city but fixed him every time he got into a fix, and to all the friends who’ve loved him, and not minded — alicia! — when he ambled in your back door, and made himself quite at home, despite your trembling fear of all things furry, thank you and thank you for ever and ever amen.
Sweetheart – what a very hard week and how amazing that you have the love and poetry to write a second, perfect obituary. I hope sharing your words helps you; I know it is a gift you give to the rest of us. Thank you.
bless you, and thank you. this isn’t the ode to turkey that he deserves, but it’s the most i could do today. he deserves a trumpet blast, our hunter cat of hilarious antics, and some day i will muster what it takes to do that. this, for now, is simply a love note and musing on heartache…..
Thank you for sharing, Bam. Pets are surely valued members of our families and their deaths leave such a big gap in our lives.
My husband has been in hospitals and rehabs for the last 6 months so it has just been me and the cat. Although she is the finickiest, most complaining cat I have ever had, I am so grateful to have her there to “listen” to me and to dry my tears in her fur.
She is the same age as Turk so I often get those adrenaline surges of panic when she is off routine and I can’t find her. Eventually she appears with her wobbly, arthritic walk as if nothing at all happened and I let out a sigh of relief.
The vibration of purrs is a soothing balm for my heart. My love goes out to you and your repeatedly wounded heart that you’ve so generously shared with us, your friends at the table.
oh, dear laura, your note is balm to me because i’ve been sitting here worrying that it was some sort of sin to even write about writing two obits in one week, and to even mention a friend and a cat in almost the same breath, but your note helps align the two distinct places of particular kinds of love and the companionship that dries our tears, and effortlessly can make us laugh.
those adrenaline surges of panic….i can’t even count the number of surges over the years. as our beloved long-ago vet said yesterday, in one of those wisdoms that feel from on high, “every day is bonus, when you’re 19 and a cat every day is bonus.” we were bonused, all right.
and most importantly, know that you and your tears and your dear husband are now very much in my prayers. i am so so sorry.
You have had such a hard week! Please find joy in your precious memories of both Turk and Mary Ellen. I’m certain that both of them would want you to remember with joy as you grieve two wonderful friends who have been part of your soul for so very long.
“two wonderful friends who have been part of your soul…”
thank you for understanding.xoxox
This reader cried and cried hard too. So very sorry for all of the loss you’re going through, Barbara. I feel like our furry friends imprint themselves in our DNA with every nuzzle and cuddle into the small of our backs, or necks or knees, and they’re there when we’re grieving – so can only imagine your grief is compounded. Take good care of yourself and look for the signs that all is well.
oh, dear carolyn, you just made me cry. you wholly understand: “imprint themselves in our DNA…” that line took my breath away, because that’s how deep down it feels. in this indescribable, wordless place. i AM looking for signs. i am scanning the heavens and the boughs, and praying for the hummingbird and the heaven-only-knows what sign our old cat will bring, will send….perhaps a fat chipmunk snickering that he’s been liberated? who knows…but i know i will know when it comes…thank you SO much for your comfort. you hit my sweet spot, indeed. big hug.
Big virtual hug back to you bam. Thank you for sharing your heart. What’s therapeutic for you is therapeutic for all of your readers too. Right, when you least expect it…and you absolutely will know.
Oh my goodness, such a sad week, and not long since your father-in-law’s passing. I’m so sorry for you all to lose your trusted “Turk.” Pets are family members in their own way – little lives of love in their own sweet ways!! An emptiness, the loss of special vibrations, sounds, sights, soft fur, and cat communication – I can’t imagine. Take special care during this time of transition to his absence.
bless you, dear lou. i promise we are taking care in the gentlest and certainest of ways. xoxox
Dearest bam, I could not get through your tribute to Turk at the office. What a day to decide to wear mascara. Turk will always be with you, and not just in memories. When the house is still and you are alone, I am sure you will hear the familiar trot-trot-trot of little cat paws on the stairs. You’ll think you are imagining it, but it will be Turk letting you know that he hasn’t left, just transformed a bit, and all is well.
my beloved karen, now i’m the one wiping tears — and i wisely DIDN’T wear any goopy mascara today, or any day this week. i thought of you, of course; KNEW you would understand (you noticed, i’m sure, the nod to hard-shelled friends, a nod to you as the most magnificent turtle/tortoise loving soul on the planet!). in fact i was envious a wee bit the other day of loving a pet who lives till almost 100. i was wishing for that. wishing for that with all my heart. i know, though, that we were mighty blessed with almost a fifth of a century. i will be listening. i will be listening: trot-trot-trot, footsteps to my heart. xoxoxoxoxooxox
I think Carl Sandburg would agree that love comes on little cat feet… First your beloved Mary Ellen, then your dear sweet kitty… You’ve lost two precious friends this week, and that’s two too many. My heart aches with yours, and I’m so, so sorry… Sending all my love as you weather one whopper of a week and honor the memory of two irreplaceable lives… xoxo
bless you sweetie. bless all of you for embracing this truth of a double whammy, and allowing me to say out loud how much it just hurts. xoxoxoxoxoxo
No words. No words. So much loss you’ve had in too short a time. Loss is loss, no matter what type of lovey we lose, it’s all hard and heartbreaking, especially when multiplied as it has been. Love and big squeezes to all of you.
my beautiful friend, i was just toddling over to the computer to thank you for the beautiful beautiful note that just came in the snail mail. your words always sink deep into the nooks and crannies and truest places of my soul. thank you. as soon as i see your tell-tale beautiful handwriting, i start melting. by the time i get to the “nan,” i am a puddle. of love. xoxoxo
Ohhhh Barbie and boys, my heart aches for you all! It has been such a year!! Being a cat lover , ohhh they are the best! All I can say is I’m sending love !! Such a tragic week!! Bless each one of you!! Xoxxo
Sent from my iPhone
Oh, mary, thank you! It’s been quite a week…I think I remember when you got your cat, back in high school, right? Despite Gracie’s qualms….or maybe I’m totally imagining. Xox
Ah, yes, we don’t fully understand how a pet fills the house until it is no longer with us. Takes a lot of adjusting………..
thank you for affirming what it feels like, that it’ll “take a lot of adjusting.” we are adjusting indeed. it feels like rearranging the furniture in our souls…..i told teddy you wrote, and that the kindness of everyone at the chair was making me feel a wee bit better. he said he would read tonight. xoxoxo
I’m so very sorry for this new loss. Our dogs always seemed to understand our sorrows with quiet, gentle presence. When our last dog left us at 15 – well, sometimes I still cry. I often seemed to hear her toenails on the floors or the jingle of her tags. Some of God’s creatures become uniquely knitted into our lives. It is a great gift, never to be forgotten. Weeping with you this week.
“uniquely knitted…” sigh. i love that you still hear the jingle and the click of her toenails. maybe that’s one of the ways we get to keep them aflame in our hearts. they always say hearing is the least sense to go. and so, maybe, too, it’s the sounds that last the longest in our hearts. i think we might need to explore that. i wonder what it is? but the saddest thing is i can barely hear my dad’s voice anymore. i can hear my friend mary ellen’s though; i’ve been hearing it all week…..
This is a beautiful tribute to your furry family member, it touched my heart, thank you. 🙂 Linda
thank you, dear linda. thank you…..
The little lives that touch our own bring as much heartache as they do heaven. My heart goes out to you and yours… I’ve come to believe, if it helps at all- Death is just a door that only love can come and go through.
In the fullness of time, in the fullness of soon…may he and your dear friend light upon your memories like Spring.
oh, i love the dear souls who encircle this table — and my heart — as i sit here crying, i find these words and cry a whole new kind of tear — tears of hope and of love from wise souls who’ve traveled these road and traveled it profoundly. terry, i love that beautiful hope: “death is just a door that only love can come and go through….” oh, dear, dear true wonder terry. i believe EVERYTHING you have discovered on this tender subject. and i send love. xoxoxo
sending so much love to you sweet Babs.
all of you.
such a profound ache.
thanks, sweet beautiful. thank you……
oh my dear bam, my heart hurts for you and your beautiful family on the loss of your beloved turk. a member of your family. turk raised your babies with you. our furry angels make a tear in our heart when they leave. i am so sorry. so much love to you all. XOXO
What a beautiful tribute to such a one-of-a-kind cat!! I don’t think I ever got to meet Turkey, but I felt like I did, through your gorgeous writing. My heart goes out to you and your family. And what sweet, adorable pictures! Thank you so much for sharing!!
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