Remember...

Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

My Mayflower Connections

The Mayflower
The first of my paternal ancestors stepped foot on this land three-hundred and ninety-seven years ago. My known maternal ancestors helped build French-Canada forty-five years later. Without their lives and their struggles, I would not be here. I would not be me. So for all of them, even the roads they took that I find unsettling, I am extremely grateful.
The history of our country is not easy or pretty. Western man stole all the land they settled, purchasing it for paltry sums from a people who had a different understanding of ownership. I have done a lot of research on that period of time and that’s pretty much how I feel. But, in the beginning, before the influx of colonials from England, there was a moment of peace, and a moment of hope for tolerance.
That is the day I am thankful for.
In September of 1620, the Mayflower left England with 102 passengers bound for Virginia in the New World, on a crossing that took sixty-six days. The majority of the voyagers were Separatists who had funded the voyage, having permission to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River. The Separatists were a splinter group of Puritans, who were Protestants that wanted to let the Bible be the final authority on their religion, and encouraged them to have an individual relationship with their God. Whereas the Puritans were taking on trying to convert the Church of England, the Separatists wanted a place “separate” to practice as they believed.
The Separatists of the Plymouth colony followed the teachings of their minister, John Robinson, who believed in and preached religious tolerance, and in this manner were unlike the Puritans who came after them and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While none of the colonies would allow Quakers or Baptists to settle with them, which is discriminatory but was common practice, the Plymouth Colony did not force its Anglican members to convert. Off course and low in stores, the ship landed off of Cape Cod in November.
Seven of my ancestors were on board the ship. Francis Cooke, a woolcomber, came over with his oldest son John, to establish a home for the rest of their family, who waited in Leiden. Thomas Rogers, a camlet merchant- a luxury fabric of camel’s hair or angora mixed with silk- came over with his son Joseph. The rest of the family waited in Leiden as well. James, a tailor, and Mrs. Chilton brought their 13 year-old daughter Mary with them. At 64 years of age, James was the oldest passenger aboard ship. They were all Separatists.
Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622 was published in England as a means of encouraging people of like-mind to join them in the New World, and it details what their first months were like. After anchoring, the ship sent out parties to find wood, fresh water, and survey the land for other resources; they collected juniper wood to burn aboard ship. November 15, they came upon empty Indian homes, harvest fields, and buried caches of corn. They had dug up a mound, and once they realized it was a burial, they replaced everything and reburied it; they disturbed no more. The found corn, they did take for themselves, but the author states their intention of making amends to the corn’s owner when they encountered them.
They made many searches for the indigenous peoples but could not find them. In early December, men tracing a path along the river were fired upon by arrows and they retaliated. The natives soon disappeared into the woods and they gave chase but found none. Again, they regularly searched out the natives with no luck. One day, after failing to find them, the men shot and ate an eagle for dinner (and noted in the journal that it tasted like mutton).
Only half of the ship’s passengers survived the brutal first winter. James Chilton died aboard ship December 18 while they were still harbored in Cape Cod Bay. His wife died in early January in the First Sickness to claim multiple lives. Thomas Rogers died soon after that. All their bodies were buried in a mass grave with others. The location of this gravesite is unknown.
The Chiltons left behind an orphaned daughter, my direct ancestress Mary, an orphan at the age of 13. Based on the placement of the share of land she was later given in her parents’ names, it is believed she was taken in by either the Alden or the Standish family. The Separatists were aware that they had no claim to settle in Plymouth, as their contract was for Hudson Bay, but after losing half of their people and the rest being ill, the group made a decision.
On March 16, 1621, Samoset, of the Mohegan, approached the colonists in their village. He said his people were a five day walk and one day canoe from where they were, and that he had learned English from the men who fished and hunted with his people (unverified but these French trappers are possible ancestors on my maternal line). It was Samoset who told the Pilgrims that their settlement land was called Patuxet. Four years prior to their arrival, the Patuxet people had been wiped out by a plague, after white men had come to their land.
Samoset told them of their neighbors, the Wampanoag, whom he was living with, and the Nausets- the ones who had fired upon them in the woods. He explained that when Captain Thomas Hunt came in 1614, he deceived them and took twenty-seven men with him. He sold them into slavery for 20 pound each. Twenty of the men had been Patuxet and seven had been Nauset. When the Nauset saw that the white men had returned, they had attacked before their men were taken again. Samoset helped take the message to the Wampanoag that these white men did not condone what Captain Hunt had done.
A few days later, Samoset returned with Tisquantum, commonly remembered as Squanto, who also spoke fluent English. He was a native Patuxet who had been taken into slavery. He lived first with Spanish monks, second in England with a merchant named John Slaney, and third as a guide for Ferdinando Gorges, coming home on an expedition ship in 1619. Tisquantum acted as an interpreter between the English colony and the local Wampanoag tribe. He helped teach the Separatist farmers to cultivate corn, extract maple sap, catch fish and eels, and how to avoid the local poisonous plants. Their first harvest was a successful one.

Feasting
Without Edward Winslow’s written account of the first feast, from December 12th, or William Bradford’s reflections on it twenty years later, we would not even know such an event had occurred. What we call Thanksgiving would not become an annual holiday for a couple centuries yet. [Edward Winslow is my 11x Great-Uncle. His brother John Winslow arrived in Plymouth in November 1621; he was not present for this harvest feast. Two years later, John would wed young Mary Chilton. The younger, orphaned girl was present for the feast.]
Their crops of wheat and barley did well, though the native corn fared far better. Twenty years later, William Bradford wrote about how, that harvest, the colonists were all in good health. There was plenty of cod and bass in store for every family and they were busy storing fowl, wild turkey, and venison. They had a good enough harvest that they had a “peck of meal a week to a person.” He says the reports of their plenty were not untrue.
Their harvest in, Governor William Bradford “sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together.” The men killed as much fowl as would feed the entire colony for a week. Bradford invited the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and his people to join them. There were 53 colonists and 90 Wampanoag at the first Feast, which lasted for three days. The Wampanoag brought five deer to add to the gathering. Edward Winslow closes his letter with “although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

          This is the moment I remind you that history is written by the victors. But for this post, I defer to what the accessible history tells me. But I leave a door open to a different truth. This initial feast was not called Thanksgiving. In fact, the first holiday referred to as Thanksgiving- decades before it became an annual holiday- was celebrated in 1637 after a massacre of Indians. For the Eastern tribes, our holiday is their Day of Mourning.

Feasting Today
For me, Thanksgiving Day is not about the Separatists who came to this country to make a settlement in their own image. And it’s not about the Wampanoag people whose population would soon be decimated by war with the colonists and disease. For those three days in Plymouth, however guarded, a friendship was known between two peoples of different culture and belief, and there was hope and promise of peace between them.
That time in history was so turbulent. I have ancestors who fought against and killed natives at Esopus, an ancestor who lost a wife to native blades at Esopus, ancestors who fought the northern natives in the name of France, an ancestor who lived among the Lenape and was a friend to them, an ancestor who was raised by the Lenape and taken as a son by the sachem, and who started life in native tribes before white men ever walked the soil. I embrace them all and learn from their stories.
This is the message I remember: Compassion for others. Tolerance for differences. Gratitude for blessings.
Every year, in memory of all that has come before, I make a list for what I am grateful for as it unravels through the day, and I will include all those who have come before me whose stories have been my shaper. Wherever you are, remember the things that bring your world joy and fill you with blessing, for those are the things that will light your path on darker days.

Looking Ahead
I would be remiss if I did not compare the horrific slaughter of the native people that came later with current events. A year ago, Native Nations were camped at Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access pipeline, as a means to protect our precious drinking water. They were gassed, attacked by dogs, jailed, and beaten for protesting.
This year they are cleaning up a 210,000 gallon oil spill in South Dakota from the Keystone Pipeline. I am a firm believer that if the technology is not sound, we need to wait. Not scrap it, but perfect it. And if the men-in-charge would say their technology is sound then, given the amount of spills that occur, I would say their equipment is cheap.
We found this country a pristine wilderness and the first thing we did was begin to ravage it for profit, increasingly at the expense of our health. How long until we listen to those who still live in symbiosis with the earth beneath us?
She created us. We are of her. She gave birth to us. We return to her.

Will we listen to her?


"There is much that we can still learn from my Wampanoag ancestors, the first Americans, who welcomed the Pilgrims to these shores with an open hand of friendship and taught them how to survive and farm this rugged land. The very first Thanksgiving was a feast joined by the Wampanoag tribe and the Pilgrims to celebrate a successful fall harvest. That feast provided us with an enduring lesson of what can be accomplished by people of different backgrounds and cultures by simply working together. It's time for us all as Americans to get back to that basic principle. We must understand and remind our fellow Americans and the rest of the world that the only path to peace and prosperity is one that includes all people."
Cedric Cromwell / Chairman, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe




[Updated from a post originally published November 21, 2012]

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Last Thought on This Grief

I have this one last post in me regarding my grief over Zami. And then I need to move on, as it will otherwise likely be the same feeling cycled over and over again. The house is still quiet.
Mara, our tuxedo, the last-cat-standing, won’t invade Zami’s claimed spaces. I see her eyeing them, and then her little head darts around like she is trying to spy out where Zmi has hidden herself away this time, waiting to pounce on her.
It was always a trap and Mara learned that well.

So the house is quiet and at the same time, nothing has changed. Nothing at all. Zami slept twenty-three hours a day. So the silence and stillness are not new, but the void is.
We all have energy. Our energetic bodies take up space in the home. You always feel it when a partner goes on a trip or the kids are at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Sometimes it’s a needed reprieve. But every day that void exists and the loved one doesn’t come home and that void just sits and stares at you…it begins to taunt you, to hold you in a place in time that has passed and longer exists.
You need to stay there because your heart is still trying to figure out what it has lost. You also need to leave it behind because you are losing precious time of living the life before you.

There’s a difference I feel keenly right now, between the grief over suddenly-losing Luna and Bella at ten years versus losing Zami at twenty-two. If I think about the veterinary technician telling us that we had to put Luna down “now” a chasm opens in my gut and I want to vomit.
I had the same reaction when I walked in the front door and my partner was holding the note that said Zami passed while we were gone. I fell to the floor as best I could being crippled. Raw grief tore it's way out of me and I let it.

The house is quiet and there is a void but…I do not feel cheated in this grief. I am hurt I wasn’t there. I am hurt she was alone when she died. But she would have preferred it that way. For the last five years, every year we got with her was a blessing. No, I do not feel cheated. But I do not feel good. And that is grief’s normal mask.
Everything feels kind of wrong. It should. It will. And then that will feel normal and that void won’t be a void. It will just be space.

I’m glad pregnant and sick Zami found her way to that barn door in the middle of a horrid winter in Western New York. I am glad she wouldn’t take no for an answer when we were trying to look at the grey cats. I am glad she liked living with us. I am glad for the twenty years she spent with us, under five different roofs. I am glad for these years.

My heart will make room, when it is ready, for more lives that need a loving home. But for now it will be three of us, holding each other through the grief and sitting in the not-quite-rightness together.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Known Family Veterans

[Post updated from 2014, including members of my family tree newly discovered who were veterans.
My grandfather, Mark Dutcher Eaton, didn't see battle, but he was drafted into the U.S. Army during WWII, already married and a father. I have had the privilege to read the letters he wrote to his beloved sister Dorothy about his time there. He was released from service when the war wound down, something I am grateful for, or my father might not have later been born.
War is in our history. It’s in every rise and fall of culture. The ghosts of battlefields long forgotten are littered with the blood of our ancestors. On Veterans Day, I honor my ancestors who both waged war and stood defense, in service, so that I might be here.

Early Settlement
  • Capt. Roger Clapp (1609-1690), born in Salcombe Regis, England, sailed to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1629 on the Mary and John. In 1665 Capt. Clapp took charge of the Dorchester Company stationed at Castle Island in Boston Harbor, the oldest fortified military site in North America. He held the post for 21 years and was given a nine gun salute upon retirement.
  • Sgt. William Pond (1622-1690) of Dedham, Massachusetts, of the colonial militia, was the first generation of his family born in the new colony.
  • Lt. Peter Wolfe (1606-1675), an immigrant from England, of Beverly, Massachusetts, served in the colonial militia in 1646, in defense of Salem, Massachusetts.
  • Sgt. Jeremiah Gillette (1650-1707), another immigrant from England, was the first generation born in America. He served in the colonial service of Connecticut.
  • Isaac-Etienne Paquet dit Lavallee (1636-1702) arrived in Canada, at age 28, in the Compagnie de LaMotte, Regiment de Carignan-Salieres in 1665. These first French regular troops arrived to aid the colonists of New France in dealing with the Iroquois. They were responsible for construction of the forts of Saint-Louis and Saint-Therese, as well as the roads between them. In the spring of 1666, Isaac’s company built Fort Saint-Anne at Lake Champlain. They were dispatched into Iroquois country in September of 1667, but could not rouse the Indians into battle. The Iroquois brokered peace and LaMotte’s famous regiment was disbanded. Isaac was one of 400 soldiers who elected to stay in the colonies.
  • Sgt. John Parker (1640-1699)… it is assumed he took part in the Indian Wars, probably King Philip’s War (1675-1676) in MA.
  • Francios LeSueur (1625-1672), a French civil engineer who immigrated with his sister. He moved to Esopus, NY in 1663 where he served in the Second Esopus War.


1754-1763 French & Indian War
  • Lemuel Lyon (1728-1781), of Stoughton, Massachusetts, served in Timothy Walker's company in 1755. He is on muster with Capt. John Carpenter’s regiment in August of 1757. He saw action in the 1758 Battle at Fort Ticonderoga, where he kept a 35 page journal, which has been published in, Narratives of the French and Indian War (2): the Diary of Sergeant David Holden, Captain Samuel JenksLemuel Lyon, French Officer at the Siege of Quebec.


1775-1783 American Revolutionary War
  • Oliver Lozier, also Delozier, (born 1747) was a Bombardier, a noncommissioned officer, in Capt. John Doughty's company, in Col. John Lamb's regiment (2nd continental artillery). He was on the muster roll for April 1781 at West Point. Oliver enlisted for the duration of the war and was discharged April 4, 1783.
  • Capt. Freeborn Moulton (1717-1792) of Massachusetts, was charged a company of Minute-men of Monson. They were part of Col. Danielson’s regiment, which marched at the Lexington alarm of April 19, 1775 to Cambridge, where they remained until May 6, 1775.
  • Thomas Riddel (1739-1809), an Irish immigrant, was a Private in Capt. Issac Colton's company, Col. David Brewer's (9th) regiment, enlisting in 1775.
  • Joseph Riddle (1759-1847), son of Thomas Riddel and grandson of Capt. Freeborn Moulton, enlisted young and served almost the full duration of the war. He was a Private in Capt. Isaac Colton's company, Col. David Brewer's (9th) regiment enlisting in 1775. In 1776 he moved to Capt. Joseph Munger’s company, regiment of Col. Robert Woodbridge, the “Massachusetts Line.” By 1777 he shows as a Fifer in the 4th Massachusetts regiment under Capt. Caleb Keep and Col. William Shepherd, and later as a Drum-Major in Gen. Glover’s brigade. He was at the battle of Burgoyne, guarding the road to Albany, as well as the battle of Monmouth, NJ in 1778. A year later he served the Continental Army in the 9th company for Col. John Bliss’s 1st New Hampshire regiment. He was discharged from the Continental Army in June of 1780. Pension records list him as a cripple, so he was likely wounded.


1801-1805 The Barbary Wars
  • Peter De Lozier (1786-1849) was born in Connecticut. He joined the Navy and was on board the USS Philadelphia in 1803 when the government moved to end piracy on the Barbary Coast. Comm. Edward Preble commanded the Mediterranean Squadron into a blockade in October. On Halloween, the USS Philadelphia ran aground on a coral reef. The entire crew, with their Captain, William Bainbridge, was captured and the ship was used by the opposing Navy as a gun battery. Peter De Lozier and his crew spent 30 months in a Tripoli jail. When the conflict was over, he mustered out of service and claimed residence outside of Lockport, NY. He married, took up cabinetmaking and had a daughter, but eventually left his family to return to the sea. He died of cholera in Connecticut without ever seeing his family again.


1812-1814 War of 1812
  • Martin Dutcher (1796-1872) was a Private in Capt. Andrew A. VanDerzee’s “New Baltimore” company, Col. Barnabas Carver’s 61st regiment in the War of 1812. He fought in the Battle of Plattsburgh, 1814. After the war he retired to Somerset, NY.
  • Joseph Riddle (1759-1847), though older, served in the War of 1812, as well as the Revolutionary War.
  • Pliney Wicker (b.1781) was a Private in Sumner’s Regiment in the Vermont militia.
  • Elizur Lusk also served in the War of 1812, from Lockport, NY.


1861-1865 American Civil War
  • Adam Art (1836-1896) immigrated to New York from Hesse Darmstadt, Germany, and served in the Civil War under Capt. Levi Bowen, 29th Congressional district.
  • Thomas Burke (b.1835), of Lockport served under Capt. S.F. Bowen, 29th Congressional district.
  • Marquis DeLafayette Riddle (1825-1898), of Pendleton served under Capt. S.F. Bowen, 29th Congressional district.
  • Three of my 2x Great-Grandmother’s brothers, Daniel Raymond Whitcher (1831-1914), George Harrison Whitcher (1841-1863) and Orville Bailey Whitcher (1843-1864) served in the Civil War. Both George and Orville gave their lives in service to the Civil War. George died at Cemetery Ridge on the field of Gettysburg, fighting with the Michigan 7th. Orville was 21, and a painter before the war. He died of a gunshot wound to the left knee in battle at Alexandria, Virginia in June of 1864. Daniel served as full Sergeant in the Batty B company of the Michigan 1st.


1914-1918 World War I
  • Royal Levant Eaton (1873-1931), a New York state prison guard, served in the National Guard during WWI.

1962, Oct 16-28 Cuban Missile Crisis

  • David Ruston Eaton (1944-2015), a Navy radio operator. The last story he ever told me was one, it was said, he had seldom told, about being aboard ship during an almost-caused-a-war moment on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Florida. I don't remember enough of that story and I wish he was still here to tell it to me one more time.

That's my Uncle Dave in the back, behind the Neil Patrick Harris look-a-like.

Honoring Roots and Freedoms
I believe in peace and practices of non-violence. I know that I am able to believe in peace because I have known peace, and that I have known it because of the sacrifices men and women made to acquire it for our country. Soldiers are men and women of principle and purpose who believe that the side they are fighting for is a just cause, no matter what history will later decide.
My ancestors were farmers, ministers, soldiers, crusaders and Norman invaders. In all of our histories, our ancestors were defenders and colonizers, pawns and pillagers, and brave men and women facing uncertain futures. They faced those futures for us, whether they knew it or not and we can honor them today by learning from our own history. They are more than regiments and companies. The most important thing I can remember is that an army of fighters is made up of men and women who have names and families. They are men and women who are husbands, wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. They are people of flesh and blood, of dreams and desire.

I am,
that they were,
that they are,

that they will be.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Zami is Home

There is a small box on our table. It’s comical almost, just how small it is. I even pulled the bag of ash out and rolled it between my fingers. It’s the smallest of the three cats to come back.

I thought of the fire and the heat and how much of my moisture it took from me in seconds. And how we harnessed the power of fire to put our loved ones to rest, and how it sucked the moisture from her corpse. My beloved cat and I fed the same elemental the oxygen hidden in our water.

She was such a large presence.

Now, nothing.

For a twenty-two year old cat who slept twenty-three hours a day, her absence is deafening. I have sunk into the busy work of rearranging the spaces in the house to reclaim them from her ghost.

She was ready to leave us. We weren’t ready for her to go. It’s Samhain and time to release her. My grief is not her burden.

I cleaned out the window seat where Zami lived. I vacuumed Zami’s dander and dust and hair and whiskers up. I fought the urge to keep the-bits-of-her-that-were-not-ash. Okay, I kept the whiskers. I have whiskers from all our cats in a jar. Ones they shed naturally. Because magic is real and sometimes I need to weave stealth into my wardrobe.

I saved her whiskers, her tools of Sensing.

I spent the rest of the morning fixing the first afghan I ever made- it’s still the only one for myself I ever finished. It’s been Zami’s treasure in her old age, full of holes from where she clawed it. I fixed the holes. Mara, our tiny tuxedo, kept trying to climb on top of it while I was doing so.

The afghan is made up of a bunch of remnant yarn balls. It was so hard to make too, because yarn was always Zami’s kryptonite. She used to lay in wait until I pulled more yarn loose and she would fly out of nowhere and grab it in her mouth and keep running. Or she would sit in the open and watch the yarn. Back and forth between my fingers. And just glaze over until it got creepy.


It’s amazing the things we miss about those we love after they are no longer with us. 

I can hold the box but I am not holding her. It is what remains of her body but it is not her body. But I will hold the box in my hands until I no longer need it as a crutch. I will hold the twenty year-long memories of her in my heart. 

To those cats who come after, I will tell them stories of her multiple feats and extreme acrobatics. I will tell them how there wasn't a closed door she couldn't get into. I will tell them how terrified she was of kittens and how she hid behind the old bread box on top of the kitchen cupboards without disturbing anything. Or how she used the counter in our first apartment as a launching pad to twist in mid-air and grab a feather off the ceiling... over and over again.

I hold the box in my hand but her stories are where she lives now.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Raw Grief

I got to hold Luna and Bella in my arms.

I held their gazes while they died. It cut me, deeply, but I wanted more than anything for them to see how much I loved them in that last moment. It was painful to watch the light dim. It does. One micro-second the engine is on and the lights are working and the next all goes dark.

And they were gone, into the ether. I watched. I witnessed. I saw it happen.

I said goodbye.

Zami'd been not-herself for a while. She doesn't... didn't remember me much and often stared at me like I was a stranger in her home. Over the last three years we became aloof. It hurt but I understood it wasn't personal. My heart broke every time friends came over and Zami woke herself up to be sociable and get love from everyone. Everyone else. Not me.

I lived for the moments when Zami would stalk into my office and cry at me. I would look at her and she would see me. Me. And it was Zami, my cat, wondering why everything was different. I never knew where she was in her fugue but she saw me. I would drop everything to talk to her and get love from her. And hold her and she would tuck her head into my elbow crook and I would sit like that forever. In her case, forever usually lasted less than seven minutes.

But those seven minutes here and there were everything to me.

She was our night prowler, our sentinel. It was just like her to wait till we were gone.

I resent her for that just now.

*

We have one of those cheap fridges where every time the door slams closed the freezer door burps open. And every time it burps open I remember that she's in there, in a sealed garbage bag, in the freezer. And a madness at the bottom right of my skull tries to squiggle in. And I erase it. But now I know it's there. Even if I supress it I know it exists. Waiting.

I cannot unknow the mad, sharp broken window of death.

*

We had a plan with our cat care people. Every time we went away for the night we took turns saying goodbye to her. This last time I was running late. I was scatterbrained. I was clutching my final five lists and reassuring myself that if I didn't have it I wouldn't need it. Which was true.

What is also true is that I forgot about her. I forgot to say goodbye. I forgot to tell her how much I loved her and how special she was to us and how it was okay if she was done now. I know she knew it. But all I keep feeling is this wave crushing my chest cavity reminding that I forgot about her.

*

It matters, somehow, that we came home to an empty body, void of spirit. Just a thing that tried to mimic our beloved, tried and failed. I had to close my eyes to touch her. And then I felt her. Just a whisper left above the surface. But I found her.

*

We are waiting for her ashes to come home. This year we will have three cat spirits ate our table for Dumb Supper, the only time they are allowed up there.

I am waiting to clean out her window seat. She was a bully. She had shared it with Luna and Bella but when Mara came along she said, "nuh uh." I want to clean it all out and open it for a while to encourage Mara to claim time at the front window. But I am waiting until it feels right.

I caught Mara sitting on the floor in front of the front door, looking out the window. That's how she watched when Zami was up there. I thought she got it. Maybe she does. Maybe she doesn't. So I'll wait a little longer, until I can bear to open it up and see for myself that she's not there.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Farewell Zami

                    
            We came home from a weekend retreat to find a reality we have tried to prepare ourselves for had come true. Our twenty-two year old cat had passed. Part of my heart constricted. I couldn’t breathe. I don’t know how we unloaded the car.
We just did.   
On a snowy afternoon in January 1999, Kelley and I made our way to adopt a cat in Fredonia, NY. I had had a dream the night before about an all grey cat, so I thought we knew what to look for. But in the kennel with all the grey cats was a grey tiger with Bengal markings. She met me at the door and, when I picked her up, she tucked her head into the crook of my arm—and the purring! I tried to meet some of the other cats but, each time, she got there first and it was her head beneath my hand. I called Kelley over, repeat. We took her home.
They didn’t know much about her. When the caretaker came out to feed the cat he found Zami waiting outside the barn door, waiting to be let in.
            When we got her, she came with a free spaying. The vet said she was at least two years old. When I called the next day to check on her, they told us that it was going to cost a bit extra for the abortion. I panicked. I knew what a pregnant cat looked like and it floored me. She had been pregnant, though she was so malnourished and skinny even the humane employees had not suspected. For reasons. She had a litter of five kittens. All but one was dead and three were being reabsorbed by her uterus for food. But it would have killed her in the end. Because we picked her, because we took her home, she had a fighting chance.
She was never sick again.
Zami was a great cat. So thankful to be indoors and have snuggles. So grateful for a dry space with couches and cushions. Over the years she has made many friends. It was hard not to love her, even when she kneaded your kneecap in her joy. With her claws. It was her speciality.
            I barely remember an ‘us’ without her.
            She’s gone now.
Best buds, Luna and Zami
            Her name was inspired by Audre Lorde’s biomythography of the same name. It means “female husband” and we knew when we went looking for her, we wanted more than just a pet. Zami was never our kid. She was more like a third partner, one who greatly disapproved of our choice to bring other kittens into the house. When we brought tiny Luna into the house, Zami hid under Kelley’s altar for weeks. The kitten was undeterred and Luna became her greatest friend and companion. Zami never recovered from her loss.
When Bella came into the house Zami was like, “Another one?!” She tried to ignore the tiny presence, but the tortoise shell never went away. Zami spent some time hiding on top of the kitchen cupboards until Bella got bigger. They became unwilling siblings and there were so many moments we would walk in on the two of them, after Luna died, almost-touching and Bella would look at us with big eyes, asking us not to fuck it up, and we would back slowly out of the room to give them that space.
(front to back) Bella, Zami,and Luna on Christmas morning 2008
            Zami never really recovered from losing both of them. She and Mara never really connected, but they tolerated space together. These last few years were hard for Zami. She was old, but otherwise healthy. She walked stiffly around the house and slept on the heating grate in the winter. She slept most of the hours of the day and only got up to pee, drink water, eat, or when one of her friends came to visit.
She loved people. She loved being social. She was a lap whore and she could dead-weight her body in seconds. If you wouldn’t let her in your lap, she would not-make-eye-contact and slink in at a snail’s pace, truly believing that if she didn’t look at you, you couldn’t see her. She was ¼ Bengal cat with long skinny legs and a long skinny tail. She had serious ninja skills, unfortunate for us. She was a night prowler. It was how she kept us safe. I have so many photos of her but they’re all pre-digital images. That says something to me.
(All this past tense hurts.)
She also had a string of special friends, which speaks to her longevity. She had the loudest and most prolific purr. She could go for hours without stopping. Depending on her level of excitement there were also chirps and coos. Somewhere I have a video of her purr, from before Luna died, because we were already wondering when we might lose her. That video is at least six years old.
She was also a hunter of all things rodent and a consistent closed-door-opener. Keeping her out was never a successful venture. I caught her in the act once, and watched her jump up and wrap her arms so she was hanging from the doorknob. And then she hitched her shoulder up and down, redistributing her weight until the knob twisted and the door clicked open.
I don’t know what happened to her on the streets, but she did not suffer the presence of dogs or male cats. Not for a moment. She would cut-a-bitch so quick. That side of her scared me.
            Her eyes would glaze over and she would be a blur of motion. If I was fast enough I could catch the end of her tail and deter her momentum. Food was always a trigger. She wasn’t interested in people food but if there was cat food anywhere she could smell it and she would do whatever it took to get to it. She had some periods of being a big girl. It’s not uncommon for strays to have food issues. 
She had such a long life. These last few years she developed some form of dementia. She barely recognized me and fixated on my partner as a touchstone in a very creepy, Renfield-like manner. She often got lost staring at a wall and would yowl until we found her and turned her around. She spent most nights isolated in a room with her cat beds and a light on. After that she started sleeping through the nights again. She’s not in pain anymore. She’s with Luna again.
I’m sure that will soothe my heart soon. But not yet.
There was one morning, more than a decade ago, where I was dreaming that I couldn’t breathe. I woke up to a house full of smoke, and Zami head-butting my face and caterwauling at me. I got the small fire out and the windows open thanks to her. It wasn’t the only time she saved me. But I’m thinking about that moment especially right now.
I worked till midnight at a grocery store when we first moved here. One night the phone rang while I was counting out drawers in the back room and instead of my normal can-I-help-you greeting I simply said, “What’s wrong?!”
My partner was hysterical. Zami had leaned against the screen window and the screen had given way and she had fallen out. By the time Kelley got outside, she was gone. Everyone was telling us she would come back. I spent days without sleep. I wandered the streets with cat treats. I made a lot of new cat friends. No Zami.
I put up missing signs. A few days later I received a whispered phone call from someone who said there was a cat matching her description inhaling food on his porch. Where was he? Right across the street!! She’d been there the whole time, right under the porch, listening to me calling for her. I’m certain she thought that since she was outside, she assumed that she had done something wrong. She never wanted to be outside again.
When I ran across the street to scoop her up, my heart was so relieved I cried. She hesitated between running to me and leaving the bowl of food, lol. When I picked her up she put her arms on either side of my neck and hugged me. I cried so hard out of joy.
Today, my bags sit unpacked. My eyelids are puffy and swollen. My heart feels trapped in limbo and I am allowing this floaty feeling to calm my grief. She owned one place in the house, the window seat where she watched the world outside.  On one hand, I am already thinking about cleaning it out so that Mara can have a place all her own, but on the other hand…
Not just yet.
But very soon.
Mara is all right. She doesn’t understand why mommies are so sad, but she feels something is amiss. Zami slept most of the day and spent nights in isolation, per her preference. It may take a couple of days before she understands that Zami isn’t here anymore. So even in the face of death we keep our eyes to the living. It gives us something to focus on other than loss.
Now all of our original kids have passed, an entire generation of our life together is gone. As a pet owner you know to expect it. The reality of it is brutal. Our lives changed in her death, more than we can be aware of at the moment. So we must stand in the doorway, at the gateway of death, and say our goodbyes. And we must open ourselves up to what-is-to-come and allow it room for entrance and purchase.
We had to choose to put Luna and Bella down when they were ill. I wished, more than anything, that when it was her turn to pass, that Zami would slip away quickly. And she did.
            After Bella died, and Zami was the only one left, a stray visited me in the garden. I was still in grief and wanted her to go away. We ended up taking her in. I realized this morning that if I hadn’t opened to love, the house would be completely empty right now. For whatever that's worth.
            Hail to the traveler. Zami has earned her rest.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

When Death Settles in for a Long Visit

Our eldest cat is old. At 22 years she's roughly 98-102 in people years. That's the toll her long life has taken on her body. She has outlived two of her sisters. She still uses her litter box. She still prowls the house at night, even though it involves more yowling and getting lost in the dark. Her instincts to hunt are strong but her eyesight is not.

She has slight dementia. It's been a long three years of worrying over her, reassuring her, finding her, calming her, etc. We love her. Of course we do. But some days it's like having a stranger in our home. And death is a shadow fixated on her movements.

Even as I type this, I am prepared to change tenses. I am accepting of the reality that even in the few days before I post this Zami may pass. Every day carries the possibility that she may no longer be with us. And yet she might live another five years.

Who knows?

It's hard to live at that edge, that boundary. Anyone who has ever cared for a dying loved one knows this space. That place of difficulty when they get forgetful. When you have to get up during the night to check on them. When you haven't seen them in a while and you raw straws or play rock-paper-scissors to see who is going to make sure they're breathing. And you make deals with your deities for more time, longer days, and that they pass peacefully in their sleep.

There are days and moments where you will wish their ending to come swiftly. Because you're human and to be a caretaker is to be drained and running on fumes and unable to say fuck it when you need to because there is care to be given. We are human.

We're readying ourselves for a retreat to the mountain. We will tell her we love her before we leave. We will snuggle her and tell her what a beautiful girl she is and how much we love her. And we will tell her that if she is ready, we understand.

You wish kindness for their suffering, but what of your suffering heart?

Let the living care for you. We do what we must for those we love. Listen to your instincts. Listen to your heart. Listen to your head. They will not agree but if you look for the light, the way will become clear. Only you know the best choices for your loved o

The poet Mary Oliver has a piece called "In Blackwater Woods" that has a delicious ending that I cling to when death involves my loved ones. It's easy to be strong for other people. But it's hard when the potentiality of death is in our home. Every breath is precious.

"...To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go."


Disclaimer: I did not get to post this piece before I left on my retreat. Zami was gone when we returned yesterday, which made it feel all-the-more important to publish this as it originally was.
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