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death, pet, cat, loss

Mulligan the cat

I’ve lost three family members in the past four years, all of them on a Thursday.

A chilly Thursday in November 2008–Thanksgiving in fact–ended not with post-turkey coma and pumpkin-pie-smeared faces being shooed up to bed, but with my father-in-law being rushed to the hospital after suffering a heart attack in front of his family, including his four grandchildren.

We had enjoyed a postcard-perfect holiday: board games, football, food and family with Granddad offering to play the piano for us after dessert. It was unusual to receive an impromptu concert without prodding, so all of us were eager to focus on his rendition of a family favorite, Chattanooga Choo-Choo (or as he liked to call it, the Cat Who Chewed Your New Shoes). When he collapsed walking from the piano to the sofa though, our worlds collectively stopped.

That Thursday was the first time I felt the full shock of my family’s mortality. That blinding realization that we aren’t going to live forever. That death is the one common denominator among every living thing. I remember the first time I was confronted with death… as an 8th grader, my good friend’s mother was killed by a motorcycle as she crossed the street. I was terribly saddened for her and also scared as hell to let my parents out of my sight for a long time. I lay in bed at night while the sour weight of mortality settled into my stomach… a gnawing beast that continued to rear its head every so often as I grew up.

But part of growing up, and living, is being able to push that festering feeling away, for how are we to enjoy life if we are constantly worried about death? It’s a coping mechanism inherit in us all so that we can persevere, keep going even when it feels like we can’t take another step. It’s a trait that was in full effect when even as we held the funeral service for my father-in-law and endured his loss in the following years, I still could not fathom my own father’s mortality or the possibility that he could also die in his sixties.

Another Thursday, this time in May 2010, was the day we lost my father. That afternoon, my husband, children and I rushed to the hospital an hour and a half away to say our good-byes even though it was a one-sided farewell. After 26 days in the hospital growing progressively worse, he had lost consciousness the night before because he never woke up that Thursday. Never again looked at me with his chocolate-brown eyes that were always crinkled small with a smile. But I know he was there. He heard us and felt our presence even as his was growing lighter, ready to float gently out of our reach.

That Thursday night, I went home to my parent’s house after saying good-bye to my father in a sterile, cold hospital room, just as my husband had come home one and a half years earlier after the same farewell.

Two and a half years later, my family again rushed to the hospital on a crisp Thursday afternoon but this time it was to the veterinary hospital to say good-bye to our ten-year-old cat, Mulligan. As any pet owner knows, animals are truly part of your family and losing them can sometimes be just as hard as losing a person. We all loved this cat, and his quick demise due to kidney disease left us no time to come to terms with losing our first pet. The fact that I was again in a car racing to say good-bye to a loved one in a hospital on a Thursday afternoon did not go unnoticed to my crazy mournful memory. The difference this time is that we were too late, he had passed minutes before we got there. Still, I could barely keep myself from sobbing uncontrollably the rest of the day and night.

That loss was just another layer of grief upon a calendar of gray Thursdays, growing blacker with each year. Every loss endured after the first is somehow colored by the experience, made darker because of the reminder of earlier losses. But the blackness is really a gradient, with an ever-lightening stroke of gray. The burden of grief, though when it first happens seems it will swallow you whole, dissipates over time weaving itself into a security blanket that actually offers a measure of comfort. You’ve been there before, you know how to deal with this. You can help others who are floundering in the blackness for the first time, grab their hand and kick for the surface together. This is what I hope to do with my writing.

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