Saturday, April 24, 2010

Things Left Behind

It's been nine days since my beloved Muffin cat died. Because this isn't my first critter loss, the depression I feel is not as intense as it has been in years past. It's there nonetheless, though: a constant undercurrent that weaves itself through my days and dictates how I spend them.

Today, for instance, I chose not to volunteer at the horse rescue facility. Instead, I slept till 11:00, ate Reeses peanut butter cups for breakfast, putzed around on the computer for well over an hour, didn't shower until 1:00, and didn't eat a proper breakfast until 2:00. I'm pretty sure most other people were more productive.

I've spent a good deal of time, these past nine days, keeping myself immersed in busy-work - things designed to keep my hands moving and my brain occupied. The busy-work succeeds in keeping the sadness at bay. For a while. But then comes the time when I must go back into the house and deal with the absences: the absence of Muffin's presence, the absence of her insistent meows for attention. The absence of her requests for snacks. Indeed, there's an entire family room filled with her absences.

No one particularly wants to be in that room anymore, including me. It's where Muffin spent 99% of her time, the last couple of years. We all end up there in the evenings, though - I, watching t.v. while the cats keep me company. It feels awkward to be in that room now. Many nights, Muffin used to join me on the ottoman, or curl up in my lap for a snuggle - which leaves a big void where she used to be. So now my lap is filled with an absence, too.

Curiously, the dynamic among the cats has changed since Muffin's death. Buddy, the loner, has been spending less time sleeping and more time checking up on me. Any number of times throughout the day, now, Buddy approaches me and gives me a good sniff. Maybe he's trying to figure out where Muffin went. It's nice to see him coming out of his shell more, but it's impossible to explain to him why, exactly, Muffin had to leave.

The same is true with Spanky. Immediately after I returned from the vet's, that awful day, I tried to tell Spanky that Muffin had been sickly, so she "had to go." You can read that a couple of different ways, though, and once I realized that, I stopped talking. I don't want any of the cats thinking that if they get sick, they're going to get the boot.

Spanky was the last kitten that Muffin was willing to mother. He was an incredibly needy baby (and, seven years later, still is), making constant demands on Muffin for attention, for cleanings, for her time. She endured the demands surprisingly well, considering that Spanky was not technically hers - until he grew up. Then she made it very clear that she was done.

Spanky spent the rest of Muffin's life ignoring her growls, and occasionally, his perseverence was rewarded with a few licks on the head. Spanky would walk away happy, then, clearly believing that his mommmy-cat still loved him. Spanky now spends a lot of time asking for my attention. It's a cheap substitute for Muffin, but it will have to do.

By the time Junebug came along, Muffin had had enough of kittens, and was so nasty to Junebug that I often had to intervene. Muffin had started out life as an only cat, so I understood her unhappiness at being forced to live with so many others, but I draw the line at bullying. Eventually a certain parity was reached in which I played mommy-cat to Junebug while Muffin found a nice place to nap at the other end of the house. Junebug keeps looking at me now as though she's wondering if I'm o.k. I think she knows that I'm not.

When Gracie was brought into the house, everyone tried in their own way to scare her into submission. Gracie was having none of it, though. She'd survived out on the streets with a permanently gimpy leg; she wasn't about to be bossed around by my lot. So they all retreated to the other end of the house to stew about the latest turn of events, and Gracie used the time to find the right place to sleep. Then she spent an inordinate amount of time doing just that.

Muffin and Gracie never cared for each other, which is probably why Gracie spent so much of the last year sleeping wherever Muffin wasn't. Now, all of a sudden, Gracie is choosing to spend her evenings with me and the other three cats in the family room. It's nice that they're all there with me, but to be honest, I'd just as soon be anywhere else but in that room. There are simply too many reminders of what I lost.

Some time ago, at a yard sale, I came across a stuffed, 3-dimensional Kliban cat. He's a black-and-white tabby who's wearing red sneakers. I positioned him on the floor in front of an ottoman that I don't use. For some reason, Muffin liked snuggling up to that cat. Now, every time my eyes sweep around the family room, they come to rest on that lonely Kliban cat. Another absence.

There's a gaudy yellow blanket on the family room couch. It, too, I found at a yard sale. I liked the color, it was soft and snuggly, and sometimes, a little bit of gaudy is a good thing. I keep it folded at one end of the couch, ready for nap duty. Muff liked to crawl in between the folds, creating a little cat cave for herself. I could always tell by the messy lump where Muffin was sleeping. Now, the blanket lies flat and smooth. Another absence.

In my bathroom stands a set of wicker shelves. On the bottom shelf, I keep two folded beach towels. Every so often, Muffin would go in there, paw the top towel until it had unfolded somewhat, and then she'd lie on it. Given that I've set up special cat-friendly nooks and crannies all over the house, I have no idea why Muffin liked that spot behind the bathroom door, but she surely did. Now, the beach towels are as the gaudy yellow blanket: flat and smooth. Yet another absence.

I'm so incredibly grateful that I had the presence of mind to spend some extra time with Muffin, the few days before her death. Two nights - one of them, her last - I passed the night on the family room couch so that we could snuggle. Muff didn't come into my bedroom anymore, and for several years, I really missed the snuggling we used to do in bed. Those nights on the couch were good medicine for me as well as for her, though not nearly enough of it.

Several times, in the last week of her life, I took Muffin outside for some chaperoned excursions. In years past, on these same sorts of adventures, I would walk a few steps through the grass, in a direction I hoped she'd follow. Muffin would always wait til I got a couple of yards away, then race toward me at speed, stopping before she crashed into my feet. It was an amusing thing she did, one of those things you kick yourself for later because you took it for granted all the years she did it.

Muffin wasn't up to running - or walking much, for that matter - in her last days. She'd take a few steps, then gingerly lower herself onto the grass. It was as though she didn't have the physical energy to keep going any more. So I would sit down beside her, run my hand over her back as I remarked on what a nice day it was, and explained how the breezes would bring the smells right to her nose. They were quiet times, out in the yard. Perhaps, for Muff, they were also a final taking of stock, a last few looks at What Was.

I'm crying as I write this now. If I had known how close Muffin was to the end, I would've taken stock of What Was myself. But that's the problem with love, isn't it? You find yourself in a comfortable rhythm, after years together. You take that rhythm for granted, assuming that it will always be with you - or, at least, that you will have ample warning before the end, and plenty of time to say the things you should've said all along. It rarely works that way, though.

I really hope that Muffin knew how loved she was.

If there are lessons to be learned here, I can't help you with them. I'm much too busy at the moment keeping my hands moving and my brain occupied so that I don't have to think too much. Tears are inevitable, but mostly, I prefer feeling nothing to feeling the searing pain of loss. Life goes on, as it must, but with one notable difference now: there's a vast emptiness where Muffin used to be. It's a void that can never be filled.


Bob Tarte said...

I have no doubt that your lucky cat Muffin knew how well loved she was. I'm so sorry that you lost her.

Your comment about the void she left behind made me think of animals we've lost recently and a comment that Eckhart Tolle made in one of his books. He said something like this: when we lose a person or pet, the space that they leave behind is sacred.

I've thought about that statement, and I think you can tune into an animal's absence and feel something very holy. It makes the privilege of having known our cat or bird seem all that more valuable.

Crazy Critter Lady said...

A valuable privilege - yes. Which makes it all the more devasting to lose, I think. Thanks for weighing in, Bob. You always add a thoughtful element to the conversation.