Grief the Pesky Cat

Grief—the Pesky Cat By Robynn

It struck me this week that grief is like a pesky kitten, you never know when it will spring up on you and pounce. Several times this past week we’ve been bitten on the ankles.

Several years ago when our cat, Canyon, was a kitten, he’d lay in wait for our youngest daughter, Bronwynn, who was a petite little seven year old at the time. He seemed to sense that she was the smallest, the easiest to take down. He would stalk her and then wait. Patiently. Perched. Ready. She would skip down the hall, unsuspecting, and right when she was in view, Canyon would make his move. He would attack her ankles with abandon and enthusiasm. Bronwynn, poor girl, deathly afraid, would scream and cry and head for the nearest couch.

Grief is kind of like Canyon the cat, I think.

The other day I was on the phone telling a friend how we’re doing. It was a friendly chat, a light conversation. Suddenly I felt this well of grief rise up inside my chest. I started to cry. I was so surprised by it. I had been fine, ‘skipping down the hall, unsuspecting’, when grief pounced. It startled me. It hurt. In the moment I was able to kick it off but it left a scratch for sure.

Lowell was recently in Kenya. It was his first trip to Africa and what an interesting experience it was. During the two weeks there he was able to squeeze in a one day safari on a national wild life preserve. That day they saw nineteen different animals. His dad, who died a mere eight weeks ago, used to love wildlife. He was an outdoorsman through and through. The last several years Lowell has collected each animal story – a bald eagle that breaks across the sky here in Kansas, a surprise sighting of a whale off the coast of California, a chance encounter with an elk in Banff, the blue heron down by the creek—and saved them for his dad. Lowell’s dad would have loved hearing the stories of these African animals. His eyes would have opened wide and he would have laughed in delight to think of Lowell seeing a lion chase a gazelle or Lowell feeding a rhinoceros. He would have looked at the pictures of the warthog and the buffalo, the elephants in the wild, the zebras, the giraffes hidden in the trees with sincere joy and interest.

Grief hunted Lowell down and seized the moment. Grief pounced and ambushed. And there in the early dusk on a quiet African evening, Lowell cried. He was sad. He missed his dad.

Grief is a peculiar experience. It waxes and wanes. Sometimes it comes in forcefully and boldly. Other times it sneaks in and surprises you. Opening a closet door, hearing a particular noise, smelling a fragrance, hearing an expression—suddenly you’re whisked off your feet, tripped up again by grief, residual and yet real.

Oddly enough grief is not grievous and should not be avoided. If you can see the cat coming you can even scoop it up and snuggle it for the few minutes a cat endures such treatment. When it surprises you it seems best to just face it, greet it, welcome it. Eluding it or worse, kicking it in the teeth, only antagonizes it. Grief seems to gain strength through avoidance. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry a little. It’s okay to cry a lot.

As global nomads we’ve experienced a lot of grief. We’ve said a lot of goodbyes. We’ve attended a lot of “funerals”. There have been a thousand deaths. Trying to name them all is overwhelming. It leaves me raw and soul-sore.
Grief is not a stranger to me. I know it. I recognize it when I pass it out in the neighbourhood, or down in the basement , or in the church foyer (although why they let the cats out in church is still a mystery!) I’m still often surprised to see it but I try to be hospitable. I don’t try to avoid eye contact. I turn toward it. I lean into it. If that means I cry more than some, I’m okay with that. I’m not afraid to show my scratched, clawed, bitten ankles. Grief is not the companion I would have chosen, that’s for sure, but it follows me, in the shadows. Each place we’ve lived, grief tracks us down, and squeezes in the back door.

Bronwynn is now older and taller. It’s been five years. Canyon, the cat, rarely catches Bronwynn off guard any more. He doesn’t assault her any more. Just this year she has bravely started picking Canyon up. He has even lingered in her lap for a few minutes. She pets his head. He purrs. They are, maybe even, ever so slowly, becoming friends.

Has grief attacked you like a pesky kitten? What do you do when grief jumps out and surprises you?

Cat Tales – A Review

Cat TalesGrowing up, I cannot remember a time when we were without a cat.

Throughout my letters home from boarding school in my earliest years I reference our cat. “How is Frisky” “Tell Frisky ‘hi’ for me”. “What has Frisky been up to?”The only thing I show more affection for in these letters is my younger brother, Danny.

There was Frisky and then there were a series of ‘Old Black Cats’  (OBC we called them) and the stories meld into one another. Stories of cats giving birth and tiny kittens; cats running away and being found – or not; cats traveling throughout the country in a sturdy Landrover — all of these thread my memory tapestry.

And all these stories have come into print form through my mom’s book, Cat Tales. Written for children, the book chronicles our cats and our family adventures with these cats.

There was the time when our cat ran away – we were certain she heard our conversation the night before about leaving for America, and, knowing her beloved family was leaving would have none of it. There was the time when she followed us on a hiking trip in the Kaghan valley; the time when frightened by a friend’s dog, she jumped out of a window and ran into the night – only to be found in a place that housed sacred Hindu cows.

Reading Cat Tales takes me back to a childhood in Pakistan. A childhood of travel and adventure, of goodbyes and hello’s, of train rides and camping in the Himalayan mountain range. I’m allowed to time travel and see more of my mom — a young woman who left a small town in Massachusetts where houses had porches and yards had lush green lawns, where you could walk everywhere. I see a young mom who moved across the world to a newly formed Muslim state, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan; far away from all that was familiar.

Through the escapades of a cat I see more of what it was for her to trust, to fear, to wonder if she and my dad were foolishly putting a family in danger.

I learn how much my mom loved our cats – all of them.  I see through the pages of a children’s book a need to create a home and a pet being a part of that need. I experience her feelings of loss as we all left for boarding school eight hundred miles away. I watch her extraordinary relationship with my youngest brother based on the years she had alone with him while we were at school. I laugh as I read about the remarkable lengths she would go to in order to make sure the cats were safe, found when they were lost, cared for when they were sick.

I see a young, growing family and parents who prayed grace over our home from day one.

Madeleine L’Engle says if you want to write a book that adults can’t handle, you write it for children. Maybe I can handle this book and empathize more with my parents’ humanity because the book is written for children.

It’s a rare experience to go back in time through the eyes of another, especially when the other is your mom. And this is the beauty of the printed page, the written word.  And so I curl up on my couch with a cup of tea and Cat Tales, going back in time for the final chapter.

Cat Tales is written by Pauline A. Brown and illustrated by Ruth Anne Burke. It is available at Amazon for $8.99