March 14, 2001 – July 20, 2016

After 15 beautiful years of companionship, we said goodbye to our sweet old man tonight. Through him I know devotion, friendship, and love better than I have any right.

Rest well, Monty. You have surely earned it.


10 Years Gone

On May 11th 2006, I received a phone call from my mother. Recalling the moment in an email to a friend a few years later, I explained:

She started getting dizzy and experiencing vision loss in her left eye. She went to an ophthalmologist who determined there was a mass behind her left eye.  She tried to tell me she was sure it was nothing, but my head has never swam like that…  She said the words “mass behind my eye” and I literally had to sit down.  I’ve never been filled with such dread in my life … Deep inside, I knew she was already lost. From there it happened extremely fast. She started getting sicker and we eventually learned she had masses all throughout her body and that it almost certainly started as mass never found in one of her breasts.

She was moved from Johns Hopkins to a hospice at 6:30pm on July 14th. Just before midnight on that same night in 2006, my mother passed away. It stands still as the single most determinant moment of my life thus far.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think now I had a fairly typical reaction to her passing, but it was hard. For a few years, I was angry at the loss, ashamed of my perceived neglect to our relationship, and unable to incorporate it into my experiences as anything other than a capital-T Tragedy. I simultaneously wanted to make everything in my life about her death, but also wanted life to be like the death had never happened. After months of Jessica’s abiding compassion and support, and with a bittersweet poetry, one of Mom’s long-time foundational lessons eventually took hold and righted my ship. I determined that it was fair to let the moment have its due on my life, but that I was to be defined by how I reacted to it – how I grew from it– not just that it happened. Now I’ve come to the point where in the past few years, it has actually been Jessica’s kind check-ins preceding the 14th that have alerted me to its approach and reminded me of its significance.

I’ve come to accept a few truths about living in the wake of Mom’s passing, especially having lost her so early in my life. I know these lessons aren’t revelatory, but they bear repeating for the benefit of those who have recently lost a parent, or who may face that challenge sooner than they expect. I hope these words help someone now, or float to the surface in a future I wished no one would ever again face:

  • You’ll have difficulty going back to regular life. The irrational part of you will want the whole world to register just how significant an event this is. Some people will reach out to you. You’ll find support from unexpected sympathy. Others still will distance themselves from you, uncomfortable with so significant a reminder of their own parents’ mortality. But regular life will resume, mostly because you’ll soon come to a place where you need it to.
  • You will think about them constantly. That is okay. Let that in. You’ll become a bit more used to it eventually, and you will think about them less and less often.
  • You will also have that one day when you will realize you can’t remember the last time you did think about them. That is probably the worst moment of all. You will simultaneously know then that you are moving on, and you will mourn their loss all over again. You’ll hate that you forgot them, and hate that you could be so self-involved.
  • You will regret. Everything. The smallest slight you caused them once years ago will stand equal with your greatest disappointments. Keep in sight that just as you loved them for everything they were, so did they you.
  • You will miss their advice, but remember that you can see the world through their eyes. Use that. Just because you are denied their real-time consul, you still possess the wisdom they spent years imparting to you on all matters great and small. You’ll want more, but it’s enough.
  • You will 1, 5, 10, and I assume 20 years later, dream about them. Sometimes you’ll keep your wits and know it for a dream at first sight. Sometimes you’ll be lost in it almost completely. Those will be worse days when you wake up, but those are also the days you know they still live in your heart as fiercely as they ever did in life.

Above all, I think it may help to think of the process like suffering a badly broken bone. At first you can’t imagine a worse pain is possible in all the world and you’ll wonder how anyone can make it through. You’ll be certain you aren’t strong enough, and yes, acting like it’s not broken is the first step to making the injury worse. It will mend, however, and with attention and mindfulness to what’s happened, you can eventually rebuild it to be just about as strong and resilient to everyday life as it was before. But there will be days where the weather conditions of life are just right, or even for no reason you can identify, that the bone will throb with almost equal pain as the initial break. You won’t be able to put it out of your mind for a little while, but that will pass. You do get better, but you will never actually fully heal. Understand that distinction and you will see within the space between that you can live and be truly happy once again.

I’d like to think these are words my mother would read and find true, resonant with her own experiences having lost her own parents and a sister before she fell ill, but that’s one of the little things I realized too late I was denied by her sudden passing (at 27, I’d not even begun thinking of talking through those losses with her). A decade of July 14ths later, my conclusion is one I draw carefully, both to avoid cliché and to not belie the fact I would of course prefer a different history: I think I would now be somewhere very different if not for Mom’s death in 2006. I emerged from the initial grieving process, ugly as it was, much more focused on getting my until-then directionless life under control. Since then, Mom has been with me in pretty much all I do, even if I do sometimes go weeks without thinking about her. It’s not so simple as living in a way that would make her proud of me, although I think she would be. It’s just about living. She got me far enough, and made me strong enough to be able to truly live when she was gone, even though that day was far earlier than either of us anticipated. That strength of living, even though it coalesced when it did as a direct result of her death, is the most precious gift she ever gave me.

Thank you, Mom. While what happened to us on the 14th at one time haunted me greatly, you also helped me get to a place where now… it’s almost just another day in July.

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Probably Cats: Monty’s Malady

IMG_2236I again have a heavy heart. For the second time since our arrival in Atlanta, one of my feline companions is facing down a major illness, and for the second time, the outlook is grim. Apparently, when I wrote a gushing post on this blog for Monty’s 15th birthday in March, I unknowingly jumped the gun on his eulogy by only a few short months.

Over the past weekend, we took a trip back to Michigan. As always with weekend holiday trips home, we packed everything possible into a few short days, making a point to meet up and spend time with as many friends and family as we possibly could. We left Michigan on Tuesday morning feeling genuinely happy with the great visits we had. Unfortunately, only a couple hours into the drive, we learned from our cat sitter that Monty had withdrawn to a back bedroom in the corner. He’s always been a meek cat around casual acquaintances, but videos of his demeanor showed him looking a bit sad and glassy-eyed. Most importantly, Monty was disinterested in food and cat treats. After 15 years, we know that if Monty doesn’t want treats, something is wrong.

Over the course of the drive we marked increasingly grim updates alongside the miles: just south of Toledo, we learned of his condition and decided to send him off to the vet with our cat sitter, figuring it was a relapse of pancreatitis he had suffered before during a longer vacation; near Dayton, we heard from the vet that he was in, but they were holding off on an exam until he was more comfortable; somewhere around Cincinnati, we learned that he had a substantial mass in his abdomen that measured at least 60 mm wide (I remember sitting behind the steering wheel, conceptualizing it in terms of the eyewear frame measurements I’d take during my years of optical work: it was scantly smaller than the distance between my own pupils, 66 mm). Somewhere in Kentucky, we made arrangements to have the mass biopsied with an ultrasound at a specialist’s office the next afternoon. By the time we reached Tennessee, we were beginning the sober, unavoidable conversations caretakers must have when they hear the words “large mass” and “biopsy.” Yesterday morning back home in Smyrna, when I picked Monty up prior to his specialist visit, we learned he was running a 104° fever.

The ultrasound/biopsy visit did not go well. While we are still waiting on results to confirm exactly what type, the radiologist vet was confident we are looking at cancer. We wait now to learn if it is lymphoma, which has the possible treatment plan of steroids and chemo to shrink the tumor to improve the odds of surgical removal, or if it’s the more likely carcinoma, for which the treatment plan is immediate surgery, but with very poor long-term survival rates and a high likelihood of relapse. Further complicating the carcinoma plan is that the mass is so big; measured at 4 x 6 centimeters, there are very poor surgical margins with several important landmarks in his intestines, like the duodenum and ducts from the pancreas and liver. On top of all of this, this thing is big enough that it’s pressing on his intestines and suppressing his desire to eat, which means that either way, we may need to go right to surgery sooner rather than later.

Jesus. Typing it all out brings the real question into focus: do we even try? Monty’s 15. We always knew with each year that passes after 9 or 10, a cat’s risk of catastrophic illness increased significantly, and of cancer especially. So we’re at a similar crossroads I faced with a 3-year-old Dexter, but with a completely different set of inputs. Before, Dex had already been through so much over the course of 3 months and pressing forward offered poor chance of success with a great chance of pain. Now, we’re barely 3 days into Monty’s ordeal and already at that same question. Even assuming we get the “better” of the two outcomes, lymphoma, I fear the path ahead is more difficult and painful than is fair to ask of Monty.

Right now, Monty’s … okay. He’s not eating still, but we’re hoping the appetite stimulant we started this morning prevents us from moving forward with the force feeding deadline the vet set for this evening. We’re standing by with his preferred cat food, treats, kitten food, tuna, and baby food in hopes that something will tempt him. We’re told the type, location, and involvement of this mass is not painful to cats, but he’s also taking buprenorphine to manage any collateral pain. He’s alert (enough) and engaged (enough) that he’s still responding positively to affection and petting, and he’s seeking Jess out for all the affection and petting he can take. So we’re in a holding pattern until we hear the results of the biopsy tomorrow. I guess we can put the question off a bit longer, but it’s out there. I fear this is going to be another dark weekend in Georgia.

Damn it.