feline friday eulogy

It’s too soon in so many ways. You would think it would be easier and hurt less. You would think that writing about it would be simple with all the good memories you have. You would think you could push back the tears that threaten to overwhelm you when you see his chair, find his toy, hold his collar. But it isn’t easier. It hurts more than you can explain to anyone.

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It should be easier to share the feelings you have about it. There is a need to share that gnaws at the corner of your mind. Share his life, and share the joy that he brought and the anecdotes about his tiny existence. How beautiful he was and soft and funny and so fiercely loyal and in wholly in love with my husband. His cat, truly.

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On Sunday, we lost Loki. When he came into our master bedroom, despite the puppy being there, and started meowing, loudly and insistently, we thought he was hungry or looking for attention or maybe even regretting his decision to be near the puppy. I even took a video of it, finding it odd, but he’s always been very vocal. When we came home after running errands and found him laying on the tile floor of our upstairs bathroom, not moving, and he let me pick him up, we knew something was wrong. He wouldn’t walk, wouldn’t even stand.

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At 8 pm we ended up in the emergency room with him. The fact that he even let us put him in the carrier and didn’t fight was another bad sign, but I was in denial. Fearful, but optimistic. A blockage. Expensive, serious, but common. They would clear it, it could happen again, but cats live long lives with this problem and they just have to lose weight and change food.  Loki would have to stay overnight, but we could get him in the morning. At nearly midnight, though, they called us to say they couldn’t clear it but would try again.

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We picked him up in the morning with a battery of medications and the vet tech telling us they were so excited when they were able to clear the blockage that morning. We set him up in his own room so he could recover away from the puppy and began checking on him every thirty minutes. Had he moved? He wasn’t drinking water. We put some wet food in a bowl, but he didn’t want to eat. Luna wouldn’t go near him.

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My husband had to go to work, so the puppy and I began doing the checks. I sat on the floor, brushing him as he looked at me, the puppy nosing around him, licking his head and legs. She had never been so patient and calm with him. She knew what I did not. When he hadn’t eaten or drank or even moved, and when I called the vet and told them, I was told to bring him back in. It had been just under twenty-four hours, and we were back in the same cold exam room. The same vet tech who told me how beautiful and brave and calm he was took him into the back to be examined. The receptionist came in and told me a man in the waiting room was so upset for me he offered to help pay the bill if we needed it. How beautiful a gesture.

I waited, crying. The vet came out and told me how bad his heart rate was, his respiration too slow, how blocked he was again, and how much pain he was in. There was no optimistic solution this time. Quiet voices, drawn faces. Do you need to make a phone call? A long, painful phone call with my husband where he told me that he had already said goodbye.

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The vet tech brought Loki back in to me and told me her favorite place to rub him was behind his ears, the softest fur. That was my favorite place too. Do you need a blanket? No. Do you want to be with him? Yes. He curled up on me, his head nestled under my chin, eyes blinking slowly. We sat like that for ten minutes, me crying and telling him I was sorry. I had promised, after all, that he would get better, he would be okay, we would be going home soon. I held him, stroking his head, his paws, his ears as he was put to sleep, a tear rolling down the vets  face. I sat with him after, sobbing, unbelieving. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. It could have been less, it could have been more. He was just four.

When the  vet tech came back, she was crying too. She took his color off for me. She put it around my wrist for me.  She took him, gently and slowly, from my arms and stroked him as she told me how beautiful he was, and then hugged me, still holding him.

Our  beautiful little boy. So much love and joy in such a short amount of time. You have no idea how much you are missed.

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where the heart and history is

where i grew up

where i grew up

Definition of HOME

1 a: one’s place of residence : domicile b: house
2 : the social unit formed by a family living together
3 a: a familiar or usual setting : congenial environment; also: the focus of one’s domestic attention <home is where the heart is> b: habitat
4 a place of origin <salmon returning to their home to spawn>; also: one’s own country <having troubles at home and abroad>

(Merriam-Webster)

Two years ago today, with much the same overcast weather, the man and I were sitting at a long mahogany table signing paperwork and being handed the keys to our new house.  It’s hard to believe how quickly two years can pass.

Sometimes I can’t believe I’m here, in a house, so far from home.  My mom still lives in the same house that I grew up in, about 150 miles from where I live now.  Whenever I go to visit my mom, I say that I’m going home.  I may have my own house and life here so far away, but going back to New York is going home too. It isn’t just roots for me. It’s memories, my past, and what made me what I am. To me, home isn’t just where I live, but it is where I have been and where I have come from. There is still a nostalgia when I drive past the apartments I’ve lived in. Each one holds a piece of my history from my time in college and the memories that were made with friends from a different time in my life, to the apartment I lived in when I began my life as a professional and, for the first time, ended up living on my own, even if not by design.  The time in each place changed me.

my father's home

my father’s home

I can’t fathom a day when I won’t have the  home I grew up in and that part of me to go back to.  While both of my grandfathers died before I was two, my grandmothers were alive until I was in second grade.  I didn’t spend much time in either house, but enough that I have snippets of memory from both places. When I was a teenager, I never thought how hard it must be for my father. When his mother, my Oma, died and my uncle inherited the house and everything in it, there was a rift created that I never understood.  All I knew was that my father didn’t talk to my uncle. What I know now is that my father was cheated from his past.  When my uncle decided to move in the house and keep it , it meant that my father had to drive past the house every day on his way to work, but could never go in. He couldn’t go get his favorite coffee cup or books, retrieve the cigar boxes of photographs that Oma had labeled painstakingly over the years in her German script with names and dates and tidbits of history. It meant that my father was robbed of his history.  There are no happy memories tied to driving past that house and I remember very little of it.  I remember the odd layout of the first floor and that the house was always darkened and smelled like a mix of smoke and coffee and old papers. And I remember the tiny kitchen with the small table by the back door that I was allowed to sit at when Oma made her afternoon tea. I always was given some tea for myself, in a glass that had three stripes on it (brown, orange and yellow) and it always made me feel so mature to get my own tea. Now I know that it was mostly milk and sugar and just a little tea, but at seven years old I felt like I was sharing in some adult magic.

my mother's home

my mother’s home

I don’t have many memories from my Nana’s house either. Nana was my mom’s mother. I remember that the first time I saw mint jelly was there, and I wondered why we were having jello with pork chops.  I remember that her sitting room in the back of the house had tons of natural light flooding in, and that I would sit on the floor playing with Barbie’s while mom and Nana watched TV. When Nana died, the division was less contentious. No one planned on keeping the house and my grandmother’s belongings were divided.  I grew up surrounded by artifacts of my mother’s history. Family bibles and photographs were always a part of my historical conscious and whenever my mother’s brothers came to visit the dining room table conversations were about sharing memories and jokes and family stories. There was never a void in my knowledge of that side of my family, and I’m blessed to know so many of the anecdotes that make my mother who she is. Every once in a while when I’m visiting my mom and we’re out shopping or running errands, we end up in the area where she grew up and we drive past the house.  There is a sadness to visiting a place that is no longer yours, but as we drive past my mom invariably tells me some piece of her history that I didn’t know before and there isn’t the same thread of pain that I imagine my father experienced.

As we’ve built our home, the man and I have filled it with things that we’ve found at estate sales, things that were Oma’s and Nana’s, and things that both our families and friends have given us to help us create this new life for ourselves. Whether it’s a plant or kitchen towels or pots  or the gift cards that bought the paint we used, we are surrounded by a new history that we are creating for ourselves.

Owning and creating this home has been tumultuous and crazy and exhilarating and terrifying. I remember how busy the first few days were after we moved in.  There was the constant parade of movers on our second day, and on the third there was the barrage of friends who came to help strip wall paper and wash the walls in the dining room and change locks and move boxes.  And in the months, and now two years, since, we have had our first Thanksgiving here, and our first Easter. We have had our house flooded by friends for barbeques and holiday celebrations. We have laughed and cried in this house.

Whenever I go to visit my mom, I’m going home. But when I come back here to this house, I come back to the home we have made. And I am so very blessed.

May 18, 2011

Northern Girl

A few years ago I was called taig for the second time in my life. It was in the parking lot of my neighborhood Wawa. My bumper sticker had started it. I had “26 +6 = 1” on mine, and the man who called me taig had the red hand of Ulster on his.  The man spat some more words at me in a lush brogue until someone told him to knock it off. I never thought the sentiment of the North would follow me to Philadelphia.

SCAN0002The slur Taig is used by Loyalists to define the Northern Irish Catholics. “If guns are made for shooting, then skulls are made to crack. You’ve never seen a better Taig than with a bullet in his back” horrified me when I heard it. No one wants a Taig in their midst when they’re an active member of the UVF. We drove through Tigers Bay to see the bombed out warehouses and the worst interface communities where between blocks that Protestants live on and blocks that Catholics live on, high brick walls were topped by barbed wire so that no one could throw bombs or rocks over the top. Entire sections of row homes were destroyed and graffitied plywood covered windows and doors: “Ready for Peace, Prepared for War”, “Fuck Taigs” and “No Surrender”, “Democracy Denied” and “PSNI Scum”. Both sides have their slogans of hatred. There are murals depicting “murderers” and the victims of the 1981 Hunger Strikes.  Many murals depicted men in military dress with guns.

I went to Northern Ireland in May of 2003. To find God. To find myself. To find history.  It was a two week study tour that I wasn’t prepared for. I had my clothing, my towel, my toiletries, and my books.  But the Iraq war was a permanent SCAN0001backdrop to life and “BUSH NOT WELCOME HERE” was spray-painted red in 2-foot letters on a building for sale in Belfast. The letters covered posters boasting Boy George’s appearance at Joy Niteclub. Signs in Ballycastle read, “Even Saddam holds elections.” On the back of the building at Free Derry corner, it also now reads, “1968-2003 NOTHING HAS CHANGED WE DEMAND OUR RIGHTS.” Politics and tension were thick in the air wherever we went.

Ireland is portrayed in movies and travel ads as the land of beer pints and redheaded schoolgirls doing Irish step dancing.  But the reality of the North is a former IRA member – Jon McCourt –  showing us the direction people ran through Rossville Flats on Bloody Sunday, the RUC closed around them and herding people into the square where they opened fire, killing as many as they could.  Concrete barriers and buildings still bore the pitted markings of gunfire and shrapnel explosions.  The area was shrouded in desolation.  Murals by Bogside artists have been erected on nearly every block, depicting victims, activists, and events of that day.  A black marble monument reminiscent of the shape of our own country’s Washington Monument, but a tenth of the size, was erected in a small courtyard. It bore the names and ages of the victims.  The three youngest – Jackie Duddy, Hugh Gilmore, and Michael Kelly – were all seventeen years old, and they were all unarmed.

SCAN0006Our arrival days later in Belfast brought curbstones painted red, white, and blue indicating we were now in a Protestant territory, and served as a warning to those who are Catholic that should the step inside an establishment lining one of those blocks, they could expect to be hassled.

At Shankill Treatment Centre I met Tommy. A former UVF, chain smoker, not much taller than I, and thin – probably too thin. We sat on the ground outside the backdoor of the center. The way Tommy laughed when he talked about something painful, trying to cover up the sadness to what he was saying, made me uncomfortable. Whether he did this for my benefit or his own was unclear to me.

Tommy asked me something, but his accent was so thick that it wasn’t until I asked him to repeat the question a third time that I understood.

“So, yer a Fenian, aren’t ya? A fuckin’ Taig?” he asked. “You have the red hair…”

I replied with a mumbled, “I guess so,” while I averted my eyes, appearing transfixed by the ground beneath my outstretched legs. He chuckled.

“Aw, don’t yer worry bout that. See here,” he said. He rolled up the sleeve on his t-shirt to reveal a Celtic cross tattoo on his scrawny freckled arm. It was a simple black one, faded with either time or poor workmanship.

“My daughter… .she married a Catholic so I got this,” he explained. “He’s a good guy. Ya know? Best for her. Don’t matter what he is, ya see.”

I nodded and smiled at Tommy.  I thought of my own tattoo – Celtic cross, about four inches in diameter. As he spoke of his own tattoo, I couldn’t help remembering that a few weeks before leaving, we had joked that if the plane got lost, we could use my tattoo like a Batman lamp as a homing device for Ireland. I had gotten it as a sign of permanent faith and a feeling of kinship. I didn’t know my red hair would be enough to brand me, let alone the ink on my back that I kept readjusting my shirt for to make sure it didn’t show.

In the middle of one Protestant housing community, wooden pallets, old doors and windows, along with broken sofas and armchairs were gathered as fuel for the July bonfires. There are young boys of eight or ten with guns and stone cold SCAN0003expressions protecting these piles. They are preparing for the Orange parades. The piles of fodder for the fire are gathered near a mural for Bucky McCullough like offerings on a shrine to the loyalists. I wonder if they even know what they are protecting and fighting for.

At the end of two weeks, we went back to the house we had started our journey in. It was called Knocklayd. To me, it was a place of safety and reflection nestled out of the way of the Troubles.  It was here that we had one last mass and one last night of laughs and instant coffee before boarding the small Midland plane to Heathrow, and then back to Philadelphia. Knocklayd was high in the hills of County Antrim, a few minutes from the beach where the sun didn’t set until 9 and the sheep caused traffic jams on the narrow one lane road. On our last drive there I stared out the window at the passing fields, horses and sheep dotting the landscape on either side of the road we traveled. Some three thousand miles from what I called home, watching cattle graze a hundred feet away, I found what beauty truly is.  The lowing of cows in the distance.  The softness of the earth. Being alone, there, in that place with hate at a safe distance, insulated by ocean and hills, I felt as if I had met God.  Or, at the least, as if I had finally come home.

Now it has been nearly a decade since that two weeks. I can close my eyes and see myself standing on the rocks at Giants Causway, or walking through the streets of Derry with John.  I can hear Tommy’s hoarse laugh and the sound of the waves breaking on the shore of Ballycastle. Every Saint Patrick’s day I don my claddagh that I bought in Derry and the triskele earrings that I bought in Belfast. I have a pint of Guiness and remember how much better it tasted over there. And I remember the feeling of being a girl in the North with red hair being called a Taig.

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