I was once a cat hater. Brought up on dogs, my world view was shaped by slobbery kisses, exuberant wagging tails, and good-natured, “always ready for adventure” personalities. I had all sorts of preconceived notions about cats and their world: sandpaper tongues, elusive behavior, “I’ll decide when I want you” attitude, claws, and on and on. I lumped them all into a single category and was firmly rooted in my opinions, despite the fact that I had never spent much time with any of their breeds.
In 1969, with my first dog, Molly Maroney Mathews.
My mother was a cat lover. She had them as pets growing up and tried to convince our family to get one on several occasions, but we would hear nothing of it. We were beagle people. And then later rescue-dog people. Cats were out of the question.
Knowing this, imagine me at forty-three years of age, with my two daughters at the local animal rescue shelter. They suggested that a fun activity on the hot midsummer day that was upon us would be to have lunch out together and then go pet dogs at the shelter to give and receive some love from them. I said yes. They said nothing about cats. Well, maybe they did. But I tuned that out.
After petting the pups, they said, “let’s just stop by the cat room on the way out, shall we?” It seemed harmless enough.
I should report one important incident before we continue. A year or two prior to this shelter visit, when picking up our border collies from the kennel after a vacation (my little family had become border collie people by this time), a cat that was staying at the kennel long-term hopped onto the desk as I was paying our bill. She was allowed roaming privileges because she was staying at the kennel so long and had become part of the family there.
As I was writing out my check, she perched on the desk next to my checkbook and inspected me. I ignored her. The next thing I knew she stood up on her hind legs, leaning over to me, and gently placed her paws on either side of my neck. She proceeded to knead my neck and shoulders as if giving me a tender massage. I had never experienced such a thing. It felt like a laser beam of love being sent right through her soft, little paws into my body. At that moment, without thinking, I said these words: “If I ever find a cat like this, I will adopt it!” I told the story to numerous friends afterwards, shocked that these words had come from my mouth.
Now, back at the shelter, my daughters called me into a side room with a few adult cats. “You have to meet this cat,” they said somewhat urgently. I sat cross-legged on the floor as they placed an orange, domestic short-hair in my lap. Purring, the four-year old named Daisy stood up on her hind legs, leaned toward me and placed her paws on either side of my neck, giving me a gentle massage. As she did, she rubbed her nose on mine and blinked her half-closed eyes slowly, purring continuously. She seemed to be in a state of bliss I could not understand but that I quickly felt myself.
“We have to adopt her,” my daughters said emphatically.
I remembered my words. I knew the truth of them and the truth of my daughters’ plea. Even still, I felt sweat on my brow and a tumultuous anxiety inside. I couldn’t breathe. How could I possibly adopt a cat? The idea was unfathomable to my thinking mind, but all too clear to my heart mind. I pulled a volunteer shelter worker aside, peppering her with questions in a staccato stream. What about claws and furniture? What if she doesn’t get along with our dog? What if, what if, what if? I hoped desperately that something in her answers would affirm that we couldn’t possibly adopt this cat, and I could go back to my long-held worldview. Instead, the answers I received only reassured all my concerns. Nonetheless, my hand was shaking as I signed the adoption papers. This was for life.
She didn’t seem very attached to the name Daisy, so we renamed her Cat, after the cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s whom she resembled. She responded favorably to the change. We learned that she was very vocal and began to understand the meaning of her meows. We meowed back and had delightful conversations. We began to recognize her “love eyes” across the room as the message they were to each of us. Meowing to catch our gaze, she would give a long, slow blink and a slight nod of the chin that was clearly deliberate and spoke volumes to our hearts. We always returned the same blink and nod. Over the years, we began to initiate it ourselves, to which she would always respond in kind.
We received endless face rubs along with the kneading, paw massages that had first won our hearts. Our dogs’ love for us was gregarious and physically palpable, laying across our laps, licking our faces, or wagging with such fervor that their whole bodies moved in unison with the wag. Cat’s love was tender but insistent and ever-present, not just in her physical touches but in her meows and her eyes. She taught us a new language of love.
When not napping with him, Cat loved to watch Holton sleep.
Perhaps the hardest to convince was our rescue hound, Holton. He took a few years to soften, but Cat was patient. Eventually she would win him over. My heart skipped a beat the first time I found them curled up together napping. She delighted in grooming him almost daily, licking his ears and face, and he delighted in being groomed.
I became a cat proponent. I gave unsolicited testimonials about my previous prejudice and my newfound love of felines. I wondered how I had ever lived without Cat in my life and feared having to ever live without her. Of course, I knew the day would come.
After 12 years in our family, at the age of 16, she passed gently into the higher realm and seemed to know the transition was at hand. I believe she was ready for it.
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Texting with a friend about her death, he responded: “Cat made you a cat person! She has her place in history!” She does have her place in history— in my history. She dismantled the barriers to love I didn’t even know I had. She needed no sword or shield. My entrenched prejudice against her species was no match for the power she wielded: LOVE.
To my dear Cat—whom we affectionately nicknamed Kitten— I thank you for your life with us, for being so steadfast in the face of my resistance, for making yourself a core part of me, and for never wavering in showing me that love wins.
Remembering my friend Elizabeth today on what would have been her 56th birthday. That makes eight birthdays since she has been gone.
The photographs in the header of this page are from a trip we took in 1982 to Fripp Island, South Carolina. We went out at sunset to take some glamour shots, I guess. My memory is vague. It was after we’d graduated from high school. Before we’d started college. Before we had any idea what our lives would be like in the future. Before we had even started thinking of a future beyond the four years of college.
In the photo at the bottom of the page, the top bracelet is a now-vintage wrist band from the 2007 Komen 60-mile 3-Day Walk that Elizabeth and I did together to celebrate her 5th year cancer-free from what would turn out to be only her first cancer. The bracelet is nearly white, faded from its original pink, after months of sun on my wrist as I trained for the walk and then for the actual 60 miles of the event itself in humid, 90 to 100 degree Boston summer heat.
The middle bracelet is one my daughter had made for me with Elizabeth’s own handwriting etched into the metal. Sometime in the late 1980s, Elizabeth had signed a letter to me with a very uncharacteristic closing: “Always, always with you, Elizabeth.” She had never used this signature before, and she never did again. Finding this letter shortly before her memorial service, I was comforted by her closing, as if she had somehow sent a message across time to reassure me of her presence even now. Speaking at her memorial service, I borrowed words from a song by Cheryl Wheeler: “We’re just bereft, not deserted.” Elizabeth left those of us who loved her with so much of herself.
The bottom bracelet is vibrant pink, a take-away from an event last year to raise money and awareness for a cure for breast cancer in Elizabeth’s memory. Each August since her death, a team of bike riders composed of family and friends has taken to the roads around Boston in the Pan-Mass Challenge to raise funds for the endowment in her name at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
The initial “Team Elizabeth” was three riders, each of whom was contemporary in age with Elizabeth or older. These days, the team has grown to as many 21 cyclists, all from the generation of Elizabeth’s two sons. The twenty-something-year-olds have made the ride and the cause their own, now calling themselves “Team E,” for short. This passing of the torch is the most fitting and beautiful evidence of Elizabeth’s continuing spirit in the world that I can imagine.
This year, the Pan-Mass Challenge will be virtual, shifting plans like so many other events have done, so that participants and communities are kept safe in the Covid-19 pandemic. In this unprecedented time, many are grieving new losses that the pandemic has caused. There are also those who have lost loved ones from causes other than Covid, and none are able to gather to mourn and remember. A sense of collective grief seems to be swirling around us all.
Grief has been a mighty teacher for me in the last eight years, and while I cannot say that I am grateful for the opportunity to walk through this grief, I can say that I am grateful every day for the continuing love and presence I feel from Elizabeth through my memories of our 31 years of earthly time together. I recently heard someone say that “grief is just love with no place to go.” It is a touching sentiment that can feel very true to me in moments of sadness. Yet, I wonder if there is a flip-side to it, as well. Love always has someplace to go, doesn’t it? Maybe grief just reminds us that when we are ready, we can choose where and how to send the love that is underneath to someone else who needs it.
This quote, one of Elizabeth’s favorites, was read at her memorial service. I take it as my marching orders from her when I need little guidance on what to do with my grief and how to use the love that is underneath it.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson*
*Recently, I learned that a very similar version of these words was published earlier than Emerson’s by Bessie E. Stanley of Springfield, Illinois—a literary mystery uncovered that Elizabeth would have loved. I have kept Emerson as the cited source because it is his final wording that I used.
“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” ― William Shakespeare
For the last decade, if not longer, I have lit a candle every morning while I sit and sip my coffee to start my day. My family, very familiar with this habit of mine, thoughtfully chooses nice candles as gifts for me because they know I won’t splurge on the fancy ones for myself. Diligently conserving them so that they last as long as possible, I’ve always been careful not to let them burn too long each morning.
But all that changed on Christmas of last year, all because of my sister. Her gift to me was light, an abundance of it. Two big boxes were filled with individually wrapped presents, all for me. Each present was labeled, one for every month of the year. The accompanying note was titled “The Light in Lucy’s House.” Read More
“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!” — Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Composer Frank Ticheli has said that his hope for “An American Elegy” is that it might serve as “one reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how intimately connected we all are as human beings.” Ticheli was commissioned to write the orchestral piece to remember those who died in the shooting at Columbine High School in April of 1999, and to honor the lives of those who survived.
One of my dearest friends, about whom I’ve written often, heard the music played by her son’s school orchestra and was moved beyond words by the power of it, the poetic strength coupled with such vulnerable emotional resonance. She tucked away the title just like she tucked away other other things that moved and inspired her, quotes from Emerson and St. Augustine among them. After she died from metastatic breast cancer, Ticheli’s piece was played at the beginning of her memorial service, an instruction she had left behind for her family. Whenever I hear the opening bars, the music never fails to take my breath for a moment, in goosebumps and tears, just like it did the first time I heard it at her service. Read More
“Just as people have eyes to see light with and ears to hear sounds with, so they have hearts for the appreciation of time.”— Michael Ende
If you are skittish about the topic of death, then stop reading this post right now. Or better yet, don’t. I used to be one of those people, superstitious that talk of death would draw it nearer somehow. Yet, when one of my closest friends was diagnosed with terminal cancer, it became a topic I could not avoid. And guess what? I found out that talking about death could actually be a very life affirming act.
I’ve been reminded of this irony recently by a friend of a friend of mine, a man I never met but whose forthright manner of living with and ultimately dying from ALS has inspired and touched me since I first heard his story. When my friend Barbara McAfee asked me to create a video of her song about her friend Jamie Showkeir, I had no idea I’d be drawn so completely into his story that I’d feel I knew him personally. Read More
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
The first time it happened it was a quarter, not a penny. I was on a trail I’ve walked regularly for over a decade, where I’d never found a dropped coin before, and there it was near the end of my walk. I scooped it into my hand without breaking my stride and tucked it in my pocket. Was it a sign? A message? Ever the skeptic, I decided it would only mean something if the year on it was significant in some way. Read More