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.
For those who are unable to visit the memorial in Minneapolis that has sprung up at the intersection where George Floyd was killed, I visited this morning and took some photographs. Amidst the sadness, outrage, and prayers, there was also an outpouring of community kindness.
Many friends and family have reached out to my spouse and me to see how Minneapolis is doing right now, so I took a drive through some of our city neighborhoods this morning with my camera. Click the image below to see the photo story.
“…until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”—Martin Luther King, Jr.
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.
Honored that my friend Barbara McAfee agreed to help me with this greeting card project a few years ago. Her interpretation of the message of my song, “Where the Angels Live,” in this spoken word meditation (shared below) was a beautiful addition to the project and a gracious contribution on her part. She also helped me record the musical tracks for each of the three cards in the series, adding piano and harmonies that lifted my melodies and lyrics to their fullest. Deeply touched that she felt moved to write about our collaborative endeavor in this post.
“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
I have two pairs of pink crocs in my closet. One pair is mine. One belongs to one of my closest friends. I have my friend’s pair because I brought them home with me last year when I returned from her memorial service. She died of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 48. But I still think of the shoes as hers, not mine.
A fellow walker saw our feet sticking out of our tent together and said, “I see a cute picture!” Grateful she took it for us.
I don’t know why I wanted her shoes. I just did. She’d bought us matching pairs in 2007 when we walked the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day together in Boston, her hometown. They were to be respite for our feet at the end of 20 miles walking each day. That year marked her fifth year cancer-free from when she was first diagnosed. We wanted to celebrate, but even more so we wanted to honor the occasion with an act of endurance, strength and perseverance. Walking 60 miles in three days and raising money for a cure for breast cancer seemed like just the right thing to do.
When I first got home with her shoes, I tried them on. They still had remnants of sand in them from Martha’s Vineyard, one of her happy places and where she’d been just a month before she died. I took the crocs off as soon as I’d put them on. I didn’t belong in her shoes. Yet, having them side by side with my own pink crocs has been a secret comfort in the months since she passed away.
The news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday rattled me. I guess it rattled us all, as senseless, tragic and heartbreaking acts always do. Out of longstanding habit, I had the urge all Monday afternoon to text my friend. We would have traded notes and shared our shock. I would have sought reassurance that she and her family were alright. I felt her absence even more keenly than usual, and was deeply saddened as I thought about how many families would be shaken by trauma and loss from the bombings.
I have spent a fair amount of time in Boston over the years, both before and after the 3-Day Walk, and have always been fond of the city. I’ve collected a lot of good memories there. But covering 60 miles on foot through its streets and communities put it right smack dab in the center of my heart in a way that was altogether more personal and permanent. From the police officers in every town who didn’t just provide logistical support but smiled with kind words, their own stories, funny jokes and moral support, to the throngs of cheering crowds along the route, there’s just something special about Boston. I’ve walked the 3-Day two more times since in my own hometown and I mean no offense whatsoever to the Twin Cities, but no one cheers like Bostonians. It makes me think that the hearty, New England, patriot soul of the city gives its inhabitants an especially deep reverence for acts of endurance, strength and perseverance.
In my sadness on Monday evening, I happened to see the pink crocs in my closet. Just seeing them made me feel comforted, so I decided to put them on. I grabbed what I thought were mine, yet when I tried to slip into them, I realized I’d gotten two left shoes. I pulled out the remaining two thinking I could quickly sort out which was which. I remembered my friend’s shoes as having been far less scuffed and worn than my own and, of course, there was the tell-tale sand that would be definitive proof. Yet, turning the shoes over and over, I couldn’t tell which pair was which. Both are the same size and though the particulars of the scuffs were different, the amount of wear was just the same. The Martha’s Vineyard sand must have long since migrated to my closet floor.
Interestingly, instead of feeling sad, I was actually even more comforted by the fact that our shoes were now indistinguishable. I put on a left and a right and hoped that by luck I had chosen one of each of our pairs.
At the close of each 3-Day, there is a tradition that all walkers who have not been through cancer to take off a shoe and kneel in salute as those walkers who have been through cancer march into the event’s closing ceremonies. It is a small and symbolic way to honor the endurance, strength and perseverance of those who have been through the disease. Each time I have been a part of this ceremony, I have been moved to tears. But the one I remember most and hold closest to my heart was that first time in Boston.
So, Boston, I hope you can see me. Just like in the faded clipping I saved from the font page of The Globe six years ago, I am kneeling on the ground and raising one pink croc high in air, waving it proudly for you in salute and solidarity. We’re all in this together.
Every song has a story. But sometimes you don’t know the full story until the song itself shows you. Even if you wrote the song yourself.
Long plagued by stage fright when it comes to singing, I was preparing to do so for the first time in front of an audience for an evening of my own songs and stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of speaking to an audience; I love that part. It’s the singing that makes me feel vulnerable.
As I practiced and prepared, I kept picturing myself as the American Idol contestant who warbles embarrassingly off-key as the judges fidget. Every vulnerability I’d ever felt seemed to be right on the surface of my skin. Yet, as I was fending off my inner demons, I found a song forming in my mind that became a lifeline out of the turmoil. Actually, it felt more like a secret mantra; a mere five lines that gave me enormous comfort and calm.
One of my closest friends, who knew me well enough to realize how challenging this first public singing performance would feel for me, asked if she could fly out from her home in Boston to mine in Minneapolis to attend. “If it makes you more nervous, I won’t come,” she said. “Please come,” I replied.
The morning of the performance, I sang this new song for her. Simple, a capella. It was much too new to add to my set list, but I truly believed it had come to me so that I’d feel the confidence and courage I needed in order to sing for people that evening. What I didn’t know yet was that it would be several more years before I would realize the song’s true purpose: it was meant to be a lullaby for my friend.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time, we all assumed she would undergo treatment and put the disease behind her again. The day after she learned the diagnosis was terminal, she told me she’d had a sleepless night. She lay awake, she said, and envisioned every possible outcome— from the one where she would defy the odds and live to be 100 to the one where I would sing “Where the Angels Live” at her memorial service.
I came to see her when she returned home from the hospital for the last time and began hospice care. The time between her diagnosis and this visit was shorter than any of us would have liked. And that’s the biggest understatement I’ve ever made. But the time was also filled with heart-rending moments of grace, of touching poignancy, of riotous laughter, of honesty and, most of all, love.
She told me a few months before she died that she was “banking memories” for herself and for everyone she loved, consciously making time for moments together that would sustain her and the rest of us through her passing. She was filling the well, she said.
I did sing for her at her memorial service. And I brought my oldest child, her goddaughter, to sing with me. The song deserved harmonies. My ukulele was the simple accompaniment, though I was fairly certain that the people in the back of the church might not even hear it. The important part, I knew, was the voices.
I told the overflowing crowd of her family, friends and colleagues that we all had a job to do together. And then I shared the promise that I had made to her. The night before I left her for the last time, she had wanted to discuss her memorial service. I promised her again that I would sing, but told her that I also planned to ask everyone sing with me. In singing together, I’d said, we’d not only help ourselves begin to heal but our voices in unison would lift the song to the high heavens as a lullaby for her.
On a fall day that began with rain and ended with the sun peeking out from the clouds, in a quaint New England church, I kept my promise to my friend. And, in doing so, I realized the true purpose of my song. I felt it in my bones. I knew it in my heart. I heard it in all the voices that joined together to sing with my daughter and me. The well is deep; there is no limit to love.
∞ ∞ ∞
Where the Angels Live
Can you feel the space between heartbeat and breath?
Click this link for the audio version of the narrative, if you’d like to hear the story told, rather than read it.
Though I recorded a version of “Where the Angels Live” in studio with full piano and guitar accompaniment, I felt it was important to also create the simple, spare lullaby version that my daughter and I sang at my friend’s memorial service. Recorded at home, I paired the song with nature photographs by J. Marion Brown in a video to honor the memory of my dear friend.
The Elizabeth Alling Sewall Endowment Fund was established at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute to support research to help find a cure for breast cancer. If you’d like to learn more about this worthy cause, please visit this site, which also tells more about Elizabeth’s life.
I am a pack-rat of the highest order. I save everything. Well, not everything. I save memories. Photographs, letters, old cassette tapes with recordings of friends and family, and ancient family movies. But the problem is that if you save everything, you sometimes can’t find what you need when you need it.
For months I had been thinking about an old cassette tape that my father recorded for me on the weekend of my graduation from high school. While I was out at parties with my friends, my father recorded messages from family members visiting for my graduation. What I remember most from that tape is my grandfather’s laugh. I kept replaying the tape in my mind, but I desperately wanted to find the real thing.
My grandfather, Forrest Lee Mathews, was a booming presence, someone who was prone to taking people by surprise when he spoke. He said exactly what he thought—no mincing words. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a down-to-earth eye on the world. Every time I listened to the tape, I could feel the delicious tension in the room when my father asked his father to record a message for me. My grandmothers had just delivered their messages, short and sweet, and while I cherish the sound of their voices on that tape, I can hear their discomfort at being recorded. “Lucy, we are so proud of you,” said one. “We are so happy to be here, Lucy,” said the other.
When the microphone got to my grandfather, I could practically hear the collective holding of breath as everyone waited in anticipation of what he might say. He began to speak slowly, with all the natural warmth and charm that was his essence. I have always wondered if he thought in advance about what he would say, or if he simply made it up as each word rolled off his tongue. In his gentle southern accent, he proceeded to deliver a message that surprised everyone and resulted in laughter around the room. I think even he was surprised at how funny everyone found his comment. He, too, began to laugh, and got so “tickled” (as we say in the south) he barely got his closing sentences out. The moment is so candid and real, the laughter so unplanned and so true, that I feel lighter when I listen to it. And I feel closer to my grandfather. It’s as if he’s in the room with me.
The good news is that I did find the tape. The clip here is for anyone who is curious to know exactly what my grandfather said that day. And I’m now taking more seriously the chore of cataloging and organizing all my pack-rat treasures because they hold so many important memories for me.
But the bigger question that has arisen for me from all of this is: how do we “archive” the ones we love? What bits and pieces, handwritten notes, recorded audio do we select to create a full picture of someone? Bigger yet, perhaps, how do we archive ourselves? What is the essence of me that I will want my granddaughter to search for one day?
Of course, there is no simple checklist. The answer is personal to each one of us. In thinking of my grandfather, I wanted most to hear his laughter. In fact, that’s a sound I cherish about everyone dear to me. But there’s so much more that can help create a full picture of someone– hearing a narration of a familiar story; reading a handwritten letter that captures a moment just after it unfolded; hearing someone speak about what matters most to them; and, of course, looking at photographs or watching a home movie. We can capture so much in this digital era, but how do we make sure we capture the most important things?
So I am posing the question rather than answering it– what relics or treasures are most important to you about the ones you love or about yourself? Is anyone else a pack-rat like me, squirreling away treasures of memory? (I know you’re out there!) What do you keep and why?