And Then There Was One

Two months ago I lived in a beautiful home on two acres of woods, with a husband and two cats. The four of us weren’t always happy, but we were still a family. Our daily lives were deeply intertwined.

Then it all came apart.

The cats and I moved into an apartment a few miles away. The three of us began a journey together. None of us were thrilled about it, but it happened nonetheless.

The first night after I brought Mickey and Dexter here, after they’d explored their new home and settled down on the sofa with me, I felt a tiny glimmer of optimism that maybe we were all going to be okay in the end. The cats gave me much-needed comfort as I began my new life on shaky legs.

Dexter at his favorite window
Dexter at his favorite window

Then one month ago it became clear that Dexter, an active five-year-old, wasn’t happy here. His favorite activity at the house had been watching the many birds at our feeders. He spent his days “stalking” the ground-feeding Juncos and Mourning Doves, leaping against the glass and scattering them. Over and over. Sometimes the squirrels would stand face-to-face with him in a sort of contest of wills. The floor-to-ceiling windows were perfect for his critter-watching hobby. And he made good use of the entire 2800 square feet of the house, galloping up and down the stairs, running headlong into that big window by the feeders. He was so happy there.

Here in this second-floor apartment of 1100 square feet he didn’t have any vantage points to see wildlife. And since I’m not allowed to have feeders here, he had little chance to see birds either. Of course I made extra efforts to play with him often throughout the day, tossing his favorite toys across the apartment until he grew tired of chasing them. But it just wasn’t enough.

Dexter and Mickey in 2012
Dexter and Mickey in 2012

He began showing signs of frustration and, I believe, unhappiness. I told Eric about my concerns and he offered to take Dexter back to live at the house with him. So two weeks ago I said a sad goodbye and took him back there. When I let him out of his carrier he ran directly to his favorite window, clearly happy to be home. I’m sure it was the best decision for Dexter, but it was pure torture for me. I had immense guilt for splitting up the two cats, who had been great companions for each other. As a younger cat, Dexter was great at keeping 15-year old Mickey active. Mickey would rather chase Dexter than play with toys. So I beat myself up over my perceived failure as a responsible cat owner. Every time I adopt a cat from the shelter I make a commitment to care for it for the rest of its life. So I felt I’d broken that commitment. And I missed Dexter terribly. I worried that Mickey also missed him.

Day 7 in the new apartment
Day 7 in the new apartment

So now the two of us began a much quieter life. Those first few days without Dexter felt like I was living in a funeral home. It was like the life had been sucked out of my home. Eric reassured me that he was smothering Dexy with love and lots of new toys. And he said he might get another cat to keep him company. That made me feel better.

So Mickey and I were starting to adjust to our situation. Then, on Tuesday last week he stopped eating and slept all day. I was concerned and watched him closely. On Wednesday morning he didn’t wake me up early as he usually did, and I found him sleeping on the bathroom floor, someplace he’d never slept before. He seemed to be in pain when I picked him up. I called the vet and they let me bring him in right away. After an exam and an inconclusive x-ray, they sent us to the vet hospital for an ultrasound. Mickey had two ultrasounds at this hospital before, most recently in July this year. He was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease and was being treated with a daily steroid pill.

Mickey's favorite sleeping spot in the apartment
Mickey’s favorite sleeping spot in the apartment

The new ultrasound was inconclusive too, and they gave him pain medications and wanted to keep him overnight for observation. On Thanksgiving morning he was worse and had emergency surgery. The vet called me in the middle of the surgery to tell me she’d found a hole in his intestine. They could remove a section of his intestine but because of his long-term steroid use and enlarged organs, he would likely not heal well from the surgery and would require a long hospital stay. I knew what I had to do, and on Thanksgiving day I made the excruciating decision to have my baby euthanized to spare him all of that trauma. At that moment I thought I would die too. My heart was still bruised and battered from all the other losses I’d experienced lately. My world crumbled right then. I’d felt alone before, when I had both cats. But now I was really alone. Heartbroken, I made the 15 mile drive to say goodbye to my sweet baby boy. Numb, I came home to a very quiet apartment.

My beautiful Mickey
My beautiful Mickey

Mickey and I had a very close relationship for his entire life. He slept beside my pillow every night. He sat on my lap whenever I sat down on the sofa. He loved to be carried around on my shoulder as I went about simple household chores. He was my buddy. I loved him dearly. I still have moments when I can’t believe he’s really gone. I still can’t sleep through the night. In fact I’m writing this at 3 a.m.

Mickey snoozing on my legs (2013)
Mickey snoozing on my legs (2013)

Everyone seems to think I should get another cat, right away. I don’t know if I can ever get another cat. Every time I lose one of them it brings me to my knees. I just don’t know if I can go through that again. Now I’ve got three little urns filled with ashes in my closet. It’s unbearably sad. But, on the other hand, I can’t imagine not having a cat in my life — they’re such wonderful companions and fascinating animals, so full of unconditional love.

Mickey portrait resizedI know that anytime you love someone you risk the pain of losing them, whether it’s by divorce or death. Right now I hurt too much to even consider letting another cat into my heart. But I realize that by protecting myself from this hurt I’d be denying myself the joy of rescuing and loving another cat. I guess I’m pretty confused right now, in the rawness of this fresh grief.

At Eric’s urging, I went to visit Dexter on Friday and Saturday. It was like a bandaid on my heart to sit there and cuddle with him while he purred his funny little purr.  I sat on the sofa in my usual spot and watched a movie, with Dexy staring up into my eyes as if life had gone back to “normal.” In fact it was surreal being back in the house like that. I almost wanted to close my eyes and pretend none of the past three months had happened. But I knew I couldn’t do that. As painful as it was, this split needed to happen.

Dexter and Mickey (2012)
Dexter and Mickey (2012)

So now I’ve got to just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward. Time will ease some of this pain, I know.  But I’ve been so sad and scared for months, and that really wears a person down. Very late on Thursday night, after crying until I was exhausted, I suddenly felt all the fight go out of me at once. I felt too tired to be scared anymore, if that even makes sense. I didn’t have the strength to keep holding up my protective walls anymore either.  I had been shutting out my family because I always ended up feeling sadder after phone calls with my parents or my sister. I believed nobody really understood my pain. I resisted every suggestion they made in their efforts to soothe my broken heart. But suddenly I was ready to hear them. I had no more fight left in me.

Over the weekend I spent hours on the phone with my mom and sister, soaking up any crumbs of advice or positive thinking they had for me. I started to feel gratitude that they loved me enough to not give up on me when I shut them out. They know all my weaknesses but don’t judge me. They are strong for me when I can’t be strong for myself. They hold me up until I can stand on my own again. Some friends will turn away in times of tragedy — maybe they’re uncomfortable witnesses to your pain or they don’t know what to say. And I don’t blame anybody for that; I suppose it’s human nature. But I’m incredibly grateful to my family for catching me when I fell so far down into the depths of despair that I thought I might not be able to get back out on my own. Now I understand that even though I live “alone,” I’m never really alone. No matter what our differences, we are family and they’ve got my back. I am grateful.

 

There IS Life After Death

Have you given much thought to your life after you die? I’m not thinking of any type of spiritual existence, but rather about how your body becomes part of the earth, one way or another.

Cemetery sign with toxic waste warning (800x533)As uncomfortable as it might be to think about it this way, conventional cemeteries are really toxic waste dumps. Think about it. Your body is pumped full of embalming fluid (formaldehyde and other chemicals) to preserve it long enough for funeral home viewing, then placed in clothing (often synthetics that take a long time to biodegrade), then placed in a wood coffin that’s been treated with chemical sealants and contains metal hardware. Sometimes the coffin is placed inside a steel or concrete vault, then the whole bundle of poison is buried six feet under and covered with turf grass that’s kept alive for all eternity by chemical pesticides and fertilizers. I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck don’t want MY final act to be one that poisons the earth like that.

Smokestacks for blogFor the past decade or so I’ve been convinced that I wanted to be cremated when I die. Cremation is actually fairly common in this country; about 42% of all Americans are cremated at death (per 2011 statistics from the Cremation Society of Great Britain). Cremation  seemed much more environmentally friendly than the other available methods, at least at first glance. You simply get reduced to a pile of ashes that can be scattered at sea or in a special wilderness place, or just buried in an urn.  But then I started thinking about the air pollution generated by the cremation process; specifically there are concerns about the mercury vapors from dental fillings. I don’t have any mercury in my fillings, but even so, I’m unhappy with the pollution aspects. So I started looking into other options, and I think I may have found the perfect choice for me.

But before I tell you about that, I found one other interesting option for people who still want to be cremated. It’s the “Bios Urn,” a biodegradable urn that contains your ashes and a single tree seed. The idea is that you help fertilize a tree, which then grows and
stands as a living legacy to your life. That sounds pretty good, but I’d be worried that someone would cut me down for firewood. Wouldn’t that be ironic if I chose not to be cremated and then I grew into a tree that someone burned in their fireplace? Funny.

Walking trail at Foxfield Preserve.
Walking trail at Foxfield Preserve. Photo used with permission.

So my choice is a natural burial. In a natural burial your body isn’t pumped full of chemicals. There’s no lacquered wood or steel coffin being placed into the soil to poison it further. What happens instead is that your body is placed in a simple cloth shroud (or sometimes a biodegradable pine coffin) and placed directly into the soil to decompose naturally. It gives me a feeling of deep peace to think that my body will fertilize the soil, and perhaps feed earthworms or insects, which will in turn become food for the birds I love so much. It might even be possible that a molecule from my body will one day fly across a meadow in the body of a beautiful Northern Cardinal or Red-winged Blackbird. How can you top that? (Of course my sister doesn’t like the idea, and says I’d probably poop on her car…funny girl.)

Gravesite at Foxfield Preserve, overlooking a natural meadow.
Gravesite at Foxfield Preserve, overlooking a natural meadow. Photo used with permission.

There are some great places being established as natural burial cemeteries, and I hope more will pop up as this idea gains support. There’s an interesting one in Northern Ohio called Foxfield Preserve, a lovely-looking nature preserve cemetery owned by the Wilderness Center. Take a look at their video here and see if it doesn’t seem pretty amazing. And even closer to me is The Preserve on Lake Maceday, the first natural burial cemetery in the Detroit metro area. I think I’ll make a point to go birding in one of these places this summer to get a better feel for what they’re like.

So what do you think about this whole idea of natural burials? Do you think it’s important or not? Would you consider it for yourself or your loved ones?

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Resources for further reading — I haven’t read any of these books yet, but offer them here as possible starting points for those who want to read more.

Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, by Joshua Slocum and Lisa Carlson

Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Burial, by Bob Butz

Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, by Mark Harris

List of Natural Burial Preserves in US – some of their websites have good information too.