Get Ready, Here Comes 2021

2020 worst year ever

It’s okay, don’t let that title scare you. You’re reading this, so you’ve already made it through one of the toughest years the human species has had to face for decades. Take a moment to acknowledge that, if you can. Breathe in, breathe out. I’ve learned how immensely important it is to get serious about mindful gratitude these days, because life can be turned on its head in an instant.

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the day-to-day details of life that we forget to appreciate the good parts. And it’s far too easy to find things to complain about this year, so let’s not do that today. I want to mention some things that I’ve been especially grateful for recently, in the hope that this will encourage you to do the same.

Friendships

My gosh, where to start? For a couple decades of my life I lived a relatively unsocial lifestyle with few meaningful friendships. After making the scary decision to leave my former life six years ago and start over, I have felt like a new person. The change wasn’t instantaneous and it wasn’t easy, but I pushed myself to adopt new habits and new ways of interacting with the world. I dug deep and kept trying after each setback. And before I knew it, I’d built a life full of wonderful friends and meaningful relationships with colleagues in my nonprofit volunteer work. I sometimes couldn’t believe I’d been able to do it after having been trapped in the old patterns for so long. I finally felt needed and respected, and had as much social life as I could handle. Life was great.

Then the pandemic hit. After all the work I’d put in to build my new life, and when I’d realized that I really did need people, all of that important social interaction was taken from me virtually overnight. I wanted to pound my fists and scream, “No fair!” But, alas, life is what happens when you’re making other plans, right?

Wingspan game day at my house…in 2019…sigh.

Of course the friendships remain, but we can’t spend time together now.  No more game nights at my house with a kitchen full of laughter. No more meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. No more community theatre dates with my theatre buddy. I do meet a couple friends for walks occasionally, but it’s getting too cold for that to be fun anymore. I didn’t realize it was possible to feel this lonely. I’m normally so grateful that I can live alone, but some days I would give anything to have someone in my household “pandemic pod” so I could get a hug. I know things will eventually return to some kind of new normal in which we can be together again, but this forced separation has made me realize how important these people are to my life.  Some friends teach me new things, others make me laugh, and yet others share those deep conversations about life that I love to engage in. I cannot wait for the day that it’s safe to grab every one of my friends in a huge bear hug — I may never want to let go again!

Time

I’m very lucky that I don’t have to deal with a job and kids during the pandemic.  So lucky that I feel guilty about it. I try to make up for that by donating to causes that help the people who are suffering more than me with more immediate physical or financial needs. Most days I have to myself now, with very few appointments or even reasons to leave the house except for groceries or a walk in the park. Despite the loneliness, I’m incredibly grateful for the mental space I’ve been able to reclaim with all this solitude. I see the benefits I’m reaping from being able to use my time to read and write.

A few of my favorite inspirational books

The other day I finally took some time to remove all the books from my messy shelves and re-organize them. That process gave me the chance to rediscover some of them, and I’ve developed the new habit of just pulling a book from the shelf and reading a chapter at random. I’m focusing on my large collection of books about writing, mostly. I’ve long had a fascination with the processes of other writers: how they get ideas, how they organize their notes, and how they tell stories. I feel some momentum building toward my dream of writing my own book. I’m getting more confident that I have something to say that other people will be interested in reading. It’s scary, but I’ve always believed that doing the scary things is important in order to move yourself forward.

My Pets

After my cat Mickey’s traumatic death during my divorce, I was determined not to have pets again because it hurt too much to lose them. And I managed not to look at any cute kittens for more than a year…until a colleague wore me down with her constant urgings for me to get a cat. I begged her to stop telling me about stray cats she’d found or people giving them up for adoption, but she persisted relentlessly. Eventually she wore me down, and I adopted two five-year-old cats from someone who was getting married to a guy with severe cat allergies. 

That was five years ago. I’ve sometimes regretted that I allowed myself to be pushed into adopting them, especially when I had to deal with expensive pet sitting rates and when I found out that one of the cats is very demanding of my attention. But…and this is a major but…since the pandemic and the ensuing isolation, these cats have saved my sanity. I love them both and adore their little quirks. Sophie is my little brown and black tabby girl with the softest fur and loudest purr you’ve ever heard. Her legs are so short she has to try several times to get up on the bed. And the big orange one, Sam, sleeps curled up against my chest with his paw across my neck. It’s hard…really hard…to be alone in this time of such uncertainty about the future. And if I didn’t have these cats to keep me company, well, I just don’t want to imagine how much harder it would be.

And before I finish with this subject, I’ll mention the pets of my friends too. Two of my friends have graciously shared their dogs with me — isn’t it strange that dog walking is something new for me? I realized that I had never walked a dog in my life before the pandemic. And I discovered that I love it! When you can’t hug a friend, the next best thing is to hang out with their dogs. I’ve helped one friend train his rescued dogs to get socialized in the park, and the other friend has allowed her dogs to smother me with kisses and an occasional tackle.

So those are some of the things I’m especially grateful for these days. What are yours?

(Yes, I need a haircut!)

So now we move ahead into a new year. Sure, it’s just a number on a calendar, but we give it a great deal of symbolic significance. There are hopeful signs that life may get better soon: Vaccines are beginning to be administered, and the leadership of our government will be much more sane in just a few short weeks. I’m generally a cynic about New Year’s resolutions, but not this year. I resolve to hold on just a while longer. I’m so tired of wearing masks, but I’ll keep doing it a while longer. I miss my friends and family so much, but I can endure this separation just a while longer.

Show us what you’ve got, 2021. We’re ready.

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.