Musings and Memories

The Last FDM

So I think everyone in the house is able to make it a few hours at a time now without crying.

On Thursday I was nauseous and desperate for a night of sleep to help blur the stark, raw images of her euthanizing. It’s been a few nights’ sleep and it’s a little better, but still achy and new.

One of Topaz’s favorite things was to bring you her “prey.” Of course, she was an indoor cat her whole life and I don’t think she ever got within 15 feet of anything larger than an insect unless it was on the other side of a window. But to her meet her obligation to take care of us, crappy hunters as we were, she routinely brought us her conquests.

Many, many years ago we bought a package of fabric mice – fuzzy black things with pink yarn tails. These were her favorite toys ever. No later acquisition ever made her as happy, and so we kept them despite their age and rattiness (no pun intended) because we couldn’t bear to take them from her.

But, when the FDMs (fake dead mice) couldn’t be found, she’d make do with any lightweight, fuzzy thing. For instance, any one of a set of felt rocks I bought at an art fair year before last.

Pictures are hard right now. I had this when my dad died too, and I didn’t really think about why at the time, but I’ve dialed it in now.

What a picture is changes after you lose someone. While they’re alive, a picture is a bridge – a placeholder. It’s seeing them until you see them again, whether that’s a few moments or a few years away. A picture is the in between until next time.

After they’re gone, that is not what a picture is any longer. It isn’t a bridge, on an in-between because there is no next time. It is an avatar. It is the only way you can see them now. And when you’re coping with the seemingly endless ways in which reality has changed, that is just one more thing that is different. And I realize that it’s a bit of protective mechanism for me push dealing with that particular reality shift off for a bit.

We’re all stumbling through un-writing the world-with-Topaz. Seventeen years is a long time for anything, and the habits that we developed to keep our cats safe and sound are pretty deeply embedded. It will take some time to un-think them. The lump under the covers is not Topaz, and that tiny stab when we remember that it can’t be Topaz, and will never again be Topaz, will sting for a while. The rush to shut an open door is no longer necessary, and the motion we see from the corner of our eyes, or the unexpected sound will never be her again. And only four days without her is not long enough to suppress those reflexes.

Also painful is the sense of erasing her. We no longer need her food bowls, or her litter box. And putting those things away feels like we are erasing her from our home. It is not logical, but it is how it feels. I noted that perhaps this is a good reason to have more than one pet at a time. We not only lost Topaz, but we lost the only pet we had and the way that makes the house feels empty is disproportional to her diminutive size. Aidan noted that while that was true, the pet left can pine, which is something to think about. That being said, I’m pretty sure that the night we took Nimbus to his new home Topaz cracked open a bottle of champagne.

And so we come to the last FDM, which wasn’t an M at all but one of the aforementioned felt rocks. Two weeks ago while I was tidying the upstairs bathroom I heard the tell-tale muffled meow and behind me was Topaz, proudly presenting me with her prize – a blue felt rock. As part of this ritual was telling her that she was the best hunter of fake dead mice in the universe since she wouldn’t be satisfied that we properly appreciated her until she received her praise, I showered her with compliments and stroked her head.

And then I realized that she hadn’t brought me an FDM for some time. The picture above was from February, which meant it had been six weeks since she’d “hunted” for us – and that was a bizarrely long time. And I realized, rightly as it turned out, that it might be the last time she dropped anything at my feet, satisfied that she was fulfilling her catly duty of hunting for us to make sure we didn’t starve. So, I tearfully snapped a shot of it so we’d always remember.

Despite the challenge with photographs, spotting the one of her with the rock above has helped me. One of my deepest pain points after letting her go was the desperate fear that we acted too soon. Not for me, not because I wasn’t ready to let her go yet. But because I feel deeply my obligation to do right by her – that we agreed to care for and love her, and always make the best decision for her that we could. And the fear that she had good, happy days left that we stole was wrecking me. Had I seen any sign of acute pain, the decision would have been easy, but I never did. Yet she didn’t have an illness we could treat – she had progressive, terminal cancer. Every day the tumor was going to grow and potentially metastasize. But still the worry that we were making the decision before she was really ready was profound. Cats can’t tell you how they feel. I knew she wasn’t in desperate pain but I could tell she was uncomfortable…but I also knew that she still had days where she seemed rested and was happy to see food in her bowl. So had it really been the right time?

Then I saw that photo and compared the Topaz we let go to that one in the picture. In only two months, the tumor had displaced her right eye, and I’m sure she was blind on that side. Her jaw was becoming misshapen and while it didn’t seem like it hurt her, eating was harder and harder. She’d lost weight, where she was tiny to begin with. And I realized that while in my head she is still barely more than a kitten, in truth she was very old, and was becoming very sick. Seeing how much the cancer had affected her in only two months confirmed that a bad event could have been days -if not hours – away. And that sparing her living through anything painful or frightening was more compassionate, more loving, than holding on for the possibility of a few more good days.

The blue felt rock is still in the bedroom – it’s in an odd place but Michael and I have decided that that’s just where it lives now. And somewhere in the house are two more from the set of five that she’s hidden. One day we’ll move a piece of furniture or a cushion and find them. And we’ll cry, and remember how silly she was with her FDMs, and be grateful to the universe for letting us be hers for such a very long time.

It Takes an Apple

While working a very busy job as the speech pathologist between several hospitals, the therapist who normally handled home-health patients took a vacation. Why? At the time I concluded principally to inconvenience me. She may in fact have had other motivations. So of course, on a particularly busy day, I got a call that a home health patient had been referred. To make matters even better, the patient was nearly an hour away. I complained. A lot.

She was a hospice patient. It was a little unusual to have hospice referrals, but they did happen. Swallowing problems are in the purview of my discipline, and a terminal patient sometimes needs help there. Such was the case on this day.

After driving for over an hour and getting lost twice, I found the little cottage where the patient lived. I climbed the stairs and made my way to her. She was bundled up in her bed, covered in blankets, thin and bright-eyed. She told me her problem: she was having difficulty swallowing, and wanted  – more than anything – to eat a steak. It was all she was hungry for.

I had reviewed her chart before walking into the house. And although her history and her diagnosis were there for me, one key piece was missing: her prognosis. While hospice means terminal, it could be anything up to a year. I looked at the thin face with the attentive eyes I asked, as kindly as I could, “How long?”

“Two, maybe three months,” she answered.

The numbers failed to match the strength of the voice that responded to me, and while trying to resolve the incongruity in my head, my mouth opened and I said, “I’m sorry. How do you feel about that?”

To this day I do not know why I asked the question. If I had thought clearly, I would have labeled it stupid, invasive, clueless or all three at once. I regretted the words as soon as they escaped.

So imagine my shock when she answered simply, “Emancipated.”

I blinked. “Emancipated?” I asked. “Why?”

And she told me. She told me how before she knew about the quick terminal illness, she’d been diagnosed with a slow, progressive one. How the thought of the slow, progressive one – which would day by day drain her body, her mind, and her bank account – terrified her with its inevitable debility and dependence. How she was afraid she would exhaust her friends and family in her demands for care. How she was afraid of what her world would look like when she ran out of funds. How she was terrified of her quick mind slipping away without even the ability to recognize the loss.

But now she would go quickly. With her loved ones around her, her finances intact, with even a little left for the people who mattered most to her. She would have medical care that would keep her as free of pain as it could until the end. An end coming in quick months with her mind able to appreciate each day she had left, instead of slow years where one day would bleed memoryless into the other.

And in that paradox was her emancipation. Her freedom.

“I see,” I said once she had explained. And I did. With so much depth and clarity that I could feel its resonance in the moment it happened, clear through my body and down to my feet resting on the braided rug beside her bed. Understanding struck in that moment: a gift wrapped in the orange glow of the vanishing afternoon sun. I did not need to ponder to find appreciation, there was no slow realization. I was blessed to see and feel it all in that single glorious instant.

I wracked my brain for her, pulling up every trick I’d learned in my years in the field to make a piece of steak edible for her. She didn’t want hamburger – nothing chopped or ground. She wanted steak, and I wanted her to have it.

And as I left, walking down her stairs while the sunset painted the sky radiant reds and yellows, I savored the moment when “I have to go see this patient,” became “I got to go see this patient.” Because what I wanted to remember most was that moment of transition – when my sour outlook was swept away by a joyous one, when an inconvenience became a celebration. I needed to remember – because the next time my psyche sank into a state of cynicism and my perspective could see no further than the next annoyance, I might not be so lucky to have an apple fall from the sky onto my head.

Apples simply don’t fall like that every day.

Details about this patient have been purposefully changed or obscured to protect their privacy. Although I think if I had thought to ask at the time they would have been happy for me to share them in full.

In Word and Deed

So I’m a writer now?

When did it happen?

When I started the blog?

The first time I got paid?

Was it buying the laptop for the express purpose of being able to write wherever and whenever I needed to?

Was it when I put the “writing services” tab on my business website?

Was it the first time I got a swell of reaction for the words I’d sequenced and tended. Birthing prose that held within it the power to evoke and emote.

It’s hard to know.

I’ve been writing my whole life, but somewhere in the last year being someone who writes turn into being a writer and it was such a subtle transition that I missed it when it happened.

In becoming a writer I discovered a community – a shared need to take formless internal compulsions and match then with their soulmated word then escort them to a party in their honor.

But with being a writer also comes that deeply embedded but painfully sharp worry over the day when words are necessary but elusive. Anxiety over that time when you have commit your words to someone and they don’t come when you call them.

It will happen. Has happened at times already but with little consequence.

But when I say that writing is what I do, when I have broadcast my ability and my intent, there comes with it the fear that a day may come when I don’t know how deliver what I’ve promised.

When that day comes, I hope that I will face it the same way I’ve faced other commitments that I’ve needed to meet if I happened to be in a state of inspirationless fatigue. Deep breath, dig in…and just do.

Because if you are a writer you write. Just like when you are a mom you parent. Or when you are a speech therapist you treat. If it is what I am then it is what I do.

And there, my friends, is joy.


In my hand is a pebble.

It is small, round. It takes up little space in the palm of my hand.

It is smooth from the handling of my memory.

The pebble is a moment.

It’s the time my young son pointed his finger up at the ceiling when we sang “Baby, you can be a star!”

This one is the time my new boyfriend’s daughter climbed into my lap to read my magazine with me.

And this one is the first time our oldest son referred to me as one of his parents.

There are other stones, larger. Too heavy to carry and too significant to sit in my hand.

My graduations from college – once with just a tassel, and once with a cowl.

My wedding to my first husband. And my second.

The day my son joined us on this earth.

The weight of these moments grounds me, and my memory moves among them like stepping stones. They sing my past to me and give me a foundation to walk on. Like markers on ancient highways, they measure my life’s distance. I can look back and see the impressions they make in the earth I build by living.

Yet they are dwarfed in number by the pebbles. The great stepping stones of my most significant moments swim in a sea of pebbles – the memories of the lopsided cake and the puppy with the muddy feet.

When I lived in England – a stepping stone so massive it rises from the landscape and divides my life in two – I visited the home of Winston Churchill.

The memory of World War II is a living thing in Southern England. Local residents will still show you where a church once stood, or tell you about how the road used to go over the river there, where there used to be a bridge. To step into the house of Winston Churchill is to step into a physical manifestation of the collective memory of a people who fought back against a dark threat and carry that pride with them – silent, undiscussed.

The third floor of Sir Winston’s home, Chartwell, houses a collection of artifacts collected over a lifetime. A sword gifted from a Sultan. A soup tureen carved from jade in the shape of a viking ship. A centuries-old clay native American pot. All gifts from heads of state. The lower floor holds a museum – a timeline of accomplishments from his days as a wanted man in the Boer Wars to his address to a country entering war.

A life of stepping stones. Of monuments.

When I walked from the estate house into the gardens I was exhausted. So much. So much.

Where were his pebbles?

What must it feel like to live an existence of such magnitude that all your life’s moments carry the weight of a nation and the expectation of importance?

I think these thoughts lately as my pebbles become less defined. Days rush by and become weeks and months so fast I am sure the pebbles are melting together beneath my feet, leaving me only able to appreciate the large markers that create my foundation and demarcate my accomplishments.

Breathless I think of Winston Churchill. I remember walking from his home awed by a man so pivotal to my own freedom yet sad that in a world that expected stepping stone after stepping stone that he seemed denied the time to collect something so trivial as pebbles.

I kneel and plunge my hands into the earth, feeling for the small things. I dig, blindly and urgently, for the familiar roundness of my smaller moments. I find the memory of buying the tiniest, softest kitten that would in months turn into a beautiful, sleek devil cat. Digging more I find the pebble shaped like the first cup of coffee made for me by the man who would become my husband.

Exhaling, I brush off dirt to re-acquaint myself with the colors and textures.

For though the stepping stone markers of my largest moments paint the framework of my world, it is the carpet of endlessly varied pebbles that create the richness of my life.


Dear Child With a Life Cut in Two,

I did not see this for you, this life in two halves.

I planned only one. A path curved beyond horizons I couldn’t yet see, but that wandered through my lands for the first 18 or so years.

One trail, bordered with love and support, structure and shade when you needed it.

This was the landscape I planned for you, much-loved child.

I arranged and I tended. I gardened. Cultivating a life in which you would thrive, create, grow and find joy.

One life.

My plans, though, no matter how well-thought or purposely intended, don’t always come to be.

And your path divided in two.

I hurt for not being able to see that other path you walk.

I don’t know its turns or where cracks wait to trip you.

I can’t see you at all, and I long to look at you. Each day. Every day.

I can’t guide you or comfort you, be your strength or give a shove.

The lessons I hope to teach you are beyond my reach there.  Your experiences not mine to live with you, at times not even mine to know.

I close my eyes, beloved child, when you are there, to imagine you. And ache with frustrated grief for all that happens without me.

I ache knowing the distance you travel is twice it should be.  Each time you come to your life here, you cross a divide from your life there. Your mind restructures, your framework shifts, your rulebook rewrites. Your trail has switchbacks I never intended you to walk.

I watch you for tiredness. For blisters. For disorientation, or for anger.

A fracture breaks fresh with each close of the door behind you.

Though I have only half your minutes…

…you are my son every second.

I cannot be half a mom.

I breathe hope into each day that you feel these truths.

My child with a life cut in two.


It is Christmas of 2004.

It has been several months since my husband of seventeen years and I decided to divorce. A few weeks prior, we sat in the living room of the house he still lived in with the box of Christmas decorations open, separating them into smaller “Mine” and “Yours” selections. Each ornament I lift to ask “Do you want this one?” is like a small poke with something sharp. I want all of them. I want all the ornaments Child A made in day-care. I want all the ornaments we picked out when we lived in England. They all have meaning to me and I want to keep every last one of them.

But I don’t. I dutifully say good-bye to the ones he wants and set them in his box. I take my own box of half a Christmas back to my apartment where I have a small, artificial tree that is manageable in the tiny space.

On Christmas Eve I take Child A to my mom’s for our traditional holiday party. In an effort to dispel some of the grief I am feeling this season, she has gone overboard in decorations, treats and gifts. I notice. And appreciate.

Child A awakens Christmas morning. I’ve already told him that we’re waiting until Daddy arrives to open the present from Santa, but I make him a special breakfast. Because that’s what you do, and I am holding onto “things I’m supposed to do” like they are life preservers in an angry ocean.

I feel each second that passes, bringing 8:30 resolutely closer.  At 8:30, my almost-ex-husband will arrive, we will let our son open his gift from Santa, and they will leave. I will be without my son on Christmas Day, and that night – for the first time in my entire life – I will be alone on Christmas night. I am more afraid of that than I have been of almost anything, ever.

The knock comes. I remind myself to breathe. Child A runs to the door, lets his father into the apartment, then lifts the gift over his head. We tell him he can open it.  I offer breakfast. It is politely declined.

In the time it takes me to blink, the gift is open and the child is dressed and leaving with his dad for the next celebration that awaits him. He is thinking of seeing his grandparents and the next batch of gifts. I don’t blame him. I was like that at 8, too.

I go back to my mother’s house for brunch and stockings. A normal year, we would be done in the early afternoon, tired from the previous night’s party and wanting some quiet time with our own families. My brother and his not-quite-wife leave. I stay. We play games. We eat leftovers. We watch bad Christmas movies.

The time comes when I truly must go home.

I step into my apartment and immediately plug in the lights because there is nothing more depressing that a darkened Christmas tree.  I sit down on my couch.

The compulsion to turn on the stereo or the TV is powerful. I don’t. Listen, I order myself. Listen to the quiet and stop being afraid of it.

I tuck my arms against my soft middle and lean forward until my forehead rests on my knees. Tears drop soundlessly onto my legs. There is no one here. Only me. It is Christmas night and I am not in bed with my family near, easing into exhausted, calorie-heavy sleep. My son is sleeping at what I’m sure he still considers his “real home.” Safe. Happy. I remind myself that that matters more than anything else.

There is a perpetual tightness around my chest, that while precluding me from taking a deep breath nevertheless keeps my spine straight, and my carriage erect and proud. But sometimes…sometimes like on this night…I wish the stays would snap, or the lacing would unravel, so that I could fill my lungs with air and howl. So that I could collapse in a puddle on the floor and sob, letting myself shatter and abandoning the quiet weeping I allow myself in private moments in favor of keening and dysfunction.

But the grip around me never lets go.  It is there, always, holding me upright and denying me an emotional cataclysm. You walked yourself to this place, it says. You will keep walking until you are out of it.

I blink into the darkened shadow of my lap and let the last few tears fall away. I breathe as deeply as my restricted chest will allow, unplug the lights, and make my way to bed.

A few weeks later, I go on my first date with a man who is articulate, intelligent, funny, and whose eyes look at me with such an intensity of interest that I feel I must be something rare. Special.

Once in a while the universe is kind enough to create light directly on the heels of a nightmare of dark.

It is so much easier to breathe in the light.