On: sitting with grief
When we came home Sunday night, Basil was gone and he's not coming back. Basil (BAH-zil) is—was—my cat. Sweet and soft and exactly the size of my lap.
I had no idea it would hurt this much. Grief, that is. The absence of him.
My yoga teacher says that our bodies talk to us without words. And so it was with Basil; he talked to me without words. And now, where I feel his absence the most is in my body: My fingers, which I could nudge into the tender gap between his toes and the underfoot of his paw and feel him clasping me. The weight of his body when I would spread out his favorite blanket across my lap and sit down to type. The way I would nestle and push my forehead against his, and he his into mine, and we would cuddle and play until I scooped him up into my chest, his arms and legs splayed out against me as I held him in the basket of my elbow. Starfish pose, I called it.
Basil didn't get Lost. Lost, like keys or a receipt for something we meant to return but waited too long. He's just. Gone. Like a whisper. He barely weighed nine pounds, his final breath would have not even ruffled the leaves now falling around our yard. Gone.
And the only one who feels it is me.
Basil has been with me my entire adult life. He was the cat of the person I started dating the summer I graduated college; a person who, personality-wise, roughly resembled an ottoman or other piece of four-legged furniture. Basil had never been much of a "lap cat" before; but, somehow, he picked me: picked me for jumping into my lap during a movie, picked me for sleeping first at my feet and then inside the crook of my elbow, my other arm draped across his belly. I loved to feel the gentle heave and flow of his belly, breath after warm breath.
"I think it would just be easier for me if I didn't have a cat," the ottoman said when he moved out. Maybe the ottoman had never wanted Basil, a cat who had first been rescued by his ex-wife.
Basil was so small, entirely unable to live alone in this great big world. And I believe that when you say you will take care of something and love it forever than you just do it and "easier" plays no part.
So Basil came with me.
My 20s were difficult to say the least. I suppose any metamorphosis has to be. But through all of it, the huge mistakes and the times where loneliness permeated everything with its beastly appetites, I could look at Basil, at this one little cat and say: "Well at least I know I'm doing this right." He was so small, no opposable thumbs even, and I cared for my sweet little charge with all my heart.
Together, we moved into a little 600-square-foot apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. "Hi Pumpkin," I would say as I turned the keys in the door.
I still catch myself coming into the house now, about to say Hi Pumpkin, but then I have to stop myself and listen to nothing but the silent house.
The other place I feel Basil's absence is in the soft space just below my ribcage. Like there's a hole exactly the size of him where my stomach used to be. And every other part of my body, all my limbs, are being sucked into this vacuum. Shuddering and threatening to buckle under its clawing force. A backdraft into a space where a loving bond used to be.
"Will you sit with me?" I say to my husband, through eyes filled with tears. And what I mean is, Will you sit with my grief so I don't have to sit with it alone?
I collapse onto the landing at the top of our stairs. My husband gently takes a seat opposite me and puts his palms on my knees as I cry and I cry and I cry.
"I should have been there!" I say. I don't mean in order to prevent whatever it was, the car or the dog, that meant he couldn't come back home to me. But I should have been there to hold him. When he took his last breath, I should have had my finger nestled inside his paw and my palm across his belly.
"Do you think he thought of me?" I say. "In that last moment, was he thinking of me?"
"He knows you loved him," says my husband. "You gave him a life. Where he probably would have had none."
Admittedly, the last year with Basil has been difficult. After 15 years of perfect litter box behavior, he suddenly started peeing in random places around our house, on the carpet and in corners. We tried everything we could think of; but eventually, at our wits' end, we started to leave the back door cracked so he could go in and out.
Basil had always been an indoor cat. But he was clearly under stress and, with all the yard now his to explore, the peeing problems stopped. Basil continued to spend time outside even in September, when the rains so characteristic of the Pacific Northwest started to ease in. We live on a quite cul-de-sac with a fence on three sides and he never seemed to go far. I knew there was a risk—but I wanted so much for his life to be happy and this seemed to be what he needed.
Even with his newfound freedom, when I was in the house, Basil was my absolute companion. He trailed me patiently throughout the house and if he lay down it was always near the hallway or door so he would know if I left the room. His favorite spot in the afternoons was the top landing of the stairs, where the late afternoon sun streams in through the windows and warms the floorboards. When I was on the bike trainer, he didn't care for the noise of the fan, but he would sprawl out on top of the bed in the adjacent room; as soon as I shut down the fans, he'd be back beside me.
My husband says it gets easier. Grief, that is. He says you can't make grief go away, but you can sit with it. And you have to. Sit with it. Because if you don't, you lose all the good memories too. Over time, my husband says, the memory of the death itself fades, revealing in its wake memories that are happier, of our life together.
So I sit with my grief, with the absence of my Basil, and I wait.