grief

For Esmerelda Weatherwax – Mind How You Go

 
She's beauty, she's grace...

She's beauty, she's grace...

 

I've fallen horribly behind on writing here; my last post was six months ago, so when the new year rolled around I (again) set my intentions to write a new piece for this blog at least once a month. This wasn't the piece I intended to write, but it's the one that now needs to be written.

I first laid eyes on my dear, sweet Esme in July of 2009. I'd been living in an apartment that didn't allow cats but had signed a lease on a new place with my then-boyfriend for the following month (a terrible mistake, but one that many great things came out of), and after a year of living cat-free I was determined to rent somewhere that would allow me to get a furry companion of my own. Weeks before we'd moved and were able to actually bring a cat home, I was already scouring Petfinder and Adopt-a-Pet for our new charge, clicking through listing after listing in search of the right critter. As any pet owner will tell you, you'll see plenty of adorable animals that you would be more than happy to own, but there's a difference between "cat I'd probably grow to love" and "cat I know is mine."

After a week or two of obsessively checking the kittens and young cats categories (although I fully see the merit of adopting an older cat, for my first cat I wanted to raise them from kittenhood), I stumbled upon a photo that my eyes couldn't make sense of. In the small frame of the thumbnail, the unusual markings and features of this animal swam together, making it unidentifiable. As soon as I clicked into the posting to investigate further, I knew I had found my cat. She was the most unique and beautiful creature I'd ever seen, and I desperately emailed the shelter, offering to pay her room and board for the next few weeks if they would only hold onto her until I had moved into my new place. They kindly assured me that wasn't necessary, and I put in my application immediately.

 
Kitten model

Kitten model

 

We moved all of our belongings and were in the new apartment for a mere day or two before I showed up to bring my kitten home. She'd been given the name Mischa, but after debating several names from my favorite books with friends I'd settled on the name Esme, after the imposing witch Esmerelda "Granny" Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. When I showed up at the shelter and they brought her into the room with me, I was afraid I'd made a terrible mistake. This kitten wasn't particularly shy, but she had no interest in playing or saying hello. Had I inadvertently picked an antisocial cat by choosing one based on appearance alone? I didn't think I'd be happy if my cat was an unaffectionate one. 

I needn't have worried; as soon as we brought her home, it took all of 10 minutes for Esme to warm up to us and begin an intrepid exploration of the apartment. Within days, she was playing, snuggling, and letting my then-boyfriend toss her into the air and catch her like an excited toddler. Antisocial she certainly was not – if the cable guy showed up, Esme was at the door begging to be petted. I'd never known a cat to be so fearless and so desperate for attention. 

 
Strange sleeper

Strange sleeper

 

Truthfully, I could not have asked for a more loving cat. When my ex and I split up and a new roommate moved into our apartment, Esme adjusted to the newcomer with ease. When my roommate and I stood in the living room or kitchen and chatted, she would flop down on the floor between us and roll back and forth to entice us both to pet her (because how dare we be in the same room as her and not be touching her?). When my best friend spent the night, Esme would follow her around and beg to be lifted up to chase bugs on the ceiling. 

One week, my new long-distance boyfriend came to stay for several days. We were sitting on the couch together, when Esme hopped up into his lap and climbed onto his chest. "She wants you to kiss her," I told him.

"Really, Anna?" He said. "I think you want me to kiss her and are just projecting onto her." At that moment, he was cut off by Esme shoving her nose into his mouth, tired of him ignoring her wishes. I smirked an I told you so. My cat knew what she wanted and wasn't shy about making it known.

Despite her affectionate nature, though, Esme could still be a diva and even a bit of a monster. She shredded the boxspring on my mattress when she felt ignored (and sleeping counted as ignoring her). If I was reading or watching TV and she got into a foul mood, she would latch onto my hand with her teeth and claws and rabbit-kick it like an unfortunate prey whose neck she wanted to break until I managed to shake her off. She pushed my roommate's water glasses off the table just to watch them break and even climbed up on top of the cabinets to smash a glass vase I'd stored up there. When she got exceptionally hyper, she would cling to the bottom of the armchair in my bedroom with her claws and scuttle around upside-down like a deranged Spider-Man. One day, I left my journal open on my bed when I went to work and came home to find several pages shredded and chewed into pieces. When I went to Ireland for 10 days and left her in the care of my sister, I came home to find my bed covered in food that she'd carried from her bowl in the kitchen, chewed up, and then spit out on my sheets. 

 
A tale of voluntary bath time, tarot cards, and shoulder rides.

A tale of voluntary bath time, tarot cards, and shoulder rides.

 

Though she had her quirks, I couldn't imagine myself with any other feline companion. By this point, I had been through two breakups since adopting her, and each time she was my rock and my comfort. When I decided it was time to leave my hometown for good, I agonized over how I would be able to manage it as a responsible cat owner. Giving her up was out of the question, but so was moving with a cat and no job or apartment lined up in the city. Couch-surfing is significantly more difficult with an animal in tow (and far too stressful for the animal). Thankfully, my grandma came to the rescue, offering me a place to stay in the months between the end of my lease and my official move date as well as a home for Esme until I could settle into NYC and bring her out to join me. Leaving her behind was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make, and she tried to stow away in my suitcase on more than one occasion while I packed.

Living a cat-less life was something of a relief at first, but it was also gut-wrenching. I missed my girl terribly and didn't have the money to visit while I settled in and looked for a permanent apartment, so it was almost a year before I saw her again. I was certain she would forget who I was, and when I walked into my grandma's condo for the first time after returning home, Esme hid under the bed. But as soon as she heard my voice, she came running and flung herself into my lap. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

 
Reunited at last...

Reunited at last...

 

The flight to New York was less pleasant - she yowled the entire drive to the airport and throughout lunch with my family, tried to scramble out of my arms while going through security, and glared at me in a tranquilizer-induced haze, drooling slightly while we waited to board the plane. Still, we made it, and I couldn't have been happier to have her back with me. Finally, Brooklyn truly felt like home. 

We had ten precious months together before Faithful showed up in our lives. I had never planned to get a second cat, but after moving in with my new boyfriend, this scrawny black cat had shown up on my way to the subway one night and demanded that I take him home. Esme was not pleased with the arrangement and was even less thrilled to discover that her new brother was semi-feral and considered pinning her down and biting her to be a sign of affection. I felt horribly guilty for bringing him into the apartment, despite my love for him, and was constantly worried about Esme's health and safety until I began to notice her provoking him to attack. Faithful would be sleeping peacefully on the couch when Esme would make a beeline for him, stomping across his prone form until he woke up and bit her leg in annoyance. Or I'd witness her smack in him in the face or sneak up on him and pounce before running away, crying to me over how mean he was being to her. A total drama queen. 

 
Esme with Faithful and my sister's cat, Ripley

Esme with Faithful and my sister's cat, Ripley

 

Over the years together, it became clear that they had a grudging affection for one another. Faithful would still chase her and pin her down more frequently than I liked, but for the most part they co-existed peacefully, or at the very least tolerated one another. Esme focused most of her attention on her humans, forcing herself between us when we lay in bed, sneezing in our faces, drooling whenever we scratched her head, and always managing to step in the most awkward and painful places possible whenever she walked across our bodies. She rarely got from point A to point B without managing to stomp on your groin, stomach, nipple and throat. Eating dinner usually involved fending off her determined advances while she sharpened her claws on your shoulders to get your attention, hooked her paw around your fork and tried to steer it towards her mouth instead of yours, and even attempted to steal food directly out of your mouth. And when she went through a period of peeing on any clothes left on the floor and had to be locked out of the bedroom overnight, she would greet us every morning by dashing into the room, yowling at the top of her lungs, as soon as the door was opened and launching herself into bed to flop on top of whichever one of us was still asleep. 

In the winter of 2015, I began noticing that she was losing weight. She had stopped eating her dry food and only picked at the various cans of wet food we offered her. We took her to numerous vet appointments and paid for test after test, but they all came up negative. This wasn't surprising; it seemed like every time I'd ever rushed her to the vet, afraid she'd contracted some kind of infection or illness, there was no medical reason for it. But it was horribly stressful to watch her weight drop to dangerously low levels without any way of fixing it. Finally we were left with two options - perform a biopsy to test for cancer, which we would then have to decide whether or not to treat, or try one more dietary change. We opted for the latter, switching her to a prescription food made out of rabbit meat. Miraculously, that worked, and she devoured three cans of food a day, much to our delight (but to the dismay of our wallets - the food cost $75 a case, and she was going through a case a week). She quickly packed on the pounds, and it seemed as though whatever it was that was making her sick was no longer an issue.

Looking back, it's likely that if we had done a biopsy, we would have found cancer. A year and a half later, her appetite and weight began to decline once again, and this time a dietary change didn't help. In the meantime, though, I was gifted with almost two more years of affection and attitude from her. When I went through yet another breakup, Esme was by my side, showering me with love and demanding to be cuddled. When I moved to a new apartment, she began sleeping under the covers with me every night. I'd fall asleep with her tucked against my chest and wake up every morning to find her at the end of the bed or curled up against my legs. She was still losing weight, but her appetite seemed to be increasing and she would frequently wake me up at 5 am by shredding my guitar case until I caved and dragged my exhausted body out of bed to fill her bowl for the sixth time in the last 24 hours. When she followed me around the apartment loudly demanding food and scarfed down a extra large can and a half of food every day, I was hopeful that things were on the upswing.

 
Partners in crime

Partners in crime

 

Her health took a sudden turn for the worse in the middle of the night on January 4th when she began having seizures due to dangerously low blood sugar. Her body had stopped processing nutrients, and what little weight she appeared to have gained disappeared seemingly overnight. True to form, this was the night of the bomb cyclone, so I was forced to rush her to the vet through the remains of a blizzard in wind so strong and cold it felt as though it would rip right through me. It took two tries to even find a clinic that was open, because the first supposedly-24 hour vet that Google directed us to actually closed at 7 pm, and my sister and I were forced to shiver on the corner at 1 am, stripping down to wrap our scarves around the cat carrier in a vain attempt to shield Esme from the wind while we waited for our cab driver to double back and pick us up. Esme was nothing if not dramatic, all the way to the end. 

The vets placed her on a catheter and gave her medication to bring her blood sugar back up to normal levels. We agreed that I would pick her up the next day and that we would discuss diagnostic options once I had figured out what money I could scrape together to cover treatment. When I left, she seemed more like her old self, perking up and rubbing on me and attempting to break out of her cage. The vet and vet techs couldn't get enough of her. Unfortunately, her blood sugar dropped again before I took her home. She was discharged anyway, and I was given instructions for how to keep her blood sugar up to prevent more seizures, but once we were home she had little appetite and only wanted to sleep. I force-fed her with a syringe and rubbed maple syrup on her gums to keep her blood sugar levels from dipping too low, but it didn't look good. We got to spend a lovely day together, curled up under my covers with a hot water bottle nestled against her, before she crashed again and began having seizures at 5 am. It was clear recovery didn't seem like a viable option for her. 

I rushed her back to the emergency vet, devastated but certain that I had to make the tough call. My mom calls it the covenant we make when we take an animal into our home - that we will love them and care for them while they're healthy but also agree to ease their passing when the time comes. After discussing Esme's condition with the vet, we both agreed that with no guarantee that the diagnostic procedures would find anything or that what we would find would be treatable, the most loving and humane decision I could make would be to euthanize her. I was given the bittersweet gift of a chance to hold her in my arms while she purred and tell her how much I loved her in her final moments. It was heartwrenchingly painful, but an experience I wouldn't trade for the world. 

 
Our last loving moments

Our last loving moments

 

The past few days have been touch and go for me. I am fairly skilled at maneuvering my way through the grieving process, but for whatever reason it's harder with her than it has been with anyone else, even members of my own family. I can handle the knowledge that she's not around right now, but the realization that I will never see or hold her ever again is like a knife to the heart each time it hits. I found her collar on my nightstand, removed a month or two ago when it got too loose and began rubbing the fur off her neck, and have been wearing it as a bracelet. I feel like a freak, but I can't bear to let her go. Not yet. 

For all the pain, though, I am eternally grateful for the past eight and a half years that I was privileged to spend with her. Esmerelda was the most bratty, spoiled, darling, wonderful, beautiful cat I could possibly have found, and I have so many fond memories that I will treasure forever. She was truly something special, and no creature can fill the hole she's left in my heart. In the words of Terry Pratchett, who first dreamt up the iconic character whose name I borrowed for this remarkable animal, I can see the balance, and you have left the world much better than you found it. And if you ask me, nobody could do better than that.

 
The inscription from "The Shepherd's Crown", Terry Pratchett's final book

The inscription from "The Shepherd's Crown", Terry Pratchett's final book

 

Sophie Olivia

 
The tattoo I got for Sophie on her fifteenth birthday.

The tattoo I got for Sophie on her fifteenth birthday.

 

"Who is Sophie?" is a question I get a lot. It's natural for people to be curious about the name I have tattooed on my arm, to wonder who was so important that I had a reminder of them permanently inked on my skin. The following conversation is always a little bit awkward, as I quickly say something along the lines of, "She's my baby sister. She died. But don't worry, it doesn't upset me, it's just part of my life." I rush to get that last sentence out before embarrassment sets in, just as anxious to let them know that they haven't overstepped as they are at the thought of bringing up potentially painful memories. I don't mind these questions; if I did, I wouldn't have my tattoo placed in such an obvious place, a visible reminder of her presence in my life to me and the world at large. And although her loss has left an aching hole in my heart that will never be filled again, what I tell the askers is true. I don't want them to worry. She is a part of my life. And their bringing her up doesn't upset me. I welcome it. Not a day goes by that I don't think about my sister, with or without the reminder from curious parties. It's as natural to me as breathing.

 
Sophie, characteristically missing one of her socks.

Sophie, characteristically missing one of her socks.

 

Sophie Olivia was born on March 21, 1994, just two days after my fifth birthday. I was so excited to be a big sister that I was hoping she would be born on my birthday, the perfect birthday present (had that come to pass, I may have regretted it later regardless of whether she lived or died. Sibling rivalry can be hard enough without sharing birthday celebrations). She was born at home, which my mom says was a blessing. It meant we had more than a week to enjoy her presence in a more natural setting, without the doctors and the needles and all the commotion of a hospital. We got to experience the new baby excitement before the anxiety about her condition set in. 

I remember pieces of Sophie's first week in great detail. My grandma showed up at my preschool in the middle of the day to pick me up and take me home. I knew as soon as I saw her that my mom must be in labor, and I was uncontrollably excited. We sat downstairs at the dining room table and drew pictures for my parents and my new sibling while my mom was in labor upstairs. I remember bringing the pictures upstairs and hanging them on the wall above my parents' bed (you can see them in the photos of our family from Sophie's birth). Shortly after she was born, I changed into my favorite outfit to celebrate the occasion - a blue velour dress, white tights studded with pink hearts, frilly white socks, and my "ruby slippers" (a pair of red, glittery Mary Janes, the height of fashion to a five year old) - and there are numerous photos of me dressed to the nines, beaming down at my new baby sister. I remember reading pictures books to Sophie, sometimes making up stories for the ones that had no words, and drawing more pictures for her while she sat in her blue baby chair. I remember going to the doctor's office (probably when we first discovered her heart murmur, though I didn't realize it at the time) and how Sophie managed to lose one of her socks along the way, a recurring habit of hers.

Family portrait. Note the drawings on the wall. I'm sure you can tell which one was mine. 

Family portrait. Note the drawings on the wall. I'm sure you can tell which one was mine. 

Now for some (oversimplified) medical jargon. Sophie was born with a heart defect called aortic stenosis, meaning the valve that carried the blood from her heart into her aorta wasn't fully opened. Once it was diagnosed, she was scheduled for a balloon valvuloplasty, a procedure in which a balloon is inserted into her heart and inflated to open the valve. It's the recommended procedure for infants, as it's less invasive than surgery and has a high survival rate. However, during Sophie's operation the pin that was holding the balloon slipped and punctured her heart, and, despite the doctors' best efforts and an emergency open heart surgery, she died on the operating table on March 31, 1994. 

I don't remember most of that. All my knowledge of the medical details was picked up in bits and pieces as I got older. What little I remember of the last few days of Sophie's life is fragmented. I have vague recollections of visiting her and my mom in the hospital the day before her surgery. I wasn't really sure what to think, as I'd never been to a hospital before. It seemed scary but everyone assured me that things would be okay, so I kissed them both goodbye and accompanied my dad home. The next day, I was taken to my grandparents' house so my dad could join my mom at the hospital. This part I remember vividly. We sat around watching movies, and the tension in the room was palpable. Even if I wasn't nervous, I could tell that the adults were. I was watching Fantasia when my parents returned from the hospital. It was the scene with the dinosaurs, which always terrified me, but I was determined to watch it because on some level I thought it would prove my bravery and that would somehow make the surgery go alright. My parents asked me to come into the other room to talk to them, and I threw a tantrum because I wanted to keep watching the movie. They took me aside anyway, and I suddenly noticed that someone was missing. Everything went into slow motion as, in my grandparents' family room, they told me my sister had died, and my tears transformed from angry-bratty-child tears into heartbroken sobs. 

Images from the program for Sophie's memorial service. The bunny I drew also graced her birth announcement, her square on a memorial quilt, and is now permanently tattooed onto my dad's arm.

Images from the program for Sophie's memorial service. The bunny I drew also graced her birth announcement, her square on a memorial quilt, and is now permanently tattooed onto my dad's arm.

This wasn't my first encounter with death, so I understood what was happening right away, at least as much as a five year old can understand something like that. A few years earlier, we had put our old dog to sleep, so I knew that when my parents told me Sophie had died that it meant she wasn't coming back. What I didn't know was how profoundly the experience would shape my life. Emotionally, I felt like I moved on fairly quickly. After all, just because I understood what death meant doesn't mean I understood how it affected me. I remember crying at her memorial service and again when we got her ashes back and placed them in the beautiful urn decorated with crocuses that my parents had gotten made for her, but apart from that I moved on to whatever issues typically occupy a five year old's mind. Still, I missed my sister, and she was always present in the back of my mind. I imagined playing with her, and when I woke up in the middle of the night after a bad nightmare, I told myself she was there, watching over me. 

Whether these were the figments of a grieving child's imagination or something more mysterious is a matter of personal opinion and something each person must decide for themselves based on their own beliefs about these sorts of things. What I can tell you is that this was far from the first or last time that people felt Sophie's presence around them or sensed something a bit otherworldly about her. My mom details the strange occurrences that happened during Sophie's ten days of life in a piece she wrote and performed for a production called Listen to Your Mother in 2011 - errant thoughts about Sophie's impending death that seemed to come out of nowhere, Sophie's lack of a "new baby smell", a time when she did the physically impossible and lifted her head to kiss my dad on the lips while he and my mom watched in shock. I, too, remember Sophie having distinctly non-infant-like qualities, such as an intense focus on the world around her, to the point where she would stare transfixed while I read to her and drew pictures for her and would begin to scream if I stopped. I also recall a story about my cousin having a dream that she died and rushing to the hospital so he could meet her before her operation, and my mom has spoken about dreaming of "old souls" welcoming Sophie back into their circle while waiting outside the operating room during her surgery. It has long been the opinion of my family that these were messages from Sophie that she was not long for this world and that her time with us was meant to be short.

Left: a purple heart I found at Fort Tryon Park with my mom. Right: a silver heart I found in Jerusalem.

Left: a purple heart I found at Fort Tryon Park with my mom. Right: a silver heart I found in Jerusalem.

We continued to receive messages like these following her death. Soon after she had died, a close friend of my mom's was writing a piece about Sophie, and when she ran it through spell check the only suggestion for Sophie's name that came up was "safe", a phenomena that has never happened again to our knowledge. Our family also began finding small hearts in odd places, starting with metallic heart-shaped confetti that somehow found its way into our house now and again despite the fact that none of us had come into contact with it or had a stash of it in our art supplies or anything of that nature. It was not uncommon to find a small pink or red heart glinting up at you from the floor with no indication as to where it had come from. Soon it expanded beyond confetti, as we began noticing puddles, stones, and knots in tree trunks shaped like hearts wherever we went. Just last year, my mom was visiting me and as we were walking through Fort Tryon Park I found a purple plastic heart-shaped jewel, the kind you'd find in a child's princess kit, sitting directly in our path, and this January I found a large silver heart on the ground in front of me as I exited the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It wasn't just hearts, either. Throughout my childhood I would often feel a light touch on my shoulder while I was alone, and recent conversations with my younger sister have revealed that she, too, has often felt like someone is watching over her as well. Some days the presence is stronger than others. On Sophie's birthday a few years back the shower curtain kept billowing in and wrapping itself around me while I was trying to take a shower despite the fact that both the window and door were closed. It wasn't until I murmured, "Hi, Sophie," that it fell still and I was able to finish bathing. That same day, my mom posted a photo of a rainbow from a suncatcher in our living room positioned directly above the shelf where we keep Sophie's ashes, photos, and other mementos of her. 

 
My sister Grace and I at Sophie's memorial in Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Madison, WI. 

My sister Grace and I at Sophie's memorial in Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Madison, WI. 

 



Many people may call these coincidences or wishful thinking. That's fine, we are all entitled to our beliefs and interpretations of the world. But to me, these have always been signs that Sophie is still with us, checking in with us and letting us know that she is alright and she loves us. At this point, her spiritual presence has been with me far, far longer than her physical form, and most days I am content with the knowledge that my middle sister is, for lack of a better word, my guardian angel. But some days - her birthday, the anniversary of her death, the rare occasions I get to visit her memorial, or random moments when her loss hits me out of nowhere - it doesn't feel like enough, and my chest aches with the fierceness of how much I miss my baby sister. And always, always I spend the ten days from March 21 to March 31 observing her presence in the world, her life and death, and the mark she left on me. 

In the words of one of my favorite musicians, Johnny Clegg, "It's funny how those once so close and now gone still so affect our lives." Sophie gave me the gift of becoming a big sister, a role I am grateful to have been able to continue fulfilling for our younger sister Grace, and there will never be a time when she is not a part of me. Gaining and losing a sister left me irreparably changed in ways that are still beyond my understanding, but as strange as it sounds I wouldn't have it any other way. And when strangers ask who Sophie is, I smile, because each time they speak her name it's proof that she is still a part of this world and still a part of me.

Love, love, love.

Love, love, love.