The end is never the end. It’s what I choose to believe, what I believe whole-heartedly to be true. I don’t know exactly what comes after this life, but I know it’s something our oh-so-earthly selves can never comprehend. And I know that not all ends are equal, but I know that each end makes a unique twist in each of our stories, a specific impression on our hearts that will leave us forever changed. No hurt is bigger or smaller than another, only different.
A smidge over eight, I sat alone in the tree swing crying. The sounds of voices chatting over a picnic dinner assaulted my senses. “Why are they laughing,” I remember thinking. “Why? Don’t they know my Grandaddy just died? This is no time for laughing!” And someone, some adult (though I can’t remember which one) came to me and wrapped me up in her arms and said that she was so sorry and she knew how I felt. I know now that she meant well, but I wanted to shout, “THERE’S NO WAY YOU KNOW WHAT THIS IS LIKE!” But the words wouldn’t rise and I ripped myself from her arms and rushed into my Mama Jo’s room. Under the little table by her bed, I wrapped the telephone cord as far up my finger as I could and slowly twisted my finger free. Again and again. A dozen tears for each twist and untwist. I cried myself dry. I heard some adults looking for me, but I didn’t say a word. They came closer and I pretended to be asleep. The words have drifted away from my head, but the memory of those muffled sounds still sit in my center. Once again alone, I sang “Goodnight, Irene” to him, the one I’d never see again. The one with the dark, rough skin – a sign of many years of hard work in in the sun. The big laugh and the eyes that crinkled when he smiled – a sign of years of smiling through life. The one who will always smell like sawdust and peppermint to me, the peppermint that replaced the cigarettes that stole years from him. The one who would make me laugh in Sunday night church and then wink at me when my Mama Jo, his forever love, would give me “the look.” The one who I wish I’d known a little longer. The one I still see in my dad.
She wasn’t old, but her body was tired. She ached, oh how she ached, but rarely complained. Sometimes when I’d lie with her in her bed at night, with the TV on but the volume barely audible, we’d talk about everything. I told her things and she told me things and in the flickering darkness even the simplest words seem sacred. Sometimes she’d hold my hand and cry and I’d rub her gnarled hands, the only thing I knew to do. The day she died I sat beside her again, this time in the light of day, and I rubbed her gnarled hands, the only thing I knew to do. The hospital room quickly filled with more people than were allowed to be there, but the nurses would look the other way when someone else came in. We sang. Oh, how we sang. Sweet melodies that she’d taught me, that she’d led so many of us in church all those years. I don’t remember much about my own wedding day, but I remember her funeral clearly. A celebration of who is was, this opinionated, passionate little spit-fire. “Goodbye, World, Goodbye” we sang, a true celebration of who she was and who she will always be to me.
Now don’t you weep for me when I’m gone
For I won’t have to leave here alone.
And when I hear that last trumpet sound
My feet won’t stay on the ground.
I’m gonna rise with a shout, gonna fly,
Gonna rise with my Lord in the sky.
Heaven is near and I can’t stay here,
Goodbye world, goodbye.
We sat with her, my sweet Madison. She in my lap, the older children surrounding us. And we loved on her and told stories about her and we laughed a little and cried a lot. They’d never known life without her. She had always been in the background of their little lives. So it was important to me that they be there, if they wanted. And they did. Her breathing slowed and slowed until it wooshed right out. We knew when she was gone, though she was still there in my lap. And we cried some more. We buried her in my parent’s backyard the next morning. When we got there my dad had everything ready. We covered her with earth and cried some more. I’m thankful that the kids remember her and that we can share good memories of our sweet, dumb dog that we loved so much.
He lived next door and was an integral part of my childhood. I never knew a world that he wasn’t in. Some folks called him “slow” or “special,” but to us he was just Herman, Jr. And although he was nearly 50 years older than my brother and me, we loved spending time with him and he with us. We had so much fun together. We’d sing and show off our Elvis dance moves, play baseball in the yard, make audio recordings of us just being silly. He got so tickled listening to himself on tape.
The story goes that when he was born they said he wouldn’t live very long, into his twenties at the most. Boy did he prove them wrong on that! He lived a good, long life. He was one of those people who was truly glad to greet each morning…even when his parents passed away, even when they told him no more sweets (which he loved) because of diabetes, even when he had to have open-heart surgery. (Almost) always happy and full of music and laughter.
He had a quick decline. He was doing well until the day after Christmas but when you’re in your eighties things happen and you just pray they happen quickly and painlessly. And though those last few weeks were hard, there is mercy in the fact that it didn’t last for longer. We saw him several times over those few weeks and saw the steady decline. We knew it was coming. But even when you know it’s coming, it still kinda steals all the air from your lungs.
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate his life well-lived and listen to a little Elvis and little Hank Williams and a few Johnny Cash songs for good measure. And we’ll smile and remember.
We got her the week before Christmas. We’d said that once we moved we’d get a cat. But I just wanted to look and we did and there she was. She picked us. A little white paw waved as us from the crate. Batting at our fingers, she was playful but gentle. We asked if we could see her, hold her for just a minute and before she was even in my arms, I fell hard and fast. She nuzzled her head against mine. I held her and smooshed my nose into her side, trying to see if she would make my eyes itch or my nose all runny. Many cats give my allergies fits, but she didn’t. Not at all.
We brought her home in a cardboard box, a little paw peeping out every now and then. And when we brought her in to meet Maggie, our 12 year old dog, I was worried. I put Mags on a leash and took them both to the bathroom where I could contain them if I needed to…but I didn’t. Not even a little bit. They sniffed and swirled around each other a few times, and that was that. Friends, not foes.
That sweet kitty, my little Atticus Catticus, let those wild children drag her to and fro. She let them dress her up and hold her like a baby and hug her so much and so hard that I just knew she was going to scratch one of them. But she never did. She let them love her, each in their own way, and never made a sound. She rarely meowed, just made tiny, airy little sounds. When she’d eat or drink, she’d put her feet in the bowl. She’d chase any kind of toy, and she loved to mess around with my hair while I was reading in bed.
She was fine until she wasn’t. We took her to the vet. “It may be something that we can fix fairly easily or it may be scary cat stuff’” she said. We tried to deal with thing A first and she still didn’t get better. So today we took her back and found out that it was the “scary cat stuff.” She has FIP, a fairly uncommon but fatal disease. She’s slowed down and doesn’t want to play anymore, but she still loves to cuddle. It’s amazing how quickly a little critter can wiggle deep down in your heart. She’s only been here a month and a half, but we love her as if she’s been here forever.
We brought her back home from the vet and will keep her here until she’s no longer comfortable. She’s still eating and drinking for now, but it won’t be long. We’re all acclimating to the news. I’m so incredibly sad that she will have come and gone so quickly, but what really breaks my heart is how my sweet, sensitive Emmie has taken it. The sound of her cries, oh…it kills me. When I explained everything to them, she curled up in my lap with Atty in her lap. Tucker sat beside us and we all cuddled and cried. I’m sure we’ll do it again and again while we squeeze a life-time worth of love in a few short days.
I’m not sure if the sting of death ever goes away. I don’t know that I’d even say that it gets better, because sometimes it socks you in the gut when you least expect it. But it does settle into your soul and get more comfortable, more manageable. And sometimes it leaves you quite a bit of room to smile at all the beautiful, precious moments and memories…and it’s then that you realize – as trite as it may sound – that the end is never really the end, but the beginning. The end of life and the beginning of new stories laced with old stories, both weaving their way through generations of hearts and minds.