Last Sunday afternoon, I was volunteering at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, trying to coax a frightened cat out from under his bed, where he had burrowed himself inside his shelter cage, when I received the call: my mother was dying.
My friend Stephanie met me at the garret. She would take care of Hannah and Sam during my absence. I’d left my spare keys with another friend, who was out of town, and so I, for the first time, thanked the garret for being itself: located around the block from a shopping center, where I was able to get a second key copy made in a matter of minutes.
As I stood in front of my opened bureau drawer and threw my clothes into a bag, Sam sat quietly on the floor, looking up at me, watching me calmly, without a blink. Hannah nudged her forehead into Stephanie’s hand, letting me know with her engaging – as opposed to isolating – gesture that she would be okay in my absence: go, go.
I embarked on the four-hour drive to the hospital, becoming impatient with the thick traffic that congested the toll booth connecting I-90 and I-84: go, go, I said half-aloud, gritting my teeth, trying to will the cars to move out of my way. Strangely, I felt my mother’s presence: “You don’t have to rush,” I thought I heard her whispering in my ear, “I’m already gone.” The next moment, from my car radio, my mother’s favorite singer, Barry Manilow, began to sing “I Write the Songs.” (When was the last time anyone heard Barry Manilow on mainstream radio? It’s been at least fifteen years for me.) As I looked through the windshield, I saw above, in the sky, the clouds were like closed eyelids, the lashes spilling streaks of light.
My mother, who was once a practicing writer, was an avid reader of the Hannah Grace blog. She particularly enjoyed the photos. Because she was a very private person, I never publicly mentioned her battle with ovarian cancer over the past year, but I did write of it (“The Interlo-cat-or“). Sam was actually born at the time she was originally diagnosed.
A week before my mother passed, the day before Hurricane Irene ravaged the East Coast, I visited my mother at her condo. We talked a great deal, and we watched some Hannah and Sam videos. She was particularly enamored with Sam’s zest for life, and she pointed out, with a touch of motherly compassion (‘cat’passion?), Hannah’s continued cautiousness, watching it lead into moments of contentment.
When I first adopted Hannah, my mother tried to dissuade me. She was afraid that I would get attached to another being, and suffer the pain one feels when you love and lose. When Hannah almost died from severe pancreatitis in 2009, and I was ashamed of my devastation at the possibility of having to put Hannah down, my mother said, “No, she’s not just a pet. She’s this sweet being. She’s Hannah.”
After Hannah survived, every year for Hanukkah, I gave my mother a “Hannah” wall calendar, filled with photos, which she spoke of with the turn of each month. Although my relationship with my mother was complicated, she was an avid supporter of Hannah Grace, the book, and encouraged me to turn my idea into a reality.
A photograph in one of my childhood albums pictures my mother in bell-bottom blue jeans placing a stray cat in my arms as we stand beside a wooded area. In it, I am four years old. Although unable to recollect where we were or why, I remember the moment, how the cat had approached us, how my mother picked her up, encouraged my interest in this animal, fed my wish for love.
My mother often referred to herself as “a creature of comfort,” just like a cat. Like the feline, my mother became very unsettled whenever her routine was interrupted. She frequently mentioned she would like to “come back as a cat.” When I was a teenager, after my grandmother died, a gray Egyptian-type cat periodically appeared in our backyard, meeting my mother’s eyes. My mother thought it might be her mother, visiting. “Grandma had those cat eyes,” she said.
The day after my mother’s funeral, when I arrived back home to the garret and ascended the steep staircase, when I opened the door, Hannah meowed to me from the living room. I had heard from Stephanie that she had been quite the social butterfly while I was away, allowing Stephanie to pet her (unheard of!), while Sam took up Hannah’s former stance in the presence of strangers in my absence: hiding under the bed, and then staying far away from me upon my return. This time, Sam instantly appeared in my bedroom doorway, and looked at me directly.
“Meow,” he said simply, then led me into the living room, where Hannah was waiting.