I thank God, for all that is good, and dear, and beautiful. Anne Frank
Because of great love, one is courageous. Lao Tzu
I am in a shop filled with gemstones in Moscow, Idaho with my son and three of my four grandkids, staring into the eyes of a thirty-year-old rattle snake named Buddy when I feel the buzz of a text against my cell-phoned skin. All the kids in this northern Idaho college town know of Buddy who was plucked from a downtown street as a tiny baby and placed in this roomy glass terrarium next to two amethyst mini-caves where he has lived his long life ever since. Locals say he rode into town on a bail of hay from somewhere down in the canyon, and here he is now, pure muscle and forked-tongue, on this Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, slithering and rising and captivating our full attention, until I feel it again, the buzz of my cell-phone. And I check it this time. And that’s where I hear the news, in the crystal shop, with my son and three of my grandkids and Buddy, the snake, who has indeed become our buddy. “Fu died.”
I told the grandkids they could scamper upstairs, that they were welcome in Grandma and Grandpa’s room, that they could climb up onto our bed and snuggle with our cat Fu anytime they needed to get away. “She’s old; you need to be gentle,” I told them. “But she likes to cuddle,” And it was touching, the way they all took me up on the offer, the just-turned-seven-year-old and his two-year-old sister this past July during the three-week visit of one son and daughter-in-law, and the just-turned-four-year-old and her not-quite-two-year-old brother when our other son and daughter-in-law flew east to Upper Michigan in mid-August. Fu slept, usually curled in a ball of white fluffy fur on the folded blankets at bed’s end, while the kids nestled next to her, one or two at a time, catching their breath between the flurry of summertime activities. Our bedroom became a haven of calm in a sea of busyness and Fu seemed to welcome the grandkids’ company into her world of ease-filled catnapping. This I expected. Fu has always been sweet and cuddly, a cat who greets us at the door and lets us carry her around like a baby, our empty-nest baby these past sixteen years. What I didn’t expect was the eagerness in which she flopped her way down the stairs and dove right into the chaotic world of a house full of people. There she’d be, stretched out long and relaxed or sprawled on her back, belly exposed, front paws curled under in pleasure while a toddler flew by on a beeping and whistling Fisher Price truck, while a seven-year-old created art books at the table beside her, while grown people hustled and bustled about and a four-year-old petted her fur with enthusiastic strokes. Fu was in her glory, a catnip-filled chewed-up toy placed next to her, a ping pong ball at her feet. The busier the better, it seemed. While I sometimes craved the quiet, Fu often thrived in the tsunami of noise. And thrive this summer she did. After her first real bout of illness in late April, a urinary tract infection gone bad, she bounced back by late May, her fur once again pure white fluff, her pantaloons billowy and stylish, her mane regal and fitting for a gal with the name FuFu Princess. “It is a good summer,” Fu seemed to be saying, “and I like the company I’m keeping.”
“Fu died.” I say it out loud. I say it out loud in a shop filled with stones and a snake named Buddy. I say it out loud to my son and my seven-year-old grandson and his four-year-old-cousin and his sister in the stroller. “Fu died,” I say. “I’m sorry, Mom.” My son wraps his arms around me, and I am crying and I am too wrapped up in my own wrapped-up self to stay wrapped up in my son’s generous arms or to notice my grandkids’ reactions or to find my guy, Grandpa Cam, who has sent me the text and is with our other son and daughter-in-law and the other toddler grandkid somewhere right outside this crystal shop door at a farmer’s market filled with produce and crafts and baked goods and music and thrumming life. I know it is Raja who has called Cam, Raja, who with Amber, his wife, is staying with Fu, back at our home in Upper Michigan, who is family to Fu and to us, too, and it his him now that I must call. I leave my son and my grandkids and push my way through the street packed with people, past stalls of tomatoes and peppers and peaches, past flowered aprons strung on strings, past the guy who is tap-dancing in front of a barbershop quartet. And I find it, when I turn the corner, what I need, the quiet of an alley behind the Co-op, and an overturned milk carton, a place where I can sit down, and that’s when I call our friend Raja.
“I am not going to get a white-long-haired FuFu cat! It will shed everywhere!” These were my husband Cam’s words in late June when he heard our college-aged kids had been cat-shopping. Beloved Boots, our oldest son’s sixteen-year-old black short-haired non-shedding gal with the white feet had just died in my arms a few weeks earlier as I sat on our couch with our boys just minutes before heading to the airport to catch a plane to yoga-training at Kripalu in Massachusetts. One son drove me to the airport, the other buried our Boots-cat under the white pines in our back yard. For eleven days at the yoga training, I had stretched and breathed and cried my way to the other side of grief and had returned home, open and willing to face an empty-of-animal home for a while — because, after all, aren’t you supposed to wait a respectful amount of time before plunging back in to full-out love for another animal? Not in our household. Our two sons, and older son’s girlfriend, had been to the shelter several times when I was away, and that’s where they had found her, in a small cage littered with toys and a ping pong ball. It was our older son’s girlfriend (now his wife) who knew she was the one. “She’s perfect!” they told me. “She bats the ping pong ball around like crazy when they let her out to play. And besides she’s desperate, Mom.” The three of them told me how she bashed her head over and over again against the metal door of the cage and opened her mouth wide and meowed the loudest meow you’ve ever heard. “You need to see her!” they pleaded. And I did, again and again during that last week of June. And I too fell hard for this soft snowball of white fluff — and my husband, he didn’t have a chance, and, on the Fourth of July, he is the one who bought the healthy brand of kitten food and set up a bed for her in the basement playroom, and he joined us as we brought her home, our sweet little white-long-haired-shedding FuFu Princess.
I am sobbing, don’t care who hears me from my milk-carton-perch. “How did it happen?” I ask. “She was fine!” I add. I think I say this several times because she was — she was fine when she followed me from room to room on Thursday evening, fine as she sat upright, front paws a little askew as I packed my suitcase, fine as I made myself a snack, as I straightened the living room for Amber and Raja, fine on Friday morning, early before dawn, when Grandpa Cam and I set off on our Labor Day trip to Idaho, fine as I said a flighty quick “See you later, Fu”, and galloped out the door. And now, I am yelling these words into my cell phone, yelling at my dear friend Raja, wanting to blame someone, and, of course, I can’t, can’t blame Raja, because he too loves Fu as I love Fu, as Grandpa Cam loves Fu, as we all do, and Raja is crying too, and he is probably sitting in this very moment next to our dead cat or driving her home from the vet because that’s where it happened, at the vet’s. He is still crying when he agrees with me, tells me that she was fine, on Friday, that she ate the rest of the lake trout, enjoyed being outside, cuddled with Amber and him. It was just this morning, he adds, that she seemed lethargic, that she wouldn’t move from the fireplace hearth, that he carried her to the car, drove her to the vet’s office, that she didn’t seem scared or in pain, that she simply stretched out her back legs, took a breath and died. How can that be? That’s not how it’s done. There has to be some indication, some foreshadowing, some struggle. You don’t just die, don’t just leave us without a proper good-bye. I want to cling to the phone, to Raja. I want to make it not true. I want my white fluffy FuFu cat.
I named her myself, called her Leetle-lee. I think it might have meant “kitty” in toddler language. And I loved her for years, loved her stuffed animal body that fit perfectly in my little hand, loved her white fluffy fur that I patted and pulled and pressed against my cheek, loved her perky pink-lined ears until they hung there, dangling by thread. We slept together, Leetle-lee and me, first in my crib, then in the twin bed in the bedroom I shared with my baby brother. I wished my Leetle-lee was real. I wished my Leetle-lee into becoming real.
I have re-joined the family at the center of the farmer’s market near the city’s downtown play area where the band is playing something loud and raucous and far too cheerful. My seven-year-old-grandson hands me a bouquet of flowers as my four-year-old-granddaughter clings to my arm. I glance over at Grandpa Cam who is standing at the bottom of the slide waiting for one of the two toddler grandkids to fly down, and then I turn away. I don’t want to see him right now, don’t want to start crying again. It is better that we keep going, at least it feels that way in this moment, so I scoop up the two older kids and say, “Come on! Let’s get a treat.” And that’s what we do, before noon; we get ourselves mounds of locally-made thick creamy ice cream in sugar cones. This is not normal healthy-food-conscious Grandma Helen behavior, and these two grandkids know this, and I think they might be feeling a certain amount of glee. And an hour later, when I find myself with three of the four grandkids, the only adult in our older son’s house, I do it again, this time as a bribe. I need to move, to get out into the sun, to escape stillness and stuffiness and too much thought. It is cookies this time that I use to lure them into outdoor play, old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies that were meant for tonight’s after-dinner treat. The three grandkids quickly make a bee-line for shoes piled by the door as I stand nearby, handing out the sugary treats, and that’s when I say it. “You know I’m usually a pretty good grandma,” I tell them. “And it’s carrots and peas and healthy things we have for lunch,” I add. “But today, I’m sad and I don’t feel like being a good grandma and we’re having cookies.” I notice I’m feeling a little better as I say this, a little more feisty as we set off for the play area across the street. I ask my oldest grandson to create an imaginary graph for us, and he does, in his own fashion, zero being a fabulous grandma and ten being a horrible one. I nod in affirmation, commend him on a good graph. “I’m sad today, and I’m a seven. Not horrible, but pretty bad,” I proclaim. And they seem fine with it all, the ice cream and cookies for lunch, the not-so-good grandma, the time at the play area. And frankly, it’s a relief, not trying to pull myself together and strive to be a zero when seven feels just about right. I plop myself down on one of the swings, push off, and begin to pump, and when my four-year-old granddaughter politely asks for a turn, I tell her no, that I’m not sharing today, and I note the shock on her face, and I glean what little pleasure I can in being bad, for thirty seconds longer, that is, before relinquishing the swing, relinquishing my badness and just allowing myself to feel sad again.
It was star-spangled, the Fourth of July we brought our FuFu Princess home from the Humane Society. The whole family felt it, the birth of something new, something exciting that couldn’t be contained. But we tried that Independence Day to reign it in, to provide some reasonable boundaries for our new little kitten. We carried her down to the basement playroom, showed her the litter box in the corner, the little bed of blankets on the couch. “This is where you are going to stay,” we told her, “until you show us you are potty-trained.” And she meowed that loud open-mouth-wide meow and somehow managed to to climb up those basement stairs and follow us into the kitchen. “Okay”, we said, pouring kitty litter into another container. “You can stay with us on the first floor. But that’s it. We’re not carrying you upstairs to our bedroom until you’ve proven the kitty litter box is your bathroom.” And we didn’t have to worry about it, the carrying her up the stairs, that is, because, that evening, she managed it on her own, and, by bedtime, there she was nestled against my cheek sleeping soundly. And there I was, in love with our new little princess. That summer, we were all in love, the whole family. Our older son’s girlfriend cuddled with Fu — that’s what we were calling her, Fu — on the couch while watching television, our younger son wrapped her around his neck like a shawl and professed that he would teach her to fetch, and we all found ourselves on hands and knees tromping through the house, hiding behind furniture, waiting for our gal to pounce and tag us lightly with her paw. And one Saturday, my husband Cam and I rushed home from a wedding reception before the dancing even began because we couldn’t stand it, to be away from our fluffy white kitten. And as Fu grew into her long-bodied thick-furred royalty, we learned things about her, that she could zip past us in a flash when we opened the front door, that she could sprint like a cheetah then challenge us to catch her, that she could sound wild and killer-coded when sitting in the kitchen window transfixed on a bird at the feeder. We learned there was this fierce whimsical independence in our fluffy Fourth of July cat, and yet, when we picked her up, she turned rag doll, stuffed animal limp, back legs dangling. She allowed her dad, that’s what Cam was calling himself by now, to sprawl her out on his lap, belly up, and clip each one of her nails. And she allowed the rest of us to carry her around as if she was our personal play thing. This was a cat who knew how to have fun, a cat who knew how to haul us into her fun. And sure enough, she did it, hauled us into her fun year after year after year. And our younger son, he was successful. He taught her to fetch.
She wraps her toddler hand around my little finger and we set off on our downtown adventure. We have just finished breakfast at the juice bar — green smoothies, a quinoa/egg breakfast bowl, fresh fruit and yogurt. It is now Thursday, and I am working my way down my seven-year-old grandson’s Grandparent Graph, a pretty-good-healthy-breakfast grandma again, a grandma who is allowing spurts of happiness to mingle with her FuFu grief. How can I not feel happy when this two-year-old granddaughter grips hold of my pinkie with such purpose, calls me Grandma Helman and nearly skips us forward toward the corner where we will turn onto Main Street and once again go visit Buddy the Snake? It seems like these past few days since Labor Day Weekend have stretched on into years and I now have moments where I am immersed in grandkid play and don’t even think of her, and then it hits me, the punch in the gut, the remembering that I will be returning home tomorrow to a FuFu-less house. And it is happening now, the punch-in-the-gut-thinking-of-Fu-thing, as my granddaughter and I approach the corner, and I remember the sympathy card I bought at a small boutique in town, a cat card with the words, “We imagine our cats everywhere, after they are gone.” This is all a flash in my mind, an instant of considering the quote and then refuting it. I don’t believe that it is imagination, this noticing our loved ones everywhere after they pass. This is what I am thinking as we walk, that it is a conversation, that our loved ones talk to us from the other side. And in the instant, the very instant that this flash of a thought takes hold, I hear it, the roar of a semi passing by on this center-of-town street, and I look up and see it plastered all over the back of the truck, a photograph, a ridiculously huge photograph of a white fluffy kitten. In this moment as my granddaughter and I round the corner on our quest to spend time with Buddy, as the truck disappears from sight, I am not quite there, not quite ready to have a conversation with Fu in this new form, and yet, I’m stunned by this fluffy-cat-truck-message and fully conscious that this conversation is available to me when I am open to it. I know this as I step through the entry of the shop filled with gemstones, as my granddaughter and I make our way to Buddy’s terrarium home. And here he is, curled in a ball, waiting for us. I believe in the healing power of snakes. And I know the jaws of a snake are not fused together. Perhaps this morning Buddy will open his mouth wide, wide enough to swallow my grief, so I can once again feel my cat’s loving presence.
Fu was napping on her folded blanket at the foot of our bed, her white fur lit up by the afternoon light. It was late August, a hint of fall in the breeze that wafted in through the open window. As she slept, I packed. Grandpa Cam and I would be leaving in two days for Idaho to visit our kids and grandkids over Labor Day weekend, and Amber and Raja would move into the guest room and become Fu’s people. But now, I was here, and I did what I do so often. I snuck up to the bed, to my sleeping cat, and I leaned against her head and whispered into her ear, softly, the words I had been telling her for sixteen years. “I’m so glad you were born. I’m so glad you came to live with us in this lifetime. I love you. I love you. I love you.”