It was the middle of the day on Thursday, December 16, 2021, when my spouse Dylan and I realized the eldest of our two cats, Drala, a fifteen-year-old Lilac Point Burmese, was much sicker than we thought. After a few days of him licking small dollops of wet food from our fingers, and sipping water from a dropper- Please Drala, just eat a little bit more – he refused to consume anything. The emergency veterinarian was optimistic at first – His heart and lungs sound good, and he looks bright! But when she x-rayed his kidneys and looked at his creatinine levels, she realized he had a severe kidney disease that our regular vet had overlooked for a long time. You could take him home for a few days, she said, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I think the most merciful course of action is humane euthanasia.
We sat in a generic living room-like room, the “comfort room”, sound-protected from the reception area, protected from feeling by shock. Drala snuggled up to each of us, his huge blue eyes clear and strong. Then, we wept, completely giving in to grief, Drala bewildered by our howling. I whispered into his soft grey ears, You can let go now, buddy. You can go. When it came time, neither of us felt we could handle being there as the doctor euthanized him; we left him in her hands. As we closed the door to the comfort room, we each glanced over our shoulder to see him stare at us with disorientation, a moment that haunted us long after.
Drala was a grey stray friends gave us, after feeding him from their apartment stoop for months. Half a year prior, the same friends had given us another stray cat, Aviva, who was found half-starved as a kitten outside a food shelter. Drala and Aviva were dramatically different – Drala wanted to be close at all times, curled up in our arms. He also talked. Constantly. Meowing to get us to play, to feed him, to scoop the litter box, to wake us at 3 am, and see what we would do. Aviva, a mix of Tortoiseshell and Calico, was satisfied to be on her own most of the time, showing affection and meowing only when food was at stake.
We grieved throughout the holiday season, canceling plans and staying quiet, snuggling with Aviva, watching her new behaviors, as we all adapted to life without Drala after thirteen years together. When we adopted her, she was a kitten, a rapscallion who often made us weep with her destructive tendencies. How would she act now?
The first week, Aviva was even quieter than usual and stayed close to us. I know there is something wrong, she was saying, and I am here to help. We held tight to her, bursting into tears when we encountered what Dylan called Drala-shaped holes around our home. A week after Drala died, Aviva began to bat at sparkle balls and roam the house more. She also started vocalizing: crying, talking, murmuring. While she’s not back up to kitten-caliber antics, as she’s a senior feline, she shows a different side now that Drala isn’t around to compete with for our attention. At first, I found her frequent vocalizations irritating, until I got more curious.
In March of 1990, when I was twelve years old, my father died of Hodgkin’s Disease after a two-year battle. Even before cancer, he had had many severe health ailments – diabetes, heart problems, and finally, lymphoma.
The loss was devastating. And it was made all the more complex by isolation – it was just my mom and me left. My two older brothers were off on their own, at college or working in another city, and while they’d come back home to visit or even move back for a brief period, mostly it was Mom and me. For a few years, Mom only left the house to buy groceries, rarely changed her clothes, and spent all of her time in our private back garden, in the kitchen smoking, or the living room watching TV, drinking whiskey. She left the television on all night, at top volume, as she would say, To push away the silence. I didn’t know what to call the situation. A counselor asked me when I was fourteen about my mother’s alcoholism; I had nothing to offer, as I didn’t know that’s what she was.
I got deft with my words, in my teens and twenties, I said to a friend recently, trying to convince everyone that I was getting by just fine. I didn’t want to burden Mom or draw attention to our precarious situation. My friend pointed out, Your voice is one of your superpowers. She lauded my ability to survive, but also noted, Such an articulate voice also isolated you from others’ possible care and help. Certainly, now, as a forty-four-year-old, I use my voice to ask for help, to give feedback when the care I am being offered doesn’t help me. But at the time, barely a teenager, I reached for the strongest tool I had, and I used it the way I had been socialized as a woman to use it.
I used my voice to hide in plain sight.
Aviva has taken to waking us up in the middle of the night, demanding something we can never quite figure out. This used to be Drala’s gig – luring one or both of us down the steps, into the quiet living room, tripping around catnip-filled mice and plastic bugs strewn on the floor, and padding into the kitchen, engaging in useless inquiries. Do you want food? It’s not time for food. Now that Drala isn’t around to rouse us for entertainment at 3 am, Aviva fills the niche.
I trail after her wailing, follow her until she has forgotten why she brought me down in the first place, then encourage her to come back up and curl up inside my right arm.
We are learning to discern her different cries, voices that have gotten more nuanced since her kittenhood. There’s the lowing cry, which is usually a sincere sign of distress – she has had diarrhea or constipation, or she genuinely cannot tell where we are in the house. Then there’s a high-pitched, kittenish meow, short and sharp, which has a teasing quality and is more likely to make me roll my eyes and roll over in bed. There’s a discovery cry when she realizes I have found her, or she finds me – her meow stops abruptly and the pitch and length return to a middle ground between her edgy barks and her low longing.
Did Aviva feel – I am not sure what – constrained? Held back by Drala? He intimidated her, at least a few times a day. Drala’s most common tactic was to sleep a few feet away on the couch or bed, then stalk her and attempt to clean her, really to irritate her, so she’d pick a fight, and leave her pre-heated pillow or afghan spot in a huff, which he would then coil right into.
Drala was a demanding cat. His affection was often odd – stepping right onto my nipple, accidentally pawing Dylan’s nose. Dylan called him Clumsy Lover, as one of his many nicknames. Aviva seemed willing to recede into the background somewhat. Now that Drala is gone, she is taking up more space with her body and voice.
Mom didn’t initially want kids. Born in 1942, she hit adulthood just ahead of the curve for what was, for some of her friends, the sexually liberating sixties in the United States. As a teenager, she had ambitions about writing. She wrote an entire novel in high school. But then, in her first year at the University of Chicago, she met my dad, born in 1937. Dad was deployed not long after, and they filled the two states between them with daily letters. She dropped out of school. They delayed having children (in part because of my mother’s mental health struggles and alcoholism), but my maternal and paternal grandparents expected grandkids, in part because my parents were both only children. Mom attempted to write as a married woman, but it never really stuck, and once we kids arrived, her writing nearly completely ceased.
I would come running whenever my dad walked in the front door. I would also silently sneak away the moment he began to raise his voice. His angry silences sucked the air out of our lungs, his lightning rages blew all of our circuits. He fit into a classic role and he took up most of the air and energy in the room, both in ways that were genuinely charming (making puns, telling long jokes, and loving stories) and often controlling (keeping us silent as punishment).
Dad’s death was brutal for Mom and me. When I expressed grief, Mom would say I lost a life partner; my loss is greater than yours. Mom began to speak up more than when Dad was alive. I believe now that she was trying to free generations of unexpressed grief for women in our family line – all the times the men had died first, leaving them to raise children alone; the dozens of women who had given up dreams, like writing, to raise families. Unfortunately, she often expressed these losses as blame: If we hadn’t had children, he’d still be alive; If it weren’t for you, I could go join him in the afterlife.
As soon as I got a driver’s license at age 16, I was out of the house as much as possible, at first to both our relief, then, as Mom healed, to her dismay. Leafing through our family archives in my thirties, I found a survey from the high school Mom had responded to and never sent. It was about whether the school was offering enough extracurricular activities. She wrote a small letter in response – I never see my daughter, because she is doing so many after-school things – theater, forensics, literary journal, and more. I suspect she knew that, in part, I was doing those activities to stay away from her. It’s possible this letter was meant for me, and I received it two decades too late.
Towards the end of my years at home, my mother and I reached something resembling a truce, sharing walks in nature and finding topics we could mutually revel in (French culture and language, Celtic music, Bavarian Cream Pie). I still got itchy, not wanting to spend time with her, but I could handle her more, as my childhood body and mind settled into something resembling adulthood and her voice found its way from abandonment to solitude. She began to share with me some of her life experiences – traveling in Europe with Dad before we were born, writing lots of poetry. Sometimes, as an adolescent, I could hear her and genuinely care. Often I thought, Too little too late, and couldn’t wait to get out of the house and go to college.
Dylan and I have been married for fourteen years now, an unplanned queer elopement in England, followed by a reception a year later back home in Wisconsin. From the moment we met two years before marrying, we both knew neither of us wanted to have children. While neither of us calls our cats “furbabies,” it is true that most of our caretaking resources go to our cats.
I am charmed by Aviva’s behavior, as much as she disrupts our precious sleep. She’s an “only cat” now, with two adults to indulge her more than before, and we have found a new veterinarian who provides more thorough care. We will lavish her to the best of our budget. Whether she lives a month or many years more, even as I occasionally get irritated, I expect her revived meows will mostly make me smile. This is not dissimilar to the arc of my relationship with Mom’s voice after Dad died, though, of course, with far less at stake.
When Dad died, Mom was pretty much on her own. Her mother had died when I was young, and Dad only had one living parent – his mother – who died just a few months after he did. Her father, while financially supportive, was unable to express or tolerate emotions.
As I approach the age she was when Dad died, I try to feel into how it was for my mom – all of a sudden a solo parent, a widow, with a teenage daughter, unable to work or connect with social or emotional resources. It is truly unfathomable to me.
I am also much more resourced than she was – personally and socially. I have built a great community around me, focused on writing and contemplative practices; I have taken advantage of the turns in culture in the last two decades that promote personal growth and working through trauma. I can heal for myself, and for many of my ancestral line who weren’t able to do it.
Mom died when I was nineteen. For a long time in my adulthood, the story I told was that she stayed depressed, abandoned, and traumatized until she died. However, I have relationships with two of Mom’s oldest friends, and they tell/remind me that she had begun subscribing to the Buddhist magazine, Tricycle. That she introduced me to the first contemplative writing-ish book I ever read – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. That she was beginning to thrive after grief, and then an aneurysm killed her suddenly.
The majority of my paid work is now with groups and individuals combining meditation and writing. Most of my living now comes from supporting women and gender non-conforming people who want to write, often who used to write when they were young, but no longer do. We need communal spaces in which we can get to know and also love our voice, or voices. These are spaces Mom needed, but couldn’t ask for. I have come to understand that I also offer these spaces for my mother and other ancestors.
While I was teaching a contemplative writing retreat from home this week, Aviva jumped up on my lap at one point, seeking caresses. I mentioned to the participants Aviva and her increased vocalizations after Drala’s death. A student reflected, I love this idea that Aviva is finding her voice after grief. I wrote down finding her voice through grief, felt a charge in my spine, and added Aviva/Drala. Not long after, I jotted down Mom/Dad right underneath on the page and underlined it twice.
When I described this moment to Dylan, they said they had never heard me describe Mom finding her voice after Dad’s death. I told them it wasn’t until the student said it that way about Aviva that I realized an element of truth for Mom – and me.
This happens so often in writing and life. A key from the present moment opens the locked door of an old story. Suddenly fresh air spills into closeted perspectives and we are in the room again, hearing and seeing with compassion. What’s happening to Aviva now isn’t the same as what happened to Mom, or me, for that matter, but the distance and space of time and difference in species help me perceive a previously invisible connection more clearly.
Mom’s sudden death when I turned nineteen, compounded with other major losses, made me stop writing for a few years. After I graduated college, I found a good therapist, a local poetry group, and a meditation center. I began writing poetry, releasing the shocked silence of my mother’s sudden death. Not long after, I met a mentor with whom I learned to teach writing as a mindfulness practice.
On a recent walk with a friend, we spoke of our gratitude, having access to so many healing tools and resources, and far less shame or stigma around speaking to our pain and joy. Like many of their peers, my parents got locked into roles and habits from which neither of them could easily break free. Looking back, I can feel the stares of neighbors and grocery clerks demanding my mother hide her grief.
In part, because both of my parents, and all of my familial elders, had died by the time I turned twenty-two, I have had a lot more freedom than most in writing about and sharing my familial experiences. This, too, is another way in which grief, when uncoupled from trauma, has helped me find my voice.
In the spiritual tradition I began practicing in my mid-twenties, Tibetan Buddhism, there is a belief that previous generations hide wisdom in the elements to be found later by figures who can reveal them for the current moment. This is how it feels to me to be able to finally do the grieving so many women in my family couldn’t do.
Aviva and her renewed voice remind me to keep unearthing all that my ancestors buried for safekeeping.
About the Author:
Miriam Hall is a queer contemplative writer, photographer, and teacher from the United States. She has co-authored two books on Miksang photography – Looking and Seeing, and Heart of Photography, andauthored two chapbooks of poetry from Finishing Line Press. She can be found online at www.herspiral.com.
Feature image by Ralphs_Fotos / Pixabay