Lately I’ve been fascinated with pets during Covid. My little girl (Callie – pictured above) is no exception.
I’m not sure if it’s the neediness or the continued challenges with adjusting to me being home a lot more than I ever have been as a result of the Covid pandemic.
Early into the pandemic, I decided that it would be helpful for us to develop a routine (because I could sense that we weren’t adjusting well to this being inside all of the time). So the routine we developed is that every night before bedtime, we meet in the living room of our really small (really, really small) apartment where I pick her up and carry her through the different rooms in our place.
This is where the visual of this story that you’re getting does not take a lot of creativity on your part. The apartment is no larger than 750 square feet so there’s not a lot of room for grand tours.
But there is enough room to look at the pictures of Callie on the fridge and to talk about how beautiful she is as we wander across the living room, through the kitchen, into the bathroom, and the walk-in closet until reaching the bedroom where she settles in for the night. It’s a routine that has worked well for us during the pandemic.
But routines don’t just work for cats, they work for all of us. Having a routine helps reduce the anxiety of the stressful stuff unknown. They help transition chaos to calm; and my thinking is we could all use a little more calm… just sayin’.
This is Nate. He’s my guy, named after the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. For the last threeish years, Nate and I had been living with my mom in Florida and taking care of her. She had two cats of her own, Trey and Callie (pictured below). Trey is the oldest, a Maine Coon cat who thinks he owns the world, Callie is a little diva (who’s a year younger than Nate) and then Nate, who sort of has a personality of his own and is probably one of the most affectionate cats you will ever meet. He is a master at headbonking.
Mom and I had made a deal that if I found a new career endeavor in New England, she would move back with me as she wanted to see her friends and watch the leaves change in the Fall. Hearing her discuss this made my job search more focused as I wanted this wish to come true for her.
A few months later, I was hired and we made plans to move. Initially, she wanted to live with me but then decided that it would be better for her to be in an assisted living place closer to her friends in our hometown. I decided I would stay in the town where my new job was and then commute back and forth to visit her on the weekends.
Originally, because it was only a few days, I left Nate at home to guard the fort on the weekends I would visit her. But as mom became iller and I was spending more time with her, I decided to keep Nate with me. Together, we would drive to and from Mom’s normally listening to books on tape or podcasts along the way. He seemed to be a lot more relaxed everytime we listened to “This American Life” so it became a thing.
From our visits and conversations during the week, I thought mom was getting better. This thought was short lived however as, on a Friday when I spoke with her, I heard her coughing and realized this wasn’t the case and that the pneumonia she had developed was still present. I decided that Nate and I would head out earlier than we usually do the next morning and also called the staff and asked them to check on her that Friday night.
Early on Saturday morning, her nurse called to tell me that when she had arrived to give mom her medications, she had died.
It was news I never hoped (and wasn’t ready) to hear.
After making calls and asking for help from a friend, Nate and I got in the car and headed south to mom’s.
The next month was a foggy blur as I emptied out mom’s apartment while taking time to have a few big ugly cries as I wasn’t ready for her to leave. And while Nate and I spent time getting things together, Callie and Trey were definitely struggling.
Callie is a rescue cat (her story is here). A beautiful and also very affectionate little girl who had a tendency to sleep with mom on her pillow above her head. Mom would go to bed and she would tell me “the next thing I know, Callie’s on the pillow kneading before settling down and purring while finding her comfortable spot to spend the night”.
And because she was a girl, every time one of the guys got close to her, she would growl wanting to make sure she had her space and her “mom time”.
Trey was the master of the house. He was “mom’s cat” and had been part of our family for several years. Even before they settled in Florida full time, Trey had traveled with them back and forth to Rhode Island. At one point, during one of their flights, she had opened his carrier to pet him during a layover at Dulles International when he decided to push by her hand and take a nice long walk along the concourse.
Mom, not wanting to scare him, followed him from behind until she could finally get close enough to grab him. Hearing her tell the story was hilarious and Trey had many events like this but usually did really well between living in Florida during the winters and on their boat with them during the summer.
But when mom died, he was lost. And while I knew that cats grieve when their owners die, I never realized how bad this grief process could be until I watched Trey for several days after her death.
The morning I arrived, mom had died but was still in her bed. What was reassuring to me was that she looked the way she always had whenever I arrived early in the morning; resting quietly looking content.
Trey was lying across the doorway to her room. It almost seemed like he didn’t want anyone to enter and didn’t want her to leave. And he didn’t move – as the nurse, and subsequently, the funeral home director went into and out of the room, he stayed exactly where he was – lying fully sprawled out, blocking the doorway, watching everything.
When the funeral home director came back with the gurney, I picked Trey up and took him to mom’s chair in the living room. I think he liked that he could still smell her presence so he stayed there… watching everything like a hawk with those big Maine Coon Cat eyes of his.
Callie, initially had hid under the bed but then followed us into the living room where her “people” were.
The following days were the worst as Trey and Callie realized that mom was no longer there. I’d watch as Trey jumped from the top of her bureau (where the clothes she had worn most recently were still in a pile) and then to her bed; he was clearly looking for her. Callie had settled into the floor of her closet where she slept on top of her shoes.
A day later, it was early in the morning when I decided to take a shower. I had closed the door when I could hear the feverish scratching of paws against the door and loud yowling. When I turned the shower off, I grabbed a towel and opened the door to see Trey – it was like you could actually see the sad, disheartened, “oh, it’s only you” look on his face.
A few days later, my brother arrived. Together we discussed Callie and Trey and keeping them together or separating them. Because Trey had been the only cat my parents had had for several years before rescuing Callie, we decided that Trey would go back to Florida with Scott and Callie would move in with Nate and I as they seemed to get along pretty well.
The next few weeks also seemed trying for Callie and Trey as furniture was donated (along with antiques and books and other belongings). What had been their home had transitioned to suitcases, duffel bags, and boxes which subsequently were taken to different places. The emptier the room became, the more confused they all appeared to be.
Because of this transition and the grief they had, I paid a lot more attention to what I was doing and made sure that we developed as consistent a routine as possible for them regarding spending time together, feeding and bedtime. I also made sure that some of mom’s clothes were available for Trey to lie down on.
On the last day, I put Callie and Nate in their carriers and took them to my car. Trey and I were the last ones to leave mom’s room. I made sure we had a conversation and a prayer about mom watching over us in heaven and then thanking Trey for being so brave before we closed the door behind us.
A few weeks later Scott returned to take Trey home with him. Watching them together going through security at the airport, I knew that both Trey (and Scott) would be happier together but I cried as I watched them leave. Trey had endured probably one of the toughest times in his life but I knew he would be happier having all of Scott’s affection to himself and being in warm, sunny Florida where he could watch the birds play outside while watching the world go by.
And Callie and Nate have settled in well together here in our home – adjusting to their new place.
This is Nate. He’s my 10 y/o cat named after Nathaniel Hawthorne. He’s extremely affectionate and is wonderful at giving head bonks whenever you pick him up. When he sleeps, he snores, and it is one of the most soothing sounds I have ever heard. He’s a wonderful little guy.
“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind” – Nathaniel Hawthorne
The last face to face conversation I had with my mom was about Nate.
Once after visiting her, I gathered my bags to drive back home to New Hampshire. On this day, she said she wanted to help me carry my bags downstairs. I thought this was strange as normally I always gave her a hug and a kiss and left her in her room – sitting contently with her coffee and Sunday New York Times. But this time, she wanted to walk downstairs with me. I told her that she didn’t need to, that I would carry my bags and Nate in his carrier, but she insisted. I told her “No I have it”, “No, I have Nate”, “No, you can’t carry that, it’s too heavy” (I know how I pack – mom not so much). But she continued to persist so I gave in and handed her my boat bag with the computer, some clothes, and food in it. It was the lightest of everything I had.
Once we were downstairs I reached for the boat bag she was carrying and said “Okay, I’ll take it” as I was going to carry everything to the car and say goodbye to her at the front door. But again she said, “no, I’ll wait here with Nate and the bags, you go get the car.” I was thinking “what the heck?” – never in my life did it occur to me that this would be the last time I would see her.
The worst part about the memory I have of this day was that throughout my 25-year career in healthcare, I saw this all the time! – People waiting for their loved ones to leave and then the next thing you knew, they would die. That there always seemed to be this strange dynamic with the way they interacted with each other that would make you (or them) think “wow, that was weird..” and then they’d be gone.
One time, during the early 1990’s ish, I was in my office at the addiction treatment center where I worked in Connecticut. The phone rang and it was one of my patients, William, calling to tell me he was going to be in the hospital for a few nights longer then he thought. He had an “opportunistic” infection. He was a most amazing and insightful young man who had developed an addiction to cocaine, which along with his anxiety and depression had compromised his AIDs – symptoms, care, and medications.
As I listened to him on the phone, I was amazed by how much he was telling me about what he wanted to accomplish once he had completed our program. “I want to be an AIDS educator,” he told me. “I think I can really help a lot of people and the thing that I really want to tell them is ‘don’t ever think that it can’t happen to you’.” I was inspired by our conversation and told him “don’t worry, just feel better and I’ll hold a place for you”.
The next morning I arrived at my office and listened to the voicemail from his nurse at the hospital who informed me he had died around 4:00am that morning.
I knew that dynamic – and missed it – again and again and again.
So on a bright, sunny Sunday morning in early February of this year, mom helped me load Nate and my bags into the car and watch as I wrapped the seatbelt through the handles on Nate’s carrier while I told her how quieter he was when he sat in the front seat next to me. I didn’t even think about how strange this all was – which still baffles me.
I gave her a hug and a kiss said goodbye and never saw her alive again.
“Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nate had not always come with me when I initially went to visit mom on the weekends but I when I started driving back and forth more frequently and staying a little longer, I decided not to leave him alone. So back and forth we drove to and from Rhode Island every weekend.
A few times mom would ask “why don’t you leave him here with me?” “Mom – I’ll be back next weekend,” I said. I think for her it was like being able to visit with the grandkids and spoil him while the parents were away. But the more significant thing was the fact that she also had her cats, Callie and Trey staying with her. As the Assisted living facility where she was staying only allowed one pet, we had to negotiate for the other.
I said to mom “really, the last thing we need is for the med nurse to come in in the morning and see three cats… the goal here is not to get evicted”.
“They won’t evict me”. she said, defiantly.
But Nate always traveled with me, sitting in his carrier quietly as we’d listen to audiobooks while trying to avoid heavy traffic during the Sundays when the Patriots played.
And together we were all settling into our more comfortable routine and it seemed like mom was settling into being back on the island – her home and spending time with friends she had not seen in years.
I never expected her to leave so soon and I miss her every day.