For a few years now, my annual holiday card, a virtual one, has always been the same, a photo of my dearly beloved cat Toby who died this year, on August 6. The first image is of him on the windowsill in late summer. It was his favourite place to be, immersed in his favourite activity, dozing in the sunshine and warmth. I've always thought of it as an image that is remarkably easy to anthropomorphise, with his little lips curved upwards, but I've always loved it for the bliss on his face. He lost weight towards the end, but still loved this spot and especially so after we moved the sofa with its back to the window, which then became another favourite perch, a softer one this time.
In The Sixth Sense, the mother Lynn Sear, played by Toni Colette, is asked what she would ask her own dead mother and her tearful answer is, "Did I make her proud?" Death prompts us to insist or to wish that the dead can hear and respond; in my case, every day has been a struggle to think through what that means, given my deeply held belief that there is no heaven, no afterlife, no playground or meadow where I will meet Toby once again as he comes running towards me.
The week he died, he appeared in a dream. I am hazy on the details, but what I remember is that he and I were at some grand event with our beloved friend E., who loved him and held him the first time she met him, with, to my surprise, no protests from him. She was, as usual, in one of her amazing t-shirts paired with a beautifully cut jacket and a typically snazzy pair of eyeglasses (mutual friends will know whom I mean), and Toby was with us and all the bow-tied waiters in tails were running around tending to his every need and loving and admiring him as he sat happily and contentedly on a soft cushion.
I once went to visit a friend in the lovely Lincoln Park place she was house-sitting. At one point, I felt the brush of a dog against my legs although there was no dog in the house. It turned out that there had, in fact, been one many years ago, a dearly beloved and deeply mourned one, and I had been standing near his favourite spot. When Toby died, as his life ebbed away, the excellent Dr. Vinu gently asked for his body so she could put it in a plastic bag before it got stiff. In that moment, I understood why taxidermists will always survive in their profession, and I cried and wailed that I needed to keep him with me. I would give anything in the world to feel my baby's silken fur again, to feel that little nudge as he settled near me—one of his many quirks was that some portion of his bum had to be always be touching you.
A Buddhist friend brought me comfort in talking about molecules, and that something always survives, that others are never really gone. Strangely, even bizarrely, the lead character in Bones, a series I find so problematic on so many levels, speaks of the fact that no one is really gone because their existence explicitly transforms you; your interactions with them, your mutual love and friendship transform, in a sense, your emotional DNA (that last bit is my own, I think), and so they are always forever a part of you.
This has been a rough year, but I have been supported and loved by so many of you in all this time. According to some calculations, we will each, on average, meet 80,000 people in our lifetimes. There are six billion people on the planet. In all these years, I have met more kindness and love than the opposite, and only a half dozen people have attempted to make me feel demeaned, humiliated, and denigrated, and nearly all are biological family. So, as statistics go, those are pretty good.
Through it all, my Toby is still with me, in the rabies token I carry around and rub like a talisman on my walks, in the photos with which I surround myself, in the sting of the tears that sometimes flow unbidden even on the el. But he is here with me and in me, and perhaps I didn't really need to ingest part of his ashes to ensure he would be a part of my body, and perhaps even he doubts the wisdom of that.
"Did I make you happy?" is what I would ask him, and I think, I hope, I trust the answer would be yes. I hate that he suffered so in the end, but I'm glad the end (seemed) mercifully quick. I don't know, I really don't know, but I hope the four or so years we had together were happy for him. I was lucky to have him even for that short period of time, and I don't know how I would have survived without him. I see and feel his presence in my beloved Frida, his adoptive sister who remains with me, who came here as a hissy little cat and whom he treated with love and care, the sort he never had for dogs who got his snarls and claws. He took care of her and inducted her into the kitty circle (there were three of them), and they often slept together. In that sense, Toby lives on in her too.
All of which is to say: May this season, always such a blighted one with so much strain and anxiety for so many, be filled with sunshine of all sorts. May your molecules and those of the ones you love thrive and circle around you, and may your dreams be filled with hope and assurance. And even when your dreams are nightmares, may you feel the strength of those who care about you, as I have these many years.