As I looked into the sweet face of my kitty, Missy, who lay beside me on the bench in the exam room of the vet’s office, and began to realize just how ill she really was the soothing balm of one of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems, “Kindness,” began to fill me. I could feel my heart beating in time to the opening lines as they escaped my lips in a whisper:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
Missy, much like salt in a broth, was beginning to dissolve into that liminal space between life and death. Each day she was eating a little less, her body fat and muscle fading along her back and between her ribs. “Wasting along the spine” her vet noted on the paperwork he sent with me in case I needed to take her to the emergency vet over the weekend.
When I listened to the vet, who had been working closely with Missy and I over the past several years to successfully control her diabetes speak, it was clear that he was filtering his words through kindness. He softly explained to me that he now believed that the mysterious illness Missy had been trying to fight off over the past few months, the illness that was dissolving her before our very eyes, was lymphoma.
More lines of Nye’s poem began to march in step through my brain as I tried to stay present in the exam room:
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
I wondered what to do about the simple breath that was keeping Missy alive. Had that breath become a burden? Was it no longer so simple? The vet, trying both to keep me grounded with the “gravity of kindness” and to also give me, Missy, and perhaps himself a bit more hope, suggested that there was one more set of meds we might try.
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
I paused for a moment, looked down at Missy and thought how grateful I was that I had taken a picture of her lying beside me on the bench when the vet had stepped out of the room between the exam and this conversation. It seems trite to me in retrospect, but I remember thinking that no matter what decision the vet helped me make that day, at least I had one more photo of her gazing up at me in kindness that I could hold onto.
Her gaze had always emanated a soft kindness and made it impossible not to feel loved. I wondered how, given the pain and fear she faced before I’d met her, she could gaze upon the world with so much kindness. The remaining lines of Nye’s poem offered a response to this question as the vet sat patiently waiting for me to answer.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
“If she were your cat, what would you do?” I finally asked the vet.
He paused for a moment, carefully weighing the question, before telling me that he would probably try the meds, while being realistic about the larger picture. I left his office that day with Missy, new meds, and a glimpse of the size of the cloth that had begun to weave itself before us–threads of sorrow and kindness inseparable.
“What’s your favorite memory of her?” the vet that I’d called to help facilitate an at-home euthanasia for Missy asked me a few weeks later, as we edged slowly closer to the procedure while sitting in Missy’s favorite sunspot. I had never been asked that question before. But that day three different people would pose this question as they tried to help me grapple with Missy’s death. In some ways, being asked this question made Missy’s passing more real than anything else that happened that day.
I had realized in my many years of working in elder care that one of the most basic human reactions to loss is to begin the process of what I call “digging for the gems”–or looking for those moments that defined the loved one you had just lost and your relationship with them, and making these memories into a cairn of precious stones. Some deep part of the human psyche seems to know that as long as we can hold these gems in our hearts that our loved one will always be with us in some way. So we start helping each other look for them immediately in the face of death.
What was my favorite memory of Missy?
I had to pause for a while when the vet posed this question because so many memories flooded my heart as I let the question sink in. But as the flood of memories began to settle, the memory that most stood out to me was the day Missy accepted Jackie into our family.
Because Missy had a history of being abused she was skittish of everyone when she first came to live with me. We lived in an upstairs apartment–formally servant’s quarters–of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century house in the Midwest. There were nooks, crannies, and built-in drawers and shelves everywhere that Missy and my other two cats frequently used as hiding spots. Missy’s favorite spot was in the walk-in closet in my bedroom, in the far back corner of the bottom shelf snuggled behind my PJs.
My good friends had a sweet toddler, named Jackie, who often spent days with me. And while Missy always loved her hiding spot, she loved it most when Jackie was at the apartment. If you’re frightened of people in general, toddlers who possess a combination of newly-acquired mobility and not-yet-acquired self control, are especially terrifying. Jackie’s arrival at the apartment meant Missy’s immediate departure for the closet. The problem was that Jackie adored cats, and my oldest cat Yezi, adored Jackie and barely left her side when Jackie was with me. This, of course, made Jackie believe that all cats should love her as much as she loved them.
Jackie spent tons of time in my bedroom when I had her because that’s where the bookshelves loaded with the picture books she loved to have me read to her were located. She’d stand in front of the tallest one and carefully select books that we’d then cuddle and read together. If I stepped out of the room for a second, I’d often have to quickly return to catch Jackie by the waistband at the back of her pants as she attempted to toddle into my closet in search of the elusive Missy. One day, after several failed attempts at sneaking into my closet, Jackie stood before the bookshelf, resigned and selecting books. I watched in awe and shock as Missy suddenly yet cautiously emerged from the closet. Jackie was too absorbed in choosing books to notice.
Missy slowly slunk her way across the room, down so low her belly fur rubbed on the carpet. When she got right behind Jackie she paused for a moment. This was the same moment Jackie found one of her favorite books on the shelf and let out a shriek of joy. My heart sank, knowing Missy would dash back to her hiding spot in response to the shrill and sudden noise. But to my bafflement, she didn’t move. Instead she stood up and inched closer to Jackie. When she was right up against Jackie, she leaned in and rubbed against Jackie’s legs while walking around her, circling her with a wave kitty love.
Jackie initially reacted with stunned silence, as did I. Once she realized what was really happening, she cautiously reached out, being careful not to move so quickly as to disturb her newly-acquired toddler balance, and pet Missy’s tail. Missy turned to look at Jackie and paused for a moment, contemplating her next move. Then she edged a bit closer and rubbed her chin against Jackie’s still outstretched hand before offering Jackie a kiss on her pudgy fingers, sealing the deal. From that point on Missy accepted Jackie as one of the family, and Jackie always had plenty of tail-pets for her new friend.
I have come to realize in the weeks since Missy’s death that the reason I love this story so much is because it embodies who Missy was. Many times over the course of her life, people expressed surprise to me that she was what they called a “sweet calico.” Unlike the stereotypical “bitchy calicoes” that people seemed to expect, Missy had love for everyone who wanted it. No matter what her past experiences had been and no matter how terrifying a toddler was, Missy still believed Jackie–and everyone else–deserved a chance to earn trust and be loved. It usually took her a while to warm up to people, but once she’d accepted you, she had only love to give. She embodied Nye’s belief that “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,/you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing,” and that once you’ve known sorrow “it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.” Having faced her share of sorrow in her early years, Missy transformed those experiences into continual kindness.
As I face the sorrow of her death, I am so grateful to Missy for teaching me how to transform my own sorrow into kindness through her example. In each act of kindness rooted in this sorrow her spirit lives on “like a shadow or a friend,” and ensures that she will always be with me and all those that she loved.