Empty Chairs in Empty Rooms: 16 March 2023

Open door with morning sun shining in; an empty chair sits in the next room.

Today, in three parts:

Part One

Noel had warned me, and he was right.

Today is the first day I am home alone since Sissy passed away. Noel left for work at some God-forsaken early hour this morning, so he is gone by the time I get up.

As I’ve said before, Sissy brought so much energy to our home. The first evening without her, I turned to Noel on the couch and said, “Do you feel that? This place feels empty. Our home feels devoid of her.” How such a meek little elderly cat could generate so much energy is beyond me. But there we were, on the couch, feeling this type of gentle draft pulling what remaining emotions we had towards the front living room where she’d spent so much time.

Noel was home on Monday, and home sick yesterday, and he hated every moment of it. The house, he warned, is so cold without her in it.

This morning, after I throw the sheets in the washing machine, nearly overfill the detergent cup, and absentmindedly punch the start button, I walk out of the garage and into the front living room. As I open the front curtains, sun streams in. The green and orange leaves on the oak trees outside glow, the rising sun illuminating them from behind. I can see every vein, large and small. It’s going to be a beautiful, sunny, autumn day, those types of sunny days she used to follow the sun around, from room, to room, to room, so much so you could time the day to it.

Before I know it, I say, “It’s a beautiful sunny day, Sissy. You’ll love this.”

But she’s not there. I say it knowing she’s not there because her energy is gone and this room is so empty without her, but something inside me doesn’t stop the words in time.

Anxiety rises in me, and I start opening the other curtains.

Outside, Star is waiting at the side patio door, right off our living room. That’s where she and Twinkle‘s kennel, shelter box, food bowls, and water bowl are. She looks up at me through the glass and blows kisses, meowing as she does. This is one of the parts of the day she loves the most. And on days when I have to go to work, I don’t have the time to give her all the cuddles she needs.

Maybe I need to wake up earlier and make the time. Life is short, after all.

I pick her up to cuddle her and sit down on one of the patio chairs as I do it. Even several months ago, neither cuddles nor sitting down to do so would have even been a thing. What a difference a day makes, right?

Star snuggles into me. She’s purring hard, and I hold her tight. I close my eyes and inhale the sweet straw smell on her fur. Noel’s put straw in their kennel to help keep them warm during the cooler evenings, and I associate that beautiful aroma with her and her daughter now.

There’s drooling — Star has no teeth — and there’s claws sunk into my shoulder as she “sucks her thumb”. The pain is like getting the flu shot or an injection: inconvenient but not overwhelmingly painful. Part of me wonders if her doing that with her claws is a part of her begging me: “Never leave me. Never leave me. Never leave me.”

I persevered when she was a raggedy stray cat who showed up at our door for a steady meal or two (thanks to Jack). I keep promising her I’ll keep trying to be with her until the end of the road, if I’m lucky enough to live that long.

I kiss her on her head, and her purr loudens as she presses deeper into me.

Part Two

Half our team at work don’t want Noel there because he has a cough that sounds like he should be in a sanitarium on bedrest, so he’s come home. While he’s resting on our bed, I carry on with my usual Thursday chores. One of those is taking out the garbage, recycling, and organics in preparation for collection day on Friday.

The garage door clanks open, and I’m on stage, the garage door’s frame the proscenium arch. Nobody’s outside today, but some days people wander by and look in. At times like that, half of me feels like I should be performing and the other half feels like telling the world to fuck off. Being an extroverted introvert can be a dilemma like that: give me attention but leave me alone. Such a strange mix.

Post-depersonalization (if I am, indeed, over it), I am much happier in my own space and in my own company.

I look down under the black and gray plastic workbench that came with the place when we moved into it. Sissy’s litter box is still there, its special absorbent litter, pearly white with bold blue flecks, nearly untouched. I’d cleaned it up last Thursday afternoon, and Sissy had barely used it before she had her fit right after lunchtime on Friday. Indeed, there is only a few places where she peed and one little poo there.

I’ve been avoiding cleaning it up. It was the same after our Chihuahua Levi died too. We had litter trained him and his sister, and although in his senior years, he preferred to go outside to do his business, at night or sometimes when it was too cold out for him, he’d use his litter box.

I’m not sure what it is about those sorts of things, but thinking about it, it’s like getting rid of the last biological remnants of these beautiful creatures who shared their entire lives with us. Sure, it’s waste, but also that’s all that’s left of them after they’ve died. Their bodies have been cremated. There might be a stray piece of fur here or there, but it’s not as bold or as noticeable as something like a litter box. (It feels very weird writing this, by the way.)

When Grandpa died, back in 2004, I was back home in Chicago and was helping my Grandma and Mom sort things out. Neither Grandma nor Mom were up to the task of cleaning Grandpa’s clothes out of his closet, so I did the manly thing for once and volunteered to do it.

Grandpa had been diagnosed with prostate cancer years before — around 1997 from memory — and he’d been offered a wonder drug they were trialling on prostate cancer patients. It gave him years more of life because it worked on him. He deserved that, the ravages of scoliosis deforming his body so much that they had to put a metal rod in his back so he bore some semblance to an upright human being. In the winter, the rod made him ache inside, which I could imagine was a pretty horrible feeling on top of everything else his body put him through. He was such a strong man who endured a lot of pain and discomfort, I imagine. But he was one of the most beautiful, equality-minded, and kindest men I have ever known.

He stopped taking the medication — none of us knew this — around 2003. Grandpa’s behavior and things he said to me when we were back in the States for my brother Brian‘s wedding seemed out of character. I came in during my belated college graduation party to talk to them, but I found out my Grandma and Grandpa had left the party early. In conversations in the days before we were gearing up to return home to New Zealand, he kept saying things indicating we’d never see one another again. I brushed it off while trying to reassure him, but looking back, he’d had enough and wanted to leave. At the time, that made me angry and sad; being older and having gone through a major earthquake sequence, lots of deaths, a pandemic, and a major loss of self, I’m more sympathetic.

Around December 2003 or January 2004, Grandpa had a nose bleed that wouldn’t stop bleeding. No matter what they tried, it wouldn’t stop. He was admitted to hospital, a massive complex right down Central Road from where I first grew up in Mount Prospect. I remember trying to call him from New Zealand, and he’d never pick up the phone. He was there; he just couldn’t face talking to me, I think.

His prostate cancer had crept through him like shoots from a plant from not taking the pills, and a side effect of that is sometimes your clotting factor gets screwed up. Clots form where they shouldn’t, and clots don’t form where they should.

Cleaning out his closet, I found a flannel shirt of his. It had a clear plastic dry-cleaning bag over it with a tag from Northwestern Community hospital on it. Down the front were dark rust colored blotches of blood, a trail of sorts running from near the top of the breastbone to the bottom of the shirt.

This struck me, maybe for the first time. Here was the last vestige, the last biological evidence we could see, of Grandpa.

For a moment, I paused. My breath had left me. I felt this surge of not only panic but also fear and sadness and overwhelming grief. My skin tingled and flushed at the same time.

After I composed myself, I took the shirt into the kitchen where my Grandma and Mom were sorting something out. What do you want me to do with this? I mean, did my Mom and Grandma feel the same way about this being some last physical biological reminder that Grandpa had walked this earth?

Mom looked upset. Not like she was going to burst into tears but her smile diminished as her lips pursed and her eyes shimmered in the light above us.

Grandma scowled. She turned her head and flicked her hand at it. “Get rid of it.” Her voice was a mix of anger at his death, fear for her future, and sorrow at the memories the blood-stained shirt brought up. She turned away from me. “Get rid of it all.”

I slow my breathing. The recycling and organics bins are sitting at the curb. The garbage bin, smaller than its siblings, doesn’t go out this week. I’ve put all the trash in the house in their proper containers except Sissy’s litter. I look at it, sitting there unused, and I feel nothing. Not depersonalization not detachment: nothing. No, I feel worn out. Spent. No more energy left to cry or grieve. There’s some sort of insatiable black hole within me: consuming, consuming, consuming.

It needs to be done, so I do it as quickly as I can. Scoop the litter liner out from the box and chuck it into the garbage bin. I close the lid and take the litter box in for a final clean.

The reason I think about my Grandpa — with the blood on his shirt, with his clotting disorder from his cancer — is because it seems that’s the same sequence of events that happened to Sissy. I was devastated when I heard our vet say there was a mass in her gut and there were fresh bruises all over her body. A clotting disorder. Something clotted where it shouldn’t have, and it caused her to have the fit that rendered her so unwell she could barely move. Fucking cancer.

How oblivious was I to it all? Noel assured me, told me neither one of us could have known. Her last visit, her last x-rays, her blood work last July all showed nothing wrong. Whatever it was, he said, took hold and spread fast.

She looked to me to take care of her. That was my role, the caregiver, and I did my best. No matter what, the outcome would’ve been the same: maybe earlier if we’d taken her in to the vet for a check-up. But definitely not later. There was no surviving whatever that clot did when it tore through her body and lodged itself somewhere.

I curse myself because I’m so deep in my thoughts and not paying attention that I nearly start washing the litter box over Star and Twinkle’s bowls I haven’t cleaned yet. The litter box goes on the floor temporarily until I can clean those.

Something within me tells me not to use the brush I normally use. I clean the litter box by hand, feeling the nicks and grooves in the litter box that we’ve had since before I moved to New Zealand. It feels more intimate that way, like a mother cleaning her daughter’s body before they bury her. Celeste, Fay, Phoebe, Sissy: this litter box has been in use for well over the 27 years I’ve been in Aotearoa. And this is the first time we’ve not really had any indoor cats to use it. Maybe I’ll train Star and Twinkle in time. But I don’t have the energy for that now.

One last look at the litter box. I notice something on the sticker on the side that I’ve never really read before until now. It’s peeling from all the washing this box has endured over the years, but it still proudly displays its dimensions in inches, a small “Made in the USA” icon fully visible above it. My, my. This thing’s been in New Zealand longer than I have. Go figure.

I vacuum. All the stray bits of kitty litter, all the dust from the litter off the floor and the workbench. I am removing every last vestige of her, of them, I think, and it makes me shiver. A sombreness takes over, and I think, we all have to face this. We’re all erased with time. 99.9% of us, anyway. What does it matter if I do this today or next week? She’ll still be gone. There’ll still be this void where her energy used to sit.

Under the workbench where the litter box has been used by our 3 cats who lived here over the 18-ish years we’ve been in this house, I neatly arrange the full bags of kitty litter against one side, and I prop up her litter box, its lid (that we stopped using at least a decade ago), and the litter scooper that’s been cleaned for the first time ever against the other side.

It looks so tidy.

But I’d give anything for it to be messy if it meant our beautiful girl was back with us.

I turn off the light and close the door gently behind me as not to wake Noel up from his nap.

Part Three

It’s a beautiful afternoon, sunny and warm and not made for grieving, so I pop in and out to hang out with Star (and Twinkle when she’s around). Star wants me to pet her tummy, rolling around on her back, her purr loud, her eyes barely open. I oblige her for a while, her paws kneading as she “sucks her thumb”. This lasts for a while until something shifts within her — as it often does — and she swipes at me. This time, she connects with the skin between my pointing finger and my thumb. The blood is bright red in the sun. I know when she’s struck her limit with us, and God knows we’ve come so far with her so I can’t get angry or upset, and I stand up and go inside.

Later in the afternoon, Twinkle’s sundrunk in the large maroon pot one of our olive trees is planted in. She spots a monarch butterfly, which lands on a daliah brightening our garden, and she stalks it. Twinkle pounces, but she misses the butterfly, and it lazily flaps away.

Another monarch butterfly taunts her, and that distracts her attention. She bounds across the side yard after it, launching up on the concrete fountain as an in-between platform to get up to the front fence. The butterfly flits away, and Twinkle’s about to bound into the front yard to chase it, but I know the threat the road in front of our house brings, especially at this time of the day, so I lean out the window and tell her to stay in the yard. Two dead pets within a week? I couldn’t handle that.

Twinkle watches the butterfly get lifted in the breeze, soaring high above the neighbor’s bushes, soaring higher and higher. She sighs as she watches her prey get away, but she blows me kisses because she knows I love her and I’m looking after her.

I go briefly to the bathroom, leaving Noel in our main living room. When I get back, the patio door is open, and Star is inside the house. She sees me, relief in her face, and she starts chatting to me.

We’re not pushing them to be inside our house, Star and Twinkle. We’re merely getting them used to the idea. Maybe they’ll just come to visit while we’re home. Maybe when the Antarctic chill is in the air, they might decide to sleep inside for the night. Noel doesn’t think litter training them will be that hard. I’m less sure. That’s an issue for later down the road. Right now, we need to get them used to being inside.

Star is in and out. Twinkle is nowhere to be seen. So we let Star do this for a few hours until she decides the grass on our lawn is more comfortable to lie on and the moths are starting to dive bomb us. We acquiesce and shut down the place for the evening.

Before I go to bed, I head outside for one last good night. Star comes up, shy and out of reach at first, but eventually asks to be picked up. I pull her close to me, and she still smells like sweet straw and grass. I cuddle her, and she purrs so hard I can feel her vibrate.

I close my eyes, and I wish times like this would never end. In this moment — too short, too brief — I feel whole again.