For Jane and Chuck, C.J., Evangeline, Debbie and Joy
This autumn season has reminded me what it looks and feels like to be in service to both the living and the dead.
Sara and I share many losses this season – the death of my grandmother, who passed from her fourth and final bout with cancer in November 2004, and the death of Sara’s father, who passed in September 1997, a year a week after her mother, who passed in September, 1996. But we never imagined experiencing the loss of family members together.
The last week of summer, we lost our black cat C.J. When Sara and I moved in together in 2010, we merged both sets of our cats in typical Brady Bunch fashion to create a pride of four cats, three boys and a girl. C.J. was a cat Sara adopted during a brief breakup between us. The two of them had a special bond, Sara often referring to him as her “boyfriend,” and the very skittish C.J. who cowered at the sound of approaching steps, would run to Sara’s call. He took after my own heart with his fondness for stuffed animals. We’d often catch him pacing the house with one of our stuffies in his mouth (usually one he stole off my desk) and with staccato meows, he’d gather them in the living room for what I can only call midnight recess.
C.J. was a sweet, sweet boy. He was the loudest mouth at the food bowl and sometimes when I feed the others, I can still hear him chiming like a bell for the canned stuff. And sometimes in the shadows of our house, I can still see his question mark tale slinking around the corner.
I’ve grown accustom to feeling ghosts this season and the presence of one only prepares us for the next.
Losing C.J. reminded me of losing my first cat, a Tuxedo named Maverick. He passed a few months after my grandmother proclaimed she was done fighting cancer and ready for death. My mother and I beat ourselves up for not taking notice to how thin and sick my kitty at gotten. We were too busy watching and waiting for my grandmother to pass and because she left this earth so painfully and slowly, we couldn’t break our gaze from her.
When my mother left my father in 1990, she became a single mother struggling with both a four-year-old and a bout of divorcee depression. When grandma caught wind, she moved in with us immediately and occupied the role of caretaker for both me and my mother until my late teens. My grandmother was my first elementary and Sunday school teacher, she was the first adult that played pretend with me and genuinely enjoyed it, the first woman who taught me to dress elegantly in jewelry and dresses, and she was the first woman I knew who could push her love for me right through her relentless depressions.
When I lost my grandmother, I lost my first mother. I lost a woman who gave the last decade of her life to raise me.
I dissociated like never before when my grandmother passed. I lost complete ownership of my body – crying became screaming became puking became blacking out with grief. As if high school was torture enough, I was seventeen and I could not fathom the fact that the woman who taught me how to write my name would not live to see me graduate from high school. And the day they put her in the ground, it took every bit of strength I had not to jump into the open plot with her.
I dealt with my grief alone, the way I thought was the safest but having Sara now, I realize that grieving silently is just another way of walking dead minded amongst the living. Grief is for those of us still breathing. It’s for those of us dealing with the fact that our loved ones no longer have a fleshy vessel but somehow, are still present for us day after day, and grief is something us humans have to do together.
Five weeks after C.J. died, we lost a close family friend Debbie. She was the best childhood friend of Sara’s parental guardian Cheryl and a mother figure to Sara during her upbringing. Debbie left behind her daughter, Borah, who was also raised alongside Sara and who Sara considers family. Borah’s mother had been admitted to the hospital but was expected to come home to recover a few weeks later. During her stay, Cheryl and Borah made the decision to put down Debbie’s Yorkie, Joy, who at the age sixteen, had started to deteriorate after a bad dog bite.
I am convinced that the deaths of family animals is what warns me of human loss.
Debbie died in a hospital on September 20th from a weakened heart and for a week up until the funeral, we became an army of Black woman preparing for burial. Sara, Borah, Cheryl and I paraded around New Jersey making arrangements, ensuring that Debbie’s final wishes and Borah’s requests were respected and granted.
We buried Debbie in a canary yellow sweater and snake-skin pants, just the way she would wanted it. We had her nails painted silver to match her coffin and shaved the hair at her temples to mimic the peacock spiked hair-do she wore in life. We buried her in a plot alongside her parents and when her coffin hit the dirt, the sun broke through the Friday morning gloom as we said our last goodbyes.
That week, I committed every waking moment to being in service to Debbie’s burial. This was a much different service from packing bags and hanging leathers, it was a service that has changed my perception of how I deal with loss and I work through and with grief.
Thanks to the acknowledgement of our beloved sisterwife CoCo Monroe, Sara and I realized we held space for the living to grieve and for the dead to rest. We did it together, stronger than we ever could on our own, and though we wish death was not what makes us so resilient, it is something we are learning to live with every day.