Since my cat Esther died on June 8, I haven’t spent a lot of time at home. As long as I am elsewhere, my head is in the present and I have a shot at feeling happy or excited or curious. Here, I feel heavy as I drag myself around & feel the not-yet-latent habits still dwelling within my mind, heart, and body. As I approach my apartment from the outside, I mentally prepare myself for not letting the cats skate by me in their reach for the open air. I know better, but I still wait to see their expectant faces at the door, their meows of greeting, their excited little bodies and twitchy tails as they wrap themselves around me. Sometimes, when I’m still in the parking lot, I find myself scanning for evidence of them – a hungry face peering out the window or a furtive shadow as somebody positions himself for greetings. However many times I remind myself before inserting the key and opening the door, the sight of the bare kitchen floor where their bowls used to sit breaks my heart anew. Yet, seeing certain things still in their places – like the cat carrier with which I had expected to pick up Esther another and another and another time – also breaks my heart.
To have lost two cats within 6 months of each other feels as sudden as if they both disappeared yesterday. I wonder when the shock of not administering pills twice a day, clipping claws, and not having to schedule the cat sitter when I go away will wear off. It’s been almost a month since Esther returned to spirit, but I still wake up late in the morning because my alarm didn’t wake me with meows and gentle paws in the face. I used to hate that, resisted it for a long time, and then succumbed to it. By the end of Atty’s life, I was his nurse and pharmacist. By the end of Esther’s, I had become a kitty chef, as well. These things I did not love, but neither did I resent them. I certainly never thought I would miss them. If I thought about it at all, I thought that not having to do those things, not having to spend the money I was spending on vets, etc. would be the compensation for no longer having “family time” with those long time residents of my heart. But it is not the family time I long for now (though I wouldn’t shun it); it is the obligations, the chores associated with their care that I miss the most. What I wouldn’t have given this morning to have Esther’s probing, persistent paws in my face tellling me that breakfast time had arrived! I would gladly whip up a week’s worth of pills right this minute to have Atticus napping in the next room, or even sleeping on my head again – another feline habit I tried & failed to break.
In the last few months of Esther’s life, we endured three crises, the last of which took her life. At my lowest point during the second crisis, in the midst of my despair over the possibility of having to put her down, before she bounced back like a miracle cat, a friend of mine asked me that if Esther died, what part of me would be dying with her. A couple days after that, I ran into an acquaintance at Yorgo’s. This person asked me if perhaps I needed to be cat-free for the next phase of my life, which felt like essentially the same question. I couldn’t fathom these questions at the time, however, and offered no guesses. I still don’t have an answer to them, per se, but suppose I now have more “freedom” for adventures that I had put on the back burner while my cats lived.
As much as I have spent my life seeking freedom, I am now left to wonder again about the nature of freedom. Certainly nobody in their right mind would call my obligations to my high maintenance felines – in and of themselves – freedom. So then, why do I – a supposed freedom seeker – miss carrying out those duties so much that it makes me nauseous and causes actual, physical pain in my heart? Obviously, freedom is not always about being un-tethered. Perhaps it’s really about choosing our tethers. Perhaps, as evidenced by “empty nest syndrome” our responsibilities, when chosen and carried out with love, are not the things that pin us down, are not the things that we do for others even when it seems so, but are the very things that enrich our own lives beyond measure. And yes, we empty nesters need to keep moving, keep choosing, keep evolving beyond our wildest dreams. And I suppose we shall, but not without growing pains