Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Size of Grief

Dodie's Cat, Mittens
Rest in Peace ~ 29 June 2014

You can see how she got her name -- look at those big fluffy mitts!
In the same vein, Ben & Sam used to refer to our cat
Josef's front paws as his "muffins"
and his strong back paws as "jack rabbits"!

My cousin Dodie writes: "Mittens was a great cat and has been a member of the Foothills Barton Family for about 7 years. She was an awesome hunter (run gophers, run!) and a fun, playful kitty. We loved her very, very much and miss her dearly. She had a different sort of pattern and her coloring was a great camouflage for our area!"


For the past few years whenever friends or relatives of mine have lost a dear pet, I have shared with them my favorite lines from a wonderful book-- My Cat Spit McGee by Willie Morris -- that I happened to read not long after my 19 - year - old cat Josef died, back in 2007. You may remember the Kevin Bacon movie a few years back: My Dog Skip, based on the book with the same title? Well, Spit McGee is the sequel.

Before beginning the story of Spit McGee, Morris refers briefly to the loss of Skip and a later dog Pete. He says: "I wish Skip and Pete had known each other. Someday if I make it to heaven I plan to go looking first for my mother and father, and my grandmother and grandfather, and Skip and Pete. I speculate now: How would my cat, Spit McGee, have gotten along with Skip and Pete? And in the very elemental asking I believe I know: they would have been an honorable triumvirate" (10).

Morris also includes this passage, which he quotes from "The Once Again Prince," a story in Separate Lifetimes by Irving Townsend: "We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan" (see Spit McGee, 140 - 41).

I have typed, photo - copied, mailed, emailed, and posted these passages any number of times before today. But this morning, when I read about darling Mittens, it occurred to me that I should organize them into a blog post in her memory, and in honor of my cousin Dodie and her daughters Miranda and Clarissa who are grieving the loss of their special little friend.

I'm also reminded of the following poem, which came into my life around the time that we had to say farewell to Josef's brother Marcus. I am intrigued by Borges' idea of affection (and surely grief as well) being the size of the thing it's felt for. I know there can be tragedies more vast and many times worse, yet so often our grief is precisely the size of a dearly loved, recently departed, and much missed pet -- the size of Mittens, Marcus or Josef. I think the sentiments of this poem are appropriate to any number of situations, and I have a feeling that you will like it as much as I do and find a place for it, just the right size, in your heart:

The Disappointments of Childhood

"Perhaps a bird was singing and for it I felt
a tiny affection, the same size as a bird" ~Borges

Imagine now, an affection the same size
as the thing it's felt for: for the seed,
seed-like emoluments of liking and,
for the rain, droplets of tenderness
clustered in puddles at your feet.

And now remember how, as a child,
someone is telling you they love you.
"How much does daddy love you?" they
ask and you, childlike, spread
your arms as wide as a child can.

Little do you know it then, but the rest
of your life will be spent measuring
the distance between "that much"
and what love, in fact, is capable of --

The narrow width of a man or a woman,
their terrible thinness,
their small bones
growing constantly inward
from your spreading arms.

by Michael Blumenthal

A similarly intriguing thought
on the size of grief

by Stephen Colbert:
“The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I've always liked that phrase ‘He was visited by grief,’ because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be OK with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.”
A sweet CD
recommended by my sister Peg:

Dear Old Josef, in his Retirement Years

“What sort of philosophers are we,
who know absolutely nothing
of the origin and destiny of cats?”

~ Henry David Thoreau ~

PS ~ October 2014
Precious Little Beaumont

an artistic tribute from my friend Jan Donley


  1. ZEN CAT

    The Man was very sad. He knew that the Cat's days were numbered. The doctor had said there wasn't anything more that could be done, that he should take the Cat home and make him as comfortable as possible.

    The man stroked the Cat on his lap and sighed. The Cat opened his eyes, purred and looked up at the Man. A tear rolled down the Man's cheek and landed on the Cat's forehead. The Cat gave him a slightly annoyed look.

    "Why do you cry, Man?" the Cat asked. "Because you can't bear the thought of losing me? Because you think you can never replace me?"

    The Man nodded "yes."

    "And where do you think I'll be when I leave you?" the Cat asked.

    The Man shrugged helplessly.

    "Close your eyes, Man," the Cat said. The Man gave him a questioning look, but did as he was told.

    "What color are my eyes and fur?" the Cat asked.

    "Your eyes are gold and your fur is a rich, warm brown," the Man replied.

    "And where is my fur the darkest?" the Cat asked.

    "It is darkest along your back, your tail, your legs, nose and ears," the Man said.

    "And where is it that you most often see me?" asked the Cat.

    "I see you... on the kitchen windowsill watching the birds... on my favorite chair... on my desk lying on the papers I need... on the pillow next to my head at night."

    The Cat nodded. . . .

  2. Continued:

    "Can you see me in all of those places now, even though your eyes are shut?" the Cat asked.

    "Yes, of course. I've seen you there for years," the Man said.

    "Then, whenever you wish to see me, all you must do is close your eyes," said the Cat.

    "But you won't really be here," the Man said sadly.

    "Oh, really?" said the Cat. "Pick up that piece of string from the floor - there, my 'toy.'"

    The Man opened his eyes, then reached over and picked up the string. It was about two feet long and the Cat had been able to entertain himself for hours with it.

    "What is it made of?" the Cat asked.

    "It appears to be made of cotton," the Man said.

    "Which comes from a plant?" the Cat asked.

    "Yes," said the Man.

    "From just one plant, or from many?"

    "From many cotton plants," the Man answered.

    "And in the same soil from which grow the cotton plants, it would be possible that other plants and flowers would grow? A rose could grow alongside of the cotton, yes?" asked the Cat.

    "Yes, I'm sure it would be possible," the Man said.

    "And all of the plants would feed from the same soil and drink the same rain, would they not?" the Cat asked.

    "Yes, they would," said the Man.

    "Then all of the plants, rose and cotton, would be very similar on the inside, even if they appeared outwardly very different," said the Cat.

    The Man nodded his head in agreement, but didn't see what that had to do with the present situation. . . .

  3. Continued:

    "Now, that piece of string," said the Cat, "is that the only piece of string ever made of cotton?"

    "No, of course it isn't," said the Man, "it was part of a ball of twine."

    "And do you know where all of the other pieces of string are now, and all of the balls of twine?" asked the Cat.

    "No, I don't... that would be impossible," said the Man.

    "But even though you do not know where they are, you believe they exist. And even though some of the string is with you, and other pieces of string are elsewhere... even though some pieces of string are short and others are long, and even though your ball of twine is not the only one in the world... you would agree that all the string is related?" the Cat asked.

    "I've never thought about it, but yes, I guess they would be related," the Man said.

    "What would happen if a piece of cotton string fell onto the ground?" the Cat asked.

    "Well... it would eventually be covered up and decompose into the soil," the Man said.

    "I see," said the Cat. "Then perhaps more cotton would grow above it, or a rose."

    "Yes, it would be possible," the Man agreed.

    "Then the rose growing on your windowsill might be related to the string you are holding as well as to all the pieces of string you do not know about," said the Cat.

    The Man knit his brow in thought.

    "Now take each end of the string in one hand," the Cat ordered.

    The Man did so.

    "The end in your left hand is my birth and the end in your right hand is my death. Now bring the two ends together," the Cat said.

    The Man complied.

    "You have made a continuous circle," said the cat. "Does any point along the string appear to be different, worse or better than any other part of the string?"

    The Man inspected the string and then shook his head "no."

    "Does the space inside the circle appear to be different from the space outside of the circle?" the Cat asked.

    Again the Man shook his head "no," but he still wasn't sure he understood the Cat's meaning.

    "Close your eyes again," the Cat said. "Now lick your hand."

    The Man widened his eyes in surprise.

    "Just do it," the Cat said. "Lick your hand, think of me in all my familiar places, think about all the pieces of string, think about the cotton and the rose, think about how the inside of the circle is not different from the outside of the circle."

    The Man felt foolish, licking his hand, but he did as he was told. He discovered what a cat must know, that licking a paw is very calming and allows one to think more clearly. He continued licking and the corners of his mouth turned upward into the first smile he had shown in days. He waited for the Cat to tell him to stop, and when he didn't he opened his eyes. The Cat's eyes were closed. The Man stroked the warm, brown fur, but the Cat was gone.

    The Man shut his eyes hard as the tears poured down his face. He saw the Cat on the windowsill, then in his bed, then lying across his important papers. He saw him on the pillow next to his head, saw his bright gold eyes and darkest brown on his nose and ears. He opened his eyes and through his tears looked over at the rose growing in a pot on the windowsill and then to the circle of string he still held clutched in his hand.

    One day, not long after, there was a new Cat on his lap. She was a lovely calico and white... very different from his earlier beloved Cat and very much the same.

    Copyright Jim Willis 2001


  5. Here are some poems for the sad loss of our dear departed friends:

    “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan."

    ~ from "The Once Again Prince,"
    a story in "Separate Lifetimes"
    by Irving Townsend;

    quoted by the author Willie Morris
    in "My Cat Spit McGee"


  7. To go along with "The Disappoints of Childhood":

    "Suddenly it comes the way it was as a child
    when intensity and delight were coincidental
    and thought was never split by fear --
    when what I did was what I wanted
    what I got was expected
    all surprise was in discovery
    and lack had no reality."

    ~ Marian W. Plaskett

    See also: