It’s been said that it’s harder to make people laugh than to make them cry.
It’s been weighted on the side of tears in the last two weeks, as we’ve seen not one but two of these grey greats pass beyond the veil.
Lady Grey, six pounds and six thousand screams an hour, reigned over Adoption Room #3. She’d been loved and known before, by the late, great lady who’d pulled her from a crowded shelter, but it was at Tabby’s Place that Lady Grey would spend her final five and a half years. Arguably the grandest day of her life came when one of our volunteers installed a series of carpeted perches going up the wall to a tiny perch. Almost instantly, our tiniest elder claimed this tallest tuffet, and from there she lived and loved and yelled.
If you live within 500 miles of Tabby’s Place, you know it: good heavens, did she yell. It wasn’t an unhappy sound. It wasn’t necessarily a happy sound. It certainly wasn’t a sound you’d ever heard before, or would hear again. It was something like a siren, a shout and a song all at once. It was louder than life. It never ceased to make us jump, but we loved it, and her.
A few rooms down, Babs kept things under control in the Community Room. When she arrived at Tabby’s Place from a north Jersey shelter in 2006, the grey cat with the patchy fur and pointy face was known as “Barbara Ann.” Quickly, though, we realized that this cat was no Beach Boys song. She was a broad, in the broadest and best sense of the word: brash and bawdy and unafraid to throw cigarette butts at the scrappy kids who ran through her front yard. Over the years, Babs developed nasty skin allergies (hence the half-missing hair), then a nasty reaction to the only medication that helped. She got old, she got crusty, and she got promoted to the Community Room. Unsteady on her feet yet perfectly steady in her sense of self, she collected diseases like fancy stamps, but never, ever, ever gave up.
By the time they left us this month, both ladies were fragile enough that we had no business taking their deaths as a shock, or “too soon.”
Still, our wobbly-but-not-weak women had defied death so long that we’d made it our business to take them for granted. Not consciously, of course, and not in the sense of not valuing them. We just counted on their continuation in the way you get comfortable expecting your soft-as-suede old jeans will never get too holey to wear, or the way you just know the Rolling Stones will always be around, looking old and acting juvenile and singing the paint off the wall.
But cats aren’t granite, and death is a greedy foe.
First, Lady Grey swooned into sickness. She’d never been “normal” by any definition, but as the calendar turned to 2015, her wails turned worrisome and her weakness went wild. Dr. Fantastic confirmed that, while Lady Grey continued to box cancer in the ears, the old girl’s heart and kidneys were doing an end run around her efforts. It was time to let her go, which we did, her tiny body and tremendous presence at the center of concentric circles of staff and volunteers.
Her piercing yell is heard no more in Adoption Room #3. But the song of Lady Grey didn’t stop that morning.
Nor did Babs end entirely last week, even as her opossum-haired, tottery-kneed body said “no more.” Again the concentric circles of tears and fingertips encircled the cat we’d always loved (with and without her approval). Again the muffled sobs were passed around the room like a stone cold potato. Again a grey great lady breathed her last.
On this side of eternity, anyway.
And even when they’re old and grey and “should have” been gone eons ago, there’s no way this isn’t hard.
We can be stubbornly Gnostic about death, we human beans. We comfort ourselves — kind of — by saying the body is “just a shell,” that the creatures we loved in the flesh are “flying free,” that there’s “no pain in heaven.” And there’s a sense in which all that is true.
But when the sobs rise up and the loss throttles us, we can’t escape the earthiness of love. We loved Babs and Lady Grey in these bodies, physical bodies with squinty golden eyes and cauliflower ears (respectively). If bodies, these very particular bodies aren’t “them,” there’s nothing to grieve. Yet we know our grief is real.
All the heaven-songs played by all the harps in Whoville can’t quell the sense that death takes something, something that will hurt our hearts until it’s given back. It’s not just an “essence.” It’s not just a “soul,” as if that could be cleanly clipped away from the mess of hair and heartbeat that makes up the body.
It’s the fulness of being. The fulness of Lady Grey. The fulness of Babs. The fulness of you and me and the UPS man.
And I tell you a mystery that’s truer than the very breath in our lungs: that fulness will be restored.
For now, we wait. We grieve. Lady Grey and Babs surely go on, somehow, soul-full. But someday, oh glorious day, body and soul and essence and ears and all will be raised up imperishable. All that’s dead that day will be death itself, as, finally, life wins.
This is more than harps and clouds. This is more than rainbows and butterflies. This is life, brighter and louder and more radiant than our earthy eyes can see. And we’re longing for it, never more than when “goodbye” sucker-punches us twice in a month. The entire creation is groaning for it.
But groans won’t go on forever. Mark my words, fellow wait-ers: we’ll hear that meow, see that tail again. Wholeness is coming. This journey through the veil, through the grey, is worth every tear.
Until we meet again, grey ladies…
Photo credits from de top: AT, Jess B x2, Mark, Jess B, John M.