Tis Halloween (well…for me I suppose Halloween stopped being a thing about forty-five minutes ago, but it was quite recently Halloween and still is for most of the people who’ll see this). This morning was un-freaking-believably beautiful: I looked out the window this morning and saw a clear blue sky, the lawns and trees frosted over. The air was crisp and clear and people were out tending to the graves: uprooting little weeds around the stones and putting out candles to be lit on the night of All Saints Day.
Today was Halloween, a day to set aside to remember those who have passed in the course of the year as we enter winter (and to watch scary movies and eat all sorts of goodies without feeling too guilty). My favorite way of celebrating Halloween is to have a gathering of the people most important to me – closest friends and family members – where we each contribute something to the meal and to the altar for the dead. We place items on the altar ranging from photos of our beloved deceased to representations of the gods, spirits and ancestors we honor and offerings of portions of the meal – foods and drinks which those who have passed on can no longer enjoy, a sort of “spilling a drink” for them. And then we eat – a lot – and we drink, and we talk, and we thoroughly enjoy our own continuing lives by way of honoring their lives. Last year a photo of my grandpa Adrian was on the altar. The year before that it was a friend’s father.
This year I didn’t really have what it takes to make an altar – no printed photos of those who died this past year to place on an altar, no one who has partaken in the construction of the altar before. So I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge them – maybe not people, but creatures who were with me for over half of my current life span, my dog Emily (14 years old) and my cat KiKi (approximately 17 years old – I don’t remember how old I was when I found her, I was too young to really remember now). They came into my life when they were tiny, tiny babies and I myself was still an itty-bitty kid (I was eleven when Emily was born on our farm and somewhere in the area of eight when I adopted KiKi from a littler in a barn on my baby-sitter’s property). We were all young together, we grew up together, and my memories before them are indistinct at best.
Emily was deaf and beginning to lose her sight, but she seemed pretty happy, if a little confused sometimes. Certainly she seemed happier than when she was aware of everything happening around her – she seemed more relaxed. But on her bad days she had trouble walking, her hind legs gave out on her, and the bad days were more frequent. I put her down shortly before I moved to Uppsala, and I sat in the vet’s office with her, talking to her even though she couldn’t hear me and petting her while they gave her something to first make her sleep, then gave her something to make her die. She had seemed so happy that day. It was hard to remember that it was better for her, that, as the vet said, it was very likely she was struggling more and in more pain than we could see, because she had no way to communicate it to us. So I sat there with her while she died, and they left me with her for a while after, and I just sat with my face in her fur and cried. It’s still hard to think about. There were plenty of times when she frustrated me or made me outright angry, and I had a lot of struggles with her as she wasn’t that fond of people outside of the immediate family unit and she only barely tolerated other animals, but she was still one of my closest friends.
Within a month of burying Emily, and just a week after I moved to Sweden, KiKi died while sleeping on the bed in the guest room. A couple months before she had stopped “doing her aerobics,” which essentially consisted of running manically up the stairs and between the two rooms, back downstairs to do a circuit of the master bedroom and living room, then repeating the course a couple times. Instead she’d taken to spending more and more of her time just sleeping in the guest room. I suppose that was warning enough, and I didn’t believe she would survive the year I was away, but I had hoped against reason that she would. Because I wasn’t able to bury her, her death doesn’t yet seem real to me. I don’t feel like I’ve processed it in the same way I’m still processing Emily’s death, who I carried to the grave my dad dug for her. It seems a little ridiculous that when I go home KiKi won’t be there with her obscenely loud, rattling purr and her squeaking meow, horrendous kneading or little nose poking people in the face. It seems absurd. But I guess it’s true.
I always anticipate people dismissing the feeling of grief I have when I have to burry a pet, but anyone who’s done it knows it’s not just burying some body any more than burying a family member is – and that especially true when this being you’re burying has been at your side for fourteen years, when you grew up with her, when she slept in your bed as a little kid, when she was your primary playmate as a kid growing up on a farm in the countryside. I raised them both, and in a sense they raised me in return. There are a number of things about going home I’m not looking forward to, but their absence is going to be the worst by far.
Nonetheless, they both lived exceptionally long lives. Emily, as an Australian Shepherd, had a life expectancy of about 12 years, and that would be considered long. She got to have plenty of adventures of her own, and if I remember correctly seemed to thoroughly enjoy running the agility courses with me when we were young together, once even grabbing my pants in her teeth and pulling me along – because apparently I wasn’t going fast enough. KiKi, however long she lived, lived a long life and, for a cat, she lived it pretty thoroughly. She got be the tiniest mighty huntress on the farm, keeping the mice very thoroughly in check for several years, preferring to be an outdoor cat before “going into retirement” and perfecting the art of milking her human folk for all the attention she could. In her later years she rarely stepped foot outside, and seemed to prefer it that way.
The thing about death is that, in cases like this – they were both very old and had lived very well – or like my grandpa, who was very ill – death isn’t so bad for the ones dying. It’s just the being left behind that’s awful. I’m going to hate going back and finding them absent from the place where we all grew up together, but only because I’m the one left behind. They – wherever they are, if they’re anywhere at all (I believe they are…it seems like they must be) are fine, and they will be fine.
That doesn’t make the missing them any easier.