“Love is holding on and letting go, in equal parts, imperfectly.”
I penned those words many years ago, as life lessons hammered home the inevitability of great love and great loss. During those dark years, there was a valiant and constant force for good: a sweet, giant Maine Coon cat named Daisy. She lived with my daughter at her dad’s house and was a mother to her when she was away from home every other week. From the time she was six years old, my daughter knew the warmth of unconditional love that only a kitten can provide.
This past weekend, we took Daisy in for a vet check-up. She’d been suffering some respiratory distress for about year, in variable episodes that were becoming more frequent since our move from the cabin to our new house. X-rays showed severe internal damage and a heart enlarged to twice normal size, chest cavity full of fluid. We made a hard but necessary choice and gave her the kindest transition Home. She went to sleep surrounded by those of us who knew and loved her and who had been loved by her.
In the aftermath, the inconsolable grief of my daughter is gut-wrenching. She has lost so much through the years, but nothing so precious as her best friend.
The transience, the impermanence that is inherent to Life offers such a bittersweet dichotomy: great love also comes with great loss. Some folks choose to live their lives and not “get attached” to sentient creatures, some feel that animals are lesser deserving of our deepest care, empathy, compassion and love simply because they are animals. I grew up on a large farm, raising and caring for animals and seeing the cycle go full circle as we ended their lives to feed our own. I wasn’t allowed to have pets (though I chose to nurture and care for every animal as though it were my very own). I adopted some unfortunate and necessary boundaries, none of which served me well when I grew a family of my own that included dogs. I held them at a distance, feeling their impermanence and resolutely refusing to give them my heart. Daisy changed that. She had a way of literally perforating skin with her claws as she would rumble that epic purr and knead all available muscle fiber. I used to joke that she ‘perforated me with love and let herself in’. All I know for certain is that when Dez and I had to go in search of a new home in 2013, there was no wavering: we had to find a place that would allow a cat. That’s how we ended up in a dry cabin for two years.
Every morning for those two years, Daisy would take a flying leap and land all 16 pounds of herself on my left arm. She would make sure to get her tail in my face at least four times before nosing my coffee cup and settling in comfortably. 4:00 AM didn’t bother her a bit. Even when my dog would grumble and stay in bed, she would come sailing down out of the bunk and snuggle up. Mornings belonged to us for those years. It wasn’t all roses and butterflies. It was sharing 400 square feet of space with no bedrooms and no privacy with a half-feral cat that hated being stuck indoors for eight months out of the year. She would literally howl through the night, commanding the -40F temperatures to swing toward spring. If willpower could affect weather, her outcome would have been epic.
Being a Maine Coon cat, she behaved much more like a dog than a cat. When life would utterly overwhelm me, she would put her paws around my neck, lick the tears off my face and try to clean my hair for me (probably because showers were hard to come by and I smelled like a dead vole). Either way, she held my secrets, my grief, the loss of my eleven year relationship, the hardship of our new life, the fear, the uncertainty… and she gave unconditional love in return.
She never ran from the emotional mayhem of two scared, angry, fiercely athletic women confined in too small a space. In fact, she would wear herself out bounding from one of us to the other when we would argue and wouldn’t let up until we started laughing.
If there’s one thing I am certain of, it is that even in the depths of loss- the opened heart and mind can know Love that is infinite. My daughter and I made a choice to rebuild our lives with the kitty that had been part of our family for many years. We continued to make that choice long after it was inconvenient, difficult, painful, lonely and isolating. In return, we gave Daisy the best two years of her life. She flat out LOVED that cabin. She loved the woods, the 300 voles she harvested and brought to the front door… she loved the shelter of the trees, the forest, the proximity of her favorite humans in a tiny cabin space. She was happier there than she’d ever been, anywhere.
Because of Daisy, we opened our hearts and lives to our Shepherd/Beagle mix, Schatzi. Because of Daisy, we both learned to love unconditionally.
Love is intricately woven with heartbreak and tears, exquisite joy and laughter, magic and practicality. I’ve learned that the only thing that mitigates loss, that offers consolation in grief is this: no regrets. I can say that I’ve dedicated my life to having no regrets. That’s a steep accountability curve, my friends. That’s making the choice to be gentle when you feel like screaming due to lack of sleep. That’s savoring every waking morning with your family, your friends. That’s treasuring the little things every day. That’s being willing to give up your agenda for the greater good. That’s choosing to be a better human in the face of all the odds.
I can say that discovering the gravity of Daisy’s health situation on Saturday was a system shock to me. I can also say that I have no regrets. I gave her my time, care, love, attention and open arms. Every day. Even when I just wanted to be left alone. I chose love. Practical, sustainable, unconditional love.
Do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. Those are my tenets. That’s it. That’s my belief system. Living these principles has broken my heart- it’s also offered beauty and healing and restoration beyond measure. When faced with despair, rejection, heartbreak, loss or betrayal- choose love. Do the work. Live gently, mindfully. Choose grace. Be compassion. Be acceptance. You will be broken wide open. You will experience mind-bending pain. It will change you.
I leave you with a challenge today: choose love.