I have been off of work for the last week, as Baba’s day care has been closed for the Passover and Easter holidays. Not being a Christian nor a Jew means that this mostly turns into another one of of those holidays where everyone seems to need to be somewhere, but I’m not entirely certain where that is.
Apparently people get together for Easter? And they eat food? Also, sort of the same thing for Passover?
I’m not so culturally tone-deaf as to not understand that there are some significantly different religious underpinnings there, but my understanding is pretty vague. Jesus rose from the dead; a miracle is celebrated. The Jews were spared from the plagues that God visited on the Egyptians and were liberated from slavery — another miracle. These are fabulous and powerful stories, even if you don’t share the faith behind them.
And I must admit that I rather like the idea of miracles these days.
Our celebrations were more pagan. Baba was sent a chocolate rabbit and some bunny ears, which led to a full day of listening to Baba declaring her newfound love of chocolate. I spent the afternoon digging in the dirt in the garden and trying out my new garden shoes. (Sloggers! Recommend!) The house that we bought was uninhabited for four years before we moved in and the yard is showing the neglect. I don’t know a great deal about gardening, as you could spit across the entire yard of our last house without really even trying, but I’ve taken on fixing this yard as a personal vendetta project. I’ve been learning a lot about eradicating crabgrass and annihilating dandelions, which is very much the dark side of gardening.
Still, there are worse ways to celebrate a fertility festival than by making room for new things to grow. Tonight, I sleep the sleep of the just, even if we still haven’t figured out how to make our mysteriously 9-zone sprinkler system work.
It has been really relaxing to be away from my normal routine for so long. My grandparents were visiting for the week, which made my time with Baba very pleasant. She has very much become a 2 year old, with the attendant fits and dramas that limited language and a whole lot of will power entail, and the extra adult hands around were greatly appreciated. Our entertainments were pretty mellow, with many trips to the park and the grocery store and the back yard. The weather finally turned for the season and, for the first time since we bought the house, I’ve actually been spending time just sitting in the back yard, enjoying our tiny private patch of outdoor space. I bought Baba some chalk and we’ve been working on decorating all of the bricks in the patio, which is just the sort of life goal that I’ve needed for some time.
Perhaps the lessons of Easter and Passover aren’t for my family, but all of the time together with Baba and my grandparents has felt very sacred, all the same.
I had a dream the other night about a woman who was coming after my family. She was long haired and thin and she kept knocking on the door to our house, which kept opening, over and over and over. I tried relentlessly, but I was powerless to stop her as she walked in and she would touched my family, wrapping her long fingernails around the face of a child that I was supposed to protect. I was so afraid of her, because I knew that that this woman was a murderer — and try as hard as I might, I could not keep her out of my house.
I woke up, in the guest bedroom, terrified and shaking. It took me a moment to remember where I was, as I’ve only slept there once or twice. Each time was so that I could sleep with my younger cat, who has been very, very sick.
And that was when I realized that the woman in the dream was cancer, coming after my family again, so relentlessly. It has been less than a year since I lost my young uncle and my brother-in-law to different forms of cancer. And last week, on St. Patrick’s Day, our vet told me that my cat Morghan had it too.
It could be cancer or a polyp, he said. And since she’s 18 years old, he said, we’re not going to do surgery to remove the tumor in her bladder.
No, I agreed. We all know that I’ve been lucky to have her in my life this long.
So you have two choices, he said, you can manage her pain or we can talk about euthanasia.
I opted for pain management, though I know I will spend many hours wondering if that was selfish. When I picked her up from her day of examinations, the vet who met me asked me if I had any questions as he explained the regimen of pills. I know she’s terminal, I said. I know that. But how do I know when it’s time…?
Oh, you’ll know when, he said.
This last week has been a hard one, as I woke every morning to check on Morghan and see if the tumor had done terrible things to her in the night. It hadn’t, and since she was still active enough to chase me around the house just waiting for me to sit down, I tried to convince myself that she would be okay, for a while at least. Then she stopped eating. When I took her back for her check-up a week later, she had lost a full pound, which she didn’t have to lose in the first place. When the vet tech weighed her in at six pounds, I cried again, because I had told myself that if she’d lost weight, then I’d really know that it was time. I took her and her anti-nausea medicine home with me, but I still could not get her to eat.
When had come.
Eighteen years is a long time to share your life with someone. I have no one in my life who has been there as long and as constantly, as steadily there for me as my two cats. The wonderful thing about a pet is that there’s no judgement; no matter how terrible your day was or what terrible mistakes you made, your cat just loves you. She has been there for my entire adult life, ever since I took her home as an 18-year-old to my first apartment. She fit in my hand that day, a tiny little creature that had been dumped in a parking lot, weeks before she should have been separated from her mother. I taught her how to bathe, to some extent, and spent hours and hours detangling her fur and picking out knots. She was never very good at being a cat — she never caught a thing in her life — but she was a wonderful companion and friend. She came with me when I moved around and then, finally, to New York. I cried in her fur at every terrible break-up I went through. No matter what the problem was, coming home to pick her up comforted me, because I clearly mattered so much to her. Her quiet purr, broken and nearly silent at the best of times, was always there.
I have never had to put a cat to sleep before. I’ve dreaded the idea of having to make that decision for years now, hoping that Morghan would pass the way my fifteen year old cat Mushu did right after Hurricane Sandy. My Beloved discovered Mushu outside, looking as surprised as a cat can. We presumed it was a heart attack and buried her under a pear tree in the yard, comforted knowing that her last moments were brief and out of doors. Selfishly, I appreciated that I did not have to choose when, that that decision had been made for me.
But not for Morghan. I said goodbye to Morghan in the car outside of the veterinary office. I had let her roam free in the car on the drive over, which she took full advantage of, peering out the window and making me wonder if I was making up how sick she was. But then I held her bony body, which had once been three times the size that she was on Saturday, and I could no longer deny that it was time. I thanked her and kissed her and cried some more, in the quiet space of the car. Then we went inside, where the staff were quick to usher us into a room.
Still, Morghan shook in fear, the tremors running down her thin shoulders. I put her in my lap so that she could put her face in my elbow, which has always calmed her down. Don’t be afraid, I said, petting her thick fur and desperately wishing that I believed in some sort of afterlife. Please, love, just don’t be afraid.
When the vet gave Morghan the anaesthesia that knocked her unconscious, I was holding her against my body. I felt her muscles relax as she crumpled against me, falling down onto the soft yellow blanket that I had insisted on. I gently caught her and laid her down, pulling her tail out from under her and settling her legs into a more comfortable position.
Don’t be afraid, I said. Please, don’t be afraid.
As the vet released a vial of bubble gum pink barbiturates into Morghan’s leg, I put my hands on her, holding as much of her as I could. She did not twitch or shudder and, after a moment, the vet put her stethoscope up to Morghan’s thin chest and told me that she was gone. My sweet girl had gone completely still, but her body was still warm and it didn’t seem like it could be true. I tried to close her eyes, but I couldn’t, and that’s when I knew.
I brought her body home, keeping a hand on the box she was in for the entire drive. I left her body in the car while we put Baba to bed for the night, and then my Beloved dug a hole in the front yard underneath the Japanese maple tree that made me fall in love with this house we bought. We put her in it, placing her carefully, since when my last cat passes, it will become a double grave.
And so I carry on, holding my sweet girl in my heart, since I can no longer hold her in my hand. When I walk to and from my door, I look at her grave and I am comforted that she is home.
There is a moment in Olympic diving that every diver takes as they walk out to compete on the world stage. They climb up to the diving board, then breathe in deep and square their shoulders. After this moment, they walk out confidently onto the board, which bounces predictably beneath their weight, the way it has done thousands of times before, and then they take their shot.
Although my athletic prowess is limited to being able to run three consecutive 10 minute miles without immediately dying, I love watching Olympic sports. The divers are a particular favorite, as they combine gymnastics and swimming — two areas far beyond my wildest dreams of ability — and fly through the air, bending their bodies in ways that seem impossible and then slip into the water with barely a splash to mark their passing. They inspire my imagination, even as they please my love of beauty. They are tremendous, frightening, inspiring people.
I’ve been thinking a lot of that sigh at the beginning lately. I haven’t spoken much of it here, but I am at a similar point in my writing. I’ve spent the last three months deep in research and plot, scrambling to work in the small bits of time that I have each day for writing, and putting together a framework that I can only hope will be strong enough to carry the weight of the story that I want to tell. It’s a story that I’ve already told many times, over glasses of wine and lunches, to friends and family who listen politely and nod and tell me that it all sounds very interesting and they can’t wait to read it.
And now it is time to begin the actual writing. Yet I’ve found myself delaying over the last few days, as I’ve taken a much needed break away from the ideas so that I can approach them again in a fresh and objective frame of mind. I’ve never been the kind of writer that falls in love with the sound of her own voice; I will actually cringe my way through most of the rereading that I’ll do before hitting publish on this post. And this isn’t the first time that I’ve tried to tell this story, so I keep hearing the echoes of where the past efforts have stuttered out, even though I know that my new angle is much stronger.
Wasn’t it Thomas Edison who said he never failed, but just found a thousand ways not to light a lightbulb? I certainly have learned from the two previous beginnings, but there are only so many times you can take 40,000 words and throw them into a folder that you’ve named “Old Manuscript” without wanting to shy away from similar grandiose sacrifices.
And so, here I am, having climbed the rungs of the ladder, trying to take that deep breath that will propel me out onto the board, to bounce in a place that is more familiar to me than standing here on the edge, wondering if I have the courage to go on. In another day or two, I will come back to the page and take those first steps out onto the board, just praying that this time, my mistakes will only propel me forward, as I finally learn what it is to write a full novel.
Baba stands up in her sleep sack and balances precariously on the rocking chair. She reaches out for the light, which I have just switched back on in order to let her turn it off again. She twists the switch, then settles again in my lap and throws her head back into mine.
“What song will we sing?” I ask her, as I always do.
She doesn’t answer.
“See saw?” I ask.
“No,” she says, giggling.
“No, no ABC song.”
“NO TWINKLE TWINKLE.”
“How about horsies?”
She’s silent for a moment and I take my chance.
“Hush-a-bye,” I sing. “Don’t you cry. Go to sleep, my little baby.”
“No baby!” Baba says agreeably.
“When you wake, you will have all the pretty little horses.”
“Blacks and greys, dapples and bays–”
“All the pretty little hor-es-ses.”
“No horses,” she says, snuggling into my armpit. “No horses.”
Jo Walton’s Among Others tells the story of 14-year-old Mori Phelps, who has fled her home in the hills of Wales to escape her half-mad and magical mother. Still reeling from the death of her twin sister and learning to live with a crippling injury, Mori finds herself dropped on her father’s doorstep by the foster care system, even though she has never met him before. When his sisters insist on sending her away to an upper-class boarding school, Mori finds herself removed once again from all that is familiar, including the fairy companions that she grew up with.
As a Hugo and Nebula award winner, you would expect Among Others to be something quite different and new. It absolutely delivers. Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of fantasy any more, but I’ve certainly read my share of farmer boy adventure novels. Mori is no farmboy; her journey is the metaphorical one of adolescence. Left alone in an English town where her Welsh accent marks her permanently as an outsider, Mori struggles to find connections with others. Alone and lonely, she wishes that she had people that she could talk to, who understood her the way that her family in Wales does. Like many lonely children, she turns towards books to entertain her as she tries to survive the last few years of her education. And it is books that provide salvation for her, as she finds her way into a science fiction book club at the library, where she finally meets some other young people worth talking to. Although I did not recognize most of the books that Mori discusses with such passion, Walton provides enough context that it was easy to follow along. Mori certainly provides an education for the reader of most of the major science fiction authors and I’m certain that serious science fiction fans will enjoy that element of the novel.
For all that the book is somber, Mori’s analytical nature keeps the pages turning. A naturally academic, Mori seeks out answers to the world around her. When she returns to Wales for a visit, she goes seeking the fairies that she grew up with, looking for answers to the ethical questions that she has about magic. But fairies are unreliable — instead of helping her understand, they bring Mori the sight of her sister, who has not yet progressed to the underworld.
I took a step towards her, and then I remembered her clutching me and dragging me towards the door into the hill, and stopped. “Oh Mor,” I said.
She didn’t say anything. She couldn’t, any more than the robin. She was dead and the dead can’t speak. As a matter of fact, I know how to make the dead speak. You have to give them blood. But it’s magic, and anyway, it would be horrible. I couldn’t imagine doing it.
Mor’s shade gives Mori more questions than answers. Although Mori knows that her struggle with her mother was not ended the night that her mother killed her sister, seeing Mor again makes Mori realize that she will have to confront her mother again some day. When her mother starts sending her letters filled with magical malevolence, Mori burns them and tries to befriend the fairies in England in order to figure out what to do. But fairies being fairies, they don’t cooperate, and Mori is left to discover enough about magic to stop her mother once and for all.
Although Mori has lost so much — a family, her health, a home, a twin — her reflections often have a delightful optimism and love of life. While reality is dour, her secret, magical world and love of science fiction fill her wonder and keep her intellectually engaged. It is a delight to read small nuggets like this:
And I thought all that was wasted, all that time practising up there, because Mor is dead and I can’t run and neither can Grampar, not any more. Except it wasn’t wasted, because we remember it. Things need to be worth doing for themselves, not just for practice for some future time. I’m never going to win Wimbledon or run in the Olympics…but I wouldn’t have anyway. I’m not even going to play tennis for fun with my friends, but that doesn’t mean playing it when I could was a waste. I wish I’d done more when I could.
You can’t help cheering for a young woman that has lost so much, but still maintains hope.
There isn’t another book that I can think of that is quite like Among Others. For the rest of this, Among Others is an enjoyable journey of a young woman that I would certainly like getting to know. Distinctly creative, it is well worth a read, even for readers that don’t typically read fantasy or science fiction.
This is not a great time to be a sensitive person walking the world.
I’ve read a number of lovely blog posts that are clinging to hope, despite the dark and interesting times that our new administration seems to have put us in. I’ve read poems and shared in the general outcry of the many, many people that are horrified at the recent actions of our country to tear apart Muslim families. As the wife of a former green card holder, it’s been difficult not to walk around in panic, because our story can’t be told without also being an immigrant story that is very much like the people that I am reading about now — people who are being detained not 10 miles from my house.
My heart is not light, so I’m finding it hard to write light-hearted. I have half a dozen blog posts that are queued up in draft, because I can’t quite seem to get to the right frame of mind to put something silly and frivolous into the world.
There is much that I could tell you about, much that I should have told you about by now. We moved into a new house at Hallowe’en and settled into it. There were new couches and holidays and visitors and movies and books. I’ve been deep in research for a big writing project that’s now transitioning into plotting and draft writing. I even went to a really big feminist party the day after the inauguration and cried at the sight of the hundreds of thousands of people with me that were standing up to say that they were watching the new administration.
I even got a new hat.
But it all feels very trivial, when turning to news or Facebook is such an onslaught of terrible things. I found myself crying at work as I came across an article of a breastfeeding 11-month-old that was separated from her mother for a full day because of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Each story of adult children just trying to get their elderly parents back home or spouses trying to reunite or refugees that nearly made it onto what were once safe shores has hit me so hard. My Irish in-laws keep asking me what is going on in my country and I am terrified by all the answers that keep coming out of my mouth.
It is very tempting to go hide in fiction for the next four years. That is, actually, part of what I’ve been doing to restore myself. Each night, after we talk at dinner of all the terrible things that have happened each day, I hide on the couch and cover myself in blankets and let myself luxuriate in story telling. If I close my eyes, will it just go away?
Unfortunately not, not if I want the world to be a place for Baba, with her double passports and international family. Not if I want to lift my head and look back at these days and respect myself for not standing by the side and letting others speak out against deep injustice.
And so. There is work to do, even if it feels like my efforts accomplish very little. I saw a tweet recently quoted somewhere that said that if you always wondered how you would have behaved as you read about history, then you’re getting a good chance to know, because whatever it is that you’re doing now is what you would have done then.
That’s stuck with me – as both a calling and a command.