Underneath my yellow skin

Creating a New Normal

king of all he surveys
Raven on top, Summer of 2011

The best two seconds of my day are when I first wake up, before I remember that Raven is dead. In those two seconds, life is as it was before. Me and my two boys, living a cozy life together, forming our own little family. Before I open my eyes, I can pretend Raven is still with me, and then the grief floods me once again. To the outside eye, I probably appear as if I’m handling it well. I rarely cry about it, and I don’t talk about it except with my closest friends. Even then, I don’t mention it much, but it’s because it hurts too much. I still feel it all the way to my core, even if I don’t show it. It’s the little things that jar me the most. Reaching up to pet Raven who loved to perch on the couch above my head and patting the empty air. Going to the bathroom and not having to turn on the faucet for Raven to drink from it. Feeding only Shadow and not having to guard Raven’s food for him because he’s a slower eater and Shadow is highly food-driven. Listening to Raven growl at me and growling back because I found it amusing. We used to do this for several minutes, though only if no one else was present.

My mother asked me if I’ve accepted that he’s gone. Of course I have. I knew it the minute I looked into his glassy eyes right after he died. My dear, sweet Raven was gone, and he was never coming back. I was never in denial about that. By the way, the boys’ foster mom sent me an article on grief after I told her Raven died. We’ve all heard of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and her five stages of grief, but what we’ve gotten wrong (I learned from the article) is that she was studying terminally-ill people when she came up with her theory. The stages are what terminally-ill people go through after learning their diagnosis, and suddenly, it made much more sense to me than applying it to the general population. I couldn’t make the five stages fit what I was going through concerning the loss of my Raven, and after reading the article, I was relieved that I wasn’t a freak for not going through the stages. My mom then said she hoped I would get over the loss soon, and that seemed like an anathema to me. I don’t think there’s a ‘getting over’ a loss–only finding a new normal. When Raven first died, Shadow would cry for a long time after eating his breakfast as he wandered around the house. I knew he was looking for his brother, even though I had explained to him that Raven was gone and wouldn’t be coming back. I didn’t know why he did it at that specific time, but I decided it was because that’s one thing they always did together–eat. So, it made sense that Shadow would feel the loss most strongly then. It broke my heart to hear his mournful howl as he tried to find his brother, and it was frustrating to know that there was nothing I could do to help him.

It’s been a month and a week since Raven’s death, and Shadow does not cry as much now as he did a month ago. He’s changed in other ways, though. He’s much more talkative than he used to be. Today, I heard him do a strangled cry that previously, only Raven had ever uttered. He meows at me more regularly than he did before, and it’s usually in demand of  affection–which is also unusual for him. Don’t get me wrong. He can be very affectionate, but it used to be sporadically and at random. He was content to be on his own most of the time, demanding affection maybe once or twice a day. Since Raven’s death, Shadow has been clingier than usual. Most nights, he’s on my legs as I sit on the couch, and this is not his normal mode of behavior. Today (Saturday) is the first day since Raven’s death that Shadow has spent more time on his own than with me, and he’s currently in his hidey-hole bed by the couch, which is where he goes when he wants to be near me, but not touching. I’ve thought about why this is, and I’ve come to the conclusion that Raven was such a dominant personality, Shadow didn’t feel the need to express himself forcefully when his brother was alive. Raven made sure I knew when it was time for treats, which meant Shadow would get them as well. In addition, I feel as if Shadow believed that Raven’s demands were more pressing than his own, and he (Shadow) was content to let his brother do his thing. Now, Shadow can assert himself more, and it’s been interesting to see his personality emerge in a more forceful way.  I don’t know if it’s just in reaction to Raven’s dying or if it’s something that will stay changed, and I’m fine with it either way.

double the trouble and double the fun.
Shadow (left) & Raven (right) know what you’re thinking.

My BFF, Kat, had two brother cats as well, Pete and Griller. We smuggled them out of Texas when they were babies, and they were markedly different from the very beginning. Even as a baby kitten, Pete would disappear and come back bedraggled, but happy. Griller preferred to stay on the porch, and once he he became an indoor cat, he showed no desire to go outside again. Pete would howl for hours if he wasn’t able to go outside. One time when Kat and her family were on vacation, it got freezing cold, and Pete vanished. He returned a few days later with a frostbitten ear, but otherwise intact. When he died, Griller became much more vocal and friendly. Before Pete died, Griller never would come over to me unless I had treats. After Pete was gone, Griller hung out with me more often. That’s what the changes in Shadow’s behavior reminds me of. He’s gone from rarely meowing to voicing his opinion at me throughout the day. Instead of spending most of his time alone, he’s frequently in the room with me, and as I previously said, he spends most of the nights on my legs. I like the idea that he’s embraced the spirit of his brother and has incorporated it into his own personality. I still miss Raven like hell, though.

There was a moment the other day when I glanced at Shadow and because of the light and the angle, he looked exactly like Raven. I caught my breath, not daring to believe my eyes. Then, he moved, and he was Shadow again. I was both disappointed and relieved, and then I felt guilty because I was so happy to have Raven back, even if it was only for five seconds.

My mom sent me pictures of my boys that she had on her phone. She called me a few nights later, and we started talking about the pictures. I looked at them and started naming them. “Shadow, Shadow, Raven, Shadow on the left and Raven on the right”, etc. She pulled up the picture as well and asked how I could tell if I couldn’t see the white patch (which Shadow has on his chest. He has a bigger one on his belly). I was incredulous as I said, “Mom, I can tell because I know them.” Yes, they’re both black cats, but they are as different as night and day to me. When they were in their prime, Raven was ten pounds and Shadow was fifteen. Raven was muscular and sleek, whereas Shadow was always a big boy. As they grew older, Raven’s metabolism slowed down, and he gained weight. He was still more streamline than was Shadow, however, and I could still usually tell them apart in a glance. Even though they’re both short-haired, their fur was different. Raven’s was wiry, and Shadow’s is softer and fluffier. Raven was like a rock star crossed with an athlete. Shadow is always disheveled and rumpled, like a bemused professor. In addition, their faces are different, at least for someone who’s looked at them every day for almost ten years. As I’ve mentioned above, their personalities are different as well, and so are their walks. They are individuals to me, and I rarely got them mixed up before Raven became roughly the same size as Shadow.

Every time I go out back to smoke, I glance at the garden bed where Raven is buried. It makes me sad each time, but I feel compelled to do it as a tribute to him. When there was snow covering the red brick I put as a temporary marker of his grave, I felt more at peace because it was like a blanket keeping him cradled. Now that the snow is mostly melted, I feel a jolt of pain whenever I see the red brick. Twenty years ago, I used to have a headache all the time. It was low-grade most of the time, but once in a while, it would explode into a migraine that would lay me out for two days. That’s how I feel about my grief right now. It’s there all the time, even if it’s a low-key way, but once in a while, the raw pain hits me between the eyes, and I can hardly breathe.

a kitten and his dog
Baby Raven with Foster Mom’s dog, Daisy. Raven feared no one.

I’m angry that he’s dead. Ten years old is barely middle-aged now for a cat, and goddamn it, he should be above my head right now. I can’t shake the guilt that I should have done more for him. I should have taken better care of him. I should have checked on him earlier. I should not have let him died. Rationally, I know it’s not my fault. I loved him with all my heart, and I treated him (and Shadow, of course) like a prince. He went very quickly–for which I’m thankful. I would hate to think he suffered–so there was nothing I could do to save him. My feelings of guilt are my attempt to wrest some control over a situation in which I had none. I know that death is exactly that–it doesn’t care who you are or if it’s your time to go or not. Again, I have nothing but trite words to say because in the end, death is simultaneously banal and life-changing. Raven and Shadow are the first cats I adopted as an adult, and Raven’s death affects me on a daily basis. I don’t have anyone close to me who’s died–knock on wood–so I was unprepared for how I would deal with Raven’s death. That’s not to say that you can ever really prepare for someone’s death, but I’m still unsettled by the fact that I’m not gnashing my teeth, wailing, and pulling my hair out. My grief is quieter and more internal. I still feel stunned by what happened because it was so sudden, but every day, the shock wears off just a little bit.

It’s difficult to me when there are friends online who don’t realize that Raven has died. I’ve been so vocal about my boys being my life, it’s only natural for people to ask about then. Having to tell people that Raven has died is awkward, and I hate bringing it up because I know it brings people down. One person apologized for opening up the wound again, and I said it was OK because I think about him all the time. I do. There’s always one small part of my brain that is focused on him. Right now, Shadow is napping on my chest (his new favorite place to rest when I’m sitting upright. It makes typing hard, believe you me), and I can’t help thinking how he’d never do that if Raven was alive. Shadow has become a real cuddler since the passing of his brother, and I don’t know if it’s because now he can get the attention he craves or if he misses having his brother to play with/scrap with. It’s hard to tell if he’d be happier with a playmate/companion of the feline variety. He’s been around Raven all his life, and I wonder how much Shadow misses him. I’ve thought about adopting another cat, but honestly, I’m not ready for it. I feel like it’s a betrayal to Raven, and more to the point, my heart isn’t ready. It’s hard enough to say that I have one cat and not two–that also feels as if I’m doing a disservice to Raven. I know it’s a common feeling upon losing someone, not knowing how to explain the situation in a pithy way that doesn’t make other people uncomfortable and doesn’t upset me.

I have a (different) picture of my boys as the wallpaper on my phone, my desktop, and my laptop. Any time I glimpse Raven, my heart immediately hurts. He’s such a handsome boy, and I can’t get used to the fact that pictures–and memories–are all I have left of him. I haven’t been able to blog since he’s died, except for the memorandum I wrote about him. The grief had me nearly immobilized, and any time I even thought about writing a post, my brain shut down. See, I knew this post had to be the next one I wrote, but I wasn’t ready to write it. I’m not sure I’m ready now, but I have to move on in some fashion as best as I can. Without Raven, but with Shadow by my side. Right now, he’s literally lying next to my thigh, taking his umpteenth nap of the day. Raven should be above my head, taking a nap as well, but he isn’t. He never will be again. Yes, I’ve accepted it, but it still fucking hurts. In a way, I’m glad it hurts the way it does. Raven gave me so much in his much-too-short time with me; the least I can do is honor his memory now that he’s gone.


2 Responses to Creating a New Normal

  1. It’s funny (not really, but you know what I mean), but we lost Marty and you would think it would be the same for me but it wasn’t/isn’t. We were lucky enough to have Birdie, our saved and adopted blackbird who came into our life just before we lost Marty, to take care of, love laugh at, talk and worry about when he died his horrid, painful, terrifying death. Birdie to ease the pain and distract us with another little being who needed us and bonded with us. And when she flew away and never came back, we suddenly felt the loss of Marty. The emptiness. But with the hotel and our sons I was able to deal with it. I just kept moving. You, working at home, always having the boys as company, I can only imagine the black hole Raven has left. I can offer you nothing except a virtual hug and the hope that you eventually are able to replace him with another ball of love and fur that needs your love. <3

    • People grieve in different ways, Jamie, and you’re right that having Birdie, the hotel, and your sons helped you cope with the loss of your beloved Marty. You’re also right that it’s especially hard for me because I spend most of my time at home, so I feel his loss every minute of the day. In addition, his brother, Shadow, is taking it rather hard, so I have to help him cope as best I can on top of dealing with my own grief. Thank you for your support and the virtual hugs. I really appreciate it!

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