On Grieving in October
Friday, the first thought I had when I woke up in the morning was, “it’s been two weeks today.” Then I rolled back over and buried my face in the pillow. Sometime after that, Daniel woke me up to say that we were having breakfast in bed. While sipping coffee and eating eggs and nopalitos, we watched the end of Coraline, a genuinely creepy stop-motion animation film based on the Neil Gaimen novel. In it, a precocious girl has parent issues and is helped by a cat. Not exactly the same, but the narrative speaks to me nonetheless.
Then I get up, stay in my pajamas, but move to the office to work. I answer emails and stare out the window. Then I grade reading responses and stare out the window. Then I remember how many deadlines I’m late with and stare out the window again. Sometimes I look over at the pictures I have Scratch and Talulah on the bookcase, sometimes I cry.
Facebook told me that exactly one year ago Friday, Daniel and I had driven to Mayes Family Farm stand to get pumpkins. I remember that day. I was on campus and Daniel showed up with a pumpkin spice latte and my pumpkin hat. I got in the car and we headed toward route 60 and the long two-lane stretch of WV-2 that passes Hillbilly Hotdogs and a spattering of raised homes in flooding distance of the Ohio River. Like he was doing this Friday with the breakfast in bed, with the Halloween-ish movie to start the day, last year he was trying to cheer me up, trying to reignite my Halloween excitement. Exactly one year ago, it had been two months since Talulah died. And now it has been two weeks ago since losing Scratch.
We had already decided Friday was the day to get pumpkins. Work all morning and early afternoon, then, before everyone else is off work, head out to Mayes, get our pumpkins, gourds, apples, squash, and whatever other vegetables Mayes had to offer. It was cold last year when we went.
You can see it in the picture, in our cheeks. Getting pumpkins does briefly cheer me up. When I was a kid, my sister and I got pumpkins from pop-up “patches.” Empty lots at the corners of busy streets adorned with bales of straw (we thought it was hay—what did we city kids know?), goofy scarecrows, a trailer operating as makeshift office with pictures of classic movie monsters and black lettering that spelled “B-O-O” taped up, and pre-picked pumpkins. Big ones, small ones, smashed ones, flat ones, tall, squat, scarred, and sometimes perfect. And the miniature ones, of course. The good patch was up on Shaw and Blackstone, across from what was then Winchell’s Donuts. They had a fire pit and watery hot chocolate and white lights strung from street lamp poles. More often, we went to the lot closer to our neighborhood, on the corner off Weber and Clinton Aves, not far from highway 99.
Moving to Indiana, it was only a 20 min drive to a real pumpkin patch with the pumpkins still attached to vines, you could actually cut them off. This place had an apple orchard too. We’d buy a wagon-full of pumpkins, fresh squeezed cider, and these apple donuts. They were the best donuts I’ve ever had. They were small and fragrant, coated in cinnamon and sugar; still warm on the car ride home, we’d say we would just eat one each. We were lucky to make it home with any of the half dozen.
Yesterday it was warm and we left the house later than we’d intended. For over a month, on the weekly drives up 5th Street road to Stonecrest Medical Center with Scratch, I’d see a sign that read, “Pumpkin Patch” (though it looks more like a greenhouse). “We’re going to stop there one of these days,” I’d tell Scratch. I told him I’d put him on his harness and lead and we’d walk around; he could smell the pumpkins and pick one out for himself. He likes to rub his face on the stems and push the small ones off the coffee table. I told him this year, I wouldn’t ask him to put on his adorable candy corn costume. It didn’t seem fair with his health declining the way it was, like it would be taking advantage.
Scratch didn’t get to pick out his pumpkin or go to the pumpkin patch, but Daniel and I did. It was a nice place, the person working there friendly, but it was no Mayes. We bought a few gourds and a cool-looking green-veined pumpkin and then hit the highway.
On the drive, I watched the trees whose colors haven’t changed much and we listened to The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack. We got to Mayes faster than I thought we would. But it didn’t look like Mayes. There weren’t any pumpkins lined along outside the wood structure. Pulling up, we could see there was nothing there, no one, the entrance and windows boarded and covered in chicken wire, the name “Mayes Family Farm” faded and cracked. Abandoned. I fought the urge to say, “It’s all gone.”
I would’ve meant Mayes and the pumpkins and the apples and the hilarious woman who worked there, but I also meant Scratch and Talulah and parts of our October traditions. I meant waking up to a cat nose in my face, and cuddling on the couch when it’s cold. I meant Talulah hilariously sleeping next to the blow-up black cat decoration we got from a party store. I meant Scratch looking regal in his Halloween tie and watching him bat candy out of the bowls on the table.
I meant never being able to dress like a witch again and try to force a squirming Talulah to take a picture with me. “You’re a gawddamn black cat,” I told her years ago. “You’re already my familiar, so just let me take the picture.” She hated Halloween.
Scratch did not hate Halloween. He seemed to love the whole holiday season from Halloween to Christmas. He liked when we put up decorations, he loved tiny snack-sized boxes of Junior Mints, he used to watch the trick-or-treaters from the window. Every year, he and Talulah “helped” me make mine and Daniel’s costumes. Friday night, while I sewed patches onto our costumes, it occurred to me that I did not have to protect the spools of thread or yank the clothing out from beneath a cat. Every day I discover something new I will never do again. I will never again come home to Scratch waiting for us at the back door. I will never again see Scratch sitting on the edge of the desk by the window watching the squirrels in the tree.
My pain this time feels paralyzing, like somehow my brain inside is on the edge of understanding the long illness, of the small grieving that took place every time Scratch's weight dropped and he wouldn't eat and we tried new, desperate ways to get him to put the weight back on or at least maintain, with less and less success each time. I'm on the edge of control, but my body will not cooperate. Within a few weeks after Talulah died, I wrote a blog post and a few bad poems. This year, I can barely get myself to write anything. My pain feels ugly and broken, denotatively dumb. The words feel empty and inadequate. I've tried journaling in fits and starts, started this blog post three times, have half drafts. None of it is enough; so I talk about pumpkins.
The truth was, it did cheer me up to get pumpkins. I enjoyed putting the finishing touches on our costume. I like drinking my Nosferatu beer and making pumpkin cupcakes and watching Simpson’s "Treehouse of Horror" episodes with the lit-up Halloween town on our mantle. The truth is also that my heart is broken. Such a cliché thing to say. I am simultaneously glad for the month of October and sad that I don’t get to experience it with Scratch anymore.
The Monday before Scratch died, out of nowhere, the scrapbook I made of the cards we received for Talulah inexplicable fell out from a bookshelf. No one was near it, nothing shook. We were upstairs when we heard it. Some people might think this is silly, but we feel this was her telling us she was there. Reminding us she is here with us, with Scratch and that she would be there with him when his heart stopped. Working at my computer this week, I felt something brush against my leg. I instinctively reached down to pet Scratch. My hand didn’t feel the soft brush of his fur or the warmth of his body, but I can’t say that he wasn’t there.