Joy and Sorrow
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran
My 17-year-old cat Barack met his end peacefully.
His final day was December 28, 2020, a month after I had written a heartfelt tribute to his extraordinary life.
As I mentioned in that post, Barack had been diagnosed with terminal lymphoma, and much of my emotional energy over his last few weeks had been devoted to his care. He remained beautiful, elegant, and peaceful until the very end.
Now that he is in his final resting place on my property, Barack has a connection with the fields, the woods, and the mountains that he loved.
Barack’s long life was marked with much joy and much sorrow. Both his and mine. The joy he brought to me was always tinged with the sorrow of how he came to me, after the loss of my dear friend Lori. His sickness and death brought me much sorrow, not just because of losing him, although the impact of that was paramount. My sadness was magnified by echoes of grief; losses from times long ago.
Barack loved much, and he loved well. In his final days, all he wanted to do, besides getting enough to eat, was to be with me. His departure has left a huge hole in my heart, which I know will heal because of all the affection he showered on me over the years of our friendship. I will forever miss him.
I’m sad, of course. I’m also comforted by having lived so long with the words from The Prophet I cited here (and in my tribute). I know that my sorrow is the mirror image of the joy I have known from having had Barack in my life.
…you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
I have lived with many cats, since early childhood, and Barack certainly ranks right up there in the top tier of affectionate ones. I had a long hiatus with no cats when I lived and worked in Manhattan and Boston in my 30’s and 40’s; and now, I am experiencing the first interval in which I’ve been without a cat in more than 20 years.
The story of Barack’s arrival, and of his departure, is indeed one of joy and of sorrow, and also of the resilience of the human spirit. I have learned, through many periods of sorrow, sometimes descending into depression, that “this, too, shall pass.” In my case, I believe the autistic nature of my reactions brings me to extremes that most people do not encounter. Other than the intensity, however, it is likely that my suffering is not different from that of most people. We all learn that sometimes we must walk through the dark valley in order to reach the sunshine on the other side.
And yet, there are those echoes, coming down through the years. Losses of pets, and of people. I have never been quite able to forgive my grandmother for leaving this world. And I still grieve for Lucifer, my feline friend who helped me through a very difficult period in my life. And Grace, a childhood friend who departed in circumstances eerily similar to those of Lori’s passing. And there are many others.
My heart has been broken many times, in many ways, and those wounds are still there. Somehow, though, all of that sorrow never reduced my capacity for loving. Perhaps my inner being had to grow larger to contain that sorrow, and, in so doing, create space for love and for joy. The human capacity for recovery, optimism, and triumph ofttimes seems boundless.
Some Memories of Barack
Barack came to me in 2008. I had been working on the Presidential campaign of another Barack (Obama). Lori was one of my many compatriots in that effort.
Corinne and I were the co-coordinators of the Obama campaign for Western Massachusetts. At one point, I had several thousand email addresses to which I was sending regular emails, announcing bus trips to New Hampshire for canvassing, and other campaign events. While I handled the tech side, Corinne did personal outreach and brought people together for campaign activities and socializing.
One day, in June of that year, Corinne held a party at her house to benefit a candidate running for local office. Lori was there, in an upbeat mood, chatting and joking with all of us. At one point, she asked to see my new Prius. It’s the same as yours, I said, just a different color – you don’t really need to see it! No, no, she said, let’s go take a look! So we did.
That day was the last time any of us ever saw Lori.
After Lori’s memorial service, I contacted her friend Brian (who was also her veterinarian – she called him “Doc”). He was looking after the cats she had left behind. I asked if I could take Taffy, a beautiful calico who had always been friendly with me when I visited Lori’s house. He agreed, and she came to live with me and my two other calicoes.
Lori had left four cats, and Doc took the other three into his care. A few weeks later, Brian called me, and started the conversation with “I know you have a lot of room in your house…”
Uh oh, I thought.
He went on “… so I was wondering if you might be able to temporarily take in the two boys.”
It seems that shelters were full, and not accepting any more animals; the financial crisis (now called the Great Recession) had forced many folks to give up their pets. So Brian was having to pay someone, to privately board the two male cats.
I couldn’t say no, and so Stanley and Spunky came to live with me. They were almost completely feral, and did not want to interact with me at all. Every day, I had to go into the guest room and look under the bed to be sure they were all right. It was the only time I ever saw them. They would come out at night to eat and use the litter box, and I suspect they avoided the female cats as well.
This situation persisted for many weeks, and Brian came once to give all five of the cats their shots and exams. He still had not been able to find a place for the two boys.
Weeks turned into months, and gradually the two shy cats began to venture out in plain sight. Before you could shake a stick at them, they had displaced the girls on my bed at night. They became more and more friendly, and I realized they were not going anywhere. (I’m not sure I would have let Brian take them away at that point.)
I felt that they deserved more elegant names. So the tabby Stanley became Tigger, after one of my favorite childhood characters, and Spunky became Barack.
I had already used the obvious black-and-white names for cats who came earlier in my life (such as Puss ‘n’ Boots), and I was mentally casting about for a suitable name, when my aha moment arrived. Lori and I had been working together on the Obama campaign, and our candidate was black and white.
Lori’s daughter Kristina and I have remained friends over the years, and I was recently telling her the naming story. I also told her what I remembered of Lori’s account of how she found Barack. Kristina filled me in on more of that, since she remembered going with her mother to the abandoned building where he had been found.
It was on, or near, the UConn campus in Storrs, where Lori had been working on a consulting gig. Kristina described it as the “spookiest” place she had ever been. The space had not been used for a long time, and there was abandoned equipment that suggested it might have been used as a medical center; perhaps as housing for mental health patients. Lori, an animal lover, had been alerted to the presence of several feral cats, and went in to rescue them. One of them was the cat who would become known as Barack.
Now that Barack is gone, I of course miss him, but there is more to it than that. I am fond of the Jewish saying, “May his memory be a blessing.” I will forever remember him fondly.
I am creating what I feel is a fitting memorial to Barack and also to Topaz, whose story must be told elsewhere. The two of them were reluctant companions from the time Barack arrived until Topaz departed “On the Trail Home” as the Mohicans phrase it. They were never really friends, but they tolerated each other, respected each other’s space, and shared the food and other services offered by their human.
My friend Lucy has crafted lovely grave markers for the two of them, who are now buried next to each other in a spot they both loved to view from their perches in the windows of the house. When the world thaws out at the end of this long winter, I will create two side-by-side cairns, made of Alford marble, in their memory.