My family always blamed the Russians.
In a cardboard box on the cement floor of the garage in our 70s style house, the kittens dwindled. Tiger, Midnight, even Buttercup, the yellow one, my favorite little Winnie the Pooh ball of fluff, died. I don't remember feeling particularly sad. I think I would have been more upset if my brother's favorite - Tiger, I think, he always chose the stupidest names - had outlived my Buttercup. Eventually all the kittens died. Conventional parental advice suggests that giving your child a pet so enables them to experience grief in small and safe bites. As the cause of these mysterious deaths was pinpointed by my parents as pollution, caused by Chernobyl's explosion, carried around the world, seeping into our drinking water, ultimately passing through momma kitty's milk and finally poisoning her litter, I learned to blame the Russians. But I was not afraid.
My first emotional experience with death came from a better named, but still butter yellow, cat. We were poor, and like most of our class, my first husband and I lived in a well-regulated apartment. Put this on your balcony and not that (and never a dirty mop). Smoke here but not there. Do not paint the industrial white walls. Do not put water in your bed, and no pets allowed except fish of a certain size. It was the 90s, and of course we had a waterbed. We also had pets. We were the particular breed of poverty who would sullenly and quietly defy rules. Now I'm the particular breed of tenured professor who sullenly and loudly defies rules. Then, we had a cat, an outdoor cat, whom we would pretend not to know. Like many others living in poverty, we lived among neighbors possessed of a particular kind of mindless cruelty. And when I learned that some cats do not land on their feet, I became hysterical in a way that was almost a relief to me. An appropriate and humane reaction to death left me sad, yet less afraid.
I've cried at funerals before. Death pretty much always shifts your worldview, a startling and welcome opportunity to reevaluate life. Christmas and birthdays and Thanksgiving, and funerals, we touch and connect, feel the worn denim comfort of a familiar past as it slips sideways just a little, tears just a little, and we glimpse something new underneath. Maybe it's just a glimpse of a sexy tanned knee. Maybe it's something more profound. Sometimes, there are monsters.
I have cried at funerals. I surprised myself, and felt a little relief at this ability to touch my own humanity. I cried at my ex husband's girlfriend's funeral. I remember that she liked frogs. I mean, she really liked frogs. I shed a poignant tear at my just-sit-there-and-fail-quietly-kiddies middle school teacher's funeral, although I spent more emotional energy judging my former classmate as she held one finger under a carefully mascaraed eye (would it be clichéd to note that the finger was carefully manicured?) and wafted the funeral program to dry it. However, the true wave of grief, the true slip of comfortable denim into a tear that showed me that I didn't understand people I thought were like me, that shifted things at the core of my identity that I thought so little about that I didn't even know I took them for granted, the thing that lifted me on a seismic tide of grief so shattering that I called in sick to work and stayed in bed crying until my nose was clogged with snot, well, that didn't come until last November. And I understood fear.
He never blames the Russians.
by HIEDI BAUER