The Way of the Range.
“Why do you always wear black?”
“I’m in mourning for my life.”
To be alive is to mourn. Beds where we once rested our heads, people we once rested beside, animals we’ve loved, family we’ve lost, our bodies. We mourn what has been, what can never be again, hopes dashed, love soured, spring flowers that cannot last. Some days I mourn my 20 year-old knees, my grandmother’s ability to drive a car after dark, cities where young love dripped from me, my child-feet standing on my father’s surfboard, his head still full of hair. Memory, a sweet grief, exquisite and excruciating.
There are people who criticize me for posting images like this one on the internet. What I’d like to tell them is that I am mourning my tits which will not always stand perky, upright, like this. I’m mourning the queer youth I didn’t have. I’m mourning a fading dream of nursing babies. A window closing. Another day’s sun setting. I am in mourning for my life. I want to remember. I am but a body and a heart with some words. I want to remember what is.
I’m sitting around a kitchen table in Los Angeles. The very kitchen where this photograph was taken. I’m talking to two friends from different eras of my life, each having had a profound impact on me. Two friends I met on different coasts for whom I am the connective tissue. They now have a friendship all their own. There is little I love more than being this glue. Two friends who now live under one roof and co-parent a dog named Elvis.
Tonight I find myself with them. A night which could not have been planned. Exactly the way I like it. Travel dates changed. Here I am. Adam sets the dinner table for three.
We’re talking about our respective singledoms. We’re talking about souls and how earth might be the most challenging place to incarnate. Dom says animals can’t reincarnate as people - only as other animals. I’m nodding my head. This feels right. The moment feels right. Sharing wine, tossing a salad, steaks cooking in a familiar kitchen. Like a pact we made when we were nothing but energy, atmosphere, dust. We would find each other. Help each other. Hold each other in the madness of being alive on earth.
Two nights before, I’d shared a meal with one of my oldest friends, her husband, a high school friend, his partner, and my first love. For 15 years Josh and I have co-parented a pair of cats we’d once envisioned crawling into the cribs of our children. Though the container of our love has changed, the familial love we share has not. In this moment, everything is as before. Everything is different. Here we are, laughing around a candlelit table. Familiar. Only now two break away to put their child into bed.
We were broker back then. Different hair. Different outlooks. Different people. Those previous versions, more present when we gather like this. Eating together with the same mouths that shot back tequila on my 21st birthday when Ash and I were just two kids sharing a bedroom in a grimy Hollywood apartment. Los Angeles is still here. I watch it from a different view. I mourn this too.
Upon my return to Austin, I’m sitting in my therapist’s office assigning stories to the images she holds before me. Themes of my sensitivity being misunderstood, of caretaking, of crippling self reliance emerge. I find myself bending the stories I invent toward resilience by the end. Even here, where the objective is not to shield the person sitting across from me from worry, I refuse to show my full hand.
I’m thinking about this as I drive one of my 15 year-old cats to the vet afterwards. Though perky and happy to see me after a week away, he has a pesky cough I assume antibiotics will fix.
My vision goes blurry as the vet tells me Mo’s heart is failing. That she put him on oxygen. That it’s time to say goodbye. She assures me there is nothing I could have done. That cats are masters of hiding what ails them.
She leaves the room to prep him for euthanasia. I call my mother. No reception. Minutes pass like train cars cutting through me. I text my brother. I text Josh. I can’t get calls through. The nurse enters. “Your mom called. She’s on her way.”
Someone is coming to collect me off the floor. This is when the tears come. One of those moments when each time she was not there is forgiven. She is here now. We are here now. She will not let me do this alone.
My mother has recently had both knees replaced. I’ve but blinked since the day she taught me to ski. Here she comes, hobbling in with her cane on artificial knees.
We call Josh on my stepfather’s phone. I blurt incoherent sentences about how much Mo loved him as I sign a DNR and hand over my credit card. The technician asks me if I want Mo’s box of ashes engraved. In some esoteric pocket of my subconscious, I wonder who will be responsible for my belongings, which will now include Mo’s ashes, if I am to be struck by a bus tomorrow. In my imagination, the freak accident that kills me prematurely, is always a bus.
“No, no, just the box will do.”
Will this end up in a landfill too?
For the record, I do not wish to be buried.
Scatter me with the ashes of my animals.
I wish to leave my art here.
A story of how I lived. How I loved.
A memory of walking through a field with me on a day when God herself was a gaffer.
I excuse myself to use the restroom. I’m stalling. I’m thinking about the bottles I fed him when he fit in my palm. I need a minute. I pee when I’m nervous. At least three times before I step on a stage. I’m not ready. I’m scarcely ready. For anything. He is just a cat. But I am just a girl.
I’d left the boys in Josh’s care when I moved to New York for college. On a winter break I’d brought home my new girlfriend and the three of us had sat on the floor of Josh’s LA apartment as this cat wrapped his paws around my head and nuzzled me like those nature videos of two lions reuniting. The two great loves of my life at my side, it was one of the simplest and most generous acts of care I’ve experienced in my life.
We are who we love. How we love. How we let love lead. We are who and what we grieve.
Mo abandons the oxygen mask to wiggle into my arms. I kiss my baby’s perfect pink toes one last time and thank him for choosing me as his mommy. I hold him as he goes, to where no one knows, a death of not just this animal, but of years punctuated by his gentle presence. Dreams I dreamed for my young life the day he entered it. A young person hopeful for a future I’m now living in. Nothing went as planned. He’s consistently greeted me at the door none the less. An animal’s love is not contingent on our human view of success.
On a bench outside, I let out the wail of a broken mother. I surprise even myself with the sound that escapes me. Grief, I’ve learned, knows nothing about poise.
I was raised by horse women who have known the joy and agony of animals passing through our lives. My mother holds me, reminding me, “it’s the way of the range, baby.”
When she’s confident I’m emotionally sober enough to drive, she calls my best friend, asking them to meet me at my place, and sends me on my way.
At home, four friends, including my remaining cat, are piled on my couch holding me as I snot and wail. I’m embarrassed. Animals are the only people I let see me this way. My guilt leads me to share the vet’s words about cats hiding their ailments. I’m so terrified that I’ve failed him. I’m so sorry my friends are left to console me on a Friday night. But what Sean says is, “I think you’re kind of like a cat, JP,” and I think, maybe, just maybe, Mo’s final gift to me, that little stinker, is an invitation to stop hiding my pain from those who love me. Permission to sound the alarm, ask for a hug, a cup of tea. Or more simple than that, let myself be seen, surrender to the belief that I might be worthy of being love’s recipient. I might be worthy of souls to sit beside as we mourn our lives, these temporary feelings, bodies, days, dreams. To be alive is to love. To love is to grieve. Life, a constant game of catch and release. I can’t remember who said it now, “grief is love’s receipt” and I share this with you now, to you in yours, whatever grief yours may be, remember that this too is an expression of your love, proud and loud, let it scream. And let your fellow grievers gather at your feet.