LA Stories

Cat Funeral

I could not have been less enthused about a cat funeral. It was the middle of the week, a school night for my daughter, a work night for me, and it all just seemed so silly and unnecessary. I am very allergic to cats and only slightly emotional about pets. My day as a graduate student, tutor, and parent had been long enough already, and LA traffic is always a threat after 2pm. Also, it was hot, which makes everyone grumpy. “Lydia is always so dramatic,” I grumbled about my best friend as I unloaded the dishwasher, procrastinating. Alone in my kitchen, I rolled my eyes thinking of the displays of grief Lydia had expressed over the week on Facebook about her cat, Belle, who was killed earlier in the week by coyotes. But my daughter, LC, loved Belle, and really wanted to go. Plus, I had already offered to bring pizza, and now it was waiting to be picked up.

The set up at Lydia’s was more elaborate than I anticipated, more decorated than filtered shots on instagram had suggested. A huge sign made of tissue paper flowers reading “death to coyotes” created a backdrop for our front yard picnic. It is exactly the kind of thing that Lydia would do; the sign mirrored her beautiful, melodramatic, passionate and artistic personality. Lydia’s emotions are never a mystery. It is what makes her a talented actress and amazing friend.

I sat eating a slice with pepperoni and quietly observing, trying not to betray any unsupportive thoughts that were still lingering in my mind. Friends slowly trickled in, LC leafed through a notebook that Lydia had tied to her front gate for the week; it was full of notes from friends, neighbors, and strangers. Some were of condolences, some were solidarity messages against coyotes, many were stories of other pets lost to disaster. As the sun set, it was time for the official ceremony to begin. We gathered around Lydia and a make-shift shrine in which she had placed Belle’s blanket, favorite toy, and a photograph of Belle that especially captured the magic of her eyes, one green, one blue. Lydia’s friend Norwood began the first notes of “Tonight You Belong with Me” on the ukulele, and I unexpectedly started thinking about the songs I used to sing with my sister, Judy Ann.

My parents decided to be Judy Ann’s foster parents when she was a newborn baby, before they had any other children. My mom worked as an occupational therapist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Washington D.C. An occupational therapist helps people learn how to do simple and pedestrian acts despite a disability or after an accident. She might help a child learn how to use a wheelchair for the first time, or eat with a specially designed utensil. One day little Judy Ann was born to a homeless teenager who was unable and uninterested in raising a baby with Downs Syndrome and a weak heart. My mother immediately fell in love; it didn’t matter to her that the doctors said the baby might not survive very long. She brought her home to live with her and my father in their little yellow house.

And then I came along, born to my parents the old fashioned, biological way. Even though she was two years older than me, Judy Ann’s weak heart and developmental disabilities kept her very petite, so it was like we were twins. My favorite photograph is of us sitting on the beach with matching bonnets, otherwise totally naked. We are exactly the same size. We shared a mom, dad, grandparents, toys and life. Two more siblings were born, and Judy Ann stayed, and we called her our sister. When my father was hired by a company in California, we moved across the country and of course Judy Ann did too. It never occurred to me that there was a difference between her relationship to my parents and mine. I didn’t really notice that there were any differences at all, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Judy Ann was African-American, so people knew we weren’t from the same gene pool. Judy Ann also had trouble hearing and communicating, so we all used American Sign Language together. People often stared at our family, and asked a lot of questions. When they asked who she was, I said “She’s my sister.” When they asked if she was adopted, I usually said “Yes,” because it didn’t matter to me if there was a technical difference between “foster” or “adopted;” Judy Ann lived in our house before I did, and she was still there ten years later.

One of our favorite things to do with new people in our life was help them, with Judy Ann, create a hand sign that represented his or her name. My friend Carly, for example, had curly hair. Her sign was the letter “C,” and you moved your hand around your face in the shape of cork-screw curls. And a lot of our sibling life was like everyone else’s; we argued, we played, we watched Sesame Street together, we took baths together, we all made a real mess of the kitchen on spaghetti night together. We sang songs together, like the A-B-C’s and “Jesus Loves Me,” with our voices and our sign language. When Judy Ann snuck taste a of jalapeño peppers at a Long John Silver’s restaurant and then shared it with me, we cried together. Loudly.

When I was eleven, everything changed. Judy Ann’s weak heart was causing a lot of problems in her body. It was exactly what the doctors said would happen when she was a baby. She was having seizures, and even a common cold was becoming dangerous. Also, she was becoming more independent; sometimes she would wander away from our house on a walk by herself. This was scary because she might cross a busy intersection without waiting for a green light, or have a sudden seizure. Even on her healthiest days she couldn’t communicate very well to explain where she lived or even say her name. Thankfully, we lived in a small town, so a lot of people knew our family and knew how to help if they saw Judy Ann out on a stroll. But sometimes police brought her home, and it was always extremely stressful. My parents made the painful decision to admit that Judy Ann needed more care than our family resources were able to provide. Judy Ann was moved back to Washington D.C., to the Hospital for Sick Children, where my mother first found her.

I didn’t understand what it would mean for our family when Judy Ann moved away. It meant that, according to charts at the hospital, and papers in her file, we were no longer a part of her life. The hospital (and a professional support team) could make any and all decisions it felt necessary for Judy Ann’s health and well-being. My parents were not only forbidden to participate in decision making, they were never contacted for those kind of conversations in the first place. Arrangements had to be made if we wanted to talk to Judy Ann or see her. According to the law, former foster family is, quite simply,  not family.

We visited Judy Ann as soon as we were able; it was the autumn of 1992. I had just started the sixth grade. The entire trip is like a strange slide show in my mind, with lots of missing pieces. I wore my favorite magenta hoodie pullover, pegged my acid washed pants every day, brushed my curly hair into a frizzy mess. The weather was freezing cold, so cold that all my memories are sort of brightly colored, like when the sun is low in the winter and you have to squint. My magenta hoodie was not enough, but I don’t remember having a coat.

It had only been a few months since I had seen her, but Judy seemed so much smaller than the last time we had spent time together. We all laughed and talked with our own special language of words and signs. But her skin was pale, her cheeks were swollen from a medicine of some kind, she looked sick, and she seemed weak. Her hair was styled in a new way, and she was wearing a tee-shirt I’d never seen. It was frightening and uncomfortable in that place.

It was confusing, feeling so happy to see Judy Ann, yet devastated by the circumstances. Huge bruising cries fought to explode from me, but I held it all in. I wanted to scream, hit something or shake someone, but I did none of those things. Instead I carried the sobs inside my chest and they escaped over the next days and weeks in weird moments. Like the next day, sitting on a bench outside the Lincoln Memorial, watching a homeless man buy a hot dog. I wept, watching him shuffle along the sidewalk in a tattered coat.

We visited other national monuments on that trip, but I don’t remember anything about them. I know the east coast trees were probably full of autumn colors, but I don’t remember that either. I don’t remember hotels or people we visited. I only remember the tee-shirt my sister was wearing, and how badly my chest ached with painful confusion.

We flew back to California, and I’m not sure we ever discussed it as a family. I went to a new middle school and made new friends who always assumed I was the oldest in my family. They weren’t wrong. Judy Ann was not my sister anymore. She had become someone who used to live with us. She was in photographs at our house, but it felt complicated and I didn’t want to talk about it. Occasionally, over the years, I’d demonstrate my American Sign Language skills, or I might bring Judy Ann up within the context of a story, but those moments were few and far between.

Meanwhile, back in Washington D.C., Judy Ann’s health was failing. Her kidneys were not working very well, and she was put on dialysis. My mom and dad would visit, but I always refused to go. I didn’t think I could bear seeing her so sick, becoming smaller and smaller, sinking into hospital pillows. My parents cried a lot when they returned, and I always felt relieved that I had made the right choice.

And then what we always knew would happen, happened: Judy Ann died.

It was the end of my junior year of high school. It was the day before finals, June 2, 1997. I came home from school, and I sensed something was wrong before I opened the front door. My mother was in the living room; she didn’t have to tell me what happened, because I already knew in that way that humans sometimes know things without words. The next few days were a blur, and this is what I remember: My grandparents came to town, my mother sobbed  in the kitchen, and I did not go to the funeral in Washington D.C.

I couldn’t put words to my decision at the time but I think I was scared of my own feelings. The memories of my last visit were haunting, and guilt for never visiting again was crippling. I thought that if I started to cry in Washington D.C., a tsunami of those bruising sobs would come back and I would actually, literally, drown. I was scared of what would be there, who would be there, and Judy Ann would NOT be there, and these ideas were too overwhelming. When my mom described it to me afterwards, she said there was an open casket, and again I felt relieved to have stayed at home.

I focused on college applications and going to Taco Bell on Friday nights with my friends. I fought with my parents about how many times I could play The Cranberries’ “Zombie” on repeat. Prom was on a boat that year, which seemed important. Life goes on, and so I went on. To college, then to life after college, and then onto an adventure that has landed me in Los Angeles with LC.  Other funerals happened in my life and the lives of people close to me; regardless of whether I went to them or not, I refused to let myself think too much or feel too much when anyone passed away. For lack of a more eloquent explanation, I wasn’t ready.

And then coyotes killed Lydia’s cat. Lydia was my first LA friend when I moved here 8 years ago. We worked together in a hip French restaurant that was famous for its celebrity sightings and maniacal owner who created mayhem behind the scenes. We survived it together and have remained friends ever since.

Like I said, I am allergic to cats. Belle was beautiful from afar but, for me, she was surefire way to ruin my day or night. But LC loved Belle; the cats were one of her favorite parts about going over to Lydia’s. I always had to sit on the front porch so that my eyes wouldn’t swell shut, but LC would roll around on the carpet while Belle purred her way through her limbs and onto her belly. But one night last summer, Belle didn’t come home when Lydia called, and the next morning she found her mangled body, or what was left of it, in the back yard. Coyotes are not unusual in our east side neighborhood; Belle seemed to be one in a series of backyard attacks. Lydia was heartbroken.

At this funeral, for a cat, I was not expecting much of anything, at least not for myself. My presence there was a little bit as a friend, a little bit on a lark; I hadn’t considered steeling myself against thoughts and feelings the way I did for other (human) funerals and memorial services.  Lydia fondly reminisced about Belle as a kitten and the idiosyncrasies of her feline personality. Tears ran down cheeks as a former roommate shared her own memories of Belle. Some kind of realization started welling up from deep inside me: It didn’t matter that my friend’s love, affection, and devastation was about a pet; it was real. Lydia really truly loved her cat, and she wasn’t ashamed of exploring the sad sides of life. Love is love, and there is nothing to be ashamed of about grief. By asking us to participate in the funeral ritual, Lydia was asking us each to hold a little of her love and sadness for Belle, so that it might not be so heavy. Her notebook had created a small community of people who were saying, each in their own way, “You are not alone.”

Serenaded by Norwood’s ukulele, I couldn’t help it: I started to think about Judy Ann’s death, and my fears surrounding any external expression of grief. I remembered other times in my life when sadness had consumed me and realized that I have never actually, literally, drowned in tears. I started to remember a song that Judy Ann used to sing, and the way she pronounced my name, “E-e.” And then I remember how, after she died, I often thought I heard her in our house, and was always saddened to realize that was impossible.

Candles flickered in Echo Park, and I started to let myself feel sad about Judy Ann. My eyes began to well up, but I didn’t drown, so I started to think about accepting the truth of my love for Judy Ann and what it would be like to embrace it, proclaim it, and ask my community for support, my friends to hold a little bit of my love and sadness. I am considering that, if I do this, my heart might not feel so heavy.

And that’s where I am today. In the thinking, in the truth, in the process. I have one blue pillow, shaped like a sun, one tiny charm shaped like a doll, and a silver ring that my mom bought me on that last trip to Washington D.C. as tokens of the sister I used to have, and who I am no longer afraid to mourn. I am still not sure how to do it, but I have begun to collect pictures from my parents’ house, and allow myself to consider the idea of some kind of memorial service or shrine. Or both. Writing this story has been a part of the process itself; I type as tears pours off my chin, and I don’t fight it. I appreciate, maybe for the first time, that nothing is silly or unnecessary.

Eve Sturges is completing a master’s degree in counseling psychology in Los Angeles, where she lives and writes and encourages women to "create a life you love with the life you have" at www.magpielife.com and on Instagram @magpielife. She can be reached at evesturges@gmail.com.