tell me about orange
BY MOLLY SUTTON KIEFER
When grieving, I think, Take it back, I want to take it back. What I mean is, I want you to give it back. What I mean is, I want to take back the decision, the yes to letting go.
Variation: give him back, I want you to give him back.
Variation: OK, I get it, very funny. We can stop now. Just let him walk in the door.
Variation: Let’s roll back time a bit and change course, OK? We can do it differently.
In the past two years, I’ve lost a father-in-law and two cats. This isn’t actually an abnormal collection of loss. This isn’t titanic. I mean, he was a grandfather; the cats had surpassed a dozen years. None were sudden; all were given good lives.
Two were scruffy pets, already at the bottom of the family pecking order: two adults, two children, two dogs, two cats. Maybe you can see where this is going.
Sometimes I think, My heart is broken and it’s all your fault. As if it was his fault for making me love him.
To tell the truth, one of the cats isn’t dead yet. He has a date: Friday, July 17, at 1:30 pm. (I think of Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and too-long hallways.)
He was a first anniversary present from my husband. Our cat’s first name was either Pumpkin or Pie, named by one of the tow-headed girls at the adoption house.
At night, in the kitchen, my husband and I hold matching fly swatters, hunter orange whizzing through the air. He’s tacked a sticky fly strip above our sink and we’re hustling after the interlopers, the escapees. Our children, four and two, are cheering the carnage on, chasing the dirty-leggeds from corners and onto flat panes of glass. There, my husband gets one, and there, I’ve gotten its twin and we high five with the gutsy plastic hands and all I can think is, upstairs my cat is dying.
I think of the benefits and feel guilty. No more fearing the fallen laundry will smell like cat piss, no more tracking grains of litter into our bed. Why not a yard or a barn? Why not some forgotten hayloft, some sandy aside? Why every corner of our house?
After a particularly messy death, one can hire an aftermath team to wash the gore. You shouldn’t come home to that. When I go into the vet clinic, I want some silent team to come in and pull out all the pieces of him—the matted mango-colored fur clusters, the dishes—smash them!—the cat tree, but especially soak the carpets. I cannot bear the smell of him.
He is skinny as a glove. I hold him as if pocketing a cloud, his orange fluff breaking away like chaff. I have waited and seen on endless cycles and still, the restless deterioration.
Upstairs, my daughter keeps repeating, Are you madsad? I’m madsad, Arrru. It’s bedtime, and as soon as I go up the stairs I’ll meet his yellowy-green eyes and I will think of the last time I’ll see them with life in them and I’m angry. I’m madsad, madsad.
It is not lost on me, as I flush the tornados of blood down the toilet, that I am a walking kind of death. My uterus is shuffling off my thick, warm cloud and it is billowing. My daughter announces to her father, Sometimes Mommy pees blood! This blood, I hated so much a little over five years ago when I was trying, again and again, to conceive, and my stubborn, fetid body refused to capitulate. My awful, broken body with all of its pill-taking neediness. Now it’s all rotten and leaking down my leg.
After my daughter was born, the one conceived in the lap of Clomid and doctor appointments, I cannot untether myself from her. The umbilical cord was broken in surgery, but she’s still there, wicked to my flesh. I become an attachment parent by circumstance, not by any theoretical research.
My best friend puts her cat to sleep the Monday before my own goes in. I am jealous that she is on the other side of it. I ache every time I see her post something on Facebook, her profile picture a blurry snapshot of her gone cat.
Two days before the appointment, we wake in the family bed to a bat hanging from our ceiling. The sweetest brown winged mouse, snoozing away the hot morning, impervious to the children’s happy shrieks. I leave it in the room to let it sleep off its hangover, to thank it for its mosquito sweep. When I post the video of the bat’s triumphant release on social media, my mother informs me the CDC recommends (because we were sleeping, because a bat’s bite does not always show, because we couldn’t track it, because we cannot put it on ice and have its brain carved for testing)… so in we go to the hospital, somewhere in the gloaming, a half dozen shots in my thighs. My children have had their small body singles and are wet with tears and go into the hall so they don’t watch as their mother’s legs bloom with bruises. I winch, some nerve hit, and my daughter, from the other side of the door, cries out at the same time.
In the days after we lose our cat, a film of his dying replays in my field of vision. I am startled, sopped, immobile until I see it through: the cat being brought in wrapped in a rainbow towel, his tongue lolling, already drugged to the hilt. My friends who have done this say, don’t look into his eyes when it happens. So I gently brush his eyelids to half-mast and rub his furry cheek. The vet brings in a stethoscope and tells me, There isn’t any heartbeat, and I think, No, wait, fuck, wait, no. He hasn’t changed; he’s still warm. I keep seeing this little flight of time again and sobbing, slamming the heel of my hand into grocery cart, steering wheel, dining room table.
In the week leading up, my daughter is relentless in asking: Can I come can I come can I come can I come. My husband says no, flat. I ask her why. Let her have a chance to explain. She says, I don’t want you to go alone. When I lean in to whisper to the cat: I love you, I’m here, I’m so sorry on a loop as the injection go in, my four-year-old daughter rubs my back, her sticky hand catching on my dress, runneling up and down.
After our has cat died, I sometimes cannot speak. I want someone to tell me It’s only a cat, so I can puff my chest into theirs and yell incomprehensibly. I want to say things that begin with Do ya and involve the word punk. I want a reason to punch someone. I want a reason to come out from under my bed.
I cry a great deal in the days following—those jagged cries that are nothing more than a bid for breath. Even when I am still and quiet, my son has a cluster of questions: Mommy sad? Miss kee-ee? Sad bout Wibby? Yes, I say, yes. He wedges himself into my lap, tucks his head into my shoulder.
We drive from the hospital, coming home from our second round of rabies vaccines, and we see a mother deer with her fawn trying to cross the road. She turns as my minivan approaches, lopes back up to the treeline. I slow to stare.
It’s hard to face our bed because that is the place where I spent the most time with him. He was unabashedly a one-woman cat, and he’d burrow himself up into my armpit while I did my nightly reading.
I am quiet inside. I have had enough with grief.
My daughter wails into every shot she’s given but does not notice when the needle goes in. She has to be pinned to the examining table so she doesn’t kick the nurse and I lean into her, stroking her hair, asking her what her favorite color is.
Tell me about pink, I tell her. Tell me about orange.