Rekindle Annie Dillard, Azzy, and Me: On Motherhood and Loss
“I was left dazed and sad and missing my cat while tending to a newborn.”
“I close my eyes and I see stars, deep stars giving way to deeper stars, deeper stars bowing to deepest stars at the crown of an infinite cone.”
In the middle of the night at the end of summer, I was sleepily nursing my month-old son in the rocking chair by my bed, the moonlight falling on us from a window. My husband snored a few feet away. As I so often did in those small hours, I picked up a book to keep me company while soothing and feeding my son, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New by Annie Dillard.
I turned to page 151 and began reading “Seeing,” a selection from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek , through waves of exhaustion and grief from a recent loss. In “Seeing,” Dillard writes about the fleeting quality of the rich gifts this world provides to us:
“Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair. A fish flashes, then dissolves in the water before my eyes like so much salt. Deer apparently ascend bodily into heaven; the brightest oriole fades into leaves.”
When I was twenty-seven years old, I adopted a sweet gray street cat or, rather, she adopted me. One day she came inside and decided she didn’t want to leave. She was affectionate and skinny and covered in fleas. I fell in love immediately. I’d never had a furry pet before, and I’d been wanting a gray cat, so I was thrilled at the serendipity of the situation. I named her Azrael—Azzy for short—and we became fast friends.
I grew up in a cramped and sometimes unstable household, in a bedroom I shared with my sister, and I decided early on that I wanted to break free from the confines and stresses of the family I was born into and find my own path. For this reason, as an adult I had always enjoyed living by myself, but I sometimes got lonely. Azzy helped to alleviate this loneliness. She was my loyal companion through several apartments where I lived with no other humans. She was the anxious meow I returned home to at the end of the day. As the years went by, Azzy became more and more attached to me, letting me hold her for extended periods and do things you’re not supposed to be able to with a cat, like trim her claws and pet her at will. I became a special person in her life; I was her mommy.
I thought I’d possibly have human children of my own someday—as part of an urge to create the family I wish I had—and, considering my age, and the young, undetermined age of Azzy, it was probable that she’d be in my life once kids entered the picture. That thought made me smile.
“I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from some generous hand.”
When I was thirty-seven years old, Azzy had a sudden dip in appetite and was given a very poor prognosis of lymphoma. I was told she could die in a matter of months. Children take nearly ten months to gestate, and I wasn’t pregnant. It was too soon for her to leave me. I told the vet I wanted to do all I could for her as long as she was still living a comfortable and happy life. Over the next weeks, Azzy thrived on the extra attention and supplements she received from me, and a couple of months later I got pregnant.
My pregnancy was extremely healthy and problem-free, despite doctors’ warnings that I was in the realm of Advanced Maternal Age. Through those long months as my belly grew, Azzy was beating the odds of feline life expectancy with cancer. She spent her days curled up by the feet kicking inside of me, her own soft belly under my hand. She continued to keep me company in my lonely moments.
Once my son Gaius was born, I was decidedly no longer alone—ever. Even when I wasn’t tending to Gaius myself, he was on my mind twenty-four hours a day. Like Azzy, he was a constant companion, but a completely helpless one. Even with her lymphoma, Azzy was able to clean herself, put herself to sleep, and entertain herself as she pleased. With Gaius, it was my job to comfort this crying new human, as I would do in the middle of the night, nursing my son as I read books or closed my eyes, depending on my level of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Gaius needed my care and feeding just as Azzy did, but Gaius did not know how to respond to my own crying, to curl up next to me and offer consoling words, or soft purring.
“I walked home in a shivering daze, uphill and down. Later I lay openmouthed in bed, my arms flung wide at my sides to steady the whirling darkness. At this latitude I’m spinning 836 miles an hour round the earth’s axis; I often fancy I feel my sweeping fall as a breakneck arc like the dive of dolphins, and the hollow rushing of wind raises hair on my neck and the side of my face.”
In the years before my son was born, Azzy spent most of her days in my home office, snuggled in the seat of my writing chair, right behind me. I thought of her as my work companion, and I was grateful to be living a life where I had the luxury of spending so many hours with her, giving her the attention her old, increasingly sick body needed during the days and evenings of her final years. I was able to take notice of any small development in her health and treat her promptly and carefully.
“It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open. Nature is like one of those line drawings of a tree that are puzzles for children: Can you find hidden in the leaves a duck, a house, a boy, a bucket, a zebra, and a boot?”
Newborns, of course, demand quite a bit of their mother’s time, and after I came home from the hospital I was no longer able to spend hours tending to Azzy, or even hours simply sitting with her in quiet as I typed, an activity I believe was just as important for her continued happiness and health as all of the pills, powders, and injections she received on a regular basis. Azzy couldn’t have me all of the time anymore, and she started to break down, physically.
She acted so calm around the baby, so undisturbed by his crying—protective of him, even. But then she started licking her front leg, often and a bit too aggressively. It was stress licking, and her fur was being removed by her tongue. All of a sudden, it seemed, she had a large bald patch on her inner leg that wouldn’t go away. How had it progressed so quickly without my noticing? My close observation of Azzy had diminished, and as my witnessing of her life faded, so indeed did her actual life fade.
I had never lost a pet before, and I’d never had a child before. It was a lot of change to absorb all at once. I was only just learning how to love my son, and it wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped it might be to love him wholly and immediately, as I had loved Azzy when she first walked through my door.
Azzy looked so vulnerable in that bare spot on her leg, her pink wrinkled skin such a thin layer of protection for her muscles, veins, and bones. I put a cone around her neck for a couple of weeks, to deter her overzealous licking, and she seemed happy still. But then she started coughing, like she had a hairball but not quite. Within a day, a disturbing amount of discharge was coming from her nose, and she’d stopped eating. An emergency visit to the vet for antibiotics and an appetite stimulant didn’t help, and by the next day, I was beginning to realize that she wouldn’t be with us much longer. I had to process what was happening while also tending to my son, and my energies were torn. No one received the full attention I wished I could give to those who were and are so vulnerable.
“A fog that won’t burn away drifts and flows across my field of vision. I can’t distinguish the fog from the overcast sky; I can’t be sure if the light is direct or reflected. When you see a fog move against a backdrop of deep pines, it’s not the fog itself you see, but streaks of clearness floating across the air in shreds. So I see only tatters of clearness through a pervading obscurity.”
Azzy was indeed around to witness this major development in my life, my shift to the role of human mother, but just barely. She stayed with us for a few weeks after my son’s birth, and then she was done. I was left dazed and sad and missing my cat while tending to a newborn.
I had only been a mother for a few short weeks, and everyone was telling me to cherish every moment, that this time would pass so fast. But I was tired. Just tired.
Azzy had a few near-death scares during her last two years, being an old and sick cat, but her veterinarian always assured me that I’d know when it was really “time.” The vet was right. In her last couple of days, Azzy had developed an upper respiratory infection, and her immune system was too compromised by a year of steroid use to fight it off. She was saying goodbye.
“ . . . shadows spread, and deepened, and stayed. After thousands of years, we’re still strangers to darkness, fearful aliens in an enemy camp with our arms crossed over our chests.”
Gaius was there when she died. He’d been sleeping upstairs from the living room, where Azzy had chosen to spend her last hours; right before the vet was set to administer the juice into Azzy’s veins to stop her heart, Gaius let out a wail. Even in her final moments, my son was reminding me that there was new life in our home for me to direct my care to. My husband went upstairs to get Gaius, and brought him back with a bottle to keep him calm. He held our baby as we each laid a hand on Azzy’s heart, feeling it beat, until it didn’t anymore.
“Everywhere darkness and the presence of the unseen appalls. We estimate now that only one atom dances alone in every cubic meter of intergalactic space.”
I’m trying so hard to live in the present moment, especially now with my son in my life. But it’s quite difficult to focus on anything, let alone the present moment, when I am so sleep deprived, up at night nursing my baby. Reading Annie Dillard helped my mind to be still, to focus, to just be in that rocking chair with my child.
I’ve barely had a chance to mourn my cat. But mourning my cat, I suppose, would be living in the past, and not in the present, so maybe my baby, in his gift of sleeplessness to me, is also forcing me into the gift of present-ness. I don’t have the energy to go anywhere else.
“Oh, it’s mysterious lamplit evenings, here in the galaxy, one after the other. On one of those nights, I wander from window to window, looking for a sign. But I can’t see. Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribbon of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small. No culture explains, no bivouac offers real heaven or rest. But it could be that we are not seeing something.”