In July I wrote that I was preparing for a cross-country move from Houston, Texas to Washington state. The real reason for my move, which I didn’t state at the time, was to help my oldest sister Lois, who had contracted lung cancer and wasn’t bouncing back from her treatments as well as we had hoped. Because I was phasing into retirement and already working remotely, I decided it was a good time for me to move to Washington and see if I could be useful to her and the family.
Preparing to move
I had to jettison about half of my household goods, in preparation for squeezing down from a four-bedroom townhouse into a two-bedroom apartment. I learned that Facebook Marketplace was where all the action was for selling household items these days, while Craigslist was largely dead in the water and NextDoor was great if you were giving things away. I hadn’t done anything like this, or even had a garage sale, for about two decades. Certain name brands that used to hold up well in the resale market, such as a like-new Maytag front-loading washer and steam dryer, fell flat. I couldn’t give those things away. (Apparently, no one but me remembers about the lonely Maytag repairman.) But others? I had what amounted to a bidding war on a 20-year-old Herman Miller Aeron office chair, broken in two places. Go figure.
Some brands still have market appeal. Mention Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel in an ad, and it usually would guarantee a sale. Tropical plants and gardening equipment? Great sellers, especially if your plants happened to be in bloom. Home office furniture? Forget it. The market is so flooded with used home office furniture from disaffected pandemic remote workers that even the Salvation Army wouldn’t pick it up—they can’t get rid of it either.
Even though I had more successes than failures at trying to sell things on Facebook, I was relieved to finally shut the whole thing down a week before we packed up the truck. Unlike eBay, Facebook has no real policing of the selling process on their site, and people think nothing of contacting you, making deals, and even making appointments and then never showing up. It was exhausting to juggle 10 or 15 listings, keep a sharp eye out for the scammers, wonder each time whether I could trust the person, and worry about my safety each time they arrived at my house.
My friend Jane
About 2 weeks before moving day, I was stunned to get an email from the husband of one of my best friends: “Gail, Jane had a heart attack last night and died. Can you let the people at work know?”
This was so out of the blue, so unexpected, that the irrational side of my brain took over. I actually thought the email account had been hacked and someone was playing a sick prank on me. It was about 7 a.m. Sunday morning and I’d gotten up early because I wasn’t sleeping anyway. The message came from Jane’s email account, so that was nothing unusual. But why was her husband writing from her account? They shared passwords?
I fired an email back to him and asked him to confirm. Was this really true? What was the full story, please?? I felt I couldn’t contact our supervisor until I had more information. I felt frozen in place, not sure what to do.
My mind was racing for the next hour or so while I waited to hear back. I pieced together what I knew to be true. I’d heard from Jane just the day before—she was repainting their downstairs bedroom. She was my age but was healthy overall. I knew she had heart issues and was doing everything right to take care of it: eating right, going to the gym every day. She wasn’t a smoker, wasn’t overweight. She’d had COVID recently but it was a mild case. Finally, I thought to check her author’s page on Facebook—she had published a memoir a couple years earlier and had an active page for that. There, her husband had already posted a notice of her passing. So, it was true. My heart sank.
When I eventually heard back from him and got the confirmation I needed, and the sad story of how he found her, alone at home, then I had to call our company supervisor. It’s never a great idea to be sobbing on the phone to one’s boss, especially one you don’t know well. But I couldn’t help myself, I was just shattered at this news. Luckily, he turned out to be a kindhearted guy. I don’t think he realized how close Jane and I were, but he sure knew after that phone call.
Jane hired me 5 years earlier to be a remote technical editor for the Society of Petroleum Engineers journals while I was still living in Rockport, Texas. I only met her in person one time, when they flew me to Dallas for training on their system. Three years later everything went south with the organization and we both left. I started contracting with Schlumberger Oilfield Services (now SLB) and when she got laid off, I returned the favor and recommended her for a position, and she got hired immediately. Now we were equal colleagues and navigating this new experience together, which really cemented our friendship.
But we were more than just work friends. There were days when we’d email each other five times a day—it seemed there was always something fun, exciting, or infuriating to pass on. Those long emails I love to write? I met my match with Jane. We became as joined at the hip as two people can be who are online friends. We had so many interests in common, from gardening to cooking to home decorating to sewing to current events to politics. And when she learned that I might be moving to Washington? So excited for me! She was fully on board with that, so much so that she researched moving companies for me, sent me the pros and cons of Moses Lake vs. Spokane vs. Wenatchee, and how to drive cross-country with cats. It was a connection that was rare and will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. I miss her every day; her absence in my life is palpable. Not being able to tell her how this all turned out is breaking my heart.
So this was the plan: my brother was flying in from Washington, and we’d pack up the U-Haul. He would drive that, and I’d drive my car separately with my five cats. My oldest cat, Tigger, had been ill all spring and summer, and I was very worried about her making the trip; I didn’t know how she would hold up. I was actually worried about the whole cat thing. None of these cats had been in the car with me longer than the 3 hours it took us to drive from Rockport to Houston on our last move, and they didn’t like the car one bit, or being in those crates. How on earth was I going to do this? I probably burned up more brain cells over this aspect of the trip than any other.
I talked to my two vets, who both recommended sedative meds and agreed to prescribe them when the time came. I did research on feline pheromone sprays, and people seemed to swear by them to calm down cats, so I stocked up on those. I bought two oversized kitty condos that could fit two cats apiece in them, so they wouldn’t feel so alone in individual crates. I got advice on how to handle the nights in the hotels (“confine them to the bathrooms” “check the rooms to make sure there’s no place they can escape into the walls; sometimes hotels have plumbing hatches they can escape into…”). The day before my brother arrived, I gathered up all the varmints and took them to a boarding facility so they wouldn’t be underfoot while we loaded the truck.
Do you recall that 2023 was the hottest summer on record? It was 100+ degrees in Houston, plus high humidity, and had been for 2 months already. Even though I’d hired help for the loading, moving day meant all doors were flung wide open, we were all stomping up and down stairs a thousand times, and we soon got exhausted and tempers got short. And there was damage from the get-go. As they were taking a large dresser down a set of stairs, they managed to smash out the light fixture mounted high up on the wall. I couldn’t wait to tell the property manager about that.
The biggest insult of all was that no matter how much downsizing I’d done, and no matter that we’d changed our minds and ordered the biggest truck U-Haul had, we still ran out of room on the truck. The loaders came to me with the bad news at the end of the day: “None of this stuff on the patio or in your garage is going to fit.” This meant leaving behind expensive patio furniture, heavy-duty garage shelving, gardening equipment I’d planned to take with me, and (worst tragedy of all) all my Christmas stuff was hauled off to Good Will. Twenty-plus years of Christmas collecting and memorabilia—gone. That hurt worse than selling off my tropical plants.
Traveling with cats
I picked up all the kitties from boarding the next morning. They did me the favor of dosing all of them with the sedative meds provided by my vets about an hour before I got there, so the first day on the road was relatively pleasant. Wilma, the one who is always the most vocal, cried for about a half-hour but eventually gave it up. The kitty condos appeared to be a big success: Wilma and Fiona were together, who would always play-fight at home but together in the crate got along beautifully. Of course I put Fred and Foxy together, who were joined at the hip no matter what they were doing. And Tigger was by herself in a single crate, up front next to me in the passenger seat—within my arm’s reach if I heard even a whimper out of her. All the bedding was sprayed with pheromones and we were off.
We only planned to go as far as Dallas the first night, and I’d researched the pet-friendly hotels ahead of time so we’d know where to stop. The first thing I did upon getting my room key was to get the cats situated in the bathroom: set up the portable litter box I’d purchased, set up food and water bowls, check for holes in the plaster, then finally let them out of their crates so they’d be able to walk around and stretch their legs. Then I left and met my brother for dinner.
Upon returning, they definitely weren’t happy to be confined in the bathroom, but the situation seemed to be under control. They’d eaten, used the litter box. Some were laying down back in their crate beds. I used the sink as best I could and made a plan: I’d come back in the next morning, use the facilities again, feed them again, pop them back into the crates, and do it all in reverse. I could do this!
It was a restless night with not much sleep had by anybody. The cats were vocal and LOUD in that bathroom all night long, their meows echoing off the hard tile. I always travel with earplugs, so I shoved them in and tried my best to drown it out and get some sleep. But they were used to sleeping with me, didn’t understand the situation, didn’t like the smell of that bathroom, and weren’t happy.
When I got up the next morning and squeezed through the door so no one would run out between my legs, I was shocked to find a completely destroyed bathroom. Everything was in a giant rat’s nest on the floor—kitty litter, cat food, water, my toiletries, the hotel towels, their bedding. They had walked through the watery mess and then jumped onto the counters, in the sink, onto the toilet, in the bathtub, leaving pawprints everywhere. I couldn’t believe my eyes, what five little 10-pounders could do to a place the size of a small closet in the matter of a few hours. It took me almost 2 hours to clean it up, get them fed and back in their crates, get myself ready and my own gear packed up again, go have breakfast, and be ready to hit the road again. I was exhausted before I even got behind the wheel of my car. Of course the cats were so riled up at this point that administering medication again was out of the question.
Two nights later I stayed at a La Quinta Inn, and didn’t think to ask about the bedroom/bathroom situation. I just assumed there’d be a door! But as I checked into the room, I was dismayed to find out that there was no door between the bedroom and the bathroom, hence no way to confine the cats. After being in the crates for more than 10 hours during the day, I couldn’t justify forcing them to stay in them overnight as well.
So they slept with me that night and seemed happier overall. But the room still smelled like antiseptic and there were still frightening noises in the hallway. As I was getting ready to leave in the morning, they knew something was up: it was going to be crate time again. Three of them decided to hunker down underneath the king-size bed, and nothing I could do would convince them to come out. After about an hour of trying, out of desperation I called down to the front office and asked for help: could they send a porter to help me dismantle this bed to get the cats out?
If ever I was looking for a way to freak my cats out even more, it was to bring total strangers into the situation, especially a strange man. When he knocked on the door and I explained what was going on, and I asked him to whisper because even his voice would frighten them, he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. We took the top mattress off the bed and split the two twin box springs apart underneath, and the cats went berserk, skittering throughout the room in sheer terror at this new development. I managed to catch Tigger and Fred with little difficulty and pop them into their crates.
But Foxy? Foxy turned ultra-terrorist Ninja kitty on me, displaying behaviors I haven’t seen since I first captured her as a feral kitten 9 years earlier. I caught her once and tried to hold her tightly in my arms to calm her down, and she twisted on me, enraged, lacerating my arms all the way to the elbow. I was so shocked I dropped her, and she raced to the little cubicle where the toilet was. Thinking quickly, I slammed the door shut behind her (it was the only part of the bathroom that had a door).
Just then, the hotel manager knocked on the door, demanding to be allowed in to see what was going on. “He’s not allowed in there alone with you, ma’am.” When she walked in and saw the destroyed room, the dismantled bed, and my bloody arms, she was not happy. I apprised her of the situation, letting her know how grateful I was for their help, but that I still had one cat who was very frightened and trapped in the toilet room.
She made an off-hand comment that ended up saving the day. As she was turning to leave, she said, “I don’t know, but it seems like your only choice is to call Animal Control. It seems like you’ve lost control of that animal.”
In my utter defeat, I realized that was a brilliant idea. I turned to her and said, “You know what, I would really appreciate it if you would do that. Call them. Because I am out of ideas. I’ve never had to travel with these cats before so this is a bit of uncharted territory for me. And they have tools and gear that I just don’t have. So please do that and I will be so grateful for the help.”
It took more than an hour for the Sheridan, Wyoming Animal Control to show up, but that gave Foxy time to calm down in the bathroom. This lady was a complete pro. In less than 10 minutes this tiny woman, less than 5 feet tall and 100 pounds soaking wet, geared up: a hazmat suit, complete with leather gloves that went up to her armpits, and a mechanical stick with a long net at the end of it that opens and closes at both ends. She quietly slipped through the bathroom door, I heard some soft talking in there, and a few minutes later she walks out with Foxy calmly laying in that net. I never heard Foxy hiss or scramble or fight her. I open the crate at the top, she drops her down into it, and she opens the net from the bottom to drop Foxy inside. Boom, we’re done.
She smiles at me and says, “It ain’t my first rodeo.”
The final days on the road were better because of the lessons I learned on those first 2 days. Not smooth by any account, but I learned to ask questions about the door situation in the hotels, learned to strip the bathrooms bare, and learned to douse their bedding with pheromone spray every chance I got. They still cried a lot the first hour we were in the car and ate very little those remaining days we were traveling, but no more destroyed hotel rooms.
My sister Lois
We arrived in Moses Lake and I immediately made a beeline for another cat boarding facility, so that they wouldn’t be frightened in yet another new place while we unloaded the truck. The next few days were spent unloading the U-Haul, setting up my bed, and looking for essentials such as my sheets and silverware. America’s heat wave was going strong even 2,000 miles to the north; we had close to 100 degrees in Washington as well.
On the fourth day, I was getting a strange feeling and told my sister Darlene, “I really feel like I need to get over there and see Lois. I can finish unpacking later.” So she called ahead and let the facility know we were coming. They told her, “Can you hold off for about an hour? She’s scheduled to be bathed right now.”
So we did. We went to lunch first; then drove to the facility which was in a nearby town. We pulled into the parking lot and walked up to the front door, where there was already a nurse waiting there for us. Before we could say anything, she said to us, “Lois just passed. About a half-hour ago. I’m so sorry.”
Darlene and I looked at her and at each other in stunned disbelief. I said, “You did NOT just say that to me.” Darlene said, “But you told us not to come! You told us to hold off! Gail—this is her other sister—she hasn’t even seen her yet for the first time…” All our sputtering, all our protests, we realized, were useless.
The whole wild, nightmarish summer of effort to get up here flashed through my mind. Everything I’d just been through. All of that, for nothing? All of that, and I don’t even get to say goodbye? I don’t get to say one… damn… thing… to her? I felt like I was going to collapse, right there at the door.
One by one, Darlene and I went into her room and said our own silent goodbyes. Actually, my goodbye was not that silent. I stood by her bed and said, “Lois, I am just so pissed at you right now, that you couldn’t hold off a half-hour until I got here. You know how hard I was trying, you ungrateful shit. I am just so mad at you.” I knew she could take my straight talk; it’s the way we always related to each other. As I held her hand and kissed her forehead, she was still warm, a mocking reminder that we’d missed her by mere minutes.
We stayed for about a half-hour, talking to the hospice nurse and the other workers there, learning about the very rough night she’d had, and the decisions that were made to increase her pain meds. We understood that in hospice, the comfort of the patient comes first, but still we were in shock as we drove away.
I stayed angry for a very long time after that. Angry at the situation, angry at myself and the decisions I’d made (surely I could have gotten there a day earlier, a week earlier, even a month earlier?), angry at her caregivers and doctors, angry at the world. It’s taken a very long time for that anger to dissipate.
To lose the oldest, the kindest, of all our siblings, has been an unfathomable loss. After Mom, she was our memory, our anchor, the steadfast one who everyone else gathered around and tethered themselves to. Whether your life was in transition or had utterly self-destructed, her door was open until you found your footing again. There wasn’t one of us siblings who didn’t need that open door at least once in our adult lives. We all owed her so much, and I hope she knew how grateful we were. She was universally well-liked, and there’s not many people I can say that about. Rest in peace, Lois. We miss you so much.
My cat Tigger
The week before Thanksgiving, my 15-year-old cat Tigger finally succumbed to the illness that had been plaguing her all year long. Liver failure caused her to lose a drastic amount of weight in her final months, dropping from 12 to 4 ½ pounds, and she stopped eating entirely her last 2 weeks. All she wanted was to be in my lap during the day and sleep on my chest at night; she seemed to surgically attach herself to me those last few weeks. Amazingly, she never seemed to be in any pain right up until the end, and for that I’m grateful.
In her final weeks there seemed to be a shift in the household—I believe the other cats sensed she was dying. Instead of pestering her or trying to pick a fight, they would lie down next to her, seemingly trying to keep her warm. And Foxy (yes, ultra-terrorist Ninja Foxy) started grooming her on her head, a sweet thing she only does with Fred. In their own way, they were all saying goodbye.
As I was working during the day she was always at my right-hand side on the arm of the couch; that was her spot. And now that spot is conspicuously empty and I feel her absence acutely, every day.
These are three very different kinds of grief I’m working through right now—the loss of a best friend, a loving sister, and a beloved pet. All have impacted me very differently, yet all feelings are valid and will take their own time to process.
I don’t have five easy steps for working through grief, so I don’t honestly know how to wrap this up. I just knew that until this post was written, no others would be. I had to get this one out of my system. It’s not the happy Christmas message I wanted to write this year, but it’s the only one I’ve got. It’s been a tough, tough year. Maybe you’ve had a tough year too.
For those of you also working through grief, one memoir I read this fall was helpful. Titled Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May, the author describes wintering as “that fallow period in life,” that can be brought on by bereavement, a difficult childbirth, illness, loss of a job, failure in love. We feel rejected, cut off from the world, sidelined. Rather than continuing to believe that these times are a “failure of nerve or lack of willpower, we must learn to invite the winter in.” After reading this book, giving myself permission, this fall and winter of 2023, to hibernate and heal, was easier and has been restorative. I highly recommend this book.