Farewell, Professor Wiesel


Honored and grateful to have my essay published in the online magazine, The Rumpus.

“Memory is fragile,” Professor Wiesel said to us in class one day. But what is memory, I wanted to ask him, what is time, and how do I ever get off the side of that road? Sometimes I feel like I am still there, unable to go back and unwilling to go forward.

Original artwork by Elizabeth Schmuhl.

Cat Sized Love


I submitted this to the New York Times’ Modern Love column last August. It wasn’t the right fit for them, so I publish it here.

Cat Sized Love

The week Watkins came to live with me I took him to the vet for his shots. He was eight weeks old. As I filled out the forms I left the Name field blank, because I had not yet decided what to call him. The office manager glared at me as she wrote, Gray Kitty Gillis, on the top of his form. I felt so ashamed that I named him in the car on the way home. We were stopped at the corner of Lakeland Drive and Riverside. I had just received a postcard from a high school friend of mine, whose middle name was Watkins. I’d checked the mail heading out the door on the way to the vet and the postcard was sitting on the seat beside me. I turned around and looked at him peeking out of his carrier on the back seat. “What do you think about Watkins?” I asked. The light turned green and it was settled.

I got Watkins by accident. I worked at an answering service in college, and one evening the front office manager, a woman named Martie, showed up during the night shift with two kittens she was trying to give away. I told her to keep the cats away from me; I knew that if I played with one of them I would want to take it home. I went back to answering the phones. I did my best to ignore all the oohs and aahs as people passed the kittens around and played with their little faces. I was in the middle of a call when Martie walked up behind me and plunked one of the kittens down on my left shoulder. I was heart-meltingly furious. I was wearing a headset and continued the call, but got distracted when the kitten started licking my earlobe. I tried not to laugh. The call went on and eventually the cat got bored with trying to get my attention and lay down across my shoulders and went to sleep. I picked him up at Martie’s house the next afternoon and he came home to live with me.

That was seventeen years ago, and when Watkins died last November I had to get used to waking up in the morning without him, to coming home from work each day to an empty space next to the door where he always used to wait for me; to seeing what is not there, rather than what is. There was this perfectly cat sized hole in everything. I received a plaster impression of his paw from the vet after he was cremated and I couldn’t stop looking at it, remembering: the tiny kitten paws that crawled all over me when he was small; that skittered across the hardwood floors as he raced around the apartment; that deposited clumps of stray litter in the sheets; that swatted at shiny ribbon on Christmas morning and scratched many miles on his scratching post. I loved watching him lick his paws and then raise them to clean his face; and how they curled beneath him when he slept, or sometimes stuck straight up in the air. His paws felt like the pointed tips of a pick as he stood on top of my chest while I lay in bed or on the couch, before he settled in for a snuggle and a big long purr. And later, the distinctive sound of those wizened paws, the paws of an elderly cat plodding arthritically down the hall before climbing into my lap to sit with me awhile.

Watkins was part of the deal when I moved in with my boyfriend and we blended our households. Jeremy brought Buddy, and when all four of us moved into a row house in Washington, DC it sparked the Pussy Cat Wars of 2007. It was something different for all of us and, in time, we each discovered the rhythms of our new life together.

That was around the time I met Janet. She was a colleague at my new job, and she quickly became a friend. She always looked up from her desk whenever I walked by. “Hello there, handsome,” she’d say, a big grin on her face. Janet was not a fussy person, always to the point. She had no tolerance for other people’s bullshit. I liked that. You always knew where you stood with Janet. She rolled her eyes in meetings. She drew caricatures of people who talked too much; she would get up and leave if they went on too long. She deleted emails without reading them. She cared about our students, but had little patience for colleagues who annoyed her. I loved spending time with Janet. She taught me important things about living – not to sweat the small stuff, to make time for art, to drink another beer, to spend more time outside.

When Janet died, in May, I took a long walk around the block and then grief-ate a Starbucks old fashioned glazed doughnut. Then I sent her cousin a message. What happened to my friend? Did she suffer? Was it cancer? Why did she cut us so completely out of her life? I was desperate to know, but of course I didn’t ask. I offered my condolences instead, told her to let me know if there was anything I could do.

I hadn’t seen Janet in more than a year. I knew she was sick, but no one knew with what. She left work one day and never came back. Eventually she stopped returning phone calls and texts, stopped replying to emails. A year later she was dead.

Janet was sixty-four. She was an artist. She used to set up her easel in battlefields in Maryland and Virginia. She told me the story of how she once struck up a conversation with a Civil War reenactor when he wandered over to see what she was painting. “What are the craziest questions you get asked,” Janet wondered? There were two he liked best. Is that fire real? And how is it that all these battles took place on national park property? That was one of my favorite Janet stories. There were others. Like when she spoke on her mother’s behalf at the United States Croquet Association Hall of Fame induction ceremony (yes, a real thing); or how she would text me during Breakfast at Wimbledon anytime the camera panned to Roger Federer’s wife, for whom she harbored an inexplicable distaste; or when she took me to my first NHL game and told me how an errant puck once slammed into the very seat where I was sitting.

“How are you doing,” my friend Jill asked me the other night, sitting on her back porch drinking wine, “since Janet died?”

“I’m okay,” I told her. “I feel like my grief for Janet was something like my grief for Watkins.” Jill looked at me. I hadn’t realized I thought this until it came out of my mouth. Everyone expects you to recover quickly after the death of a pet, but a friend? “For a week after Watkins died I didn’t want to leave the apartment, I couldn’t stop crying, I day drank. And then I woke up one morning and realized that, with no lack of respect for the years we spent together, he was just a cat. That shouldn’t diminish my love for him or my grief. It’s perspective is all.” Jill refilled our wine glasses. “I woke up one day and instead of being sad I found myself feeling profoundly grateful that I had Watkins in my life for as long as I did.

“It was kind of the same for Janet. I am lucky to have had her as a friend, and I am grateful. But when you think about it, she was about as emotionally available as a cat. Whether that intimates a highly refined sensibility or deep psychological issues, I don’t know. I do know that I loved Janet. And, like Watkins, maybe she loved me back.”

There’s a crucial difference between the two, of course. I had to put Watkins to sleep. He needed me to know when it was time. Janet needed me to leave her alone; when the time came she went away to die by herself. It’s hard not to respect her choice, even though I can’t help thinking that it didn’t have to be that way. There was a whole group of us who loved her, who were her friends, who would have cared for her. William Maxwell is quoted in Alec Wilkinson’s beautiful book, My Mentor, talking about a distant relative, an aunt, “dying is something people have to live through, and while they are doing it, unless you are much closer to them than I was to her, you have little or no claim on them.”

No claim, but the questions, the insecurities, the doubt. What happened to her? Had I tried hard enough? Did she know I loved her?

During the last couple of years Janet worked on encaustics; she spread the heavy wax on thick slabs of wood. After her death I was able to select a couple of pieces from her collection. They were all different colors, deep orange and rust and blue inspired by her frequent trips to the southern west; yellows and reds and greens. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but the pair I chose, the ones that stood out to me and that I brought home, are a simple study in contrast: one black, one white. No frills, no fuss. Monochromatic gestures at darkness and light.