“We should remember that sorrow does produce flowers of its own. It is a misunderstanding always to look for joy.”

-Shirley Hazzard, The Flowers of Sorrow

 

This is how I wanted the story to unfold:

After embracing Truffle in her little world, 16-year-old Yun-Sun lived into a beautiful old age. While not much interested in kitten play, there was lots of time for snuggling and teaching the Little One important lessons. Dear Kitten, (we imagined her adopting the voice and attitude of the Friskies commercials,) there are some things you should know about living here. Like they should feed you exactly at 6pm, and if they forget you should scream at them until they do. . . . Dear Kitten, you should not bother them when they are sleeping or they will put you in the basement! . . . Dear Kitten, you should never, ever, ever go outside. Scary things will happen. And then after many sweet years of cuddles and lessons, Yun-Sun would one night go to sleep and not wake up. This is the story as we would have written it.

Instead, this is the story we were given:

After a tough, heart-wrenching month, we had to put our beautiful Yun-Sun down last week. The vet suspected cancer, probably bladder cancer, which is why the poor thing was in such distress toward the end. I suspect a broken heart. She has never been quite the same since Godiva died in November, even with a new kitten to love. The two older cats were hopelessly devoted to each other.

Yun-Sun entered our lives 16 years ago as a one pound-one ounce kitten. We adopted her from the city pound. A kitten had been long promised to me as soon as we left apartment living and bought our own house. After we moved into this house in January 2005, a kitten was my top priority.

She was named after a four-year-old student that I had taught in Boston. The original Yun-Sun was tiny and precocious and ferociously adorable. “Amy! Do you know what is my favorite scale?” she’d ask me as she came into her weekly lesson at the community music school where I taught. “C-sharp melodic minor!” she’d exclaim with an enthusiasm I have never seen for piano technique. Even though I had been her teacher from the very beginning, I had no idea how her little mind wrapped itself around this difficult concept, which confuses piano students twice her age, but there it was: C-sharp melodic minor! Her favorite scale.

The feline Yun-Sun demonstrated many of these same spunky qualities. The runt of her black and white litter, she was fearless and unstoppable and decisive. She almost immediately made her mind up about two things: piano students were something to stay away from and that she would love Matt and me fiercely. She did both, right to the end.

While both Yun-Sun and Godiva were faithful lap cats, only Yun-Sun welcomed being picked up and held, and would snuggle up against my neck until I got bored or restless and insisted on putting her down. She wasn’t the friendly studio cat that Godiva was, but her companionship was deeply woven into our patterns and routines inside these four walls. She was our OC: Original Cat. And we loved her. Fiercely.

We find ourselves mourning not just one-two sweet cats, but the end of a chapter of our lives, the loss of our Original Family. With those two cats by our side, we were young adults in our first home, building our work and rituals. We were figuring out who we wanted to be and how we would live, what paint colors we wanted on the walls and what books on the shelves. I chose to kill the lawn and plant a garden, picked black and white tiles for the sunroom and kitchen floors, started a blog and began a yoga practice. Happily, we would have stayed in that innocent chapter forever. When Truffle is 16, I will be toppling into retirement age. Time passes. It gives one pause.

Meanwhile, young Truffle plays. Relentlessly. She is in training to be a Ninja kitten and our house is the training course. She has the superpower of already being in the middle of every room we enter, like some kind of pop-up cartoon character. “Do you think Truffle misses Yun-Sun?” one little student asked me this week. “I don’t know,” I said. “She might be too young to remember.”

Yun-Sun and Godiva both spent their lives practicing the art of what is called “undesirable vocalization.” Godiva, in particular, was a master at screaming. “You know,” we used to tell her, “if you are always crying ‘Wolf,’ how will we ever know there is a real problem?” In comparison, Truffle is a silent cat, saying nothing. She purrs like a lawn mower, but otherwise never complains or comments. I hope she remembers Yun-Sun, the big beautiful cat who snapped at her when she chased her tail, but would groom her lovingly when they curled up together. It’s a time—however short—worth remembering.

The Original Child Yun-Sun loved jokes. Every week, the determined tiny young kid would come marching into my studio, “Amy!” (my name always had an implied exclamation point behind it.) “Do you want to hear a joke?” I did. I always wanted to hear a joke. While I was blown away by her musical potential and piano skills, I often worried that perhaps the child was being pushed too hard at home (No four-year-old needs to know the C-sharp melodic scale). If we wasted time in piano lessons on jokes, so be it.

As I was preparing to leave Boston, Yun-Sun auditioned for and was accepted into a very impressive piano studio at New England Conservatory Prep School. “Amy!” she asked me on our last lesson together. “Do you think the new teacher will have time for jokes?” I dared not tell her that her new Russian teacher might not have my tolerance knock-knock jokes. “I hope so,” I told her. “I hope so.”

Matt and I have promised each other that no one will be allowed to say at one another’s funerals such things as “Well now Matt is conducting choirs in heaven.” Or “Now Amy can play the piano forever.” We are not counting on conducting choirs or playing the piano in the afterlife (or playing golf or hitting all our free throws or all the other things people say, intending to be kind and comforting.). We have thrown ourselves into our work in the here and now, hoping that it will be enough.

And besides, the feline Yun-Sun was never one for jokes so there is no way she and Godiva are exchanging them now. She was always an earnest, determined little creature, lacking much of a sense of humor. Dear Kitten, Yun-Sun must have instructed the Little One in the days before she left us, practice time is not snuggle time. But if they put warm laundry on the bed, you should definitely lie on it. It is now up to us to tell the jokes, to remember the stories, to teach the kitten, to look straight ahead into the next chapter of our lives. As I write this, little Truffle is curled up on my lap in a rare moment of quiet from her relentless play. This afternoon, I start a new student, one that hopefully will love seeing an adorable kitten in her piano teacher’s home, but will never know the previous pair of felines. “Do you realize,” a high school kid said to me recently, “we will be the last students to learn the piano keys with ‘G is for Godiva.’”

If there is a joke in all of this, the punch line is lost. We crave permanence and, in doing so, we suffer. “Sorrow does produce flowers,” we are reassured. As spring creeps in, we hang onto that. And to each other, and to a small tortoiseshell kitten, bursting with joy and life.

 

 

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