This morning a friend informed me of the death of his cat...an older cat, a furry friend, and most certainly a part of his family. Words of comfort, of solace, are scarce at the receiving of such news.
When I hear about the death of a cat who was part of a family, particularly a gay person's family, I automatically go back to the death of Suzie. The Harrisburg Gay Men's Chorus was about to perform a concert. I, as director, did a fair amount of pacing...not nervous so much as just going over the music and having little conversations with each of the guys. Perhaps 15 minutes before the vocal warm-ups, the man who was then the Unitarian minister at the church where I was choir director came in, looking around for me. He asked if we could talk privately.
We went out to the hallway between the green room and the theater's lobby. He told me that our cat, Suzie, died. Jack was inconsolable but was at a friend's house. He told me that Jack found her body and freaked out. I was stunned. She wasn't even sick, as far as I could tell that morning, and now not only was she dead but Jack was freaking out. He was, however, in good hands. Having completed his task, the minister left. No hugs, no touching, he just did his job and left.
Numb, I stood in the hall as people walked by toward the lobby. I returned to the green room. One of the guys asked if I were all right. I told him and them the situation. They all understood. The theater's stage manager asked if I wanted to hold curtain. No. I did ask the accompanist, however, to do the vocal warm-ups while I tried to get myself together. There was no place to go, no time to mourn. People sat out there and wanted to hear the chorus. The show must go on. That was bred into my being. Not only go on, but should also start at the stated time.
I told the guys that I would do my best to direct them, that I would try not to just wave my arms around. I asked them that Jack and the dead cat were my problem, not their's, and to try not to look at me with sympathetic eyes. We lined up and walked onstage. Not just the show, but life must go on.
I cannot begin to describe how schizophrenic I was for the next two and a half hours. I tried (and mostly succeeded) to put my life, my sorrow, my devastation, my concern for Jack out of my mind and concentrate on the music. Although I usually had the music memorized, I also always had it in front of me. I realized near the end of the first half that I was practically reading the music and, worse, that I was avoiding eye contact with the singers.
During intermission, I apologized for not looking at them, not enjoying hearing them sing, and to be rather closed up in my little world. I asked that maybe we not talk about the situation until after the concert. I told the accompanist where I was going...to a quiet spot backstage...and asked him to give me 5 minutes' notice. I convinced myself that there would be ample time to mourn; this was not the time.
We went out for part two. I had determined to watch the guys sing. I directed, smiled when they got through difficult passages, kept the tears back during sad songs, and did not have to pretend to be overjoyed with their performance and the audience's supportive and heartfelt reactions. The accompanist insisted I take a solo bow and the guys applauded. I usually don't like that, but I knew this was not pro forma, that they were applauding me for getting through a near-impossible evening.
After the concert was a social. The president of the chorus told me that I could leave if I wanted to. I wanted to. I went to our friend's house and sat with Jack. He had pretty much recovered, so we drove home. He started crying hysterically again, but at least this time I was there with him, to love him, to mourn our loss together.
At times, I envy people who have dogs and cats around because they like having dogs and cats around. I envy the detachment, I suppose. I've never been able to be like that; most of the time I don't want to be. Dogs and cats and I get along very well. Pets are our furry friends and are members of our families. But I think there are those of us for whom our pets become as loved and as important in our lives as children. That was certainly the case with Suzie. And it's the same now with Patches.
Most of the guys in the chorus understood that, probably felt the same way. One of them was a veterinarian who later gave me a little memorial plaque. We had another concert the next night. The men were concerned about Jack, concerned about me, and we had a wonderful evening. Not that I wasn't in mourning, but I was able to concentrate on the music, enjoy the singing, and help create an experience for the audience.
But consider: It's the first night, opening night, for a concert series. As director, you are in charge. You are sure it will go well and all your thoughts are aimed at what happens starting at 8 o'clock. Then in pops someone who says, essentially, "You're cat's dead and your husband is in hysterics. Gotta go." And you're supposed to carry on. Not the easiest thing to do.