Death. I’ve been acutely reminded of its omnipresence in many ways lately. Seeing the low angle of the sun at this time of year has begun to trigger my seasonal affective disorder. My nightly cemetery walks have been tinged with greater pensiveness and even despair. It’s a gloomy, cool day here in Chicago as the Sun gets ready to enter the eighth sign of the zodiac, Scorpio, herald of the mysteries of death and rebirth. I’m still processing the devastating news I received on Tuesday when I took my 11-year-old cat, Thor (a feral kitten rescue from Hawaii), to an emergency veterinary clinic for an abdominal ultrasound and other tests. My regular veterinarian had performed an X-ray on Thor to determine the cause of his misshapen stomach and elevated liver levels revealed from recent blood testing. The X-ray indicated a mass protruding from Thor’s liver–one so large it had actually pushed Thor’s stomach at a 90-degree angle. No wonder Thor’s lost 9 pounds in a little over two months. Was it a tumor? If so, could surgery be an option? I was referred to the emergency clinic, which is equipped with an advanced radiology department, to find the answers. Instead, the main veterinarian there stunned me with the diagnosis: advanced pancreatic cancer that has metastasized to his liver and lungs. And then those horrible six words, laden with the iron weight of finality:
“There is nothing we can do.”
Followed by: “Consider yourself lucky if he’s still with you by Thanksgiving.”
Thor was rubbing himself against the veterinarian’s legs, meowing incessantly, wild-eyed. He’d been without food for 16 hours by that time. His stomach had been shaved for the ultrasound and it was slightly dripping with the lubricant used for the device to produce the magnetic resonance imaging. The strong scent of rubbing alcohol hung in the exam room. The chief veterinarian handed me a towel to wipe down Thor’s stomach. I looked at it blankly for I don’t know how many seconds before I began to gently dab at Thor’s exposed abdominal skin…as soon as I spotted that horrible protrusion from his right side I burst into tears.
“Doctor Garcia is going to receive a full report from me and he can advise you on next steps, including when to administer analgesia as well as discuss end-of-life options. Again, I’m sorry. Good luck to you.” And with that, he exited the room.
End-of-life options. The phrase lingered in the air like the scent of the rubbing alcohol.
Thor was listless and unresponsive during the drive home. At one of the stoplights, I inserted my fingers through the gate of his carrier to scratch his chin. He let out a weary sigh, one that broke my heart all over again. I openly started sobbing at that point and continued to do so well until after I’d parked my car in the garage. And I’ve been sporadically crying ever since.
Familiar at Imbolc
Thor waddled into my life and heart as a mewling, not quite four-week-old kitten during Imbolc of 2004, which was a full moon night too. I was living with my then-husband, Michael, in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, in civilian housing as we awaited our turn to be placed in a house on base at Pearl Harbor. The previous May, Michael had rescued a starving solid marmalade tabby kitten he’d found at an abandoned gas station in Kapolei. He decided to name him Loki, and that name turned out to be a very apt one as he was quite the feisty–even violent, especially to humans he didn’t like–feline.
Loki was hissing through the screen of the open east-facing window of our living room the night of Imbolc 2004. The bright white light of the bulbous moon poured onto our carpet. Michael, who was talking on the phone with his brother at the time, asked me to go see what had gotten Loki so riled. I’d surmised it was probably the mother mongoose and her babies creeping about the yard–Ewa Beach had lots of mongoose, and Loki reacted to their presence by hissing.
I went into the yard but the mammal that tottered towards me was no mongoose: it was a ball of an orange and white tabby kitten, its ear flaps closed over, one with a bad case of mites. The kitten mewled at me; one of its eyes was crusted over with mucus. I scooped it up in my arms and looked about the yard, wondering if a mother cat and perhaps other kittens were near. A detailed search revealed no other animals in the vicinity.
“You poor thing!” I cooed. “But you’ve definitely come to the right house, and you’re even going to have a big brother to play with!”
Michael turned around as I reentered the kitchen. I smiled and pointed at the precious cargo I was carrying, and then I made my way to the laundry room to do my best to clean off the kitten. Michael paused, cradling the receiver of the phone (yes, we had a landline phone back then) against his chest. Then he resumed his talk with his brother: “It looks like we’ve got another cat.” [Pause] “I don’t know–Anna just walked in here with a really tiny kitten.”
“His name is Thor,” I yelled over my shoulder as I passed by.
“She says his name is Thor,” Michael explained to his brother. “Yeah, I like it: now Loki’s got a buddy!” [Laughs]
From the outset, Thor has always been a very vocal, friendly, extremely cheerful and affectionate cat, one interested in people (he greets whoever rings the doorbell), other animals (dog-friendly too), and the temple room wherein I’d do my ritual workings and devotionals to the Goddesses, Gods, and Spirits that I serve. Thor loved to accompany me in ritual, and any offerings set on the floor or a low-lying area would be subject to his gnawing little teeth, especially flowers and plants of any kind.
Thor loves to cuddle. And like his Norse God namesake, he really packs an appetite and would eat other cats’ portions of food once he’d finished licking his own bowl clean in a matter of seconds. He loves water, and in the first year of military housing life he’d routinely spill water from his and Loki’s water dish so he could splash around in it. Loki was never amused by this behavior and would dart away in disdain.
“You really are Hawaiian,” I said to Thor after mopping up a water spill for the umpteenth time. “You’re my Big Kahuna. You’re the Intergalactic Ambassador of Aloha,” I declared.
Thor meowed in approval and squinted his eyes at me, denoting love in cat-language.
The flight from Honolulu to Chicago when it was time to move back home nearly killed him; the cargo bay of the plane was a sweltering 94 degrees for eight solid hours of uninterrupted air travel. To this day, I will never fly American Airlines again. And then on Memorial Day weekend of 2006, Thor escaped from my parents’ house and went missing for three days. I was beside myself with grief and anxiety (Michael was serving a tour of duty at the time in Iraq) but found strange comfort from my Hawaiian friends’ confident messages that Thor was imminently on his way back to me. They told me to “trust the process.”
On the third day, I found him. I was walking about the neighborhood, a stainless steel cat food dish laden with Thor’s favorite flavor of Friskies in my hands. I sang his name as I approached the north end of a creek bed that runs through the neighborhood. And, like a wild Dionysos in the throes of frenzy in the woods, Thor emerged from the creek bed, his fur coat covered in burrs and nettles, meowing and looking spooked. I wasn’t totally sure he recognized me. I placed the dish on the ground and sang to him; he stood about 30 feet away from me. I knew if I approached I’d scare him off, and I couldn’t run the risk of having him dart off with so many cars zooming about nearby. I prayed to Bast, I prayed to Sekhmet inwardly as I sang Thor’s Greek name (as with many Divine Beings, my Thor has many names) over and over, Enthousiasmos Babytos.
He approached, tentatively. I raised my voice and octave and slowly sang his epithet again. He trotted across the grass towards the dish and plunged his face into the food dish, practically inhaling its contents as he was so hungry. I wasted no time and scooped him up into my arms. The burrs were transferred to my clothes.
“Where were you, little buddy? What kind of shamanic adventure did you have in the Wildwood? Did you lose one of your nine lives? I have a feeling that you did,” I said.
Thor looked up at me and sneezed. I kissed his forehead.
What an adaptable being. He’s adapted to a foreign climate laden with foreign critters (I’ll never forget how entranced Thor was by seeing a squirrel for the first time); he’s survived 10 brutal Chicago winters, trading the sands of Ewa Beach for mounds of snow. He has been my unfailing companion when others have failed, when my marriage fell apart and I filed for divorce, and that meant Thor’s divorce from Loki per the insistence of my then-husband. Thor has witnessed me blossom and he’s stood by without judgment when I’ve made mistakes. And he’s moved with me no less than three times since leaving Hawaii–winding up in a home whose entire vicinity rests upon a mass paupers’ graveyard, where restless spirits, spirits of the nameless dead, make incursions on a regular basis. And through it all, he’s been an exceptional familiar with whom I am deeply connected. After all, as Gede Parma explains in his book Ecstatic Witchcraft, the term “familiar” in reference to a witch’s companion is etymologically linked to the word “family.” A familiar spirit is 100% your kith and kin.
Grieving in Advance, Disenfranchised Grief, and Miasma
Weeks before Thor’s diagnosis, I felt compelled to do two things: cut my hair really short and acquire another statue of La Santa Muerte–the rainbow-hued one. I went to go see my Oluwo (Godfather) in Ifá. The signs that came up heralded the ummistakable stamp of iku, death energies. “Anna, it’s like the leaves falling from the trees. Unavoidable losses are in your road; there’s no way around them. Pray to your Guardian Orisha for help,” he said. I immediately thought of one of the most melancholy, lyrical poems (definitely meant to be recited aloud) that always stays prominent in my consciousness every autumn: Gerard Manley Hopkins 1880 poem addressed to a young child, “Spring and Fall”:
MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving Over Goldengrove unleaving? Leáves, líke the things of man, you With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? Áh! ás the heart grows older 5 It will come to such sights colder By and by, nor spare a sigh Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; And yet you wíll weep and know why. Now no matter, child, the name: 10 Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same. Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed What heart heard of, ghost guessed: It ís the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for. 15
I sensed that iku was coming before the reading confirmed it. People wanted to know why I’d gotten my hair cut so short. “I’m grieving in advance,” I’d explain. “In my culture, women cut their hair short when there’s a death in the family. It’s a visible sign of mourning.”
What heart heard of, ghost guessed, writes Mr. Hopkins in the above poem. Those words ring so very true for me! Of course our inner wisdom prepares us, even though we tend to tune it out, to a death or multiple deaths before they happen.
The sad thing about American culture, as grief expert David Kessler explains in his book (co-authored with Louise Hay) You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After a Breakup, Divorce, or Death, is that the loss of an animal companion is very much dismissed as unimportant. People who grieve the loss of a treasured pet are often reacted to in extremely unsupportive, even damaging, ways, with insensitive comments such as “It’s just a cat. Go adopt another one; the world is full of them!” very much the norm. Hence people grieving the loss of an animal companion are disenfranchised in doing so. But as Kessler explains, “If the love is real, the grief is real.”
Fortunately, my coworkers have been empathetic and supportive of me. I was supposed to have worked from home on Tuesday, but after returning home with Thor from the emergency vet clinic, my productivity was zero. I stewed in my tears, in my feeling that somehow I could have done something to prevent Thor from being ravaged by cancer, that I was a terrible Cat Mommy. But worst of all is feeling helpless, of having your sweet four-footed friend come up to you and issue a cry of distress while looking you squarely in the eye and all you can do is sit there rooted in impotence and cry.
There is nothing we can do.
One death experience, or an impending death experience, triggers memories of experiences of other deaths. If one is still grieving those previous losses, the emotional effect can be too overwhelming to bear without professional counseling. Of course I think of my brother. The fear for me is that, as during the summer when my 20-year-old brother was killed, that Thor’s impending death will trigger a cluster of deaths. In my experience, they do tend to occur in threes. First our family dog was poisoned the year Mark was killed (my family was robbed within two weeks of the poisoning), then my mother’s mother died in Serbia, and then Mark died. I honestly am very afraid that the death currents currently loose in the collective and the personal won’t stop with Thor’s death. That is my biggest fear.
Needless to say, this anxiety is wreaking havoc upon my body-mind. I booked an appointment with my friend Lisa for energetic bodywork treatment. I went to her studio straight from work last night for a 90-minute session that incorporated various massage techniques, Reiki, and cranio-sacral therapy.
The experience was very interesting. As with my first treatment in the summer, Sobek appeared to me immediately, and I now know He is my primary Neter to work with for personal healing. (I made sure to give Him lots of offerings and hymns of praise once I returned home from Lisa’s bodywork studio.)
But then I literally plunged into the bowels of the earth, journeying to the Land of the Dead. I traversed past decomposing corpses in the soil. They became animated as I passed by, turning their eyeless gazes my way. Meanwhile, on Lisa’s massage table, an interesting drama was playing out with my body. What felt like a full-on, high grade fever, as if I had suddenly come down with the flu, coursed through me from head to toe. I heard Lisa make gagging sounds as she worked on my lower back. I would find out the implications of this later on.
Back in the Underworld, I came upon two experiences that have left indelible imprints upon my soul: First was the sight of my own corpse laid out on a table. I was wrapped in a winding sheet. Two candles in tall brass candlesticks flanked me. Crowds of quiet mourners stood outside the glow of the candle flames, weeping softly. A woman was attending to my body, readying it for burial. The palms of my hands and the soles of my feet were anointed with oil. My consciousness was completely that of me as a dead person, yet having the ability to observe my environment and the actions being done to my corpse. I was in a mild state of alarm.
The second experience had my consciousness wholly identified with the God Shiva’s as Kali Ma tramples His inert corpse. The imagery is a staple one in connection with Kali as Destroyer. Yet I wasn’t identified with Her, which surprised me given my Dark Goddess proclivities, but Shiva. I knew what it was like to be Him and to be wholly dead, my lifeless corpse being trodden upon by the Black Mother. This was a first for me, and the strangeness of it also had me alarmed somewhat.
When the session ended and Lisa and I compared notes about our experiences, she told me that she had performed “a major miasmic extraction” from my back. The miasma that had infiltrated my body-mind took the form of a black squid (the Hawaiian God Kanaloa, God of the Underworld? I thought) and Lisa thoroughly pulled it from me and handed it to one of her spirit guides to remove it from this plane of reality. That’s when we both noticed my body temperature becoming incredibly hot. Lisa also added that she fought with me because I was determined to take on Thor’s cancer on myself, sort of like in a spirit of maternal sacrifice, and she forbade me from doing so. She saw to it that that miasma left my body and auric field also. I told Lisa about my vision of having my corpse anointed and then of me turning into Shiva as a corpse and she said she’s not surprised that I would be engaging with so much death energy. But, she reminded me, it’s ultimately transformation to a higher state of consciousness, a cosmic leveling-up. The coming days would really reveal how my processing of all this energy would play out in my daily life, she said.
The processing came much sooner than we both expected.
Are There Spirits in My Home Again Or Is My Own Energy to Blame?
Two days ago, my kitchen faucet completely corroded and my father vowed to help my fiancé Daniel and I find a suitable replacement. The challenge was finding modern hardware that can be retrofitted to the antiquated kitchen sink. Daniel and my dad scoured various home improvement stores but came up empty-handed. My dad said he’d try other stores on Thursday while Dan and I were at work and hopefully have the new faucet installed by the time we get home.
Well, Dan texted me as I left Lisa’s studio around 7:40 last night, informing me that he was going out for a cigarette run should I get home first and not find him there. Upon arriving at the condo’s back door entrance from the garage, I fumbled for my keys. The door leads directly into the kitchen and I thought I heard my father’s very distinctive sneeze, not once, but twice.
“Dad? Dad?” I was amazed that he would be there so late, and that Dan failed to tell me in his text that my dad was still installing the new faucet.
I entered the kitchen. It was totally black, no lights, as was the rest of the condo. But I’d just heard my father sneeze!
I flipped on the kitchen lights/ceiling fan fixture, and as I proceeded to walk east into the dining room, the lights suddenly died behind me.
The hairs on the nape of my neck rose. I laid my hand on the kitchen light switch, which was still in the “on” position. I flipped the switch off, then on again. The lights blared.
“Dad?” I asked again, nervously. I took two steps.
The lights once again cut out behind me.
Wholly unnerved, I took a deep breath and then whirled around, stating firmly, “Get out.”
I turned on the hallway light to proceed to the master bedroom. I stood outside the doorway to it and reached my left hand around to the light switch on the wall. I shit you not, as I placed my hand on the switch, I FELT A HAND FIRMLY LAY ITSELF ON THE TOP OF MY HAND.
“Get out!” I yelled without hesitation. I flicked the switch on and proceeded to get the incense dish and copal incense I keep at La Santa Muerte’s shrines. In less than a minute, the entire condo was consumed in billowing clouds of incense smoke. I did a banishing ritual in the kitchen and proceeded to cleanse every room and every closet.
Thor left his cozy spot on his favorite reading chair in the living room and sidled up to me. I picked him up and kissed his forehead.
Then the kitchen door opened and Dan entered. He could tell I was unnerved and immediately knew I’d done a banishing. Upon recapping everything that happened in the evening, from my shamanic underworld journey during the bodywork treatment to the ghostly phenomena that transpired as soon as I’d come home, Dan stood in thoughtful reflection. Then he suggested that perhaps the phenomena was caused by my own energy field–that it wasn’t derived from an external source.
“I think Lisa might have done some kind of kundalini awakening on you,” he said. “You said she did that miasmic extraction from your lower back, then you had the vision of Kali dancing on your corpse, with you as Lord Shiva. And just like with what seem to be poltergeist ‘hauntings,’ the manifestations are traced back to a human person’s off-the-chart energies. You’re altering the EMF around you because of your own heightened EMF waves. Think about it, love.”
I did pause, but then came up with a rebuttal for his theory: “But what about the ghostly sneezing sound that totally mimicked my father sneezing? Or the hand that touched my hand as I reached for the light switch in the bedroom? Lights flickering off as I’m entering or leaving a room are one thing, but hearing a discarnate voice and feeling an unseen hand are not things I can attribute to my own heightened energy fields,” I said with conviction. “Honestly, I think Lisa opened me up in a way that has made me even more ‘noticeable’ to the spirits that pass through here.”
I kissed Thor again and set him down on the kitchen floor. He was hoping I would give him more food, I could tell.
“Then it’s a good thing you smudged the hell out of this place!” Daniel said good-naturedly. On a more serious note, he added, “I’m really sorry you’re going through this with Thor, but remember, you’re not going through it alone. We’re partners. And I’ve been thinking…about our wedding date: Summer Solstice of next year is too soon. I was thinking maybe Fall Equinox instead, but then it dawned on me: Samhain. How does that sound to you…?”
He trailed off wincing, expecting rejection.
“Oh! Yes!” I cried, my eyes wide as saucers. “Oh wow, that would be really cool! In Celtic lore, the Dagda and the Morrighan mate in the Boyne River on Samhain! Yes, yes! Sex, death, eros, thanatos...”
“We could dress up as Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte and have all our guests in costume as well!” Dan enthused, sharing my excitement.
“Yes, Death,” to quote one of my favorite literary characters, Blanche DuBois, from Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, “and Its opposite is Desire.”
Yes, everything does come full circle, the loop of mortality and new life, of dissolution and union, in this full-throttle intense rhythm of Scorpio.
I am resolved to ensure Thor’s comfort for as long as he is with me, to cherish his companionship for as long as I’m blessed to have it. And the precious fleetingness of one life serves as a poignant memento mori for us all.
“Learning to live with one’s own mortality is the most universal of educations in reality,” American literary critic Harold Bloom declares in Literary Themes: Death & Dying.
May we do so with courage. And if we falter in our footsteps, may our Gods gently guide us aright. That is my prayer.