With fists, with words, with kindness
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
I frequently imagine what you think of me. You, with your easy laugh and relaxed shoulders, your sunny house and charming kids. You who never imagine I am thinking of you.
In the morning the cats gather at their food bowls. The oldest, Gertie, is getting plump. She hates the four kittens, who crowd her, steal her food, and pounce on her when she is trying to settle in for a nap. I rinse the petrified wet food from the bowls and pull back the lid from the new can with a satisfying crack. The kittens meow insistently.
On the back porch the feral cats are waiting, too. I fill their bowls with the cheap dry food I buy in sixteen-pound bags from Target.
You are feeding your children in the kitchen, stepping over the dog sprawled in the middle of the action. You put cereal and bowls on the table, help the youngest pour milk over the flakes, slice bananas on top. While you sip coffee, the children chatter about school. On Saturdays you might be cajoled into making waffles or pancakes or omelets. Maybe you’ll whisk the eggs in your blue glass bowl, pour the liquid into a hot pan, and sprinkle in herbs picked from your potted garden. You split a mint leaf and remember your childhood: sun tea made from wild mint growing in the backyard.
In the timeless space of my imagination, I am friends with a dead poet. Sometimes I think I know Elizabeth Bishop better than I know my oldest friends. I know her poetry by heart, have dog-eared more pages than not of my copy of her Complete Poems 1927–1979. I can hear her voice, having listened to recordings of her reading her poems. I picture her holding her cat Minnow across her shoulder, or sitting in a wicker chair with another of her cats, Tobias, in her lap. She was not what I would describe as a happy person, but she wrote complex, detailed poems that have helped me escape the daily routines and trials of my life.
Lately, whether I’m reading an article on The Huffington Post or a contemporary novel by a woman, I will take a few minutes to Internet-stalk the author. I look at photographs of her and read her Wikipedia entry. I check to see how old she is and whether she has children, then calculate how old she was when her children were born.
In my Wednesday-evening yoga class the teacher tells us that practicing gratitude is not enough; we need to get specific about what we’re grateful for. I list specifics during Savasana, or corpse pose: My working legs and arms. My beating heart. My husband’s hands. My twin sister’s sense of humor. My nine nieces and nephews. My grandmother’s wedding band. My grandfather’s cast-iron pan. The cats I have. The cats I used to have.
When the feral cat we call Roly birthed four kittens in our garage, my husband and I decided to foster them until they were ready for adoption. We weren’t sure that we wanted any new cats yet — it hadn’t been that long since Herman and Winnie had died — but we couldn’t in good conscience let the kittens turn feral. So, once they were old enough to transport, we carried them carefully into the house. We trapped Roly and brought her inside, too, so that she could continue to nurse the kittens. Add the five of them to Gertie, and we are a six-cat household.
At a month old, the kittens are just walking, prone to tip over at any moment. All four are orange with varying degrees of white on their bellies or faces, and they are still blue-eyed. I find myself comparing their development to the stages my sisters’ kids have gone through: Now they’re starting to walk. Now they’re eating solid foods. Now they’re communicating what they want.
It’s hard for you to know what to say to me about the fact that I haven’t been able to have children. Sometimes you can’t say anything at all. You get teary and tell me that my inability is a horrible mistake of the universe, that you can’t accept such an outcome. For you, whose children have offered so much joy, my situation is a nightmare. You ask if I’ve considered adopting. It’s a question for which I’ve developed a stock answer: Maybe someday, when we’ve saved the money.
In unexpected ways, the teenagers I teach remind me of the kittens: Their craving for affection. Their appetites. Their love of toys. Their energy and big eyes. Their swelling welter of hormones.
I am transfixed by the way Roly tends her kittens: singularly focused, absolutely in control. She nurses them, cleans them, teaches them to use the litter box. When she enters the room, the kittens run to her and paw her all over. You’re such a good mom, I tell her, then crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head.
You like to tease me about becoming a cat lady. It seems like safe territory, free of emotional land mines. The teasing isn’t without reason: I usually have upward of three cats. I am a tad hermetic. I didn’t get married until late. I kept my last name. I have long hair that I’m letting go gray. I sometimes leave my coffee cup on top of the car and drive away.
Cat ladies are the butt of many jokes, having replaced “spinsters” as a convenient stereotype of older childless women. If you think I’m being hypersensitive, let me ask you this: Where are the “crazy dog men”? My male friends with dogs spend way more time catering to their pets’ needs than most cat owners do. Why isn’t that crazy?
When I ask how you are, you almost always mention your children. You tell me how well they are doing in school, how the oldest is a math whiz and the youngest began reading during her first week of kindergarten. You tell me about your latest family vacation to a national park in southern Utah. You tell me the kids had a blast; that you rented bikes and followed a trail around surreal rock formations, and the kids imagined they were riding around Mars.
In a 1966 letter to her poet friend Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop mentions her cat Tobias, who still flourishes, age fifteen. The 1960s were not a great decade for Bishop, who was embroiled in a painful breakup with the love of her life, Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop didn’t write about her heartache in her letter to her friend. She stayed light. She chatted about the weather and politics and the neighbors’ children and her cats.
Lately I find myself reading Elizabeth Bishop when I am sad. It’s not that she cheers me up. It’s more that she reminds me how sadness is like the earth: always underfoot but also sprouting beauty — poems, flowers.
I have spent far too much time reading about Bishop’s life. Once, a friend was visiting her in Samambaia, Brazil, where she lived with Lota. Here’s how I imagine the scene: Bishop wearing loose trousers and a rumpled blouse, standing close to the wood-burning stove because evenings are cool up in the hills. Her thick hair is pulled back from her face with tortoiseshell combs. She and her friend hold tumblers of whiskey, their second or third or fourth, and Bishop is relaying a story about Lota, who has been unstable lately. She is weepy. Her relationship with Lota has slid quickly from tenderness and ease into accusation and recrimination. Her friend is full of reassurance: all relationships have their rough patches; you know she loves you; she’s getting the best care. In strolls Bishop’s gardener, a thin Brazilian man with sharp eyes and big feet. He stops short, horrified that he has interrupted his employer during an emotional moment. Bishop quickly wipes away her tears and says, in Portuguese, Don’t worry, José. I’m only crying in English.
There must be upward of a hundred feral cats in our neighborhood, and the number is always growing. Cats can have up to three litters of kittens a year, so a single cat mom could theoretically have as many as five thousand descendants in just seven years. So many cats lurking in the shadows; so many mouths to feed.
I am lying flat on my back in Savasana, trying to redirect my mind. My body is sinking into the earth, I tell myself, feeling my limbs grow heavy on my mat. I imagine my breath filling every part of my body: My little toe. My ankle. My calf. My knees. My thighs. My pelvis. When I get to my belly, I picture my breath filling the cavities in which my organs float, planets in space. I think about the planet of my uterus, which no longer carries an embryo. Tears slide into my ears as my teacher bends over me to press oil that smells like almonds into my third eye.
Herman and Winston, two sweet old cats I’d had for a decade, and Tommy and Rosie, two feral cats I’d tended since they were kittens, all died a couple of years ago within months of each other, during what I think of as the Year of Dead Cats. I also (in interviews I hold with myself in my head) call it the Year of Infertility, since it involved my first concerted and unsuccessful fertility treatments, and the Year of Unemployment, since I had recently lost my job as visiting professor at a nearby college. It was not the best year of my life.
I had always thought of myself as a relatively happy, lucky person. Not a genius, maybe, but above average in the creativity department. Full of emotional vicissitudes, sure, but not an abject failure.
Suddenly I felt like an abject failure. And I couldn’t figure out which part was the worst: my professional strike-out, my inability to keep cats alive, or my failure to get and stay pregnant, something it seemed every woman I knew or saw in the produce section of the grocery store could do effortlessly. In the time I had been trying to get pregnant, each of the neighborhood cats could have pumped out approximately two dozen kittens apiece.
At night you leave the curtains open in the upstairs bedroom so your daughter can see the stars outside the window. You tell her the stars are twinkling fireflies, or faraway lighthouses that help the sun find its way back to the sky each morning. Or you say the stars are a million eyes with night goggles on, watching to make sure children have happy dreams. Your daughter knows from school that stars are spheres of luminous gas, but she doesn’t object to your stories any more than she objects when you bring her ice cream.
My yoga teacher reads from Buddhist philosophy at the start of each class. She plays the harmonium and burns incense. After my last miscarriage, I came to the studio early, not sure what to do with myself in the void between work and home. My teacher sat alone in the waiting room. When she asked how I was doing, I said, It’s been a hard week. Then, I had another miscarriage.
A pause. I’m so sorry, she said, and she sat quietly while I struggled to straighten my face. Then she said, I signed my divorce papers today.
Why did this make me feel so much better? I hate the adage that misery loves company. But the worst part about being heartbroken is the loneliness of thinking nobody else in the world understands heartbreak.
Though some women feel self-conscious about their changing bodies during pregnancy, you are never happier than during those nine months of gestation. You love everything about it: The roundness of all your parts. The changes taking place beneath your skin. The way your hair grows faster and shinier and your nails harden. The way people in the elevator make room for you and strangers at the park smile and pat the bench beside them, scooting over to make room. You don’t even mind the morning sickness, the extra weight, the sore back, because it’s all a sign that everything is progressing as it should. We are so lucky, you tell your husband and daughter, that we can add another member to our family.
Bishop’s poems are like the sky on a clear night. At first you notice the brightness, stars as thick and close as pores in the face. The stars and moon and planets form patterns and shapes. They remind you how much energy exists in the world. Then you start to notice what’s behind the stars: an eternity of dark.
Bishop’s poem “Insomnia” was not one of her personal favorites. Marianne Moore called it sentimental. But I love it. It’s a narrative spoken, I think, by a girl lying in bed looking at the night sky reflected in the mirror above her bureau. She imagines the frosty moon existing in a mirror world of opposites, sleeping during the day and then at night offended that the universe has fallen asleep during the moon’s watch. The moon, if she could speak, would tell the universe to go to hell.
The poem’s final lines are my favorite. They are also the part of the poem that risks sentimentality. The speaker reveals the longing at the heart of her imaginary mirror world,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.
It’s that final emotional reversal: “and you love me.” Each time I read it, I am struck by how the speaker defers admitting what she longs for until the last possible moment. Why does this move me so much? I wonder if it is because she is determined to do what seems impossible: to resist her sadness, but to feel and express it, too.
Years before I even thought about having kids, my friend told me she wanted a baby as soon as possible. Why? I asked. Because, she said, a baby is a constant companion. You will have that child for the rest of your life.
At the time, her reasoning confirmed my sense that children are too often asked to fill voids that should be filled with therapy, books, or community service. But the harder I’ve tried to have children, the more I’ve understood how my friend felt. A baby is made solely from your own body, the ultimate creative act. Like other creative acts, a child reflects you even as it moves through life on its own terms.
In your Wednesday-evening prenatal-yoga class, next door to the larger studio where the nonpregnant students like me practice, your teacher directs you into pigeon pose. While you are breathing into your hips, the teacher tells the class to take a moment to feel grateful for your bodies, which are doing this tremendous work of making a child. She talks about her own children, how they changed her life by showing her how much love she had to give, by teaching her that the world is about more than her own selfish needs and desires.
I remind myself that there are worse things than infertility. Elizabeth Bishop was effectively orphaned by the time she was ten.
A visiting writer has come to talk to my high-school English class about her young-adult novel. At one point in the discussion I say, That’s crazy! and the novelist tells me I should be more careful with my language. Later she tells the students to write what they know — advice I, too, got as a young writer.
I think about this writer’s visit for a long time. I am irritated that she rebuked me, and also that she thinks I’ve never been crazy. If crazy can mean out of your mind with grief, then I qualify.
I also realize that I disagree with her advice to write what you know. Writing, I decide, is not just a record of our experiences but a reaching beyond what we have known, an opportunity to use empathy and curiosity to broaden our sense of self. There’s a strange assumption in the phrase Write what you know — that we already know ourselves.
We don’t stop at what we know. We don’t use language simply as a mirror. We also use it as a spade.
My tendency to Internet-stalk authors goes hand in hand with another guilty pleasure: reading celebrity gossip on People magazine’s website. I look at photos of stars pursing their lips for the cameras, wearing sheer bodysuits and thigh-high boots. I read about their pure-white beachfront mansions in Malibu.
There’s a section of the website that provides updates on who’s pregnant, what cute maternity outfits celebrities are wearing, and who has come up with yet another unheard-of baby name. Inevitably I read at least one article about how a celebrity has finally realized, upon the birth of his or her first child, what it means to be human. To be a parent, according to People magazine, is the ultimate lesson in compassion, empathy, and civility. Parenthood reforms even the most narcissistic of Hollywood A-listers.
The cats sit nearby while I write. One watches the leaves flutter on a vine outside the window. Another naps on my desk, occasionally stretching a paw toward the keyboard. A third bats a piece of plastic about on the floor. I talk to the cats as I work. They look up at me with their big, cool eyes as if considering my words.
I wouldn’t presume to say the cats love me. I’ve read stories about dogs who stay by their dead masters’ sides until dragged away. If I died, the cats would likely sniff me a few times and then wander off to take a nap. If I started to rot, they would probably pee on me, the way they pee on my stinky gym clothes. Is that love? It doesn’t matter. I clean their litter, drag a string across the floor for them to chase. I buy wet food and dry food and parcel it out to keep them from eating too fast and throwing up. I give them medicine. I hold them and pet them and thrill to feel their purring rumble through their bodies.
Of course, love itself is a strange concept. Love: enlarging, mysterious. Or love: a talisman against being alone.
I’ve had four miscarriages since we started trying to get pregnant. Twice I saw images of the baby on an ultrasound screen before the heartbeat stopped.
For a long time I was ambivalent about motherhood. That changed after my first miscarriage. Though the embryo was only seven weeks old, I loved it. I loved it and wanted it, and its life ended.
When the pregnant woman sits down next to me in the coffee shop, I want to scream. I want to turn to her and say, with as much spite as I can muster, Fuck you, and fuck your fucking baby. It doesn’t make me feel good to admit this. It doesn’t make me feel good to say that I wanted my neighbor to miscarry even as I smiled and congratulated her on her pregnancy; that I felt murderous toward my relative who got pregnant after just one round of intrauterine insemination. It doesn’t make me feel good that I am resentful toward my friends and sisters for their children, whom I love. Sometimes, when I am on the phone with the mother of a student and she complains about how busy she is, running her kids here and there, and how much noise and chaos there is in her house, I want to say, Don’t you dare complain about your children to me. I am not proud of these feelings, but I can’t make them stop.
After the first miscarriage, I curled up on our couch and watched TV for days. I bled and cramped because of the D&C. I got migraines because of the sharp drop in hormones. My cats were resolutely sympathetic — or maybe they were just glad to have a warm body around in February, lying prostrate in an accessible spot. Whatever their motivation, I was grateful for their company. Herman slept by my head, while Winnie tucked himself behind my legs. Gertie slept on my side. When I reached to pet them, they purred loudly and pushed their heads into my hand, nudging me to keep going, keep going.
Keep going, I would tell myself.
I remember, on one of the online infertility forums that I browsed obsessively, a woman lamented that all the stories she’d read about infertility ended with the women having babies. I wish I could read about someone who doesn’t manage to have a baby and still has a happy life, she said.
In the evening, when you unlock the front door, your children push past you to leave their backpacks and coats on the bench beneath the mirror where you check your lipstick every morning. You hang up your coat, noticing the blue-black shadows that ring your eyes after a long day of work, and the day is not yet over: There’s a load of dry laundry waiting to be folded, and the children’s softball and soccer and ballet clothes need to be washed so they can wear them again tomorrow. There’s dinner, which consists of baked chicken, broccoli, and rice. Then there’s dishes and homework. You’re tired, but it feels earned. You’re tired because everything you do is urgent. It has a purpose, a point: Your children. Their happiness. Everything you do is linked to the future.
When you turn from the mirror, you continue to see yourself reflected in the faces that sit across from you at the dinner table, that lean toward you so you can check their brushed teeth, that blow a kiss your way before heading upstairs to bed. There you are — or bits and pieces of you anyway, a different kind of reflection, one that shows you what you would look like if you had a second, third, fourth chance at life.
I should clarify that you are not one specific person. Your identity changes day by day and minute by minute. Some days you’re an anonymous woman whose voice I hear in my head and whose life I both crave and resent. Other days you are my friend from high school, with her angel-faced child; or my friend from college, with her genius child; or my friend from grad school, with her pixie child. Or maybe you’re one of my sisters, with their handful of kids.
Whoever you are, you always offer criticism: Why did I wait so long to get pregnant? Why didn’t I prioritize better? Why didn’t I realize that I could have had a career anytime, but my window for childbearing was limited? Why didn’t I see how delightful children are, the profound lessons they offer, the way they grant us a sense of purpose?
Whoever you are, I wish you would stop judging me.
As I pull into my driveway, I see the feral cats waiting on the back porch. I make my way carefully up the steps. Some of them flee as I approach. A couple have been hanging out for long enough that they’ll let me pet them, which I do, though one is a chronic biter, and I have to pet gingerly. Then I unlock the door and let myself in.
The kittens are happy to see me. They jump around my ankles and attack my backpack when I set it on the floor. Gertie is so happy that she vomits her recently ingested food on the kitchen floor.
A 2009 Canadian film called Cat Ladies follows the lives of four women who, to varying degrees, have devoted their lives to caring for cats. The film is billed as a “sensitive and emotionally honest portrait of women whose lives and self-worth have become intractably linked to cats.” The women all seem sad and broken, which the film suggests is because they can’t form legitimate bonds with humans.
The apartment of the first woman is filled with cat photos, cat pillows, cat tchotchkes, and sayings about cats etched on wooden wall hangings. She recounts, for the camera, a dream about breast-feeding a kitten.
I watched this documentary when I was unemployed and spent my days brewing fertility teas and chanting mantras about my body as a vessel for carrying a child. I ate eggs and whole milk, cruciferous vegetables and royal jelly. I limited caffeine and alcohol. I saw an acupuncturist every week. My regimen was mild compared to the lengths some women go to in their quest to overcome infertility: Trips to drink healing water in Tibet. A daily diet of wheatgrass. A hundred thousand dollars funneled into half a dozen rounds of in vitro fertilization. One woman, I read recently, endured eighteen rounds before she got pregnant. Where, I wonder, did she get the money for all those treatments? In the interview she says, It was all worth it. Was it really? Why isn’t this considered crazy?
I wonder: Is she happy now? Has the child given her everything that was missing from her life? Does having this child mean she will never be lonely again?
I understand that pull to have a child to love, but I also know that there are many ways to love — and who’s to say which is crazy and which isn’t, or that one person’s crazy isn’t another’s thin tether to sanity? Who’s to say that the effort to love isn’t the critical part? Who’s to say that reaching for something, searching to understand something totally outside our own experience, isn’t every bit as noble and expansive as loving a child?
Despite her childlessness, or perhaps because of it, Elizabeth Bishop was fond of other people’s children. In her letters she refers to the children of friends as her “grandchildren.”
Yet Bishop is ambivalent about traditional motherhood. She writes to her friend Robert Lowell, “The idea of a child overwhelms me a little — but then, people do have them. Here I’m getting rather against them, since everyone has at least eight, rich or poor, sick or healthy, kill the mother or not, with complete abandon.”
The cats may not love me, but they also don’t judge me. If their needs are met, they are happy. They offer affection when they feel like it, and because of this, it feels earned.
One evening not too long ago, I read that the odds of in vitro fertilization working for a woman my age are near zero percent, and I started to cry.
My husband gently told me he thought we should stop trying. He reminded me that we’d been absorbed by our efforts to get pregnant for the entirety of our marriage; that the odds of carrying a baby to term get worse every time we try; and of the toll each failed attempt took on me — on us.
That’s all he said. He didn’t remind me about the nights when I lay crying on the couch with my head in his lap, getting up to unspool a wad of toilet paper to blow my nose, then returning to my spot. He was too kind to point out the tens of thousands of dollars we sank, and our families sank, into expensive medical procedures and prescriptions; or to count up the thousands we invested in acupuncture, herbal treatments, vitamins, minerals, and books on infertility. The amount of money we spent could be the down payment on a house or the first installment in a good retirement fund. He was too kind to say any of that. It sat between us like a big cockroach that neither of us wanted to touch.
After we bring the kittens home from getting spayed and neutered, they are floppy, drugged. My husband and I hold them carefully, examining their pale shaved bellies, the incisions that have been fused together with greenish glue. Poor little babies, my husband says. The smallest kitten, Poppy, purrs a groggy, doped-up purr.
Lately I notice my mother when I look in the mirror. And I see my twin and her children. And sometimes, on days when my hair is particularly unruly and I have been thinking about solitude, I catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Bishop.
In this fun-house mirror I name my joys prolifically or sparingly, depending on the day. And at the end of that list I name a sorrow or two, for good measure. For honesty.
We are planning a trip to Italy next year. Instead of carrying a baby, I will be taking photos of sophisticated Italian cats.
In my Wednesday-night yoga class, I try to pay attention to how I’m feeling: My thighs burn. My hamstrings are tight. I work on acknowledging each sensation, comfortable or not. Sometimes I have words for what I’m feeling, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I recognize the desire to relieve the discomfort, but I hold the pose until it’s time to move on.
I keep hoping that my yoga practice is rubbing off on the rest of my life, that I am learning to feel grateful for my limits. Maybe soon I will be glad I can’t have a baby. Maybe being childless will lead me somewhere else I want to be. Maybe I will be the person who writes the essay about having a happy life after being unable to conceive.
I connected with Christine Marshall’s essay “The Cat Years” [January 2020]. Like Marshall, I suffered through multiple miscarriages. During that time, all I could see around me were fertile women and their healthy, beautiful babies.
I stopped trying to get pregnant because I was nearing the age of forty and couldn’t afford fertility treatments, and because the constant losses were taking a toll on my emotional health. Now, almost ten years later, I am happy, but it took time, perspective, and hard work. Every so often, though, a twinge of loss flickers.
This kind of writing is why I subscribe to The Sun.
My cats and I would like to thank Christine Marshall for inviting us into her innermost thoughts in “The Cat Years” [January 2020]. More than once I was on the verge of tears. My cats, however, were not.