Elul, the Jewish month leading up to the High Holidays, typically is a joyful time for me as it marks the birth of my daughter, 12 years ago. But this year, I find myself locked in a spiral of grief.
I am in the midst of coming to terms with the end of my marriage. My second marriage. Parts of me feel free, excited for the future, curious about new possibilities. Parts of me feel worried and anxious about how I will cope, alone, as a single parent.
And just as I began to get a grasp on this change, my cat, Serendipity, died suddenly, just shy of her 15th birthday. I found her lifeless on the basement floor. My breath sucked out. I couldn’t understand. I hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. I tried to compose myself, but couldn’t. The tears leaked and my voice gasped as I told my children that Dippy had died. I was so sorry. She is gone.
Yes. But she will live on in our hearts.
In a nod to Jewish tradition, I dug a grave in the backyard, wrapped her too-light body in one of the receiving blankets that had once covered my daughter in the hospital when she was born—for truly, Serendipity was my first (albeit furry) child—and laid her to rest. My 9-year-old son said a prayer. My 12-year-old daughter said she hoped God would watch over her in heaven. We all recited the Shema and left smooth stones on her grave.
My cat’s littermate, Sebastian, also 15 years old, did not recover from the loss of his little sister. For days, he meowed and followed me around the house. He looked so sad when I left for work. Then I noticed he wasn’t coming when I called him. Deaf. He stopped running toward the sound of the can opener popping open a tin of tuna. He left food in his bowl. And, just a few days ago, he stopped drinking. My robust boychick kitty, who once weighed in at 17 lbs, has become frail to the touch, unsteady on his feet.
He is dying. From loneliness? Sadness? I am not sure. All I know is that he made a decision, and I can’t change his mind.
So this month of Elul, there is sadness in my heart. The sudden loss of my sweet Serendipity, who was my shy and verbose companion since my college days. The looming death of her brother, Sebastian, my cuddlebug cat who would greet me at the door and roll over for belly rubs like a puppy. The end of my marriage, punctuated by a sense of defeat, that perhaps I will never find the right mate. Despair that God could not even leave me one of my kitties to grant me comfort. One, I could understand—but both? Both of them have to die during this season of supposedly new beginnings? Why?
It occurs to me that while some changes are fluid and smooth, others are violent and caustic. This is true not only in human relationships, but also within nature. It is a common environmental process to stage a “controlled burning” of wizened old trees in the forest. A fire is deliberately set to burn down trees. It allows the dead wood to provide enriched nutrients and space for new seedlings to grow.
Maybe God is sending me a message. That in order to start anew, I must first recognize and mourn the passing of the old. Say goodbye to what was once familiar and comforting, to patterns of thought and behavior that did not serve me. Perhaps I have such a thick skull that the whole damn forest had to burn down around me before I looked up to take notice.
In this month Elul, I am reminded that there can be no forgiveness without repentance. No new beginnings without an end. An end to so many beautiful relationships; a partnership that has left me raw and renewed; my soft furry companions who offered me comfort and unconditional love all their days. May God cause the flames that lick my flesh in a slow controlled burn bring an end to despair, hurt, pain, and suffering; may God grant us the strength and nourishment to grow tall and bloom anew.