Wednesday, November 17, 2010


It's a grey day today.  The sky is monochrome and the weather is decidedly dreary.  Which is a bit of a blessing.  It wouldn't have seemed fitting to put down my beloved cat on a bright, sunny day.

Feeling a little bit bleugh right now.  It's not just losing Ernie.  I can't quite shake the sense of loss I have about leaving Chicago.  It's not really leaving the city, or America.  I have been lucky to live here - and there have been many fun times and great experiences - but it's always been a bit of a hit or miss relationship and I have never truly felt like I have belonged.  However, the thought of leaving my dear friends does leave me feeling bereft.  Strange how I haven't gone anywhere yet, but I already miss them.

People seem to think I should be excited about moving home.  And after all this time of fighting for the right to move home with the boys, I should feel excited about moving back, of course I should, for so many reasons.  But I don't quite yet.  In fact, at times I feel quite the opposite.  It's not a sense of dread or regret, but it is a sense of deep sadness.  I don't think I will miss Chicago itself to a large degree, but the loss of my friends here is a different matter entirely.

But then again, the underlying tone of my 10 years in Chicago is tinged with loss.

First the loss of my independence.  Boy, I wasn't expecting that.  I had been so gung-ho about living in another country, so it was strange to arrive on the back of my husband's working visa and to immediately be persona-non-grata.  I couldn't get a job, couldn't co-sign the lease on our apartment, couldn't get a mobile phone, couldn't jointly be on any of the utilities.  It seemed to take me forever to get a social security card.  It was a shock to the system, after being independent from 18 years of age, to suddenly be totally co-dependent, verging on invisible.  I even had to start using my married name, which I had never done in the UK, because sticking to my maiden name was causing so much confusion and hassle.   I don't think my husband ever understood why this made me so angry and feel so belittled, but I have always resented the bureaucratic push I was given which seemed to change my whole identity to 'wife'.

Then there's the loss of my career.  Before arriving in Chicago I had worked for 15 years in Advertising and Marketing and was proud of my achievements.  I don't think I had really appreciated how significantly my job had defined my sense of self.  I did work for an advertising agency in Chicago, but unexpectedly felt like a square peg in a round hole.  The working culture was so undeniably different.  After 6 months I settled in, but options for continuing my career once I had children were extremely limited.  My choice was to go back to work full-time after 12 weeks of maternity leave (with only 2 weeks holiday) or to not work at all.  There was no happy medium.  And I guess when it came down to it, my career meant a lot to me...but being a hands-on, present mum meant more.

I did try to return to work but was incredibly frustrated that there were seemingly no flexible alternatives.  I interviewed at a few places and spoke to several recruitment agencies, but repeatedly came up against a brick wall.  Eventually I re-trained as a personal trainer and did work part-time, but it was never a professionally satisfying alternative.  And the pay was crap. Yet again, my self-esteem took a good kicking and I felt all the more like a second class citizen.

Of course, prior to the disintegration of my career we lost our first son.  Along with the devastating grief and the introduction of a black hole in my heart, I experienced a loss of my own physical confidence.  Suddenly I was no longer a strapping, healthy lass, forever at the gym and taking on new fitness challenges.  My body had failed me.  I no longer trusted it.  It was no longer an ally I could rely on, but a reviled enemy who had let me down in the most unforgivable way.  Its failure at the most important time of my life contributed to the death of our son.  There was no-one else to hold accountable except for my own, previously undiscovered, physical flaws.

So in a way, it was no wonder that ultimately, after losing so much of what I recognised as being irrefutably me, I would lose my marriage too.  I was no longer the person that had stood at the alter on that sunny day in June.  I had changed beyond recognition.  Become the antithesis of the values and principles I had once lived my life by.  I hadn't yet had the time, or energy, to replace all these critical components of me that I felt I had lost since coming to America, when my husband decided he was Done.

At the time, it felt like I had truly lost everything.  For a while Chicago represented the toughest of times, where my life took a series of turns that I had never anticipated and prepared myself for.  It was hardly the carefree, exciting 2 year adventure that I naively set out on over 10 years ago.

Yet I know I would not have the strength and optimism I have today about my future, without the love and support of my friends in Chicago over the years.

God, I'm going to miss them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Life is so great at throwing curve balls, isn't it?

Just when everything seems to be falling into place, there's yet another drama.   The last two weeks have been surprisingly calm.  The house in North London is OURS - I am still have trouble digesting the fact that, after all this time, it does appear that I will in fact be moving home to the UK by the end of the year.  I have a new home, I have applied to the local borough for school places, I am coordinating all the logistics for a transatlantic relocation for me and the boys.  It is so overwhelming that I can't quite get to grips with the fact that it is actually going to happen, but the fact that the house is ours makes it real.  There's no going back now and the sense of relief is enormous.

The only concern I had was what to do with my two cats.  I had planned to take them home, but started to think that maybe it would make more sense and be better all round if I found them a new home in Chicago.  Which of course is easier said than done.

I have had both cats since they were kittens, adopting them both when we first moved to Chicago and I was volunteering at a local no-kill shelter.  They are now 9 years old and part of me just wanted to spare them the trauma of a move.  So I emailed everyone in my contacts list, placed local ads and waited for the offers to come pouring in.  And waited.  And waited.  Lots of people expressed concern for the cats, and my predicament, but it appeared that all the cat lovers were already inundated with felines and there was nobody willing to take them.

I knew that taking them to a shelter would not be an option.  I couldn't desert my faithful, loving pets without knowing whether or not they had a family to go to, so just last week decided that I had to bite the bullet and start to coordinate plans for their move to the UK.  Once I made the decision, I again felt an overwhelming sense of relief.  It was going to be costly - nearly $3,000 - and I wasn't sure where that money was going to come from, but all the alternatives seemed too heartless to contemplate.  It's only money, I told myself, and started to get all the paperwork together to make it happen.

However, there was one nagging concern at the back of my mind.  My big, fat, fluffy hair ball of a ginger tom, Ernie, had lost a lot of weight.  I knew I had reduced the cats diet a couple of months ago and initially I assumed that it was a natural side-effect from eating less.  But as I watched him more closely, I began to notice that he no longer had a ferocious appetite.  And then in the last few days he seemed to have no appetite at all.

Oh no, I thought.  What's going on now?  I don't have time to deal with this.  I felt sure it was nothing but googled 'cat weight loss' nevertheless.  Of course the internet threw back a list of ailments as long as my arm, all of which looked alarming and expensive.  I decided to book an appointment at the vet the following week to get him checked out, reassuring myself that it was probably a simple ailment that could be cured simply with medication.

When I woke up on Saturday, with a busy and fun-filled day planned (the expat bloggers were in town and I was excited to spend the day with them) Ernie could barely drag himself up the stairs.  His fur was bedraggled and greasy looking.  From being a chunky, lump of a cat just a few months ago he was now skin and bones.  I could no longer ignore the obvious.  I had a sick cat on my hands and needed to take him to the vet immediately.

A couple of hours later I was sat in the vet waiting room, feeling fairly optimistic that I was panicking over nothing.  It's bound to be a simple parasite, I thought, which would explain the weight loss.  I couldn't allow myself to think that it was anything worse.  Having made the decision to take both cats back the UK, the thought that Ernie might now be suddenly and inexplicably ill and unable to travel, made no sense at all.

The vet came in and looked him over.  Ernie purred in his usual friendly fashion.  He has a big, traction engine type of purr that reverberates through his whole body and reflects his general contented personality.  The vet looked at his teeth, as I explained my concerns, then she started to feel the rest of his body.  I suddenly remember that I forgot to bring his faeces sample with me and internally berate myself for forgetting the evidence which would reveal the parasites.  The vet pauses in her examination and looks me in the eye.  "Ernie has a large tumour in his abdomen.  I can't be sure, but in my opinion I think it could be lymphoma.  I'm going to have to run more tests.  Can you come back in 45 minutes?"

I look at my cat, who is obviously a shadow of his former self, and burst into tears.

Oh holy crap.  Cancer.  How?  Why?  And why now, for Christ's sake?  What does this mean?  Is it curable?  And what will the treatment involve?  How can I possibly deal with this, when I am going to be homeless in 3 weeks and living in my friend's basement?

I stagger out to Starbucks and email Ex to tell him the news.  He responds immediately and is kind, considerate and thoughtful.  He reminds me that I have given Ernie nine very happy years and that he probably wouldn't have survived as a kitten if I hadn't nursed him around the clock for the first few months.  He tells me to keep him posted.  I call a friend and can't seem to stop the tears.  I can't help feeling that I gave a sign to the universe that this cat was disposable, that he wasn't wanted.  And it had responded with a fatal solution to not having to bare the expense and stress of shipping him home.

Eventually I go back to the vet, dreading the results and feeling sure this was going to be a worse case scenario prognosis.  Which it is.  There are options for surgery / chemo / long-term treatment, but none of them are guaranteed to cure the disease.  And he certainly can't travel back to the UK in a matter of weeks.  The vet kindly advises me that euthanasia is probably the kindest and most respectful option.

I cuddle Ernie close to me and he purrs rhythmically in my ear.  I don't feel ready to lose him.  I don't know what I was thinking about even considering re-homing him several weeks ago.  Out of the two cats, Ernie was always the one from a kitten that has been attached to me like velcro, taking every opportunity open to him to coat me in a layer of hair impervious to most lint rollers.  He has the sweetest, most loving nature.  The thought of putting him down is heartbreaking.

I call Ex and tell him what is happening.  I can't stop the tears as I am talking, although I am trying my hardest to keep my shit together.  I have decided to take Ernie home, with medication, to be able to say a proper goodbye.  The vet assures me he isn't in any discomfort right now, although he probably will be soon. The medication will increase his appetite a little and make him a little more alert.  When I am ready I can bring him back and be with him while he is put to sleep.

I drive home slowly and sit on the couch all afternoon with Ernie curled up on my chest.  This wasn't how this weekend was meant to be.  I feel sad and somehow responsible for my pet's imminent death.  I feel worried about how his brother, Bert, the little black mischief maker is going to cope in his absence.  I'm not sure how I am going to cope with his absence.  Yes, he is just a pet, just a cat.  The boys love both cats, but that affection has never, in all honesty, been returned (with both cats running a mile as soon as the boys are within sprinting distance).  But they will be sad.  And I am going to miss him very, very much.

This is the trouble with having animals as part of your family, isn't it?  Their life span is shorter to start with, so the relationship is duty bound to end in heartbreak.  I can't tell you how many times I have moaned about having the cats over the past two years, particularly when tripping over them carrying armfuls of laundry or shooing them out of my kitchen when trying to get everyone fed.  There have been times I have really resented the responsibility of having to find people to look after them whenever we have gone on holiday.  And I've felt guilty if I haven't had the time to give them much attention, when they seem permanently desperate for a lap to curl up on.  Some times I have just wanted to sit down and write a blog post for heaven's sake (okay, not that often admittedly) which is hindered somewhat when there is a cat determined to sprawl across the keyboard.  And it's probably best not to mention at this point my constant whinging about Cat Hair and it's ability to impregnate every surface with super glue tendencies.

Because despite the minor irritations and my petty little grumbles, I really love having pets and I have been really lucky to have had such a gentle and affectionate cat.

Goodbye my darling Ernie. Turns out you were always meant to be an American cat - and not an English moggy - after all.