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Untarnished Memories of a Sterling Friendship: The Final Gift of a Beloved Pet

Sterling the tabby catI wanted a tiny, little kitten. She, of course, had other ideas. As I would learn, she often did. And she often won. Of our two strong-willed Aries personalities, hers was just a tiny bit stronger.

I entered the Santa Clara, CA pound looking for a kitten. Having relocated from across the country months earlier, I was starting to put down roots. With a relatively stable paycheck in my future and a new apartment, I was ready for the commitment of a pet. Plus as a shy, young twenty-something in Silicon Valley, I was lonely and needed some form of companionship to come home to. Oh sure, the Valley was full of men. Engineer types. Who either didn’t notice the curvaceous blonde in front of them or found what was on their computer screens far more interesting.

Yes, I needed someone to come home to.

On my first trip to the pound, there were no kittens. But a silver tabby with gorgeous green eyes who was several months old reached out through the bars of her cage to bat at me. She meowed loudly, more like a Siamese than an average street cat, beckoning me to pay attention to her.

“Yes, you are a gorgeous kitty!” I murmured to her. “You have beautiful green eyes, just like my Shadow cat.” Shadow was one of my favorite cats growing up — a beautiful Russian Blue who would snuggle up next to me each night.

“Mee-rooowr,” she replied.

Guilt settled in. Growing up, we always had several cats. We seemed to have a beacon over our home that only stray animals could see. Cats and dogs of all shapes and ages would find us, somehow knowing this was the home where animals would be taken care of. Though I had taken in older cats before, I was really hoping to get a tiny kitten.

“You are obviously a sweet kitty. Someone will be here for your soon, I am sure. I’m sorry, but I am looking for a kitten.”

She batted at me again, and looked into my eyes. I scratched under her chin, and walked down the aisle of cages, looking for my future pet.

Though I am grateful for the services they provide, I hate going to shelters. I can’t stand the thought of the stories behind all the animals who end up there. I walked by and looked at all the cats — no kittens today. An employee told me that the kittens are usually snapped up pretty quickly. As I walked back down the long row, the gleaming silver tabby meowed and reached out to me again.

“Goodbye darling. I am sure you will have a home soon,” I said as soothingly as I could.

I don’t even remember the circumstances that brought me back — whether the shelter called me to say kittens had come in or I just went to check, but what I do remember is that I thought about that tabby a lot. I grew up with several tabbies, but I had never seen one who was truly silver rather than gray. Her coat was soft and glossy like a rabbit’s. Her tummy was white with black spots. Eyes of emerald green and instead of the expected gray or black nose, an adorable cinnamon-colored nose. I often associate “tabby” with “common” yet everything about her brought to mind a certain regalness and she certainly let you know she expected to be treated like royalty!

During the adoption process, several things about her paperwork made me laugh. Her original name was CJ, so close to my own, J.J. She, like me, had an April birthday. The reason given for adoption was “one too many kittens.” And when asked what her favorite toy was, her previous owners had written, “Anything not nailed down!!!” (Underlined three times.)

Yes, clearly, this cat and I were made for each other.

I quickly changed her name to Sterling — both for the color of her coat and her fine qualities. I had no idea how fitting that would be, right to the end.

I had been in a car accident just before I adopted Sterling (or shall we just admit, she chose me?) and shortly afterward, I had knee surgery. In addition to keeping me company in my bed and cuddling with me during my painful recovery, she delighted me with her bedeviling activities, one of which included retrieving bloody gauze bandages from garbage cans and running through the apartment with them at lightning speed. My father, who was visiting and taking care of me, did not find this so delightful. But I loved her pure sense of play — exactly why I had originally wanted a kitten — and enjoyed her utter zest for life. Everything was a game to her and when she exhausted herself, she would come back to me and go completely limp and purr loudly.

When I recovered, I ended up moving to Southern California for a while — telecommuting for work — and Sterling took to antics such as pulling off the pins off my bulletin board and sticking her head into my printer and shredding papers as they printed, decidedly not helping with my work-at-home productivity. This was slightly less delightful behavior, and I decided that Sterling need a companion, and thus, a second cat came into our lives. Once again I went in to get a kitten and instead, came home with a cat of a different age — in fact this one was 3 years old. A tortie-tabby, I ended up naming her Patina (get it?), Tina for short. And thus, Sterling ended up becoming Alpha Cat of what I didn’t know was ultimately going to become the growing JavaFamily “herd.” Down the line there would be “hers,” “his” and “ours” cats — growing to a maximum of 8 cats (currently at 5). But Sterling was always the top cat.

Of all the cats, she never, ever got a flea. She never had an injury. And she never got sick. She was a lean cat and when she started to get alarmingly thin and act peculiar, such as only wanting to eat in my office and insisting on only drinking water from red, plastic Solo cups (don’t ask how I figured that out) — I rushed her to the vet in tears. Hundreds of dollars later, even the vet was shaking her head and said, “I was prepared for us to have a diagnosis for you of anything from thyroid to leukemia but I have to tell you, this is the healthiest cat I’ve seen all week. I think she’s just being a stubborn old cat!” So from that point forward, I started to simply adjust to her idiosyncracies, and assumed as long as she was eating and playful, she was fine. She finally decided that she would eat downstairs again, but I added a daily personal dish of canned food to the communal dry food that was available. She gave up on the red, plastic cups, but did seem to prefer having a separate small bowl in addition to using the larger cat water bowl. In other words, I figured she was an old lady, I’d indulge her. She still liked to sit on books as we tried to read them, bat around paper balls, and sit on top of us at the most inconvenient moments. She was Sterling. Just thinner.

I prepared for her death for 18 months, certain that after 16+ years, it was imminent. Every time we needed a pet sitter, I would warn them that if Sterling suddenly passed away, not to get upset, it was just meant to be.

And yet, though we can prepare our minds, we really can’t prepare our hearts, can we?

It was a Sunday morning when I realized Sterling wasn’t eating anything. Because she was thin, she like to sit on warm things like our laptops, so I had prepared a warm spot for her a few weeks earlier on her favorite ottoman, covering a heating pad with fluffy towels so it would be warm and soft, but not get too hot. It was in the family room, one of her favorite places to be as it is the center of activity in our house. Her routine of late had become fairly simple — meow at us to prepare her a breakfast of canned food with her special dish of water in the kitchen, clean herself in the family room, then hop onto her “bed” on the ottoman. If one of us chose to sit on the sofa, then she would come to us instead of the heating pad. But Sunday, she had no interest in breakfast. Not even when I carried her over to it to show it to her. She simply went back to her perch on the ottoman instead. No one else in the family seemed to, but I swore she took on a smell that I called the smell of death.

At that very moment, my heart started breaking.

We had been scrambling to get out the door to go to church.  The children were performing. I sat there, somewhat numb. Praying to God.

“Please God, please don’t make me do this. Don’t make me choose. Please, please God, this is too much. If she needs to go, please take her from us quickly in her sleep.”

I felt horrible guilt. I had known, of course, that it was possible when she started to get thinner that she might have had diabetes or a thyroid condition, but I had also decided that if she did, I was not going to go down the road of forcing pills or shots on her. She was 18 years old. She was happy and active and as long as she was, I was going to let her be.

But suddenly I wondered if I had done her a terrible wrong. Should I have handled things differently? The guilt, the doubt, the pain roiled inside of me, an emotional typhoon I was trying to keep anyone from seeing. After church I had us run a few errands, I am sure in part to delay facing things when I got home.

Sterling was obviously on the decline — not interested in food. Still wanting to be held and loved, but not playful, not interested in anything else.

It is probably important to point out here something I have not yet shared with you. At this point JavaDad and I had been nearly two months into our trial separation — after ten years of marriage we were living under separate roofs, figuring out where to go from here.

JavaDad swung into action — feeding everyone dinner, taking care of the kids’ bath and bedtime routine, and then dealing with me.

We knew it was time. That the next day we would be calling the vet to have Sterling put down. It was what good pet owners do. But it hurt like hell. I went into the “bargaining” part of the Seven Stages of Grief — “But what if there are heroic measures we can take?” And he counseled me, “Is that fair to her, at her age? And for what? Another month of life? What kind of quality of life?”

I cried, like a wounded animal. Gutteral, awful sounds coming from me. And then came the triple-play that happens when my emotions are more than my body can handle. The simultaneous laughing-crying-asthma-attack. I’ve never seen myself in a mirror when it happens, but I am sure it is a frightening sight with the tears streaming, snot flying, loud laughter and wheezing all at the same time. It is not one of my finer qualities as a woman. And yet, it is something  JavaDad has come to understand about me (I won’t say appreciate, I’m not sure he appreciates it — but at least he doesn’t run away.)

Because I wasn’t sure what time we’d see the vet, in the morning I had to explain this to the children. As this was the first pet they remember losing, it was frankly, one of the worst conversations to have with them. (This, however, was a week before the Sandy Hook shootings, which turned out to be THE worst conversation.) My kids aren’t the kind of kids you can “gloss over” anything with. Especially JavaGirl. Her ability to grill someone should put her high on the CIA’s watch list for future recruits. With her unique blend of intense belief in Christianity and need for very factual explanations for everything, she wanted me to explain in great detail what would happen both to Sterling’s soul and body during the euthanasia process and afterward when she was cremated. Trying to keep myself together while being the mother I needed to be for them during this time was excruciating.

I called the vet’s office. I had steeled myself to be calm and factual. I was for the first four words. Fortunately they are pros, and they found a time slot for me with our preferred vet late that afternoon.

The children came home and sat with Sterling, taking pictures of her with their Nintendo 3DSes, which I found to be an interesting coping technique.

It was a gorgeous day and I took Sterling outside to feel the warm sunshine, but she made it clear that she did not want to be on the front step or anywhere outside. Though that morning she started to lose the use of one of her hind legs, she started to run inside. It made it clear to me that this was the end.

I held her for those final hours. She purred and nuzzled me, and I petted her and told her how much I loved her. I reminded her of how she had chosen me, and that we had been through a lot in 18 years, and I loved her through every bit of it.

JavaDad came home early from work to go to the vet with me — he didn’t think I’d manage to make it home on my own. Given where we were relationship-wise, the gesture was gigantic on his part.

After the vet’s office, the grief was unbearable. I couldn’t look at the dishes used to feed her. I couldn’t even look at the kitchen counter where I had prepared her food. JavaDad came over that day and the next to prepare lunches and dinners for the kids. He did something he hadn’t done in a long time — he hugged me. Later that night we flipped through photos and laughed about things Sterling (and the other cats) had done over the years. Laughing together was also something we hadn’t done much of lately.

In a short time things we had been working on for a long time were being worked out. At the risk of sounding (more) like a crazy cat lady, it was as if Sterling’s very last act of devotion — after her passing — was to push JavaDad and I together and force us to set things aside and reform into a family again. The grief of losing a beloved pet transformed into the joy of reconciling a marriage I wasn’t sure was going to make it. The same day I picked up Sterling’s ashes from the vet is the same day JavaDad moved back home.

I am so glad Sterling got her way.

Goodbye Susan — For Now

The long strand of white Chinese freshwater pearls I wore to her memorial mass/celebration of life are still on the dresser in the front hallway where I tossed them the second I came home. The purple carnations I bought a week before her death because of their bright hue and their lunar name, “Howl at the Moon,” stand at attention in the crystal vase on the console table, cruelly taunting me with their chirpiness. The deep purple manicure I got three weeks ago along with the other TheDCMoms.com bloggers in her honor and in an attempt to brighten her days in bed, finally needed attention. I cried softly as the manicurist took it off, just as I did when she put it on. Three weeks ago, with every stroke of the lacquer on my nails, I knew this would probably be the first, last, and only time I would wear purple nail polish. I knew in my heart time was running out.

Susan is gone.

 

She fought a valiant fight against what I consider to be a particularly vicious form of cancer — inflammatory breast cancer (“the one without a lump”). So hard, so long, and so well that almost to the end many of us thought she was going to rebound and make it for a while longer. Or as she told me two weeks before the end, that she was just “regrouping.” But there comes a point when you know it is time to say goodbye.  I am eternally grateful to both Susan and her family for allowing me the time to do so while she was alive.

I must pause to say that I’ve been reminded that Susan did not “lose her battle with cancer.” Susan lived longer than expected, and she lived the heck out of every single day. She kicked cancer up and down and back again. It may have ultimately claimed her life, but cancer won nothing.

beautiful moon

This is the gorgeous moon that rose over the Metro DC area on the evening of Susan's passing, as captured by our mutual friend Robin (@noteverstill). Her blog is The Not-Ever-Still Life: http://noteverstill.blogspot.com/

Susan is gone. But she is not. She is here. I run into her almost everywhere I go. The evening of the day she passed, her many, many friends were amazed by the glorious moon that rose early and put on a brilliant show. Only to be followed by a gorgeous Snow Moon the night of the visitation. So many of us felt like it was a sign, like she was just smiling her very radiant smile from heaven via the moon, saying, “See, I told you, it’s going to be okay.”

I’ve written more than once about how much Susan inspired me (and continues to do so).  There are so many people who have written so beautifully about Susan that I am not even going to try to sum up her life any better than they have. (See JeanAmyRobin… )

I have written and deleted this post several times. Should it be a tribute? A summary of a friendship? An accounting of events? Finally, I’ve decided to simply share a story.

When the Junior League of Northern Virginia was holding a fundraiser to raise money for The Children’s Science Center and put out the call for a Celebrity Scientist, I turned to Susan. Would she be willing to share her story of how museums helped shape her career? Susan, being so Susan, answered that she would be delighted.

Sadly, it turned out to be a day when she was in pain.  The cancer had returned, she just didn’t know it yet. I had begged her not to come if she was in pain, telling her we’d make do, but she came anyway. Because that was Susan. She’d fight through pain to do a favor for a friend and to do something she thought was important.

March 6, 2010 Dr. Susan Niebur presenting at the Junior League of Northern Virginia's STEM Awareness Day

Dr. Susan Niebur speaking as a "Celebrity Scientist" at the Junior League of Northern Virginia's STEM Awareness Day, an event to raise awareness about the need and raise funds for a Children's Science Center in Northern Virginia. Susan's touching story about how a visit to a museum at the age of three touched the hearts of many people in the audience. (March 6, 2010, photo is my own.)

Without anyone else knowing the pain she was in, she stood behind that podium and shared a story that people still talk about today. Her parents had taken her to a museum in Galveston, TX when she was three years old. After looking at all the astronaut suits, she looked up at her mother and asked, “Mommy, why aren’t there any GIRL astronauts?” To which her mother replied, “I’m not sure.” At the end of the exhibit, you could write a question on a card and drop it into a box, and Susan decided to ask NASA why girls weren’t astronauts, too. And at the tender age of three, she decided that she was going to grow up and work for NASA. And she did.

It was this story I shared with her mother at the visitation, and her mother says she vividly remembered that day. I wanted to share it with her, mother to mother, to let her know just how much that moment in time meant to Susan. Sometimes, as mothers, we forget just how precious those trips to a museum, a library or a zoo can mean. They can literally change a child’s life. Somehow I just wanted to give her mother a piece of her daughter back with that story. A memory of Susan as a little girl. Her father told us, “We taught her how to read at three and then she didn’t need us again!” Oh how, that sounds like Susan. And frankly, like my JavaGirl.

I credit Susan’s story with the success of the fundraiser that night. But I also credit it with planting a seed in my mind that though my son is the one who exhibits the most interest in science, that I need to be sure that I take equal time to foster it in my daughter. It’s not that I didn’t know this was important, it’s just that in the hubbub of parenting, it is so easy to lose sight of things. JavaBoy already wants to be a chemist. JavaGirl currently wants to be a horseback rescue rider. JavaBoy sees everything through science-filtered eyes, whereas I have to work at it just a little more with JavaGirl. She enjoys science, it’s just I have to remember to include her because she doesn’t have a single-minded focus like her brother.

Mere days after Susan’s funeral, we were at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles, where I was proud to see the Museum Without Walls partnership between the Junior League and the Children’s Science Center in action on a Super Science Saturday — kids were trying out mobile exhibits with a glee that I know would’ve brought out Susan’s brilliant smile. The Children’s Science Center is still raising money toward a goal of a future permanent building, but now has traveling exhibits it takes to schools and fairs. From there we walked over to the space exhibit, and I took JavaGirl by the hand to show her an astronaut suit in a glass case and explain to her “Miss Susan’s” story.

JavaGirl contemplates an astronaut suit

JavaGirl at the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center just a couple of years older than Susan was when she made that life-changing trip to a museum in Texas. (Photo is my own.)

“You see, when Miss Susan and I were little girls, there weren’t any women astronauts. But now there are. Miss Susan thought it was very important to have more women in science, so not only did she study very hard to be a scientist who worked at NASA, but she worked to make it better for other women to work in science, too. I want you to know that you can be anything you want to be, honey. And that includes being a scientist.”

We walked by an exhibit about exploration on Mars and I said that I knew that Susan was involved with that but that I didn’t know all the details — the kids were pounding me with questions. I was already regretting not having had enough time to ask Susan all the questions I would’ve liked to. When I spoke with Susan about science, it was usually more on the kid level, rather than delving into her career. It had always been my intention to get her together with my kids for a career discussion — she had met them once, but all our kids played while the adults talked — but the timing never worked out. I’m hoping some of Susan’s Women in Planetary Science friends will help me fill in some of the gaps.

At the end of a long day, after she was in her pajamas, JavaGirl came into my room and said, “Mommy, before I go to bed, I would like you to talk to me some more about Miss Susan and science.” I fought back my tears — mixed sadness over losing Susan and joy over a little girl’s interest — and we talked some more.

The next day, while working with JavaBoy on his science fair project for school, I turned to JavaGirl (kindergarten) and said, “Would you like to do a science fair project, too?” She practically leapt out of her chair with excitement. “Yes! I’m going to be like Miss Susan, except I’m going to be the first girl to do experiments!” (Okay, we still have some history work to do.)

We’ve spent the past several days working on the kids’ science fair projects, and I could swear I’ve heard Susan laughing from heaven a few times, like when I called the chemistry department at George Mason to ask a grad student to explain some unexpected results to JavaBoy, or when JavaGirl came up with zillions of questions of her own. I wore my IBC Research pin to the Discover Engineering Family Day both in the hopes it would open up a conversation with someone, and in a way, to “bring” Susan with me to a day I think she would’ve immensely enjoyed. Seeing so many kids enjoying STEM activities, such as building Lego structures and testing them out in a tsunami wave machine. No matter what the specific discipline, Susan encouraged intellectual curiosity in children (and people) of all ages. I just pictured her standing there, with that broad smile on her face, saying, “COOL!” And wouldn’t  you know it, the “prize” for completing your passport for visiting several booths was a chance to sit and talk to an astronaut.

Susan is gone. But she’s still here. Forever in my heart, my memory, and yes, I believe watching us from above. At times, giggling.

Susan, you are an inspiration always, in so many ways. There are many ways I could have been a better friend to you, but know that I could never have asked for a better friend than you. I miss you.

I have made a donation in her memory to the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Please consider doing the same or making a difference to the charity of your choice. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are my own.