Thanks for giving me the space to grieve. It was my first break from this newsletter, and I couldn’t be more appreciative of the ways you all showed up for Snoots — and then for me.
It’s only now that I realize Snoots died on Friday the 13th.
Amidst all the sadness, it didn’t feel appropriate to mention that Snoots was, in reality, a pretty bad cat. He was a menace. A maniac. A mischievous agent of chaos scaling the walls, peeing on any bag left on the floor, killing every small animal that came across his path, and waging war on every plant in our house.
That’s why we loved him. He made this house come alive. He found the nooks and crevices we never would have. He taught Finn how to climb at the age of nine. He chased the neighborhood dogs until they cowered in submission. And every time he jumped on top of Cooper, Cooper forgot he was 11.
So on that weekend, it wasn’t just Snoots that was gone, it was life. Ben and I spent an entire day watching Resident Alien, a television show that’s entire premise is about wiping out humanity. I ate a family-sized bag of frozen french fries, never mind how many boxes of eco-friendly tissues I went through. You could see it on my face — what was good for the environment was bad for my nose. The next day, we watched Wednesday: a show based on a girl who’s emotionally-vacant personality is based entirely on the violent death of her own pet. Any time the TV was off, the tears were on. We were empty-eyed, nutritionally-deficient snot goblins limping into and out of each other’s arms as we sought solace from the unrelenting sadness; the grief swirling in and around the house only matched by the ferocious winds and sunless sky outside.
By Monday Snoots had had enough.
Grief is a haunted house. Not the kind you drive by with rehearsed suspicions like picking up your feet or holding your breath, but the kind you pay for. Every time we love something, we purchase a ticket to the horror show. It’s the last stop out of the park, and it’s the only way out. You had your funnel cake and your merry-go-rounds, your photo ops and your rollercoasters, but the real fear always waits at the gate. You’ll get your memories and your gratitude, but first, you get hell. As is known and resented, the only way out is through.
But similar to other trite sentiments like just be yourself and you’ll find it when you’re least expecting it, few are sure enough to actually risk recommending how to get through it, how to be yourself, how to not expect something when that something is all you want.
People do, however, have recommendations for handling the fears that accompany a haunted house: remember the people are actors, look for obvious signs of the scares being craft projects, wear ear plugs, and (my personal favorite) go in with the objective of scaring the scarers back. At 17 one Halloween night, I went to one of those pop-up horror houses and one of the actors grabbed me from behind. I turned around and punched him in the face. While I don’t recommend that, I do recommend taking that approach to grief. Or, in my case, letting that approach take you.
By Monday, it had been snowing for days. We hadn’t seen the sun in nearly a week and the house felt like it. Despite our best efforts to seal the gaps between the logs, every operable window and door still acted as a wind machine. We set out to build a big fire, one that could sustain itself longer than 20 minutes. With so much oak and pinyon and so little aspen, our fires were more smoldering than burning, flames barely licking over the logs they were consuming. We hadn’t chopped wood since Snoots fell ill, so we turned to the wood shop for kindling. We brought up a stack of 4x4 scraps and built a rager to break the chill in our bones.
Ben went outside in the storm to bring in more wood, and I took out my phone to capture the blaze. As I did, sparks started to fly out of the fireplace, and then, the sound — a jet engine was materializing in our house, and I looked up to see every plant on the fireplace that Snoots had ever slept in was shaking, vibrating with the fear of god. I ran out to Ben running in, yelling over each other:
“The house is on fire!”
We’d built a fire so big we’d set the chimney on fire. Flames were lashing the snow from our chimney top, calling a spectacle to our house.
Ben put the firescreen aside, and whacked the fire tower down with a shovel, letting burning chunks of wood and coal scatter across the floor while I ran to the bathroom to soak a towel to throw over it as he ran to the basement to get the fire extinguisher Dick had left us, and I filled a cracked bucket from the bathtub to toss onto the fire, the whole house trembling, the sound unbelievable. I threw water on everything that fire threw itself on while Ben turned the fire extinguisher up the chimney only for it not to work.
Smoke billowed out the side patio door and our neighbor Andy appeared in it like a ghost.
“Dick’s extinguisher doesn’t work!” Ben yelled to him.
Andy took off at a clip back out into the storm, and creosote showered down from the chimney reigniting the soaked pile of ash and debris, sparking out onto the floor. I rolled back the rug and pushed all the furniture out of the way between trips with the bucket to the bathtub while the chimney rocks rattled and threatened ominously to displace. Andy came back in with his own extinguisher and Ben went to work while I ran to another neighbor’s.
Up the hill, I pounded on Dan’s door, “we need a fire extinguisher!” Dan appeared in his snowpants mid run through his own house yelling back to me, “I don’t know if it works!” With the red canister cradled like a baby in my arms, I shuffled down the icy street watching our cabin cough like a steam engine. Inside, the creosote shower was wreaking beautiful chaos until the final extinguisher gave its everything up the chimney and the roar finally settled into the gentle hum of the home team having lost.
We stood there, doors wide open to the 9° wind, our furniture covered in ash, coals all over the floor, and our primary source of heat now filled with some 60 lbs of creosote. If I thought about Snoots at all, it was gratitude that he wasn’t around to take advantage of the open doors so we wouldn’t need to figure out what snowbank he’d thrown himself in.
The house was 45°. On the one hand, there was no way to get warm because we could not have a fire. On the other, we still had a house. We stared at the mess we made, poured a drink, and went to the basement for the rest of the day to get alternate-dimensionally high and watch more episodes of an alien planning to destroy this shit hole we call home.
Tuesday was greeted by little. I woke up sobbing, bereft without his size-defying yowls coming from some indeterminable place in the basement. Snow was dumping and even my “you have to get out of the house” go at skate skiing was joyless. All I felt in my attempts to care for myself was shame that I hadn’t been able to care for him.
But Snoots was on a mission, and this kind of bottom feeding grieving wasn’t going to stand.
On Wednesday, the house was brutally cold. The sun wasn’t interested in joining our grief, too cheery and promising. We were overwhelmed, crippled with doubts and fears and organ strangling sadness. The house seemed to grieve along with us in its mess. The baseboard heaters aching against the walls, unable to fight the wind at their backs. Then, the power went out.
“The power just went out,” I said to Ben, giving our lives a surreal play by play of the obvious just to test if we were still alive. I was in the middle of work, staring at the grayed out WiFi icon on my laptop. For this, we had prepared. Ben went to the basement to get our Goal Zero generator — the one we’d bought only two months prior. He plugged the Starlink router into it, and we were back in business, though my hands were too cold to type.
Twenty minutes after the power shut off, the temperature in the house dropped into the 40s. With Cooper and Finn huddled into blankets, we needed to find a way to get warm. We set out to clean the fireplace. We needed something to shovel the ash into, so I went upstairs to grab some of the moving bins that sat empty in the closet that we left ajar because Snoots loved to play in it. Next to them was the tall bucket of spare ash for Snoots’s litter box. I grabbed two of the bins and shut the closet and my eyes, holding in my grief.
Downstairs, wearing base layers, work overalls, wool sweaters, puffy jackets, boots, hats, and gloves, we began to shovel the creosote and fire debris into the bins. We filled two bins and chucked them onto the patio just as Cara and Caitlin walked in, dogs Ophelia and Telly hot on their heels.
“Do you guys have power?”
“No, but we have WiFi if you need it.”
They set themselves up in the corner immediately, and I felt breathless as they stomped their snowy boots across the Ripple Rug I’d bought special for Finn and Snoots for Christmas, where I had held Snoots paw and he’d clutched mine back in his last days. But then the door opened again. This time it was Macy and her dog Chego, fully bundled and looking for refuge. As people and dogs piled in, the creosote piled up in the bins. Every part of the fireplace has been soaked by my bucket efforts, and with it cleared out, we needed a base before we could build another fire. I thought of the ash bucket upstairs. I bit the quiver in my lip and headed back to the closet to grab the ash. I spread the whole bucket across the base of the fireplace saying nouns in my head stone extinguisher broom match pinecone tree lights vase leaves, keeping the tears at bay.
Macy stepped over to build the fire, and I went to make sure Finn had everything he needed to keep warm in the bedroom. Only Snoots liked dogs. They scare Finn, and without his fearless brother, he was hiding. He was standing on the dresser and burst into purrs when he saw me, treats in hand. He didn’t want to be alone. I swept him up in my arms and carried him through the land of dogs to the loft stairs, blocking them with the fireplace screen so he could be in the room with us but keep the dogs at bay.
Then, the notifications started to come in. The power was out because an avalanche had broken over the road, reported to be 150 yards wide and 20 feet deep at its apex. It was the middle of the day on a Wednesday, and more people were trapped out of the town than in it.
Can you check on Mark?
Can you let my dog out?
Are you guys in or out?
You doing ok?
We carried messages out into the street, connecting partners and parents, bringing more friends into our house for warmth and WiFi. And so we sat, neighbors and friends, dogs and one very special cat, playing Settlers of Catan in front of a responsibly sized fire drinking and laughing. I looked up at the nook on the chimney, knowing he would have been there watching the glow.
I fell asleep that night with my heart full. I woke up to water spraying in my face.
“Honey?!” I called out in distress. Water was gushing out from the light fixture above our bed, spraying me, Finn, and Cooper. We all leapt out of bed.
We yelled to and through each other:
“The bedroom is flooding!”
“I’m trying to find the leak!”
“Get the bucket!”
“The bucket is cracked!!!”
“The ash bucket isn’t!”
The pipe in the bathroom in the loft had seemingly burst and the bed was getting soaked. I ran into the bathroom and grabbed all the towels left on the floor and threw them on the bed, then grabbed the ash bucket from next to the fireplace to catch the gush from the ceiling while Ben disconnected lines and turned off the water.
At 7:45, I was a wet dog standing on a wet bed wide awake. It was the first morning I didn’t wake up crying. I started laughing. If Snoots couldn’t pee on our begs, in our closets, in every plant, and in every open box, this seemed like an apt replacement. Then the text came in.
They’re dropping bombs in ten. Come get in the van.
So I put the bucket on the bed, hoped for the best, and put on my ski clothes. It was 0° that morning, but we weren’t going to miss this. When one of the big slides goes, it means the rest are close. It was time for a little avalanche mitigation and we weren’t going to miss one of our friends dropping cartoon bombs from a helicopter to let ‘em rip. If the road is blocked to begin with, might as well block it in more. We piled into Andy’s van and drove to the other side of town to watch.
With so many locals trapped outside, there was only a small audience for the show. We whooped and marveled while the dogs yipped and howled, watching the massive walls of snow overtake everything in their path. The awesome scale of destruction felt good in my soul, cleansing with fury, taking with it the memory of what lay waiting at home. (The video below.)
Mere hours later, the power returned and news of the road crew beginning work had begun, the state of my wallowing confronted by everyone else’s desire to power through and on. At home, it was time to clean up. Upstairs, the bathroom had flooded by where we kept Snoots’s ash litter box. I took it outside and dumped it into the creosote bins. I picked up every wet and soot-covered towel and started the laundry. We took the lights off the tree and took it out back to make kindling that might be a little less likely to destroy the house. We rearranged the main room to its pre-Christmas state, and then rearranged it a little more to clean up some of the trauma memory zones. We put the house and ourselves back together. And when the road opened, we bought every fire extinguisher the hardware store had.
If grief is a haunted house, you need to deal with the actors first. The Christmas tree he slept under, curled into the festive tree skirt at his worst. The ash litter box, special for him because he wouldn’t pee anywhere else. The ash bucket, set aside to refill it. The towels on the bathroom floor, left from holding him down for his injections. The Ripple Rug, placed in the corner where he felt safest. All objects we couldn’t move because it felt like removing him. But they were simply actors. Those spaces are not where he is. He’s not in the dirty towels or the Christmas tree long past Christmas. He’s not on catnip rugs or old blankets. He’s not etched into the bad memories. He’s made of the good ones.
That little cat—from wherever he is—went through the house, one heartbreak after another getting us to clean up the mess. To remember him not for the way he went out but for the time he spent in — in our lives, in our hearts, in our family. He just had to trigger an avalanche, close the road, knock out the power, set the house on fire, send some friends in, flood the upstairs, and drop some bombs for us to realize it.
Thanks for loving him with me. May we spend every Friday the 13th being as bad as he was. My heart to the mischief maker. Now he’s with me forever.
Oh you made me gasp in horror, laugh at the irony and chaos, the sigh with the apt metaphor of an avalanche and release and cry when I saw the tattoo. This was a powerful evocation of grief and recovery.
WHAT a chain of events! I started laughing is disbelief at the water shooting out of the light fixture. Holy shit! No doubt in my mind this was all Snoots doing.
I’m moving through a different kind of grief, but your mention of trauma points, of items and spaces being actors, really reframed some things. Gonna do some deep cleaning today.