Grim is a 27 lb all-black pig-pen dirty-rascal irritable-bastard of a cat. We adopted him and Billy, the other feline, in 2004 when we were new to Maine and eager to establish home and routine with the prince. So Billy and Grim are 9 years old and counting. Billy is all white, blue-eyed, about 12 lbs, sleek; he’s lovely, tidy, good-natured, and willing to defend himself but not aggressive. When the cats were still kittens, Billy endeared himself, sometimes cloyingly so, to each of us, but eventually settled upon the prince as his preferred human. Grim took another approach to life.
For the first couple of years, Grim could be found in the basement. In our house in Maine the basement was cavernous, dank, dusty, and cobwebbed, with what Mainers called a “French drain” running through it. (We hadn’t been there long when we figured out “French” was a pejorative). Grim would hide out in the dustiest places and emerge only for food. He was a scrawny thing, a flyweight, skittish and anti-social; it was hard to keep him on a lap or a couch long enough to give him any attention at all.
They weren’t brothers, we knew. And what we began to think and believe to this day is that Billy had a mother, for long enough anyway, and Grim did not. In other words, Billy seems whole, and Grim doesn’t.
I am Grim’s preferred human. Sometimes I think it’s because he knows I’m the mother. Sometimes I think it’s because he knows I, too, am missing my mother. Everyone else here still has a mom, living and involved and interested in the child, and mine’s been gone for 23 years.
I don’t know how old you “should” be before you lose your mom (for the record, Dad can be every bit the parent of which I speak; Mom is more commonly the more-needed parent, but there are plenty of dads out there whose children need them to not-die-just-yet). I was 26 and I think I was too young. I sometimes think that, like Grimmy, I’m not whole. I needed my early adult life overseen for yet a while longer, I needed Mom there to say implicitly or explicitly, “you’re ok, you’re doing fine, I’m happy with you.”
Grim is grossly overweight, doesn’t groom himself like he should, and has a very narrow window through which he will give and receive affection (petting him properly requires the precision you never had playing “Operation” as a kid). I have my own quirks, certainly: a lifelong nailbiter, compulsive, depressive, moody. Whether it’s right or fair to attribute all of Grim’s and my shortcomings to being motherless is anyone’s guess, but I do believe that missing that parent set us both up for a measure of failure in life.
I remember thinking after Mom died that she would have, at any point, died for her kids. But living for them– that’s the tricky part. She was poorly parented herself, which made her a perfect candidate to become addicted to, and find comfort in, smoking. The great thing about addiction is that whatever is lacking can be transferred to the need for the drug. So all of Mom’s needs, and there must have been myriad unfulfilled needs, were sated just enough with the pleasure of cigarettes. “Lavina’s on the phone, go get my cigarettes honey, will you?” I still remember her ensconced at the desk, taking a pull on the smoke and laughing while she talked with her friend. The smoking– this was her failure in life, the one that robbed me of her.
So my challenge in life is bald: to live longer than my mother did, to give the prince what I lack. In order to best my mother, not in years lived but in years given to my kid, I have to survive another thirteen years. It at once sounds both paltry and impossible.