My cat, my friend, my grief.


As most of you know our darling 20 year old cat Marlowe died on Sunday 28thJuly at 5 am. Stella and I have been dreading this moment. For the past few years we’ve thought, this is it, but somehow Marlowe kept going. Despite major surgery when she was young and other trips to the vet as she grew older she was doing really well, until May.  Medication for high blood pressure, an over active thyroid and kidney problems slowed her down. Suddenly she behaved like a twenty year old.  And yet she gave us two more loving months, more than we ever expected.

The pain we feel is enormous. The huge energy that little cat exuded is absent in every single room in our house, including the bathroom, as she took great pleasure strolling in when we were there. She once tried to get into the shower with me.  She made her way down to the cellar, into the loft storage space and sneaked into the shed.

She was such a determined soul, chasing the foxes, watching the birds from her place on the garden table, but never killing one. In twenty years there was no sign of fleas and our furniture remained unscratched.  She even managed to step out of the loft door – which I left open for a few seconds – and find her way around the glass balustrade, balancing on the narrow pipe, our own Olga Korcat, nothing to stop her falling onto the paving below. With Stella’s enormous patience and cat whispering and my absolute hysteria, Marlowe followed instructions, turned around and found her way back inside.

There are reminders of her everywhere. The spaces where her bowls, glasses, toys, litter trays and food once stood, now signify her immense absence. We can’t turn a corner without expecting to see her, feel a paw stretching out, reaching for us for a quick kiss then back to sleep.

She had a sweet, adorable nature, followed us around the house and garden because she liked to be with us. Afternoon cuddles with Marlowe were part of my day. Coming home and knowing she would be waiting was always exciting. She loved us and we loved her. I never knew I could love a cat so much, so absolutely for over 7300 days. That’s a lot of love.

I have experienced grief for different losses, miscarriage, illness, the deaths of my sister and father, mother-in-law and so many friends. This grief feels no different. But with each of those griefs Marlowe was always here to comfort us, a constant presence in our lives. We could come home and here she was. She never expected anything from us, just food, water, cuddles and care. When Marlowe died I suddenly felt older. I looked through photos, mapping Marlowe’s twenty years and our twenty years. So much time, so much has happened and she has been a part of every significant moment in our twenty years as a family.

On Saturday afternoon when we returned from yoga, she surprised us by making it up to the loft, which she hadn’t been up to for a while as it was too far for her little legs to carry her. But there she was on our bed, in her usual place, where she used to sleep. We carried her down to be in the garden with us. She walked over to the bay tree, stood there and looked at us as if to say, this is where I want to be.

On Saturday evening she curled up in her regular place – a blanket on Stella’s lap in the living room. And then up to bed we three went, she nestling between us, Stella holding a paw, my hand cupping her head, which is what she loved.  At 4.43 she nudged me. She tried to stand but couldn’t. Stella took this as a message that she wanted to be carried down to her litter tray. Once downstairs her legs gave way and I carried her back upstairs where she lay on her blanket, in brief discomfort for a few minutes, one gasp then nothing. Another gasp and that was it. Quiet, beautiful, gone. Even in death she looked pretty and soft.

I have been crying constantly, great deep howls from within. I have an ache in my stomach, I’m not hungry and I dread the nights and the mornings, as my routine has gone.  I give gratitude for the life we could give Marlowe and for the life she gave us. I know Stella and I are lucky we have each other to share the memories. I am only too aware that not everyone has this.

For the few who don’t get it, there are so many who do. The kindness has been overwhelming and constant. We have been touched by words of comfort, so many words of comfort. It makes a difference.

I write this because it helps and because I want to remember, but also because we need to acknowledge the importance of the death of our furry companions. Sometimes we are too embarrassed to say ‘I’m grieving about the death of an animal’ because we don’t want to be met with blank faces or sighs from those who don’t get it. We shouldn’t be embarrassed. It’s a death, we need to grieve and be allowed to grieve, in whatever way is right for us and for as long as it takes.



Day 2. 14 degrees of Bliss…

Tuesday 11th October 2016

Last week, I’d arranged to go for a swim with my friend Jenny at 9am today. Jenny is the friend who got me into cold water swimming a few years ago. We met on Twitter, and in person for the first time in the dry-side changing rooms at Brockwell Lido, my local pool. We met while getting undressed, as if old mates.  Her husband and my wife knew each other from way back, it wasn’t as if I was meeting a total stranger in a changing room for the first time.  Actually, it was.

I warmed to Jenny from the moment I met her. She is sparky and cool and she could swim in VERY cold water.  Photos of her on social media, with red, raw skin from Tooting winters, made me want to have a go.  I pondered it for a while, researched cold water swimming the way I research everything before committing myself. I’ve been for charity dips in the Lido, once when it was below 0 and a diver had to break the ice to let us in.  But that was a quick drip, no more and I screamed the entire time.   This was different.

I would stand in the Lido reception during the cold months and watch the winter swimmers, how brave, how cold, how can I do that?  I want to do that.  A swimmer said, it’s addictive, once you start you won’t stop. Yeah, right.  I watched as they rushed from pool side swims into the sauna and steam room, giggling, energetic, happy.  I was a little bit jealous.  I wanted to be brave and I hated not being able to at least try something, succeeding where possible.  Some people swam with heads above water, some were in wetsuits, others in regular swim wear, bodies submerged, arms moving up and in and down and around.  I wanted that to be me.  But I didn’t want to be cold. I admit I was scared.   Everyone I mentioned it to said I was mad. You’ll catch a cold – my mum.  You’re nutty – my dad.  You’re crazy – everyone else.  If you want to do it, just do it – my wife.

I bought a wetsuit. A shortie wetsuit, which I loved (and used at the above mentioned icy charity Lido encounter).  It was easy to put on and take off, it was comfortable and I didn’t look like an overstuffed pepper.  Then I hired a full wetsuit and ended up keeping it. Clever marketing, I am a star consumer!  Since wearing it several years ago and discovering that taking it off took more effort than the actual swim, I decided that I would swim without it. Also because once I fell over trying to get out of it and had a fit of laughter, eventually asking a lifeguard to help me.  Both wetsuits have been in our loft for a couple of years. Little did I know that I would be needing it in May 2017.  Everything has its use…eventually. But now you can understand my wetsuit dilemma.  If the water on the day is above 14 degrees I do not have to wear one…

Cold water is cold.  It’s stunningly invigorating and is addictive and that first dip, every time, takes away my breath.  Everything everyone ever told me about it was right.  It’s hard, but there are many things in life that are harder.  The only way in for me is to submerge myself immediately and start swimming.  Autumn 2014 was the first year I started cold water swimming.  Last year in October I had surgery, so I couldn’t winter swim, this year I am ready for whatever the temperature drops to.  I am acclimatising to the drop in water temp.  YOU HAVE TO ACCLIMATISE YOURSELF. And when it happens, when my skin is covered in water, cold water, clear water, I am reborn.  Me, the water, the sky, a bird flying past.  Nothing else.  My skin tingles for hours afterwards, I am woken up, coughs and colds are kept at bay.  It’s good for you, really, it is.  The best thing is that other swimmers don’t care whether your head is in or out, whether you do 1 or 12 lengths or run in and out.  Some people do the same amount of lengths as the temperature of the water…today it was 14 degrees, I admit I didn’t do 14 lengths, but 10 or 12, I lost count. 500m at least.  My sprint triathlon swim is 400m.

It was totally blissful, the best swim of my year, strokes of warmth where the sun came through, partially blue sky, few people, cheery lifeguards saying they wouldn’t do it, to which I responded, I hope you would if I needed you.  Since working with a scientific swimmer (for an hour at our Fun Palace, but that’s for another time), I noticed that something had shifted for me today, even Jenny commented on my lovely stroke.  No one has ever said that about my stroke before.  I wasn’t out of breath, I could have kept going. Given that three years ago I couldn’t do one length of freestyle in a 25m indoor pool, my progress has made me proud.  Because you see I am not a natural swimmer, I like land and mountains. I have learned to love the water.  I have learned to love the sea.  Did I tell you that my wife is a mermaid?  She glides along, she is beautiful to watch, she is my soul and my spirit in and out of the water. She is always beside me.  She is strong and confident and happy in water, happier in salt water, like all mermaids.  She taught me to breathe properly, she taught me how to do breast stroke, about 12 years ago in a pool in the Canaries.  I  kept practising and eventually I got it.  Far from the days of my school pool in Swiss Cottage in London, with wire baskets where our clothes were kept and chlorine that I can still smell and taste and the echo of children having fun but not being taught how to swim properly.

As with most things, once I had mastered breast stroke, I wanted to do freestyle. Breaststroke was hurting my lower back and freestyle would not.  But I couldn’t do freestyle, I would get out of breath fast and really struggle and hate that I couldn’t do it the way I wanted to do it.  I watched other swimmers, I watched my mermaid, eventually I managed half a length but no more, for weeks and months, I was struggling.  I couldn’t understand swimmers who just kept going, without stopping to breathe.  I wanted that to be me. But it wasn’t happening and I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t happening.  I bought aids, a pull buoy to keep my legs afloat so only my arms did the work.  That was easier.  I bought flippers, to help my stroke.  Easier again, but not natural.  And once you get used to swimming aids, when you revert to life before them, it’s harder.

For a Christmas present to myself 3 years ago, I booked a three hour swimming boot camp, in an indoor pool where you are filmed from every angle.  I was the only woman, with two triathletes and one man who was worse than me.  The instructor said, we’ll film you doing six lengths, just keep going.  I couldn’t even do one length. At the post swim one-to-one via Skype a week later, I realised, from watching myself on film, that my legs had been working far too hard and where they should have been straight they were bending at the knees.  And that wasn’t the only problem.  I watched that film a dozen and more times, made notes, made the changes necessary, had one lesson at the Lido, I was improving, slowly.  But that wasn’t good enough, I wanted to learn bilateral breathing – that is breathing on both sides.  In our friends’ pool in the south of France, I took a swimming book and read and swam, read and swam, ingested a great deal of water while trying to breathe on both sides, and I did it.  I also taught myself to do tumble turns, not very well, but I can do them.  Sort of.

Back in the Lido my freestyle started to improve even more.  I could do a length of freestyle and a length of breaststroke and so it went on.  Until something changed. Whether the gym work to increase my upper body strength or the pilates for my core or yoga for flexibility, or running since April, I remember a day, last year, when I swam freestyle and kept going as if my mermaid tail had fully formed.

Today was just like that.  Cold to start, but once in, warm, deliciously warm, warmer in the water than out and I could have kept on swimming.  I focused on a line in the floor of the pool then crashed into someone (sorry) because I was concentrating so much and was swimming the wrong way.  I didn’t stop once (apart from the crash), I was happy and proud and then I realised that in May, the water temperature will probably be exactly the same as it was today.

Next time it’s running…