Wearing My Own Mala Beads

A mantra bead is often used as a meditative tool but it also can serve as a reminder or a singular symbol of memory.

I was making lunch for my kids and as I passed the breakfast table, I swear I caught a glimpse of Bella. But Bella, my gorgeous, fluffy, beige cat, died last November, so I knew this was impossible. In the days and months that followed Bella’s death I wondered if I would ever stop crying. Death and loss was ever present: two close friends had passed in quick succession, and I remembered feeling like the bottom fell out. Even this brief vestige of my beloved kitty that morning brought a quick stab to my heart.

My dearest companion, Nute, loyal and wonderfully nutty Nute, died first, in September, after wasting away from cancer for four long weeks. My husband and I rescued Nute 15 years earlier, along a rural Kansas road in the middle of our cross-country bicycling trip. He was a mere six weeks old, one tiny pound of fur, and his desperate meow was his final attempt at survival. We picked him up, pedaled to the closest city, Chanute, Kansas, where we looked through the yellow pages at a local Pizza Hut for a veterinarian. While we recognized that rescuing a kitten on a bike was not going to be an easy task, we knew that we were smitten and couldn’t leave him there for adoption. So he rode in Mark’s bike basket the remaining six weeks, sleeping while we were pedaling, trailing behind us as we set up camp every night, and snoozing on our faces every night. Nute spent every single day thanking us for that rescue; he was my fierce and loyal companion for 15 years and when he slowly withered away from the cancer invading his stomach, my life stood still. I absorbed each cherished moment with him, attempting to put his final four weeks with me into a vault in my heart, willing the meds to both ease his pain and keep him alive a few more days. I was undone. I sleepwalked through the first week after he died. Walking in my house felt like I was being gutted- Nute greeted me every single time I walked in the house. In fact, I knew something was wrong with him the day he didn’t come to the door. I knew a week before the fourth trip to the vet revealed the devastating news. I knew him that well, paid attention to his presence as he paid attention to mine. Every day.

Nute died on September 30, and two days later, I saw my dear friend Catherine for the last time. Another avid animal lover and kindred spirit, Catherine was also slowly losing her battle with cancer. She was in a perilous and rapid decline when I saw her, belly swollen with fluids as her liver was shutting down, but all she did was comfort me about my loss. She knew Nute well and understood that his death floored me. Catherine died a week later.

Three days before Catherine died, my oldest cat and companion of Nute, Bella, was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw. The vet declared it a particularly nasty form of cancer and gave her two or three weeks to live.

After Catherine died, I spent as much time at home as possible, returning immediately after teaching, not doing anything on weekends except the bare minimum. Often, teaching classes or working with my teacher trainees brought me relief: my load of grief was briefly lifted off my heart and I could even smile. When I was home, I felt equally drawn to be with Bella and to be away from her, shielding myself from her presence. Unlike Nute, her decline was long and drawn out- in fact, her appetite was the usual incessant drive to get more wet food. Her jaw would bleed and looked grotesque as the tumor exploded in size, but her pain meds kept the discomfort at bay. The hardest part was not knowing when; the vet said that Bella would let me know, just like Nute did, by stopping eating or overall malaise. Bella showed none of this until the very end. She would hop up on the bar stools or the breakfast table and stare at me with her beautiful 18-year old eyes, enticing me to pet her or feed her.

Bella’s final day followed Catherine’s memorial service; I could feel my heart being pummeled all over. The hardest, but most necessary, aspect was being present for all three of my friends’ deaths. With my cats, I was beyond distraught but knew that my love for them was big enough to endure my own pain, and I knew that it was a gift to be able to offer them escape and relief from their terminal pain. Catherine’s passing was longer and I so wish we could have offered something to help her along gently, as I was able to do with Bella and Nute.

Healing from the loss of my friends, especially my cats who were my constant companions for 15-18 years, was slow and I languished in the sorrow. At home, I felt sluggish and numb, and I cried constantly. Every room, every nook and corner, chair, couch—even my toilet where Nute would come and rub against my legs—felt like walking on glass, piercing me with reminders of my loss. I could not engage in regular conversation very easily, afraid that I would devolve in a mess of tears and snot. Only teaching yoga made me feel completely normal and capable. Practicing yoga also placed me in a field of consciousness and awareness that felt brighter and clear. I could sense my feelings of grief without being swept into the current of despair. I was alive and present on my mat and could even recall with a smile how Nute loved to rub up against me while I was in a handstand, curious and excited at the way my head was that much closer to his.

Today, almost eighteen months later, I still sense all of them around me. I envision Catherine at the school that our kids attend, recall her jostling gait and shock of red-hair across the school yard and rush to greet me with a hug. Some days, not all days like it was that dark autumn, but some days I wake up and look for the presents that Nute brought me every night. He would leave a stuffed mouse, a sock, a ping-pong ball, some small token of appreciation and love each night, left by my pillow, as if to say, “Thanks, Mom, for giving me this life.” And then there’s Bella, sweet Bella, who would greet me each morning with her aloof rub as she pranced across the breakfast table. I caught her glance this morning and it serves as a reminder to cherish the love we have, to remember the small momentary beads in life that add up to a rosary of love.

Each bead is symbolic of a life passage that collects and makes us stronger. The celebrations and the sorrows join in a string of similarly shaped yet unique composites, tangible mementos that craft our history. Each one is delicate but strong, strong enough to hold the line around our necks. The sorrow of one bead could choke us, spilling the whole necklace to the floor, deflating our hopes into a pitiful heap. Yoga fortifies me and provides a sturdy clasp for my mala beads of memory, so that I can wear them with remembrance and not disintegrate. My practice keeps me present and fully feeling so that nothing gets buried and nothing can break the chain with fury. My memory mala beads have forged an unbreakable chain of consciousness.

My yoga practice kept me functioning in the pit of pain and loss. It heals my heart each time I step on the mat as I work to stay strong and open physically, so that I can feel more, do more, BE more in my life. It helps me survive the muddiness and cherish the beauty of life, like the lotus that grows from the muck. Practicing and teaching yoga are also mala beads that I wear—reminders to pay attention, to feel, to notice, to remember, to believe, to love–-all actions that add up to my present being, my own rosary of life, experiencing it all fully.

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