For someone who’s never had to confront the loss of a close friend or family member, I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about death.
Maybe it’s got something to do with my twisted Catholic upbringing -- being reminded from the age of three that you’re only one wrong turn of the Number One Bus away from eternal damnation is enough to strike terror into even the most stalwart of young hearts. Or maybe it’s my parents’ morbid tendency to constantly warn my sisters and me that we'd better be nice to them now because they "won't be around" forever and we’ll “be sorry” when they’re gone. Or maybe it’s just my overly fertile writer’s brain that never fails to dream up the most horrendous tragedies imaginable and forces me to speculate ad nauseum about how I will greet the Reaper when he finally arrives on my doorstep.
The problem is, I never really thought he’d show. I’ve always operated under the superstition that if I worry enough about something that might happen it never will happen. According to this totally unfounded but nonetheless compelling hypothesis, just thinking about something bad happening serves as a kind of talisman against it actually occurring, and the fact that nothing terrible has happened to me for the past forty-one years had me pretty much convinced that I just might be on to something.
Up until today.
Today I am sitting in my office on the Sunday after Christmas wondering whether today is going to be the day I will have to put Eliot, my fifteen year-old cat, to sleep.
Now, I realize in the larger scheme of things a cat is just a cat. She’s not a parent, a sibling, a child, or even a friend (although there were certainly many times in her long kitty life that she’s seemed, at least to me, like all those and more). And it’s not like she hasn’t been sick for a long time, although I always regarded her diabetes as just an unfortunate inconvenience that required the relatively simple administration of two shots of insulin per day and made for good conversation with other pet owners at cocktail parties. But, even so, I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to feel when she dies ever since the first day I brought her home. Ergo, she will never die.
Or so I thought.
And the suckiest part about the whole thing is, none of my wildest speculations bear even the remotest resemblance to the way things have actually ended up.
I always thought I’d have some kind of warning. She’d seem weak and lethargic and I’d take her to the vet -- who would be compassionate, clear-headed, and knowledgeable -- and be told that, yes, it looked as though it was time. Then I’d get to spend one last day with her, preferably out on my patio on a warm spring day, with my face buried in the clean, white, sweet-smelling fur of her neck. I’d explain everything to her, apologize, but reassure her that what I was doing was for her own good. She’d accept my tears and apologies nobly, albeit weakly and quietly, and someone would drive us to my vet’s office, where I’d hold her in my arms until she breathed her last. My friends and sisters would surround me with love and comfort and I’d spend a quiet week at home, mourning, until I felt ready to rejoin the world.
That’s the fantasy. The reality is different.
The reality is a panicked cell phone call from my father as I head home to Boston after the Christmas holiday to pick Eliot up from the veterinary office I board her at when I travel, telling me the vet has been trying to reach me and I must call her immediately. The reality is a faulty cell phone battery that fails at the worst possible moment, forcing me to search for a pay phone on the side of the highway and scream incoherently at a Verizon operator who tells me I can’t bill the call to my calling card because I never set up a PIN. The reality is finally getting through to the vet, only to learn that “nobody really knows” what’s wrong, but I need to get home as soon as I can so I can transport Eliot to Angell Memorial Animal Hospital for further tests and treatment.
In my fantasy, I trust my vet’s advice and accept it without question, certain that her recommendations carry the full force of medical science behind them and should not be doubted. In reality, I am resentful and suspicious of this kind woman who has been treating my cat for her entire life, because whatever it was that happened to Eliot happened on her watch. It’s her fault. She is not to be trusted.
In my fantasy, I carry my little cat into the hospital emergency ward and kiss her forehead before I hand her off to the veterinary technician, who takes us both quietly to the examining room for one final checkup. In reality, I am too afraid to touch the scrawny, stinking, urine-soaked clump of fur that snarls and hisses at me when I reach tentatively, reluctantly, for her paw, and simply push the cat carrier forward, unable to will myself to follow as they take her off.
In my fantasy, I am driven only by thoughts of what is best for my cat, and my decisions regarding her fate are not impacted by such ugly considerations as money or credit card debt. In reality, I sit, stunned, in the financial office of the veterinary hospital and stare numbly at a cost estimate that runs into the thousands just to find out what is wrong with her, let alone treat her illness, and despise myself for suddenly wondering, for the first time in my life, how much is too much to spend on a sick pet.
In my fantasy, I am a rock. I remain stoically by my cat’s side until the bitter end, facing her fate head on, without regard for personal or material comforts. In reality, I am a coward. I don’t want to see her in the ICU, unconscious, belly shaved, tubes and catheters running in and out of her frail body. I don’t want to think about what is coming next or be reminded about the decision I am going to have to make. I want to go home and have it all be over with -- or, better yet, have it all be the way it was a week ago.
In my fantasy, my friends and family rally around me, offering advice, support, and kind words that I accept with the dignified grace of the newly bereaved. In reality, I shriek angrily at those who tell me gently that it’s “time to let go,” and even more angrily at those who try to encourage me to “hang in there.” I hate everyone. I don’t want advice, comfort, concern, or love. I want to sit by myself in a dark room, not thinking, not answering the phone, and not talking to anyone about how I am supposed to feel. Because I don’t know how I am supposed to feel.
In my fantasy, I feel grief and anguish, and my grief and anguish make me cry, long and hard and loud, until I can't cry anymore. In reality, I feel nothing, other than a sick feeling in the back of my throat that kind of makes me want to throw up, but I don’t. The tears that stream involuntarily down my face come without warning and don’t seem to be attached to any particular emotion. They’re just there, and I don’t know where they have come from or how to make them go away.
In my fantasy, everything is certain. Everything is decided. There is no ambiguity, no “what if?” and no question as to what to do. In reality, I don’t have a clue what I am doing. I make decisions and contradict them moments later. I tell the vet not to resuscitate her if her heart stops in the night, but okay an emergency transfusion when her red blood cells drop to dangerously low levels. I hold a running internal debate about whether or not she would survive surgery, first telling myself I won’t put her through it and then immediately changing my mind.
And through it all, I say to myself, “So this is what it’s like. This is what it feels like to lose someone you love.” And I feel guilty for feeling this way. Selfish. Knowing that other people -- people I know -- have suffered greater losses than this. And knowing that I will suffer my own greater losses someday myself and I'd better learn how to deal with this now because from here on it only gets worse.
Maybe this is just practice. A karmic warning shot. A warm-up act for the real heartbreaks that still lie ahead. And if that’s so, I don’t want to think about how I’m going to feel the next time it happens. When it happens for real. But I am thinking about it. I have to.
Because as long as I’m thinking about it, it can’t happen.