Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Quality of Life

[HEADS UP: This entry can be depressing, so if you're looking for something jolly to pass the time, I'd suggest leaving it alone for now.]

My mother called me earlier to talk about the latest family news from her end. Petulant behavior here, painful separation there... We haven't had this much family drama since one of my mother's cousins had his mid-life crisis by purchasing motorcycles and divorcing his wife in favor of his mistress.

Unfortunately, one of the other announcements was that our oldest family cat, Howie, had been put to sleep. I've been thinking about that off and on since she mentioned it; it borders on eight hours now. I don't want to give the impression that I'm distraught, because that would be incorrect. It is more appropriate to say that I've been distracted. I'll push the pages of a book around, unable to retain the words more than a few at a time. Then I'll put that down and pour myself a glass of juice, trying to let the flavor shock me back to operation. Juice glass in hand, I'll browse the internet for a while, until I realize I'm just going to the same three sites in a loop.

This particular cat had been remarkably lucky, ending up at the doorstep of a family who was willing to take him in. He lived a much longer life than he would have otherwise, and he certainly possessed the innate cat ability to look like he really enjoyed his life.

On the one hand, it makes me sad that he's dead. It's a personal loss -- an absence in the routine, as they say. I'm going through many of the same self-recriminations one does with a human loss: if only I'd done this more often. If only I'd told him that one more time. If only I'd scratched behind his ears just a little harder the last time I saw him. Yes, that last one is cat-specific, I'll grant you. Except one uncle who... well, maybe let that pass.

But while it is sad, it is also a sort of exhalation. The sigh of the end of term; the work accomplished. As feline lives go, Howie had an excellent one. But he was not in the best of health at the end of his life; his every movement seemed to cause him discomfort and he confined his motion more and more to the shuffling of an old man, avoiding stairs when he could. As my mom is fond of saying, cats don't have the mechanisms to tell us when it's time. It's left to us, their trusted people, to make their decisions for them.

I'm largely useless when it comes to this sort of thing. In the past, particular trips to the vet have reduced me to the most profound expressions of grief I've ever had. I feel guilty writing that sentence, during a season which has already seen the death of a friend's parent. I did shed tears for my grandfather's death. And my favorite teacher's death hangs in the back of my consciousness even to this day. But the most emotional outbursts have been reserved for the death of pets. It will not always be the case, I'd assume: the death of my parents or my brothers is sure to hit me harder.

That's the reason even an unconnected death can rattle us: it forces us to think about death in our own circles. We can all continue on quite happily for months or years without even thinking about the possibility of death. All it takes is a single ripple in the pond to shudder us at the core. It's helpful, in a way. We should never forget that it is everyone's common fate.

But neither should we live our lives to die. When Tybalt is killed by Romeo, Juliet's father waves away the grief of the death, saying "Well, we were born to die." (Act III, scn. iv) That is no way to live a life! Treating it as some sort of amusement park slide from cradle to grave; no. It is a sad fact that we die, true, but that shouldn't make us voluntarily suck the life and color from our existence because of the fear.

It's a kind of selfishness, my desire to keep the cat around even though it wasn't doing very well. When I look at it that way, it seems silly to let it get me down for too long. And that's the way it works, based on previous experiences. It's a fresh sadness in the beginning, but eventually the biting part of the hurt ebbs away, leaving me with the memories and a bittersweet smile for a variety of reasons.

Not the least of which is the mental image of my dad tucking Howie under his arm like a small carpet to transport him to his nightly bedroom (the garage) and hearing the cat (doing his best human impersonation) give a quick, single huff of frustration and impotent displeasure at being dislodged from his spot in the comfy chair.

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