March 26, 2012

Cat-Inspired Thoughts on Death (Good Morning!)

I keep mentally composing more posts about Benchley's sad end, but not wanting to seem as if I don't have this in perspective. That is, I can think of many, many life circumstances I could have endured that would make me want to shake someone who was going on and on about a cat.

This, though, is the perfect place for the Hopkins couplet carefully learned in high school English class: "It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for." If you daydreamed about cute classmates through that class instead (and who could blame you with all the twisty poem phrasings to untwist), the poet is telling Margaret that when she's sad about things dying/ending, what she's actually sad about is her own eventual unavoidable death.

It's not that the death of a cat is so extremely terrible on the spectrum of terrible things, it's more that it can bring to the forefront of the mind all those things further up on the spectrum. So it's that I'm sad because our cat died, but it's also that I'm horrified to realize that DEATH IS REAL, IT ACTUALLY HAPPENS, IT WILL HAPPEN TO ALL OF US AND IT MIGHT NOT BE A PEACEFUL OLD-AGE DEATHBED SCENE EITHER BECAUSE TERRIBLE DEATHS HAPPEN ALL THE TIME. I know this already, but it sits on the surface of my mind like oil on the top of water: it's RIGHT THERE, but it never sinks in.

It's been large-application horrifying to realize how many death-related thoughts end in "Well, but at this point it's irrelevant." My worst fear is that Benchley was injured but not killed by the car, and then died because we didn't find him in time---maybe after quite a long time of lying there suffering. It's newly startling to me each time to work through that chain of upsetting thoughts and run right into "But at this point, it's irrelevant. Either way, it's over."

It's a comfort in some ways (he and others are not suffering NOW, even if he and they suffered THEN), but a horror in other ways: THERE IS NO GOING BACK, EVEN IF A DIFFERENT PATH WOULD HAVE COME OUT DIFFERENTLY. And this happens with so many things: every thought path where things could have gone a different way (if he'd happened to take a longer nap before going out, if the car had seen him in time, if the car had left one minute earlier or later that day, if we'd been on the scene when it happened, if our cat Feather could have communicated to us where he was) or where there is an objection to his death (but he was so young/healthy/strong, but he was so scared of the road and didn't go near it, but it was so much more likely that he was just trapped somewhere, but I didn't expect it, but it was just an ACCIDENT)---ALL of them end the same way, with irrelevance. It still did happen the way it did happen; he is still dead.

The way the body lingers awhile seems crazy. When we found Benchley, he looked like himself. There was his fur, still glossy and plush and familiar. There was his ear, still a thin triangle with a fluff of fur inside. There were his whiskers, still sticking straight out. There was his tail, fluffy as usual. It's hard to accept it: we look at a body, and our eyes/brains are telling us two different things simultaneously: "There he is" and "No, he isn't." Instead the body should vanish, or turn instantly to dust like a staked vampire on Buffy. The slower route is horrifying and comforting, showing us that the same materials just cycle around endlessly, that nature is busy all the time taking care of it. But the sudden disintegration would make more sense.


While not wanting to reduce a pet's existence to "being something that makes a person go 'hmmm'," I can see how one of the many good things about having pets (let's save the many bad things, such as peeing on things and needing expensive medical care, for a less emotionally vulnerable time) is that they provide us with opportunities to get used to...well, to Margaret. Or to an important relative of Margaret's. As a parent, I've been finding it tremendously helpful to have this chance to explain things I hadn't realized the kids were wondering, or to correct things I hadn't realized they'd thought. And to give them as gently and lightly as possible their first exposures to a message we all need to understand but that I don't want to tell them: "This happens to everything. (This will happen to you.)"

33 comments:

d e v a n said...

This is one of the best posts I've read in awhile. It's very true that each thing like this that happens just shows us where we are inevitably headed; and that is part of the reason it's so upsetting. (The other reason of course being that it's sad to lose a pet. )

Anna said...

Love this post, very thoughtful. And it made me cry. I was talking to my three-year-old about death the other day (can't remember how it came up) and told her that when people get very old their bodies wear out and they die. She thought for a minute and said 'But children don't die.' And I'm afraid I say I answered 'Well, inaperfectworld NO, darling, children don't die.' I didn't want to give her nightmares but afterwards I thought maybe I should have been honest. Ugh. It's so difficult.

Amanda said...

<3

Life of a Doctor's Wife said...

Oh Swistle. This is so well said.

Jen said...

Oh I am so sorry for the circumstances which brought about this beautiful post.

Lawyerish said...

Excellent, beautiful post, Swis.

Mary O said...

This is so good. And so sad. And overall, so TRUE.

Maggie said...

Such a great post!

The thing that I always have trouble wrapping my brain around is the body thing. Externally the pet looks just the same, internally there is nothing anymore. When our cat was killed, my son was only 3 and had a hard time with the idea that Bunko was dead because her body was still the same. I finally described it to him like a pistachio, the shell was still there but the nut was gone.

Sometimes, I think it would be easier psychologically if it was like in Buffy.

LizScott said...

Beautifully said.

My mom just buried her brother, her third sibling to die early. The next week, her college boyfriend passed away. She was so, so upset about the old boyfriend, not because she still loved him or missed him, though I'm sure she did/does to an extent, but because, as she put it "You just assume that people's lives keep going, even after you're out of them. That's how it should be. We all know bad things happen, but I do not like the reminder that it is not theoretical. When did I get to the age that I should reasonably expect people to die?"

I don't know, mama. I wish you weren't.

Um, Happy Monday, everyone.

Laura said...

I would have liked to have had you as my mother. Very much. Not that my mother is/was awful, just that I think you are awesome.

Sarah said...

We had our first discussion like this when my in-law's dog died a year or so ago. The kids were surprisingly matter of fact about it (the dog being dead forever, not coming back, etc.) but did need the facts confirmed quite often for a few weeks afterwards. I think it didn't quite seem possible that something could just be alive one day and dead the next. Maybe it feels like it should be a harder or more complicated thing, to go from alive to dead.
Then again, those times when it is a hard and complicated thing are certainly not ideal either.

Di said...

Very well said.

We've just had to go through this process with the kids when my uncle died. So much harder to explain when it's a person. Our cat died when Claire was too young to fully grasp, although she remembers enough that we were able to frame Uncle Toe's passing in terms she already understood.

Anna said...

I just remembered another thing. When she was 18, one of my sister's best friends died, and I was surprised by how much it upset me considering I barely knew him. And then I realised that it was because if a healthy 18-year-old could die, just like that, it could happen to my sister. It could happen to me.

Slim said...

Oh oh oh. The end keeps grabbing me by the brain and punching me in the chest. And I must like that sensation, because I keep coming back and re-reading.

Melissa Haworth said...

First off, I'm very sorry about your cat. :(

Second, I definitely see your point about using the cat's death as a way to introduce death to the kids. We did that when our pet chicken died last year and our five year old was very, very matter of fact about it and wanted details. O

ANYWAY, I was actually posting a comment to see if others have six year olds who are really, really interested in the specifics of death (both practical and 'spiritual') ie. "how does a gun kill you?" along with "what happens to you after you die?" And a few times she's told me she's sad because "some day I am going to die. and some day you are going to die"
I'm ready for the "interest in death" phase to be over!

PinkieBling said...

Beautifully written, and heart-breakingly true.

Swistle said...

Melissa- My firstborn was very very interested in such things at that age, especially the "What happens after we die?" part. I gave him the "Some people believe ___, other people believe ___, other people believe ____..." talk, and he wanted to have that conversation again and again and again.

Tess said...

The oil-on-water thing is PERFECT for this, and many other things. Love.

So sorry about your kitty.

Jenny said...

Thank you for this. What Laura said above rings true for me. I would also throw in that I would have loved to have had you as a teacher. And am grateful to get to learn from you this way.

Anonymous said...

I have had many conversations with my kids similar to the "some people believe this, and others believe that" but the simplest thing worked the best. I explained that we all take turns being alive. Some people get a long turn, some people get a short turn. Their grandparents turn started way before theirs did. The key is to take the very best turn we possibly can.

Katie said...

This was amazingly powerful and thought-provoking and I love it so much.

Gina said...

Beautiful thoughts. I wish there was a way to teach our children, prepare them somehow, for death - without them ever having to experience those close to them (animals and people) dying.

Our beloved cat died of cancer over two years ago and I found myself thankful for the kids. Having them, talking with them about it, made it easier for *me* to deal with. And even provided some funny moments (I never would have though cat death could be funny, but: http://www.mendolo.com/2010/04/23/funny-but-oh-so-very-wrong/).

Wishing you and your family peace right now.

Joanne said...

I love that poem and I love this post. I can't think about it too much because when I think about death and dying since I've become a parent, I think about my kids and then my heart starts to race and I freak the freak out. I'm sorry about Benchley and I'm sorry for all the feelings it all dredges up. It's so complicated life.

Shalini said...

Oh, I am so behind on blogs--I am SO SORRY about Benchley. I wish there was a standard non-assy thing to say in these situations besides that.

Rebecca said...

I can totally relate to your feelings here and your entire thought process. I have to think it's natural that you are feeling this way.

My husband and I had to put our 7-year old dog to sleep a little over a week ago, and it was HARD. I mean, I knew it would be hard, but it was harder than I had imagined. I had the dog before I ever met my husband. She had been through so much with me. She was my only family, back before I had my family.

Although I know we made the right decision, I still feel like I failed her on some level (even though the vet told us that there was nothing more we could do for her).

And it happened the same week I "officially" miscarried for the second time.

My head keeps taking me back to the euthanasia appointment when I least expect it. I have been having a LOT of thoughts about death and what it really means. I know that part of it is me processing the loss of a potential second child, but it is hard.

My 3 year old keeps busting out with phrases like, "I see Hannah (dog) playing!" which is very hard. And just like some of the posters above, he keeps asking very detailed questions about where she has gone and whether God is playing catch with her. (Please. I hope so.)

Melissa Haworth said...

I'm glad I came back to the comments to see Swistle's reply but also anonymous's reply about people "taking turns" I've never heard it put that way but I like it.

Laura Diniwilk said...

Oh, I'm so sorry about Benchley! It feels weird to say that I love this post under these circumstances, but you always have such a great perspective on things.

artemisia said...

This. Yes, this. All of it. Thank you for writing this. You have articulated so much of what is in my heart lately.

I also struggle with the "people must think I have no perspective" but I am still devastated over loosing Buster. Yes, worse things can happen - and have happened in my life. In others' lives.

But I am still so heartbroken. How is he gone? It is so strange.

Nothing But Bonfires said...

Oh, thank you so much for this; you have perfectly articulated how I've been feeling since November, when we lost our cat Charlie unexpectedly. It's not that it wasn't awful -- because it was, of course it was -- it's more that it happened and it was awful and then I thought "my god, that was awful, but it's not going to be the most awful thing that's ever happened to me in my life. There are going to be things that are MORE AWFUL than this." And that thought was almost too much to bear: that other people and animals would die, that this grief wasn't a one-off.

I hope you're doing okay with Benchley's loss. It's the weirdest, most horrible feeling. Take care of yourself.

Nothing But Bonfires said...

Oh, thank you so much for this; you have perfectly articulated how I've been feeling since November, when we lost our cat Charlie unexpectedly. It's not that it wasn't awful -- because it was, of course it was -- it's more that it happened and it was awful and then I thought "my god, that was awful, but it's not going to be the most awful thing that's ever happened to me in my life. There are going to be things that are MORE AWFUL than this." And that thought was almost too much to bear: that other people and animals would die, that this grief wasn't a one-off.

I hope you're doing okay with Benchley's loss. It's the weirdest, most horrible feeling. Take care of yourself.

Alexicographer said...

Oh dear. This is the first time I've check back and I'm so sorry to hear that Benchley died.

Yes, on pets. My mother's mantra (when we were kids) for such situations was (and honestly, still is today): we wouldn't feel so sad (now) if they had not brought us so much joy (then). So, strains of Margaret, but perhaps heard from a sunnier vista.

I lost a very important (to me) creature last fall and it was woefully sad but at least fell in the category of "he lived a long and happy life." Also there weren't a lot of "but what if I had ..." There were a couple, but rationally I know what killed him was likely unpreventable no matter who napped when. I'm sorry 'twasn't so in Benchley's case, I do think that makes it more difficult.

Misty said...

It is too early for me to be boo hooing, y'all. The comments are just as tear-inducing as the post.

I'm so sorry. I wish it weren't so. All of it.

velocibadgergirl said...

This part, this is exactly how I always feel at funerals and pet deaths but never knew how to articulate: It's hard to accept it: we look at a body, and our eyes/brains are telling us two different things simultaneously: "There he is" and "No, he isn't."

Hugs again about Benchley, and even more for the hard thoughts that death always brings.