Friday, February 10, 2012


Tuesday night I celebrated the 50th birthday of a dear old friend. I went to YouTube and played about 9000 songs by this friend's favorite artist, Bruce Cockburn. The friend himself was not present. He's been dead lo these 18 years. And so it may be sacrilege, but I'm going to say it anyway: much as I appreciate Cockburn's skill as a musician, he is hands-down the worst lip-syncer I have ever laid eyes on. Bruce. Man. Dude. Dude.

Later Rick and I ate cupcakes and sang the happy birthday song, and though my friend's death pre-dated this era when all of us are allergic to everything, I know he would appreciate the delicious absurdity of the flourless, gluten-free, sugar-free cupcake.

Meanwhile, in the next room, another dear old friend of mine lay dying. Max had been ailing for some weeks. Of cancer, of all things, probably, although at a certain point it seemed cruel to keep taking him to be poked and prodded for a diagnosis, and I stopped. His ailment weirdly paralleled mine. He started to not feel so hot sometime in the fall, like me. His bloodwork didn't turn up anything, just like mine didn't. His weight and energy dropped. Buddy, I can relate. He got an opportunistic mouth infection; so had I. At the end he even had night sweats. Who knew a cat could have night sweats? I didn't even know people could have them until I had them myself.

And I am taking this loss very hard.

My naturopath pointed out that chemo intensifies grief just as it does anger and irritation (ask Rick if I've ever been just the tiniest bit irritable these past three months).  But it also does not escape my attention that perhaps grief is doing a sneaky end run around the good attitude people keep telling me I have. I think of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, about a child who is saddened by the dying leaves of autumn. It begins, "Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?" and ends "It is the blight man was born for,/ It is Margaret you mourn for."

Then, too, grief can fashion a weird daisy chain of losses: you start weeping over one dead cat and soon you're weeping over a lifetime's worth, plus all the friends, relatives, colleagues, mentors, role models and other beloveds who've left you behind.

But in the moment I'm not conscious of thinking these things. I'm not conscious of thinking anything at all, just of wading into a wordless lake of sorrow.

May I eulogize? Max was a cat who garnered praise from people who don't like cats. He was quiet, polite and exceptionally handsome--all black, a strapping, panthersome fellow. And he was all love, pure and uncomplicated and thorough. He liked to crawl under the covers with me and hook his paws over my arm, purring like a locomotive. (Over 13 years we had hundreds of high-quality naps together). If he wanted my attention, he'd place one paw on my face, or press his velvety forehead to my own. A cat isn't a person, of course, but a cat can do things people can't.  He doesn't care if you make social faux-pas or can't use an Oxford comma. If you are good to him, he loves you completely, unconditionally, without judgment. He loves you in a way that human beings can't pull off. Also, fur and whiskers and paws and magnificent long tails and purrs are special things for which there is no substitute.

Max was truly bonded only to my humble self, and I always felt honored to be loved by him, lucky to have him in my life, graced by his graceful presence in my house. He was such a devoted cat I often thought of him as a Boddhisatva--in Buddhist tradition, an enlightened being who chooses to keep coming back to earth to accompany the rest of us until we get there ourselves. It even occurs to me--I'm walking way out into woo-woo territory here--that he may even have absorbed some of my cancer for me. He was small, and he couldn't sponge up all my illness, but he could take away enough, maybe, to improve my prospects, though it killed him in the process.

Max hadn't been himself for a while, but he didn't start to feel really punky until about Tuesday. But Wednesday I was out of the house all day teaching, and Thursday was chemotherapy, so he had to wait until today for a visit from a vet who makes house calls for euthanasia. "Oh, they do that?" Rick said. "I figured you could use Google to find a recipe for home euthanasia." I said, "Yeah, well--you can use Google to find a recipe for home abortion, too. Doesn't mean it's a good idea."

The vet was great--compassionate, unhurried, skilled. She gave Max a sedative so nothing hurt any more, and she had all the time in the world while I told Max everything I had to say about and to him, which turned out to be quite a lot. Then she followed up with a shot of euthanasia, and in about a minute, the body curled  in my lap wasn't Max any more.

We buried him in the front garden, in a spot he spent so much time in, during the summer months, that he'd earned the nickname "Vegetable Proctor." (He was a cat of many nicknames: among the others, Thunderpurr,  Maximum Cat, Maximus Cattimus, Maximiliano, and since my trip to Italy, Pontificus Maximus; Big Guy, Sweet Guy, Fur Man, Mr. Cutepaws, Buddy, "Max, you old dog"--always said with a wink and a pantomimed elbow-ribbing--Mr. Soft, Friend and Constant Companion, Mr. Plushy Forehead.) And we planted a daphne bush on his grave, a winter-blooming plant with intensely sweet-smelling blossoms he was fond of, and which will flower every year around the anniversary of his death.

A good death helped, a little, and a nice burial helped, a little. And still this pain is acute.

In Arabic there is an expression of great love, "Te'eburnee," which means literally "You bury me." In other words, I need to go first, because I couldn't stand being here without you. My reaction to Max's departure does not bode well for future losses (although Rick says his own death will be easier for me to take than that of the cat, because Max was never known to whistle tunelessly, misuse "lay" and "lie," or deliver long sports updates.)

Truth is, the idea of any of my family having to carry on without any of the rest of us is as excruciating as it is inevitable--so much so that I sometimes conjure a fantasy of a big asteroid taking us all out at once. It would leave only a big smoking crater and be very quick.

I shared this vision with my 21-year-old, but for some reason he wasn't as enthusiastic about the idea as I am.