Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tripping over the Voids

Dear Reader,

I noticed when Michael Distaso died. Death is not the five stages of grieving, neither like a program nor even like the authors of that model meant it, as five fluctuating states, strange attractors for the force of loss.

Every death is different. Different feelings felt differently, different holes in our lives found at different times in different places. Shakti's death was a slap; I wept and sobbed and staggered, felt the full force at once, fell apart and fell over every day for a long time, only a little less day by day. Morgana's death is a creeping numbing, a slow, soft fading of strength from many little places throughout my day; I cried hard while I held her on Monday before she died that night, but since then I have been empty-quiet inside.

We are not individuals but communities. We are all Swiss, full of holes filled with one another. When one of us dies, the rest of us find ourselves full of confusing holes. Where we thought we were ourselves, we find we were someone else now gone. Where we thought our day was a whole, we find holes instead. We turn to look at our life but find an empty room instead.

But then Rashid gallops down the stairs like a maniac, lands facing me, stands stock still, wide green eyes like surprise, a pause, Meeps! once decisively, then turns and tears back up the stairs.

What the Hell was that? Which stage of grieving is this supposed to be?

Yours truly,

Monday, April 14, 2008

Morgana in Passing

Dear Reader,

I am sitting up with Morgana, our nineteen-year-old kitty. She is dying.

Her decline has been rapid. A week ago she was still jumping up onto counters. She has had trouble getting around increasingly this week, her jumps deteriorating into crashes, and as of today she cannot walk at all. If I hold her upright and support her weight she can stagger to where she wants to go, and thus we communicate enough for me to help her get what she needs.

Most of today she has spent in her kitty bed, breathing shallowly, eyes not quite closed, not sleeping, watching me, periodically meowing silently. When she needs my help, she either struggles to move or makes a low, short moan, and we work together to figure out what she needs. She has drunk only a little water today, eaten only a little food, and grown quieter and weaker throughout the day. I doubt she will last another day, perhaps not even the night.

Over the course of my life, I have had many cats in my family, but for almost half my life my immediate family was Beverly, Shakti, and Morgana. Of our two kitties, gray-tabby Shakti was the smarter, weirder, and antisocial of the two, and tortoise-shell Morgana has been the fearless one with the indomitable will and expressive, sometimes operatic voice. Morgana, no slouch in the smarts department herself, learned to open closed doors at our old house and likes being read to (especially children's books about cats), but it is the core of her personality that shines at the end.

When we first brought Shakti and Morgana home all those years ago, they had just been spayed and were still recovering from the anesthesia. They were both dizzy from the drug. Shakti just lay down on the carpet, her head swaying as she focused on looking around without falling over. Morgana, true to form, would not be subdued by the dizziness, and staggered around the room exploring, falling over, and getting back up repeatedly. She even tried to jump up onto furniture in the room, with predictable results, and once fell over onto Shakti. Although Shakti was six months older than Morgana and rapidly grew to be twice her weight, for the first half of their lives with us Morgana was clearly the top cat, dominating by her inexhaustible energy and sheer will to have things exactly the way she wants them (a classic tortie trait).

We lost Shakti to renal failure two years ago.

Now, at Morgana's end, she is still true to form. Although exhausted and unable to bear her own weight most of the time today, five times today when sufficiently motivated she still dragged herself to her feet and staggered to her destination, be it the pee pad we put down for her or back to her little bed. She teetered up onto all fours, tilting crazily, staggered forward a few steps, fell, and got back up again and continued on until she reached her destination, much like she did eighteen and a half years ago. Step by step, she reverts to the helpless kitten and I to her surrogate mama.

I have written at times about the inadequacies of language for genuine communication, as well as about my own linguistic inadequacies, and these both strike me strongly at times like this. I cannot convey what it means for a man without children to lose a cat who has been a beloved member of the family for almost half his life. My life so far, my prospects for the future, my priorities, are all slightly clarified by these passages of mortality, by these periods of caring and waiting and comforting and weeping.

Grief can be more than just a pathos, a suffering; it can also be a lense or a still. Aeschylus, in Agamemnon, wrote "drop by drop, wisdom is distilled from pain." A bitter bargain: an alchemy of loss with a reek of necromancy to transform dumb suffering into a faintly wiser suffering, to extract a hair's breadth more clarity in exchange for a beloved life.

Yours truly,

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Blessing of Paralysis

[Originally written Sunday, 24 December 2006 at 12:27 PM]

Dear Reader,

When I force myself to do the wrong thing, eventually I lose my ability to continue. Although my coworkers see this as a great curse and inconvenience to them, it is a great gift. I do not know how I came by this gift, but I appreciate it. I used to curse it as well, used to revile it as an inconvenience, but gradually my counselor and I managed to sort out the patterns in it and figured out that I am only paralyzed when I am doing the wrong thing or avoiding doing the right thing.

Often, the incorrect direction in my life results from my willingness to sacrifice my own needs or goals to further someone else's. More often, I am postponing what I understand to be the higher priorities in favor of what someone else pursuasively argues to be the top priorities. Most often, I am giving up top priorities not even for that but for expediency, for "practical" considerations, postponing the important for the urgent. In my gut, in my bones, in my soul, I believe in how vital it is to align yourself with the deep principles of the cosmos, not to let yourself be distracted by apparent self-interest or even apparent expediency, and history is an open textbook on the reasons for sticking with deeper priorities regardless of the tides of fashion or pragmatism.

Unfortunately, this is an easy way to disappoint people. Lack of follow-through, not finishing what you start, indecisiveness, changing directions—all these things are easy distractions for other people, easy targets, easy excuses for complex problems. When there is a goat among the sheep and something goes wrong, sheep will look to the goat every time, not to what the sheep might all have in common, might be generating themselves from the imperatives of their sheepish character. It is harder still for the sheep or the goat to look to what they might have created together as the source of their problems, to look to the complex culture they have created in their off-kilter interactions.

Though we wear the masks of adulthood, we are still children, especially those who most wrap themselves in the cloak of adulthood, those who care the most about believing and seeming to be distant from childish things. This inherent childishness in all of us is stamped on everything we do and say and think. To anyone with a nose for it we reek of childishness and everything associated with us gives it off as a miasma. It is painfully obvious, except to us, that our oh-so-adult rationality is merely a way of formalizing our childish impulses and prejudices. So it is that faced with problems, we seek easy explanations that excuse us from any blame.

My periodic paralyses makes me a goat; I stand out and am available for scaping to anyone associated with me who does not care to look within themselves for their own contribution to our mutual problems. Often, those very mutual problems will trigger my retreat, as we lead ourselves into doing the wrong things, but it is my retreat that is visible and hence as the only apparent choice my retreat becomes the explanation of our ills.

In my latest bout of paralysis I have finally taken into my heart that earnestness, good intentions, hard work, followthrough, and communication are no guarantee of doing the right thing. I have come to understand that you have to know what the right thing is and do that, or all else is irrelevant; you can't just think you know what the right thing is—it has to actually be the right thing. It turns out that one of the roads to Hell really is paved with good intentions, and travelled by intelligent, well-meaning, conscientious people who fell prey to the delusion that they contained an innate ability to sense the truth. Such an ability would be a characteristic of the divine, not of the human. Thus, hybris. Again.

Yours truly,