The last update I wrote brought us up to this past July – when I flew back to Michigan knowing only as of that morning that my feline friend Alexander had broken his leg and that many (and potentially all) of my parents’ appliances had been destroyed by lightning hitting the ground wire for their power. The weekend was supposed to be a bit fun and a bit stupid – what with my sister buying tickets to Pitchfork music festival in Chicago for my birthday. Instead, I worried my time away through the weekend and into the Monday that I returned to my parents.
The day before my return, my mother called – my dad was in the hospital after being unable to breathe at home. My mom was distressed after firemen had carried my dad out of their crowded home – and after seeing my father quite out of it in the hospital. And all of this after having to replace most of their home’s appliances that week. My dad’s been using canister oxygen for over a year, but, apparently, his sleep machine was not functioning properly, and he required treatment to recover from his blood’s toxicity.
When I finally saw him, he thought he’d been in the hospital for 5 days – it had been a little over 24 hours since he’d entered the Emergency Room. I had to explain what had happened since he’d hallucinated and spent several hours shouting that the hospital was trying to kill him. He mostly remembered the pain – which hurt to think about. I wanted to help him, so I set about helping my mom buy a new washing machine with the little money they had – but first I had to take care of Alex.
* * * * *
The next day found me at the vet – Alex wound up having a bone tumor along with a broken leg. At 17 years young, that wasn’t the worst scenario, but paying for meds and appointments sucked my bank account dry – along with the loss of some writing gigs due to my dad’s emergency. And one of my bank accounts was locked due to my info being stolen while I was in Chicago – even as I began to realize that I wouldn’t have more than a few bucks to get me through the month of September. Universities wait a month to pay part-time instructors, which means I often end up strapped for cash – in this case, though, I’d have been utterly broke for 4 weeks.
And – after an X-ray and an unclear prognosis – my good friend was looking at the end of his life soon enough.
We left the vet with daily steroids and painkillers, while my bank account was quickly locked and fixed, and my good friend paid me for helping her move to a new flat. My dad was soon out of the hospital and recovering at home, with many doctor’s appointments to get everything back in order, treatment-wise. In the days that followed, I hit a bad patch at my parents’ house – staying in and stressing out over a feeling that I was doomed to watch the ones I love die while my bank accounts remained ever empty. The last several years of adjuncting added up too – to a feeling that my career was dead in the water.
* * * * *
And then I called my sister the veterinarian for advice. And despite valuing work above all things, and despite my expecting to leave only a voicemail, she picked up her phone at work. Which is unheard of.
She had to call me back later in the day – but when she did, she asked me – “I know this will sound harsh, but can you please stop being so hard on yourself?”
She elaborated and let me vent- it’s easy to internalize injustice by blaming ourselves for our hardships. We isolate ourselves from friends and family – we find succor in binge-ing on media like Netflix – we accept corruption because we imagine no one can change the system, broken though it be. In short, I was blaming myself for Alex being hurt, for my parents not having medical assistance, for academe being fundamentally broken (in the USA), and for my life just being unstable. I was 33 and blaming myself for the world.
It was a bit of a wake-up call – I had my shit together as much as I could. I was working on publications, comics, and just basically piecing together a living in a bad economy, with poor employee and consumer rights, with a corrupt capitalist system that assumes we are all cogs with price tags on our foreheads. I had to allow that: My job does not define me – My debt does not define me – My mobility does not define me.
* * * * *
So I tried to accept that and stop blaming myself for all the crap – I accepted that I was doing my best and making good work of it, too. I had a good enough semester teaching Cultural Anthro and Folklore, working on edited volumes, articles, and comics, and finally starting to feel like I had a place in the world. Denver quickly became home – mostly thanks to the fine folks that I met through Denver Drink and Draw, the friends I made through an existing friend at Jaipur Lit Fest in (of all places) Boulder, and through just generally sympathizing with other people making do in a fundamentally unjust system.
Bernie Sanders was suddenly on the radar, too – giving me and many others some hope for being represented in the American government (for the first time in a long time). My parents were doing OK financially and health-wise, and, mostly, things were okay.
So it was that I returned home for the holidays in December – ready to help my parents clean the house, decorate, find a way to buy presents with only 10 bucks a person, and otherwise try to make a lovely holiday without much. My parents met me at the airport, and, as we drove home, explained that Alex did not have much time. It wasn’t unexpected – neither that he was dying nor that my parents had not said anything sooner. Upon my father’s diagnosis with lympoma in 2003, while I was in college, my mom insisted they wait 2 weeks til the end of my final exams to tell me. When they did call, my mother opened with: “Your father is dead. He’s dying. He’s got 2 weeks to live.” My father quickly interrupted and explained that they didn’t know anything more than that he needed treatment.
Back to December: I ran into the house when we got home.
Alex lay on the couch, looking dead: eyes wide open, pupils dilated, fur covered in mattes from not bathing himself, skinnier than I’d ever seen him.
I touched him; he was cold. And then he looked at me and came to life. My mom would say later that he rallied for me. Even writing this makes me cry – that he loved me that much hurts. He walked around for the first time in a while; he ate the sardines I bought for him. He cuddled with me and played and purred himself to sleep.
The next day, though, he couldn’t make it to the litter box to pee; I carried him there and back to help. After a visit to the vet, it became clear that we had days if not mere hours, and I spent as many as possible with him. He slept on his favorite cushion or a silky shirt I put on the couch, and, on his last night, we watched a movie about a woman whose dog dies (I’ll See You in My Dreams). Needless to say, it made me cry, but I can still feel Alex sleeping on the back of my head and neck, warm and affectionate.
He died that night after I finished work. He yelped and fell to the ground, making a smacking noise as he hit the floor. He howled and began panting. I took him to the litter, but he was limp. I walked to my parents’ bedroom and let them know I needed help – to know what to do or just to take him to a hospital. Then, I gave him some painkiller, and, as my mother called the animal hospital, it became clear he was dying.
He began inhaling loudly and then exhaling short gasps. At first, they increased in force, shaking him even as I held him. But as they began to subside, I lay with him on my chest and massaged his head and neck.
With a spasm, death took him.
I talked with my mother through the night, mostly sobbing and wailing. This was what I had hoped for – Alex dying on his own terms, at home, with me, so that we could bury him where he grew up. But it still hurt like all hell.
* * * * *
I am not special. Neither was Alex. I am one person, and he was one cat – but we were each a subject of a life and deserving of the ability to live that life – to the extent, at least, that any one is. Too often, we forget and qualify living by jobs, incomes, marriage statuses, coolness, queerness, or otherwise. But we are each a miraculous entity built from the dust of stars, the memories of being alive, the chance intersections with others’ lives, and other materials. None of us, human or nonhuman, should be made to feel that we have meaning only as a part of a market – or a profit for a corporation.
We live – we inhale and we exhale – we end – and, via H.P. Lovecraft – “What a man does for pay is of little significance. What he is, as a sensitive instrument responsive to the world’s beauty, is everything!”
Even after this summer and the last several years of chaotic-ness, it took my friend dying to finally help me re-realize it – to recognize the beauty all around me (us) every day – in the natural world, in chance encounters – in protest and acceptance, in dissent and conversation – in abandonment and inhabitation, in joining and departure. Let us be instruments of beauty – like a small cat that watched birds in windows, basked in late afternoon sun, and never hesitated to cuddle crying primates.
Even if he might have just wanted the sardines.