So today I want to talk about death.
Well, no I don’t. Not really. Because it sucks. But I also do, because it’s one of those inescapable realities that sucks whether you talk about it or not, but if you don’t talk about it eventually, it kind of sucks more.
My Mister shook me awake early yesterday morning, crying, “Odin’s dead.”
We got Odin as a kitten, one of a litter born underneath a friend’s house, perhaps six months after the Kiddo was born.* From the start, he was the sweetest cat; we called him “the saint of kitties,” because he loved to play with the Kiddo, sharing in the same mischief (like the time they conspired to pull every single tissue out of the tissue box and then create a tissue snowstorm all over the bathroom), playing together, snuggling together, never biting or becoming impatient with the Kiddo’s undeveloped motor skills. And the Kiddo mutually never hurt or harassed Odin, but played and petted and loved him.
He had a weak heart. The vet told us the last time we took him in for a checkup, and warned us that his life expectancy would be shorter than other cats, but that if we fed him right and played with him and loved him like we ought, he should still live for many years.
I supposed I’d expected many many years, not just two. The Mister heard Odin making weird sounds in another room; Odin coughed and gasped, and then he fell down and lay still. Mr L shook him and petted him–kitty CPR?–and Odin started back up, but only for a moment.
I left Mr L in the bedroom to talk to the Kiddo, and went out to the living room. In books and movies they say or imply that a dead person looks basically the same as a sleeping person–and of course in the movies you can’t help that the “corpse” looks like a live person, because it is a live person, just lying very very still. But Odin was unmistakably dead, not just still but inert, no longer a living thing but just a thing: a body. I petted his fur. He was cold. His jaws were parted, and his eyes were staring. And that thing they do in the movies, where they pass their hand over the dead one’s eyes, and when they take their hand away the eyes are closed? That doesn’t work either, at least not on cats.
What do I do? I thought. Visions of grabbing a shovel and digging a hole in the backyard–right now! flashed through my mind. No, so many reasons why that won’t work. We had some plastic drop cloths handy. I picked up the limp little body–you think you understand what that means, but you don’t, not really, because even a sleeping or unconscious person’s (or kitty’s) muscles are working, offering help or resistance. Odin was slack and unresisting, an awkward little mass. I wrapped him in the plastic and then put his little body in a box. I tried to do it tenderly.
Some memories are treasures, even when the creating of them was unpleasant. I will treasure always the memory of the birth of my son–even the part where I was walking around the neighborhood in labor, pausing every sixty seconds or so to lean on my Mister as I was racked with agony. (Three people stopped to ask if I was okay, if I needed help, if I needed a hospital. It was actually pretty funny.)
Other memories are wounds. We carry them with us, scars in the map of our consciousness, as real as the scars on our bodies: here’s where I fell up the stairs when I was little, here are the marks of pregnancy, here is the death of my cat.
About nine months ago, my Dad died. The death of a pet isn’t in the same league as the death of a parent, but it’s in the same category–the wound is in the same place, as it were. A widening of the wound, deepening it, enlarging it. Death–small-d deaths, the deaths of individuals–remind us of the cruelty, the wrongness of Death–big-D Death, which is a blight on the beauty of creation.
What I mean is this: Death is wrong. It shouldn’t happen. It shouldn’t be able to happen. The world was made for life, not death; for love, not sorrow. Death cuts us off for a time from joy and makes us unable to see beauty–or if we can see it, it hurts rather than consoles, reminding us of our lost ones, rubbing salt and lemon juice and boric acid into the wound. My dad’s death was like the sun going out, leaving my heart in darkness. Odin’s is more like a candle: I have many other lights to brighten me, but my heart is still darker.
I believe that there is hope, though sometimes the face of hope is hard to see. I believe that Death is not the end, and that we shall see our loved ones again: “a new heaven and a new earth,” where the redeemed will live in peace forever. Last night an image entered my mind: a long-tailed, friendly-faced tabby cat, trotting up to a solid, white-bearded man in a flannel shirt. The cat bumped his face into the man’s work-roughened hand, and the man smiled and began to scratch the cat’s ears, and they both were happy.