~river styx~

March 5th, 2007

I grate the parmesan cheese in a tall snowy pile and cry. I stop, I make noises, I lean against the window, the glass cold, tears sting the raw skin around my eyes. I breathe.

Xie sits on the kitchen floor watching me. I arrange piles of hot bacon, turkey and the cheese on a plate and place it on the floor. She has come to keep me company as she always does, though she doesn’t spend much time sitting anymore. We called her the Furry Shark, in the kitchen she slinked around our ankles looking for the good stuff.

Now she treads a careful path from bowl to box to bed, using the staircase we made of coffee-table art books and a hatbox the night she came home from the emergency room. Rebecca Horn peers sidelong in feathers, Kara Walker’s cutouts, some Witkin or another. I can’t decide if his work is more or less relevant now, but I know I won’t be able to see those book covers again without hurting.

Xie gingerly sniffs the plate and looks up at me. I can’t believe I am offering her last meal this way. What an idiot. I pick up the plate and say as encouragingly as possible “Come on Girl, let’s go to the bed.” I lay beside her as I have done for days and she licks the parmesan off my fingers as I cry.

Each morning I wake up my eyes look like I have been punched, like I have developed an allergy to my own tears. Xie is not interested in the bacon or turkey–once special treats but now common–anything to keep her appetite up. Her tongue tickles my fingertips and the fine cheese dusts her whiskers.

“She trusts you”, says Ali and I think to myself how awful to be trusted. Three hours ago I called the vet and made an appointment for her death. One-thirty. The teen receptionist wanted to know could I come in ten minutes? “No!” I hung up the phone and seized. Who does this? How?

Now it is time. Ali has brought the cat carrier from the basement. In an uncharacteristic way Xie allows us to put her in it. I thought after the last trip that she would refuse, at least fight. But she knows she is sick. She trusts me.

A month ago—four weeks to the day–we brought Xie to the emergency room. No one could believe she was eighteen, she was so healthy and energetic. Her doctor said how sweet she was. She stayed the night in the hospital, a first in all her years. The look on her face when we picked her up was awful, frail and traumatized.

Three days later we learned the lump that was pushing on her colon was cancerous. I was standing in the freight elevator hallway at my school. I was in between lectures. Somehow I have had my worst New York public breakdowns in this hallway. Everything is thick with layers of grey-lavender industrial paint. The window looks out on the New School–its cheerful orange banners waving in the breeze–and Union Square just beyond.

This time last year Ali and I were breaking up. He was staying at his friend’s house on the Upper Westside and unbeknownst to him, I was looking at studio apartments down the street. I finally put money down on one and then cried in this hallway.

Later I stood in this same spot and told the real estate agent a lie about why I could not take the apartment. Sometimes people pass through to the stairwell and pretend not to notice me. When I lived in San Francisco I don’t remember any public breakdowns.

Each day as I walk toward the train I pass a dead animal on the street that reminds me of my kitty who was hit by a car—the one I found dead two days before I left for college–and every day I am surprised to realize it is a pink satin-lined fur collar from a lady’s coat from the 1940s, wet and twisted on the ground.

In the car to the vets office Xie has a panic attack–her breathing stops, she pants, mouth and eyes wide. I stroke her fur and tell her it’s okay when it’s not. I am such a liar.

Inside the office another teen employee yells across the room “THIS IS EUTHANASIA, RIGHT?” I want to kill her. To Ali I say as calmly as possible, “Please deal with her.” Across from us are parents, a little girl and a sick kitty. They are admitted to the doctor’s office. We wait. The girl yells, “YOU WANT THE ASHES, RIGHT? IT COSTS EXTRA.”

I try to talk to Xie, but in a sense it is over already. She looks up at me and the sun refracts her eyes. Have I ever noticed that they are so golden and liquid? She will never look at me that way again.

The woman from across the waiting room returns, her empty cat carrier dangling from her limp arm. She sits down and stifles a sob. Oh. She looks at me with eyes that ask you too? I nod. She looks so sad for us, for Xie and I. She wishes me good luck as she leaves the building. I can’t respond except to nod again. The kindness of strangers is more than I can bear.

“I don’t try to talk people out of their decisions, but I would like to know why you are here”, says the young doctor, his hair spiky with gel. His eyes don’t connect but I tell him anyway. “She got constipated so badly she had to go to the emergency room. They gave her three enemas and when that didn’t work they put her under and cleared her out. They found a cancerous tumor on the base of her pelvis bone that was pressing on her colon. They gave us Lactulose to give her three times a day and told me we had three to six months together. That was a month ago. She stopped defecating three days ago and I don’t want to put her through that again. That’s why we are here.” I want him to argue with me.

I don’t tell him about watching her limp around our house, or how she fell from my desk where she used to love resting her head on my keyboard while I wrote.

I don’t mention the way she looks when she sees me coming with the syringe of medicine, the way I have to trick it down her throat, the way she learned to stop swallowing and how the sticky liquid runs down her chin and chest.

I don’t describe the afternoons I have spent bathing and grooming her when she can’t any longer, the way she allows and even enjoys it, her sense of dignity shifting.

I don’t talk about the hours spent online researching Osteosarcoma. I don’t mention that I have wondered if changing her drinking water to filtered water triggered the cancer, a thought that is not quelled by learning that substances present in (radium, fluoride) or absent from (selenium, vitamin d3) drinking water are the number one presumed causes of this cancer.

I don’t try to describe how it feels to have to decide for someone you have loved and cared for eighteen years that though she seemed healthy as a kitten a few weeks ago, it’s time for her to die.

I don’t say that for days I have woken up each morning and my first thought has been, “Please be dead.”

They shave her arm and put in a catheter. They do this in another room, I’m sure because it’s too awful to watch. Later I seize with guilt that I allowed her to be away for even a moment. I know from research on the internet that vets generally use lethal doses of pentobarbital to euthanaise–this causes unconsciousness, respiratory then cardiac arrest, usually within thirty seconds.

They give her the first drug and Xie slackens, her tongue drops out of her mouth. The second drug goes in and she is gone. Just like that.

They leave the room; leave her to us. Her body. She coughs. I race into the hall and say “You are sure she is dead?!” He checks her heart and nods, says that happens sometimes, “It’s just muscles.”

Euthanasia comes from Greek, Eu meaning “good” and Thanatos being “death.” There is no good death, but there is quick death and at least she has had that. It’s so quick it is alarming. Her body lies on the metal table; she is still warm. I stroke her belly, her ears, her toes. Ali cries and cradles her head in his hands. Her eyes begin to glaze over. She is so departed, so gone from this shell. I think, “Dead is really dead.”

A week later I am in Los Angeles for the funeral of my favorite great Aunt Dottie who died the day after Xie. I touch Dottie’s arm and immediately pull back my hand. Dead is really dead. Her face looks like a mask–I mean like an impression of itself—beige and lopsided and smirking.

Her sister Mae sits with the body. She has been allowed to leave the hospital she entered when Dot died. A long fat tube hangs from her nose like an elephant’s trunk. I think of the last time I saw Mae, the way she called me Kimmie with such affection and smiled her great Tennessee smile. Now her eyes don’t focus. Her hand moves constantly, just the right one, as though she were knitting, or stirring a pot. Something has slipped; Mae has slipped.

She and my grandpa are the last of eleven children. I think it will not be long until she dies of grief over the loss of her sister. A few days ago she told her husband Fred in detail about this funeral as though it had already happened. She also told my grandpa that the “Old Fred” was gone, and the “New Fred” was all right, but she didn’t like him as well. Now we are at the “real” funeral and Fred ignores her and laughs embarrassedly as she sings and shouts forth a sea of disoriented fears. Help us! Help us! Open the golden gate! Help us through the gate! Golden slippers for you and me! Help Us!

There is a song called Oh, Dem Golden Slippers!–a minstrel song written in 1879 as a parody of a spiritual song popular at the time. Oh, dem golden slippers! Golden slippers Ise gwine to wear, to walk de golden street. The humor derives from the lyrics that justify misery in this life for the promise of glory in the next. It’s a bitter humor.

My Uncle performs Dottie’s service, which is as he promised, a celebration. He tells stories of her five husbands, her forty years as head colorist at Elizabeth Arden’s Salon in Beverly Hills. I knew she had been Lucille Ball’s hair-dresser, but I didn’t know about Lauren Bacall and Nancy Reagan. He mentions her love of shopping and of champagne.

Still, after the laughter there is the part where God has to come up and there you go. Although I understand the impetus–the desire to explain why people have to die and what happens to them when they do–it angers me to have it come down to what hits my ear as so much false comfort. This is why I dislike funerals so much. They are for the living, but they are never for me.

In my darkest grief in the face of the death that surrounds me now–my sweetest cat, two very dear friends, my aunt–never once do I consider the notion of Heaven and Hell. I believe in spirits, I believe in the ether. That is all.

All month as my kitty lay dying I held an image in my mind of a tiny boat, a boat I was building for her board by board, to help her cross the River Styx. To drink from this river means losing your voice for nine years; to make an oath by its waters is to make a contract that cannot be broken. These are the stories that make sense to me.

I laid on the bed next to her on the last day and read from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse–the elegy she wrote that freed her from her obsession with her dead mother. She wrote
Could it be that this was life?—startling, unexpected, unknown? For one moment she felt that if they both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why it was so short, why it was so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape, if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return. “Mrs. Ramsay!” she said aloud, “Mrs. Ramsay!” The tears ran down her face.

I stroked Xie’s belly, her soft white underbelly. She stretched in comfort, her pink toes extending as far as they could. She nudged into me; her tail flicked my leg. She was safe with me and she knew it.
A week later I cleaned my desk and found an index card with notes from the first phone call: Pelvis bone, no radiation (colon), 3-6 months.
We had twenty-three days.

On the flight home I watch the tiny shadow of our plane as is slides over the blanket of clouds that appear to be hung, suspended like cotton balls in a shoebox diorama. I let my mind empty. Below the clouds the ocean churns deep blue and still as a tomb.

I remind myself that I don’t believe in loss anymore than I believe in God. I believe that under the surface of things, under the clouds puffs that obscure the real we are all God, all things. We are the stuff that makes this whole thing wonderful, sorrowful. We are the thing itself.

Ali picks me up at the airport. I insist he takes me to a bodega that has not just milk for coffee, but also Daffodils. After three stores I emerge victorious with a handful of closed papery stems. I will invest my faith–as though I have it to spare–in Spring, in Life.


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