When no other word can describe a heartbreaking grief
Let me tell you about the day I met you. They kept you in a bedroom so stark and white it was medicinal. It was too sterile for the likes of you, and then you appeared and rushed toward me. All I could remember were your eyes, green and yellow, and how one could easily get lost in them. You curled up next to me and they told me your name was Spoon, to which I sneered and bared my teeth and said, “She is absolutely not a spoon. She is a Sophie.”
You seemed to have approved of my thrashing.
Before I brought you home, I sat in an office telling stories about my life to the same woman for seven years. On this particular day, I was nervous. I was all white knuckles and cottonmouth. For over a decade I mourned the loss of my mother, my first and only hurt, by giving away my life, in degrees, to a bottle of red wine. Anesthetized was my preferred state and a dark country was my desired landscape. I didn’t want to feel bandaids ripping off, I didn’t want to remember all those years burying myself in the thicket that was my mother’s hair and dragging her frail, drug-ravaged body to the hospital because she was dope sick — I wanted to feel nothing. Alcohol was that great love that promised to never leave. Over the years I’d take breaks and make resolutions to quit the drink, and it was if someone were laughing in my ear, realizing that I’d crawl back on all fours. Resign myself to a life of being numb.
But something shifted. I’d grown tired of the blackouts, the shame, the: what did I do, and the friends who were petrified of returning my calls. I wasn’t ready to stop my binge drinking, but I was close, and the woman and I talked about the possibility of getting a pet, a cat, because it would force me to care for someone instead of ruining myself.
“I’ve been taking care of people my whole life. How is getting a cat going to change the one thing I’ve been trying to escape?” I laughed. Back then I paced her office, picked up books and put them down. Like my mother, I had to keep moving. I had to occupy my hands.
“Because this isn’t your mother,” the woman said.
“I don’t know about a cat,” I said.
“She can be the one thing that pulls you through, if you’re willing to love someone so much that you’ll risk your heart to endure its loss.”
And then I thought of you and your long whiskers, flash of white fur and wide eyes, and it was as if someone was reaching far down into the ground, searching, holding out a hand to yank me up. You were determined to make me bloom.
The day I picked you up I was sick. Bleary-eyed and skin bordering on blue, I was still drunk from the night before. You hid in my closet for two days, and I fell asleep outside the closet door, realizing that this was going to be difficult for both of us.
You were never easy, but I suppose that was the point, right? To give the greatest gift I could give to myself from myself — my life back—was work, and in that work I had to learn how to let you in, all the way.
For seven years you were my constant. You crawled on my back when I fell asleep and curled up next to me when I wept. You paraded your finery of puffed hair and speckled socks for my dinner guests, and we watched the rain together, side by side, on the edge of my bed. How could I have known that you were the greatest gift that I could have given myself?
Back then I called you puffer because you were fourteen pounds strong, and when I secretly bought you a kitty treadmill, you took one look at that ghastly thing and stomped into the bedroom. If you were able to talk, I would imagine you saying that you were voluptuous, a woman from another era with your white gloves and pillbox hat. You were my elegant, full-figured lady, and it would be a cold day in hell (or a bowl of Fancy Feast) before you set one paw on some treadmill.
Sophie, we all make mistakes.
A year ago you started to get sick. After a battery of tests and medications, you seemed to be on the mend, and the doctors applauded your weight loss. Ten pounds! Healthy! But I still called you puffer, because much like a father who can’t let go of his grown daughter, you will always be my little girl.
Then the year shuffled past, and slowly a sickness seized you. You stopped playing with your favorite cat dancer. You were despondent, desiring only to stare at white walls and hide under beds. You vomited and got sick and felt ashamed of your sickness, because you were proud. My father tells me that you are a miniature version of me. So is it then in that pride that we chose blindness? That we deliberately ignored the one thing neither of us could bear? Over the past two months of painful tests, weekly vet visits, and a body that wouldn’t respond to five medications administered twice daily, you consumed ten cans of food in one sitting but didn’t gain an ounce, and we both knew that we were inching our way to the end.
One day I confessed to a friend, hands shaking, I think Sophie’s really sick. I can feel it, in my heart. That night you woke me with your vomiting. Your beautiful green eyes were wild and feral, and my whole body went slack and cold. I stayed up with you all night, wrapped you in your favorite blanket, and used every credit card I owned to give you nothing less than the extraordinary.
At one point, I even did the unthinkable — the one thing I swore I would never do: I asked my father for money. I remember crying into a telephone and telling him that I was so proud, but this wasn’t about pride, this was about you. I did everything I could possibly do.
Can you forgive me for deciding to end your life?
For weeks all my doctors were on vacation, out of the office, and not returning my calls. I saw other doctors and patiently rattled off her chart, medicines and current weight. I cried through the first month of appointments and nearly screamed at a receptionist who suggested that I “search on Google” for at-home euthanasia because they didn’t “do that there.” As if I would drag you into some cold, dirty room and have them complete you there. As if I would remind you of that first home I took you from. You should know that I nearly hurled my phone and laptop out the window, but I kept making calls, kept making inquiries, until I located a vet that would deliver you the compassionate end you so valiantly deserved.
That final morning it was dark and cold like a grave, and I took you on my deck and let you eat all the flowers. I fed you bread and some butter because I knew you loved your carbs. I held you close and sobbed into your fur until they came for you. A doctor and a technician with two needles, a towel, a carrying case and careful hearts stood in a room as you quietly fell asleep in my arms. I laid you down on my bed, and the three of us arranged ourselves. You should know that I held your paw the entire way home. I know how you loved a good paw massage. You should know that I said I’m sorry more times that I can remember.
I read a book where the author replaced the word die with complete. As if to say, we’re done with that now, let’s move on to something else. Let’s change topics. Let’s move to the next item on the agenda. Let’s get one drink, then another, and then let’s see how many bottles we can devour until the memory of you recedes, falls out of the frame — until there is only a suggestion of a paw, a flap of skin inside your ear. Let’s muffle the tears of the grieving with a word that is at turns gruesome and elegant. Why don’t we all gather over here and whisper about Felicia, about the person who can’t collect herself like some doll on an assembly line, who’s on the verge of breaking, because there’s no need to go out and create a massacre on the street? There is a collective: “When will she get better? When will she get past this, so we can all return to our regular scheduled programming? When is it appropriate to inquire about a LinkedIn recommendation?”
We’re so very sorry for your loss.
I witnessed you whittled down to matted fur, and boarded planes to see people I didn’t want to see across the country. I felt your spine and the slope of your back — you were all bone and sharp edges, and I did nothing because I was a coward. I was afraid, Sophie, of losing you, and how the enormity of your loss had the possibility of pulling me under. Now all that’s left are scraps of your fur in a plastic bag — I didn’t want to cut too deep or nip your whiskers, because that felt wrong; it felt like it would be a violation of your beauty — a box of ashes that are the remains of you, and your scent that lingers in the threads and fibers of my rugs and blankets. I bear the weight of being the kind of coward that sleeps above the sheets but never between them.
There’s nothing you could’ve done. You gave her the kindest end.
Is that entirely true? Was I, kind?
I want to explain to everyone that I actually hurt. I’m not loud with my pain, but I’m capable of feeling it. Imagine every single bone in your body breaking, bit by bit. This is my life as I stand on subway platforms and smile while ordering black coffee. I’m polite, genteel, solicitous, but all I feel is regret. I am a river, and how do I tell everyone I’m drowning? Do I send a mass email? Find a clever way to compose my grief in 140 characters or less? That losing you is not a feeling that is a piece of clothing one could so easily shed?
My grief has yet to take form or shape, it’s a wound that never closes or heals. It’s mammoth. Every single day I wake to that word and collapse into bed with it. My grief comes like swallows. That’s what it’s like to love someone more than yourself, when what you can feel can only be described as mammoth. Even then, the word doesn’t fit. This is why I can’t be around people. They make my grief small; reduce it to less than the sum of its parts, when it should be sweeping, large and as dark as the ocean. It hasn’t been a week, and people ask me if I’m better yet, to which I respond, no, I’m actually worse. Don’t you dare try to make my grief easier for you to bear.
I hope you’re doing well during this very difficult time.
There is no nobility in a body shuddering its last breath out, of a heart slouching forth to its final beat, of a body that has grown cold and soft, like unworn cashmere. There is only a patch of fur rising and a patch of fur falling. There are only the sentences: my Sophie is alive and my Sophie is dead. The sky broke and the rain came down in sheets as I closed my bedroom door. I remembered the towels on my bed where you lay being usually warm. Were you always this way and I don’t remember it? I do remember wanting to curl up next to your cooling body. In my living room, the doctor and technician quietly murmured, while I buried my face in the blanket that was you. I kissed the undersides of your paws and tugged at your whiskers, knowing that in life, you would’ve have nipped and swatted and wagged your tail insouciantly. I held you, and in retrospect, I wish I had held you longer. But that is my prison — a woman who is forever frightened of breaking. I never promised that this would be clean.
Don’t cry. Don’t eliminate. Imagine a love so deep it threatens to complete.
Have you considered getting another pet?
This is how I mourn you: I watch George Romero movies on mute and take a disturbing amount of pleasuring in seeing limbs flail and women shriek. I play the first few minutes of The Shining, on repeat, because you would always bolt into the room and listen to Berlioz. Did you really love Berlioz, or did the winding plane panning through a desolate, dark country give you comfort? I order food I don’t eat and delete emails without reading them. I’m cold and cruel and I like it. Someone writes: I hope you’re staying positive, and I wonder aloud, what the fuck does positive mean when my life has just been euthanized? When you, my heart, have been put out to pasture? Should I smile through the dark hours and forget your final moments when you leapt off my bed when the doctor touched you, or how you squirmed on your side when they injected you? What does it mean to be positive when I dream of your eyes refusing to close, as if you were denying death’s cruel trespass, even as your last breath slouched out. You were a woman who would not go quietly, and I love you for that.
For the first time in my life, I feel hate and allow it settle, fester and grow. Fuck you and your positive, I think. Let me feel the depths of my grief. Let me swathe in it, at least for a little while. Let me mourn you quietly and properly, and remember how you changed my life, altered me in ways I never imagined.
In the days that follow, I scrub every inch of my apartment except for the rug and your blankets. Sometimes I sleep on the floor, cocooned in your scent because I’m frightened that it’ll fade with the passage of each day. I grip counters with my hands. I keel over in dark bathrooms, and bite down on my lip so hard on the subway I don’t notice that I bleed. I watch a television show where the voiceover tells me that: grief is like the ocean: it’s deep and dark and bigger than all of us. And pain is like a thief in the night. Quiet. Persistent. Unfair. Diminished by time and faith and love.
Sometimes I open my door and expect to see you, a black star bolting from the other room. I ghost my home thinking that you’ll somehow appear, from ether, from air, and it’ll be our little secret that my little girl has come back, even for just a little while. Even if it’s to lull me to sleep, even if it’s to tell me that you understand that there was nothing else I could do.
I look at pictures of us, and it was a life lived in vivid color. Our photographs were the story of us, of two difficult women who fell madly in love with one another.
My father phones me daily—possibly to make sure that I haven’t cracked up—and tells me that it will hurt for a long time. He sits on the other line as I sob uncontrollably for a half hour or an hour straight. He tells me that it will never not hurt, but your loss will one day be something that I can bear. Grief hibernates, goes cold and quiet, and only the memory of you will remain.
What keeps me moving through my days is that first moment I laid eyes on you, and how you bolted across that bed toward me, all open arms with the promise of a love that will not alter.
Sophie, I said, then.
Sophie, I weep, now. My sweetest of girls, this is my letter to you, unfolded and read out loud. I hope you know that I tried to give you the best life because you gave me seven perfect years of love and light.
Sophie, you are my mammoth.