Most of what I write has some deep life lesson embedded in it, which is rarely intentional. But in twenty-nine short years I have learned more about life, love, and loss than many people learn in a lifetime. Pondering and processing loss tends to lead one to think about life and love. The three are inextricably intertwined in a way that makes our lives as humans uniquely beautiful, and this tightly woven fabric of our existence is a concept that many choose – to their own detriment – to overlook. We don’t want to think about loss as a real part of our lives. We especially do not want to consider death honestly and analytically. It is much easier to shove our heads deep into the sands of denial, and then to be incensed and outraged when death comes like a thief to take what we love.
I am a good person. We tell ourselves. I don’t deserve this. As if the most natural and inevitable conclusion of life is somehow dictated by an arbitrary measurement of our intrinsic or attempted goodness.
The concept of bargaining is natural in the grieving process. We believe that because we sustained this loss, it would be inhumane for any more trauma or tragedy to befall us. We have enough on the plate of our fractured life; we cannot take anymore. Surely God or the Universe will understand that and take pity on us.
Recently as I lamented the unceasing shitstorm that has been the lives of my sisters and me for the past several months, as I complained about how I must have been Atilla the Hun in a former life, a dear friend suggested that perhaps everything does not happen for a reason. Perhaps the Universe or God is not trying to teach me any sort of lesson. Maybe our lives are simply a collection of happenings and what kind of human beings we are depends upon how we choose to handle those happenings.
Do we carry ourselves with grace in the face of adversity? Do we whine and kick and scream and refuse to accept our reality? Do we take the bad things that happen to us as lessons learned and move forward with greater wisdom? Or do we use our sorrows as a crutch, an excuse to refuse to engage fully with the world around us? When our dreams unexpectedly burst into shards in front of our very eyes, and we don’t have a backup plan, how do we respond? Do we allow the setbacks to make us bitter? Do we become resentful at the people who try to hold us up? Do we lash out at those closest to us, taking out on them the demise of the future we had planned for ourselves? Do we withdraw? Do we give up and stop trying or loving altogether? Do we become bent with sadness, ultimately shutting out everyone and everything to varying degrees? Or do we stop, take a breath, step back, and renegotiate with ourselves how to move forward? Do we find a new path, or do we sit down in the middle of the darkened forest and simply give up?
We are all faced with choices. Life abounds with misery and heartache. Sometimes around every corner is a grim reaper, lying in wait, prepared to steal from us all our carefully constructed plans and dreams. Our grades aren’t what we expected. Our careers stall. Our houses fall apart. Our cars stop running. Our parents die. Our children become sick. Our pets run away. Our marriages fail. Our finances falter. This is not to be despondent or overtly pessimistic. Not all of these travesties will befall every single one of us in that particular order. Or maybe they will. The truth is that the only certainty in life is uncertainty, and death.
At some point in our lives, anguish will gut both you and me. The torment of your crushed life will reach inside you and hollow you out like a pumpkin, leaving nothing but agony. It is how we respond in the face of inescapable suffering that defines us as human beings. It is how we move forward even when we swear that one more blow will bring us to our knees and incapacitate us that determines our legacy. Even when that blow comes, and you hit your knees, what choice is there but to crawl forward?
This weekend I had to put my rats to sleep. Both of them. They each had been struggling with illness, and it seemed that they both were dealing with pituitary tumors. They each retained their personalities, even as their bodies failed them, which made the decision that much more agonizing. Oliver was severely underweight with a bulging swollen eye, unable to eat except through a syringe. Fenton was paralyzed in his back legs and unable to move around unless he dragged himself. It was not an easy decision, particularly in light of the past few months.
Fenton got sick first, and after going to the vet and being on antibiotics for a couple of weeks he was doing much better. He even started coming out of his cage again, playing and snuggling with me. While I was nursing him back to health, Oliver was getting sick and was unable to eat, and I didn’t notice. He still went to the food bowl, food disappeared, and I didn’t think much of it. Turns out his teeth overgrew out of nowhere – something that has never happened in his almost two years of life. They punctured the roof of his mouth, so he had both overgrown teeth and a festering wound. It goes without saying that I felt awful about myself for missing this.
Then, despite both of them being at the vet less than a week prior, they suddenly started to fall apart almost overnight. It is a strange feeling to shift from a sense of urgency, a compulsive desire to fight for whatever is necessary to save them, to a sense of resignation. When you realize that saving them is no longer an option, that all you are doing is prolonging for a brief moment what is inevitably going to come to pass very soon, you have to ask yourself who benefits from that. My mom and I talked earnestly numerous times before she died and even before she got very sick about euthanasia for humans. Though she was too afraid to allow it to be enacted upon her, she believed in the concept for those who were sure of it. Death is a certainty. Suffering doesn’t have to be.
Meanwhile, Josie started having problems with her ears, as she often does. Normally I have a running supply of her various medications so that when allergy season descends upon us, I can manage all of her skin ailments with little interruption to our daily lives. The only problem this season is that around the same time my mom died, Joseph’s normal vet also died. I did not find this out until several weeks later, and that’s a story for another post, but the result is that we had to find a new vet. Luckily a guy I work with is married to a local vet, and she is lovely. But we do not have rapport the way I did with the old vet, so I need to schedule an appointment and leave work early and run around. In doing so, I also found that I will need to clean the dog’s vulva at least once a day for the rest of her life.
Then, last week, as I was preparing for the difficult decision of euthanizing the ratties, I was also rushing the dog back and forth between home and the emergency vet at the university. She suddenly became unable to walk again, crying out in pain and collapsing onto her side in the front yard, even when I’d carried her out there. I spent one whole evening and the majority of the next day sitting, waiting. The prognosis is ultimately uncertain. She will be on three separate pain medications and subject to cage rest for six more weeks. If it turns out she ruptures another disc in her spine, she is not a good candidate for surgery. I will likely be faced with putting her down. And if she comes out of this, the rest of her life will need to be considerably less active. No jumping or running or rough playing. No hiking with Mama, one of the most grounding activities of my adult life.
Simply keeping all of us fed and bathing myself and going to work every day has been an almost insurmountable challenge these past few months. And suddenly I have three special needs pets. Then, I have to euthanize two of them, while I stare down five and a half more weeks of waiting to know exactly what will happen with the third. I have to be honest – I am on my knees. And I do not feel like crawling forward. I feel like lying right here and letting it all burn down around me. I am struggling to care at all, about anything. I know that this is a defining moment in my life.
Assuming I live that long, I will look back on this in a decade and critique the choices that this version of myself made. Maybe I will write about her, maybe I will be able to cover in detached detail the process of putting the rats to sleep and the frustration I felt at the dog just moments after bringing her home from the vet where I had cried inconsolably at the prospect of putting her to sleep. Maybe I will be proud of that twenty-nine year old who sustained the loss of her mother, her vet, and her pet rats in a three month span and didn’t give up or become a raging alcoholic. Maybe I will want to give her a hug and tell her that it gets better. Maybe in ten years I will have a decade of work in my field under my belt. Maybe I will be happily married with a child or two – something I am afraid to want as hungrily as I do. Maybe I will want to hold this broken twenty-nine year old and promise her that sometimes life truly is sweet more often than it is cruel. Maybe I will tell her that even though she is battered and disheartened, though she feels vanquished by the inhumanity of this often calamitous life, there is no choice but to crawl forward.