Mapping Grief By Reflections
I mostly grieve second-hand.
Some combination of societal pressure and natural personal inclination seems to have inoculated me against the first-hand variety, so that I can, for example, look at the following facts directly in their loathsome faces and be relatively unscathed by them: My cat Einstein, the first cat who was really mine, rather than my family’s, is sick and going to die. The vet gave us a prognosis and at no point was there a mention of any time span greater than six months. We’re going to do what we can to spoil him and make him comfortable in this twilight of his life, and at some point — perhaps when he is no longer happy enough to grace us with his legendary, bone-shaking purr — we’ll have him put to sleep, and then all we’ll have of him will be memories.
Abstractly, it seems like those facts should be enough to make me a quivering mass. I mean, Einstein is like 18 now and I’ve been dreading the inevitability of having his health take a turn for probably a few years now. But now I’m in the midst of it, and how do I feel? Well, pretty fucking bad, actually, but mostly not in a sad way. Instead I’m anxious and fretful and distractable and I feel somehow fragile.
The weird physical manifestation of this fragility is sort of like a low-grade fever: a feeling that my skin is tender, like I have a mild sunburn on my chest and back. (I assume the slight edge of nausea is from anxiety.) But the real sense of fragility comes from the feeling that second-order grief could hit me even harder than it usually does. Second-order grief is listening to a sad song, or seeing someone else grieve openly. Maybe it’s that society trained me to respond to other people displaying grief even as it trained me out of doing so myself, or maybe it’s just that other people being unguarded with their emotions can get through my defenses in a way that I can’t do myself. The master’s tools can’t dismantle the master’s wall.
When my father died suddenly, the first time I cried was over a week later, when I saw my brother — the one reknowned for his ability to hold an absolutely straight face through any attempts to faze him — break down. On the other hand, the song “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure,” by the Weakerthans, is one of the few things in this world that can reliably bring me to tears. I love it, and hate it, precisely because of its ability to make me let down my guard in a way that it seems most other things can’t, and despite my girlfriend’s asking me “Why do you do that to yourself?” sometimes it just feels right to cry, the same way sometimes we intentionally do things that scare or hurt us in other ways. But now, in my current state of fragility, I’m afraid to listen to that song. Maybe I don’t want to cry when there’s a chance that some part of it might be real, that Einstein is sad and afraid and in pain and there’s nothing I can do about it. Usually I can resist anthropomorphizing him this way. But that song shatters my resistance in too many ways for me to risk it.
Someday soon I will wake up and, for the first time in nine years, there will no longer be an Einstein. I know this, and I can face it and be mostly unmoved. But if I listen to Woke Up New, even though it is about a person and not a cat, that “what do I do without you” will somehow make it real. And I’ll have to really confront how maybe, some cold winter morning after Einstein leaves, it will be cold, so I’ll put on a sweater and turn up the heat, and then, suddenly and without warning, the walls will begin to close in, and there will be absolutely nothing I can do about it.