P.S. I Am So Sad
April 22, 2013
Everyone guesses … the degree of a bereavement’s intensity. But it’s impossible (meaningless, contradictory signs) to measure how much someone is afflicted.
I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it—or without being sure of not doing so—although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.
-Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary
The empty carrier rode on the seat between us in the back of the cab, the tag still affixed to the handle: This Belongs To: CRUDDY. I stared at the back of the driver’s head, occasionally saying things to my wife to fill the silence, things I can no longer remember.
It was light now, familiar buildings streaming past on the empty streets. Kellogg’s Diner. Bagelsmith. Crest Hardware. The symmetrical rows of baked goods in the window of Fortunato Brothers. Home.
We climbed to our apartment in silence. Marcus was waiting for us inside, hurling himself against our shins, mewling as I set the carrier on the ground. He circled it, sniffing through the mesh walls at the crumpled white towel that padded the bottom. I looked into Marcus’ pale green eyes and they seemed to be saying where is she? though probably I was asking him.
I went straight to bed, where Cruddy had been perched when I scooped her into the carrier and took her away from the apartment for the last time. Neither of us knew then that it was the last time, but she’d still squeaked incessantly.
I got under the covers, bleary, scraped out, and fell into shallow sleep while my wife stayed up in the living room, updating her Facebook profile: We had to say goodbye to Cruddy this morning. She had a great 11 years, and we’re going to miss her like crazy, but now she’s at peace.
I can’t say if this is precisely how it happened or if what happened before and after actually happened as I remember it. Memory is a thing that degrades and mutates rapidly, chemically reacting to every sensation and thought, producing an instant hybrid of consciousness. Non-fiction? There is no such thing. Jack Brewer once told Sonic Youth, “Once the music leaves your head, it’s already compromised.” Let me tell you, the music is compromised.
It blew my little fifth grade mind the day Mr. Fraccaro stood in front of the class and explained that a cloud is 99% water, that a watermelon is 97% water and that the differences between them, their distinct cloudness or watermelonness, lies in that last one or three percent. This is precisely the degree to which your cat is your cat.
Cruddy had short, shimmery black fur that thinned at the temples, narrow hips and a ribcage the vets had declared “abnormally round.” She had pointy ears, round yellow eyes, a little mouth often dusted with crumbs.
She liked to sit on our shoes when we kicked them off, to sprawl on anything papery or crinkly. She enjoyed hiding in boxes and suitcases that had been left open, stretched out in parallelograms of sunlight on the kitchen floor, stood staring at the water falling in the shower. Once, she rode beside me in the passenger seat of a moving van, meowing every few seconds all the way from Chicago to New York. During parties she hid under the bed and when she became hungry in the middle of the night she would lick the plastic liners on our garbage can until we awoke. When we scratched the base of her tail she’d obsessively lap at her left paw until we stopped.
Our relationship didn’t require emotional support, didn’t rely on my ability to say the right thing at the right time, to reassure her that I loved her as much as she wanted or in the way that she needed. The why of it never mattered. It required only regular feedings, shelter, emptying of litter bins, an occasional exchange of body heat, or a gentle touch or sound. It was love unarticulated, flexible, powerful, symbiotic.
That was the one or three percent that made Cruddy Cruddy.
Of course there had been other pets, in the same way there had been other women before I met my wife. First, Pepper, my mother’s beagle, who hated that an infant had taken everyone’s attention away. Then, a series of doomed fish. Chessie, a black and white cat who liked to bring dead things into the house. Rebel, an old Sheltie who would walk into the backyard, sit down and bark until he was picked up and carried back to the house. But all of them, somehow, lacked that final few crucial percentage points of somethingness.
Nausea, drooling, conjunctivitis, hyperthyroidism, heart murmur, weight loss, fatty liver. Things had grown exponentially worse over late winter, until that last day when I hauled Cruddy into the vet, other people’s dogs sniffing at the carrier, cats exchanging coded meows.
Cruddy, now a bony nine pounds, squatted on the stainless steel table, looking for a way to escape. It’s OK, I said. The doctor turned out one of Cruddy’s ears, the underside of which was now a jaundiced yellow. She clasped the cat from behind by the shoulders. Oh, Cruddy, she frowned, as though the animal had once again failed to complete a homework assignment on time.
The things the vet said next involved hundreds—eventually, thousands—of dollars, required feeding tubes, 24-hour care in a hospital setting. I called my wife, handed the phone across the examination table.
My wife was crying when the doctor handed back the phone. Tell them to do whatever they have to, she said.
The week before, there had been a full-body scan, a report back declaring no suspicious shadows or masses, no lesions or other troubling signs. I had leaned on the receptionist’s counter as the vet had delivered the merciful news, feeling the loosening of tension in my shoulders and spine. Nothing, I’d told my wife, smiling into the phone. They found nothing.
The end was like this. I woke in the middle of the night and stared into the darkness, listening to the pulse of house music coming from the apartment building behind ours. I threw back the covers, wandered into the living room, curled up on the couch. I turned on the TV, scrolling through the menu for something distracting, but numbing.
Fraiser marathon. Perfect. Niles was saying something to Daphne. Roz’s mother was visiting Seattle. The little dog leapt across the furniture. I closed my eyes.
I woke at the sound of my wife peeing with the door open. She flushed. Crossing back to the bedroom, she checked her phone. Shit, she said, we have five missed calls from the vet.
It was 4:30 in the morning. The rave out back was still going strong. Frasier was talking to a caller. I closed my eyes and listened to my wife’s half of the conversation. What does that mean, she said. Do you think anything’s going to change? What do you think we should do? What would you do?
A receptionist in blue scrubs buzzed us in. The lobby, like the rest of the facility, was empty, clean, beige, bright. We were led to a small hall and then a smaller room plastered with thank you cards, signed photos of dogs and cats. Thank you, Dr. So and So, for fixing my paw!
My wife sat in a plastic chair while I paced, thinking of the amazing fluke of Cruddy becoming our cat, of the Little Haiti bartender who 11 years earlier had scooped up a mangy kitten and gave her away to a girl playing the club that night, a girl who had just finished Linda Barry’s novel about a girl named Roberta Rohbeson who is discovered wandering the desert covered with blood.
The door opened. The vet looked young, a little pudgy in his green scrubs and blinding white lab coat. He tugged absently at the stethoscope slung over the back of his neck as he repeated the things he’d told my wife over the phone. Dropping body temp. Fluid building up. Heart failure. Did we want to see her?
The doors to the intensive care unit parted, emitting a warm, fecal, furry smell. Things moved in the cages lining the walls. Something whined. On a table in the center of the room, Cruddy lay on her side on a thick blue and white sanitary pad. She looked as I’d left her two days before, except for the IV in her leg, the tiny red breathing tube running down the center of her nose and threaded into one nostril, and her belly, which inflated and contracted in violent bursts with each breath. A series of escalating and descending yips came from somewhere in her throat. Yip-yip? her lungs seemed to ask, and a moment later they would answer: yip, yip. We bent forward so we could be at her eye level, but there was no recognition. Cruddy, we said, petting her side, kissing the soft warm place between her ear and the breathing tube. We’re sorry, we said. We love you. We’re sorry. We love you.
Back into the small room. A form to be signed. You have to substitute your judgment for hers, I thought. It’s all you can do. What if you’re the cat? What would you want? If you really love her, what should you do? She’s not going to fucking tell you. Stop being a pussy. If you really care and aren’t just protecting yourself and fending off fucking guilt—Cruddy doesn’t care about your fucking guilt. She cares about the fucking things being jammed into her by strangers. She cares that she can’t fucking breathe.
The young vet looked over the clipboard and returned a few minutes later cradling Cruddy on the sanitary pad. He left us alone for a few more minutes. The tubes gone, Cruddy’s eyes were wide open. She sat up, laid back down, meowed hoarsely, bolted weakly for the side of the table, adjusted her body, anything to relieve the sense of suffocating that came with having her tubes removed.
It’s OK Cruddy. We love you. We’re sorry. We love you. We’re sorry. We love you.
How long we were alone, I don’t know. I was agitated, watching Cruddy struggle. I finally had to leave the room and found an orderly in lilac scrubs: Tell the doctor we’re ready.
The doctor stood across the table from us. Cruddy’s head rested on my wife’s forearm. I stroked the cat’s side. It’s OK, we love you. We love you so much. We’re sorry, Cruddy. We love you.
The doctor pulled two syringes from his pocket, one coded pink, one purple. Purple for sleep. Pink for death. The purple went into the IV tube attached to Cruddy’s foreleg. The vet’s thumb depressed. I could not see Cruddy’s face, but her body immediately relaxed and quieted. There was nothing but the hum of the fluorescent lights. The second shot went in. The doctor recapped the syringes, tossed them away, pressed the metal disk to Cruddy’s side. A pale bloom of feces spread across the pad. She’s gone, he said. Or maybe I imagined that. I’m very sorry, he said. I looked into his soft baby face, thought of all the times he’s been right there, standing over a dead animal. Should I thank him, I wondered. He’d done more for Cruddy than we could, made mercy possible. The sense of intimacy I felt was profound. You killed something I loved because it was too difficult to go on living. Should we get a drink? Hug at least? But I didn’t say anything. He turned, left. I never saw him again.
My wife and I held Cruddy, cried, kissed her still warm body in all the places we had kissed during all those wonderful, funny years in Miami, Chicago, and Brooklyn. My tears lasted probably less than a minute, followed by a pause, a sudden blankness, and then ripple of relief, as if an evil spirit had lifted out of the top of my head. We stayed like that, hovering over Cruddy’s body, until I grew restless again, stepped out of the room, summoned yet another orderly.
Forms, a shocking bill, a paw imprint in a disk of clay that we were instructed to bake for 10 minutes, a call to the car service. Death is really just logistics.
It was light outside now, houses still dark. As we stood in the lobby, dog walkers occasionally passed. Every single animal paused and looked inside as they went by. They knew what this place was, what happened here.
When the car arrived, we stepped into the cold. A cluster of the orderlies stood by a different door, smoking, talking in low voices. It was Saturday. Our cat was dead.
Losing a pet is less painful than losing a human loved one in the same way that being stabbed once in the face once hurts less than being stabbed twice in the face. Every hour or so I found myself almost blurting out loud, Oh my god, Cruddy, you are dead. I wanted to say, Can you believe it? But of course we couldn’t have had that conversation in life or death. But I was sure even a cat couldn’t quite imagine its own death any more than a person could, that incomprehensible transition from living being to lifeless object.
Two days after Cruddy died I was drinking my third beer, waiting for a flight to Chicago where, unbeknownst to me at the time, my father would tell me he had emphysema. Loose with bad, criminally overpriced alcohol, I performed little experiments on myself. Every few minutes I would think to myself: You will never see her again, you will never hold her again. I would let the words sink in, spread through my chest and limbs, and take mental notes on the sensations. I was disappointed by the lack of dramatic effect, the dryness of my eyes, the looseness of my throat.
Over the last 24 hours I had sensed that I was about to become a better, different person, that my love for Cruddy, my loss and insight, would reshape me somehow. But that didn’t seem to be happening. (It still hasn’t.) Everyone loves animals. Saints, assholes, monsters. Hitler adored Blondi, his German Shepherd; Leona Helmsley left $12 million to Trouble, her Maltese. It occurred to me that loving Cruddy had in no way expanded my capacity for love or understanding, for connection. This was not a Ted Talk. There was no great insight to be had. It had happened. And now it was over.
Budget meeting, scheduling meeting, venting about marriage equality on Facebook, annual review, expense report submissions, drinks with some guys I used to be in a band with, Dad’s big emphysema revelation delivered as he clutched a cigarette, drinks with some people at work, then back to O’Hare and homeward. The ride home from LaGuardia took me across the Kosciuszko Bridge, overlooking the crowded, jumbled headstones of Calvary Cemetery where Ethel and John Barrymore lie. I wondered if, creaking up the steps to the apartment, or opening the door and having just Marcus greet me would rip me open, if the time away from home would prove transformative. All week the sadness had flared and ebbed like a fever, reaching excruciating levels only as my aunt told me she’d just put down her dog, Tex, who’d finally lost all control of his lower body.
Move, I told Marcus as I tried to set down my bags in the living room. Has he been eating, I asked my wife, who had just written a long, beautiful elegy for Cruddy on her blog that was everything my experience wasn’t. Marcus is fine, she said. I looked at our cat. Our only cat now, who had spent years sleeping in symmetrical back-to-back patterns with Cruddy for a decade. I did not see a grieving, lonely, listless creature. I saw an eating, sleeping, shitting machine who would continue to rely on me for occasional body heat and cheek rubs.
There were some sympathy cards from friends on the kitchen counter, featuring puffy calicos or suns setting behind clouds. People are so good, I thought. Why aren’t I? I looked at the cards and a small note scrawled on a piece of scratch paper fell out. It was from Taylor, our friends’ eight-year-old daughter.
Dear Amber and Jeb,
I am sorry and super sad Cruddy died. I ♥d her very much. With all my heart, ♥, Taylor.
P.S. I am so sad.
I drank a beer, sat on the couch with my wife, catching up on my DVR’d shows. Then some other things happened, but I forget what.
Jeb Gleason-Allured is from Wheaton, Illinois and lives in Brooklyn. His work is forthcoming in the Have A NYC 2 anthology (Three Rooms Press) and Vol. 1 Brooklyn Sunday Stories.