Love and Death, But Mostly Death

Emmitt has a favorite spot in my apartment. It’s a heating pad on top of a big trunk that was made in my home town of Wheeling, West Virginia. There’s a blanket on there too, the blanket that was in the crate with him when we met. It was his only possession.

Emmitt and I have at least two things in common: a love of treats and intractable anxiety. At least I have cognitive behavioral therapy and cymbalta to help keep mine somewhat tractable. Maybe Emmitt was born that way, and he was going to be an anxious cat no matter what. 

Equally likely is that he had a rough go of it during his first few years of life, when he was a stray. What struggles and danger he faced in those times makes me very sad, because I love the little guy so much. He’s fine, don’t worry. He’s staring at me right now as I write this. His anxiety is my anxiety.

I think the real origin of his anxiety is probably a mixture of both, just like mine is. We were both going to be anxious, but life had its way with us and gave that anxiety a place to bloom.

The smallest disturbance can set Emmitt off under the couch. A big disturbance sends him into the closet, as far back as he can squeeze his little body. When somebody visits, it’s always the worst day of Emmitt’s life. He can take hours to reemerge, hesitantly, after they’ve left and he knows the coast is clear.

Sometimes Emmitt has bad dreams and he wakes up with an exaggerated startle response that sends him flying across the room. Nothing happened, and nothing is wrong, but whatever was threatening him in his dream was so scary he had to get out of there. He’s so small and goes so gently in his normal life that when he has a bad night I can tell because the blanket on his heating pad is askew when I wake up.

Even though Emmitt’s not there, I know he was. Even a 7 lb cat with the lightest touch you ever saw leaves something behind. I began this section as a metaphor for death and it turned into a wistful reflection on my cat.

I wanted to write about death because my dad died almost exactly a year ago and it’s been on my mind a lot. Since I don’t have a lot of experience with dads dying (I only had the one), it coughed up a whole bunch of other related feelings that I do have some experience with: a broken heart. 

Oh woe is me! My heart’s broken. Boo fucking hoo. I know, I know. It’s very cringe for me to be talking about this stuff but this is my space and you agreed to read it, so stop bumming me out and go bum somebody else out with your bad attitude. 

It sounds like I’m talking to somebody else but I’m really talking to myself. This is the annoying manifestation of my shame and self loathing that materializes in my own head and I start hearing that person scoff and I see them roll their eyes. 

But get this: the person who planted those seeds in me is dead! He was my dad. It’s a special kind of feeling to grow up and your biggest tormentor and origin of the worst feelings about yourself is your own dad. Peoples dads do way worse things than my dad did, but just because somebody else had a bad dad doesn’t mean my dad can’t be bad, too. And when I say he was bad, he was bad in a very specific emotional way. 

If you’re wondering what I mean, let me give you a single solitary example (I have a ton more). 

We would be having fun on Christmas morning, as kids tend to do. It probably looked like this:

“I think the constant articulation of my own grief and hearing other people’s stories was very healing, because those who grieve know. They are the ones to tell the story. They have gone to the darkness and returned with the knowledge. They hold the information that other grieving people need to hear. And most astonishing of all, we all go there, in time.”

― Nick Cave, Faith, Hope and Carnage

We are blessed and cursed to live, because everything that lives also dies. What’s worse than death is to watch other things die.

Life prepares us for the inevitability of our own deaths by killing the people we love and forcing us to sit with the feelings. 

Life prepares us for those deaths in other small ways, too. 

For instance, we cannot survive without making something else die first. Oh sure there are some monks in some far off places that only eat fruit that falls from a tree and I suppose those same monks could also choose only to eat animals that died of natural causes, though that seems hard to sustain. It simply wouldn’t scale. 

But before I get bogged down on that train of thought, I’ll make the point I was making: love is death, is life.

When we love somebody, we put a chunk of our happiness with them. We access that happiness by thinking about them, or looking at them, or making love with them, or simply sometimes just by remembering that they are there. If you’re really lucky, they gave a piece of their own happiness to you, too.

Something happens to that chunk of ourselves we hand over to them, because we completely lose control of it. They have it, now. As long as they take care of it, it grows and changes, and enriches the piece of them we hold. But sometimes people move on and leave that chunk of us behind. 

They might place it gently on the table between you, or they might take it out and stomp on it, or they might simply leave it behind because something or someone drew them away. Sometimes they don’t tell you they’re leaving.

After they’ve left you and your chunk of happiness is back in your hands and you’re figuring out what to do with it, they might not have given you a reason for it. Or maybe they did give you a reason and it was even more cruel than stomping on it would have been.

In my experience, there’s no version of the breakup more preferable than another. They’re all bad. They’re all terrible. And sometimes it’s more terrible for you than it is for them and it makes you mad. Why aren’t they as sad as I am? How can they so callously leave us behind like this? Why did they have to go?

There’s no reason for it. Sometimes. And sometimes we don’t want to hear the answer that’s true.

And now you’re left with a giant absence. The beams of love and joy you fired in their direction don’t bounce back anymore. The light you shine isn’t reflected. It all disappears. The void swallows it all and gives nothing back. 

The real sad fact of the whole thing is that we’re all alone, all the time, and maybe they made us feel like we weren’t alone. Or maybe we felt like our whole life was over and they blasted into it like a rocket and picked us up with them and we flew so high and saw such amazing things from a vantage we thought we’d never see again and they dropped us off, not unkindly, and blasted off to their next adventure. And now we’re back on the boring old hard ground and we’re so lonely that not even our cats can fill the space.

I can get wrapped up in metaphors so I want to bring this back to the point I was making before: we can’t make people stay with us if they don’t want to, and sometimes they give us reasons why they can’t stay with us and you know they’re just saying those things to save our feelings. 

Sometimes you want to shout and call them a liar and maybe when you’re young you do that because young people are closer to their feelings and haven’t made the right tools yet.

When you lose a tooth, there’s a space in your mouth that wasn’t there before that you can stick your tongue through. It takes a while to get used to that absence, and after a little while a new tooth grows into the space where the old one was.

While we don’t have an infinite supply of teeth, we do have an infinite supply of love. It springs out of us and spills over and gets everywhere. It makes no sense to keep it all inside yourself. That doesn’t do anybody any good. Sharing that love makes the whole universe better, even if it’s just saying something sweet to your cat. 

If it sounds like I’m not writing about death anymore, I suppose I’m not. I’m writing about love now, and how love is the thing that really matters.

And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart

– Paul Simon, Graceland

Anyway, losing love is one of the ways life gets us ready to face death, because falling in and out of love can prepare us for when the people leave.

One big difference is that the people we love are still alive, and we have that little hope that maybe they’ll come back. When you spend a lot of time out here in this void with your cat sometimes that hope is all you have. 

And while it’s important to hold on to that hope, it’s best not to get too precious about it. And it should absolutely never keep you from lighting a new candle for somebody else. If you’re lucky you can get a whole bunch of candles burning all at the same time. Some will always be shorter flames than others, but it’s okay to keep them. We are, after all, made of fire ourselves.

Losing love is like when somebody you love dies. That seems paradoxical, but it’s the way it is. You love them and they go away, and you’re left by yourself again. 

We don’t ever get over anyone. We just learn to live with their ghosts.

this song doesn’t have anything to do with what I just wrote, but it’s nice little bop