Intimations of mortality


Tinged

I’m currently reading The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs’ account of her cancer diagnosis and death. The book is divided into four stages, just as terminal cancer is, and in the passage I read this morning, Riggs enters stage three of her journey right as her own mother dies of the disease.

Fade to pink

Riggs is a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, so her approach to living and dying is inherently–one might say in-hereditarily–Transcendentalist. Riggs reads and writes her way through her diagnosis, treatment, and stages of grief, drawing parallels between her life and the essays of Michel de Montaigne, which themselves were models for the ones written by both Emerson and Thoreau.

Essayists believe writing is itself illuminative: we write in an attempt (in an essay) to understand. The title of Riggs’ memoir, The Bright Hour, comes from a line from Emerson referring to morning as a time when sunlight infills and inspires, allowing “this sickly body…to become as large as the World.”

Duck lips

The sun rises every day, and every day people die. There is nothing inherently special about Riggs or her cancer, treatment, and death; Riggs experiences mortality as countless others have both before and after her. But what makes a writer’s passing particular is the very art of essaying: even in extremis, there is a conscious commitment to watch and record, one’s own impending death becoming its own kind of data.

This kind of noticing does not come naturally; it is human nature to turn away from scenes of sickness and decline, reminiscent as they are of one’s own mortality. But writers train themselves to turn toward trauma just as war photographers run toward scenes of slaughter. I suppose there are a few exceptional souls who live oblivious lives and then turn into compulsive chroniclers of their own demise, but in my experience, awareness is a tool you hone over time.

Fading to pink

Although Riggs’ memoir had its genesis in a blog she began soon after her diagnosis, I don’t know if she was a lifelong journal-keeper like her famous forebear was: it was Emerson, after all, who urged Henry David Thoreau to keep a journal, and American literature is all the richer for it. But Riggs was trained as a poet, and poets like essayists are compulsive collectors, using language as a tool to snatch up and save the otherwise ordinary detritus of days.

I’m roughly halfway through The Bright Hour, but I know how it ends–I know, in fact, how every memoir ends. We all were born with a terminal diagnosis, but some of us are in denial about the details. Riggs died at the age of 38, leaving a husband and two young sons; Emerson died at the ripe age of 78 after having lost much of his memory and mental faculties. How do we measure the richness of a single life: is it by length of days or the number of enduring publications? Riggs lived the last years of her life in an entirely Emersonian fashion, reading, writing, and trying assiduously to understand this brief, bright hour that dawns, hastens across the horizon, and inevitably fades.

Takeoff

Today’s weather is the same as it was sixteen years ago today: brisk and beautiful, with turquoise-blue skies. I’m not sure if there is a meteorological reason why September skies are often so deeply, vividly blue, but that’s how the sky was on September 11, 2001.

Logan Airport flyby

Sixteen years ago, I was living in Hillsborough, NH with my then-husband, and September 11 was a Tuesday. I’d just started teaching at Keene State College, but I didn’t teach on Tuesdays that semester. Instead, I was working a part-time temporary job at a publishing company in Portsmouth, NH, about an hour and a half away from home.

Jet Blue on blue

That morning’s drive to Portsmouth was largely uneventful, but there had been a car crash on the stretch of highway between Concord and Portsmouth, and police had blocked the road and detoured traffic. I remember driving on small, rural roads through communities I’d never visited before. These were the days before ubiquitous GPS devices, and I was genuinely worried I’d get lost trying to find my way to work, but the day was so lovely, I almost didn’t mind.

Overhead

When I got to work, I learned someone had died in that crash: the first of the day’s many tragedies. But since I didn’t know the person who had died, I quietly settled into the cubicle of one of the of two women on maternity leave I’d been filling in for that summer. While I was working, someone sent out an inter-office email saying the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit by a plane, and I quickly skimmed and deleted the email. Since I was juggling this temp job with the new school year at Keene State, I had a lot of work to do that day, so I continued working without checking CNN or turning on the radio.

Wild blue yonder

The same thing happened when another email came around saying the second World Trade Tower had been hit: I read the email and kept working. I hadn’t seen any photos or videos of the attack, so I imagined a scary but somehow explicable accident wherein two planes had gone off track, clipping a wing against one and then a second skyscraper. Because I was busy, I was able to compartmentalize the news: something bad was happening in New York, but I was in Portsmouth, and I had a tall pile of work to do. I was probably the last worker in my office–the last person in America–to realize the gravity of what had happened.

Fly-by

I wasn’t until lunchtime that I fully realized what was happening. I was supposed to attend a staff meeting, but everyone was so upset by the news from New York, several coworkers and I went for a quick walk instead. It was an attempt to dissipate some nervous energy on a clear autumn day that was too beautiful to spend inside. When we got back to the office, I finally saw my first glimpse of the attack.

Overhead

A throng of co-workers was crammed into a single cubicle, huddling around a computer to watch CNN, and that was when I saw for the first time the incessant replay of planes crashing and buildings falling. Like countless others before me, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It looked like a scene out of a movie, not something actually happening under an impossibly blue umbrella of September skies.

Overhead

Not long after my co-workers and I stood slack-jawed and silent around a single computer, our boss sent us home for the day: my co-workers to nearby homes and loved ones, and me to a lonely hour-and-a-half drive. The roads between Portsmouth and Hillborough were nearly empty, and I listened to the news on NPR while scouring the skies for planes. It’s been sixteen years since I took that long, lonely drive, and I still hold my breath whenever I see a distant plane fly anywhere near a city skyline, waiting to make sure it flies behind each silhouetted skyscraper rather than directly through.

Above

This past Friday, I went to Boston’s Logan International Airport to pick J up from a two-week business trip. I got to the airport early, not knowing how bad the Memorial Day weekend traffic would be, so I had time to seek out the airport’s 9/11 Memorial, which commemorates the passengers and crew lost on two flights out of Boston that were hijacked and flown into New York’s World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.

Departed

I like airports, despite (or maybe because of) their nervous bustle. Even if you yourself aren’t going anywhere, at an airport you can pretend you are while walking for what seems like miles within a labyrinthine warren of networked corridors. To get to the 9/11 Memorial on Friday, I walked the long corridor connecting Terminal E in one direction and Terminal A in the other, encountering along the way a disoriented fellow who was trying to find the arrivals terminal without knowing which airline his “arrival” was flying on. Pointing this man toward the closest of the airport’s terminals, I hoped someone would be able to help him once he got there.

Gingko grove

Once I found it, the 9/11 memorial at Logan Airport was underwhelming: a translucent glass cube in a grove of young gingko trees. To me, the trees were the most attractive aspect of the memorial–in autumn, they must be spectacular as they gleam golden. But the cube itself felt sterile and disconnected, nestled into a wedge of green between the central parking garage, the airport Hilton, and a noisy highway interchange.

American Airlines Flight 11

I’m guessing the cube is more impressive at night, when its panels are lit by ground-level lights. But by day, it looks like an empty bus-stop shelter or a giant glass Rubik’s cube. Whereas the 9/11 Memorial in New York City is fluid with paired waterfalls marking the spot where the Twin Towers stood, Logan Airport’s memorial to the two flights that were hijacked out of Boston is literally unmoving: the one thing in the landscape that never changes.

United Airlines Flight 175

While the parking garage next to the memorial is sided with countless metal flaps that swing in the breeze, creating a mesmerizing ripple effect like wind tousling a dog’s fur or a bird’s feathers, the memorial cube has solid glass sides and an open-air “roof” with glass tiles affixed on two slanted planes of parallel wires. The effect is of glass fragments caught in mid-air, and perhaps that is the intended impression. But while those mid-air shards evoke the shattered glass of the wrecked Twin Towers and the subsequent confetti-like fall of paper, glass, and other debris, this image of shattered-glass-frozen-in-abeyance seems an odd choice to commemorate two planes that were turned by hijackers into missiles, the exact opposite of an unmoving cube.

Departed

Inside the cube are panels listing the passengers and crew lost on the two flights out of Boston that crashed into the Twin Towers: American Airlines Flight 11, which departed Boston at 7:59 a.m, and United Airlines Flight 175, which departed at 8:14 a.m. The cube commemorates the moment each of these planes departed, not the moments they were hijacked and crashed into the North and South Towers. If you wanted to freeze in time any moment from that day, it would be the moment of takeoff, not the moment of impact. At the moment of takeoff, all but five passengers on each place were blithely unaware of their fates, laboring under the sunny illusion that their lives like their travels were going somewhere.

Memorial cube

Airports are places of promise and opportunity–Bon Voyage!–except when they aren’t. A sterile glass cube tucked into a forgotten corner between a hotel and a parking garage at Boston’s Logan Airport reminds us that sometimes the dearly departed are not destined to arrive.

Crash in afternoon light

Earlier today, in the middle of a perfectly beautiful spring afternoon, we put Crash the cat to sleep. Like Bunny, whom we’d euthanized in January, Crash was 17 years old–a ripe age in cat years–and had been hale and healthy until he noticeably wasn’t. Whereas we’d tried to slow Bunny’s decline from kidney disease with a several-day-long hospitalization in the veterinary critical care unit that bought her only a few more weeks of quality time, we opted to keep Crash at home until the end, recognizing the signs of terminal kidney failure and opting for palliative care instead of extraordinary measures.

King of the refrigerator

Each of our cats has his or her own personality, and Crash’s was the most irrepressible. He should have been named “Houdini” for his proclivity for squeezing into places he didn’t belong: if there was a door ajar anywhere in the house, Crash was there in a flash to squeeze his way through it, perpetually curious about life on the other side.

Crash grooms Snowflake

Crash was never much of a lap-cat; he was too active and athletic for that. Although he wasn’t one to sit in your lap and allow himself to be petted, he did enjoy grooming the other cats, licking their heads and necks–the spots they couldn’t easily clean themselves–with an attention that suggested he’d been a hairdresser in a previous life.

Proof that cats and dogs can get along

Crash had an impish personality: he was a perpetual teenager, long in leg and mischievous in attitude. When Reggie started to struggle with stairs, Crash would torment him at every step, pouncing on Reggie’s tail and batting the fur on his hind legs, a playful brat who loved to harass his elders. After I took to carrying Reggie up the stairs, Crash mellowed and began hanging out with Reggie as he lay in whatever spot I’d arranged him, too feeble to stand. One of my favorite pictures of the two of them shows Crash keeping Reggie company as he rested in a square of morning light, their similarly colored fur aglow.

Crash on windowsill

There is, I’ve found, a strange sort of quiet calm that descends upon the house after one of the pets has died: Crash is the seventh pet we’ve lost since March, 2015, so I’ve come to know the drill. When you arrive home after euthanizing a pet, the house seems large and unnaturally quiet. Regardless of how large the animal was in life, in death his absence looms huge: an elephant that has left the room.

I think this oversized sense of emptiness arises because of how much care a dying pet requires. When a pet is dying, part of your mind is always devoted to him: is he fed, watered, and otherwise well-tended, and is there anything else (anything!) you can do to make him comfortable? When you come home after euthanizing a pet, there is a brief sense of shock when you realize there’s no longer anyone to fret over. You can put the IV stand with its bag of intravenous fluids away, wash the dish that had held the syringes full of medicine, and tidy up the sloven corners where your now-dead pet had been accustomed to nap.

Chilling out on a hot day

The pillows upon which Crash had rested these past few days are in the wash now; soon enough, after the initial novelty has subsided, the remaining pets will reclaim them. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a house full of pets doesn’t stay calm and quiet for long, the remaining pets with their remaining lives expanding to fill the emptiness left by one of their own reaching the end of his ninth.

Marathon bombing memorial

This morning on my way to meet friends in Harvard Square, I stopped at Copley Square to visit the Boston Marathon finish line. Yesterday was One Boston Day–the anniversary of the 2013 Marathon bombing–and on Monday, I’ll watch this year’s race here in Newton, cheering the runners before they face Heartbreak Hill. Today, I wanted to visit the two spots on Boylston Street where three people died and hundreds were injured: a chance to pay my respects at a place simultaneously festive and somber.

Four crosses

There is no permanent memorial commemorating the Marathon bombing; instead, impromptu offerings of flowers, handwritten notes, and homemade crosses mark the two spots where pressure cooker bombs turned a festive event into a scene of mayhem. If you didn’t know that lives and limbs were lost in front of Marathon Sports and the former Forum Restaurant, you’d notice nothing remarkable about these two stretches of sidewalk. But if you know the hidden history of these sites, you recognize them as invisible portals between the Here and the Hereafter: two otherwise ordinary places where souls prematurely crossed to the other side.

Remember Martin Richard

Today when I arrived on Boylston Street, a 5K race had just finished, and throngs of people were watching an awards ceremony for the winners. Boylston Street was closed to vehicular traffic, and tourists posed for pictures at the finish line: a festive scene. This is the disconnect that will forever mark the Boston Marathon finish line: a site of both triumph and tragedy, the sidewalk here holds a hidden history of heartbreak.

Bunny enjoys her lap-time

Yesterday morning, we put Bunny the cat to sleep. Earlier this month, after losing an alarming amount of weight, Bunny was diagnosed with kidney failure and spent a few days in the veterinary critical care unit, where our main goal was to get her healthy enough to come home. At home, we plied Bunny with food and an abundance of petting, committed to making her final days as comfortable and love-filled as possible.

Cubby-cat

This is, we’ve learned, how old cats often die. There’s the initial diagnosis, and veterinary care can extend their life long enough you can intentionally shower then with attention, making a conscious decision to (literally) love them to death. But inevitably, the disease wins: the disease always wins. You write the final chapter of a pet’s life knowing how the story ends but nevertheless fighting for every additional page, intent on cramming as much love and mercy as possible into a too-short narrative.

Bunny

Bunny is the fifth cat we’ve lost since last March, the litany of grief counting out like rosary beads: Scooby, Louie, Snowflake, Groucho, Bunny. Grief doesn’t get any easier with repetition, but it does grow more familiar: an unwelcome but well-known guest who keeps returning. Although Scooby died suddenly, we euthanized the others after long, debilitating illnesses that afforded ample opportunity for anticipatory grieving. When you euthanize a pet after a long illness, you experience a dizzying array of contradictory emotions. On the one hand, you’re relieved your pet is no longer suffering; on the other, you’re stunned when an all-consuming struggle ends so suddenly, with no more need for the constant care and concern you’d lavished on this small, suffering creature.

Bunny basks

Ever since Bunny came home from the critical care unit, she and I had settled upon a new routine. In the middle of the night, after I’d taken Melony the beagle out and in, I’d spend a half hour sitting cross-legged on the floor with Bunny nestled in my lap. At first, the goal of these vigils was to coax Bunny into eating: before getting down to the serious business of petting, I’d plop Bunny in front of a bowl of fresh food and watch her eat. Her final few nights, however, Bunny showed no interest in food or even water, so I’d gather her into my lap and clean her mucus-clogged eyes with a paper towel soaked in warm water. With one hand, I’d pet Bunny, who always loved to be cuddled, and with the other, I’d turn the pages of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, which seemed an appropriate choice of reading material while tending a dying animal.

One eye open

I lost a lot of sleep these past few weeks sitting up with Bunny this way; last night, with no Bunny to fret over, I crawled right back into bed after taking Melony out. But I don’t regret the hours I spent petting Bunny in my lap while I read, wept, and prayed for just a little while longer. For the past few weeks, these midnight vigils spent cross-legged in my kitchen were my spiritual practice, the time I took to contemplate face-to-face the inevitable predicaments of old age, sickness, and death.

Bunny snuggles

Bunny was 17 years old when she died, and she had been remarkably healthy during that time: as so often happens with old pets and old people alike, Bunny was healthy until she wasn’t. And until the very end, Bunny retained her essential sweetness, finding the energy to climb into my lap as soon as I’d settled on the floor, wanting nothing more than to be petted even when so many other physical discomforts threatened to overcome her.

Bunny keeps warm

During these late-night vigils, presumably influenced by Anne Lamott and her stories of spiritual seeking, I came to a heart-felt conclusion. God isn’t, I think, a bearded man on a throne but a being who sits cross-legged in the heavens, weeping and praying over the small, suffering world she holds tenderly in her lap.

Head to head

There’s a scene in the movie Stranger Than Fiction that chokes me up no matter how many times I see it. Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose boring existence is turned upside down when he discovers his life is being narrated by best-selling author Karen Eiffel, played to perfection by Emma Thompson. Because Eiffel lets Crick read the manuscript of his (doomed) life, Crick knows exactly how his story ends: he’ll die on his way to work, jumping in front of a bus to save the life of a young boy.

Meshed

The scene that inevitably gets me teary eyed shows Crick enjoying his last night on earth. Instead of sharing his ominous knowledge of what will happen the next day, Crick enjoys an otherwise ordinary night eating dinner and watching TV with his girlfriend, Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Instead of causing Pascal to worry about the inevitable, Crick quietly savors the simple pleasures he learned to appreciate only after he learned his days are numbered.

Trio

This morning I made a euthanasia appointment for Groucho the cat: tomorrow morning, J and I will hold Groucho in our lap while our vet puts him quietly to sleep. Monday’s trip to the vet didn’t reveal anything clearly treatable, and Groucho continues to lose weight at an alarming rate, his bones jutting this way and that out of his thinning fur. Like Harold Crick, J and I know how Groucho’s story ends, and we see no need to delay the inevitable.

Brunette

Tonight is Groucho’s last night on earth, and I’ll follow our usual Tuesday routine, cleaning his and Nina’s litter box and then sitting on the loveseat to give Groucho his daily petting and head-scratches. Groucho has learned to jump onto my lap after I’ve cleaned his litter box, but he won’t know why tonight I’ll be weeping. Instead, he’ll purr under my caresses as he always does, without the burden of knowing what tomorrow brings.

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