Ibelieve Misha may be dying. It is hard to tell. He weaves like a drunken sailor, hind feet slithering out from under him on the wood floor. He’d lost a third of his body weight when he went into the hospital two weeks ago; now that he’s out, he doesn’t seem to have lost any more, but he hasn’t regained any, either. He eats, he doesn’t eat, things at the other end of his digestive system seem to have improved. The steroids initially restored some of his liveliness, but now that small burst seems to have faded. He can’t walk from the bedroom to the kitchen without lying down in the living room along the way. Are his eyes glassier, more dilated? He still emerges from whatever far reaches of the house he has been napping in when I call out his name, when the nervous pulse of “here kitty, kitty, kitty” flies from my throat, and his determination to carom into whatever room I occupy gives me some hope. If he were truly dying, wouldn’t he be holed up under the bed, tucked up in the closet on top of the tennis shoes, focused on his own leavetaking?
On the phone, pacing my study, staring at the sage and rust geometry of the rug, I asked vet number three, “Let’s say he does have one of the treatable forms of cancer. What are we looking at in terms of cost, his quality of life under treatment, his longevity?”
Vet number three had talked me through quite a bit in his steadying manner, and was currently treating other cats for cancer. “Well,” he ventured, “about $100 to $200 a month for the chemo, a high quality of life for him, but the week-to-week uncertainty for you of ‘how long before he comes out of remission?’”
“And life span?”
“Several months, a year.”
I stopped walking in figure eights around my rug. My head tipped, chin to my chest; my limbs felt fused into some uniform substance, not bone and flesh and moving blood, but clay, or a dense and inert sludge, or India rubber. Several months to a year? If he’d said three years, I would have unhesitatingly plunged myself back into major credit card debt. For an estimate of “a year, maybe more,” I would have seriously considered it. Several months to a year. Max. Maybe. In that moment, I knew that Misha and I would be riding it out as best we could, unescorted by veterinary oncologists and IV drips.
When people would say to me, “Oh, well, he’s thirteen…” as though by sheer dint of his age I should feel no pain at the prospect of losing him, I was always tempted to simply walk away mid-word in a complete collapse of understanding. Thirteen years ago, when I was markedly younger and Misha remarkably smaller, he came to me, grey and spiky and looking like dryer lint. Since he has been with me, a marriage, a career, three cities, and six apartments have gone by the wayside. A brother, two former teachers, a friend, have all died. There has been the usual number of comings and goings—losses and gains of colleagues, friendships, lovers. Through it all, this green-eyed, five-toed, big-shouldered feline with the pimp roll walk has been the only constant.
Still, I have always been faintly repulsed by people who pulled out all the stops, spending thousands of dollars on propping up and extending the life of some small, beloved animal in what seemed to me a selfish inability to let go of a sick and dying friend. As one of the vets said, “At a certain point, if he seems to be suffering, and you’re still treating him, you have to stop and ask: ‘Who am I doing this for—him? Or me?’” But I cannot deny having felt guilty. For not noticing the seriousness of Misha’s weight loss sooner. For being unable (or is it only unwilling?) to do more for him. For not even pursuing to the ends of diagnostic capacity an answer to the basic question: “What’s wrong with my cat?” Maybe this sadness that I feel, this leaden resignation in recognition of my own limitations, is a signal of maturity. Maybe it isn’t maturity at all but simply resignation. Not older and wiser, but older and tireder.
Since he is now too weak to jump, I haul his furry sack of bones onto the bed each night with me. His haunches angle into my cupped hand, his pelvis a tiny anvil. My mind ricochets away from the sensory information under my fingers, shocked by these accidental palpations of his spine, the implication of all those discrete vertebrae now so available to my touch. Anything he does that he did when he was well, before I was worried—stretching out a paw until it splays into a starfish, ambling into the kitchen at the sound of an opening tin can, even thumping his tail in irritation—lifts me in a fleeting, guarded celebration. I am encouraged when he purrs, and cast down when he is mute. Without meaning to, I examine every blink and turn of his head for The Sign that he has irrevocably set his enormous paws on the path that leads out. Lately, he has cranked up such a musical purring that he sounds more bird than cat, and even this exuberance has shadowed my heart with fear and anxiety—it is too fevered, too manic. Surely he will sing out this way under my stroking hand and then, when I am asleep, expire without a sound.
When I was a kid, around the age of six, my father got very sick. His illness would prove to be the first in a series of three unrelated, life-threatening diseases, but no one knew that in the spring of 1968. That first time around, all the grownups—Mama, the doctors, Daddy’s sister, probably Daddy himself—thought he was going to die, but no one told me that. As soon as school let out for the summer, MeeMaw, my mother’s mother, drove up from the northeast corner of Louisiana to the southwest corner of Ohio to fetch me and my younger brother, Cameron. My older brother, Russell, was a teenager and could stay with Mama. The idea was to leave Mama free to devote long hours at the hospital, to come and go without having to coordinate the care of a toddler and me. Daddy stayed in the hospital that whole summer, then through the fall, till nearly Christmastime.
I don’t remember being distraught, heading to Louisiana. MeeMaw and PawPaw were steady and loving, though tears were always sternly met with MeeMaw’s admonition to “Dry it up, now, just dry it up.” Snoopy, their Siamese cat, gave great comfort and companionship to me and to Cameron, when we weren’t fighting over whose turn it was to sleep with her. But Cameron had nightmares, sleeping in the foldout bed in the den, and temper tantrums that scared me so much I didn’t know what to do except grip his two-year old wrists to stop his pummeling. There we’d be: his face growing purple with rage, shrieking for me to let go, while I attempted with desperate insistence to wrest a promise from him not to hit me. He would bite, I would take revenge later with surreptitious pinches, the Indian burns on his wrists would give me away, I always got the lion’s share of the blame. I was older. I was supposed to know better, do better, be a wise six-and-a-half-year-old in the face of my kid brother’s blinding fury.
Of necessity, we spent quite a few hours in the warehouse offices of Dixie Moving and Storage, my grandparents’ business. MeeMaw taught me to file invoices, PawPaw struck terror in my heart with warnings to stay away from the railroad tracks that ran along the back of the warehouse. Their young and freckled secretary, Frankie, good-naturedly made me her assistant and gave me small things to do. It was a long walk from that office (where I was given a small desk and a few office supplies of my own) to the far corner of the warehouse to the only bathroom, down the canyons made by sacks of Mahatma rice and cans of Donald Duck grapefruit juice, boxes of electronic parts and 55-gallon drums. Pallet upon stacked pallet of those sturdy goods, orderly and organized, resting there until whoever owned them sent word to load the truck and bring it on.
The warehouse smelled of dust on slick poured concrete and the oil of eighteen-wheeled rigs and the sweat of dark-skinned men with names like Valentine whose dialects I could barely understand. The trains at the rear loading dock gave their animalistic groans and the forklifts zipped and wheeled like waterbugs, stacking and unstacking. I took mail from the half-cut cigar box nailed to the doorframe next to PawPaw’s desk and happily ran it around the corner to the other offices, tenants PawPaw rented to. The gurgle of the only water cooler I’d ever seen pleased me, as did PawPaw’s showing me how to fold a paper cup out of typing paper, and the taste of that paper in my mouth after the last cold swallow of water. The vending machine at the front gave forth small glass bottles of Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper so cold that shavings of ice floated in their necks. The bottle caps chewed into my hands as I gripped and yanked them free. If you didn’t pull in one swift motion, the bottles would heave back, locked in their metal collars, and you’d be out your fifteen cents. The warehouse seemed vast to me, as I stood in its towering darkness looking out the loading dock door onto the hammered sunlight of a Louisiana summer, and if I was bored there, I believe I also had spells of peace.
A letter that I composed on PawPaw’s manual typewriter and sent home to Mama tells in breathlessly jaunty sentences of sleepovers and new pajamas, new school dresses (“I hope you like them, I like them a lot.”) and fun with James, the little boy next door on Tarver Street. The letter ends: “I hope daddy gets out of the hospital soon!! Show this letter to daddy and tell me what he says, will you? I know you will! Mama, I love you so much my hearts broken. I miss you very much!!! I realy do!!!!! I want you! That’s the truth!!!! I want you, I need you!!!!!!! LOVE, YOUR FRIEND CHARISSE!!” What has always dazzled me about this letter is the crazy mix of natural cheer and terrible need. The passionate lover’s cry at the letter’s close, tempered by reference to myself as Mama’s “friend.” What I remember is the willed effort to be optimistic, that this would somehow help my dad get better, the absolute commitment to keep assuming he would while being naturally terrified that he wouldn’t.
Sometimes after supper and before the ten o’clock news, MeeMaw and PawPaw and Cameron and I would gather around the rotary dial phone in the den, all set to call Cincinnati. Long distance back then meant asking an operator to place the call. I can still hear my grandmother’s precise diction as she recited the number we were calling from (for years, listening for her voice in my head supplied their number whenever I needed to call), but I don’t much remember the conversations with my mother that followed. I remember the almost unbearable relief that I mistook for excitement at getting to talk with her and with Russell, their presence suddenly jumpingly alive in my grandparents’ den 750 miles away. And I remember celebrating the progress reports from the hospital. “How is Daddy?” “Daddy sat up in a chair today!” And then for days after, I could say to MeeMaw or to myself, “Daddy’s getting better. He sat up in a chair the other day.” We marveled over these triumphs like parents applauding a baby’s first steps. So, it was working. I was being a good girl, and Daddy was getting stronger. Soon he’d get to go home from the hospital, and I’d get to go home, too.
Now, over thirty years later, I rest my hand on Misha’s skull. A blessing on his small head for a safe passage through the night. He has never set foot outside the apartments and houses we’ve lived in together, so his fur still smells like clean, fresh cotton. I can feel the heat at his temples. He squeezes his eyes shut. This used to mean that he was in the throes of supreme pleasure. Now I am not so sure. I hold his head, touch his throat to check for the rumbling purr, wonder if he is going somewhere that I cannot accompany him. Are you dying? I want to ask him. Are you? Are you dying faster is maybe what I ought to ask instead.
A friend back in New York tells a story about walking in the Village several years ago with a former professor who had AIDS. My friend’s mentor was on his way to a Persons With AIDS meeting and asked if my friend would like to come along. After dithering a bit, he declined the offer. His teacher said, “I understand. The first time I went to a meeting, I was really uncomfortable, looking around and thinking, ‘I’ve never been in a room before where everyone was going to die.’ Then it dawned on me: every room I’d ever been in was full of people who were going to die.”
There is a difference, though, knowing and not knowing. Of course we all know—there’s only one answer. But some people know roughly how soon, or approximately what from. Rick Fields, the leading Western journalist on Buddhism, died of cancer in June of 1999. I read part of an interview that Fields gave after his diagnosis. At one point, the interviewer noted that both she and Fields were dying, yet he had cancer and she did not, and could he comment on the difference. He answered that he would say the difference was that he now lived in the bardo of dying, and she did not. Bardo is not a word I know, but it would seem to designate a specific stage of existence, an important shift in focus and energy as one lives in full response to whatever life has begun to require. Rick Fields, when he began to live with lung cancer, my friend’s teacher when he learned he had AIDS, began to live with dying in a whole different way from those of us who simply know that someday out there in the haze that is the rest of our lives, we are going to die.
Misha, of course, is not a Buddhist. He is not concerned with detachment, or consciousness. He has always had the former and has no need of the latter. He has spent thirteen years being effortlessly, exquisitely himself, every moment of his existence. Without this consciousness of his own existence, then, perhaps Misha cannot be said to be in the bardo of dying. But if he is dying, then that puts me square into what I would call the bardo of losing.
I spent three different summers in Louisiana while my father stayed in Cincinnati in yet another hospital, fighting the series of illnesses that kept launching attempts on his life. By late August, I’d go back home, whether he was out of the hospital or not, and get ready to start school on the Tuesday after Labor Day. On the last Sunday in Monroe, we’d go to services at the Forsythe Avenue Church of Christ, as usual, and I’d say my goodbyes—to Mrs. Brownlee, who sat directly in front of us and who MeeMaw thought a little loose with her gossip, to Max Riley, who was very tall and led the a capella hymns, to Hazel and Finis Fisher, two of MeeMaw’s best friends. “Run up, now, and say goodbye to Miss Clara,” MeeMaw might say as people filled the middle aisle after the service. And I would kneel near Miss Clara’s wheelchair, leaning across her lap to get my hug and a last dose of her affection and good cheer—never goodbye, just “You sweet girl,” she’d say, squeezing my neck tight, “I’ll be asking your MeeMaw about you, and I’ll see you next summer! You be good, now, and tell your mama we want to see her down here, soon.” She knew Daddy was dying—I could see it in her brown, friendly eyes. It was as if we had a pact not to speak of it directly, because we understood something that people who weren’t in wheelchairs and whose daddies weren’t in chemo just couldn’t, and so we had a secret and a dignity between us that felt fine.
On the actual day that PawPaw put our suitcases in the car, I’d walk around the backyard while MeeMaw finished making turkey and tuna sandwiches for the trip north. The sweet gum balls rolled under my feet. I’d pat the smooth trunk of the big pecan and stare up into its branches, trying one last time to figure out if there wasn’t some way to climb it. I’d part the curtain of slender green leaves on the weeping willow and stand inside; I’d stroke the branches of the mimosa and pull a couple of crackly leaves from the live oak out front. I’d say goodbye to the hundreds of African violets MeeMaw raised, from tiny sucker plants to full grown, that she was teaching me to cultivate—how much vermiculite in the soil, how much MiracleGro to a gallon milk jug of water, how to get their fuzzy leaves clean with a soft-bristled baby’s brush.
I did all this leavetaking consciously, even a little self-consciously. I don’t know what made me feel that it mattered to the trees, to the violets, that I should visit them like some departing princess, as if to reassure them that all in the kingdom would be well during my absence, and that I would return. Sometimes I think I believed I should work to imprint the textures of bark and petals, the smell of pine straw, the sensation of being cloaked in Louisiana’s thick humidity, but I’m not sure why I thought so. Some vague sense of taking Louisiana back home with me. Some sense of putting away the things of summer. A general tendency to romanticize and dramatize in my head anything that I suspected of being an “important moment,” even when I had only the vaguest sense of what the moment’s import might be. I imagine I experienced some diffuse melancholy as I went through my wistful rituals, but even that wistfulness, I think now, was like a prop in a play. Maybe a pose of dignified (if hazy) sorrow, lightly done, was my intuitive protection against a stronger pain, a larger fear. The truth is, even today, I am horrible at saying goodbye. Once I’ve said goodbye, I’m fine, but the moment of separation tears at me, even when it isn’t my separation, even if I am only a witness. I cry in airports at the sight of other people saying goodbye, I cry at AT&T commercials when people are reunited, my friends affectionately bear with me as I struggle to end phone calls and cut the connection.
In those Louisiana departures, I would note with a child’s solemnity my last afternoon at Dixie Moving and Storage, my last Sunday school class, my last walk through the backyard. Maybe it was, after all, only a stratagem for procrastinating the real goodbye. I could even hug PawPaw, smelling his perspiration and cologne, the Vitalis in his hair, and still not feel sad. But setting down my small suitcase when everything was ready, nothing left to put in the car but me, I’d call Snoopy and hold her to my chest for a snuggle and nearly die from the ache. Once I had her in my arms, I couldn’t bear to put her down. I could cry into her fur while she started to purr like an outboard motor and no one would know. And she was so warm, so alive against my skin.
Back home in our little town east of Cincinnati, in the summer of 1971, my mother drove me up to The Concourse, a long, curving stone wall canopied with wisteria vines that overlooked Miami Bluff. The chug and grind of the trains in the switching station pushed up and over the bluff—I could even hear them from my bedroom late at night—and when the leaves were off the trees, you could see patches of the Little Miami River below. We parked and sat under the wisteria, their trunks as thick as my legs where they twisted up the square stone pillars, the green leaves shagging down through the lattice overhead.
Mama had brought me there to let me know: Daddy had lung cancer, and since he’d already had a lung removed four years before, the doctors didn’t think he had long to live. How long? Probably only a few months, less than six, maybe three or four. I threw myself awkwardly across my mother’s lap, sobbing, sounding false even to my own ears as I told her, “Oh, and I’ve prayed so hard!” She hugged me, didn’t know how to respond. We were not religious, I only went to church with MeeMaw and PawPaw, it was an odd thing for me to say. I’m sure she told me that it wasn’t my fault, that nothing I could have done would have changed anything, and of course, that was the truth of my dismay. I’d been a good girl, and Daddy had gotten better every summer, and now the jig was up—could I have done better?
He died a couple of weeks after the talk up at The Concourse, two weeks before my tenth birthday, and because we knew it was coming soon, I was not in Louisiana when it happened, but with friends of the family in their large ramshackle farmhouse on five weedy acres of hill.
Those other summers, the summers when he got well, I lived, I suppose, in the bardo of goodbye, practicing, trying to be ready, saying my farewells to the cat. Of course, there is no such thing as ready. And every loss seems to open a rabbit hole that can tumble you down through the remembered hurt of every other loss, and how can you be prepared against that? So I wear myself out on alert for Misha’s ebb and flow, I hoard the sensations of petting him, the sounds he makes, the sight of him in different spots in the house, against a time when none of this will be available. I’m sure it can’t make any difference to him—any more than it did to the live oak tree, the African violets, the church pews—but on a Saturday in September, I’m taking Misha with me on my first visit to the Carolina coast. He’ll lie in the passenger seat on his towel, and we’ll take a drive to the end of the land and the edge of the sea, and then we’ll stop.
Charisse Coleman’s essays have appeared in the journals Witness, Ascent, Hunger Mountain, Water~Stone Review, Sou’wester, and other publications. “Riding Shotgun,” an essay originally published in Passages North, won Sequestrum‘sEditor’s Reprint Award. Coleman is a two-time recipient of NC Arts Council individual artist grants, and has twice had work listed as Notable in The Best American Essays series. She lives with her husband in Durham, NC.