A Eulogy to my Dead Cat and Immortality
“Pull up the scruff of his neck, find this little triangle — here, feel it with your finger — and stick the needle right in.”
I was hesitant with the needle while guided, nonchalantly, by a veterinarian on how to inject subcutaneous fluids into my dying cat for his last few days. I named him Newman, after the Seinfeld character, so that neither could enter an occupied room without the inevitable greeting: “Hello, Newman”.
Here he lay dying after 18 loving years; as the arc of his life prepared to complete its crescent, I was forced, via regular insertions of fluid-bearing needles into the triangular scruff of his neck, to bear witness. Two long days communing with death. I held suffering in my arms. Cradled its frail body. My naivety towards death died along with Newman. Not that I’d never considered death, nor that I lived in its denial. But we’d never met over such a dear friend, face to face. I’d never watched death enter a room, rummage around, and depart, leaving the vacant eyes of a loved one behind. It was disorienting.
When it comes my turn (yours is coming too), and the tides of death brush against my feet, I wonder what I’ll think of my life. Imminent death seems to have a way of wiping the eyes’ morning accrual of crud, imbuing sight with a frail, gentle wisdom. I hope to clear my own sight before it’s too late, to live with the same wisdom dying eyes bestow.
It’s strange, to know you’re looking, but not what for. Before having met this harbinger of mortality, I bumbled about the world, trying to ‘become’ something, while perhaps the greatest of human truths lay discretely, mischievously under my nose: I am alive! Yes, transiently, but vividly. The depths available to the human experience, to myself, remain as unplumbed as the deep ocean, where it drops from blue to tantalizing black mystery. Nevertheless, I still bumble.
What a remarkable spectrum of experience humans have compared to that of, say, a scallop. True, the scallop may posses a serenity we humans can never know, ensconced in the sea. But can it feel existence with intensity? Can the scallop revolt, love, rage, despair? The sorrow we feel beside a dying loved one together with the elation of a warm summer day; both deserve praise as they announce the human dynamism. What’s more, these charges of radical experience — unbeknownst to the scallop — shock our consciousness into new normals. Our lives do not transpire inside an unchanging mental room. After encountering these poles of human experience — suffering, love, wonder (can a scallop marvel at existence?) — something is always left behind that wasn’t there before. Sight takes on a new shade, however subtle.
So it was with Newman’s death. I was introduced to an unfamiliar taste, a new consciousness. The experience posed new questions to my stretching self, as all our selves expand in unfamiliar moments. Cradling death’s bait in my arms, I wondered what it means to live, to truly live, during our brief stay in this strange world? What remains worthy of our time and energy when set against the opaque backdrop of certain death?
The urgency of the question surprised me. Looking back, and looking around, the taboo of this question in secular life surprises me now. What could be more important? It may be this very immensity that lies at the root of its suppression. So writes David Foster Wallace, the adept commentator upon the underbelly of American culture:
If we’re the only animals who know in advance we’re going to die, we’re also probably the only animals who would submit so cheerfully to the sustained denial of this undeniable and very important truth. The danger is that, as entertainment’s denials of the truth get even more effective and pervasive and seductive, we will eventually forget what they’re denials of. This is scary. Because it seems transparent to me that if we forget how to die, we’re going to forget how to live.”
(David Foster Wallace, Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young)
Living with death in mind is to wrestle with these peculiar, emotive sub-currents most pronounced in humans. From these bouts of engaging with potent experience, consciousness may normalize in intensity, but not in kind. Strong experience has a transformative quality. The normals to which we return are always new.
We, unlike caterpillars, are not confined to a single evolution. We are always becoming. Every moment fashions a cocoon from which we can emerge, anew. Our metamorphoses cascade endlessly, in tune with our consciousness; in response to experience. Until death, we remain open-ended. Emerson notes in his journal:
Everything teaches transition, transference, metamorphosis: therein is human power, in transference, not in creation; & therein is human destiny…We dive & reappear in new places.”
(Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820–1824)
Each moment recreates us. The depth from which we re-emerge may rest upon the intensity with which we invert consciousness upon itself. In this way, life can be seen as a continuing discovery process of a shifting experiential landscape, with all the vigor of an excited octopus exploring a new tank. If that experiential landscape remains unexplored, and we accept just what comes to the surface, the discovery process grows stale. This may illuminate why Emerson, Thoreau, and others in the tradition of what Harold Bloom calls The American Sublime were so enamored with the cultivation (enlargement) of the self and the scope of its experience.
To leave the self alone — that filtering medium of experience — and live from an unchanging architecture of consciousness withers the most fertile grounds for growth. This is perhaps no different than the military strategy once used against castles, cutting off all supply imports so that those inside must live off only what already exists within the walls, dwindling and eventually starving to death.
Looking upon Newman’s lifeless body, stiffened out across a pizza box lined with a lavender towel, his eyes vacant, all traces of a soul were scrubbed clean. Whether this soul — or whatever was most essentially Newman — perished with the organism or just departed the body, I do not know. But whatever questions of immaterial substance hover about our lives, they seem to dissipate with death. It sat strangely with me, to feel the bubbling up of questions in sight of the final answer.
The longer I stood there, opposite the shell of my old friend, the more questions boiled over. Thought after thought, gushing forth as they do. I was reminded how insubstantial thought alone is. Nothing more than bubbles, emanating from somewhere unknown, arising and bursting in succession. Each a translucent film of potential energy. Emerson writes: “An action is the perfection and publication of thought.”
And so, as my mind stretched to assimilate this undeniable presentation of death into its — my? — life, I felt compelled to do, rather than merely think or theorize. Thoreau also felt that in times when we can no longer deny death, and are thus forced into reconsidering how to live, it’s not knowledge but discipline that we’re after: “…as to how to preserve your soul from rotting, I have nothing to learn but something to practise”, he writes in a letter to Harrison Blake. With this in mind, I’ve stumbled into something of a new meditation.
It began on walks back inside from the shed out behind my mother’s house, which I outfitted with a desk, couches, rugs, etc. I spent many nights there doing whatever philosophy graduates do while living at home. Fiddling with books, words, instruments, and angst. On my way in, usually with half a beer remaining, I pause on the wooden ramp leading up my porch, lean against the railing, and finish my drink while looking into the starry night. It makes me feel small. It also feels like that first gasp of spacious air after you’ve stayed underwater too long, perhaps to impress somebody.
Now, before going to sleep, on clear nights when the stars are vivid, I recline in the middle of my unlit backyard on a rickety lawn chair, beer in hand, until my body is parallel with the sky above. This is a difficult angle from which to drink any beverage; I usually find that approaching my mouth from the side affords greater precision. I then begin speaking directly to the cosmos, to all of it, nowhere in particular. I do not speak to any specific star — those gravitationally bound clusters of gas and plasma of which we know a growing amount — but to the immensity of the unknown sprawled out before me. The sky will always remain greater than the sum of its parts. I speak to the flickering lights in concert with the darkness of (in)finite space in which they rest. I converse out loud, it’s important to hear myself. What do I have to say to such a bewildering expanse? In conversation with the night sky, trivialities fade. Workplace politics become starkly uninteresting. The known gives way to the unknown. I find myself, again and again, asking the same questions I did when holding my dying cat. Wondering about the farther reaches of identity, the assembly of ‘I’. Asking what I should do during my brief stay here. Sipping my beer. Asking what matters. Laughing at the absurdity of what I’m doing (this is important, because you can’t take the whole thing too seriously).
It’s not lost on me that vast unknowns of at least equal proportions exist within. We find ourselves compressed between enigmas both inside and out. But, in a way, I relish this position, dangling between unknowns. I come more and more to welcome the mystery. As Irish poet John O’Donohue writes:
It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone.”
What more is to be done? I don’t envision an entire species lying out in their backyards at night, mumbling to themselves, as a panacea. Maybe it was in this vein that Plato wrote all true philosophy is preparation for death. If philosophy’s question truly is how to live, it would be fittingly ironic that its answer is to prepare for death. This is just what David Foster Wallace warned of earlier, that if we forget how to die, we’re going to forget how to live. The two are symbiotic.
I do not receive answers from the sky. The mystery remains as open ended as we. But rather than living in conflict with the unknown, I practice to join with it. Live to keep the mystery alive, lest we fall into the barren recesses of thinking we ‘know it all’. I hope to jujutsu these perennial questions that both beam down from the sky and rise up from within, redirect them from being posed to me to living through me. Fighting against them subdues their import. So, too, does ignoring them. In living with them, day by day, we coax them through the tunnel of our individuality. In whatever way our tunnel walls color and contort the abiding unknown as it travels through us, these idiosyncratic dents in the sublime define us, and how we are to express ‘it’.
To live well, then, is to bring to evermore vivid expression the splendor of the unknown, the disarming moments of wonder that travel through us from the cosmos. To live in constant communication with enduring questions, and to govern ourselves in service to their expression.
What a pity if we do not live this short time according to the laws of the long time, — the eternal laws!”
(Henry David Thoreau, Letters to a Spiritual Seeker)
Newman knew this well; he aspired to no more than the duty of the moment. In conflict he was vicious. In calm he was still. It was these marathons of stillness that stay with me. In them he was not merely waiting, nor did he seem bored. ‘He’, the entire concept of Newman, sunk into the nothingness around him, leaving only a breathing organism in his place. These stretches of naked existence, being nothing more than what he most fundamentally was, haunt me with their contrast to my own life.
His life, in the end, taught me all I need to know. Now, as with Thoreau, I have much to practice.
This is the second in a three-part essay series
These essays slightly differ from my usual. They aren’t reporting on someone else’s text or ideas. Rather, the main text in use is my own life. Quotes are still woven in, but there’s also a little more of myself, my lived experience in there: