We got to our family’s farm in Virginia after a 6 hour drive, aware that M’lou’s sick kitten Chloe had taken a turn for the worse in the car. We thought fresh air and water would revive her, but when we put her on the grass with some water and food she took a step toward it and collapsed. It looked clear she wasn’t going to make back to Brooklyn for the appointment she had at the vet two days later, even if she lasted the night.
It was an almost ridiculously beautiful evening—dry and cool after a hot muggy day of driving—and we sat in the front yard, huddled around her barely moving body as she lay on a purple towel. There was nothing to eat in the house and not much in town so we ate Pizza Hut and watched her tail twitch and her eyes move but those movements—which had initially struck the girls at least as signs of life and reasons for hope or sources of consolation—quickly began to look to all of us like the first twitches of death. M’lou said it felt weird to be eating next to her, especially Pizza Hut, but we ate anyway (and we had to admit, also, that it was good, much better than we remembered or expected).
Jennifer found an emergency clinic near Richmond that could take her in and we all brought ourselves around to the reality that she needed to be put out of her pain. I explained to M’lou that “euthanasia” came from the Greek for “good death” (or so I thought at the time–I still haven’t checked) and she said “why do all our important words come from somewhere else?”
To get that good death, though, we would have to drive 45 minutes–back in the car, still warm and stale from a day’s drive–to a sterile room in an all-night clinic. We’d hand her over to strangers. Her body would be taken away and mailed back to us weeks later, ashes in a decorative tin. I kept hoping she would die on the grass in the front yard and that we could just bury her there. I thought about calling my uncle to see whether there was a gun in the house. I’d done that job before, even as a kid, but in this case–the thought of the girls standing in a bedroom and hearing that rifle crack ring across the field, the thought of me standing in a field with a rifle barrel against a kitten’s tiny body—the scene was too much to imagine. And the reality that we’d have to explain to M’lou that if we didn’t bury her here we’d have to put her in a ziploc bag in the freezer and save her for a week—that absurd situation, trying to keep corpse cold over hundred of miles of summer driving, also felt too much.
But the end we faced in fact was also ridiculous. The clinic was nearly empty, only an old golden retriever with a sprained ankle in the waiting room, tugging at his leash as his owners tried to settle their bill. On the TV Guy Fieri was playing, his sunglasses pasted inexplicably to the back of his head as he raved over galangal and scallops and sucked his fat fingers. We filled out paperwork and looked over the check-in log at the other animals who’d been brought in that day. Reason for Visit: wasp sting. Snake bite. Penis problem. Jennifer took the pen and wrote “euthanasia.”
I left the girls in the waiting room and went back to an examination room. The gentle vet tech brought me Chloe wrapped in a fleece blanket, a catheter held to her foreleg by a few twists of purple gauze. She was stiff with pain, her gums gray and her teeth turning black, her mouth open, her breathing raspy and labored. She gasped when I moved her. There were signs for grief counseling on the walls of the room.
I started writing this because I wanted to get to this: are all scenes of death both heartbreaking and absurd? It’s hard to know how sad you should feel as a grown man over the death of a kitten in your arms, or how sad you should acknowledge feeling. And how even your own assessment of your sadness feels awkward and self-conscious and absurd. I suppose self-consciousness is inevitable at the moment of death, as you watch a spirit separate from the messy life you’ll have to go on living. Even the spirit moving on from the body of a kitten can remind you of that.
“Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]“, Christopher Smart
I got frustrated and discouraged last night trying to think of a caption for this picture. It was from a dance at the end of a parade celebrating Mexican immigrants in New York, and it was strange and ebullient enough to stop anyone passing by–these costumes the guys wore, in particular, were astonishing, each topped with a taxidermied bobcat or possum or some other wild animal in an attitude of defiance, hissing or snarling as if cornered.
But the celebration was taking place at Dag Hammarskjold plaza in the shadow of the UN, and I was a white man on my way to Japanese class, and there were aspiring diplomats on lunch break eating food from the halal food cart on the corner, and there at the end of the block was Trump International Tower, gleaming in basaltic black like the obelisk in 2001. There was too much irony and allegory just lying around, like a readymade I had only to put in a frame and hang on the wall. Anything I had to say seemed too trite or precious to mention, like it could do nothing but generate knowing nods to the misery of the election or to the beauty of immigrant culture defying the ugliness of those who would deny it–all fine and true. But if there’s one thing I don’t want to be doing right now it’s going for the knowing nod.
It only occurred to me this morning that the way to talk about it was to zero in on a detail, about the way the possum’s tail was missing a little hair right where it crooked up from the tailbone, or about the collection of plastic fruits that spilled down the back of one man’s cape, or about how the red chile sauce greasing people’s discarded tamale husks looked so delicious I wanted to lick them clean.
Or about the other white man I saw there, who leapt up on a bench to take a picture and who looked like he could either have been excited by the dancers or angrily gathering evidence for a noise complaint to 311. And how not knowing what to think of him put me on guard not only against him but also against myself: what was I assuming about him? What lines of allegiance was I taking for granted here? What was I assuming about all these people? The slogans I could read on the backs of their shirts seemed like something I could get behind–“por la dignidad de un pueblo dividido por la frontera.” But what did I know about them? What was with all the banners celebrating the Virgin?
When I was up to my neck in school I developed a strong faith in the power of detail, its ability to puncture hyperbole or dislodge cliche. It was something I learned at the knee of Wallace Stevens, among others–his constant transit between the metaphysical and the concrete gave him a kind of power and credibility and beauty and interest that I felt were more valuable than anything I was reading in theory class or had learned in church.
But I have made a mistake all these years in trusting too much to detail–or trusting that any detail will do the job if it’s rendered well enough. The danger is the detail that leaps out at you, or the detail you select–it’s easy to choose one just to confirm your theory or pretty up your argument. I guess I let slide the fact that Stevens spent half his thinking trying to figure out how to replace the gods he felt he watched dissolve in air before him, trying as much to understand the nature of the poem at the center of things as he did trying to describe the things that flung out glittering from that center. In clinging to detail, I realize, I’ve let my mind go soft. I don’t know what I think anymore. I have opinions and prejudices, and I can speak about them, but the thing I valued most in my life—the ability to wrap my brain around a problem and pick it apart—I’ve let that go slack. That’s what I want to work on now, now that the world that gave comfort to all those opinions and prejudices has been blown up by an election that I’m still scrambling to understand.
Fundamentalists have at least one characteristic in common with most scientists. Neither can understand that poetic and religious imagination has a way of arriving at truth by giving a clue to the total meaning of things without being in any sense an analytic description of detailed facts. The fundamentalists insist that religion is science, and thus they prompt those who know that that this is not true to declare that all religious truth is contrary to scientific fact.
How can an age which is so void of poetic imagination as ours be truly religious?
Reinhold Niebuhr, Notebook of a Tamed Cynic