Last week, we put our first pet to sleep. Gracie the orange tabby was with us for over ten years – through 9/11, our wedding, the arrival of Lucy the basset hound, cancer…the list goes on. For a few weeks before that fateful trip to the vet, I was gripped with the sense that she was nearing death. In an odd twist, my awareness of Gracie’s failing health put me in touch with a dormant anxiety about my own precarious state. As I approach the four-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis, I suddenly have begun to feel that my time on the clock of good fortune is due to run out. I am, after all, genetically pre-disposed to other types of cancer. Cancer has already struck once, and I am only 39. How much longer can I possibly enjoy my current state of good health before the monster once again rears its fearsome head?
To those whose families don’t include four-legged members, to those who haven’t faced a life-threatening illness, this might seem the height of irrationality. But the simple fact is, we invest an inarticulable brand of love in those closest to us, and their loss brings our own inherent vulnerability into a blinding kind of focus. I felt a genuine heartbreak when I kissed our weary orange cat goodbye, and her absence is still acutely felt in our home. Surely, she was a cat, not a human companion, and the challenge in carrying on after her departure is not of grand proportion. Nevertheless, something we loved is gone.
As the staff at the vet’s talked me through Gracie’s prognosis, as I watched her shiver on the exam table, tears flowed freely. I took in the information, and accepted pats on the arm and offers of tissues. At one point, as I felt my heart swelling with sadness and my tears gathering force, I was gripped by a sudden urge to divulge my own cancer story. How peculiar, and seemingly absurd – watching my diabetic cat confront life’s end put me immediately in mind of my own tangle with the Grim Reaper.
What on earth would I have said to the unassuming veterinarian, or the compassionate technician? It’s not like I needed to explain why I was crying. Surely, this was a scene played out in the veterinarian’s office hundreds of times. My emotion was nothing new to these people; bearing witness to it is an inevitable part of their job.
How on earth could I possibly have explained to total strangers how my cat’s death called up my cancer fight? More precisely, why did I feel the need to?
The reality may be that I am incapable of facing the specter of death in any form without it connecting in some way to the legacy of my illness. The fear, the sadness, the anger – all of it gets called up. It’s a self-involved reaction, and one that shames me. I hope eventually to untangle it from the never-ending cycle of life and death that surrounds us all. It is a universal. It is not about me.
As I watched my sweet cat decline, I felt the reverberations of my own mortality. I saw our family lose a beloved member, and figured I surely must be next. This, I have learned over time, is the unique logical fallacy borne of the cancer experience: that we, as survivors, are ticking time bombs in a way that those have never faced cancer are not. The truth, more accurately expressed, is that we, as survivors, by virtue of our own dance with mortality, may have a keener sense of the fragility of the human condition. It’s an insight we never sought to bear. Sometimes, when we are forced to say goodbye to someone we love, it manifests itself as a complicating curse. Fortunately, on good days, it serves to heighten the sweetness that we’re blessed to know.