Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How Did You Die?

Did you tackle that trouble that came your way
With a resolute heart and cheerful?
Or hide your face from the light of day
With a craven soul and fearful?
Oh, a trouble’s a ton, or a trouble’s an ounce,
Or a trouble is what you make it.
And it isn’t the fact that you’re hurt that counts,
But only how did you take it?

You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what’s that?
Come up with a smiling face.
It’s nothing against you to fall down flat,
But to lie there – that’s disgrace.
The harder you’re thrown, why the higher you bounce;
Be proud of your blackened eye!
It isn’t the fact that you’re licked that counts;
It’s how did you fight and why?

And though you be done to the death, what then?
If you battled the best you could;
If you played your part in the world of men,
Why the Critic will call it good.
Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce,
And whether he’s slow or spry,
It isn’t that fact that you’re dead that counts,
But only how did you die?

-Edmund Vance Cooke

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Closest Friend

I remember coming home from elementary school one day and going to the backyard and not seeing my miniature schnauzer, Jeepers, anywhere. My little brother and I searched everywhere and eventually thought he might have ran away. I called my mom at her work and she said she took him in to be put down earlier that morning. And just like that, Jeepers was dead.

Greg and I never got to say goodbye. Never got to pet him or feed him one last time. In our little tiny frames of rage, we destroyed Jeepers' doghouse with hammers. Out of what, I'm still not sure. Anger, of course, but directionless and without specific reason. Maybe reducing that little wooden house to kindling was our way of instant closure. It never worked, as we still resent her for it to this day.

But as I got the "privilege" to be there for my cat Jag during his final moments, I realize now that there is no easy way out; Whether you're there for it or not, when a loved pet dies, life fires a nail gun into your soul and leaves it there to rust until enough time has passed for you to jostle it free many years later.

My sister and Lynx
We got Jag and his sister Lynx before my sister was even born, which means Jag lived to be at least 16 years old. It was always an unsaid rule in the house that Jag was "my" cat. There was his sister Lynx, and they had kittens (Tiger, Puma and Foo), but Jag was just always mine.

Him and I were a lot alike. We liked being alone away from everyone else, but we never minded each other. I'd wake up with him pawing at my back, and when I woke up, he would lay down on the carpet in the sun coming through the window, waiting for me to join him. And I did. We'd lay in the sun on the floor, and I'd  tell him everything. Just talk. About life. I suppose this was my version of prayer; Confiding in a source your deepest fears, regrets and hopes. I knew he couldn't understand what I was saying per se, but I know that he knew I was communicating with him and only him. After all, we were the only two things in the room and he would look at me while laying on my belly, falling asleep to my heartbeat. When I was sick, he'd lay on the piano and watch over me. When I was in a bad mood, he stayed out of my way. And when I was just sad - even on days I was sad for no reason at all - he'd jump up and rub his head all around the hair on my head and purr until I sighed and just let all the bad shit in life fade away.

Away from each other, Jag and I did our own things: I did my best to go about my life with as little contact with my family as possible; Jag would sit on the roof, watching the city silently, not concerned about chasing birds or other cats. And when I got home, he'd be at my sliding glass door, waiting to come in. I'd sit down, do my homework, then watch a movie while he sat on my head.

Lynx eventually disappeared years ago the way cats do when they're too prideful to let you see them wither away. One day we just simply never saw her again. We kept the screen door ajar in hope of hearing that familiar sound of soft metal scratching and mewing, but it never did. It was sad for a few weeks, but it was a calm and underlying sadness where everyone knew the truth of Lynx, and we all accepted it quietly in our own ways as life went on.

I left my home years and years ago under, shall we say... acrimonious terms. And while living on my own and finding my own path in life while I become a man has been rewarding on many levels, one regret I always had was that I had to leave my cat, Jag, behind in hopes that my little sister would take care of him in my stead.

When I returned home years later to pick up an amp I had left in the garage, I found a box in my old front porch. In it was a figure I couldn't recognize. Just a bag of bone and fuzz barely moving. I tiled the box and heard Jag's meow, but it was weaker now. Barely audible and full of air. I could see his skeleton through his fur. As I reached out with both my arms to pull Jag in, he made that whiny groan that cats do in their throats when they're displeased with something but are incapable of doing anything about it (i.e. car rides). He was light as a feather. The heaviest thing about him was his collar. I could touch his tail, his belly, pet his back, move his paws, and where he would normally hiss or pull away, he simply just laid in my arms, now purring.

I couldn't understand. Jag was such a big cat. The biggest on the block. I've seen him take on three cats at the same time and they ran away. He turned dogs on their back if they even approached me. He jumped fences in single bounds and could get to the top of our chimney in seconds. How could such a powerful and beautiful creature be reduced to... this? So quickly?

I called my sister and asked her what happened to Jag. She said they took him to the doctor and there was something about his kidneys no longer working and he wouldn't eat. I broke the lock on the garage and opened some cat food, and sure enough, Jag was so weak he couldn't even lift his head to bother eating. He just looked at me. A few soft blinks, and then went back to sleep in his box.

I knew what was coming.

A few days later my sister called me and told me that my mom was taking Jag to the vet to put him down. I drove there as fast I could, speed limits be damned. She won't do this to me again. I parked and marched in. There was my mom and my sister with a box in her lap. Inside, Jag was standing awkwardly, half up and half crouching, in a confused state of awareness. I reached in to turn him around and he stayed in that position, like a doll. His eyes were open but he wasn't looking at anything. I squatted down to make eye contact, but even when I lined us up, he just wasn't... there.

The vet called Jag's name. I signed some papers on a clipboard. Let the pen hang off it's string. I carried the box, somehow still not comprehending the events that were happening. I was just carrying a box.

And then I saw the metal table around the corner. The sterile air and florescent lights gave everything a harsh, dull tone. The vet put rubber gloves on and gently dragged Jag out of the box. I heard his claws scratching the cardboard. A groan. Jag stumbled. Even though he couldn't physically react, somewhere in his mind I knew he wasn't liking the cold surface. The doctor asked me questions, but I was in my own world behind my sunglasses, looking at Jag, wondering what all of this meant. Just keep nodding.

The vet pulled out some clippers and shaved some of the fur from the inside of Jag's leg. More questions. More nodding in oblivious numbness. And then I saw the needle.

And in one full, entire fleeting moment of our flashbacks, it all came crashing down on me.

Jag is going to die. Right now.

The first needle went in. Jag reacted immediately. Out of nowhere he came to life and began twisting and turning with all the strength of a feather. I remember the veterinarian's command to "Hold him down," echoed in my head. So I grabbed what was left of the scruff of Jag's neck and held on.

I held on for as long as I could. At the same time, I could feel him letting go.

And Jag, for the first time in weeks, looked at me.

A tear fell onto the lens of my sunglasses, blurring my vision. But I knew what was going on. Jag looked up  - at his owner of 16 years - and suddenly, after all the petting, the movies, the talking, the hours of laying in the sun, the sneaking of food, the park, the vacations... suddenly he had to be confused as to why this giant who had loved him for so long was suddenly holding him down as he was dying. Why isn't he helping me? Jag looked up at me and only me with wide eyes, pupils constantly widening and narrowing, looking for a reason why I was doing this to him.

My teeth felt like plastic as I clenched them. I hadn't exhaled in some time. A green saucy fluid began drooling from the side of Jag's mouth.

And then...

There is no happy ending to this. No cute moral of the story. No heart-warming final thought. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of what people may say to me, all I know is that Jag looked up at me and, in that little primal brain of his, his final thought was, "Why?"

And his green eyes closed for the last time.

My Jag.
Hope I see you soon, buddy. I'll explain when I get there.