I keep opening this book and gems keep falling out.
“marital status can be relevant, but no more so for women than for men; if you are doing a profile or takeout on someone, such things are part of the total picture along with her skill at snooker and his superb lemon pies, but avoid gratuitous references like the group is led by Hortense Hamhoks, a divorcee; the rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t make the reference for a man, don’t make it for a woman; see: SEXISM“
Does it seem like I post about death a lot here? Yeah. Me too. I do other things with my life than go through losing loved ones. But with the world death rate still holding at a whopping 100%, the odds are high that death… it’s going to keep coming up.
We had to put our little furry friend Ruaridh (“Rory”) to sleep yesterday. Which, in unminced words, means we had to decide it was time to ask someone to kill him. The euphemisms, putting him to sleep, letting him go, are fairly clear, but, having gone through it a couple of times now… they miss the weight of what “owners” have to bear. The bright harsh-edged skin and soul-burning reality of it.
In the time leading up, we stare at and cuddle our friend, our little fuzzball, and we have to try and figure out if his life is worth living. We can’t ask him how he feels — or we can, but he can’t tell us. Perhaps he can show us. Although with cats, they’ll hide it from you until they can’t. And by the time they can’t, “bad” is well behind them.
On the day it happens, we have to make the decision that today is the last day of their life. And we have to keep making that choice, over and over. We have to choose their last meals and experiences, pack them in their carrier, take them to the vet, sign papers, and choose the “whens” over and over again. Are you ready to move him onto the absorbent pad, are you ready to begin the sedation, are you ready to give him the final injection… are you ready to say goodbye. There is no going back. He will be gone forever, and you have to decide when.
And you want to scream over and over. No of course I’m not ready. No of course I don’t want to do this. Can I just decide not do this? I don’t want him to die. I want him to live. I want him to stay with us. I want him to stay.
Can’t he just stay?
The loss of a pet hits people severely not because they don’t realize their little friend was a little animal and not a person. It hits us so hard because we love so hard. The volume of love creates the volume of grief. If you felt an ocean of love, your grief can drown you.
We chose Ruaridh with great care. It had been so painful to lose our Chelsea so suddenly, so soon after my dad died. Skittish, we waited over three years before getting another cat. We looked for a young cat, with lots of miles in him, so that we’d have many good years before going through saying goodbye again.
The best laid plans.
It was not long before Ruaridh showed signs something was wrong. And we have spent the months since the spring and summer — nearly half of our time with him — trying to make that elusive awful something (cancer, most likely) as easy for him to bear as possible. To give him pain-free days and cuddles and brushing and deep fluffy naps and treats, and, thanks to Neil’s dedicated syringe-feeding, a comfortable belly full of food even once he couldn’t eat without help.
He was a little fighter, but some fights you cannot win.
I wonder, maybe, if December is bizarrely the best month for awful things to happen. Christmas already has so many big emotions in it, that these giant feelings are somewhat less outsized. So much of the world agrees to try and be kinder to each other. There are softer edges than, say, some Thursday in June, when everyone just has their lives to get on with.
But whenever loss happens, even knowing it is coming, it is no less heartbreaking. We are no less shattered. For us, now, we’ve cried ourselves into dehydration and exhaustion, and we can’t put the pain down.
But Ruaridh also helped us to believe and understand that we had so much room still in our hearts and family. That after we lost our Chelsea, there were other wonderful cats in the world who could use a good home with a couple of softies like us. And that they could be completely different from her, and we could grow to love them just as much. And we learned that the absolute worst thing can happen, everything we fear can (and might) come true… and we will handle it. And that, if we knew then everything we know now, we would do it all again. Because we loved him and he loved us, and as much as he was lucky to have us, we were lucky to have him.
Because he was a charming little gentleman with a furry belly and a gentle heart.
Tomorrow, we will go and visit some other cats who could use a better shake at life. I won’t say “new” cats, because that makes it sound like we’re making a replacement. And when you have to say goodbye, that is the last thing you feel. You know, deeply, freshly, and correctly, that you will never replace what has been lost. That is was precious, and now it is gone.
“Love is wonderful in that it can never be wasted or used up. We can never replace the people or animals we have loved, but the love we feel for them can be expanded. I like to think of love as being stretchy. It is easy to feel guilty when you start to love a new pet – like somehow that means you love your old friend less. But when you think of love as being stretchy and able to expand, you can see that there will always be room for everything. You can love as much as you want.”
We will go and we will find another little animal who could use our love. A furry someone who might like to come live with us. And we will grow our family again. Because the only way out is through. Because we loved Ruaridh very much. Because he taught us to keep going and keep living. Because he taught us that we have more love to give.
Because love is stretchy.
ETA: When we put Chelsea down, we did it at the vet’s office. With Ruaridh, in part because he was so sick, and in part because he hated being in a car so very much, we found Midtown Mobile Vets.
I cannot recommend them highly enough. Dr. Karen Stekel was outstanding and went well above and beyond to make a horrible experience as unhorrible as it could be. The care she took, the attention she paid and her thoroughness in going through Ruaridh’s medical condition and the decision we were facing were all exceptional.
We are very grateful to them.
Yesterday I sold my motorcycle. Today I was finally able to delete my last voicemail from my dad. The two are not separate.
I have always known I wanted to get my motorcycle license. At some point, it was going to happen. In old family movies, there is one scene of a very itty bitty me after I’d been hoisted up and allowed to sit on a cousin’s bike. I am grinning with my whole itty bitty body.
When I lived in Indonesia, I was giddy when I got to rent small displacement bikes and zip around the islands. It was the fulfillment of some very deep-seated very long embedded dreams. I’d be sat on the bikes, finally doing the driving, and still grinning with my whole body.
As I closed in on 30, I suddenly realized I had the time and means to make this happen for myself — to get my motorcycle license. I even had a parking spot, sitting there, just waiting for two wheels to occupy it.
So I got rolling. I signed up for lessons, still not sure exactly what my plan was (would I buy a bike? what would I use it for? would I ride alone, or find others to ride with?). But I started down the path figuring I’d figure it out as I went.
Then my dad, who I also adored with my whole being, suddenly had serious health problems. As I was taking my motorcycle training, he was being admitted to hospital. As I was shopping for my first bike, his was worse and worse news (though always delivered as if it were not). When I narrowed in on a particular bike, he had me tack up a picture of it up in his hospital room. When I came to visit, we would talk about how it was going. It was the thing to talk about that wasn’t the big scary thing in front of us. A redirection technique at which my dad was a master.
In my last voicemail from him, the one I’ve been resaving for 4 years, he is phoning me to celebrate the removal of his chest tube. He is proudly telling me how he got to help remove it himself, and how it means that he will be out of there in 24-30 hours (“Colour me excited”). He said he was just happy about it, and wanted to share that with me. Then he goes on to ask how it is going with shopping for my motorcycle, and hoping it’s going well, whether I’m just scoping out or if I’m buying. Then he signs off and hangs up.
Every time I listen to his message, I think of when we spoke when he first woke up from hip surgery. How he said that day, when he woke up, it was the greatest day of his life. All his Christmases and birthdays all rolled together — he was awake and alive. He’d been afraid before surgery, and all he’d wanted was to open his eyes again when it was over.
In this voicemail, I can hear his love and I can hear so much pure true dad. The happy, kind, generous and excited teddy bear of a dad. The one who calls to share his happy and excitement, and also to ask after yours with genuine interest, curiousity and support. In the years since he’s been gone, I have learned how unusual this made him, how little most of us do this for each other.
If I listen closely though, I can also hear that his voice is not right. Everything he says is cheery and full of relief and promise. But there are sounds on this call that belie that everything is not going to be okay. He clears his throat strangely, and there is a gurgling sound in it. When he hangs up, it takes a long time. He has some difficulty getting the handset into the cradle. The phone clunks around on the base for a while before the line goes quiet.
He called me and left that message on May 7th 2011. He died suddenly a couple of weeks later on May 26th.
I have not been able to handle this. I have missed him too much, and it has hurt too badly. The other day, my husband told me that after my brother called to tell me my dad had passed, I made a sound that my husband didn’t know how to describe. Then he realized that it was the sound he thought of when he’d watch The Princess Bride. The sound of ultimate suffering. The pain of your soul being wrenched apart. He said he still thinks of and remembers that sound when I am in pain now.
One of the only photographs I have of me on my bike was taken by my dad. I made my very first ride on my very first bike a trip to visit him in Oakville, shortly after he was out of hospital. He insisted on taking a photo of me. It is one of my favourites. I am smiling at my dad, and he is showing me he is proud of me.
My plan had been to learn on my bike by driving out to visit my dad. I thought it was perfect. It would be a nice ride along the Lakeshore, and I could go out and see him more often. He wouldn’t need to pick me up from the train. I’d go out on Sunday mornings, and when we’d get together for work, and we’d have coffee (mine black, his mostly milk) and we’d watch the boats.
And then within weeks, he was dead.
And everything broke. And everything changed.
And I broke too. And I had this bike. And I didn’t have him on the other end anymore. What I did have was this new sense of death. Death right up close. Death up so close it smothers you. It turns off all the lights in the world and drains all the oxygen out of the air.
But I don’t like to give in, and I don’t like to give up. And if I just sold this bike, if I did what I wanted to do and laid down and died myself, that dream and whoever I was along with it, might go and always be gone, and I might never find it again. And what would dad do. What would it mean about life before and after. What if everything really was just gone and there was no colour and no dreams and no point and no life. But what if the only way out was through.
So I dug in – hard, blindly and unrooted. I decided I would finish this, I would get my full license. I’d zip my broken heart up and put on my helmet and jacket and I would do this thing — for the little (and medium, and full-sized) me who’d always wanted to, and because it was what I had started, a piece of the path that had just been blown apart. A road connecting before and after.
I’d passed my first test with flying colours, and my instructors suggested I’d be good as an instructor. I turned visits to my dad into much further and chillier early morning visits to my aunt’s farm. I’d arrive shivering (and a little purple) but triumphant, and re-anchoring to family I had drifted away from. I practiced, and took lessons, and got good. My bike and I appeared on the cover of the riding school pamphlet.
I got better, I learned how to handle a big unwieldy bike with skill and confidence, and I remained broken.
I kept practicing. And I took my second and final test. I passed it only 2 points shy of perfect. When I found out in the parking lot afterwards, I nearly sobbed with relief and pride and accomplishment and loss. When I got home, I let that sob out.
After that, I had some moments of pure bliss while riding. Riding in the early morning, through thick sweet meadow air just north of the city, coming across a pheasant, watching the sunrise, riding a motorcycle on open quiet long roads. It is heaven on earth. I felt absolute and total joy and comfort and ease.
And when it was time, on a cold Easter weekend, for my brother and sister and me to scatter a small box of my dad’s ashes, I rode my bike back out to Oakville to do it.
And back home, year over year, every time I picked up voicemails, I would resave my last message from my dad. Usually, I would skip it. 3, 3, 9. (Fast forward, fast forward, resave.) Very very rarely, I would listen to it. But mostly, I just kept resaving it. 3, 3, 9 and go on about my day. I’d notice I wasn’t ready to delete it, but not know why or when that could change. After a couple of close calls where I’d delete a run of spam messages and nearly hit 3, 3, 7, I saved a copy to a backed-up drive. As the years passed, I was able to delete his entry from my cell phone, my home phone, my address book, but I couldn’t delete that voicemail.
3, 3, 9.
The relief and joy of riding began to diminish, and as a couple more years went by, I noticed just how hard it was to get from the thick of downtown Toronto out to the fields and birds and soft and quiet. How I was trading 2 hours of cold and busy and angry drivers to get out to those fields and that peace. And how maybe it wasn’t balancing out.
Where was the line between the pain and the pleasure? What had I set out to do? Did I have any further to go, or had I arrived there while I wasn’t looking?
Yesterday, I sold my bike. One day, maybe I will buy another one. Maybe for now, I’ll rent. Maybe I will do some more off-road riding — starting and ending in the woods. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll enjoy all the future possibilities all that pain paved for me. Maybe I don’t need to rush. Maybe I’m not sure what happens next. Maybe I’ll figure it out as I go.
But yesterday, I let go of that bike, and today I was finally able to let go of that voicemail. This bike that I had this troubled relationship with, these big ups and big downs, I let it carry some of the pain of these past few years. The struggle. The struggle when the struggle was too tough to really make any sense. The freezing cold mornings to avoid the traffic. The desperate slogs out of the city to find somewhere there was oxygen in the air. What it felt like to try and figure out a way forward into a future you couldn’t imagine, and didn’t want.
I let them go just before the calendar ticks over to another year without my dad here, another year of never hearing a new voicemail, never hearing his voice say any more words. Every year, inching forward. Every year, figuring out how to breathe, what to hold on to, and which things it’s time to let go.
I think dad would understand, and I think he’d still be proud.
I’ve been following The Art Assignment. If you haven’t taken a peek, pull your paints out and get on over there. In particular get on over there if you’re the sort of someone who loved making tempera and potato stamp masterpieces as a kid, then snagged a run of Cs in art class and thought “well… fuckit”.
The show has grown from a great little sparkle of an idea just finding its sealegs, to a fully-kitted ahoy matey ship, ably captained by Sarah Urist Green. (I’m working on a tugboat game. Apologies for over-nauticalization.)
And then, in December, they blew my mind grapes – *sqwuh-pow* – because Christoph Niemann presented an assignment: Emotional Furniture. See Christoph Niemann’s “Illustrated Talk with Maurice Sendak“, and then anything else he’s done.
Quick version: Christoph’s assignment asks you to use only furniture and (unaltered) photography to evoke three emotions: Envy | Confidence | Melancholy.
I decided to try it, but I let this assignment roll around my brain noggin for awhile, and it rolled over from many a week’s to-do list to the next week’s to-do list.
I could see it cresting on yet another roll over to yet another week, when I had the idea to try and use bathroom “furniture” (why yes, I was having a bath at the time). And then… I decided to use houseplants instead. As the ficus is the sink of the bedroom. Or, rather, as the bathroom needed a clean – there may have been a sparkly bath bomb involved – and I do love my plants. (And if I love them, perhaps there are other emotions germinating in there.)
I figured it was keeping with the spirit of The Art Assignment to tweak the original mission and make it my own, so, apologies to Christoph Niemann, here’s my first go at composing Emotional Plants. And following the Jack White no Pro Tools ethos, the constraints are what made it incredibly fun and satisfying to do. These fellas may be on to something.
I have learnt, over the past decade, to be… judicious… in what sort of pretty inspirational type messages to share with my husbean.
Because he is a beautiful soul, attached to a relentlessly analytical mind, encased in a web of straightforwardness.
Yesterday, for instance, without thinking much about it, I mentioned to him how I enjoy the whole package of the idea “Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight” (nice poster here).
He thought about it for a moment. Then he went a bit quiet. I figured he was mulling it over and enjoying it.
Then he said: “….I think it’s a plus one problem.”
Me: “Come again?”
Him: “A classic plus one problem. If you assume you were standing to begin with, then you’d only need to get up 7 times. It’s a plus one problem.”
Me: “It’s not a… the math isn’t the… let the poetry breathe baby. Just let it breathe.”
You should see him when he’s working on one hand clapping.
ETA: Another friend just pointed out “It’s not a ‘plus one problem’ it’s an ‘edges versus nodes counting problem’. Tell him that.”
I am only friends with romantics. 🙂
Thanks to Rob, itinerant linker and all-around thinking man’s vagabond, I’ve been reading Patrick Rhone’s Enough site.
I have another point in favour of keeping your email archives. Archives that go back years and years. It’s not a super cuddly “up” sort of point, but here it is…
(It keeps coming back to death. Oh mortality, you attention-hogging cad.)
I’ve written before about the strange glitchy comfort that technology provided on the night of my dad’s death. When he had “logged off”, but his GChat had not. His status simply lapsed to “Away”, which was at once poetic, accurate, and unnerving. Though first, it stayed as “Busy”, which, if consultants did sailor-style tattoos, was a status my dad should really have had inked in a heart on his bicep.
But beyond a lingering presence on a chat list, what I have are emails. Hundreds of them. Thousands? A sloppy filter I set up says I have 1,659 emails from my dad. In one account.
What a strange artifact of the mundane minutia of a relationship. What it’s really like to be friends with someone. Not a perfectly composed photo, but hundreds and hundreds of tiny exchanges. Give and take and send and receive, over and over and over.
That may be the strange niche of email archives. Because we dash off emails all day every day, they seem less precious to us than letters. But the snapshots they retain of a relationship are so much more deliciously everyday. In a letter, we tend to be our best selves. A little more scripted, a little more careful, a little better framed. They’re composed. Gmail may still use a big “Compose” button to start a new email, but that’s not often what we’re doing. We’re jotting and answering and pinging. “How’re you?” “Good, you?” “Good.” Emails are sometimes elegant and articulate, but often not. They’re many thin threads of caring and checking and supporting that tie you together.
I have not yet gone back through my emails from my dad. I’m not even sure how I would do that. It is the same daunting challenge of going though any archive, but at computer, not human, scale storage. I think I have kept them though not because I plan to go and meticulously reread them. Certainly not all, but perhaps not even any. I think they are there to thumb a finger across. It’s not an Ansel Adams compendium. It’s a flipbook of dad. It’s a million little gestures of kindness and humour and questions and answers and plans and dates. It’s friendship in funny little sketches. Archived.
It’s not a pretty whole but, as a whole, it’s awfully pretty.
…I really understood very fast that a computer is exactly the opposite of a human being. It’s really fast, really exact, and completely stupid. So it was interesting to figure out how to speak to this beast so that we could have it do whatever we couldn’t do ourselves.
A computer is the most extraordinary error amplifier ever built, because a computer has no common sense and no humor.”
~Gérard Berry, in Communications of the ACM – December 2014.
My dear old dad would have been 63 today. I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about that yesterday, so I took the long road around the landmines and set my brain to work on my taxes.
But the best laid plans something something kaboom, because my dad and I worked together. So my filing boxes have lots of little dad-isms lurking in them.
Including, apparently, this elephant:
Which dad drew while we were hanging out together during some after-conference dad’n’daughter time.
He thought it was a terrible drawing, while I thought was both fantastic and adorable, and I cajoled him into letting me keep it.
And on the reverse side, some actual work material (not that the elephant doesn’t look like a hard worker):
A good old Dad fill-in-the-blank to get you thinking. Letting ideas be in tension, and finding the balance. Looking the complexity of a situation straight in the ol’ eyebulbs, and figuring out how to deal with it.
On a day when I miss my dad especially, while remembering him with huge love… yup, it fits.
My bro-in-law sent me the HUVr clip this morning.
“Lie” alarms went off in my brain, but I chose to hit snooze until the end of the video.
Why? Because I would like us to build some of the things we dream about. I would like for that to be true. For the same reason as everyone believes hoaxes — I want it to be real. I want people to be out there building transporters and hovercrafts and holodecks and sharks with frickin laser…wait, scratch that last one.
I also want the world to be just slightly different than it is. Hovering, sure — that gets at our deepest dreams of flight and fun. But what if mankind’s contributions to the world were more fantastical, less destructive? What if we built hoverboards instead of cars? What if applied science was applied to joy? How amazing, let’s do it!
I also want the world to be less of a sneering snidey place. I don’t want celebrities to cash in on being idols (Tony Hawk) and guides (Christopher Lloyd) — to gain people’s confidence only to trick them. That’s why these are the celebrities in the video. They are there because we trust them. You have to have trust before trust can be betrayed.
Pranks that prey on people’s dreams are gross. Sad in your job? Did this give you a blip of happiness? Haha, gotcha! There is nothing beautiful and fantastical out there, and people should laugh at you for believing there might have been. Gullible. Sucker.
It’s mean-spirited and it eats away at hope, trust and empathy.
It makes all of us jaded and wary, and it makes people feel silly for still having dreams. Which do we want (and need) more of: building dreams, or tearing them down?
I guess I’ll just have to get to work on building my own hoverboard. I promise, if I do, I’ll let you ride on it.