Fool for Death
We have had, as of this morning in the Cullinan household, full fish death.
It’s ridiculously difficult for me to type that sentence. Yes, I’m talking about a ten gallon tank full of goldfish, and I’m all teary and bothered, and yes, that is as ridiculous as you’re thinking. I can tell you that it’s because they’re my daughter’s fish, that I’m upset that she will be upset when she wakes, not just for the fifth fish she’s mourned in less than three months, but because it will mean that every fish she has put in there in less than a year has died. That’s true, but there’s more. I’m upset, too, that despite exhausting every means I could think of, including something that might have killed them faster by accident, I failed to stop my daughter’s fish from dying, and no matter how you try to argue with a mother otherwise, no matter how she nods her head and says, "Of course you’re right, that’s illogical for me to try and bear that pain," most mothers will then just do their ruminating in the quiet, trying to find that one magic thing they could have done to stop it. But it isn’t even just that. Some of it is, plain and simple, that I liked the fish, too.
Somebody recently cited some show or a book or something where a lawyer named a pencil Steve, then broke the pencil in front of his client to prove that all humans personify everything, especially when you give it a name, and then a part of us dies when that named thing dies. I die every time I so much as tell that damn story. There’s a part of me keening, yes, I admit, over a pile of broken yellow pencils, keening for a dozen inanimate Steves. When I cook at the stove, if I cook meat, I frequently in lieu of prayer thank the animal and tell it I’m sorry it had to die, but I’m very grateful it gave me lunch, but I still feel bad. It’s always some poor sow stuck in a horrible pen, and I feel awful, but I also feel hungry, so I just die with her and apologize.
(Something to think about the next time I make you dinner, I guess. Sorry. Go ahead, laugh or smile, because I do know it’s silly.)
What’s a killer in all this is that while we don’t have empirical proof, either the fish and the pigs and the chickens don’t quite get the metaphysical level of death and life that we are and miss the whole keening and guilt thing, or they’re a hell of a lot better at it than we are and we have this whole concept of evolution quite messed up. Personally, I lean towards the latter. There’s too much evidence that monkeys and dogs and other mammals swipe at it without fully getting it. I’m thinking the fish, while admittedly stupid by our standards, are possibly just more pure. They come, they eat, they leave, just like the grasshoppers. And they just do their job. If the water they’re in is polluted, they do not bitch about it, they just move, or they die. If they get in the way of something that eats them, they get eaten. If something that can be eaten gets in their way, they eat it. They don’t go home and ruminate over whether or not that was moral. There’s just not enough brain stem.
But we, idiots all with this monster squishy ball in our heads, we make everything personal. Some of us, anyway. Some of us are able to say, "You know, death is part of life. Deal." Some of us never get it. Some of us have a life full of death and lessons in learning to be like the fish, to shut off that part of the brain stem or at least dial it down, and some of us just never manage. I’m one of those. If anything, I’m worse the older I get, every death piling onto the last, be it a fish or a cat or a person or a relationship. Eventually this habit gets me in trouble, and I am forced to dump some of it, but that collecting of pain I don’t think is ever going to stop. And I married a man, who in a quieter, more masculine way, does the same thing. So you can only imagine the child we made between those sensitivities. I don’t think it’s a gift to be sensitive and I don’t think it’s a gift to be hard. I think both just are. I think being a soul that feels too deeply has a fuckload of detritus that comes with it, but I also know that there are some good parts, too. Sometimes they seem worth it. Sometimes they don’t.
Pretty much when death comes, be it literal or metaphorical, sensitivity starts to seriously drag. You can definitely be too conscious of the pain of loss, and it’d be a time when it would be nice to be able to just toss it off. You can make some nice hash out of "you feel more deeply, it makes you more human," but mostly when there’s a loss it just fucking sucks. It makes you hurt, is what it does. And because that squishy ball just loves this sort of thing, you don’t just feel the pain of what you’re facing, you feel every pain you ever knew that remotely smells like it in some kind of fucked-up rerun. You think of your dog that ran away while you were at camp and never came home. The cat that froze to death. The grandparent who went into the hospital and never came out. The guy you knew in high school who killed himself because his girlfriend broke up with him. The cat that died when you were pregnant. The stray you didn’t take in because you were even more pregnant and already fighting irrationality as it was, and then the cat got hit by a car and you really learned what prenatal hormones could do to your psyche. You think of the friends you’ve lost, not literally but metaphorically, not to their spirit passing on but to stupidity or confusion or just general human frailty, losses some by your design, some by who the fuck knows. You think of every loss, every death, and you replay them all, feeling the sharp edges of life and bleeding and bleeding until you’re a big fat mess clutching a box of kleenex.
And it started with fucking fish.
What’s really hard for me about facing death is that after thirty-six years I’ve learned that the most painful part is not the loss, but the getting up again. When you know death, large or small, there is a part of you that is an animal in a corner, and you have in that moment the chance to shut the vulnerable parts of that squishy ball off. You have that second where you can just say no, thank you, I don’t want this anymore, I don’t want to feel bad about bacon, and you can just alter the frequency. That’s the power of death, that it can alter you in ways good and bad, and you get to decide. Death can turn you on and make you turn over a new leaf, paying more attention, being more careful. Death can make you jaded and hard and make you shut down, no longer letting anyone in. Every loss, be it fish or father, is an opportunity to make a decision in the road, to change behavior, or to use it to firm up a resolve to still be what you were before. I don’t like the dialing back, even when it’s smart. I always feel like I’m lying in a crypt. I want to be able to be more open, but after some severe kicks to the head, even I have had to tone it down in a few places because the cost was finally too high. And they’re good lessons on the cosmic scale, true. In real life, they suck ass.
The only real way out for me when there’s loss is to find the miracles and focus on them, too, because in every loss, there is always one, even if it is the equivalent to that tiny speck of Fantasia left after the whole rest of the world blew away in The Neverending Story. Sometimes you really have to reach. I don’t have to reach far today. As I write this, perhaps on psychic feline cue, my cat Walter just climbed into my lap. If you’re not a longtime reader of this blog, you don’t know that a year and a half ago I just about lost Walter due to a bad reaction to anesthesia. By rights, he almost should have died, but like the end of a cheesy movie, he didn’t. He sat up on my birthday and decided to be okay, which is why right now he is straddling my arms and drooling on my keyboard. He’s always been the annoying cat, but nobody can hate on him quite like they once did, because we all look at him and see a miracle, a moment where we should have been terribly sad, and then, inexplicably, were not. So he gets a bit of a free pass. He gets to drool on us a little longer, gets a few more treats, and a lot more lap. Not for who he is, but because of what he did not become. He’s the annoying cat, but he’s also the carrier for a miracle, our resident cheat on death.
Every time my life has kicked me hard, there have been Walters. The Walters don’t erase the pain of loss, and sometimes they don’t do much at all, but of course those moments are the most instructive. It’s instinctive to guard against loss, but all that does is make you hard. Okay, it also makes you bleed less. But feeling is being human. Being human is hard. Despite our best efforts to tell stories otherwise, sometimes there’s no getting around facing the fact that for better or for worse we are in charge of our own aquarium. We are the amateurs running the professional ring, and we will have no choice at times but to get it horribly, horribly wrong. And sometimes we won’t even be wrong, but the sheer anarchy of life will bring us pain, not because we deserve it or because we’re due a lesson but because we were in the way. Sometimes we put ourselves in the way. Sometimes horrible, awful things are just that random. Sometimes we might put rocks in the tank that weren’t what we thought and maybe leeched chemicals and killed everything. Sometimes maybe we didn’t do that but think we did. Sometimes we never even get to know whether it was fate, us, or anarchy. Sometimes we just have to stand there over an empty tank and cry.
But we get that. If we have any magic, we are the creatures who can turn pencils into Steve, who can turn very stupid little fish into Kiki and Fifi and Stellaluna and Mimi and Treasure. We are the creatures who write and read stories and cry over the endings whether we created them or discovered them. We are the ones who observe truly random events, which can be scientifically, empirically proven as ungovernable, and imprint upon them a cosmic design and believe it. We are the ones who invent ideas like "truth" and "beauty." We are the ones who name streets and mountains and dogs and cars. We are the ones, the fools, who have the capacity to care for things which never, ever understand that they were cared for and loved.
Except maybe they did. Nobody can prove, after all, that there isn’t a universe full of pencils named Steve happily chatting with personified fish and dogs and cats and cars, marveling at how they got there, wondering at a world that could make this happen, imagining the gods that designed it, never dreaming for a moment it was a silly woman in a bathrobe who couldn’t help but be so sensitive. Maybe that’s what happens, or maybe something else. Or maybe nothing.
So today I mourn the fish, and the pencils, and a thousand other things, because I’m human, and because I’m Heidi. And that’s the way it’s going to roll.