Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Tybalt Effect: Or, What my dead cat is teaching me about doing what I want to do.

For my first blog after WorldCon, I had originally planned to write about my experience at the convention in Melbourne, Australia.  But events this week have lead me to discover something that I wanted to explore. 
My pet cat, Tybalt, died Saturday, September 18th after a long fight with chronic renal failure.  He was about thirteen and a half years old.  He was first diagnosed with this condition a little more than two years ago.  Over the course of the last two years, in addition to a daily regimen of having a needle stuck in the back of his neck to administer the extra fluids he needed to live, he was hospitalized three times, once for a surgery to remove a blockage in his urinary track, twice for bladder infections that threatened to shut down his kidneys, and often had to be given medication so foul tasting that he would foam at the mouth at the effort to spit it back up.  When I demonstrated his reaction to the medication to one of the vets that treated him, she said she was amazed that I had gotten him to take the medication at all.  
Last week Tybalt went into complete renal failure.  The prognosis was grim.  Per the vet that treated him most often, he would need to be hospitalized in order stabilize his kidneys.  In addition to that, because he was severely anemic, a common side-effect to renal failure, even if they could stabilize him, which was somewhat doubtful since it gets more difficult to achieve with each subsequent attempt, the process might so dilute his blood that his anemia would then threaten him.  Finally, even if the could stabilize his kidneys and improve his anemia enough for him to live, the vet said she couldn't guarantee it wouldn't happen again three months later.  With such a prognosis it was clear to me that Tybalt's time had come.  I decided to have him euthanized and scheduled an appointment to bring him to the vet's office one last time that Saturday.  
After staying up with Tybalt Friday night, I took him to the vet's office just as they opened at 8 AM Saturday.  The process went quickly.  They took Tybalt away to fit him with a catheter while I paid for the procedure in advance.  They asked me if I wanted his ashes returned and a urn to carry them.  I said I didn't.  They brought him back and gave me some time alone.  Then the vet arrived with two syringes.  She injected a clear liquid into the catheter.  Almost immediately his body relaxed.  Though his eyes were still open, staring up at me, the vet assured me he was completely unconscious.  Then the second syringe was fitted into the catheter.  The liquid in that one had a startlingly festive color, like cotton candy you get at a fair.  She injected that one in more slowly.  I waited while she used her stethoscope to listen to his chest and then declared, "It's done."  I looked up, startled, and asked, "That's it?!"  The doctor said, "I'm sorry," then left me alone with him one last time.  I couldn't believe her in that first moment.  His body was still warm.  His fur was still soft.  He felt like he did when I got home each night and he would wait by the door waiting for me to pick him up so he would drape himself over my shoulder and purr.  When I looked in his eyes, though, I knew it was true.  He was gone.  I arranged his body into the shape it took when he was sleeping and folded him in the blanket they had brought for him and left.  
As I left the vet's office I no longer felt the need to cry.  In fact, I was feeling relieved.  Since last May, when he had his last bout of renal failure due to a bladder infection, it had been tough.  An increasing cycle of medication and treatment.  I knew that I wouldn't have to worry any more, and that he wasn't feeling any more pain and discomfort.  But there was something else I was feeling, too.  A restlessness.  An itchy, irritating sensation that was somewhere near the base of my skull in the back of my head.  I wanted...  Something.  Not something.  I wanted...  To DO something.  Despite being pretty tired from my vigil with him the night before, I didn't want to lay down.  I took a walk to the store to buy groceries.  The exercise didn't help.  If anything, it made it worse, as if the action of shopping only confirmed that I should be DOING SOMETHING.  
Just as I was walking through the door with my groceries and looked at my messy, disorganized apartment, the image of Tybalt on the vet's table came to mind.  Suddenly that itchy, do-something irritation blew up into something more powerful.  It felt like anger.  I put my groceries away and started straightening things up.  I started in the bathroom, cleaning out the medicine cabinet, organizing the shelves, sweeping the floor.  I straightened the shelves in my bedroom.  I boxed up old games and magazines and set them aside.  I took four or five boxes of old junk and threw it into the dumpster.  I then moved into the living room.  Friends who have visited my place will remember the embarrassing pile of boxes and bags of stuff blocking my book shelves behind my sofa, which I always told them I would deal with 'some day.'  Well, some day was yesterday.  It's gone.  And for those of you who have asked me how long it had been there, and I would shrug and say, "Uh...  I dunno," I offer you this: At the bottom of the pile I found a collection of junk mail I had intended to shred and recycle 'someday' dated from 2006.  It's now shredded and recycled.  
That's how my day went, from one task to the next.  I went to the gym.  I went to the recyclers.  I cleaned off my writing desk.  I created a space for the boxes of stuff I still needed to organize.  I cleaned out the shelf under my stereo and created a station for my writing supplies.  I wrote in my journal a list of my writing projects, their current status, and what I wanted to do with them.  Every time I hit a moment when I would contemplate a task or look at a pile of stuff that had been sitting there far too long and get depressed at how big it appeared, or started feeling tired and wanting to rest, an image of Tybalt on the vet's table would come to mind, the need to Do Something would swell, and I would push through.  Finally, around one in the morning, I went to bed and slept for about nine and half hours straight.  
I wasn't so driven Sunday, but I continued in the same mode.  I started noticing the effect the memory of Tybalt's last moments was doing to me and tried to figure out why.  It wasn't guilt.  Though it did edge my sadness to a degree, my rational brain was there to remind me of what Tybalt had been going through and providing assurance that what I had done was the right thing.  It wasn't sadness.  Sadness is never been a motivator for action I don't believe.  It felt like anger, but angry at what?  The unfairness of life?  The fact that Tybalt had to die eventually?  It didn't seem to fit.  
Slowly, though, the pieces began to percolate up through my consciousness, coming together on the surface like pieces from a shipwrecked dream.  Like most people, there are things I want, visions of how I want my life to be.  One of them was finding a home of my own.  The vision was always pretty specific.  Something small, I don't need much.  A townhouse, or one of those micro-homes that they build these days for the growing number of middle aged singles.  Something with a loft above I could use for a writing space.  And it had to have a small garden/patio/backyard sitting area type of space, one that could be completely enclosed so I could let Tybalt outside safely.  Tybalt ALWAYS wanted to go outside, but I wouldn't allow him living next to a busy city street in a neighborhood where very aggressive raccoons live and dig through trash cans and DON'T back down and run away when you approach them.  The only time Tybalt went out was with me on a leash.  I got laughed at by my neighbors, but I didn't care.  It became a bonding moment for us, it gave Tybalt something of what he wanted, and it kept him safe.  
Due to various circumstances, my situation at work, the economy, things like that, I kept deferring this dream.  In recent times I even got to the point of telling myself that I wouldn't be that unhappy if it never came true.  It wasn't reasonable to hold on to something that wouldn't come true, right?
When I recalled that imaginary outdoor space and realized my reason for wanting it didn't exist any more, the angry, Do Something feeling returned.  I knew then what was happening.  
Tybalt was a good cat.  He enjoyed having me pick him up and he liked cuddling and being petted.  No matter how long I petted him, it was never long enough.  He would stretch himself out like a noodled when I brushed him.  And he wanted to be close to me all the time.  He would follow me from room to room.  He would sit on my lap when I was at the computer writing.  He would curl up on the foot of my bed when I went to sleep.  A cross-section of the cute endearing things pet owners like to talk about with their pets.  
But he had an obstinate, stubborn side, too.  I said before he wanted to go outside all the time.  I should have said he INSISTED on getting outside.  He REFUSED TO ACCEPT he COULDN'T go outside.  It's why the window shades in my bedroom are half destroyed.  It's because they were in his way AND he couldn't reach the upper half.  It's why, despite having "Pet Proof" screen material, which the manufacture guaranteed couldn't be shredded, I kept my windows closed despite summer heat and no air conditioning.  Because while it's true Tybalt couldn't shred them to pieces like he had the ordinary screens, the manufacturer did nothing to address Tybalt's ability to pull the material COMPLETELY FROM ITS FRAME through his repeated and determined efforts.  During my clean-up frenzy on Saturday, I wouldn't have been surprised if I had found the beginnings of a tunnel leading outside that he hadn't had time to finish.  Even on his last night, as sick and weak as he was, when I opened the window, he looked up, moved closer, and looked the screen up and down like he was sizing it up and picking its weakest spot before making one last try to get out.  He never stopped trying to get to where he wanted to be.  
But I had.  Over the years, due to circumstances, my situation at work, my seeming inability to get enough of my writing published, the economy going bad, a whole plethora of "things beyond my control" I realized I had become 'more reasonable.'  I hadn't stopped trying.  But I had stopped expecting to get there.  I had started telling myself that, at my age, I needed to understand that not all dreams come true.  And when I saw that, I realized that the angry feeling that had been pushing me all day long had little to do with Tybalt's death and more to do with myself.  I wasn't even angry so much at not having achieved something I wanted in time for my furry friend to enjoy it.  I was angry at having stopped trying to figure out a way to get there.  
I read once that writing a blog is providing a service.  I've envisioned this blog as servicing the needs of people like me, creative individuals, mostly writers of science fiction perhaps, but anyone who was trying to formulate their life experiences into their art.  I would offer my own, admittedly limited experience, in the hope of sparking something in my creative colleagues and keeping me focused on what I wanted.  By writing this blog I was hoping to a great degree to serve myself.  In this light, I wrote this entry for two reasons.  The first was to document my realization about myself.  I am already using this discovery in something I'm working right now.  It is a funky sort of motivation that I didn't expect and I want to explore it.  
But the second reason is the most important, and it is to put into practice what my dying cat has taught me with his life.  The grief will go.  And eventually I'll stop looking at the places where he used to perch expecting to find him.  Eventually.  Other tragedies and obstacles will appear in my life which I'll have to face.  But I don't want to ever lose this itchy, angry, Do SOMETHING feeling that he has engendered in me.  Maybe in his last moment on this earth, he transfered to me the feeling that pushed him to get outside all those years.  I want it to be his legacy.  Every time I encounter something in my way, keeping me from the place I want to be, I want the image of Tybalt to return.  I want it to push me, like it has since yesterday, no matter how tired or depressed or sad I might be, to claw that obstacle aside, or pull it out of my way.  If I can do that, Tybalt will continue to be alive for me in a very real way.  
Good night, my little fuzzy man.  Sleep well.  You gave me more than ever I thought you had.  


Blogger ehbennett said...

Awesome post, Erick.

September 19, 2010 at 10:27 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

Thank you.

September 20, 2010 at 6:39 AM  
Blogger slcard said...

Oh, Erick, you made me cry. That was beautiful and heartfelt. I hope you get out, buddy. Tear the damn screen down. And you really should use that picture of you and Tybalt for a profile pic. It captures your writer side and you're both so cute.

September 20, 2010 at 1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Erick, an incredibly powerful piece there. I didn't know where you were going with it, and I was hanging onto every word.

I love what Tybalt has given you. Keep clawing and you will get what you want.

September 23, 2010 at 8:49 PM  

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