On Monday we put down our cat. Over the weekend he had developed an odor and couldn’t walk correctly, and he hid under my daughter’s bed where he never really goes. My wife researched enough to determine he likely had kidney failure, and the vet agreed. There was nothing they could do.
They allowed us to be together as a family, even in this age of staying-at-home and quarantining, and for that I’m grateful. We sat in a small room while the vet took our cat and examined him, then prepared him for the IV. The girls said goodbye and we stroked him until his tail started twitching, which was his sign to stop. I appreciate that even in his last moments, he had some spunk.
And the vet put him to sleep. Our girls cried, and Brooke cried, because she got him soon after living on her own and probably spent more time with him than any other living being, certainly over the last sixteen years, which is how long he lived. She may have spent more time with him than anyone else. He was, as most pets are, a companion. Infuriating at times, lovable at others.
On one blush, this seemed a cruel addition as we stayed at home for the coronavirus. From another angle: I was home and the girls were home, and Brooke did not take him to the vet’s alone, but we traveled as a pride. And upon returning home, we said what we remembered about him, and we buried him under a rock in the backyard, with a blanket he loved and hairbands. He used to play with hairbands.
So we are left with the finality of death. Even for a cat, who — truthfully — was often on my nerves, scratching our couch or climbing onto the counter. In this way, a cat’s death fits with the distancing of the coronavirus, with the season we’re in of Lent. His death, a reminder of our own temporariness on this earth. We try to deny this in our everyday lives, but the death of an animal — or a pandemic — will remind us. We are more vulnerable than we admit.
This is where religion operates best: binding us together and pointing to truths and stories bigger and brighter than we can hold and embrace alone. Religion struggles, and hence the decay of the church in the West, when we are insulated from our vulnerability, when we can deny it, when we can pretend that thinking good thoughts is enough to satisfy the terror at the pit of our souls.
The religious argue for a teleological meaning to both our fear and our hope, and that we were made for more than this present and passing life.
But I did not come here to write about religion, through writing about death may make religion inevitable. Instead, I am struck by this idea of normal: that either this time of sheltering at home is a “new normal,” or a passage of time until life “returns to normal.” I must admit: I don’t know what normal is. Cats die at inopportune times. Pandemics rage, and while we haven’t seen this in our lifetimes, such a phenomenon has been very much normal throughout human history. Measles, or something like it, ravaged the Roman Empire from 165 to 180 A.D., killing millions with a 25% mortality rate. We all know about the plague that ran through Europe, and sprouted again and again over centuries, or about the Spanish Flu. This pandemic event is normal.
Normal, as we use it and now long for it, seems to me to be two things. The first is rhythm. We find this rhythm by going to work and staying on schedule, eating at certain times. Certainly, a change of work location and what we’re doing every day affects this. We lose our rhythm and say that life isn’t normal.
The second aspect of normal seems to be about our vulnerability, or our isolation from it. Life is normal when we can forget how fraught it is, when we can forget death’s end for all of us, when we can trick ourselves into believing that health and life insurance, that a 401k and good home are enough to insulate ourselves from disaster. When we cannot, as we can’t right now, we claim that life is not normal.
Instead, I think it best to call even this time as normal life: isolated and unsure of the next day. This is much more akin to our true lot as humans, as we are in need and vulnerable, and life twists and wriggles out of our grasp again and again. Only, most of this wriggling is around work stress or a speeding ticket, and it isn’t so pervasive and blatant about our lack of control. But life is, and always has been, on an arc that reminds us of our vulnerability; it’s just that our last generation has been abnormal, and we only glimpse our vulnerability with a cancer diagnosis (ours came twelve years ago on Christmas Eve, for my father), a car accident (for three successive years in high school, someone died in a car accident in December), or even an empty bank account (early in our marriage we were landlords and had to evict our renters, which drove us into debt).
Perhaps I did come to write about religion, for such a set of circumstances demands our binding together — the Latin religare means to bind — and trusting that our vulnerability is not the last word, but that there is more to the story.