Learning to Die
As I stood on the staircase, I noticed that the carrying cage was no longer next to the basement door. Someone, one of my parents, no doubt, had hidden it. This slightly helped. At least I no longer felt as though I were completely re-living the day before. The day before that carrying cage had sat, empty, when Mom said, “Oh Katie…Kuni died.”
Kuni had been one of our two cats. The other cat was Theodora. I never cared much for Theodora. She was fierce, unpredictable, and never hesitant to claw or bite. She was also grossly overweight; a paunch of fat dangled from her stomach to the ground. It dragged on the floor. It ballooned forth whenever she sat on her haunches. It oozed out from under her whenever she lay prone.
Kuni, however, I enjoyed. Unlike Theo, she was thin and fragile-looking. She was fearful, shy, and spent the majority of her time cowering beneath beds, tables, and chairs. Maybe this was the reason I liked her so much, because she was always in hiding. When I actually did see her, I’d feel as though I’d witnessed some extraordinary sighting.
Kuni was always the favorite. Her death was my first.
I was in third grade when Kuni first became sick (and then died). She began to eat less and less, she urinated on the carpet, and she spent more time in hiding. As a third grader, I did not realize these signs were ominous indications about the state of Kuni’s health. I actually ignored them all, except for the one that included urine. I found the yellow spots on our white carpet to be humorous rather than distressing.
My parents told me about her tumor. I didn’t really understand what exactly having a tumor meant, but I gauged it wasn’t something I’d ever want. “Tumor” to me was like “cancer” or “AIDS” or “taxes:” something I’d heard adults mention and managed to glean from their tone that these were bad things.
“Where’s Kuni going?” I asked my mother, alarmed. It was funny; just a few minutes ago I was drowsy and bleary-eyed, having just slouched out of bed and down the stairs for my breakfast, but when I saw Kuni pacing and mewing from within her carrying cage, I was suddenly very much awake.
“To the vet,” Mom replied.
“Because of the tumor I told you about. But it can be easily removed. She’ll be OK, I promise. She’ll be back here around the same time you come back from school.”
Reassured, I proceeded to the kitchen.
I never said goodbye to Kuni.
The school day passed as usual. I labored through The Indian in the Cupboard, wrote my name innumerable times in cursive, traded Lisa Frank stickers with my friends, and refused to practice my times tables.
My mother arrived at school that day to pick me up. On our drive home, I prattled on and on about the farm I intended to create. I had been entertaining this idea for a while, and I usually evoked it whenever I felt the need to fill an uncomfortable silence.
“Last time I said I wanted spotted pigs, but they’re kinda ugly so I think I want pink pigs because they look sorta like Babe and we can put the pigpen in the field, but we’d have to take down Charlie’s basketball hoop first- oh! No, the pigs can’t go in the field ‘cuz that’s where the cows are gonna go… maybe if we put the pigs near the pond… yeah, that’d be better. There’s more mud near the pond anyway- oh! No, the pigs can’t go near the pond ‘cuz that’s where the chickens are gonna go…”
When my mother and I arrived home, I immediately began searching for Kuni. I looked down the hallway, prodded under tables and couches, and glanced up the staircase. I was intensely curious to see what Kuni looked like, post-operation. Maybe she’d have a big Band-Aid plastered over the area where the tumor had been. Or maybe she’d be all wrapped up, mummy-like, in bandages.
“Hey, where’s Kuni?” I demanded.
Mom was silent. I glanced over at her.
“Where’s Kuni?” I repeated, irritated that Mom would ignore me like this.
“Oh Katie… Kuni died.”
The news stunned me into silence. Kuni. Died. Kuni is dead. As in gone? Really gone? But she was alive just this morning! How could she be alive this morning and dead now?
Mom ventured again, “The vet said there was nothing he could do…”
It was then I noticed the empty carrying cage sitting next to the basement door. It was then everything made sense. All those fragmented thoughts pieced themselves together into a single, horrible one: Kuni is dead.
I cried ferociously. I collapsed onto the staircase and wailed, choked, shook, and despaired. Mom grasped me in a hug. I pressed my face against her shoulder, wiping my eyes and nose on her favorite shirt, the blue Liz Claiborne one. Mom, in turn, cried into my hair, and stained it an even darker brown that it already was.
“How…how did she…” In spite of being completely devastated, I was also morbidly curious.
“The vet was in the middle of operating on her and, and in the middle of it her heart just stopped beating.”
“How did he operate on her?”
“He…oh Katie… he had to cut her open. She didn’t feel anything, though.”
“Did he use scissors?” Despite my tears and hysteria, my shock and despair, the questions would not stop.
“Katie… I don’t know…”
A terrifying thought suddenly nudged itself into my head.
“Is Theo going to die, too?”
“At some point. All animals die at some point.”
The truth was cruel. I returned my face to my mother’s now thoroughly damp shoulder.
In the midst of my hysteria, my mind flitted back to the one-sided conversation I had carried out in the car, about running a farm. How could I have thought that! How could I let myself grow attached to these animals, only to have them die? At that moment, I vowed never to have any more pets, never to allow myself to love any other person or animal. The fewer people and animals I loved, the fewer times I’d have to experience the pain of losing them.
Eventually, my mother stopped crying.
“Why don’t you do some homework, Katie? It might distract you from thinking about Kuni.”
I complied. But homework did not distract me from thinking about Kuni. It only made me think about her more. As I sat at my desk, scrawling and scribbling in my cursive packet, I remembered that I had done the same thing during class today. And at that time, Kuni was still alive. As I sat at my desk, loathing and refusing to solve my multiplication problems, I remembered that I had, just a few hours ago, done the same thing in class. And just a few hours ago, Kuni was still alive.
I cried continuously throughout the rest of the day and well into the evening.
I dreaded nighttime. I knew I would have to sleep. Sleep was like death. Kuni was dead. I didn’t want to die.
“Am I going to die?” I asked my parents when they entered my room to wish me goodnight.
“No,” my father replied firmly.
“No,” my mother agreed.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” they affirmed, “You’re too young to die.”
“So I’m not going to die?”
“Are you sure?”
This went on for some time until my parents finally announced, “Good-NIGHT Katie!” I immediately recognized this exasperated tone and silenced myself. I didn’t want them telling me I would die just to quiet me.
That night was particularly difficult. Though I was exhausted from my crying and the overall devastating events of the day, I resisted sleep. I was frightened that if I put myself to sleep, I would die, just like Kuni. Of course, I couldn’t resist sleep forever and eventually submitted.
When I woke up that night, I mistook a pile of clothes on the floor for Kuni. My unadjusted mind wondered why Kuni was in my room. She usually avoided me, as I was much too loud and never failed to try and pick her up. Nonetheless, I felt honored that she had descended from her hiding places to come visit me. However, both my mind and eyes soon adjusted: my eyes told me Kuni was nothing more than a heap of dirty black leggings, and my mind told me Kuni was nothing at all.
The next day was no easier. Time hadn’t neutralized the shock of her death. I woke up in tears, had breakfast in tears, and went to school in tears. I looked around my classroom, at my peers and teacher, with a wholly new perspective: they would all die. Not all at the same time, of course. My teacher would obviously be the first one, as she was much older than the rest of the third grade class. I’d probably be the last, since I was the youngest. Everyone else would probably fall somewhere in between. This meant that, since I’d be the last to die, I’d have to suffer through every single one of their deaths. The more I obsessed over the issue, the closer death seemed to creep towards my peers and me. I had already used up eight years, eight years I could never ever reproduce and that seemed to pass so quickly. Soon my life would complete itself, and I’d have to surrender and die.
“Katie? Will you be all right? Do you want to talk?” My teacher hovered over my desk, her hand on my shoulder.
I shook my head.
“Why don’t…why not?”
I didn’t respond, only stared at the top of my desk. What could I tell her? What could I say? I couldn’t tell her the real reason: I’m afraid to get close to you because you’re going to die first and that will only hurt me.
When I came home, the house looked the same, yet it was fundamentally different. It was Kuni-less, and it would remain that way for infinity. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I hoped or cried or imagined, I could not resurrect her. I would soon have to simply accept her death. In retrospect, I realize that accepting Kuni’s death conditioned me to accept others that, at the time, still had yet to occur and were of greater magnitude: Uncle Lyle, Uncle Carl, Grandpa. Learning to let go of Kuni helped me learn how to better let go of family and friends alike. Sadness is relative, I’ve learned. The pain I felt in losing Uncle Lyle dwarfed the pain I felt in losing Kuni. The pain I felt in losing Uncle Carl dwarfed the pain I felt with Uncle Lyle. The despair I will feel in losing a friend will overpower the despair I felt when I lost Grandpa. And the anguish of losing my parents will overpower the pain of losing my friend.
But at that moment, as I entered my now Kuni-less house, and stood on the now Kuni-less staircase, I still felt the horror of yesterday’s event. The shock and pain I felt now were as fresh and potent as they were the day before. I hadn’t the slightest idea when I could begin to cope with, and finally learn to accept, my first loss. I would have to proceed slowly and incrementally. At least my parents had put away the empty carrying cage. At least that.