If you’re reading this, I hope it resonates with you. And if you’re not, I truly wish you were.
There is some truth to the idea that our parents get us pets, loving and furry animals, to learn compassion and responsibility. But I will tell you the other side to that is to learn the ability to cope with loss, understand the ramifications of death and come to terms with the realities of life. Maybe in the moment they aren’t thinking about it, with your childhood joy and all, and lord knows you aren’t, a six-year-old with a goldfish. But one day, it’ll be a lesson learned, a "life" experience, if you will.
We spend countless days, months, and if you’re lucky, years caring for an extension to the family. Feed, water, play, clean up, repeat. They stand by our sides during times of tragedy, and support us with unconditional love in silence. Their existence is enough for us. They sense trouble before us, guard the doors, protect the home that may be heartfelt or reality. Lay with us while we cry and deny the affections of our parents and friends. They are the teddy bear we’ve always needed.
Then one day, you lose them. And the worst part, they can’t even say goodbye. Can’t lay with you while you cry over the loss of them. It’s a devastation that’s both dramatic and necessary, and as a child, you learn this lesson. The goldfish goes belly up, and you learn about it while you flush him down the toilet in some dramatic titanic-esc scene. Off to the store to buy a-new. You bury the family dog or cat in the backyard and cringe at the spot where grass has yet to regrow. One day, you’ll find a stray and they will fill the hole where your childhood pet lay. Not to replace, but because to some extent, they feel necessary to our existence. We find ourselves empty in places we didn’t know could be emptied, we feel unsafe without a snore at the foot of the bed.
So you learn to cope, and clean up the scraps no one is there to lap up. You learn to live with the loss, learn to live without them. Lesson learned.
But like math, there’s more than just 2+2. There’s multiplication, algebra, trigonometry… And the lessons get more complicated as we grow.
The people we grow up loving, the ones we learn to love. The ones we have only ever loved. Those that taught us the lessons of loss, the introduction to addition: 1+1 level, somehow are subtracted from our lives. And sometimes, like our furry companions, they don’t get to say goodbye.
We are quick to answer 2 A.M. calls, expectant of death. No one calls the house at this hour... We bounce in from work or class to tears on kitchen tables. Sometimes we just know.
You drive for hours, going nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Revisiting roads you’ve driven down. Sitting on curbs you’ve shared. Staring at photos you’ve taken. You look to the passenger seat; every trip, test drive… flashbacks are a bitch.
The sick part is, you’ve been through this before. And you’ll continue to go through it.
We watch our grandparents age and dwindle, forgetting our names and struggle to stand for a greeting. Say things like, “this could be the last time…” and “you never know when…”. And yet when it happens, it’s still a surprise. Could have been tomorrow I suppose, or last week. But we ache for the memories of a childhood unforgotten; if they're gone, so is everything I've ever experienced with them, right? Cookies don’t taste the same, we smell cigars in the dead of empty night.
We realize that age has nothing to do with it. Sickness knows no bounds, temptation knows all weakness’ and accidents are just so. We look for answers in unwritten letters, sent text messages and full freezers. The “what ifs” will destroy you. The blame game never has a winner. Whose pain is worse, yours or mine?
You wait for the "April Fools!", or the alarm clock wake up. It never comes, and you’re forced to realize that it’s a reality. Swollen eyes, choking coughs followed by discarded cigarette butts and quietly blasted songs of desperation and devastation. Long walks on beaches drinking alcohol stolen from our parents, freshly baked bread with flour dusted everywhere, barbeques with too loud of laughs. I’ll say it again. Childhood memories in backyards. Easter Sunday breakfasts. Christmas Eve dinners.
You sleep terribly, sip coffee that goes cold. You attend wake after funeral, and funeral after funeral. The rooms all feel the same, too warm for the winter brewing inside us. There is always the moment someone grabs your hand while you sit silently, the embrace after a service. The turn-around at casket, when you have just enough time to see everyone else staring back at your pain, mirrors. There is the moment you realize how much this is going to hurt. The moment you realize you’re about to feel it, and the moment you do.
No number of run-away turtles, and ill-fated hamsters could have prepared you for these moments. They gave us ideas, they educated us. They planted the seed and watered it slowly, until the day it grew too big and had to be cut. As anyone that walks within your life will do.
Feed, water, repeat.
Within the moments of heavy breathing and gasping sessions of hysterics, you’ll find solidarity in the memories. The reminders of their laugh, their favorite song played at the right time, their found forgotten sweatshirt. In the hollow of wanting to tell them about your day, you will remember an argument that now makes you smile.
Tattoo yourselves with dates you won’t forget, then ask "Is that today?"
Smile at dropped feathers, hear meows that aren’t there, whisper “happy birthday” every year.
You will drive with purpose, and reminisce with yourself as you drive past those curbs, you will frame the photos.