It happened a month ago today. I’ve been trying to write about it for at least three weeks. I stumbled at it obsessively until a friend sat on my porch and told me I didn’t have to write about it. I knew she was right, but I also knew I wouldn’t be able to shake off the impulse to write about it. However, her directive helped me turn from writing to reading, which was where I needed to go. Finally, I opened up The Year of Magical Thinking and let myself slide into grief.
Sachen is dead, and I can’t avoid it by trying to write about it.
Since the very day we had to make that awful decisionâ€”since I came home from the vet all raw and emptyâ€”I’ve wanted to read The Year of Magical Thinking. It seemed like the only thing to do. Since it first came into my life, that book has functioned like my bible. I read it for comfort and for answers. It feels like the most true text that has ever existed or could exist.
After my friend left the porch, I went inside and started reading, and on page 7, I found the answer to why I couldn’t stop trying to write about it: “I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.” I wanted to write about it to find the meaning.
This particular grief is different from other griefs I’ve experienced in my life because it is only sadness. There isn’t any regret or guilt hiding behind the sadness. I know we did everything we could for that cat. We gave him a good life, and in the end, we showed him the mercy any life deserves. Joan Didion’s grief has a lot of that regret and guilt lurking in the folds, but even though our griefs aren’t the same (are any two griefs really the same?), her particular method of writing her way through hers helps me see my way through mine.
In the book, Didion describes something she calls “the vortex,” which is that phenomenon of how easily an ordinary line of thinking can lead into a dizzying and crippling barrage of memories. This is perhaps the most salient point the book makes for me, and Didion returns to it over and over. The vortex is real. Luckily, we no longer live in the house where Sachen spent most of his time with us. This new house is mostly free of memories of him, but my mind isn’t. Reminders of him catch me off guard. Sometimes all it takes is for something to appear in the corner of my eyeâ€”a pillow or a pile of clothes, maybeâ€”and I think he’s there. I turn my head and of course it isn’t him. But it’s too late. The avalanche has already started. Suddenly I can’t stop thinking about how when we lived on Wayne Street, Sachen would sit in the bathtub while I brushed my teeth and squeeze his eyes when I told him I loved him.
After I decided to start reading, I didn’t stop writing, though I stopped feeling like I had to write the perfect thing about my imperfect cat. I wrote paragraph after paragraph of memories like the one about the bathtub on Wayne Street.
I wrote about the snippets of fur that came unexpectedly with his ashes. Nothing in the past month has so thoroughly slayed me as those two tufts of furâ€”one black and one white. When I opened up the literature from the pet cremation service and saw that tiny baggy with that fur in it, I just sobbed. Usually, I know if I’m about to cry. I feel the pressure in my sinuses and of course the tears welling in my eyes. I generally prefer not to cry so I try to think of something else to make the impulse to cry disappear. This time, there wasn’t time for any of that. For a solid four minutes at least, I wasn’t sure if I could stand up on my own. Then I was rescued by another friend, who came over and understood right away that the fur in that baggy was just the saddest damn thing ever.
I wrote also about the day he died, how he beat his paws on the exam room table until the doctor finally had to sedate him just to be able to insert the euthanasia injection. Feisty until the bitter end.
Every night before I go to sleep, I read part of The Year of Magical Thinking. It functions like a devotional or a security blanket. Maybe there isn’t really a difference. A couple weeks ago, we were down the street hanging out with friends when what seemed like a family emergency happened. We decided to go immediately to my parents’ house, and when we came home to get our car, I sneaked upstairs and tucked my book into my purse. I needed it with me. That night turned out not to be a crisis after all, and if I were superstitious, I might believe that book protected us.
The book hasn’t been acting alone, though. Something else has been perhaps even more instrumental in helping both me and Andy get through Sachen’s death, and his name is Sebastian. If The Year of Magical Thinking is the bible, Sebastian is a guardian angel.
I’m not finished writing about this, but so far I’ve already learned two things: 1) Sachen’s death has affected me far less than his life did, and even though that might make it hurt now, eventually I’ll be better off for not having regrets and 2) Sachen made me a better person. This is the meaning I was looking for. Joan Didion led me to it, just like she always does.