I have this weird expectation of grief that I first realized way back in junior high. Oddly it was a Simpsons episode that showed it to me. In season 2, there was an episode (One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish) where Homer may have eaten poisonous fish at a sushi restaurant, and then is given 24 hrs to live.
The next morning, when Marge wakes up. She bolts up in bed, asking “Homer?” to an empty room. The quick pull back from her face reveals a wide expanse of room, with only her. This image has stuck with me ever since, because although Homer survived, the idea is striking.
The idea that this image brings to me is one of emptiness. A vacuum left in the world when something that was there is no longer. Homer’s death would have left Marge alone with her children. (An idea that is dealt with far poorer, later in the series when Maude Flanders dies.)
When we break up with someone, there’s a mild sense of finality. That this part of our life is over. But there isn’t the the yanking out of the world. These people are still here, and as much as we may not want to be around them now, may be part of our lives again in the future.
I’m sure those who have dealt with far higher tiers of grief (parent/child/partner) will find my imaging of it a touch precious. I am lucky enough that my dealing with the death of those close to me has been very limited, with two grandparents dying when I was very young, one before I was born. My other grandparent died after a long time of decline, allowing me to essentially say my goodbyes well before the final moments.
I suppose it’s comforting to think of a soul, and that soul going somewhere, because it explains how that vacuum works. Something is here and now gone elsewhere. Heaven, or whathaveyou. (And as Burt Reynolds showed us, All Dogs Go To Heaven, and now he’s bootlegging on the Texas Highways in the Sky.)
But when you believe in nothing (Lebowski) you recognize it as something that was and now isn’t.
It’s all just energy after all. When a computer is turned off, it doesn’t leave a hole in the world where the OS once was. So the difference between life and death is energy here, and energy displaced.
But I go back to Marge in the room, calling for Homer, knowing that the 24 hours is up, and her husband is gone. The pull back to the expanse of the room. Wide, and unfilled by just her.
How did The Simpsons get this so right?
In 24 hours, my dog dies. My buddy. My 15 and a half year-old little boy. And he will be gone from the world. I will watch the light dim and go out. I will feel the vacuum left behind by the essence of who he is vanishing. Because one day we’re here and the next we’re gone.
And when I drive home with Ophilia, I will be holding his collar, and his leash. And he will never again tik-tak down the hardwood floors of our apartment. He will never again look at me in the morning and flop his head back down. Just ‘cuz I’m getting up doesn’t mean he wants to.
And he is gone. Yanked from my life. Punching a hole in my world, and the air comes rushing back in to fill the space with emptiness. There is nothing that fills the space. Nothing. Just like the empty space surrounding Marge the morning after her final goodbye to Homer.
She sits up and feels the empty. The place where her husband was and is no longer. The vastness of the room with only her in it. It’s a striking image. And possibly far more read into by me than the animators intended.
When I get home I will find all the places he used to be. When I wake up in the morning to let him out, then realize I no longer need to. When I hear phantom taks of his nails against our hardwood in the night and wonder where he’s going.
He deserves his sleep. He’s held on probably longer than he needed to. And I think he’s done it for me. Because I needed him. Because he’s not just my friend, but he’s the bridge from one life to another, through my first apartment, and marriage, and divorce, and finding my love.
He is the constant of my adult life. The unchanging element. Of course, he has changed. Maybe more than I have. His face is white, his eyelids droop. He is old, and he is tired. And my responsibility, my love, my purpose now, is to let him sleep. To help him sleep.
I am afraid. Afraid of life without him. I’ve never felt it so viscerally. Leaving home, divorcing, new relationships, taking these big life leaps. I’ve never been so afraid. For myself, and him. I am afraid he will be scared tomorrow, and the end of his life will be a moment of terror at the vet.
I wish I could tell him in words he’d understand, that I’ll never forget who he is and what he’s brought to my life. That he meant more to me than almost anything and anyone. I hope he knows. I hope every pet, every scratch, every treat has shown him that.
I am broken by this. Broken in a way I’ve never experienced. Broken as the countdown marches on.
I had a dream in high school that I, like Homer, had 24 hours to live. A friend was with me toward the end, but couldn’t stay, and I asked her to come by later to check on me. To make sure I’m okay. Both of us knowing that I’d be gone by then.
All I can do is be there to make sure he’s okay. To take this last journey with him. To scratch behind his ears and pet him as he goes, creating a hole in my world, in my heart. As hard as it will be, he deserves to not be alone. To not be with strangers. I will look him in the eyes and show him my love as he falls asleep one last time.
I’m told that afterward it’s difficult, but you know you did the right thing. In the time since I made the decision last week, I’ve seen the decline in sharp relief. All these things that I perhaps didn’t allow myself to see. My denial. My selfish insistence that he was fine.
But it is not about me. It is about him. Not my comfort but his. He has given me 15 years and 5 months of comfort. Now it is my turn.
This is the bargain, after all, our duty to them. We who care. We who love. We who have to make the tough decision, make the call, press the button that starts the final countdown. That was the hardest phone call I’ve ever made. And tomorrow morning will be the hardest drive I’ve ever made.
This is the terribly unfair paradox of pet parentage, after all. They can spend their whole lives with us, but we can’t spend our whole lives with them.
I don’t believe in heaven, or a rainbow bridge, but still the words of Gandalf give me incredible comfort.
“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
In that far green country, Giles can run as he once did, without the pains of age. He can be free of the prison of his body. He can sleep. And while he sleeps, I will mourn, and I will remember every moment. Every kiss. Every tail wag. Everything.
He was a good boy.