Grief and the Dreaming

What was supposed to be an overnight vet visit to stabilize some low blood pressure readings became something of an emergency situation, which at midnight last Sunday became a very difficult decision we had to make.

Chloe, my wife’s beloved cat of 15 years went to sleep that night and didn’t wake up, and now our house feels very empty and in want of a small, inquisitive face peering out from the shadows or from some corner of the back garden.

It was a pretty good death, all things considered. She was at a point where she was only going to get worse as the night went on, but she was awake and tired and aware of her people around her, giving her gentle pats as she got to close her eyes and nod off. It’s the kind of passing I wouldn’t mind for myself one day. It was a case of making all the right decisions, as the vets confirmed for us, but life throwing a wrench in the works at the last second. The initial prediction of 4-5 months wasn’t wrong because it wasn’t the initial illnesses that got to her, it was a random bug that hit her weakened immune system and caused a chain reaction. There’s nothing we could have done, even if we had tried different treatments earlier this probably still would have happened.

Strangely, all the logic and rational thinking in the world doesn’t make it any less painful.

I feel worse for my wife than I do for me, obviously. I was only in this cat’s life for a little over a year, she’s had her for nearly half her life and their bond is as strong as any mother and daughter you could name. She’s holding it together much better than I would have anticipated, and we’re both acknowledging that there’s no one at fault but nature, and after a week the pangs are still sharp but not enough to leave someone bedridden with grief.

It’s really weird how different people process it, though. Personality-wise we’re definitely in the opposites attracting category, and beyond the shared interest in keeping ourselves distracted with movies, and television, and books, it’s tackled in such different ways. She’s grieving in what I would definitely call a normal way, how I’d expect someone to grieve for a lost pet.

I find myself thinking back on a page from the very end of Neil Gaiman’sĀ Sandman comics where Shakespeare is lambasting Morpheus. Earlier they had made a deal that the latter would help the former become a world-changing playwright, and at the end of his life William is coming to understand the repercussions of that deal:

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I saw Gaiman speak a little while back and he talked about how he’s always had a hard time with processing grief, because it’s filtered through a lens of wanting to capture exactly how it feels, how to put that down on paper, how to make other people feel it by reading those words as a shared grieving, a way of forcing empathy and emotional connection and drawing the reader in. He mentioned that he felt that way when Terry Pratchett passed away; the immediate shock, followed by turning inside and carefully documenting that shock and the following emotions as they happened, adding them to a toolbox to be pulled out later if necessary.

I totally get that. I’ve never heard someone so accurately describe how I experience mourning. I’m sure part of it is the toxic guy “bury-your-feelings” process I grew up surrounded by, but my immediate response to feeling so awful is to try and figure out how I would translate that to a piece of fiction, locking it away not because I view the emotions as shameful or bad, but because someday I might want to write a scene where I want to evoke the same kind of feeling.

It seems to be a running theme with writers both professional and hobbyist, but it feelsĀ strange to examine it and to be aware of that routine even as it’s running.

On the plus side, it kind of frees me up to help with others whose grief is rawer and more immediate, which I view as a blessing. If I can take that step back and observe even my own sorrow as a bit of a third party, it means I can take care of things that can’t be stopped just because we’re mourning.

We’ve started idly looking at other cats now. We’re not in any rush to adopt, but neither of us has been in a no-pet household for more than a couple of months. It would be unfair to “replace” a member of the family because you then project a lot of expectations on the new adoptee, and we’re both hyperaware of that, but we also find ourselves in a position where we could do something like adopt bonded pairs that might have more trouble finding homes, or black cats that have a notoriously difficult time due to lingering superstition, or eventually even a puppy that we wouldn’t have been able to get with an elderly and then fragile cat. So from these particular ashes we’re certain a Phoenix will rise and we’ll move on, just with new scars for us.

 

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On Death and Living

I thought I’d share this today, after what feels like a chain of celebrity deaths that are hitting people really hard. This entire year (hell, the last couple of years) has been awful for people who admire the old school actors and creators who happily produced some of the weirdest and wildest stuff available. Icons for oppressed communities have been keeling over, as have the kinds of people who stood out as beacons of strength for creators who would come after them. Watching Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Jim Harrison, Elie Wiesel and others all fade out in less than a calendar year is pretty earth shattering if you’re someone who followed and was positively influenced by the things they wrote.

Stepping back a little bit to 2015 here. I had just woken up to find Terry Pratchett trending on Facebook. There wasn’t a new book coming out that I knew of, so I got a sinking sensation in my gut even before I saw that Neil Gaiman had written a short, beautiful post of morning. I opened my inbox to find about a dozen “I’m sorry, dude, I know he was one of your favorites” messages from close friends. I spent that weekend re-reading the entire Watch series from start to finish, and then the Witches, and then Rincewind, and the one-offs, and finally the Death and Susan series over a week or so.

I got to talking to a friend who was as big a Pratchett fan as me, if not more so. He’d been into the Discworld a few years longer than I and regularly attended Discworld conventions when I had no way to do so, and he sent me a message I’ve had saved since then.

When Terry Pratchett realized he wouldn’t be able to attend the 2014 Discworld Con due to his health problems, he compiled a small book as a gift for the attendees. It contains some fragmented stories, poetry, a dedication, stuff that is private and only for the eyes of the devotees who came to see him. You won’t find these books on sale anywhere, I hope. He had them distributed freely to the convention-goers under the condition no one try to sell them. They’re individually numbered and the convention heads keep a master list of who each one belongs to, so if anyone does decide to go for a quick buck with their book it’ll be readily apparently. He also included this essay. My friend typed it up for me and gave me permission to share it with the context and background story. It’s an incredibly important essay and something I think about during dark times when people you care about seem to be dying with rapidity. I read it what felt like weekly when Bowie, Rickman and others died early this year. I read it the day Leonard Nimoy passed. I read it when Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died on nearly the same day. It’s about how things aren’t all terrible.

It goes like this.

A Little Advice For Life

I have been blessed with good fortune in my life. I’ve turned a passion into a profession, and those who know me know that I know that they know that I still enjoy it immensely. Through what some might call my ‘craft’ I’ve brought interesting characters and worlds to life and through the power of words I have, I hope, shone a little light into some of the darker corners of the human condition. I’ve always maintained that it is better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness. But my prime purpose has always been to tell good stories. The fact that people seem to like them is simply a bonus.

While I may have ten doctorates (who’s counting?), I confess that I never had the educational opportunities people have today. I never attended or completed university; my learning came from doing and from reading and from experiencing life as a husband, father and journalist. I have occasionally been accused of literature. Some say I have a pack-rat mind, and I’ve learned over time to put this to good use – sharing my knowledge in the way that I know best, through my stories. In university parlance, this is known as knowledge transfer and I, right here and now, would like to transfer some of my knowledge over to you.

I know first hand that Fate can be cruel and unusual at times, but she is hardly ever deliberately malicious: she just suffers from bad timing in the main, so use your gifts and your talents to greatest possible effect while you can. Spread joy whenever possible. Laugh at jokes. Tell jokes. Make puns and bugger the embuggerances. Read books. Read my books. You might like them. You might find something else you like even more than them. Look for these things in life.

Question authority. Champion good causes. Speak out against injustice. Do not tolerate bullies or bigots or racists or anti-intellectuals or the narrow minded. Use your education to challenge them. Broaden their perspectives. Make the world you interface with a happier place.

These are your choices. Choices you have been fortunate enough to have been given, so don’t waste them while you have them. Don’t look back in years to come and wish you had grasped a fleeting opportunity.

Grasp it now with both hands.

Live.

Strive.

Love.

I don’t smoke, but Sam Vimes enjoys a cigar or two and there’s possibly more of me in Sir Samuel than in any other player on my pages. He would probably tsk at so blatant a plug for good. He’s been known to harness darkness, but he puts it to good use. Love changed his life and life is now something that he loves. I believe that the sum of our experiences, good and bad, is what makes us who we are. That has the making of real magic. Please. Go out into this world and experience its wonders.

We live in interesting times and so it is best to enjoy the journey while you can.

I find the occasional brandy helps.

Good luck!

-Terry

There’s not much more I can add to that, I think.

I’ll leave you with a picture by the amazing Paul Kidby, and a quote from one of the more underrated Pratchett novels that, again, I find comforting on levels I can’t imagine. Pratchett once said that people who tell him that they hope Death is like he writes it cause him to pause and stare at the wall for a little bit, and I’m among those who would contribute to his staring.

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ALL THINGS THAT ARE, ARE OURS. BUT WE MUST CARE. FOR IF WE DO NOT CARE, WE DO NOT EXIST. IF WE DO NOT EXIST, THEN THERE IS NOTHING BUT BLIND OBLIVION. AND EVEN OBLIVION MUST END SOMEDAY. LORD, WILL YOU GRANT ME JUST A LITTLE TIME? FOR THE PROPER BALANCE OF THINGS. TO RETURN WHAT WAS GIVEN. FOR THE SAKE OF PRISONERS AND THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS.

Death took a step backwards.

It was impossible to read expression in Azrael’s features.

Death glanced sideways at the servants.

LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?