Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Life For Rent"

"Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medi­cine. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain..."

--Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, re: the death of Abigail Adams, MONTICELLO, November 13, 1818.
This is my 200th post.

I decided to name it after one of my favorite songs (and favorite albums) by Dido.

It's been an odd time for me, because I've been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks taking care of my kitty, who is dying.

My kitty and I adopted each other nearly 16 years ago. I named him "Gide," after one of my favorite French authors. I was agonizing over a name for him while he was scampering around the house, and he hopped up on the bookcase and ran past my line of books by... you guessed it... Gide.

And so he was named.

I got him from the family I used to babysit for. Their daughter, who was two years old at the time, told me, "We have a kitten for you. You've got the little orange guy."

And since that time, I've had the little orange guy.

He's a link to so many people who have passed on in my life. Two of my friends from graduate school used to joke with me about him. Both of them attended my graduation from Brown and both of them have since died. One told me of the death of the other, and then a year later, he too died.

Neither of them was old. Both were younger than 55.

My kitty was with me when my dad died, and then my mom. He took care of me in ways that only a pet can: their devotion is wordless and, as Jefferson acknowledges, in a time when there are no words, it is the wordless compassion that is often the most effective medicine.

Ezra loved to hear stories about Gide. He always brought him a special toy when he visited.

It's been hard, realizing that my little orange guy and I are coming to the end of our time taking care of each other. He's been with me through a lot of difficult times. I had him when I was poor and unemployed and just out of grad school, and I have him now when I'm a tenured professor with all kinds of responsibilities and commitments.

I had him for nearly half of my 20's, all of my 30's, and on into my 40's. I know there was a time when I didn't have him, and I'll have to adjust to a time without him again someday, but right now, it's hard to imagine a time when I didn't have him--and when I won't have him.

So, I don't imagine it. I just live the day in front of me, and enjoy the little moments. Like the way he sniffed the warm spring air and seemed to smile at me when I sat with him out on the patio this morning.

I took my epigraph for this post from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his longtime friend and political rival, John Adams, after learning that Adams' wife of 54 years, Abigail, had died.

I think about the way life was only a hundred or two hundred years ago: they endured so much, and so much of what we take for granted was simply inconceivable to them. Jefferson's letter is a testimony to that endurance, to what he learned about life and the inevitability of separation, loss and grief.

There's no sense in Jefferson's words of the injustice of it all, just a profound recognition that this is what life eventually brings us--immeasurable ills that can only be healed by time and silence.

This is the irony of living a life that isn't simply a life for rent. As Dido's song suggests,

While my heart is a shield and I won't let it down
While I am so afraid to fail so I won't even try,
Well, how can I say I'm alive?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."