Killer was the first.

Or at least the first in this little area of time, in this particular season. She wasn't, as people tend to count things, a member of the family. Just a tiny, shy gray and white kitty who lived inside the liquor store where a good friend of Pearl's works. When we visited there, she was in a bad way already. We walked down the aisle lined with glass refrigerated cases packed with beer and there she was, motionless, alone, a little bundle of fur and bones curled up against the heat vents underneath the doors. So we did the natural and proper thing; knelt down on the floor, petted and made much of her, carefully brushed the layers of caked and matted dirt out of her fur, told her she was a good kitty and a pretty kitty, said with our hands and the fact of our presence that somebody loved her.

She died a few days later, and from what I'm told she didn't die easy. I'm glad I got to see her first.

My late former boss, Elmer Morris, taught me a wonderful Jewish word: dayenu. There's a song around it that's part of the end-of-the-year holiday. He didn't teach me the song--at 96, after years of not attending religious services, he didn't remember it--but he told me what the word means: Enough. Enough for us. Both in the sense of, "it's enough, we're full, we can't eat another bite or we'll explode!" and in the sense of, "we've done all we can, given all we've got--oh God, please let it be enough."

I know just a little bit of the tune, though, the one word and the scrap of melody. And on the way home last night on the train, relieved and much healed and full of happiness, I sang it over and over when the song of the wheels was loud enough to cover it and wrap it up from other ears than mine. Daaayenu, dayenuuu...daaayenu, dayenuuu. And I smiled that smile in the darkness of the tunnel and the peace of God settled over my soul.

Shashi didn't die easy either. As soon as Amber called me up and told me to come, I could hear in her voice how bad it was. That the vet's more hopeful prognosis was almost certainly mistaken. I made it up there on the last train of the night. Mom and Amber were there for me and hugged me and made sure I ate and had tea. They'd been watching over the cat all night and did all they could, held her and tried to squirt water down her throat, even hydrated her with the IVs they have to care for the other cats. And when it was clear that she wasn't going to get better, Amber did the needful and called me up, took up the mantle once again of the bearer of unbearable news. I got there in time.

She was panting for breath, hot to the touch, like someone who'd just run a mile with a heavy backpack in full summer. When I petted her, when my hands were on her, it seemed to ease the panic a little. Her eyes were unfocused though, the third lid pulled in across the eye and bloodshot with strain, and when I looked into them she didn't see me. I looked anyway. I thought of Myke, and what he always says about the difficult things, the unavoidable suffering that comes of living in a flawed and imperfect universe: I do not look away. I do not, ever, look away.

It took more than two hours, though, and I was so tired. Mom and Amber had gone to bed--we all agreed it was best not to wake Pearl, who'd been inconsolable when her own cat died last month. They didn't want to leave me, but in a way I kind of wanted to focus, to not divide my attention, to be able not to look away. When Mom finally went into her room, hurting for me, I said, "Don't worry, Mom. Don't worry." At that hour of the night all the vets were closed. There's emergency clinics out there you can go to at all hours but a last-minute visit costs more than a hundred dollars. So there was no shot, no way to make it quick. Mercy enough that I had the train fare to even get up there.

When it got to the point where my grip on consciousness was starting to slip, she was far gone enough that even my hands on her body didn't seem to register anymore. So I took her off the cushion, lay back on the couch and held her on my chest. Every breath had a raspy little moan in it, but in spite of everything my head drooped and I started to doze. I was so tired. It startled me awake when of a sudden she thrashed, yowling for a moment as if she fought something, voided what little fluid was left in her out of both ends. I suppose that was the moment, but it almost didn't seem real. She was still as warm and fluffy and soft as ever. But when I put my hand on her body all I could hear was the echo of my own heartbeat passing through her tiny frame. After awhile I set her body down on the cushion which was on the floor next to the couch and covered it with a blanket, got up and rooted in Mom's dresser for a clean shirt, went to the bathroom. Before I went to sleep at last I had to reach under the blanket a couple times, just to be sure, for my hands to be sure; no pulse, no breathing. Real, but in a sense not real at all anymore--a body without the life in it, the living being that I'd loved. Baggage, empty of the treasure it had borne.

"All true wealth," Lois Bujold once wrote, "is biological." What lives is what matters, and while we who live are alive we are priceless. Life is the only anentropic force in the universe, the only thing which draws order out of disorder, which slows and inverts decay, which blooms and makes beautiful. Decay itself, I think, is principally beautiful because it exposes the fingerprints life left behind, shows in naked silence the glory and the victory and the majesty of what was, of what has come to pass, though not to stay. However small it may seem as people tend to count things. It is life which makes the universe a place worth inhabiting, and love which makes any life a treasure to be savored rather than a burden to be endured.

When I got home to Chicago on Tuesday, I knew my roommate Don was in the process of breaking up with, and kicking out, his second Craigslist girlfriend. Based on the hash he (and to be fair, Pennee also) made of the first Craigslist relationship attempt, I knew I was in no shape to deal with it that day. And I had already arranged with my good friend Lexy to get together and celebrate her birthday after meeting Tuesday morning with the building manager of the place where I'm trying to move. Since it was bitterly cold and we didn't feel like going out, I ended up crashing at her place after spending the whole day together. It was healing for both of us. She's been depressed and sort of away from her usual dynamic self this past while. But she's a brilliant and incredibly resilient person, who reminds me of no one so much as my big sister Amber, the sort of person who walks through mountains when the mountains fail to respond to a polite request that they move out of the way. And I've been rocked out of balance by endings and beginnings, wonder and dread, grief and joy all crashing into each other. But I love a lot and with grace and help am learning to love more and I'm good to be around. Friends are friends because they help each other. Getting back to the place I currently live and walking into that situation, though it wasn't really mine to solve, was something for which I had to prepare. And when I got back after work on Wednesday I was prepared.

Don got up in the middle of the night to grab some iced tea, and I sat him down at the kitchen table and got a talk going. He'd been totally freaked about me moving; he's part owner of the building here and without my rent he and his business partner don't really have another way to keep up the mortgage payments. And finding a good, reliable tenant during winter in Chicago--let alone smack in the middle of the holidays--verges on the impossible. That on top of his own impending breakup had knocked him for a loop and I wanted to help him out of it. I don't want to destroy anything when I leave. I don't want to leave anybody hanging in the wind. I don't want to see anybody lose, anybody suffer, any good thing die, if there's anything at all I can do. With any kind or degree or mode of relationship, however personal or economic, however large or small. I have enough, and more than enough, to live my life and be the person I'm becoming. I will do all I can in all directions at once and ask and joyfully accept the help of everyone involved and pray God it is enough that no one loses. He was comforted.

Yesterday, as today, I had the day off work, and with my new-minted equilibrium turned with a will to the task of sorting out some of my possessions. Cutting down on my own baggage. Don had cut off the internet, fearing I would leave--as I'd originally planned to do--today, in the first week of December. He'd've had to vacate the place himself if I had, and likely the first floor tenants as well and sell the building in a down market. None of that was especially real or pressing to Debra, the second Craigslist girlfriend, though. Without a phone of her own, without internet access, and without even--because Don went into her purse and took them, the cause of their big fight yesterday--the keys to the apartment to get back in if she left, she had nowhere to go and no way to get out of here either.

She's been more than depressed for more than a little while, and coming here and trying to build something with Don was sort of a last-ditch effort in a situation where all other doors seemed closed. And it wasn't working out. They bickered almost constantly and had each basically given up on the other. I was on the phone much of the early part of the day, in my room and the storage area I've got up here, sorting out all my clothes and figuring what to keep and what to give away. But I overheard her say, loud enough to carry through my door, "I will never again trust another living soul." And involved or not, my problem or not, it hit me like a rabbit punch. Later when I was off the phone I stepped back into the thought of that moment, stopped stock still in my tracks and prayed--for wisdom, for mercy, for everyone involved. For a problem that I most definitely did not have the right to impose myself upon but it hurt to watch, especially for a second time, with a person so far sunk in her own esteem she couldn't even get angry enough to fight it. She spent most of the day curled up on the couch hardly moving; after awhile she covered up her face with a blanket because, I think, she didn't want to have to look at me or Don as we walked by.

I even left the building for a time. Unlike Debra I have keys, and I really, really wanted to get to the library and use the internet there. On the way I dropped off a little bag with a blanket and some warm socks at the bus terminal. There's a homeless lady there I've talked to a time or two, pretty lucid, spunky as all get out, considering, and I figured since I'm giving so much stuff away I might as well cut out the middleman and give a few things to someone I know. She wasn't there, but I left it with a couple of other guys. They let me know her name, or rather what everybody in the homeless community there calls her, which is Mama. I know a couple times a year Don will put together a feast and bring it over there--where else is the homeless community going to get a feast?--and it cheered me up a little to learn Mama's name and that she's a known and in a certain sense respected citizen among them.

And at the library I got to send off a sonnet I'd written earlier in the day, to the hopeful comfort of its intended recipient. Won't reproduce the whole thing here, but the first line goes:
They know in hell, and they are terrified.

Much later, after Don had left to go hang out with a drinking buddy of his, Debra knocked on my door and asked to use my phone. Which was my in, though she was so anxious and feeling so unworthy that she hardly even registered how glad I was to have permission. I sat with her for a good long while and talked--I mostly listened, caught her terms and turned them over and put them in perspective. Told her lots of stories, quoted quotables, let her vent and pull up her astonishment and anger and fear and just look at them, see them for what they were and not have to run from the fact that she felt them. Sang her movin' down in the world and it made her laugh.

It helped, actually, a lot that she was so angry at Don. Drinking has been a major issue for her for awhile, made it impossible for her to stay with her son's family, made her unwilling to go stay with her parents, who are teetotalers living in a dry county. But she looked over at the fridge and shook her head and pointed and said, "That man--he makes me so angry. I know there's beer in that fridge and I'm not even gonna drink it, because I'm fed up, I've had enough of this crap, and I don't want anything of his."

The plan was for her parents--she's middle-aged, they're elderly--to drive up from Kentucky and pick her up this morning. But her son called up and said that wasn't going to work. It'd be a brutal drive, Kentucky to Chicago and back, even in daylight in nice weather, and at night in the cold he didn't want to ask that of them. He offered to buy her a bus ticket over the phone, so she could take the Greyhound down there and have them pick her up. And I watched her slip right back into panic, I watched her face pressed up to my phone as she said, "I can't. I can't." She'd have to leave everything behind, all her little meager possessions that were her only link to the life she used to have before everything went to hell. She'd have to leave the pieces of herself, worth more to her for so long than her actual self, here in this house, in the custody of a man she despises more than she needs drinking. And here I was trying to get rid of all my baggage, with another day off work coming up, and I know how to get to the bus station. I started bouncing up and down in my seat and it was hard not to laugh; she would have taken that as mockery in the face of her despair. "This is totally doable! Yes it is! We can carry it all between the two of us, and I know how to get to the bus station, and it's totally doable! Wait right here!"

I went and took a peek at her stuff, in boxes on the living room floor and in the front closet, then dashed back into my closet and got all the duffels I had, tossed them on the floor next to the boxen. By this time she was off the phone, and when I was at the door heading for the basement where I had some more duffels, she stood up from her chair in the kitchen and asked me, "I don't understand. Why are you doing this?" Till then I had passed everything off with no problem, my pleasure, not a big deal, no worries. That time, though, I grinned and bounced on my toes and said, "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. I'm takin' it literally. As it should be!"

(Just now--literally just now, while I was typing this--the agent from the new building called up to tell me that my application to take over my good friend Nabeel's lease has been approved. :D God's timing.)

When I came back up the stairs singing "These boots are made for walkin" she had already started pulling her stuff out of the closet and taking it off the hangers. She'd gotten so very upset with Don earlier for going in her purse, it seemed wise to me to just sit at the table and let her get everything arranged for herself. I rolled cigarettes and told more stories, and she started to focus less on venting and more on the prospect of being able to escape. I copied out the lyrics to movin' down and wrote on the back of it, "It's been wonderful to know you, though I wish the circumstances had been better. This was the last song I ever sang to my father. It was sad then, but it's happy now. May there always be a road." Then I folded it up and she put it in her purse. I hope she reads it on the bus. Thinking of bus reading time--Chicago to Kentucky is a long trip!--I went in my room and got Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards! which is extremely funny and uplifting, and is one of the few books I own myself rather than having had it lent to me.

She started to set aside a few things to add to my Salvation Army bags, since she did have more clothes and things than even two people could reasonably carry on their backs. And I told her about leaving some stuff in the station for Mama and about the socks, which stuck in her imagination. So we put together another little bag to leave along the way. She had way warmer socks than the ones I'd left earlier and it made her feel good to be giving stuff away to someone who'd appreciate it. She also gave me a lovely button-down comfy sweater with pockets, which is very nice but too big for her and too bulky to carry. (I'm wearing it now, in fact. I told that to Don earlier this afternoon and he said it had made her look old, but on me it looks really sharp.) And I showed her how you carry multiple duffel bags, straps crossed over the chest to distribute the weight, with a smaller bag in each hand. After getting rid of a few items there was just enough that between the two of us we could carry it.

The walk to the bus terminal was incredibly hard for her and slow going. She'd never done anything remotely like it before; her back muscles weren't used to the strain and on her tiny frame the straps kept slipping out of alignment. We had to stop and rest a few times--it's about a mile from here to the terminal--but we made it, in good time and in good spirits. The train ride down she was talking even more hopefully, focusing on getting out, getting independence, having a chance to start off all new. When we got to the stop I actually didn't recognize it at first--I'd usually gone to a different Greyhound station--but a fellow commuter pointed out the correct street to us and within half a block down it I knew exactly where we were.

There was a bad moment at the ticket counter. She had seven bags altogether, and due to rising fuel costs Greyhound's policy is that you get one carryon, one bag in the overhead compartment on the bus and one under the bus for the price of the ticket. Second bag under the bus is ten dollars, third and each bag thereafter is another thirty-five. She got a little panicked again; I could feel it rising in her. I said, gently as I needed to, "Debra. It's just stuff. You're getting out." And I looked in my wallet and I had thirty, so I took two fives and slapped them on the counter. She was flabbergasted all over again but we hunkered down, zipped open all the bags and tried to empty out at least one, consolidate some more, stuff the already packed bags a little tighter. And she took some of the smaller bags and put them inside each other to make a single massive carryon. After all that, she'd sorted out and selected a half-full bag's worth of stuff she could bear to get rid of, and I gave it to the Greyhound guy to add to the station's donation bin. He and the ticket agent said they'd give her a break, since after all it was duffels and not hard luggage, and let her have an extra bag under the bus. Though they warned her that when it came time to change buses in Cincinnati, the driver of the next bus might not let her take along all of it from there. They tagged what she had and I helped her carry it over to the line of other people's luggage waiting for the 3:40am, and I hugged her and wished her well and she thanked me again.

I hope she pitched that extra bag in Cincinnati. I hope she laughed and the wall of panic in her laugh broke suddenly out from under her and let her into that great big bright wide beyond it. And I hope she pitched that baggage in the bin and got back on the bus and rode all the way home to a dry county with a great big grin on her face and the cold air of Kentucky felt delicious in her lungs because there's so, so much of it, and it's free.

When I got back to the bus terminal Mama was there, in her usual spot on the little ledge next to the payphone. The bag we'd left behind was nowhere in sight, but some of the things that had been in it were peeking out of her other luggage and I think she was wearing Debbie's socks. And I smiled the smile again, much bigger this time, and skipped all the way across the terminal to Dunkin Donuts and bought myself a bagel. With cream cheese.


Martie said...

Truly you were an angel of mercy to her. You were the hands, feet & voice of Jesus, as He fully intended we be until He returns. What a wonderful story!