Most people think that shadows follow, precede or surround beings or objects. The truth is that they also surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses and memories.
— Elie Wiesel
I wondered when it would come to this. I didn’t think it would be him. And even as the mist of denial thinned, eventually cleared, I told myself to hold on, to wait, to “give it time” in that usual male way: ignore something and it might clear up. That’s why we don’t rush to the doctor even when we’ve lost a limb and are gushing blood. It might clear up on its own. Just wait a little bit. That’s why we don’t ask for directions. We say we know the way even when we secretly know that we don’t and that we hope we’ll stumble, blind luck in hand, upon the right path. Just wait. Give it time and I’ll find the road. Or so I generalize. Not all men are like that, you know, and not that those who are realize how stultifying it is, but as they say, if the stereotype fits…
It began with the slightest loss of weight. Not much, perhaps only a pound, give or take, yet I notice these things. It immediately connected with something else I’d noticed: a growing self-imposed isolation. This, too, came with its sidekick: a burgeoning lethargy. Amazing what we notice but set aside when we don’t want to face the facts. Or when we’re tucking tidbits away in the file of What Must Be Faced until the folder holds enough contents to warrant action.
When Henry began suffering from acute renal failure, his weight sloughing off quickly, his personality vanishing beneath the constant hiding from the world, Derek asked me if I had noticed, if I realized what his condition was and where it was going. Of course I had, I told him, and I had. Only I had also secretly hoped—not prayed as I’m not a religious man, but as near to that as I could come—really, really hoped that it was temporary. Yet the downfall accelerated and I could see what was coming. I knew what I had to do. Yet Henry’s life of twenty-one-plus-change years had been rich and full and rare, and certainly longer than anyone had expected, though Mom and I had imagined it all that time. He’ll outlive all of us. That was our mantra when it came to Henry, and he sure as heck gave it his best shot.
In the same light, and certainly with the same symptoms that vociferously yelled “acute renal failure” at me with every breath, Kazon began his headlong plunge only a few weeks ago. Again, it started with a bit of weight loss, not much, but noticeable to me, the man who knows their every mood, their every idiosyncrasy, their every vocalization. Me, who knows when something is amiss almost as quickly as the cat knows. Yes, I saw it coming then and felt betrayed. Henry was one thing. More than two decades he had, and he lived them, absolutely and unabashedly lived them for all he was worth. But Kazon? He’ll be thirteen in September this year. Too young. Too soon.
Nevertheless, and without doubt the first sign of knowing—truly knowing that you have to let go, I denied it, pushed it away, told myself it was the onset of summer, though no such summer before had resulted in these changes. But even in my momentary denial, I knew. I knew. For as I said, I’ve been down this road before. The signs are familiar. I can read them before they’re visible around the next bend. I know this road, and I hate this road.
It can be said that I will feel the impending gloom and loss just as weighty with any of The Kids when their time finally comes. Such a statement would strike me as obvious, as if one had said summer is hot, or playing in the rain is worth catching cold, or you either prefer jelly or jam once you stop to notice the difference. Obvious. Truisms all. Some of life’s little axioms. And equally true though it might be that the emotional impact of seeing one of The Kids stepping through their final days would hit me hard, would steal from me something that could never be regained, each is a different loss, hence Kazon brings to bear its own singular lassitude of heart and mind, its own lachrymose goal that is both unavoidable and dismaying.
Doctors tell only what is already known. Acute. Not responsive. Not long. And though I am thankful for the inherent finality that says no more suffering, I am left with the pugilistic instinct to avoid what comes next, to deny it, as though denying such a thing can be done, can be successful, can result in anything more than unnecessary suffering. Which I can’t allow.
As I sat thinking in that way I did so long ago when I set my mind to the task of ending Henry’s life, I sat today quarreling with the aspects of me who each had an opinion about when, how, what comes first, and so on. Surprisingly, the voice that won out was the logical one, the one who stopped us at the words “put to sleep” and said with the steely voice of logic, “You mean ‘kill.'” My breath caught in my chest, held still by a weight I could not bear. My eyes darted to and fro in a vain effort to avoid the mirror of my mind. He was right, I knew, in that cold, calculating, unfeeling way he was known for. But that was the logical part of me, the one who could cut through the crap and see right to the point, apolitical, stoic, unmoving and unflinching. He was right.
What tattered and threadbare blankets we throw over that word—kill—all to make ourselves feel better for what we’re about to do. Translucent, they are, none of them of sufficient substance to hide the crimson writ beneath their thin veils. The word remains, the result the same, and only our vulpine ability to deceive ourselves makes it seem otherwise.
We butcher a cow or a pig on the farm, and saying ‘butcher’ helps us put the act in context, the context of putting food on the table, of providing sustenance so that life can go on even while it’s ending. For that’s the essence of life, isn’t it? Something has to die in order for something else to live?
We say “put to death” when capital punishment is carried out. We feel the offense warrants death, but we don’t want to admit we’re killing someone, and we know it sends the wrong signal when we tell our kids that killing is wrong whilst all the while we do it in the dank and dark recesses of our prisons. But since they deserve it, their crime being so terrible and all, we say “put to death” so we can avoid the paradox: If killing is wrong, and if revenge killing is even worse…
We charge someone with manslaughter when they cause the death of someone else in a way that doesn’t quite warrant the murder moniker. This lessens the blow to the jury, lets them ponder the situation with a softer edge than would otherwise be possible, and we throw the full weight of the law behind the new name for killing so it takes on an air of officialism, of rightness.
We “pull the plug” when we remove a loved one from artificial life support and allow them to die naturally. Perhaps their living will stated this clearly, perhaps their spouse or responsible party said this is what they wanted, that they never wanted to be a living vegetable. No matter the reason, we know the end result but can’t tell ourselves that we are killing somebody, so we quietly pull the plug and weep alligator tears to wash away our guilt.
We “put down” or “put to sleep” an ailing animal when we know the future holds only suffering, only prolonged death stretched like bubblegum from Death’s naked teeth. They were a good horse, a faithful companion of a dog, the most loving cat, a bird so affectionate you wouldn’t believe… In our feeling turmoil, the idea of killing them offends us so deeply that we can’t fathom giving time to the thought, so we put them down or put them to sleep instead.
And here is where Logical Me chimed in originally. The emotional me, the caring me, held Kazon in my lap where he has spent so much of these past almost-thirteen years, and I spoke through my own tears the words “put to sleep” only to be corrected in my mind: “You mean ‘kill.'” And after brief anger passed, I realized that was precisely what I meant: I have to kill him.
There are things I want to say about Kazon before the tide of this terror abates, before it washes back out into the ocean of existence and waits for the next pull, the next ending, the next killing. There are stories I want to tell, photos I want to share. I hope you’ll indulge me in this. Or at least ignore me as I get through it as best I can.
I’ve never liked killing. I especially never liked killing a loved one. But I like the alternatives even less. Perhaps what follows is catharsis of some kind, an attempt to reach that ludicrous and never-gained state of closure, something only doors and eyelids and windows really ever achieve. Or maybe it’s my way of coping with loss, the coming loss, then the loss behind me on the trail, the scar of which only time can smooth down to just a trace of its once crimson self.
Change only happens when the pain of holding on becomes greater than the fear of letting go.