When someone close to me dies, my first—and most lingering—reaction is always the same: “Who’s next?”
Grandma’s been in and out of the hospital lately, so she’s a strong candidate. Kelsey, my cousin, and the only other granddaughter in the family, is young and strong and relatively healthy, but we’ve been losing touch the past few years, so I would feel horribly guilty if she were to die in some freak accident. She’s probably next—it’s always the ones I least expect.
As a bit of an emotional pack rat, I have trouble getting over things that probably should have been forgotten years ago. I then weave them in to current events and use the events of the past to justify the possible disasters of the future. After I return someone’s wallet, I always glance at the spot I found it at, to see if they’ve dropped it again. If my water was shut off, I sit in class and agonize over the certainty that my cat is, at this very moment, dying at home, probably from some long-undiagnosed illness that has no symptoms or cures.
The panic I deal with when faced with loss is deep-rooted and continually fed, and probably one of my most frustrating issues for my therapist. I’m sorry, Angela, but what if my mom really does sue me for defamation of character if I write that story about the time she kicked me out? Do you know how crazy she is?
I wasn’t always such a roaring mess of anxiety and pessimism, I suppose. Family members tell me I was “such a happy baby,” and, up until middle school, my most troublesome worries were whether I got the 1998 Holiday Teddy Beanie Baby in my Christmas stocking, or if my Neopets were starving—which they most definitely are by now, 17 years after their last feeding. But, somewhere around the shit-show time period that is puberty, I acquired a deep, persistent sense of dread.
The earliest memory I have of this is when I was 12. I had just finished putting away my parents’ laundry, and was closing the door to their room as I left. My cat, Sassy, was laying on the bed with my mom, who was petting her. In the second and a half it took to close the door, I was thrown into an inner monologue of terror and certainty:
“Oh god, this is the last time I’ll see her. I don’t know why—it’s such a perfect setting. But that’s why it’ll be the last time! She’s just so happy and sweet, and mom looks so relaxed. This will be the last time I see either of them! They’ll die. That’s it. My mom will try to get up from bed and slip on a piece of paper on the floor and fall on Sassy and hit her head on the headboard and they’ll both die suffering and alone and why do we have so much goddamn paper in this house there are just fucking piles of it everywhere!” As the tears welled, I could barely see the stairs in front of me. I sat down, dangling the empty laundry basket down the steps in front of me with one hand. How easy it would be to just let it go, let it fall down the slick carpeted steps to crash on the tile below and into the wall. Would it dent the wall? Chip the paint, maybe? Hard to tell. But it would be. So. Easy…The weight of my mother’s possible death weighed down on me, making me feel claustrophobic.
The threat of loss was a constant while I was growing up. If I didn’t take care of something, I didn’t deserve to have it.
“You have to learn to steward your things, Tiffany!” my mother lectured, as I picked up my markers from the living room floor for the third time that week. It was a wonderful set: fifty skinny sponges of ink, encased in hard, brightly-colored plastic. It had been my favorite Christmas present that year, and I couldn’t wait to drag them out at every opportunity. “If you aren’t going to take care of them, you may as well throw them in the trash!” So that’s what I did. Or, that’s what my mother decided I should do. She watched me meticulously as I threw my markers in the trash—making sure that I pushed them deep in the trash can, and didn’t just lay them on top. The rest of the day she would chase me away from my attempts to rescue a few unsullied pens from the piles of wet coffee grounds and rancid chicken fat. That evening, she watched as I bagged up the trash, tied it tightly, and threw it in the trash bin beside the house. They sat there, soaking up the smell of baby diapers and sour milk, for two days, until my dad rolled it to the curb for the trash men to collect. At six AM, I woke up to the screeching brakes of the garbage truck, and listened as it emptied out our week’s worth of garbage into the compactor, next to the neighbor’s, and knew that my last chance to save my markers had gone.
These types of incidents were pretty common in my house. The dog pissed on the carpet? We’re going to take him back to the shelter if you don’t take him out more. Clothes not put away? Everything on the bedroom floor gets thrown out. Some parents chose to vent their anger through physical abuse, or drinking—mine preferred to threaten instability. The more these types of encounters occurred, the more certain I became that my family’s love was not actually unconditional. If they were so quick to discard our pets—something they repeatedly told us were “members of the family”—why would I be any different?
As I started my junior year in high school, my mom took my brother and me and left my father—a long-overdue (if not painful) decision. With my father gone, I became the trouble-maker, the rebellious teen. At 18, I was kicked out over a journal entry I wrote when I was 15, reminding me once again of the ephemeral nature of my family. I packed my suitcase with my writing and a few clothes, listening to my mother soothing my crying brother in the next room.
“Your sister has to leave. She was hurting our family, and I won’t let anyone hurt my family.”
I moved in with my then-secret-fiancé’s mother. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Aaron and I drove to visit his dad in eastern Oregon, and I met Stan.
Stanley started out life in much the way he would continue to live it: sweet, helpless, and stupid. He had been abandoned by his feral mother when he was six weeks old—probably because of his complete ineptitude at being a cat. Aaron’s step-mom discovered him hiding under her minivan in the 20° eastern Oregon winter. One of the adult women they fostered moved very, very slowly, so she was the one that eventually coaxed him out of hiding. He spent the next week in a small enclosure made of plywood in the corner of the woodshed, a pile of sawdust for a litter box, and a wood-burning stove for heat.
I experienced love at first sight for the first time with this ratty, bug-eyed, oil-smeared kitten. We could hear him howling for attention long before we entered the shop, and the second I locked eyes with that little gray striped asshole I knew I was his.
For the nine-hour ride home, Aaron’s dad gave us a box to put him in, along with some wet food and a blanket. Two hours into the trip, Stan’s stomach rejected the food, and he shit all over the box. We pulled over at the next rest stop, and Aaron threw out the box while I bathed the tiny, howling, shivering, poop-coated cat in the rest stop bathroom.
“I’m sorry, I’m just—I’m so sorry,” I said to the rather surprised, middle-aged woman coming out of the stall as I tried to shove the bundle of claws and teeth that was now my god damned cat under the faucet. Shit (his) and blood (mine) swirled around the sink before emptying down the drain that Stan kept getting his foot stuck in. The woman smirked as she washed her hands, and walked out without a word.
The best things I got out of that marriage was that cat, and the realization that I had found a new way to create my own family: through pets.
Each year, I seemed to acquire a new family member: another cat, a dog, another dog. My house became known as “the menagerie.” Once in a while, I would collect a human family member. Hunter was one of my first friends after the divorce, and was just about as helpless and sweet as Stan. Matt had been my best friend since middle school, and for years he was the only one to fully understand the sheer insanity of my mother.
Pets are great, because they require so little effort when compared to most people. Stan didn’t care if I forgot his birthday. Missy didn’t mind if I left her at home for a couple hours while I went out drinking on New Years’ Eve and ended up in a stranger’s laundry room with a guy who was barely old enough to drink. Sometimes, Stan would come home with an abscess from yet another (lost) fight, and once in a while Missy or Runt would need steroid injections for their allergies. But I never had to explain myself to them, and I was never alone when I went through a breakup, or when my car got repo’d, or when my dad eventually, actually, died. They loved me because I took care of them, because we took care of each other in the way that only actual family does. And you don’t threaten to get rid of family because they piss on the rug, or eat your favorite pair of boots. Or, you do, but you don’t really mean it, and they know that.
But then Stan died, and I was lost again.
This family that I had crafted—had put so much of my time and effort and love into—was getting older. Most animals just don’t live as long as people, so a family comprised of pets just doesn’t last as long as ones with humans.
Stan’s death was very sudden. I dropped him off at the vet before work for a fairly routine procedure, and seven hours later Lynn was racing us to the clinic, where Stan was hooked up to IVs and put in a box that was pumping air into his lungs because he couldn’t breathe well on his own. He had had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia, and started seizing on the table. An ultrasound revealed Lymphoma, and further tests revealed kidney failure. Even if he had been healthy enough to leave that box, there was no way I would be able to put him through the painful chemotherapy and kidney failure treatments. He would be miserable, and miserable was not Stan.
That night, I looked at my three remaining pets and thought “Who’s next?” Since I had adopted all of them within a three year time span, they were all going to start reaching seniority at the same time. Each member of my family carried a timer over their head that I could sense, but couldn’t begin to guess at. My family was crumbling, leaving me without even their own consent, and there wasn’t a god damn thing I could do to stop it.
The realization that my family was finite hit me hard. I had worked so hard to put something together that was forever, and it was slipping through my fingers. The memory of the trashed markers kept coming back to me, and I became certain that somehow, I had done something wrong. I had not “stewarded” my family, and they were being taken away from me as punishment.
I should have insisted on more tests for Stan, and I should have had them done earlier.
I should have stayed in Portland until Hunter died, so he didn’t have to spend his last days paraded around social media by his sisters for internet karma.
I should have known what was going to happen.
I felt myself begin to detach emotionally from my pets, from my aunt, from the family I had built. I didn’t want to care anymore, and I didn’t want to be responsible for their sicknesses and deaths. One bad thing means many bad things in the immediate future, and I want no part of that. The depression set in, and I felt myself slip into a fog—empty, but with undercurrents of barely-suppressed rage.
Over the next two years, I tried to mend that sense of disconnection. I went to therapy. I invested myself in my pets. I made plans with people and tried not to cancel them. I had started to make progress.
Last month, Runty died. It was the week before Christmas, and two years to the day from Stan’s death. I felt—can still feel—myself slipping back into that pit. Often, all I can do is just hold someone and remind myself that right here—right now—they are with me, and that we love each other.
But sometimes, that doesn’t help. Sometimes, the anxiety kicks in and I’ll lay in bed, staring at the ceiling with wide open eyes straining in the darkness and wonder: who’s next?