“Where did my grandfather go?”
When I was a teenager, I babysat regularly for a couple of feisty little towheaded brothers in my neighborhood. I started at 14, when they were five and three, and was there frequently enough over the next several years to have a hand in shaping them — and in return, they me.
On this particular occasion, their parents were at their grandfather’s funeral and the boys had questions. I had very little experience with death at that point and was already verging on atheism; nor did I know much about their relationship with their grandfather and I also wanted to respect their Jewish heritage, so I tread lightly. Anyone who knows a young child, knows that will rarely pacify them.
“Well,” I replied, “when someone dies, their soul leaves their body and goes to heaven.”
“So if he died in the basement, would we be able to see his soul rise up past the window?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure.”
Forty-some years later, I’m still not sure. What are these soul things about, anyway?
In March, I wrote a poem about my daughter’s cat being diagnosed with cancer. He was already hyper-thyroid. For seven months we’ve watched Greenbean — “Beanie” — become increasingly gaunt, but he’s somehow maintained his spunk and his incessant demands for attention, his tiny gray paws curled over the edge of the catwalk (away from our too lively Doberman Carl) as he’d mewl for us to come upstairs and pet him. Until today.
My youngest child is hurtling toward adulthood while simultaneously backpedaling furiously at the edge, and Beanie got caught in the confluence. We knew his end had to be near, but my daughter wasn’t ready to let him go and it had to be her decision. She’d picked him out at the pound before her fourth birthday and fed him and slept with him for almost 14 years, so everything she knows about how to live life has included him. Today we woke up to her sobbing: she thought he had passed. He had not, but he was worn out and one eye was crusted shut with puss. She couldn’t stand to watch him suffer but she still wasn’t equipped to cope, so she asked me to take care of it. And because I couldn’t stand to watch either of them suffer, I agreed.
People who have never had a pet — at least an indoor pet, who follows you everywhere and soaks up your laughter and tears — don’t really grasp what an integral member of the family a pet can be, as loved as any human member and an important part of how children learn about responsibility and compassion. Putting a family member to sleep is one of the hardest things I can imagine one doing, it may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the supreme act of love.
Our vet’s office encourages you to take your time, in a quiet “home like” office with a couch, so I was blessed to have a half hour cuddling Beanie one last time. He’s never been big on being held but he rested against me, looking up with big green eyes shining softly like full summer moons, purring lightly. And, I held him as they injected seemingly innocuous liquids they euphemistically called “sedatives.” I stroked him continuously as his eyes slid shut. And then it was over — just that quickly.
Did he see that fabled bright white light and lean into it, or did it simply absorb him?
My daughter was probably a day or two late in making her decision, but better that, I think, than too soon — it’s certainly not a decision to be made lightly. I imagined I could see his last few shallow breaths, as if the thin foggy mist of life escaping, and wondered — hoped — it was as painless as it seemed. Did he trust me, or did he simply feel helpless? Did he recognize the love, or view it as betrayal? Did he see that fabled bright white light and lean into it, or did it simply absorb him? Some questions are perhaps best left unanswered. My heart is worn out this week in so many ways.
Death, of course, comes to us all. Our sorrow at someone’s passing is a measure of a life well lived, or sometimes the lost potential thereof. Any life lost too soon is painful, but some deaths hit us harder than others — some for reasons we understand, others who just somehow connect with us on a more visceral level. Tamir Rice and Jordan Edwards are two that haunt me in particular, like too many nameless others who make you question if there is ever justice or why we even exist.
No, don’t get into God, please. Am I just an atheist or very angry? Hard to say. Does anyone know who Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones are? It is unlikely, but look them up; they were grocery shopping, one of the deadly sins.
At the end of the age spectrum, I am struggling mightily with Rose Mallinger. Although none was young, Rose was the eldest of those slaughtered mercilessly while worshiping at the Tree of Life. It was first reported that she was a Holocaust survivor, but she “merely” witnessed it from afar — no doubt felt it in her bones, felt lucky and guilty to have escaped it, felt weighted by it for another 80-some years. A vivacious and lively bubbie, by all accounts, with a mind and body that belied her birth certificate, chances are I’d passed Rose in the streets of Squirrel Hill numerous times during the year I lived there, or my many visits back.
Squirrel Hill is one of those places where, accurately or not, one feels insulated from the ills of the world. It is, literally, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood: benign professors, Orthodox scholars, certainly a hill, bright perennial gardens, numerous temples and churches — the church where Mr. Rogers taught children how to love their neighbors. How does one live like Rose through a world war, marriage, the Civil Rights Movement, kids, grandkids, and great grandkids, just to be eliminated in seconds by a stranger filled with hate?
Did she look up at the stranger with a warm expectant greeting on her lips? Or did she feel an immediate sense of dread, a cellular fear carried all the way from her childhood…
As with Beanie’s last moments, this is one of those times when I find empathy to be overrated. One cannot know, of course, the final thoughts of someone who is gone, and a complete stranger at that. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to imagine her sitting there in the synagogue, the bullets ripping through her thin, fragile skin, 97 years of history fading into the ether. It is hard not to imagine my extended Jewish family sitting next to her. It is hard.
Did she look up at the stranger with a warm expectant greeting on her lips? Or did she feel an immediate sense of dread, a cellular fear carried all the way from her childhood and exacerbated by the gritty, growing silt of hate clogging our senses these past few years? Was someone able to hold her like I did Beanie, or was it an impossibility given all of the casualties? Did she understand that simply calling god by another name was an offense punishable by death? Did she last long enough to recognize that a virtual century of first and last kisses, worshiping faithfully, swaddling generations of babies, prepping undoubtedly thousands of matzo balls, had all come to nothing in that instant — that for all of her tangible proof, she was somehow less human than my cat in the blank eyes of her murderer?
Was Rose Mallinger able to embrace the light, even though it had gone out in Robert Bowers long ago?
How many of us will?