Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Cruelest Holiday Season

Oh hey, it's already December. And not only December, but Christmas Eve. An exciting time of the year, if there ever was one. But arguably, all times in any and all years are both exciting and unexciting at once. Depends on where you are, who you're with, and countless other variables. Predicable opening paragraph, predictable opening paragraph filler. The opposite of exciting.

And I haven't even remarked yet about how I still need to write here on a more regular basis. Good thing I just got that out of the way. 2011 is a year I've spent mentally congested. Exceedingly so. This was my most inactive year yet writing here on Spiral Reverie. One of my 2012 goals is to change that. This inactivity on my part certainly hasn't been for a lack of trying. I have piles of blog posts sitting here unfinished - many things I wanted to say, or to finish saying, but then that mental congestion struck. Not that it's much of an excuse.

I'll be getting a few more of these things out of the way over the course of the remaining week of the year, at any rate. With any luck, perhaps I'll be a more exciting writer worth your following in 2012. Should I fail at that, in the least, there'll be more juicy little morsels entailing various strings of words that may or may not form thoughts that make some kind of sense for you to sink your mind-fangs into in the next year

All that yammering aside, I'll catch the few of you passing internet tumbleweeds up on all things interesting and uninteresting in a post I'll end the year with in another week or so, the salvaging of a post I intended to complete about four months ago. Funny, that. (And there will be a funnier Xmas story later tonight. I promise. I won't break this one.)

On to the purpose of this post. These prior paragraphs? An appetizer - probably some bread you've filled up on enough as so to lose interest in what lies ahead - before the mass of somber that follows as the substance of this post. You guys like somber, right? Statistically, a lot of you aren't feeling too wonderful at this purportedly festive time of year, after all. I've actually got some legitimate excuses for my latest bout of lethargy and malaise.

This one's for you, sad people. Relatively raw, just the way you like it. Always gluttons for punishment.

Those of you in any way familiar with the subject matter of my work have doubtlessly noticed my fixation on death. To call it an obsession would be fair. There are worse things to be obsessed with than mortality. Trivial things, for the broadest example. Death isn't trivial. The very cessation of being - of consciousness, of experience, of sensation, of memory - is something that haunts everybody at some point or another. And it's not even an exclusively human experience. Not all animals may necessarily experience or be capable of experiencing existential crises, and arguably, that's something to be envied. But many of them still grieve. There's nothing uniquely human about grief.

One day or another, our tenses all shift from present to past. He was. She was. They were. They are no longer. They are not.

I have a complex history with death, be it that of a relative, teacher, acquaintance, friend, or pet. Only one case of an individual's demise that I can recall can be said to have been taken poorly. That individual was not human. Whenever people I've known have died, I've always felt a little bit numb. Perhaps a little guilty that I didn't know them better, or didn't spend more time with them when I could have. That guilt doesn't go away, but you learn to push it down and ignore it. I feel like letting it go entirely would do a disservice to the deceased. Even though they're gone - it's not like they exist in any capacity by which they could care whether or not I felt guilty. And even if they did, they probably wouldn't want me to feel that way. The deceased I've known weren't a rotten bunch - not a single one of them.

No one escapes death's afterimages in this life. There isn't a single person who doesn't experience the departure of someone or some animal dear to them. And the weight of those deaths grows only heavier, the longer you live. You have to develop coping skills. We don't live in a world where time is allowed to stop - at least, not for long - when faced with mourning.

We all have different rituals. We grieve privately, and we grieve as communities - whether as large as a nation or as small as a family, perhaps only one or two people. We hold funerals. We bury our dead, and we burn them. We come together and cry. And we cry alone, pouring out the poisonous emotions within ourselves by whatever means we can. A matter of necessity. The restoration of homeostasis. Both as an individual, and as a community. You can't milk mourning forever - that's a disservice too.

I don't grieve like that. After the first death I took poorly, I had to develop stronger coping skills. The next death I faced - it was a relative's that time - I felt nothing. "Oh. I'll never see them again." That thought generally comes packaged with a particularly sharp sense of personal emptiness. It repeats. The repetition only makes it worse. We ache. I don't. The first time that hit me, I wasn't sure how to feel about myself as a person. I was only just getting into my teens back then, after all. How are you really supposed to feel, knowing that people are hurting over the loss of a dear relative, when you yourself don't really feel anything? And this was before some intensely negative formative experiences during my high school years that radically transformed my relationship with death and birthed my obsession with it - with endings.

From a constructive angle, I can really only hope that as a writer, this obsession will allow me to deliver unto you endings that really pack a punch. Endings that leave you thinking or feeling something - endings that haunt. Anything less would be another disappointment.

This year, my holiday season has been poisoned by death. I've found myself faced with two separate forms of grieving, each distinct. Every year, I've felt the so-called 'holiday spirit' less and less. Thanksgiving and Christmas creep up, and while I like the holidays for what they are, I've only felt increasingly numb, and as always, incredibly trapped - the end of each year brings a vivid reminder of how little of actual substance I've accomplished with my life. That I'm nowhere near where I want to be in terms of my writing career, in terms of life experience, and even in terms of geographic location. I am not where I want to be. I am not where I need to be. We had a very warm autumn this year, and winter has been off to a horribly warm start, too. We had the air conditioning on just yesterday, thanks to how uncomfortably hot my bedroom became by mid-morning. And I'm sick again, as I often seem to get at this time of the year. Every day, I see food - and tasty holiday confections - that I want to eat, but can't. At a point in my life where I'm occasionally sick for a month or longer, and find myself ill for an entire week surrounded by things I can't eat, it's impossible not to long for aspect of my youth where I was usually over any illness within a couple of days. And I'm stuck wondering just how much damage my stomach has incurred over the past decade, along with what that means for my future health.

The holiday season. Closing another year with a disheartening reminder of my own fragility and the inhibitions said fragility impresses onto my life and capacity to be who I want to be. There are few things I hate more than having to face this fragility, my distinct limitations as the human being I am - rather than the one I'd rather be - and watching as time continues to tick down as I head toward my thirties, feeling like a complete failure. I'm not the only one in this boat by a long shot - let alone within my own generation, considering how many of us have flat out failed to 'begin our lives' even now due to factors out of our control - but that knowledge isn't really a source of comfort.

As though that weren't enough - or horribly self-indulgent and self-centered enough for me - time came for death to cast its pall across my already pallid season. I'm writing a 'poor me' blog post when talking about the deaths of others. What a creep.

Just a few days before Thanksgiving last month, someone I knew in college was killed in a fatal hit and run. I didn't know Val well enough to call her a friend. She was among the first people I encountered, but never got to know back at the beginning of my freshman year in August of 2002. She was a member of the university's anime club, in which I largely found myself an unwanted silent presence, the whole club being the huge drama bomb that it was - routinely exploding. Most of the older club members flat-out ignored me when I tried to strike up conversation and make some new friends. Among the experiences that inevitably led to my spending much of college holed up in my dorm room as a hermit. Val wasn't one of those people.

She was later in a relationship with a good friend of mine whom I don't hear from too often these days. I hung out with the two of them and another of my good friends a few times before the small social circle I was a part of for much of college largely split apart as we all began to move in our own directions. I drifted, for reference. And that's where I am now, still - grasping at the direction I seek. For the time being, at least, it's out of reach.

My memories of Val at their most vivid were those few times the four of us hung out late at night. She always had a certain eccentric energy around her, and she lived true to herself, regardless of how others saw her. She was a strange one, but in an entirely positive way. That was the sense I got from the little time I spent in her company. I can't go as far as to say we were friends - we weren't even friends on Facebook, and as a result, I was one of the last people to learn of her sudden, tragic death. A week and a half later. We were friendly acquaintances, but she was a good friend to others I knew. I can only imagine their suffering. Mine inevitably pales in comparison - I simply went into a bit of shock upon learning what had become of her. "Oh. I'll never see her again." The usual numbness. And now my memories of college bear a distortion - the nights the four of us hung out, I can recall just how intensely into one another she and my friend were. My other friend and I would roll our eyes and comment that they should get a room already when they were pretty much all over each other in the main room of the apartment, when we hung out there. But I got a strong sense of how deeply the two of them cared for each other then. As someone who's never had a single romantic relationship that wasn't terrible, and who's the definition of a cynic as a result, you would think I would have rolled my eyes at their whole relationship. But I didn't - I was sincerely happy for them at the time, as much as I rolled my eyes at public displays of affection. I was glad they had what they did with each other. And that when they eventually broke up, they remained good friends. If nothing else, at least they seem to have found the woman responsible for Val's death.

I wish this were a more suitable tribute and a better obituary in general. But instead, this was mostly a selfish musing on my own thoughts and feelings - my own shock. But while Val's death made an impact on me, it's not even comparable to so many others, because I simply didn't know her all that well. From what little of her I knew, however, I know without a doubt that she was one of the good ones. My condolences and deepest sympathies go to the Miranda family and all of Val's friends. I really do wish I had more that I could say that didn't come off as entirely inadequate. She deserves better, but in the least, a bit of a tip of the hat here in my little blog is better than nothing, I like to hope.

A week after I learned of Val's tragic death, we had to put my dog down.
Other dogs will tell tales of your glory.
Bastian was fifteen. A Scottish Terrier. We had him for fourteen of those years and probably close to another couple of months, roughly. The above photo was taken when he was ten, before he got sick. Before the numerous health problems he had in the end began to pile up. By the end, he was essentially living in canine hospice care in our house. He was on effective painkilling medication to live his final weeks and months as comfortably as possible. Before that, he cried out in pain on a number of occasions. Every one of those cries cut right through you. We had to keep him wrapped up in little padded dog wraps to deal with his incontinence as well. There were stains, and there was blood. He drifted in an out of a mental fog at times, having gone a little senile. But when he wasn't in that fog, he was still his same old self. And over recent years, he'd given us more than a few scares - every time we thought he was going to die on us, he pulled through and recovered. He even recovered from going deaf for a little while, and what we believe was a stroke. He lived longer than most Scotties ever do. And when it came time for him to go - when it was the humane thing to do, as much as none of us wanted to say goodbye - he went out himself.

He never lost his mischievous, fun-loving personality. He never stopped being protective. Despite his somewhat-senility, he was never unrecognizable as himself. When he passed away, he wasn't defeated by death - rather, death was his conduit away from his pain. I was one of the only two of us in my family who stayed in the room with him, petting him as he passed away. I watched as he slumped over as though he were comfortably napping one last time in the end. As he received his injections and the life left his expression. I continued to pet him as his heart stopped beating. And for the first time, I witnessed death firsthand - it's not the same as finding your fish floating upside down in their tank, or coming home to finding a hamster or gerbil curled up in their cage, gone.

Death hangs over everything in much of my writing. And it's practically a lead character in my upcoming second novel, Project Princess - which I'm hoping to finish in its entirety in 2012. I'd already written about what it was like for the protagonist to not just witness death firsthand, but to witness the transformation someone you've killed undergoes the moment you kill them. My experience of being there with Bastian as he died under my gaze and affection mirrored what I'd already written with eerie exactitude. The moment someone dies in front of you, they transform. They're gone. What you're left with is a shell. A husk. You're no longer with them, and they're no longer with you. You're there with someone who looks just like them - Bastian's fur was just as soft, and he was still warm as I pet him even after his passing. But they're no longer who they were. They're just a body.

As established, I'm generally numb to death. Despite my coping skills, if they can be called that in their twisted nature, watching and feeling my beloved pet die that day, roughly around - a little before or after - 5:30 PM on December 7th, hit me the hardest anything has in years. I came home from the vet's office to fitful sleep, remembering clearly what his fur felt like on my hands for the very last time. Roughly two and a half weeks later now, I can still conjure the sensation of his fur to mind with such vividness that I can nearly feel like I'm petting him again. I can still recall coming home to his half-empty bowl, full of kibble he'd never finish. The frayed nerves everyone had then. My mother throwing out his bed the next morning. He'd already torn it up and gotten more use out of it in the near-year he had it than many dogs did out of beds they had for much of their lives. And now my younger brother is home for the holidays, and his little dog is here with him as usual. She's using Bastian's old food and water bowls. The whole world feels askew.

The most intense listlessness I've felt in years fell over me like a net, and I didn't really feel like doing much of anything for the first week or so after his death. But little-by-little, things are returning to normal. 'Normal,' in this case, meaning that I'm successfully adapting to life without him, after facing just how much of my daily life and thought processes used to revolve around that dog. He was basically my fuzzy younger brother, after all. We had him for more than half of my life. It was my job to look after him at night. Whenever I'd leave my room at night, I'd look out for him to make sure I wouldn't accidentally bump into him. My mornings would pretty much begin with my removing his wrap and taking him outside for a stroll around the yard. I'd take him on walks in the evenings on days when I was awake then. I keep odd hours. Inconsistent in a way that frustrates me. There's still a little tuft of his fur in the corner of my room that I don't really feel inclined to clean up. A reminder that he was here. And since I finally picked up a Nintendo 3DS a little over a month before his death, I'm carrying him with me in both figurative and literal senses, as I managed to get one good low-resolution 3D photo of him with the system before he passed, as well as his face in the built-in Face Raiders game. So he's with me in both my memories and my video game system. Even my memorials are nerdy.

Bastian really was my furry brother, a closer friend than any human being, never a companion more loyal. And to me, he stands as a symbol for over half my life - most of my adolescence up to my late twenties. Bastian was there with me for both the lowest lows and the few high points my life had over those years. He'd met the girl who damaged me tremendously in a way that ultimately became formative in my teen years, largely destroying my ability to love or get too close to anybody. And he'd also met the last girl I loved some years back when I last saw her, before a great distance suffocated all hope I ever had with her. Bastian was an era of my life. And with his death, something vital inside myself has been severed. More than mourning. He was in many ways my strongest tie to this place in North Carolina - I always felt that whenever I finally escaped from here, seeing him again would always be a chief reason to come back and visit - not to diminish the rest of my family, of course. That reason no longer exists, and I feel far, far less tied to Raleigh and North Carolina in general. Part of me really just wants to leave this state and not look back, but the not looking back part's pretty much a no-go as long as I still have family here. Still, with his death, so goes a major era of my life. And I feel as though in order to properly move on and do justice to Bastian in everything that was amazing about him, I need to escape from this place and move forward with my life. I need to succeed as a writer, if only in part as a personal, internal tribute to the dog. You can't spend forever mired in the stagnant era of someone you've lost forever. You just have to keep their memory inside and move forward. And I'm probably doing that for deceased dogs more than any human being I've ever known who's passed away. Apparently that's the kind of person I am, for whatever it means.

We knew he was going to pass away sooner or later, and had many months to prepare ourselves as we looked after him with all of his mounting health problems. But no amount of time was ever going to be enough. And now I have all of these dumb old nicknames and absurd little songs that I used to sing to him, and nothing to do with them. There'll be another dog in time, but they won't be another Bastian. They won't get his songs or his nicknames, but when the time is right, I look forward to meeting them, even though I'll never be as close. I hope to be living another era of my life elsewhere by then. If I can't manage that much, I can't even forgive myself. At least we've got Bastian's ashes with us, so he's with us in a sense, at least for the holidays.

If you can take anything away from the angle of this post, it's that I'm one self-centered bastard. I'd like to hope most writers are that way, but I can't speak for everyone else. I embody too many of the negative stereotypes about writers already, and the funny thing is, that doesn't even really bother me. Stereotypical or not, at least it's authentic. And the fact is, over the past month or so, the world lost a person and a dog whose losses have made the world a worse place. So long, Val. A shame we never got to talk more. So long, Bastian. Looks like I've got no other recourse now but to set the whole world on fire with my words.

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