July 30, 2013

It’s only life

George Carlin had a bit in his 10th HBO special (“40 Years in Comedy,” 1997) where he recounted his experiences as a pet owner. The piece included a curious amount of helpful and accurate veterinary information regarding common ailments that afflict dogs and cats, but the most pointed commentary (other than the part about the cat and dog that had an interspecies homosexual relationship) dealt with mortality.

Death is “part of the deal,” he explained. “You’re supposed to know it in the pet shop. It is going to end badly. You’re purchasing a small tragedy.” Carlin’s talent was such that he could bring curious and warm humor to a universally painful experience.

As a lifelong pet owner, I was impressed by Carlin’s treatment. The fact that he chose to dedicate so much of his performance to the topic struck me as maybe even more subversive than his famous bit about “the seven words you can’t say on television.” Honestly, how did he get away with talking about canine hip dysplasia and feline lower urinary tract disease in a live, national comedy broadcast? Brilliant.

A few weeks ago, one of my 17-year-old cats exhibited sudden and drastic signs of physical decline. He stopped eating and retreated to a remote corner under the bed in the back room. When they are ill, cats will wander off so they can suffer and die in solitude.

After a few days of close observation and occasional force-feeding, I was ready to hear that it was time to put him down, so I called the vet and made an appointment. I really didn’t expect to bring him home, and I was heartbroken.

Rocky (Rocket J. Toebiter) has been one of the finest pets I have ever known. He and his five brothers and sisters were born in my apartment on March 26, 1996. The runt of the litter, it was clear, very early on, that Rocky had chosen me. I was determined to keep his brother, the orange, short-haired tabby, but every time I walked into the room, Rocky, a fluffy little explosion of black-and-white fur, would walk straight toward me. It didn’t take long for me to realize I would keep both of them. Watching them play and fight and sleep on top of each other over these many years has been an extraordinarily enjoyable experience. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it end.

I found strange solace for this transition in Kurt Vile’s latest CD, Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze. The title track is a gentle epic of acoustic guitar virtuosity, a simple, compelling figure repeating for eight or nine minutes while the singer mumble-sings about waking up and thinking about what “wisecracks” he’s “gonna drop along the way” today. Somewhere in the middle, there’s a disconnected comment, “It’s only dying.” Starting my mornings with this song was like throwing a soft, thick blanket over my shoulders. It provided a curious and profound comfort.

A blood test revealed that Rocky’s liver and kidney functions were sufficient to attempt treatment. The doctor gave us some pills to stimulate his appetite, some antibiotics and some prescription food. Over the next few days, he showed significant improvement. Astonishing, actually. I may need to give him subcutaneous fluids for the rest of his life, but I’m willing to appreciate every day that I can keep him happy, healthy and pain-free, putting off, for as long as possible, the inevitable tragedy that his life supposedly represents.

I don’t agree with George Carlin on this point, however. Yes, the end of life is sad. We are destined to lose anything and everything we hold onto: pets, property, dreams, relationships, memories, everything. Any effort to assert control and permanence over our circumstances is going to end in disappointment, sooner or later. The tragedy is in holding on.

I made a point to go see Kurt Vile at Forecastle. I’m not a fan of the cattle-call music festivals, but, given the opportunity, I wanted to hear him play that song in person. The timing was just right. I can’t imagine anyone else in that massive crowd had anything like the same feeling or reason to be there, but for that slowly passing moment, I did not feel so all alone ...

For further consideration: This would be a good time to play Negativland’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Special Edit Radio Mix).” You can find it on YouTube. Snuggles.