Elsie May had one of her legs amputated last weekend. The dementia has been a frenzied mole digging tunnels through her brain for a long time now. If her circulation was that horrible, why didn’t they just give her some extra sleepytime chewies and let her drift away?
Elsie May is my grandmother, but that doesn’t matter anymore. She is so profoundly impaired that she doesn’t know who, where or what she is. If you were to ask her the question: are you human, plant, or chair? She would stare at the air for five minutes and then answer “I dunno, Marge.”
And she doesn’t know, she really doesn’t. All she knows is that there are people named Marge. Nurses named Marge, doctors named Marge. Her dog is Marge, her lunch is Marge, my aunts and my uncles are Marges, and I will be Marge too when I visit her next weekend. If you ask her what her name is, she will tell you she is Marge, though of course she isn’t and never was.
Who is Elsie May now? She is nobody. She exists somewhere between life and death, and any bubbles of earthly awareness that remain float up and pop on the hospital ceiling, while a confusing parade of Marges show up to interrogate the body below, change its cathetar bag, shout in its face Do you know who I am, do you know why you’re here, do you know, Elsie May, do you know?
Once upon a teenage time, I adopted a calico cat named Ruby. My boyfriend and I picked her out from the SPCA. We liked her because she was sitting in the back of the kennel looking imperious while her entirely orange siblings stuck their paws through the cage all desperate for love. Desperation is never attractive, not even in kittens.
I loved Ruby the best I could. I gave her baths, brushed her fur, made her crowns of chained daisies. I swaddled her like an infant and sang to her, read her original poetry, flossed her teeth.
We were connected, she and I, a string of love threading through our hearts. If I was upset, she’d jump on my chest and soothe me with sweet chirps, press her forehead against mine.
Ruby. The sweetest and most beautiful cat that ever was.
“I hate that fucking cat,” Kris would say. Ruby was already old when we met, and she became more senile by the day. I tried explaining things to Kris, how she was actually the sweetest cat alive, but he didn’t understand. Eventually I had to admit that the dignified, emotionally attuned cat of yore was gone, replaced with a boney, lizard-eyed creature who spent her life stalking Kris around the house with a constant drone of croaky meows. As soon as Kris came along she had no use for me any more, she only wanted him. To meow at him. To meow and meow for no reason, to sit at his feet, to lay on his face in the night and to lick his toes with her cold morning tongue until he woke kicking and yelling NO! NO, NOT AGAIN, FUCK!
The harder she wanted him, the more he despised her.
“Why can’t she leave me alone?”
“She loves you. She wants to be close friends with you.”
“I can’t wait until she dies. She’s a horrible little animal.”
I asked my uncle if he felt sad when his mother called him Marge. Yes, he said, of course. He bristled, looked at me like it was the dumbest and most insensitive question ever, which I didn’t understand, because how would I know he didn’t want his mother forgetting who he was and calling him Marge? How could anyone ever know whether a person would like that or not? I would love it if an ancient, demented amputee version of my mother came back to life and called me Marge. Yes, I would say, I am Marge. And this Marge loves you.
Think of being just another Marge in a sea of Marges. If that’s not comforting, I don’t know what is.
When Eli was two weeks old, I was nursing him in the kitchen. I looked out the window and saw a mound of calico fur in the corner of the yard.
She was still alive, but one of her cheeks was abscessed. She’d been in a fight with something, another cat, a raccoon maybe. I picked her up and could smell the infection, sweet and fetid. She was limp. She stared into my eyes.
I called Kris sobbing. He was on his way home from work anyway, so I met him in the driveway with the baby and the dying cat in my arms.
In the waiting room of the Saanich Animal Hospital I held her, rocked her gently, sang her Joni Mitchell songs while the other patrons side-eyed me and shifted in their seats. But she loved it. Ruby always loved my singing.
I want to tattoo you, I want to shampoo you, I want to renew you again and again, applause applause, life is our cause, when I think of your kisses my mind see-saws!
In the examination room, the vet held her up, put her face in front of his.
“Smell that?” he asked.
He explained things. This was an 18 year old cat, blah blah blah, cats don’t live forever blah, intravenous antibiotics would cost $1200 for the blah blah and the blah blah blah, and she would probably die anyway.
Kris tried to contain his glee. He couldn’t. The relief was all over his face. He was delighted that this day had finally come.
“So what are our options,” he asked, just to formalize things.
The needle was big.
Ruby wasn’t scared at all. She just wanted to look at me. She was calm, resigned to her fate.
It is time, said her heart to mine, let me go now.
I can’t, said my heart, I need to believe that some cats do live forever.
As the vet approached with the put down medicine, I backed away and held onto Ruby. I felt like I was murdering her, or letting her be murdered, and I couldn’t do it.
“Do you want me to hold her?” Kris asked, and I nodded. He took her out of my arms. She turned her head so she could still see me. In went the needle.
Her pupils grew wide as the opiates flooded her. No, I whispered. I looked at Kris.
His eyes were firehouse red, his chin quivering.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Then he looked down at Ruby, kissed the tip of her nose.
“Goonight, sweet girl,” he said.
I cried the whole way home. I cried the whole evening and all through the night and Kris held my head against his chest and whispered shhhhhh, shhhhhhhh, it’s okay, it’s okay. Everybody dies darling, she just went to sleep.
“I should have held her,” I sobbed over and over, “I’m a coward, I let her down. You shouldn’t have held her when she died. You hated her.”
“Yeah, I kind of did. But I might miss her.”
“No you won’t.”
“No, I won’t. But you will. And I’m sorry. Shhhhh, don’t cry.”
The first day of missing my antidepressants is always great. My mood changes, but it’s just a slight shift, the perfect amount of a shift. I can cry without wanting to jump off a bridge, I can laugh genuinely, I can listen to music and everything sounds fuller, deeper, my cells open up, I feel all the colours of songs. This is nice, I tell myself, you should always be this way – what are you thinking numbing yourself out with those pills? Fuck ’em!
Day two is a little worse, but not so bad. There are the brain zaps and the jitters, but it feels good not to be numb. See, you just smiled at someone genuinely – isn’t that better? Fuck the pills!
By day three I manage to forget that I have ever taken pills at all. It has slipped entirely out of my awareness. But then. Then. Then the freight train loaded with self-loathing and tearbarrels comes roaring toward me, and it’s too late, I’ve fucked up, I’m going to get hit and there is going to be some kind of explosion on impact.
Yesterday was a Day Three. The whole morning was fine. I watered the yard, read a book, folded laundry. In the afternoon, Eli went to my sister’s. I used the time to clean the kitchen. I washed out the fridge. She needs music, said the narrator, she needs to put on something good. She will put on Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man – that one.
I put on I’m Your Man and finished cleaning the fridge. I put it on again and reorganized the cutlery drawer. And again for the oven, again for the scrubbing of the cabinets, again for the pantry shelves, again for the fucking motherfucking emptying of that cunt of a dishwasher with a cunt and a cunt and a CUNT YOU, you fucking CUNT!
I’d crawl to you baby
And I’d fall at your feet
And I’d howl at your beauty
Like a dog in heat
And I’d claw at your heart
And I’d tear at your sheet
I’d say please, please
I’m your man
A plate in the sink.
“You like to sing me this song? Fuck you!”
If you want a father for your child
Or only want to walk with me a while
Across the sand
I’m your man
So much smashing, so many things.
Look at you, said my reflection in the microwave, unhinged again, smashing your own dinnerware like a fool.
“I’m not a fool, I’m a normal person!”
This is the reason you need your pills, you idiot, because you can’t be a normal person without them anymore.
Take your pills right now, or I’m telling the whole world that you are a sad, beastly lunatic and nobody will ever love you ever again.
And take them with water so they don’t get stuck in your throat.
“If grandma gets the other leg amputated, maybe someone can put a handle over her belly button so she can be picked up like a suitcase,” I suggested to my uncle.
“That’s not funny, Chels.”
“Okay. Sorry, Marge.”
After we put Ruby down, we brought her home in a cardboard box provided by the animal hospital. The plan was to bury her in the back yard, but when Kris tried to dig a hole we discovered that it would be impossible, the soil wasn’t soil at all, it was rock.
“Let’s just take her back to the vet and get her cremated,” I said, “this is silly.”
“I’m not paying a hundred and fifty bucks for them to spend three minutes baking her in the oven,” Kris said, “No fucking way.”
The compromise was that we would hike into the woods at Mount Doug Park and bury her there.
It was pouring rain that day. We pulled into the parking lot, which was empty. It was dinner hour. Eli was strapped to my chest in a carrier and my umbrella was being pounded as we hiked into the brush.
Kris had a shovel in one hand and the box with the dead cat in the other, his raincoat soaked.
“This spot looks nice,” I said. It was a natural divet in the ground beside the thick and ancient stump of a nursing tree.
“Okay, let’s do this.”
He tried to dig. He tried and tried, but he couldn’t get deep enough, the bed of the forest was too wet and packed with pebbles and old roots.
“This is gonna work!” Kris said.
“I don’t want to do this anymore. We’re going to get arrested.”
We had already been though this fight. I said it was illegal to bury your pets in provincial parks, Kris said who cares. Now he was determined to prove that it could be done. I stood there for half an hour watching him sweat and swear at his shovel as the rain came down harder and harder.
When the baby woke up and started to cry, Kris was so irritated that he threw the shovel across the forest.
“Fuck this!” he said, “Fuck that cat!”
“What? Fuck you!” I said. I picked up the box of cat and stomped back to the car, furious.
The car was locked. My fury rose. I was standing in the pouring rain with the cat love of my life rotting in a shoebox and my baby damp and screaming. I marched back into the woods, found Kris leaning against a tree smoking a cigarette.
“You’re smoking a cigarette? I’m locked out of the car, you asshole!”
“Oh, now I’m an asshole? I just spent the last hour trying to give your stupid cat a dignified burial and you’re going to call me an asshole?”
“Take some pills, Chelsea. You’re insane.”
We drove home in silence. When we pulled into the driveway, Kris stayed in the car with the engine running.
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
“Give me the box, I’m taking the cat to get cremated. Now are you happy?”
In retrospect the fights we had were as beautiful as any of Kris’ sweet love letters. The quiet intensity of his anger, the gathering storm of it and the way he held it patiently in his mouth for days before he let me have it in these logical, poetic bursts of rage.
I wonder what he was thinking that day, driving to the animal crematorium with Ruby in the cardboard box beside him. If someone had told him that he was not long for this world either, if they had shown him a picture of himself in the morgue at the Jubilee hospital, one eye open and one closed, the trickles of blood dried under his nose, would he have believed it?
When people ask me how he died, I tell them it was a cardiac arrest. Nobody questions this – most people accept it as a synonym for ‘heart attack’. Do people really want to hear the truth? I’m sure some do. It’s salacious, isn’t it, when a brilliant young husband dies as a result of his secret habits.
How could she not have known?
She must have known, of course she did.
It’s those children I really feel sorry for.
Yes, those poor children.
Sometimes I think I may never love again. Sometimes I know I won’t.
Elsie May was a real person once. Brilliant and beautiful, she gave birth to five children and worked full-time as a nurse at the Victoria General Hospital in the 1950s, the only woman in her tawny neighbourhood whose toddlers went to daycare.
She met Kris once. It was right when she was really sliding into the dementia. We had lunch on my uncle’s patio, and she sat with her little Yorkie on her lap. She wore the same bemused and elegant expression she’d always had, and nodded politely when we spoke to her, but the words were gone by then.
“She’s still quite beautiful,” Kris said to me in the car on the way home.
“She is. She has kind of a timeless grace about her, doesn’t she?”
“If you look like that when you’re old, I’ll still ravage you every day.”
“I know. I’ll probably look more like a confused elephant, though. Will you still love me?”
“You betcha, baby.”