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Dying Joyfully

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

I haven’t been present for any human deaths, but I was for the passing of my sweet cat Oreo. Once I knew it was time, I created for her—for us—the most loving death. I spent two days sitting with her holding treats in my hand, trying to get her to eat her last bites. On her last day before the vet came to put her down, we watched Eat, Pray, Love and held paws. At the end of the movie Liz says, “Let’s cross over.” Oreo’s passing was our crossing over, not just with sadness but with light and tenderness that honored our time together. I’ve done that for a cat, but I’ve never been able to do it for the death of a relationship—although once I had the chance.

I’d planned to fly to a man’s town and stay with him for four nights. When I booked the trip it was with excitement for what would be a four-day date. But a week and a half before the trip we learned we wanted different things in a relationship. I already had the ticket. Should I still go? In a way, it would be like having a date after you’d broken up which sounded kind of weird. On the other hand, it was a chance to connect with him for what might be the last time. Delight in his body. Hike and run together. Hear about Antarctica and the Amazon. Sit in a fireplace-warmed bar wearing my new off-the-shoulder sweater sipping icy gin & tonics. Lounge over brunch and finally see how long he spent reading the New York Times. I loved the way he said “brunch,” lingering over the “r” rather than the “ch,” the way most people do. I could mindfully live our last date. Go out with a bang. Gorge on the last supper. Treasure him and us knowing we would be gone.

In the conversation when we learned we wanted different things, he told me he’d cleaned his house for me, even his oven. I said with a laugh, “Oh good, then I can crawl inside and kill myself.” An oddly dark thing for me to say. Somehow we got on the topic of the sable furs on his wall. “A clean oven, animal skins…this is all very Silence of the Lambs,” I joked. And yet… And yet I just wanted to get in there. I knew so little about his home—him really—that I was fixated on finding out more. I had one picture taken in his place: him on the sofa in front of a shelf with a few things I couldn’t quite make out: an empty pint glass and what looked like a tiny jar of mayonnaise. When I’d asked him about the jar he’d said it was a jar of aspirin. This is what I had to go on, this tiny jar.

I was obsessed with being there for our death. I told friends I was on a journalistic mission. I wanted to love him and learn him with all that I had. I wanted to know, fully and finally, who this beautiful man was. I was Lloyd Dobler shouting, “I want to get hurt!” George Michael singing “One More Try.” Icarus flying too close to the sun. I wanted to listen to “Blue Monday” and drink enough Sapphire and tonics until it all made sense. Touch the animal pelts on the wall. See that big jar of aspirin that looked like a tiny jar of mayonnaise. Crawl inside his oven and kill myself, so to speak. I wanted to be there for the death, not just the funeral.

I’ve been to enough funerals. I’ve broken up with a man on a whim before going on a run, holding my iPod the whole time. I’ve sat in a car with my high school boyfriend flipping a coin to decide if we should keep going out—we dated for another month. Decades later I listened to Carmina Burana as the choir seemed to yell “Go! Go! Go!” Desperate to break up, I stayed for months. I’ve ended it in a therapist’s office, a stairwell, an entryway, and on a park bench. I’ve been dumped in bed by one man after hosting an American Idol party and by another who told me he was like his cowboy boots, “a wanderer.” Once after being dumped I shoved a pack of tissues into a man’s hand, “in case you ever have an emotion.” I’ve sat on my tiny couch and told a man I didn’t “want to go through any more rough waters.” I’ve sat on that same couch two apartments later when yet another man asked how I thought it was going, and then listened to him tell me he didn’t think it was going so well. I’ve been to funerals on the phone, email, text, and Facebook messenger. When one man broke up with me after attending his board event, I said we should share what we liked about each other “to keep it positive.” I’ve done that shtick a few times. Sometimes it works, and sometimes things can’t be positive. They just hurt.

Find love or die trying.

In the end I didn’t go. The afternoon I would have flown out I won a dozen red roses on Buy Nothing. When I walked to the woman’s house on the water to pick them up, I couldn’t find her exact address. I stood still and looked down the cul de sac to the water and twilight-lit mountains in the distance. Then she emerged with the bouquet. I don’t know why, but I started running towards this stranger. When I slowed down and approached her I laughed and said, “I feel like we’re in a rom-com.” She handed me the bouquet and I walked home like a prom queen. Then a friend called and we talked and laughed through the time I would have arrived at the airport, gone through security, and waited for the flight. I lit a candle and put the roses in a vase. After we hung up, as the flight was taking off, I took a shower. Then I ate a small bowl of vegetarian chili and watched Annie Hall for the millionth time.

The weekend that we would have been together passed. One night I went to a friend’s open mic where I had two Long Islands and laughed with my friends. I went up to one of the singers and told him I liked his “90’s vibe, very Collective Soul.” The next night I went to happy hour with another friend. Both nights I wore the new off-the-shoulder sweater. I helped out at the senior center holiday bazaar. I biked up hills and hiked in the woods. I finished three books. I ate a beautiful Israeli cabbage salad and homemade chocolate chip cookies. I walked in the sun and crunched leaves. I lit incense, took baths, and slept deeply. I went with friends to tour a new vegetarian chicken nugget factory because “no harm, no fowl.” I ran farther and faster than I had in weeks. The night that would have been our last I watched the sun set from barre—“shoulders back, open heart.” Then I went home and drank Champagne and hung Christmas lights. I held plank to over a minute of DeVotchKa’s “How It Ends” before dancing to MGMT and Ladytron while my very-much-alive cat Dollie looked at me like, “Get it, mom.” I let the roses wilt until it was time to throw them away. That’s the way it goes.

Beautiful man, I wasn’t there for our death but I went to the funeral, and it was lovely and sad and sucky and celebratory and all the things that funerals are. The monk says that contemplating death will enable us to live life more meaningfully. So thinking about the end of a relationship before it ends will help us live that relationship more meaningfully? And what about our next relationship? Our next death? All we can take with us are the imprints of our actions: our virtuous days, love, wisdom, and compassion. These Buddhist teachings I’ve committed myself to for the past six weeks are actually from a book called Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully. Could our death have been joyful? Could we have crossed over as seemingly seamlessly as Oreo and I had? I guess we’ll never know. But to me the days we lived were meaningful. And that night I danced my ass off in my apartment filled with roses, books, candles and Christmas lights was its own crossing over. It was even joyful.

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