The closest thing to an afterlife I believe is memory. Our cat, Burl transitioned from existing to not existing Tuesday morning. The way she died was gentle, at home on her pillow at the foot of our bed, and administered with tenderness by Dr. Evelyn Ivey, from Peace For Pets. She tucked her head into her paws after sedation, and eventually quit breathing. I feel like there’s a fist in my chest and lead pipe’s been laid in my throat. I’ve cried too much, I can’t cry enough.
Brian says he sees her in his peripheral vision. She’s at the edges, outside the center of his gaze. I keep looking for her in all the places she is not…at the end of my greeting when I come through the door at night, or by my foot when I try not to disturb her as I roll over in my sleep.
Memories are what we get. They wash up on the rocks in my dreams, they give me another moment with what’s gone, and they come when they want, not when called. They are slippery, oftentimes untrue and wholly unreliable. I know this to be true because the cat I loved more than anything in this world, the one before Burl, I can barely remember. Old pictures, the lock of hair, the rattle of her ashes and bits of bone in a wooden box do not bring her essence back to me. Memory cannot be kept as a relic collecting dust on a shelf; it has a life of its own.
My novel, WHAT YOU CARRY, began as a collection of childhood stories I did not want to forget. There was something I needed, something I wanted to wring out of it, something I thought I needed to understand. I wanted to be able to touch my childhood without being pulled under by sadness and shame, or to become brazen in the re-telling, and treat traumatic events as outrageous anecdotes. Basically, I needed to tell it I loved it anyway. Naturally I thought I was writing a memoir.
Not too far into the process, I realized I could not know anything that anyone else thought, and that my own recollections were incongruent with an expedient timeline. Plus I really wanted to write internal dialogues. So then I thought I was writing creative nonfiction. But when a completely fictional character, Uncle Ray drove up in his rusty pickup, I realized there was no way I could abandon him. I plowed through a first draft, queried the daylights out of it, and when I received very little interest, rewrote the manuscript with an editor. After writing this novel, I see the past is peripheral. It has to be in order for me to be present. It flickers and taunts at the edge of my vision but I no longer exhaust myself trying to pull it the center. As Johnny Thunders sang, You can't put your arms around a memory.