I can’t stand it when people say “He’s in a better place.”
When I hear the “better place” platitude, I hear echoes of my then young son trying to make sense of his father’s recent suicide, “If daddy is in a better place now, then shouldn’t we go there, too?” It’s preeminently logical: If dead daddy is in a better place, then his suicide is not only positive, but commendable; it follows that we should go and do likewise, so we will be in that better dead place, too. Hopefully, with him.
It’s a nightmare construct for the newly single mom trying to make sense of the unthinkable. Suicide makes for a tidy Shakespearean ending, but no part of it is romantic for the real life widow trying to move forward with her young children. That phrase makes me tense and crazy.
Maybe it’s supposed to make us feel better about him and where he is, but he’s dead. We, on the other hand, are not. We’re here and need to find a way to feel better about being here, living without him. Our journey continues here; his journey begins elsewhere. Selfishly, we don’t want him in that place, we want him here in this place. With us. Now. Always. We don’t want to reach across the distance with our hearts, we want to reach him with our arms. Healing bridges that gap between what we wish and what is, and that becomes a place of joy. But it doesn’t start with joy, it starts with sadness, pain and fear. It starts with goodbye.
Goodbye gives us access to express our sorrow and experience the absence, but it’s painful. Death rips the fabric of our connection, a gash that we cannot mend by pretending it did not tear. The Japanese art of Kintsugi highlights with gold the repaired places of broken pottery. The brokenness is not ignored or forgotten, and the pottery with the golden seams becomes a piece of great beauty and strength. As our hearts break open, we say goodbye, which is itself an invitation for healing.
But it’s hard to say goodbye, even when it’s a small, see-you-soon, aloha goodbye.
Years ago, when our oldest son was heading back to college after the holidays, our youngest burst into tears before the car had even left the driveway en route to the airport. I tried to comfort him by letting him know his brother would be home soon – if not for spring break, then definitely for summer. The little one looked up at me, trying to conceal the tears, “I am not crying because he’s leaving, Mommy. I’m just jealous that he gets to get away from you two!”
Totally understandable. And remarkably effective at diverting attention from how miserable the goodbye is to how subpar my parenting is.
In any event, I remind him to do his homework, because not only is it a valuable constructive avoidance technique, but it will be his ticket to getting into college and away from us. Otherwise, you’d better believe that I’m going to cling to the ankles of our youngest like nobody’s business. Because these goodbyes are not getting any easier with each successive child.
A few days ago, once again after the family car heads to LAX with one of our loved sons on board, this same boy – now taller than I am – walks into the kitchen. He looks at the chef’s knife in my hand and the pile of veggies I’ve accumulated on the cutting board in front of me, and he asks if I’m okay. “I’m fine,” I say. “I’m just crying because of the onions.”
He looks again. “Mom,” the boy says gently, putting his arm around me, “those are carrots.”
No, it’s not easy to say the little goodbyes, let alone the big goodbye.
It’s even hard to say goodbye to cats, and I don’t like cats. I rarely read the email messages my own mother sends with “cat-lovers” in the subject line. Ages ago, I had an orange and white tabby I adored, mostly because he was so much like a dog. Yet somehow I have become that crazy cat lady.
We have two handsome indoor cats. Brothers, because that’s how our family rolls. In my defense, I will explain that I “inherited” these cats. They came with my husband. Who, by the way, is allergic to the cats. As are three of our children. And yet, the cats stay.
They remain indoors because there is too much cat-loving wildlife endemic to the area to let them outside safely. The cats have all their claws, as evidenced by the shreds and snags on their sofa. One of the cats suffers from kidney stones. He eats a prescription diet, but sometimes he pees on the sofa to get our attention. Occasionally, he pees on the children, and that really gets our attention. The cats have commandeered the family room by marking the sectional sofa for themselves, rendering the space uninhabitable for the rest of us. Notwithstanding any of the marketing slogans, nothing miraculously removes the cat urine. Trust me. We’ve tried everything. At some point the smell overwhelms all sensibility, and the only reasonable solution is to replace the furniture. Those cats are on their fourth sofa. The kids remain protective of the little beasts, especially when they hear some of the local cat-lovers howling in the canyon. I am tempted to leave the back door open and call, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,” but those sweet boys won’t let me.
All of which is to say that it’s a dog’s life for the rotten cats. They have a new sofa, specialty cat food and a variety of warm laps on which to curl up and sleep (or pee) – laps playing xBox, watching Netflix or NBA games, sometimes reading a book. Life here is a pretty darn good place for those cats. I cannot imagine a so-called “better place” for them. They already get the VIP treatment.
I don’t like those cats. I swear I don’t. But my sons do. And the kids, I like.
Which makes it that much harder to tell the boys when it’s time to say goodbye to their cat. His kidneys are failing him, and he hasn’t touched his food in days. He lets me hold him for his final hours, and then we decide that the kindest approach will be to take him to the vet, where we say our final goodbye.
Reluctantly, we adjust to our here without him. The rotten cat remains in our hearts and our conversation and I’m starting to think that’s about as tangible evidence of his presence as anything else, along with the snags and stains on his sofa. We tell stories, we cry, and I make an appointment with the upholstery cleaners. We laugh, we love, and we celebrate life together. It’s not the same without him, but still, this place is pretty darn good.
To love and then to let go is one of Life’s hardest challenges. Maybe death’s power lies only in its ability to separate us temporarily. We don’t really know the answer to what’s next. Not yet, anyway. Maybe he is in a better place, but for us, for now, in this place, we live with the mystery.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And gentle good-byes.