Life’s Impermanence

Reflections on Love, Loss, and the Illusion of Control

Kori
Human Parts

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Photo credit: Flickr shenghunglin

There is no number of kisses that bring the dead back from the grave. There is no number of kisses that preserve some externalized, tangible memory of the dead. If I had known it would be my last hug, my last kiss, it truly wouldn’t have changed anything.

I don’t remember when I became so neurotically fixated on kissing my two little five-pound Yorkies. But I do remember that since the day they arrived, I’ve been terrified of them dying. When I feel that much inner turmoil over something so out of my control, my natural inclination is to try and resolve the tension, even if I am unaware that’s what I’m trying to do.

So, maybe if I touched my lips to their little faces enough times in the duration of their short lives — and you somehow add up all the time it takes to give those kisses into actual seconds spent loving them, and then convert those seconds to minutes, and then hours, and then days — maybe if there were enough days spent with my lips pressed against their furry little cheeks, it would somehow preserve them.

The night before Aivah died, even though it was not planned, I knew it was going to be the last night I’d spend with her next to me in bed. Aivah’s kidneys were failing, and she was in pain. I had been in and out of the vet clinic with her that week, but that night, the clinic was closed. I cradled her in blankets and tried to keep her as comfortable as possible. I molded my body in an awkward C-shape around her blanket nest and tried to position myself so that I was still holding her but not making her more uncomfortable. I held her and kissed her for as long as I could.

I was emotionally exhausted, my muscles were starting to ache, my heart was breaking, and I desperately wished I didn’t need to sleep. I wish I hadn’t turned over. I wish I had stayed up and held her. The rest of Aivah’s life consisted of hours, and I turned away to relieve my own discomfort so that I could sleep. So that I could make the decision to euthanize her the next day.

Aivah was tiny, little, and small — and often mistaken for a buttered biscuit. Her paws were meaty and substantial for her size. They were squishy and soft. I would rub her toe-beans like little worry stones. Her ears tried to stand tall but flopped over when her cottony coat weighed them down, and when you kissed them, it felt like you were mushing your lips into squishy baby cheeks.

She was my little comedian and carried a mischievous glint in her eyes. She would yeet her whole self into a bag of popcorn because if you could fit, you would, too. She made me laugh. We had adventures, but she wasn’t an adventurer.

It was more like she was on a mission. If you complete the mission, you get the treats, and best of all, you get to go home — where the treats are. She lived in four different states, climbed (well, was carried to the top of) Mt. Hood in Oregon, swam in the Willamette, dipped her toes in the Sandy River Delta, and slid down a very large snowy hill at a truck stop. That was an accident.

The day I picked her up from the airport, when she made her grand entrance into my life, she was six months old, and she was wet. The attendant passed her kennel to me while she was still inside, and I found that her water dish had spilled mid-flight. I immediately cut her out of her sopping-wet T-shirt and tucked her into my own; that’s when she melted into my heart. I gave her kisses and held her that way, tucked into my shirt and nestled into the crook of my neck the whole ride home.

My mom died just a month after I turned eleven. I don’t remember the last time I kissed her, but I do remember I was wet.

It was the Fourth of July, and I had been swimming all day at a friend’s house. When my dad and I got home that night, it was quiet; the fireworks were over. We walked into the house, and the phone rang. My dad didn’t bother turning on any lights; he just walked straight to his bedroom. I stood there for a few moments, still in my wet bathing suit with my soggy braid pulled over my shoulder and nestled into the crook of my neck. Then I flipped on the light as I walked down the hallway to his bedroom.

I saw my dad sitting on the side of his bed with his head hanging down and the hallway light illuminating the phone in his hand. He told me to go get dressed because we had to go to the hospital. My mom was dying.

My dad and I walked through the double doors that led to the wing of the hospital, where my mom had been kept in a medically induced coma for the last four months. Friends and family I hadn’t seen in years somehow beat us there and lined both sides of the hallway in a gauntlet-type fashion.

It felt like the last scene of Titanic, when the ornate double doors swung open to the entire cast lining the hall, smiling and waving at Rose as she made her way up the Grand Staircase to Jack, who was standing there waiting to kiss her one last time. But no one was smiling or waving, and Jack was my mom, hooked up to a ventilator, and it didn’t end with a kiss.

The nurse came in and explained what was going to happen as she started removing my mother from life support. She told us the heart-rate monitor would count down as my mom relied on her own final breaths. Dad asked me to come over and kiss her goodbye. He asked me if I had any last words to say to her before she died.

Fight, flight, freeze. I froze. I panicked.

My cheeks burned with embarrassment because my legs wouldn’t move. With every second I lost to silence, I sank deeper into myself. The weight of guilt paralyzed me, weighed me down from my core, from my chest. My eyes were already stinging from swimming with them open underwater all day, and now they filled with tears. I felt like I was underwater again. I held my breath. There was a stillness, a deafening of my senses. I could hear, but the sounds felt far away, as if they were just above the surface.

Say something! I thought. Get up! Move. Please move. Maybe she would open her eyes.

What if, for the last four months, all she needed was to hear my voice? What if touching my lips to her cheek would fill her with enough magic to open her eyes, to breathe on her own, to pull those tubes out of her throat and sit up? If she knew I was there and didn’t abandon her, if she knew I was there and I cared, maybe she would wake up, and this would be over. I just needed to kiss her. I wish I had kissed her.

The rhythm from the beeping of the heart rate monitor pulled me back to the surface, where the sounds were, where my breath was — where my mission was. I turned away from my mom and fixed my eyes on the numbers, counting backward from ninety-eight.

I kissed Aivah as she took her final breath. When the vet left the room, I held her on my chest and wrapped us under the blue knitted blanket that we took on all of our adventures — all of our missions. I held her, and I kissed her soft ears and substantial paws, and I cried. I realized that no number of kisses had prepared me for this moment. No number of kisses would have made this moment any easier. She was gone.

Compulsively touching my lips to her fur didn’t save her. It didn’t keep her from dying. It wasn’t the magic, it wasn’t the secret, it wouldn’t have kept my mom from dying.

There is no number of kisses that would have kept my mom from dying.

And when my baby died, so did that guilt.

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