Kaya stood in the upstairs hallway staring down the steps that lead to the living room like it was a black diamond run in Park City. At 12 years old, she was near the end for a Labrador retriever, and I’d been mourning her death since she had turned 11 and started showing signs of age—like being suddenly afraid to descend the stairs even though she was healthy and very much alive. I do this—prepare to cut my losses if I can see an end is inevitable.
Previously I’d found her on alert in the upstairs bathroom barking at the closed shower curtain and I’d thought she’d trapped a burglar in the house. “Good girl!” I whispered from the hallway. I then crept in and dashed the curtain aside as if that was the sensible thing to do had there been a fully clothed man standing in the tub. Kaya just blinked at the porcelain tiles and shampoo bottles and kept barking.
I realized then that she continually confused the doorway to the bathroom for the top of the stairs and by the time she realized her mistake, she couldn’t figure out how to turn around. I rescued her periodically, helping her back up like an 18-wheeler stuck on a dead-end street.
Because she was 12, I’d tried on for size in my imagination the pain of living without her loyal company and by loyal company I mean silky ears and the exuberant welcome home when I’d been gone 5 minutes. It was an effort to inoculate myself against inevitable loss by exposing myself to pain in low doses.
If you have ever loved someone you knew was destined to leave your life first—pet, parent, partner, lover, friend—you too, may have done this. It’s the opposite of looking forward to say, Thanksgiving with the family, or the annual vacation at the beach, this anticipatory grief.
And I’ve been doing this all my life not because someone I love is going to die but because I am.
It may be decades from now, but I’ve been careful not to love this life so much that I’ll regret or resist having to leave. It’s as if when I was born someone whispered, “You are going to love this world with all your heart, little baby, but don’t get too attached. The price of entry is the heartbreaking knowledge you can’t stay.”
A visceral awareness of my visitor’s status has permeated my entire life. It has made me acutely aware of the transitory nature of all things. The earth’s molten core will cool, the moon will escape her orbit, the sun will nova, and in a short one billion years, the planet will no longer sustain life. Oh, and relationships end, kids leave home, dogs die.
The heartbreaking reality is that everything you love is on loan.
Is it possible to live your whole life already gone? Only half here? Trying to avoid the grief of letting go? I may not be alone in this.
When we lived in New Zealand, my American friend Melinda and I visited a woman whose family owned one of the most successful businesses in the country. She too, was American, but she had married a Kiwi and made New Zealand her permanent home. Being that Melinda and I were both from the States, she asked each of us how long we planned to stay. Melinda said they’d moved to Auckland to raise their kids, they’d bought a house, and would be staying for the duration.
My family had come for an America’s Cup campaign, so my response was, “three years.” With total candor, this woman responded, “I ask because I’ve learned the hard way that I don’t want to become friends with someone who is going to leave.” I was deeply embarrassed. (Someone doesn’t want to be my friend! And she said so! Out loud!), but I was also impressed by her self-awareness. I was living the same way just covertly. I understood she and I would not be having coffee in the future, and therefore neither of us would regret my return to the States.
But the cost of my withholding was brought home to me by a tarot card reader. Hair in a beehive arrangement, glasses dangling on a chain, she spread the soft cottony cards on her kitchen table and studied them. Princesses fell on their heads from high towers, lightning bolts split hearts in two, and there was of course, at least one fool. Surveying my life in the cards with a practiced eye she took a puff on her cigarette and said, “Well, I don’t see any kickass joy.”
I was momentarily distracted from the truth of that statement by the term kickass. It sounded intense but belligerent. Joy as a bully. “Get out of the way people! Kickass joy coming through!”
But she was right. To allow kickass joy, I’d have to trust that what’s to come after each inevitable loss—after raising kids, after a career, after losing a soulmate, a love, after life itself—will be just as good as what is. I’d have to trust that loss itself is an illusion.
Seriously. Who does that? Can you?
I tried really hard to achieve this in 2006. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong that year. One of the kids became seriously ill, one decided to make her home overseas, my marriage hit an impasse, I quit a job I should have kept, and had a health scare of my own.
Looking back, it was the best year of my life.
Because that was the year I learned that those things were just circumstances and that circumstances change—it’s their nature– just as it is the nature of problems that they pass. So, I taught myself to source joy in something immutable, something unconditional. I unhinged joy from emotional attachment to people or situations. I loosened my grip. It took practice every minute of every day, but I became happy just because the universe exists. Anything beyond that was a bonus. And miraculously, in response, those circumstances improved.
But wait. An update.
You learn things, profound things, and then you forget! New circumstances blindside you, your heart breaks, and you have to learn not to be undone by grief all over again. When do lessons truly stick? When does momentarily insightful become permanently wise?
Maybe one of these days I’ll get it right. I’ll be all in. I’ll embrace the world fully even though I must let everything go. Even you.
If I’m ever that courageous I’ll tell kickass joy to come home.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.