For a little while yesterday, her body was shaped like a crescent in her bed beside the desk. I would stop my work and look at her and hold completely still and, unblinking, watch for movement. Marty was standing in the doorway, and we confessed to each other that we both could see her body rise and fall in a regular rhythm, the black coat playing tricks as the radiator heat and leaky windows blew her hairs gently. Cleo’s eyes were open—a result of the anesthesia—but they were dark enough to seem closed.
Where did she go, Marty wanted to know. Her body got cold almost right away, all that leftover heat from circulating blood and physical energy just dissipating in the air like vapor. We’d all like to think some clump of soul goes first, intact and at some perfect age of wisdom and agility. If Mary Roach couldn’t prove it in Spook, I’m not inclined to believe in that perfect soul leaving the body’s building at thirty-four seconds past death. I think it’s the job of your memories to reconstruct the souls of the departed. They visit you sometimes via the corner of your eye, when the light hits just right, and a shadow flits, or when a heavy truck goes by and shakes your house and your bed, and you sense an impression on the mattress; the apparition, the disappearance—there’s your ghost, their soul.
I’m moving slowly for a few days. I’m missing the sound of Cleo’s labored breathing, the struggle of her toenails against the wood floor. I can pull my kitchen chairs out at will. Chance is missing her, too. We put his bowl where hers used to be, and he looked at us as if to ask for permission, and he ate cautiously.
In the early afternoon, against yesterday’s bitter cold, Marty finished digging and wrapped her in my old electric blanket. He covered her with garden dirt and tears, and then it was done before I even knew. Marty came inside, and I went out to stand with her and thank her.
More than sadness and grief, I feel relief. We can live with pain or indignity or loss of senses or limited mobility, but should we have to live with all of them, even when our ability to make that choice—especially when the ability to make the choice—is gone? For all this talk of “quality of life,” why is it still the quantity of life that we attempt to preserve in the face of all of these ills?
For some, it’s a religious belief. It would seem that a major world religion was borne of the suffering of one man. “It’s not the Christian way,” someone at the Catholic school said of euthanasia. Then she leaned in and whispered, “I don’t care; I wouldn’t want to live like that.” Sometimes man learns the wrong lessons from history. For me, the sin is in the suffering, the godliness in the compassion.