I’m reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion on the subway, and in the Starbucks a couple blocks from my internship at a literary agency. I usually take my lunch breaks there and ironically, because it’s pretty much all I do at this internship, I read. It’s January. This is a good book to read in a city—surrounded by people, but having a private experience. I love having a private experience, so I love being alone in cities; the ability to imagine is that much more palpable.
Joan Didion is a celebrity writer, which feels a bit like the academic version of a famous ballerina. She’s the sort of wealthy elite who, at least in this book, rarely points out her own privilege. But she’s also so observant and interesting that she’s beloved anyway. The glamor of the film sets and houses and beautiful trips described in her book feel untouchable and not to be envied, because her husband has suddenly died and her daughter is gravely ill.
She was living in New York when her partner, John Gregory Dunne, died. Her book about this tragedy calls on you to imagine, not in the way where you bitterly shake your head and say, “I can’t imagine,” but in the way where you actually do it. At the time I was reading, I was away from my partner for one whopping month, for the first time since we’d begun dating, and it was difficult for us. Didion’s book made for an interesting reflection—what would I do without this person? How does the total loss of partnership deconstruct your life?
My parents, brother, and I wondered for a while when my cat, Twilight, was going to die. Twilight was the love of our lives. She’d first come to our back patio years earlier—before we ever saw her, we heard the distinctive timbre of her meow, and looked out through the sliding glass door into the dark to see her silver tail silhouetted. She had a kind, round face and huge green eyes. Her fur was thick, soft, and gray. She’d tried on all the neighbors in our town house complex, but soon she became our cat. Anytime we so much as moved the screen door, we’d hear a musical jingle (from the bell on the collar we’d bought her) and see her slender form bounding down the hill toward us. She was a magical cat, behaving like a dog, coming to us at the slightest provocation. She just wanted to live in our house, darting between our legs and up the stairs, and once inside, all she wanted to do was sleep. She was a creature of the utmost comfort. Of course, before a few months had gone by, we had taken her in for real.
I believe that being a cat person means understanding solitude in tandem with closeness. Knowing a cat is developing sensitivity to their every noise and motion—which little twitch of the tail signals that they want you to stop touching them, which shift of your leg means you’re now lying in the right formation for them to join you on the sofa. I think people can be like cats too, and I have always loved celebrating aloneness in such a way. While in the city, I did this amid a sea of faces and bodies ebbing and flowing through the subway and out onto the street and back again at the end of the day. I’d return to the empty basement apartment where I was staying, cook a small dinner, watch some Netflix, maybe FaceTime my partner, and fall asleep. He made me feel relaxed in a way no one else quite did—as though being together was, in some sense, as honest as being alone. No matter how much I loved being alone, I would miss being with him.
A large part of Didion’s book is about her conviction that John was coming back, somehow able to return. This was the magical thinking. It’s always struck me as quite a lovely title, quite whimsical—maybe because “magical thinking” calls on us to think about the imaginings of children, about the feeling of falling in love, about fairytales. Didion’s magical thinking let her believe that her husband, who had died without warning or chance to anticipate it, was not really gone. Often throughout her book, she tries to parse whether he had known he would die, or expected the coming of his own end. Because they were both writers, she investigates through words, close reading their lives for signs of both departure and return. The Year of Magical Thinking is painful and tender, like a wound.
My grandma died on my birthday, the year I turned eight. My birthday party was in the afternoon, in a pumpkin patch, attended by a beloved group of my three best friends. There is a picture to commemorate this occasion. We are well-lit by autumn and all in need of braces.
That night, my whole family came over. We and my mom’s sisters and my grandparents lived within an hour of each other. Someone had promised me sometime earlier that my grandma would be well enough to be at this party, and though she was not there I was gently dissuaded from asking questions. I understood she’d spent much of the week in the hospital.
The next morning, my parents woke up my brother and me and told us that my mom’s mom had died. I imagined that this had happened sometime after I’d gone to bed, imagined my mom waking up to take the phone call.
I cried a lot. There was a wake and a funeral. I remember seeing my grandma in the casket with extreme clarity. I remember a lot of hugs. I remember not being able to look at her without crying, the emotion sweeping up through me each time as though it had been lying dormant somewhere behind my lungs. My mom’s eulogy for my grandma was partly based on the book The Lovely Bones, where the girl’s heaven is the halls of a high school. She imagined her mom’s heaven as a picture window where she could sit and look out, her cat curled in her lap. My mom couldn’t deliver this eulogy because she was afraid of bursting into tears, so my dad did instead.
My mom told me years later that the story I’d always assumed was wrong — my grandma had died in the very early morning on the actual day of my birthday, which was a Saturday. Not that night, not after I went to sleep. She was dead when we went to the pumpkin patch, and she was dead during my birthday party that night. My grandpa had been there. The whole thing was his idea; he told my mom and her sisters not to tell any of us kids what had happened yet. He didn’t want to ruin a little girl’s birthday party. I imagine him at that birthday party. I picture my obliviousness, remember receiving the gift they told me that my grandma had picked out for me: a spiralizer, that would let you turn out beautiful patterned shapes across a page. It was my favorite one. My grandpa’s partner was dead.
I don’t know how to describe the moments before death, nor am I the most qualified. But there’s a certain immobility that’s heartbreaking and feels so natural, the body gently closing itself down for whatever reason it needs to. My guinea pig, Iris, died when I was a kid. One morning, she was suddenly unable to move. Guinea pigs aren’t known for their agility to begin with, but she was rolling to her side rather than standing. Her breathing looked enormous in the otherwise stillness of her body. The deterioration was fast, a matter of hours. Animals, I learned then, know when they are going, and go. Like clockwork, or like magic.
We can feel magic manifest in both love and death, I think, or maybe in both love and grief, intertwined as they are. I think this is felt particularly with animals; all of their communication is nonverbal, external, and actualized. In the same way that toddlers experience pain, or loneliness or hunger or frustration and can’t help but to scream and cry, pets are honest in ways that adult people can rarely hope to be.
Toward the end of Twilight’s life, her teeth snaggly and her fur knotty and her smell tangy and warm, she developed distinctive behaviors by which to communicate her desires and articulate her needs. She’d always been vocal, sometimes abrasively so, but in her old age, if left alone in a room she would yowl incessantly until someone arrived to pet her and calm her down. Never particularly hungry before, she started eating literally everything—bowls of grated cheese and unattended fish or meat were her favorites, but even salad was a likely target. While before she’d often drink out of glasses left on the table, she now knocked them over completely, not out of any desire to drink but probably just out of a desire to fuck up our shit.
A day or two after I finished The Year of Magical Thinking, Twilight died. I was spending a weekend at home, and when I got off the bus and climbed into our car my dad was waiting for me with the news. It was an odd feeling—over a year after her decline and plateau, I had always expected and feared that I would be at school when Twi died. How ironic that she had gone when I was just an hour and a half away from home. I remember my parents attempting to say a few words about Twi over dinner and all of us dissolving into tears.
Missing Twi, I realized in the days after her death, was missing her physical presence. I missed her heavy body weight over her tiny paws as she walked across me as if I were a piece of furniture, her big well-padded head, the way that she would rub on people by shoving her wet nose directly against them and then pulling her face to the side. She was full of patient, simple love. If you picked her up when she didn’t want to be picked up, she’d dart out her head with a warning nip. She never hissed at anyone except for our other cat, George. I missed how she would sleep with me, her warm lump of a body curled against me. I loved waking up in the morning to find her there.
I think the death of an animal is particularly poignant because of the total lack of verbal closure. It’s insufficient to the relationship: no matter how much you baby talk to your animal or how well you learn all of their many sounds, you’ll never be able to speak to each other. It’s hard to know if they were happy and comfortable, if they had closure for their sweet life, if you could have done something to make their last moments more peaceful. Of course, you can talk to animals—I would walk into a room and Twi would meow at me insistently and I’d meow back and she’d meow back and I’d meow back. It usually felt like a productive conversation, usually ended in an amicable grunt. But now that she was gone, I couldn’t bring in too much philosophy. I couldn’t reflect on her words or thoughts. She was a cat; her desires were obvious, visible, and physicalized.
The breakdown of her body was similarly inevitable. In the hours before her death, she dragged herself dejectedly across the floor to be found out of bed in the hallway or bathtub by my parents. One side of her face was slumping downward, like someone who’d had a stroke. When she became less able to express herself, the idea of what she may have wanted at the end of her life without ever being able to say it was sobering.
I sometimes talk about Twi in the present tense, and when I’m home I often forget that she’s not still there. I never leave full glasses out on the table. If I’m heading out the door, I always pull it quickly closed behind me—Twi was always an indoor pet. She rarely tried to go out, especially as she got older, but my dad still believed in an element of her wildness and suggested that we were trapping her.
A week before she died, in a rare burst of energy from her frail, six-pound body, Twi dashed between my mom’s legs and out the door while she brought in groceries from the car. My brother retrieved her quickly, and they were all dismayed at the return to a former habit.
But my dad fixated on the idea that she wanted to be outside. After dinner, despite ridicule from my mom and brother, he lifted Twilight, cradled her in his arms like a baby, and brought her out onto our front step. I can picture it, although I was 90 miles away at the time—the view of the lawn in the center of our townhouse complex, everything crisp with frost. I see my dad lowering his nose gently to the tiny cat’s as she sniffed the air. I see them gazing together at the falling snow.