Part of what has surprised me about the loss of China has been how much my sense of grieving has been shaped by feeling guilty. Of course there’s the what-if’s surrounding her final illness: “I waited too long to take her to the vet,” “My inaction made her suffer,” “I waited too long to put her to sleep,” “I put her to sleep too soon” (ah, contradictory self-accusations! That right there should be a clue that what’s going on has more to do with me and my internal process than anything else).
But what is fascinating is that I’m also tapping into guilt feelings on a larger level — and mostly concerned with pushing her away when she would come begging for attention and I would be involved in research or writing. I mentioned this on my blog yesterday, and was curious to see if anyone would comment on it. No one did, which again suggested to me that this particular feeling was more about “my stuff” than about the universal arc of pet-loss-related grief. One of the monks yesterday reminded me that it’s okay to set boundaries with animals and that those rules don’t change just because we eventually have to grieve their passing. This was helpful, and enabled me to step back from the immediate tar-baby of the grief/guilt complex of feelings and ask myself, “Okay, so why am I feeling this, and just how ‘real’ are the thoughts beneath these feelings anyway?”
Almost as if on cue (I bet China put her up to it), as I was writing the last paragraph, Furbie came and jumped onto my chair. I stopped and petted her, and moved my laptop to the armrest (as I did recently for China) and Furb took the invitation and moved to my lap, began purring, and sits there still. In this brief exchange I’ve had two insights: first, that China was not the only cat I’ve pushed away over the months — but I’m thinking that, in my grief, my mind is imagining that it’s only been China who was so “neglected;” and second, that in reality I would accept the affectionate overtures of China on at least some occasions, just as I’ve accepted Furbie right now.
So if my feelings of guilt are, at least in some measure, a reflection of how my grief is warping my memories of China, then it seems to me the lesson here is that I have some learning to do about, well, feeling guilty. Maybe I need to brush up on my John Bradshaw. Or maybe I need to work on letting go of an overall pattern I have of being too hard on myself.
The last time I celebrated the sacrament of reconciliation, my confessor suggested to me that I’m an idealist — and while he said this gently, the point seemed to be that I set really high standards for myself and then punish myself when I fail to meet them. I think my grieving process is shining a spotlight on that reality.
I’m freaking out because I think I wasn’t the perfect pet owner for a cat I loved very dearly and who has just died. Well, news flash: I really wasn’t the perfect pet owner, and I’m still not, largely because I’m not the perfect anything. And a big piece of my imperfection is how much I loathe being imperfect. I think there’s some sin in there somewhere, and my confessor and I will work on unraveling that particular knot when I go see him this month.
What’s been especially freaky is that, several times over the past day or so, I’ve called Rhiannon “China” and China “Rhiannon.” I’ve never done this before. But herein lies an important clue to what’s going on. Another important clue comes from my childhood. I am the youngest of three boys, and my childhood experience was that my mother, my father, and my eldest brother were all demonstrative in their affection for me. But my middle brother, John, seemed distant, impossible to please, and quick to criticize. This led me, at a very young age (I was probably three or four at the time), to confide in my father that I didn’t think John loved me. I don’t remember this conversation, but my Mom and Dad recounted it to me in later years. “You really thought John didn’t love you,” Dad said. “So I explained to you that of course John loved you, but that his was a flawed love.” To this day my relationship with John is far more complex (and distant) than with anyone else in the family, but I do believe Dad was right. And I can rest in the assurance of my brother’s imperfect love for me because I know so well how imperfectly I love others.
Back to the China/Rhiannon issue. For readers who don’t know me personally, here’s the back story: my stepdaughter, Rhiannon, has polycystic kidney disease and end-stage liver disease; she was born with the PKD and, secondary to that congenital condition, at age 3 she suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. She’s now almost 25, and suffers from a variety of ailments related to her complex medical condition, including extreme mood swings, moderate intellectual disability, little to no self-care skills, and chronic fatigue. I came into Fran’s and Rhiannon’s life when Rhiannon turned 7; Fran and I got married the following year and since Rhiannon’s biological dad lives in California, I’ve been pretty much her only father for the past 17 years.
When I entered into Fran’s and Rhiannon’s life, my idealism combined with the bravado of a confident young man meant that I saw myself as just having so much to give to this handicapped little girl. What I didn’t expect was how much she would give to me, and how much she would take. I seriously underestimated the emotional toll of long-term care giving. I seriously underestimated how caring for Rhiannon so thoroughly defines Fran’s life and identity that it would unavoidably shape our marriage as well. And most of all, I seriously underestimated how petty and angry and resentful I would get over all this.
But petty and angry and resentful I became. And, truth be told, I struggle with those feelings, and the temptation to succumb to toxic bitterness they represent, every day. To this day I struggle with them, and I see no reason why that will ever change.
What does this mean? Well, for starters, If I had to grade my performance as a dad or stepdad to Rhiannon, probably the best grade I could honestly assign myself would be a C. I’m hardly above average and I most certainly am not exceptional. I have good days and bad days, and on the good days Rhiannon and I laugh and play and work together, and on the bad days we scream at each other and I get so enraged I have to walk to the other end of the house to calm down. I become furious at her behavior, I get enraged at my own, I shake my fists at God over the long slow dull burn of having to make continual sacrifices to care for a very sick young woman; or having to watch Fran make even greater sacrifices than I do — for it became evident early on in our life together that I only had a step-parent’s patience, and that Fran would pretty much shoulder most of the burden for caring for Rhiannon. This Fran does without complaint or any recrimination that I’ve ever seen, directed either at me or at Rhiannon.
Given Rhiannon’s medical condition, it is likely that we will face her mortality in the next 5 – 10 years; and for this reason Fran does not want her living anywhere but with us. On my best days I am in full agreement with Fran, and even on my average days I am serene about this arrangement. But there are those days I’d gladly consign Rhiannon to a group home; partially to give Fran a break, partially to assuage my own resentments.
So at best, I get a “C” in the business of step-fathering, especially for a special needs child. But the problem with this is that idealism I mentioned above. Basically, in my mind “C” is a failing grade. So on top of all the complex feelings I have for Rhiannon (who, just to be clear, I do love very much and have a strong and certain sense of her as “my” child and part of “my” family), I also have this complex of feelings in which I judge myself as inadequate, or worthless, or teetering on the brink of failure — just because I’m not the stepfather to Rhiannon that I wish I were.
And I think that’s why one of China’s last feline spells that she enchanted me with before I took her to the vet on Wednesday was this charm of befuddlement in which I began to confuse her with Rhiannon. China (or somebody) wanted me to see that my tendency to over-judge my own flawed love not only is robbing me of the ability to serenely accept China’s passing with gratitude, but it also over-complicates matters with Rhiannon — and, truth be told, with Fran, and my dad, and pretty much everybody.
We human beings can love fiercely or tenderly or heroically; but our love is always a flawed love. We don’t take our pets to the vet as often as we should. We push loved one away so often that they begin to wonder if we really care. We become parsimonious with our affection and lavish with our annoyance and sarcasm. We try to defend ourselves from our own inner void and we do so at the emotional expense of those closest to us. We all do it. And some of us are oblivious to it, and others are haunted by it. And something like the death of a pet, or the illness of a child, is all it takes to crack open our defenses and make this awe-full reality plain to see.
One of the graces of grieving the loss of an animal companion is, at least for me, the wounding (opening up) of the grief process leaves me open to self-examination, which hopefully can be fruitful in my life — long after the pain of the grief gives way to the quiet sense of gratitude that I will carry with me in the China-shaped hole in my heart that will never fully heal. The lessons I’m learning about myself as I walk through the valley of loss are, in a very real sense, China’s parting gifts to me. I can take those lessons back to all my relationships: whether that means resolving to be more playful with our two surviving cats, or learning to inject just a bit more gratitude and wonder into the complex dynamics of parenting Rhiannon, remembering to demonstrate in little ways to Fran just how much I appreciate her, or — most challenging and yet necessary of all — to work on the task of balancing my fierce self-directed idealism with a rich hospitality toward my own clumsy imperfection. Flawed love is all I have to give: to the memory of China, to Furbie and Clarissa, to Fran and Rhiannon, to myself. But, oh, I’ll take flawed love over no love at all, anytime.