Max came back last night, except this time he was orange. He used to be gray, elegant, a tabby with a big voice. Used to be, because now he’s gray and dead, even though last night he looked orange and alive.
The last time Max was alive, a veterinarian was bending over him at one end of an exam room, inserting the needle that would make him not alive. I was seated at the room’s other end. The thing to do, of course, was go stand beside him and say goodbye, but the grief seized me by the arms and pinned me to the chair. That’s the first thing I hate about grief: its grip is inescapable. Not a grip like steel, but more like deep water, like standing at the bottom of a pool, where you try to make a move but the weight of the water slows it to nothing.
* * *
Second thing I hate about grief: it distorts your senses. Also like underwater. You hear sound above the surface but it’s too misshapen to make out the meaning. You see people doing things but they look all wavy and distorted like a screen saver.
My mother’s death plunged me underwater for several months. One Sunday, during the coffee hour after church, I watched two friends across the room, balancing cups on saucers. From their laughter, the way they held their bodies, I could tell they were having what I once called normal conversation, as if grief had never touched them. You should have joined in, someone might say. Connecting with people is so healthy when you’re grieving. Impossible. Grief restrained me from crossing the room, and even if it hadn’t, I’d never have understood what they were saying, because what they were saying wasn’t about grief and grief was all I could hear. It was, again, inescapable.
What made this ironic was the setting. We’d just finished worshiping one of history’s great escapees, who’d found a way out of death itself. If he could do that, he could have left us an escape route from grief too. But in that coffee hour, he wasn’t telling.
* * *
Third thing I hate about grief: you can’t reach the world, but the world can still reach you. It reached me during the week I spent in Florida to sit with my father, who was fading away. My mother had died several weeks earlier; she’d always overshadowed the silent man in our house, and with her gone I thought I’d finally get a chance to know him. He had a different idea: to follow her as soon as possible. Toward that end he ate nothing, drank nothing, said nothing. I spent the week nudging him to stay around, but in vain. The grief this time wasn’t about impending death but an opportunity lost, the last in a lifetime of them.
So when my rental car blew a tire on the way back to the airport, I exploded. I have a plane to catch, goddamn it! Thrown tire jacks, kicked fenders, the vilest words I could conjure. The way I react when the world demands speed and maturity and control and I can’t do any of it because I’m underwater.
* * *
For a long time I thought my escape from grief lay in orange Max. As the dream went, I had nearly driven off a cliff in a safari vehicle with several people inside. One of them, while scrambling back to safety, rescued a black duffel bag from the vehicle and laid it on the ground. No one paid it much attention till the bag moved. When someone unzipped it, orange Max leapt out and began to run away. He was everything I needed: a role model of escape, the color of fire and life and hope, like the haloes on Jesus’ head in those Renaissance paintings where he marches out of the grave.
My heart fluttered as I woke up. Finally, the last word on grief. I even treated it like a last word, putting it at the end of this essay because, at the time, I believed it belonged there.
* * *
But as it turns out, Jesus didn’t leave an escape route from grief. Quite the opposite: he may have beat death but grief got him square on the jaw. At one point he traveled to the grave of his friend Lazarus to raise him back to life. As soon as he saw the grave and the wailing mourners, he wept.
Jesus wept is the Bible’s shortest verse, too short for my questions. I need to know how he wept, a single tear down the cheek or full-on sobbing and hair tearing and ululation. I need to know how long the grief lasted: whether it magically dissipated once Lazarus was alive again, or whether it lingered because that’s what gloom does. I need to know how to do this, and once again Jesus is silent.
* * *
Jesus may have been silent but one of his followers wasn’t—an obscure young nun who lay dying of tuberculosis, the disease that thrusts your lungs underwater. For years she’d lived what she called her “little way,” serving Jesus in life’s minutiae. One day someone asked her, “What about your ‘little life’ now?” and she answered, “My ‘little life’ is to suffer; that’s it!”
Some wisdom wants to be learned again and again. I had learned the little way years ago but apparently it wasn’t enough, because I had to learn it with Max too, gray Max, dead Max. Your little life is to grieve; that’s it. No escape given because, apparently, escape isn’t the point.
And if I can’t escape, I may as well look round. Maybe I’ve been seeing gray all wrong. Max was a handsome cat, after all, and maybe he’s shown me that gray isn’t bad, or good either, but simply there, and therefore—when the light catches it just right and you’re paying attention—beautiful.
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A spiritual director, nonbinary person, and quasi-hermit, John Backman writes about ancient spirituality and the unexpected ways it collides with postmodern life. This includes a book (Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart) and personal essays in Catapult, Tiferet Journal, Amethyst Review, Evolve, Sufi Journal, and Belmont Story Review, among other places. John was recently named a creative nonfiction finalist in the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards.