For years, I would try to tell my dad that our thoughts affect everything. This was only after I realized just how obvious the truth of that statement was. He held such a negative outlook on life for so long, that I could barely remember how he lived before the light died in his eyes. I can’t blame him. I lived life that same way for longer than I ever should have. That’s why I won’t sit here on a towering pedestal of optimism and pretend it’s easy to be happy, pretend I don’t know what it is to sink into the depths of a personal hell and burn in my own inferno. Because I do know. And I almost let it cost me everything.
His life wasn’t an easy one, and neither was mine. But not many people’s lives are, for one reason or another. For my dad, it was one tragic incident after another. It only ever seemed to get worse year after year instead of getting better. He played a part in some of his misery, and some of it was beyond his control. I think that’s how it goes for the lot of us.
I know those feelings. It’s hard to look on the bright side when the sun refuses to shine. You’re buried up to your eyeballs in misery. You’re lost in the grey. We wrap ourselves up in a blanket of despair and never poke our heads out from underneath it.
He thought he was cursed – that nothing would ever go right for him, that he had shitty luck, that it wasn’t worth trying for anymore… “What’s the point?” he would ask to no one at all. There was a time when I thought this too.
But not so much anymore.
I told him life has nothing to do with luck. Because to me, it doesn’t. People don’t just luck out on easy lives with an overwhelming abundance of wealth, love, and happiness. I guess you can be born into some of those things, but all three still take work to maintain. And things will come along that will fuck all of them up, sometimes all at once. That’s why life has to be what we make of it, even the shitty parts.
Our perspective and our attitude have a lot to do with how we see things, how we value things, and how we handle things, planned or unexpected. We also must keep in mind that to be human is to error. We will make good and poor choices and we will make mistakes. Things will go wrong. No one is ever happy all of the time. But still, we need to try.
“Do whatever it takes,” I would tell him, “even when it seems hopeless, even when you don’t want to.”
He would just scoff at me. I cant blame him for that either. It’s hard to believe anything I’m saying unless you yourself have made it to the other side. He’d have to take my word for it. And he wasn’t ready for that. None of us usually are.
When I was buried deep in my rabbit hole, there was nothing anyone could say or do to change my mind. In my eyes, my life was over. My life had beaten me down. And I was too weak to recover. I spent all my time drowning in a sea of victimization. The “why me?!” The “what did I do to deserve this?”
Then came the waves of self-loathing, guilt, shame, despair, anger, and the eventual “nothingness”. This is the part where we give up on trying to find happiness or meaning to our lives and we no longer care much about anything. I thought to myself at the time: “Just exist Steph, just survive, go through the motions and expect nothing extraordinary until it’s time to die. That’s all you have to do.” And the best case scenario, I would muster the ability to end it all on my own earlier than my life clock had planned. That feeling… of walking through life defeated, beaten down each time you try to get up, until you are reduced to nothing more than a shell of a person, it’s overwhelming. It takes your breath away, smothering your soul. Upside-down and twisted up in this rock bottom was where I existed for years. Until I forced myself to pull me out of it. What was left of me anyways.
My dad hit rock bottom too, way after me. He thought he had hit it many times before then and maybe he had, but it was nothing like this drop. And it was definitely the furthest down he had ever been. During this particular climb back up, he told me my words popped into his head and for the first time, he chose to make them stick. He kept them there, my voice always in the back of his mind, until he believed it for real.
I was thrilled the day he called and told me I was right all along. It had nothing to do with the satisfaction of being right but everything to do with the fact that he finally believed. It was the way his voice had changed, the confirmation in it. He knew he could find happiness for the first time in many years. And he had begun to seek it out. He sounded almost giddy about it. It was a new lease on his life and he was excited.
He said to me, “Bud, you were right. You never stopped trying to tell me, but I guess in order for me to understand, for me to work towards it, I had to see it myself. I had to believe on my own. Thank you for never giving up on trying to make me see it.” He’s been on the upswing ever since. It’s not easy. But his outlook is different now, and that changed everything.
He deserves this more than anyone I know. It’s been a long time coming. He tried so hard to be both my mom and my dad pretty much my entire life. He did the best he could. But it killed him when he thought he let me down, on a few occasions, for reasons I won’t get into here. There are things that happened to me that I kept from him until only recently. I didn’t want to burden him. I didn’t want to hurt him. He blamed himself for that too when he shouldn’t have. It wasn’t his fault. Hell, it wasn’t mine either, but the shit happened just the same.
Now he understands. Only we can pull ourselves out of the deep. He could have been there for me if I told him everything, but only there as much as I would have let him be. And he would have helped, as much as I would have let him. Which back then, might not have been at all. Loved ones can be there for us in our worst of times, holding out their hands for us to grab onto, but only we can choose to take hold and stop drowning. We have to make the choice to swim to dry land. I chose to drown myself back then.
There are so many things that can go wrong in our lives – through our own fault, through someone else, through circumstance, through things beyond our control. Things happen that we can’t understand, things happen that aren’t fair, and there can be overwhelming amounts of pain, tragedy, sadness, loss, anger, and grief. We find ourselves being swallowed in the white noise.
But amidst it all, there still exists love, beauty, and happiness. We have to force ourselves to shift focus even when we’re being blindsided by the bad. Until it becomes habit to do so. We are the curators of our own happiness only if we choose to believe. We must have faith in that. We hold our universe in the palm of our own hands.
A lot of us face insurmountable hardship. Some have it worse than others, but it’s not for us to think about. We carry the weight of our lives in different measure. Our pain is our own. It is not up to us to measure it against someone else. We cannot trivialize others’ pain because we feel ours is worse. Nor should others do that to us. It will always be worse to the one that lives with it. We have to understand that we’re not all built to just “get over it” immediately. But we are all built to fight, to rise up, and to come face to face with new hardships and tackle them head on, refusing to allow them to define or control our happiness.
We discover that we can hold on to the happiness we create and use it as a shield against the pain. When the pain consumes us, we can’t see the good. It’s like being caught in the eye of a tornado. Life is beyond the funnel but if we’re trapped in the middle of its storm, all we see is the darkness. We get swallowed whole. It’s hard to move beyond anything other than just trying to stay alive. Happiness is hard to find there.
I can’t tell you that storms don’t exist in my life anymore because I choose to be happy more days than not. That would be bullshit. They do. Storms are a constant, varying in size. Terrible things have happened since I started the fight many years ago. But I kept fighting anyways. And I find myself riding through the storms a bit easier. What was once an F-5, leveling my existence, may now be an F-2, with some minor cleanup and bounce back required. But my happiness remains intact, shaken maybe, but never leveled completely.
I may not have a lot, not in comparison to some people, but I am happy. I try to see the good in every day and I am grateful for all that I have and who I have. I try to give as much as I can, filling the world with more good, more kindness, more compassion.
I worked hard for this, all that I have built. I don’t care so much about the physical or the material, but more the emotional and the mental.
I control the storms now. I don’t let them control me.
I am aware of where I was and where I want to be. I am aware of who I was and who I want to be. I am firm in the belief that I will always be a work in progress but I live and love the best that I can. I will be hungry for happiness as long as I am alive.
We need to find what is important to us and fight for it, every single day. We define our happiness. It starts from within and radiates outward. It doesn’t matter if your happiness is different from others. What matters is that you want it, and you will do what it takes to find it. Our thoughts manifest. They do. Decide to stay on the positive wavelength.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. You have to do something different in order to grow. And in order to grow, you have to change. And to change, you have to believe. And when you believe, you will move forward.
The only person that can take you there, is you.
There is no such thing as instant happiness. And there is a HUGE difference between pretending that you’re happy versus feeling the real thing. You can’t fake happiness. All that does is actually mask the real work you need to do. Real happiness amidst the fucked up shit in our lives takes work. It’s a struggle, it’s a process, and it’s a fight. It could take weeks, months, or years. It could take losing everything, including your mind.
It makes you feel things you don’t want to feel, see things you don’t want to see, come to terms with things you’d rather avoid, removes you from the denial, and it provides a hell of a lot of clarity that you sometimes wish you can push back out of focus. You see yourself for who you truly are, and you learn to fall in love with you, flaws and all, as hard as that may seem. You forgive people you don’t want to, even when they’re not sorry. You also forgive yourself, sometimes that’s even harder to do. But you do it so you can let go and be free from it. You have to. You don’t think it’s possible but then you feel it for real and you’re like holy shit, it is possible.
So this is a case where I feel like I can tell you to put the cart before the horse. Because eventually, the horse will move into place.
You just have to trust that it knows what to do.
On doubt and what it does to us all…
The thief of happiness, our thoughts you invade
A sickness of the mind, you fester there
You resist positive thought, an infection that spreads
Swallow our hearts whole, you are insatiable
Leave an emptiness, vortex of black
Claws tear through the veins, bleed us dry
We begin to rot from the inside out,
the putrid stench of losing control.
You are the evil thing that competes with life
An invasive species that smothers happiness, real or imagined
You turn promises made into grains of sand,
that slip through our fingers, lost in the wind
You threaten the stability, starve our trust
The wild love that thrives is consumed, overthrown
We begin to wither from the inside out,
the putrid stench of dead flowers in the sun.
The weight of past loves lost and old lives left lingering
bear heavy load on a listless heart
leave little room to feel anything than lonely.
A radioactive heart enters
rams open doors labeled restricted
removes cobwebs from a ramshackle soul
revives a rundown mind
reaching for the remnants left behind
from a rover long receded.
Stirs up a stark contrast to your sadness
the search for something lost so long ago.
Suddenly, solace in your heart synchronizes in someone new.
You struggle to stave off the sorrow,
if only for tomorrow.
Wise hearts can become fools,
gold hearts can burn black,
and still you run like a rabbit from the love that you lacked.
it has found you.
And it wasn’t like falling was it?
It was a graceful dance through the door of his heart knowing you were finally home.
he’s got these hands made of stone
beneath lies the dust of her bones
jagged from the glass he’s thrown
blood bags laden in units unknown
too late to atone
A love that lifts me up,
atomic number 2.
Floats me to the stars,
it’s like Helium.
The walls, they’re caving in
I sit idle, center of room
Folded up inside my mind
Origami swan in a flesh tomb
The heart, its drumming wild
I sit idle, center of sin
Beating the rhythm of my past
Cardiac arrest in a cage of ribs
The skin, its centipede crawling
I sit idle, center of plague
Festering from the inside out
Parasitic host lost in the vague
We all know the day will come when we must face the loss of an animal, or we find ourselves forced to make the choice that will end their life. We all understand the immense heartache this brings, acknowledge the gaping hole that will soon be punched clear through the vessel that beats with the love we hold inside for them. Unconditional love. And on this day, all of our fears drain out to dampen our soul, like the endless tears that fall silent upon our shirt.
They say right before you die, that your life flashes before your eyes. I don’t know if that’s true, but my life with Hawkeye flashed before mine as I hung up the phone with his doctor, my boss for the last 7 years, and part of my second family. I heard it in his voice before he said it. I already knew what he was about to say. Confirmed: Adenocarcinoma. Lung cancer. Hawkeye is dying. And there is nothing I can do to save him.
Flashes of him in the shelter, his first day home, him snuggling under the blankets with me, messing up my grad school homework and eating the edges of my research papers, lightly squeezing my nose with his paw, rolling over and over on the living room floor in excitement every day when walk through the door, him paw-punching Sun Chips out of my hand, trying to steal meatballs off my plate at dinner time, all the little moments in between our first day until now… they play like a home video in my mind.
I now know it is only a matter of time. Time… what he has so little left of. Is it a month, just weeks, or only days? I can’t find a way to wrap my head around that, no less my heart. I am forced to make the choice to end his life when I see it fit. Selfishly, I would hold on to him for as long as I could. But I know I can’t. I can’t do that to him. I am no longer just his mom, I have become his timekeeper, waiting to pick the day in which I have to agree to end his life. I will try to savor every moment I have to spend with him from now until that day, but I can’t stop the ticking inside my head. It’s like the beating of the Tell-Tale Heart.. tick, tick, tick, tick. A clock only I can hear, slowly winding down until it stops. And with it, stops the heart of my best friend.
Strange, I always felt Hawkeye chose me and not the other way around. I could have taken any cat in the shelter, a little fluffy kitten perhaps, a few months old, but no. I worked at a local animal shelter part-time back then. I saw countless cats and kittens come in, most of them never making their way back out again. My areas to clean were the cat sections: incoming, quarantine, and adoptable. Each day, I passed Hawk’s cage in the adoptable section to move on and clean the next. And each day I passed, there his paw would be, outstretched and reaching when I started to get too far away.
He took up residence in the first cage to the right with a black cat named Sally. She was the only one out of the lot who didn’t pick on him. No cat was awarded solo cage privileges, there was never enough room to accommodate such a luxury, even if he/she got his furry ass kicked by other cats on the daily. He and Sally slept close together, both reserved, not really drawing attention to themselves. Not so smart when you’re competing against countless others for the opportunity to find a home before meeting an untimely death due to overpopulation. Hawkeye had already been there close to a year, his information card read birth date unknown, estimated about a year old, incoming history blank.
One day, I had to stop at his cage for longer than usual because his claw got stuck in my shirt when he tried to paw me into a visit with him. I had already cleaned their cage and was about to move on.
“He’s on the euthanasia list,” the technician on-site said to me as she walked in, stopping to talk as I tried to free my shirt. “I’ve been putting it off, waiting for someone to take him, but they say he’s not adoptable. Poor guy. I hear people passing through say he’s ugly. Ugly doesn’t get you adopted around here. And being a black or mostly black cat makes it even worse. It’s a shame, really. He’s the sweetest thing. But they won’t let me skip past him anymore. He’s been here longer than usual, about a year in this place. Rare for a cat.”
I peered into the cage at him, his big oval eyes focusing on my face.
“They call him the alien cat because his eyes are set far apart, you see? That’s why one of the girls named him Hawkeye, at least I think that’s why, as a joke. People want calico patterns and tiger stripes, Garfield-orange, multi-colored eyes, most of all – they want cute.”
“I think he’s cute,” I replied.
“Good. Then please take him home if you like him. He seems to like you. He won’t be here the next time you’re in. I don’t have a choice anymore.”
So Hawkeye left with me that day without a second thought in my mind. The shelter gave him to me for free, no adoption fee, since I spared his life on the day he was scheduled to die. I wasn’t prepared for this alien-eyed tuxedo feline with too much hair missing on the sides of his head, those prominent bald spots and big eyes that stuck out all of his life. He was a compact little thing, shy as hell, scared of anything and everything. But he was mine. After spending his entire life up until that point in the shelter, he finally had a warm and quiet place to call home.
For the last 7.5 years, Hawkeye casually makes his way to wherever I happen to be in the house, never in the way, but always there by my side. He would sit with me during long homework sessions, curling up around the laptop to steal the heat. He sleeps underneath the covers in the winter time curled up like a ball in the crook of my stomach, lightly punching me in the back if I am sleeping so that I wake up and lift the covers for him.
He knows every time I have a bad day, making sure to cuddle extra close, looking at me like a concerned friend. One day, about two years ago, it was a terribly shitty day, and I was crying on the couch with him next to me. All of a sudden, I felt his paws shoot out and whack my hand. He did this over and over until I finally paid attention to him. He did it one last time, grabbing a hold of my hand gently with both paws, one on each side, and he held it, like a human would, and looked up at me. He didn’t let go until I smiled and burst out laughing. I can’t explain that or how it made me feel that day. But I was, and still am, grateful.
When I get ready for work, he scuttles into the bathroom to give a low, almost inaudible mew to say good morning. You see, something else unique about Hawkeye is that his ‘meow box’ is ‘broken’ or so we like to say. He was born that way, unable to meow, mew, or yowl like your average cat. It’s this strange sound that mimics all of those things but falls short. As if someone took a sledgehammer to a jukebox and the music still plays but it comes out all muffled from the speakers. Or as if he has a mouth full of marbles. Everyone that hears it laughs out loud. It’s a sound I love. It’s a sound I will miss. It’s just another thing that makes him different. Special.
Before finishing graduate school, I was a Veterinary Technician by trade. I have seen all kinds of humans with all kinds of bonds with their animals. And though it is sad, euthanasia was a large part of my job. Those moments are the most emotionally raw of any situation working there. It’s never easy to let go, even when it’s time, and even when it isn’t your animal. I’ve cried at almost every one.
Sometimes, there are people who have no problem with the decision. I never knew if it was because they didn’t care or it was because of indifference or a form of grief, or what. It isn’t professional to ask questions like that. I tried hard not to judge but I won’t ever understand. It’s like some people have the ability to separate themselves from their animals. As if human and animal reside together, the animal is cared for, but that’s where it ends.
But then, there are the humans like me, like a lot of us, most of us, who are scared, heartbroken, and torn in two. Their sorrow and grief blanket the room like a heavy smog, making it hard to breathe, even for the professionals in the room who see it on a weekly basis. There is this physical energy between human and animal, and we witness the exact moment when their connection together in this world is lost. You can feel the physical break of it and it crushes me. Every single time.
This is how I know furry soul mates exist and that I am not alone in feeling that Hawkeye is mine. I have friends who feel the same way, you can see it in their interactions with their animals and the way their face lights up when they talk about them or show you pictures. And I felt it in the room with certain clients. You just know.
And when it is time, the animal always seems to be at ease, even in their last moments, as if they are trying to comfort their human, letting them know it’s alright to let them go. Their existence, to the very end, centers around the love they have for their human(s), even if they are in pain, even if they are suffering. I imagine it will be the same when it comes to Hawkeye.
We are not crazy cat people or obsessed dog lovers.
We are humans and they are animals and we choose each other.
They get a piece of our lives to share with all of theirs.
These furry souls teach us things. They show us unconditional love. We learn to appreciate the little things, like how something as simple as the toss of a ball or the unraveling of a string can bring the greatest joy to our lives. We learn that we are never truly alone, even if we feel like we are, not with them there by our side. They fill the spaces between the lonely. And they love you still, even on your darkest days. They are always there.
You can talk their ears off and they’ll listen. They do not judge you. They forgive and they aim to please. They only want the best for you, never putting themselves first. They can’t wait for you to come home and they never tire of you no matter how long you’re together. Their love only grows with each passing day.
Each day for them is a day to cherish your existence.
They love you even when you don’t love yourself.
And they will hold out and hold on even when they hurt, because they know you don’t want them to go. Their bodies will give out long before their love does. This is why I believe some animals lives are so short. Because they are born into this world knowing how to love unconditionally. And so they can leave, even when we feel it is way before their time. They already know all the things it takes us humans decades to discover. They are here so that we can believe in all of it, even when our doubt settles in. They are our constant reminder. They are here to show us how to love, how to care, how to laugh, how to find joy in simplicity, and how to be truly happy.
Hawkeye was with me through some of the worst times of my life. And even when I was alone, with him there, I never felt like I was truly was. He is always waiting for me when I walk through that door. Always.
I know I saved his life that day. And I’ve kept him alive all these years even with the severest form of asthma a cat can have, and I knew one day, it would take his life. I just didn’t expect it to be this soon. I find myself wishing I did more, wishing I could do more. I feel like I could never repay him for all the love he has given me. And a part of me knows, he’s holding on, even now, because of this love and because he knows how much I love him.
Time is slipping away, and the timekeeper is left scrambling to fill every moment left with all the love she won’t be able to give after a certain day not yet decided.
You never know how long you have, with any human or animal in your life. Spend more time appreciating them and loving them and showing them how much they mean to you before your time together runs out. If you think animals don’t realize it, they do. More so maybe than most humans ever will.
To some people, he might just be a cat. But to me, Hawkeye is a living, breathing piece of my heart. I don’t have any children so that is what he is to me, my child. And all the years in my life that I have yet to live wouldn’t be enough time to spend with him.
I love you Hawkeye.