I love to watch my animals sleep. I have three of them, two cats and a dog. They all have strong and particular personalities. There’s Seven the cat, who struts through the halls with a John Wayne swagger and a caterwaul made of sand paper and bourbon. But when I find her asleep in her little red house, with her perfect black nose resting on her mitten-white front paws, she looks so delicate it’s heart-breaking.
There’s also Sammy the Love Kitten. “Love Kitten” because she reminds me of Nermal from the Garfield cartoon: an impossibly cute kitten that bullies with her affection. Sammy will be limp as a rag doll in our laps, begging for pets, and then harass Seven around the house when she thinks no one sees. Once curled up on her cat condo, though, she’s different. Her whiskers tremble with fitful dreams, and she peeps like a tiny bird fallen from its nest. Mew? Mew? She asks her unanswerable questions. It’s a little sad, and a lot adorable.
Newest to our family is Nisa, a gorgeous, three-year-old German Shepherd we adopted and who is intent on herding us with her intense eyes. She is a somber animal; she didn’t even wag her tail the first six months we had her. Serious and alert, Nisa is slow to offer affectionate demonstration, which is probably why her sleeping face slays me so. Soft. Delicate. Almost angelic. Her sleep is deep and peaceful; I can see the sweet puppy she once was before life taught her how to be anxious.
Studying my husband, Aaron, while he sleeps doesn’t fill me with the same affection that my sleeping animals do. The lack of expression of his features disturbs me. It’s as if the thing that makes him him is absent. He’s just a stranger, or a body, a creature. Even worse: a machine, downloading and updating. I ’m being forced to recognize identity is nothing but a construct, that the “Aaron” I know is really a face on the green screen while his brain –the wizard behind the curtain –toggles switches and performs illusions.
I’m a terrible sleeper; I toss and turn most nights, especially when Aaron snores. There are people out there who have said that when their life partners die, they can’t sleep at night because they miss their partner’s snoring. This is hard for me to picture. Aaron’s snoring is half trumpet, and half asphyxiated duck. Unfortunately, it is easy for me to picture him dead, and I spend ample time torturing myself over it. I specifically focus on how I wouldn’t have him around in which to share the experience of his death. I wouldn’t be able to tell him what having your spouse die on you is like.
I don’t think I could survive his death, so I want to die before he dies. It makes me feel guilty, though, that if I get my way, my death will burden him with the loss of a loved one. I have a profound urge to protect him from everything. I prize his sheltered upbringing, complete with a life of little adversity or deep scarring. I don’t want him to know true, haunting pain; probably because I’ve had such a rough go of it. Living with me is as close as he needs to get to how cruel life can be for a person.
Nights are when I am most tuned in to how short life is. Or, better yet, how long death is. I don’t want anyone I know ever to die. The lack of control panics me. The injustice. I conjure the faces of those I love and obsessively hex them with impending death, like a morbid lullaby. To my animals: Someday soon you will die, and I will have to live without you. My husband: You will die and no longer exist. My In-laws: You are going to be dead for eternity! And myself: Life is a conveyor belt to death. You are going to blink out. No more you. When the agonizing recitation finally abates, only then can I fall asleep; hands balled into fists, tear-stained face buried in the pillow, cheeks as red as a toddler exhausted from their tantrum.
I started thinking for a while that I may not be able to prevent death, but there is a way I can lessen how directly it affects me: by loving as little as possible. No love equals no loss. If I didn’t have these cats, this dog, this man at my side, I wouldn’t have to contend with losing them. Then I wouldn’t carry this future hurt. Then I could sleep at night like a normal person. It’s a tempting notion. But I had another thought: what if, instead of loving as little as possible, I love as much as possible? Spread it around. Love far and wide. Feel so much love, for so many, that it thwarts some of the incapacitating pain that death and loss bring?
There is no answer, obviously. I can love. I can not love. Either way, there will be death. And death will always bring out the youngest, simplest, most basic, clichéd emotion in me: “Not fair! Not fair!”
Bad sleeping habits aside, I am a terrific napper. I can nap for an hour mid-day and wake up like I’ve gotten a full night’s rest. There are days where my whole household takes naps together on our giant king size bed. The animals curl up on opposite corners, never leaving quite enough space for Aaron and me. So we stretch out along the edge of the bed, and I spoon him. When he starts to trumpet, usually I curl my feet up and jab them into his back until he stops. But these days I just let him snore. I listen carefully, taking in every snork and slrggg and blrrrrt. Remember this; I tell myself. Someday you may need to miss it.