Last night after dinner I started to feel depressed, hopeless. There were good reasons for this. On the most surface level, I’d just finished a dystopic novel and a character I’d liked had died pointlessly. More pressingly, our cat Tisha is extremely ill (although, paradoxically, he’s still so energetic that we had to make two unscheduled trips to the vet this week because he’d pulled off his bandages). My grandfather is dying too, after more
than 90 years of inexplicable health — he’s a lifelong smoker, non-exerciser, and eater of ice cream for breakfast — and is doing it in painful inches, painful to him and painful to his children who visit him daily and shuttle him around to the doctors. For most of my life he was just kind, generous Gong-Gong whom we didn’t know very well; when I got to college, I started thinking I should interview him about his life, but I couldn’t work up the nerve; by the time I left grad school, I was almost ready, and then his mental health declined within months. Now, the memories are still in there, but there is no way anyone can get them out, and he spends his last days in a jumble of confusion and discomfort. Not pain yet, I don’t think, but whether he enjoys anything anymore, I don’t know. Food maybe, or listening to opera, and as recently as a couple of months ago, he smiled and laughed with us at family gatherings, so I think love still works too. But he’s going, and in such a way that by the time it happens, there will be no one left to say goodbye or “I wish I could have gotten to know you better” to, because that person is already gone.
Constantly caring for my grandpa tires out my mom, my aunt, and my uncle, and for Dajiu, Gong-Gong’s decline comes on top of his wife’s recent loss of her sister to cancer. Dajiuma’s sister, whom I met maybe once or twice as a child, suffered for months before moving back in with her parents to live it out. When we went to Hong Kong in April we carried Chinese herbs back with us, fat bundles of “doesn’t hurt to try” whose bitter scent permeated their wrappings and left traces on my clothing. At that point it was already understood the herbs could do nothing, but our Hong Kong hosts — herbalists and Dajiu’s dear friends from his sent-down days — sent them home with us anyway. When I handed them over to Dajiuma I saw in her eyes what this gesture meant: love in the face of death, loving action against resignation to futility.
It’s terminal cancer our cat has too, our own furry little counterpart to the struggles my relatives are going through. For months we got to think that it wasn’t, that he just had a weird infection, but by July the growth affected his appetite, and he just faded away into near-skeletal lethargy. He got up once a day to sit on my lap and purr. Cancer or not, it was clear he was going to die anyway, so we gave him up to the veterinary surgeon for a last attempt at removing the tenacious growth. Against my expectations she did remove it, and now Tisha eats, sheds his bandages in ways we can’t even figure out, and naps in the sun. But when they got the growth out, they biopsied it properly, and that’s how we found out Tisha’s new lease of life would last maybe nine months at most, with chemo. “What if we don’t treat him?” I asked the oncologist, thinking after all this, Tisha deserves a break from vet visits. “Then,” he said with quiet sympathy, “the growth will come back.” We both knew what he was actually saying was, this whole drama will play itself out again. “Damn,” I said, visualizing it. “I know,” he said.
One of my friends has an aunt who flew from her home country for cancer treatment in San Francisco. When she got here the doctors told her they couldn’t save her, and they refuse to let her fly home again, telling her the flight will kill her. My friend never met this aunt until she came to California to die, and now she sits with her in the hospital room, the aunt’s nearest relative in the States, and rubs her stomach to ease the pain. Even if her aunt never makes it back home, she will want her body to rest there, and that will cost the family $15K, my friend tells me.
I didn’t realize, before this summer, just how sticky and drawn-out death can be. I didn’t know about being exasperated with my deathly-ill cat because he’s so alive he’s causing us trouble with the bandages and the pills. I didn’t know my grandpa could go from robust to frail within a year, and then hang on for so long in weakness and confusion. I didn’t know, in other words, that death isn’t always the worst possible outcome, that continuing to live can bring up questions that are impossible to answer. And I didn’t realize this will be the future for us all, whether it’s our own slow dying or our loved ones’ — that as we get older, we will have to face the grey areas of death again and again with everyone around us.
So yes, there are good reasons to be depressed.
The weird thing I realized, as I tossed in my bed last night, is that it’s not the death and dying that depress me, it’s the living. As I lay there exploring my mood, I recognized it as the feeling of failure, and more particularly, the feeling of failing at everything. The thing you have to realize about me and failure is that (1) I’m terrified of failing, and (2) I’m enough of a perfectionist that all imperfection appears to lead to failure, so that if I’m not doing something well, I’m failing. To put it simply, I’m highly uncomfortable with being bad at things.
As you must know, I have recently revamped this blog so that I cover a different subject on each weekday. This has given me lots of joy and creative momentum, but I didn’t notice until last night that this also gave me five whole new fronts on which to do poorly. That, I realized as I flopped over yet again in bed, was what depressed me so much: thinking that now I had even more ways to fail at everything and now it was all public. And I guess this is where the death and dying part comes in, because I started to see myself never doing any great work, and getting older and older, and then facing this miserable drawn-out dying with nothing to show for my life. Mediocrity at everything. That’s what terrifies me more than death. (I think.)
As always, once I give name to my angst, it becomes manageable. Once I figured out that I was fearing failure at everything (again), I could remind myself that I’d been here before and knew what to do. “The truth is that writing is the profound pleasure,” Virginia Woolf noted in her diary, “and being read the superficial.” The feeling of failure is an illusion, caused by measuring my worth by external markers, ignoring what really matters to me. External markers of success are nice to receive, but they never suffice; they can always be taken away, fade away in time, or be overshadowed by someone else’s glory. Evelina told us this at VONA, and I nodded because I knew this but always, always need to be reminded. External success, creative products, acclaim — these don’t quiet the anguished voice of 3 AM. But making what I want to always feels right, even when the product isn’t perfect. The internal feeling of success is what matters. When I remember this, I can work hard and long and feel happy. I don’t know how much time I have before my death; there may not be time for great work. But there is always time for great striving and working, and that’s what I need to remember.