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October 4, 2004
The stems of the pink geranium are thick and woody -- she's old, now, the mother of many young plants snipped from her side and settled into their own little pots, their little bottoms dusted with rooting compound to encourage their new independence. They grew and flowered, and they had babies, too. So she's a grandmother. She's probably a great-grandmother.

There was a time when I would have been reluctant to let her go. Even this year, I struggled her heavy pot into the kitchen window, where it blocked the light from coming in. It's too big to sit here all through the dark winter. It's time for her children to come inside and prepare to mother the next generation. And it's time for her to enjoy a last bloom. And so I took her back outside and set her in the warm October sun. There will be many warm, sunny days this month, and maybe even some in November. She will bear more flowers. And then there will be a cold night, a sudden freeze, and while we are asleep she will go to sleep, too, and we will awaken to find her flopped over the sides of her pot, her leaves limp, a dark, wet green. She will die the way a plant dies: part of the cycle of coming and going, the nourishing of one generation with the bodies of the one before, the seasonal warming of the earth and its cooling as winter comes.

Kate the Cat sleeps on her pile of newspapers -- she likes to nap in the newspaper recycling basket. The sharp fence of her ribs moves jerkily up and down as she breathes, the rattle of her breath audible across the room. Her flank is concave -- I don't know that the pills she hates so are helping her get fatter, and I hate disturbing her to administer them. She no longer responds to the one syllable of her name -- we're pretty sure that Kate is deaf now.

For the hundredth time, we talk about whether or not her life is happy. For the hundredth time, we conclude that it is, on balance, modestly so. It is an impaired life, to be sure, but it holds enough of a cat's pleasures to be worth living: eating, walking in the sun, sleeping under a plant in the warm weather, naps on the newspapers, strokes on the chin. She could not tell us in words if she wanted to die, but we do not think she does. Not yet.

The power to decide death for another is, and should remain, disquieting. If ever it becomes casual, it is to our spiritual detriment. That the earth will remain, and continue to host the cycles of life of which we are a part, never sets itself against the loss of the individual in a way that satisfies our spirits. There are many children in the world, but only two little girls are mine: even now, grown women that they are, the decision to give my life for theirs would be a snap. It is an evolutionary debt they would not owe me; it only goes forward. And yet they will feel the loss of me as enormous, when it comes -- it will feel greater than it really is, as if they still needed me to live, when they really have not needed me in that way for years. Love and beauty magnify our significance in the world. They make us seem greater than we really are.

We will be the ones who decide Kate's when death will come, probably: one day we will conclude that the load of her life has become too heavy for her thin shoulders to bear, and we will take her to the doctor so that he can gently ease her into the next world. He will give us a pretty little urn containing the tiny hill of her ashes: there will not be much left of Kate. And we will still have the other three cats. But they will not be the beloved furry friend we have lost. They will not replace her.

Two weeks after a friend's husband died, a visitor reminded her over their teacups that she was still young and attractive, that she would surely meet another man. One way of saying that the cycle of life continued, I suppose, and that my friend was still part of it, still vital and alive. But not welcome words to the new widow, still staggering under the weight of her loss. A new man would not be her man: she wanted no other. That life would go on and joy would be possible did not balance that loss, in the moment that she stared at her comforter in disbelief and groped for a suitable reply. As politely as she could, she made it clear that this comfort was no comfort, well meaning and even true as it undoubtedly was. There were other men. She was pretty. And these things mattered not at all. Not in that moment.

Good-bye, good-bye to the grandmother geranium, to the dowager cat, to the golden summer, to each of us. Blessings on the earth that remains, and hello to every kitten and new baby and blade of grass in it. Hello and welcome. Enter the throng of our world, and cherish your span in it. And be your glorious self, loving and letting what love you and only you evoke in others swirl deliciously around you. Taste everything, for as along as you can. You cannot stay here forever.
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