Waiting for My Cats to Die

WaitingformycatstodieAt age 42, Stacy Horn had a mid-life crisis. Single but feeling ready to settle down, she remained “as far from marriage or anything like it as I was at sixteen.” She lived alone with two cats, both of whom were diabetic and one of whom had renal failure and needed fluid treatments. Her business, an online community called Echo, was struggling, and she was working to keep it alive long enough to sell it. And there was a ghost in her apartment. Most of the time, she preferred watching TV to doing just about anything else, but she did sing in a choir and play with a drumming group, and she attempted to go somewhere that she might meet a potential husband once a week.

So those of you who know me well will probably know why I had to read this after seeing Citizen Reader’s review (a review that happens to feature a When Harry Met Sally reference). I am 41, single and ready to settle down but meeting no single straight men and disinclined to do the work involved to meet said single straight men. And although my current cat is just an amputee and pretty easy to take care of, my previous cat had renal failure and needed daily (and then twice-daily) fluid injections. At least I don’t own a struggling business or have a haunted apartment. However, as my body begins to show signs of age, I’m increasingly aware that I may have less life ahead of me than I have behind me. No sign of a mid-life crisis so far.

Horn copes with her own mid-life crisis partly by looking at death and aging head-on. She interviews older people, asking them how they feel about life and death. She visits cemeteries, something I think she enjoys anyway. She polls her friends on Echo about the big life questions that are on her mind: “What do you want more than anything else?” “What do you miss the most from your youth?” and “Are you happy? Please express your happiness level in percentages.” She makes lots of plans for what she might do if… the business fails, she never meets anyone, the cats gets sicker, and so on. Also, she fantasizes about saving John F. Kennedy Jr.’s life, meeting her ideal man while giving a talk about cyberspace, or giving her cats a last, perfect day. And she panics when she realizes that her TV crush, Seth Green on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is much younger than she is. Wanting her fantasies to at least be somewhat reality based, she looks up the actors’ ages and decides that Anthony Stewart Head is her man. (My own Buffy crush is on Oz, not Seth Green, who does happen to be about my age.)

Horn’s short chapters drift from topic to topic and back again. She’s sometimes funny, sometimes morbid, sometimes whiny, often curious, occasionally heart-breakingly sad. (See the book title. Messy, wheezy sobs.)

Early in the book, she received some advice—some advice of it super-optimistic, pull-yourself-up-by-sheer-force-of-will variety that I find extremely unhelpful. But in the end, she lands in a place that I find comforting.

What do we learn as we grow old? We learn how to be forty or fifty or sixty or seventy or eighty.

Rick Carrier said, “You are in charge of what you are, have been, and will be, and if you do not accept this you will become everything you do not want to become.” I no longer know what I don’t want to become. It used to be “a woman living alone with cats,” but that’s what I’m doing now and I’m happy.

Yep. Happiness isn’t necessarily about achieving big goals or living out grand plans. It can be in small things that we find on unexpected paths. I didn’t expect at 41 to be living in a small condo in Northern Virginia (for years, I vowed never to move to Northern Virginia), alone with a cat, and a small circle of friends who don’t all live nearby, but that’s how things turned out, and I’m OK with it. Most of the time, I’m happy. Will I be happy living this life indefinitely? Maybe. Maybe not. But the only way to know is to keep living and figuring out how to be who I am at fifty, sixty, seventy, and so on.

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18 Responses to Waiting for My Cats to Die

  1. Maybe books like this ought to have some sort of ‘trigger warning’ on the cover – ‘graphic single crazy cat lady content’?! Only kidding – this is my demographic too. I suppose there are people for whom super-optimism helps, but I am not one – one muddles along as best one can. Maybe I’ll get a third cat. ;-)

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! I think the title and cover are a pretty god trigger warning.

      And yes, muddling along is the answer for me most of the time. It’s probably a good thing my condo only allows me to have one cat, and the cat I have is on record as loathing other cats. (Her leg amputation was partly because of a fight with another cat.)

  2. Øystein says:

    As a man in a similar situation (alas, no cats) I only now realize I haven’t really read any fiction of a similar theme centered on male characters. Perhaps it just gets wrapped into stories about loners who rob banks etc. We’re too busy reading novels about what a total drag marriage is, I guess.

    Actually, I’m reading Der Nister’s _The Family Mashber_ right now, and Alter, one of the three brothers, has just come out of an illness and declared… Well, I’ll just quote it.

    “Without waiting for Moshe’s questions, Alter said, ‘Moshe, I’ve come to say that you must arrange a wedding for me.’
    This was said in a tone of such pure sincerity as only a madman might have used, or someone so unaccustomed to human society that he did not know how, when or where certain things might be said—and the way the words were spoken … it was enough to break one’s heart.
    There was nothing to blame Alter for. He was like a man who had come from some distant place. He was a man who had been cut off from people and from human ways. And so he spoke not as people in society usually speak, but he said directly what he meant, and what he meant was that he was like everyone else.”

    (page 312-313 of the New York Review of Books Classics paperback; ellipses in original)

    Perhaps not quite the tack to take. My brother, who I can only assume is a great deal more handsome and charismatic than me, recently helpfully told me that “if you ever *decide not to be single*, it’s basically like with cats — you just have to whisper that you’re looking, and women will come flocking!” Sure thing, brother.

    I should get a cat.

    • Teresa says:

      That is interesting–I can’t think of any books about men in the same situation either. I’m sure they exist, but they don’t seem as common. Maybe the thinking is that men aren’t troubled by their singleness the way women are.

      I’ve been told that stopping looking is the key. And looking harder. I’ve done both and had similar non-success, so now I just do what I feel like doing. I think luck enters into it more than people realize.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I love your distinction between Seth and the character he plays. Who is not a little bit in love with Oz? Although even in his fictional world, I can tell he is a tiny human, and that takes away some of my attraction because it is stubbornly based in the perception that I am an outsize human. Another reason to love Giles.

  4. I read this book when it was first out and thank you for reminding me about it. I just got married at 39 (and I didn’t meet him at any of the usual places to meet guys. I was having lunch w a girlfriend and he was our waiter. My friend left my phone number.) I too have recently talked about how life has turned out so different than I expected but I’m quite happy. I think that’s the only important thing. And our cats are young (1 and 5) so luckily don’t have to worry about issues like renal failure for a while.

    • Teresa says:

      It fascinates me how happiness can be found in all kinds of ways we don’t expect. For me, focusing on how different my life could have been or what I wanted it to be distracts me from all the ways it’s wonderful right now.

  5. CJ says:

    I’m not sure if I count as the target demographic for this book because I’m married, but I do have two elderly cats, one of whom is on twice-daily medication. I turn 37 next week, with my mid-life crisis hot on my heels for the past two years (I’ve always been precocious), and mid-life crisis books have been comforting to me lately. Last month I read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, which is a fictional take on the female mid-life crisis, and I liked that one quite a bit.

    But I also can’t think of a book with a man in a similar situation. All of the male mid-life crises I read about (or see on tv or in movies) are the comical, cliched, sports-car-and-hair-piece variety. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that women have more of an “off” switch to our fertility than men do, so there’s more of a sense of urgency in our late-30′s and early 40′s? Or maybe that’s just the expectation of the culture and so that’s what’s reflected in literature.

    • Teresa says:

      She talks about a lot of things besides her singleness. The general themes, like getting closer to death, dealing with the difference between our desires and our reality, etc., apply to anyone.

      I think the male mid-life crisis in literature is often about now liking being tied down or feeling limited by marriage and family, and I’ve seen books about women feeling the same way. I think the culture puts so much more emphasis on marriage for women that lack of marriage seems more like a crisis for women than it does for men, so maybe that’s the reason mid-life crisis books about single people are more often about women. The fertility timeline and the perception that all women want kids probably factors in too.

  6. cbjames says:

    Nice post. Having just entered my 50′s a few weeks ago, I can say that muddling along, accepting how life turned out as basically fine, provides quite a bit of comfort. I don’t have the ambitions I had when I was in my 20′s, but I don’t miss them at all.

    I can think of books about men in similar situations, but they are all about gay men.

    • Teresa says:

      Basically fine–that’s about right, as far as my life goes, and I’m content with that. I’d not want to relive the angst of my 20s when I worried far more about my future than I do now. (My 30s were great; I’d experience my 30s again, but I’ve no reason to assume my 40s won’t be as pleasant as my 30s.)

  7. Alex says:

    I’ve just reached 64 and am still muddling along very happily, although minus cats because I’m allergic to their fur. Take each day for what it brings and don’t look too far ahead would be my advice.

    • Teresa says:

      I try to look far enough ahead to have a general game plan for retirement, old age, sickness, etc., but beyond that, looking ahead isn’t all that useful. So far, life hasn’t turned out the way I planned, so there’s no reason to assume it won’t continue to surprise me.

  8. florinda3rs says:

    This sounds kind of like me at 40, except I had a dog. I’m not sure I’ll read this this, but I really appreciated reading about it through your take on it.

    And how can you NOT love Oz, really?

    • Teresa says:

      I think there are a lot of women who’d see bits of themselves in Horn’s situation (and mine), even if the details and our various feelings about it vary.

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