In the spring of 2007, our cat got sick. She stopped eating, and wandered aimlessly around our flat in circles, as if she’d been struck. I didn’t know what to do. Uma the Cat had been with Hilary ever since she’d retrieved her from a Baltimore gutter during a downpour in 1991. She was tiny, feral, abandoned, and mewling loud enough to be heard over the storm. She needed help. Hilary took her back to her apartment, and there Uma stayed. Once she was steady enough to be taken to the vet, Hilary learned, to her surprise, that Uma wasn’t a kitten. She had all of her adult teeth. She’d been around for at least a year.
Uma and Hilary were a package deal. They were not sold separately: If I wanted one, I was duty bound to take the other. Along with my other frailties, I’m allergic to cats. There was, at first, much sneezing. But one look at that little face was enough to convince me that the discomfort was worthwhile. I’d like to think we became pretty good friends, but regardless of her feelings toward me, which were inscrutable, she became so integral to my experience that it became impossible to imagine time without her. I’d had no pets as a child, so I didn’t have any experience of life with an animal. It follows that I’d had no experience of animal death.
In the spring and summer of 2007, I began to develop serious symptoms, too. I felt sluggish, disassociated, dizzy, and sensitive to sunlight. My body twitched so much that I had difficulty sleeping. My chest hurt, my belly was a mess, and it often felt like someone had affixed a ten-pound weight to the top of my head. Doctors were unable to diagnose me; all felt that my complaint was psychosomatic, self-inflicted and, in a sense, auto-immune. In the midst of this, we tried to care for our cat. At an animal hospital in Paramus, we learned that Uma’s kidneys had failed, and we’d need to administer home dialysis if we wanted to keep her alive. That night, I had the biggest panic attack I’ve ever had, and I did it in front of an audience: Brad and Steve were over, and instead of the dinner they were expecting, they got to watch me flat on my back in bed as the room spun.
In retrospect, what strikes me most is my reluctance to put a very simple puzzle together. I was losing a best buddy — a fuzzy little fellow who curled up on my lap and purred while I wrote — and I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t even want to talk about it. That night, once I regained my balance, we went out for a bite at the Hamilton Inn (I couldn’t eat, but I did try), and we talked about artistic frustrations, interpersonal troubles, the parlous state of the globe. I avoided the obvious. Our cat was seventeen years old. Her organs were failing. She was going to die, and I was powerless to intervene.
I mention all of this because yesterday I had familiar symptoms of anxiety — shadow symptoms compared to the heart-palpitating ones I was experiencing in 2007, but enough to leave a powerful imprint on the day. Though I wasted time worrying that I’d caught the coronavirus, I knew that wasn’t what had struck me. I recognized the signature of a particular type of panic: the physical residue of powerlessness. After an Easter spent ignoring the crisis, it rapped hard on my consciousness on Monday and demanded my undivided attention. I spent the morning combing through brutal statistics, and worrying that officials were about to pry parts of the country back open. It seemed possible that America was about to repeat mistakes that we haven’t begun to finish paying for — mistakes of a magnitude that we don’t even understand yet. The sense of futility had a grinding effect on me. I fought through it, but there it was, all day long.
In order to carry on, writers must fool themselves into thinking that the perfectly turned phrase placed in the proper paragraph can be the lever that recalibrates the whole infernal machine of society. This fiction organizes our time and keeps us motivated. Quite a leap of faith!, since many modern decisionmakers don’t even bother to read. Nevertheless, the word is what we’ve got, so we carry on. These are missives to friends, family, and other sympathizers, not position papers, but if somebody did ask my opinion, I’d like to think I could remain sharp enough to contribute some worthwhile insights. Yesterday, that wasn’t so. I was plain useless — as far from understanding the depth of my feelings and the reasons for my stomach-aches as I was when Uma was sick. Cliff approaching, nowhere to swerve. I’ll try to stay as steady behind the wheel as I can.