If only, when one heard that Old Age was coming
One could bolt the door, Answer "Not at home"
And refuse to meet him!

 -- Kokinshu (905 C.E.)

The orange kitty is dying. Peaches has lost about a third of her body weight during the past two months, so that now she looks like an orange rag draped over a small coat hanger. I hate this.

Death has come calling, and I am not prepared. After all, her littermate, Columbus, is a buff and rambunctious male. And because we've decided to put out wet food that is easier for Peaches to chew, Columbus has put on weight. I'm reminded of the old woman who took her cat to the vet complaining that the cat's head was shrinking. Columbus' head is smaller these days. I know, of course, that it is an optical illusion.

Something like the illusion that our town is really Paradise. That's what they call it--the locals and the visitors. Paradise. Because it is sunny and it is Santa Barbara and there is no weather, only a climate, so the flowers and shrubs bloom three times a year. And no one is ugly--except for the tenants in the halfway house across the street, who come out only at night. Plus, you can't find the graveyards in this town, either. They are hidden.

On the surface, this appears to be life-affirming, but beguiled by this myth of endless summer, I seem to have lost a structure that includes death.

Death has come calling, and I am not prepared.

When death's specter appears in the shape of the vet who makes a house call, he is like something conjured from my darkest self. He is aged and wan, sporting a leering grin replete with large yellow teeth. The visual is perfected by the audio as he accompanies himself with a dreadful rap. "I used to have a practice...for years, but then I got sick and I almost died." Cancer. Cancer of the adrenal glands. "Lost the practice. So, here I am at 67," he laughs ruefully, "not able to make a living." Delivered in one withering breath, the things I dread most echo grimly in the tiny sunroom. We are aging, too, and this year my husband and I both lost our high-paying jobs.

I search madly for a way to change the subject.

"That's a great bag," I say, pointing to the cracked-leather medical black near his feet.

"Oh, yeah." He brightens. "It's called a Pandora."

I look at my husband, wide-eyed. Gabriel's standing there in the kitchen in his bathrobe, his graying hair wildly playing around his head. "As in Pandora's box?" I annotate the moment for him and then turn back to the doctor. "Is there still hope left in there?" No reaction. "Pandora let all the evil out into the world," I explain, "but shut it just in time to keep hope in." This seems oddly wrong to me, like I've mis-remembered the myth, but the doctor likes it.

"Well, I hope there's still hope in there," he laughs, pathetically, I think.

"Where's Peaches?" I ask my husband.

"Oh, it's not time yet," says the vet. "I need to ask you a few questions first." Instead, he launches into his philosophy of animal treatment, then immediately digresses to the breakup of his marriage.

I get up and see if Peaches is in the backyard. She comes to the door, expecting food, and lets me pick her up.

"Oh, yeah, oh yeah," the doctor says, eyeing the patient, "definitely a case of cachexia." Which, it turns out, means "wasting away." I put her down next to him. Touching her, he tents the skin on her back. "A little dehydrated too. And, this...feel her legs." My husband sits on the little sage-green-and-white sofa, feels the bone under the fur.

"I could put her down right now if you like," the vet says eagerly.

"No!" My voice is raised, and I find myself jumping up, walking swiftly into the kitchen. "I don't want to watch anybody die!"

"Well, if you don't want her put down... I mean, she's going to die anyway," he warns.

"Is she in pain? That's all I want to know." I'm still in the kitchen.

"No, not in the least, I'd say." He's still feeling away at the poor animal. I can't wait for him to leave. To speed things up, I write a check for $50, asking his first name. Jack, he tells me. As in of all trades? I wonder to myself. Jack, as in the other Doctor Death?

"When you're ready, I could put her down quite easily," he says, black bag, no hope for the living, in his hand. "A lot of people like to hold their pets when I put them to sleep."

I weep. The doctor thinks that's touching. The woman in the kitchen weeping. "Ah," he says.

The kitty Kevorkian doesn't understand that my tears are more about the whole scheme of things than just this one orange animal--here in Paradise, where dying is so incongruous, and you can successfully pretend that, like the roses, you'll keep blooming, too. Until you can't anymore. Then what?

We see him out. But, of course, he continues to haunt the place.

It's later in the shower that I remember: Pandora didn't shut the lid to keep hope in. It was despair. She shut the box just in time to keep despair from escaping into the world.

"Death and taxes," I say, sobbing over the kitchen sink. My husband holds me.

From the comfort of his arms, my mind searches for the meaning of it all. The Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Hell--I realize again--are only a millimeter apart in our brains. What will it be today, this hour--hope or despair?

The truth is that neither extreme is the whole story. "In the midst of life, we are in death." So reads the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer.

Peaches is sitting very still, looking up at my husband. He's opening the second can of wet food of the day. She is filled with hope.

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