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The Bicameral Mind | 2017 | A Fork Stuck in the Road


It is a very mixed blessing to be brought back from the dead.  

-Kurt Vonnegut

Pico the Immortal

The best hamster
Seems lively

Amber talks of using her skills and intellect to create an immortal hamster. Given that rodents' ubiquity in science makes them lab equipment, a mouse or rat will be the first granted the gift or curse of biological immortality.

But she wants it to be a hamster. Specifically our teddy bear, Pico, because he is docile and loving in a fashion I was unaware rodents could be. If we had in addition an eager parrot, the phrase it would repeat would be "Hi, Pico! I love you," as Amber says it half the time he passes the wood and mesh cage she built for him over the course of weeks.

In May, she will earn her Associate's to be a vet tech. From there, she will get a Bachelor's, then Master's, then Doctorate in - last she mentioned - biotechnology.

Teddy bear hamsters live for a couple of years. With considerable luck, they may stretch it to five years, but one should not plan on it. Amber will never have the opportunity to save him, if such a thing is possible. One morning, sooner than we care to know, far sooner than he deserves, we will wake and he will not. There is nothing we can do to stop this, though Amber treats him with assiduous care to forestall its coming.

I lived through Emily's father dying of cancer over the course of a year, in the end losing his tact either from the tumors or simply the erosion of his inhibitions. I loved him like a second father and dreaded the inevitability of his death. In the end, I was a coward and could not face his finality, a sin I carry with me today. Even with the year of warning, my experience of his death devastated me.

When Emily's cherished dog went next, two months after, it was blessedly sudden. Quest was sickly (but was a greyhound made all of shivers and clammy nose). Emily took him to the vet, they diagnosed him with terminal liver cancer and gave him a cortisol shot, he came home, he shat blood, Emily and I drove him back to be euthanized. His affectionate nuzzling from the backseat, his spirits lifted by the shot and this fun car ride as we wept, made me regret every second I spent resenting five AM walks through frozen snow. I did not go into the office when he was put down, though the drugs in his system made him delighted to see the nice vet again. Emily said that she was alone when he came to her and she ought to be alone when he left again. We carried his body, covered in a blanket, to be cremated, leaving him there while he was still warm enough to believe he might leap up again and go running off. I prefer the compactness of this tragedy. I did not want Emily forced to deal with another lingering cancer death and, I readily admit, I would have been cored to watch so soon someone else I loved suffer what I could not prevent or heal.

Other deaths hover in their orbit because their proximate gravity created a focal nucleus by which other heartbreaks are measured. I thought I handled my maternal grandmother's passing - she was old and had been enduring congestive heart failure for years and dementia for month - until the night after I served as her pallbearer, when I shattered into sobbing pieces at having been among the last to hold my grandmother's dead body when I had been so far from the last to hold her while she lived.

My friends have died of suicide and overdose, both sudden but neither outside my expectations. I sympathized shakily, imagining their final hours, frustrated that I had no way to save them longer, and shrank from reminders of my own mortality.

If I've ever loved you, I've memorized the skeleton of your eulogy. Your loss will be almost too great to bear. I want to be prepared. It is the nature of anxiety that I plan out possibilities so realities do not wreck me. (I try to plan shorter term - what I will have for dinner this week and which event I will attend this weekend - but these strike people as less pathologically morbid.)

There is no Plan-B when it comes to death, only reassembling a life afterward.

If Amber should god forbid die before me, I do not think I would remarry. I do not, in fact, think I would bother with long-term relationships because I would not see the point. I would have had an amazing love. She would have been the one wife I could ever want. That would have to be enough for me. I would not cut short my life because she would want me to go on, but it would be a struggle.

However, her death is not likely to be the issue. The possibility is greater that I die first. I am older and men get a shorter lease on the earth for reasons beside the point here. I cannot prepare her for my eventual death. It is an issue we keep from voicing, except when we mutually promise that we will never die, a promise one hundred billion before us have been unable to keep.

I am relatively young and healthier than many. I exercise daily and almost never clock in fewer than five miles, according to my fitness tracker. My sleep pattern is not ideal, too prone to mental excitability in the early hours, but neither is it terrible. Some members of my family have lived into their nineties, putting this musing closer to a third-life rather than mid-life crisis. Those who died sooner lived by cigars and whiskey and infidelity, vices I eschew, so their deaths may not be reliable predictors of my own.

When I was younger, I assumed I only needed to live long enough not to die. Cryogenics, gene editing, transhumanism would be my salvation. All I needed was to survive until I could have my aging reversed, replace my failing organs with silicone and titanium, or be satisfyingly uploaded to a computer. The more I've learned of these disciplines and their sluggishness, the further my faith in their ability to rescue me has fallen.

I want to live for myself, of course. Most of the time, I like being alive. Even when I don't, I assume it beats the alternative. But I more want to live to love and care for Amber because she needs someone to. I don't want to burden her with the eventuality of my death. I cannot stomach destroying her, a tragedy she will have to overcome or disappear beneath.

She has confused me by sniffing as she eyes Pico, small despair that something so lovely and small won't be overlooked by the Reaper. How cruel it is to love the finite, something that could die forty times over before it occurred to us to join it. Whenever she holds him, some part of her thinks about the day we will dig a hole for him as we did the four predecessors that lacked his vitality, deaths that dug into Amber despite how briefly their lives intersected with ours. (She wept for them, I wept mostly for her.)

Since knowing Amber, I have taken her to four funerals, far too many in six years. None have been people whom she loved, though she cares for those who loved them. She cried more losing rodents because they were innocent and it was by their hand they would be saved or lost so her mourning carried guilt and bargaining (which is why we have Pico, so that she could succeed in giving a hamster the life others missed).

She mentions wanting subsequent rodents, as likely as sugar gliders and extravagant as capybaras, meaning not siblings to our beloved pet but his successors. For Amber more than the tan and white ball of fluff stuffing whole baby carrots into his cheeks, I want to appreciate the time we have with him without thinking of some dark day.

Soon in Xenology: Untrustworthy adults. Apocalypse.

last watched: Death Note
reading: Meddling Kids
listening: Ani DiFranco

The Bicameral Mind | 2017 | A Fork Stuck in the Road

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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