January 25, 2011

Somewhere Between Denial and Depression

I wrote the following last August the 12th as we struggled with our dear Emerson’s illness. We helped her on to the next life on about August 25th (I don’t remember exactly what day it was, and I don’t really want to.)

I am posting this now because in looking back at it, there is something to what I was getting at, and mostly, because there is enough distance now that I actually can post it.

There is a place I am trying to find. A rare and mysterious place. It lies between the tall cragged peaks of denial and the void of depression. I know there is a middle ground, but somehow I keep going from one to the other.

I am high on a peak seeing the “big picture” and ignoring realities. The air is thin up there, and the way treacherous, it is easy, oh so easy, to fall down into the pits of depression.

In those pits I feel the weight of reality, smothering me, overwhelming me, holding me down so that I don’t seem to be able to move. Until I gather the strength to run away and find myself back up at the heights of denial.

Back and forth, back and forth, bouncing between the extremes.

What is causing all this, you might ask? Well it’s a tumor. Not on me, or my wife, but on our beloved dog Emerson. Both vets we went to see said it was cancer, and agreed that the only treatment available is amputation of the leg.

Down, down, into that dark pit. Death, loss, morality. But she doesn’t seem to bothered by it: but up to the jagged heights where the air is thin; she can beat this, she’s just fine.

I have been making this journey from denial to depression often enough that I am starting to get a glimpse of the land in between. It is a vast territory, little visited by man. A place of wonder and enchantment, but also fundamentally disturbing. It’s called “I don’t know.”

It goes like this:

  • I don’t know what is going to happen with Emerson.
  • I don’t know how long she has to live. As a 12 year old dog, the odds say that she only has a few years at best, but I don’t know. She could, conceivably, outlive me. Because… I don’t know.
  • I do know she has a tumor. I do know that it appears to be cancerous. And I don know it has grown a lot over the last year.

Up at the heights of denial we want to pretend that what we fear doesn’t exists, that we are “above” it, but in truth we are just fearful and disconnected.  In the depths of depression we fell crushed by the weight of enevitabililty, convinced that the worse will happen, but really we don’t know and are driven to a different place by our fears. In the land of “I don’t know” we realize that the future is not knowable. That we can do our best, make the best decisions we can but we will never know if they are the “right” decisions.

And what is that anyway? The “right” decision. By what measure–our fears not being realized? Well that’s not really possible in this case, is it? Death is inevitable for Emersion, for me, for you–all of us.

And do you fell it? The desire to escape not knowing even if it is only into the thin air of denial, or the thick stew of depression.

Despite the tumor, I don’t know when she will die; I don’t know how long she has to live; and I don’t know how she will die.

Not the most comfortable place, this land of “I don’t know.” No, not comfortable at all. But better, much better, than denial and depression.

And just because I know the land of “I don’t know” is here doesn’t mean I am not still scaling that mountains or tumbling to the depths. I’m human. When looking at loss, it’s what we do. Each time I climb to denial or tumble into depression I try to tarry a bit longer in that place in between. I try to keep reminding myself that I truly don’t know.

I’ve been through this before with dogs, and friends, and jobs, and relationships, and dreams, and best friends. It’s not easy giving up what you love. What I have learned is that the only thing I know much of the time, is “I don’t know.”

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Robert J. McCarter

Robert J. McCarter is the author of more than ten novels and over a hundred short stories...... learn more

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