Last Things

As pet deaths went, Rachel recognized that Stella’s end had been relatively simple and fast. Just one visit to the vet. The soft-spoken woman in her white jacket assured Rachel that Stella was riddled with cancer, and then whispered that the cat was in tremendous pain which it would be difficult to alleviate without keeping her asleep for the short time that was left. Whispered, as if the tortoise shell cat crouching under Rachel’s hands could understand.

It was a shock though. Apparently, poor Stella had been stoic, never acknowledging her pain. She mewed only when her food bowl was empty or when Rachel was behind a closed door for longer than Stella thought appropriate. There had been a slowing down − less scampering on the stairs − but Stella was twelve years old, and Rachel liked to think that the two of them were getting older and slower together. Certainly Rachel considered Stella to be the more graceful older female, never losing the swagger in her rump as she moved at her own pace and on her own terms through the house, carrying out her routines and searching out whichever of her favorite spots was in the sun or close to Rachel’s warm body.

Dr. McCarthy was sympathetic and left Rachel to cuddle Stella for a few minutes before she returned with the syringe. Rachel tried to calm the cat, but they were in the vet’s office and her trembling palm could feel Stella’s poor heart pounding for the last time. The last time. She had decided it was time to have Stella looked at when the lethargic cat had not even gotten up to greet her when she came down the stairs. And her food had not been touched for days. But when Rachel had watched the morning newscast with her sick kitty on her lap earlier in the day, she had not foreseen that they were cuddling on the sofa for the last time. When she had squeegeed the reluctant cat into the crate to put her in the car, she had no idea that the crate would come back empty. Rachel clutched Stella and stopped thinking and held her breath while the vet injected her beloved cat. When Stella lost consciousness, Rachel exhaled pent up breath and tears.

Rachel made arrangements to have Stella cremated and cried all the way home and for much of the afternoon. That night she watched an old sad movie (Dark Victory) to help her flush out the backlog of tears that had been rising and falling all day. It worked. By the next day, she was able to empty the litter box, wash out the cat dishes, pull the cat beds off window sills and armchairs, and consider how her life had changed.

When she called her sister, Sybil commiserated and immediately suggested a new kitten, or perhaps a more sedate adult cat from the shelter. Rachel had already considered this when she had was driving to the animal shelter to donate her remaining stockpile of cat food and treats. Before she got there, Rachel had decided that she had had her last cat. She went no further than the front office, where the volunteer at the desk commiserated but did not try to get her to go look at the cages behind the closed steel door to the right. Rachel told her the woman that she would return soon with a traveling crate and some cat beds.

A year ago, Rachel – then only sixty-three – had been downsized with a severance package supposedly proportional to the thirty years she had spent with the hardware distribution company. She felt lucky. At least the company had not gone bankrupt (yet) and so there was severance to be paid and health insurance to be extended until Medicare kicked in. She had never married. She could afford to retire and had been thinking about it, but there was nothing in particular she wanted to do. She had become increasingly tired of managing the warehouse and expediting shipping. And, in the last days, there had been little shipping to do, a warehouse full of unsold goods, and a lunchroom full of scared employees. She was glad to be out. And she had been prepared. Knowing that she wanted to stay in Littleton (at least for a while), where she had a few friends, a doctor, a dentist, a hairdresser, and job (thirty years does give one a sense of security), Rachel had sold the house she had inherited from her mother and bought a condominium – all on one floor so that she could negotiate it through any possible disabilities. When she moved in, Rachel was not sure it would be her last home. She might decide to move south at some point; the condo made winters easier but there was still snow and ice. This attitude, she realized, had stopped her from really settling in. Maybe she ought to accept this as a last move.

Of course, a lot of last things had already gone by – some recognized as they passed and some only when they did not recur for so long that Rachel realized that she had lost her chance to mark the occasion. There was her last menstrual cycle and menopause, marking her last chance to be a mother. There was the death of her own mother ten years ago, the loss of the last parent. There was her last visit to see her brother, who had died of a massive coronary last Easter weekend. There was the last time she could read without her glasses and reading the last issue of Littleton’s daily paper, first consolidated into a weekly and suddenly gone altogether. So many things. Some day she would be doing everything – every thing – for the last time and not even know it.

In her quiet condo – which seemed even quieter without Stella (even though the cat had hardly ever made any noise) – Rachel was still thinking about last things when she made herself her afternoon cup of pick-me-up coffee and sat down to look over the new budget that she had been working on ever since it was clear that retirement had started earlier than expected. Rachel was almost out of unemployment benefits, but she knew she was lucky. With her savings and social security, there would be enough money to pay the taxes on the house, the COBRA payment for her health insurance until Medicare kicked in, food, and the maintenance and insurance on her two-year-old Honda Civic. She felt somehow guilty when she deleted the amounts she had put aside for vet bills and kennel care for when she traveled – usually one trip per year to see her sister in San Diego and one vacation. She considered at the travel items for a few minutes and then bracketed them into one and cut the amount in half. Last time she went to San Diego, Rose hadn’t seemed all that thrilled to have her there. She would alternate years with vacations and trips to California.

Rachel looked at the amounts for clothes (she liked clothes) and books (she liked books even more and Amazon was so tempting) and music (both for CD’s and sheet music for the piano). She stared at the numbers, but she wasn’t thinking about money. She was still thinking about Stella and last things – how last things slipped right by and you never even knew. She tried to remember the last time she had combed Stella and clipped her claws, and she could not.

But she felt right about the decision not to replace the cat. Stella’s ghost would always be with her, not to be driven out by the attentions of a new kitten. When she mistakenly saw a furry body out of the corner of her eye, it would always be Stella. And she felt good that she was making the decision consciously – not the way she had stopped going to church, first skipping services when the weather was bad or she had a headache or there was a guest preacher, until now it had been years. No, it was good to do things consciously. Especially last things. What about men? Had she gone on her last date? It was very likely, she had to admit, given the statistics for available partners in her age group. Besides, it had already been a long time and the last man had been the worst of all. The last time she saw him, he had tried to borrow money. It might be a relief not to even wonder about men anymore, not to look for the wedding band when someone struck up a conversation, not to wait for the phone to ring.

Rachel pushed her cold coffee aside and massaged the side of her head as if it could help her think about something important. What if she decided that she had also bought her last CD? Her last book? Her last piece of piano music and her last pair of slippers? Of course, as far as clothes went, she would have to replace underwear and shoes once in a great while – but not until she actually wore out everything that was in the stuffed closets and drawers upstairs. And then she would just replace things in kind – new white briefs for holey white briefs, a new navy pea coat for one that was in shreds, a new light blue cotton bed sheet when her toenail ripped a tear in the worn one.

Rachel rubbed her head harder. Was such a life possible? Other than what she could get at the library (and Rachel always read with a pencil in her hand so library books had limited appeal), Rachel would have to re-read the books that she had in the house. That might be a good thing – she had been meaning to revisit Middlemarch and The Magic Mountain for years. And she might be actually forced to really learn the old piano pieces. She owned all of the Bach inventions and piano suites – that was a lifetime of work right there. And she would have to listen to music she owned over and over again. That might be a good thing too – all too often she had listened to a piece of music once or twice and put it away. Same with clothes. It occurred to her that if she followed her plan she would have an absolute incentive not to gain weight. Another benefit.

She could decide there and then − she would decide − that she was going to spend the rest of her life with these things she already owned. These last things. She had had her last pet and had bought her last book. She would drive her car as long as she could and hope it would be her last. She would give up reading the book reviews in the Times on the lookout for new titles and read her old books instead. She would stop looking at circulars in the local paper and close the tabs on any web site that took credit cards. She would take very good care of her clothes and start recycling things from the back of her closet. She would not even think about moving again.

Her friend Gabby called to arrange lunch at their favorite diner the next day. Gabrielle Lautrec had an elegant French name, but she didn’t speak the language, had never been to Paris, and preferred unsophisticated greasy spoons for lunch where the only item on the menu that was French was the name of the fries. The only obviously European thing about Gabby was her habit of chain-smoking Gauloises, a French brand which she seemed to think elevated her habit to an existential statement. Smoking had kept Gabby elegantly thin, but it had also given her a lined face, smelly clothes, and the need to punctuate any meeting in a public place with visits outside to smoke a cigarette. Rachel had met Gabby at a beginners’ bridge class, a game that neither of them took to and never played once the class was over; Rachel harbored a secret suspicion that the only reason that Gabby kept up with her was that she allowed Gabby to smoke in her house. It was one of those situations which had gotten out of her control when Rachel had told Gabby it was fine when they were new acquaintances, and by the time Gabby became a regular visitor and Rachel realized how long it took to air out the house after she had been there, it was too late to make an issue of it.

This day, however, they were meeting at Mabel’s Diner in the center of town and when Rachel pulled up, Gabby was easy to pick out in her vivid purple linen dress and sapphire sandals (in Gabby’s mind, matching colors meant that bright went with bright); she was smoking by the entrance, and engaging in mutual glares of hatred with a yellow terrier chained to the bicycle rack. Rachel used the moment in the sun to tell Gabby about losing Stella, and Gabby expressed her condolences, giving Rachel a bony hug while still glowering at the dog. Gabby had hardly ever seen the cat since Stella hated the smell of smoke and always found the spot in the house most distant from the source when Gabby visited. And Rachel had never received any impression that Gabby was any fonder of cats than she was of the terrier that was currently getting the evil eye. But Gabby did seem to feel genuinely bad for Rachel.

“Are you going to get another cat?” They were seated and had ordered – Reuben with fries for Gabby and a house salad for Rachel, in accordance with her plan to continue fitting into her current wardrobe.

“No. No. Now that I’m not working, it will give me more freedom to travel. I’ll miss the company around the house though.”

Gabby chuckled. “If you want company, I’ll send Minni over anytime.” Minni was Gabby’s mother, who – although she did not smoke − suffered from emphysema and had lived with her daughter for the last decade. Gabby adored her mother, proving her love by smoking only in her own room with the door shut and the air filter on – yet, she loved to pose as the martyred daughter. Anyone who knew them, however, knew that the martyr was probably Minni. It was Minni’s money that allowed Gabby to work only part-time and at very low pay at the art gallery, and it was Minni who cooked and cleaned and listened to her daughter.

“Actually, losing Stella got me thinking. She was probably my last pet. Do you ever think about doing things or having things for the last time?”

“Never. I don’t think about death at all. But I definitely have had my first and last pet.”
Rachel looked at her friend, considering that anyone still chain-smoking probably had vigorous defenses against thoughts of death – but, then again, Gabby still had her eight-five year-old mother standing between her and the grim reaper. Rachel had never met Gabby’s “first and last pet,” but she had heard countless stories about her friend’s trials with a miniature Schnauzer who lived to an advanced age in order (according to Gabby) to spite her owner. Rachel paused for a moment, trying to decide whether to pursue the subject.

“Well, it occurred to me that one way to simplify life would be to stop. Just stop. Stop buying new things, stop considering changing things. Consider most stuff my last things.”

Gabby looked puzzled. “We have a copy of that Hieronymus Bosch painting at the gallery – ‘The Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Things.’ The ‘last things’ are hell, purgatory, heaven and the resurrection – I remember that from catechism. Give me the seven deadly sins any day − including greed and gluttony, two of my favorites. This doesn’t just sound like you’re thinking about death – sounds more like you’re pulling down the coffin lid before the body is cold. Yuck. Maybe you’re just depressed about the cat. I was going to ask you if you wanted to go shopping after this – I need something wild to wear to the opening for Frank – that new photographer the gallery is showing. The guy who shoots into the top of volcanoes. Something orange. I need something orange.”

Rachel assured Gabby that she would be happy to go in pursuit of orange with her, even though she needed nothing herself. Gabby then excused herself to have a last Gauloise before the food arrived. While Gabby was gone, Rachel considered her friend’s analysis and asked herself whether she had really given up on life. Was she just depressed about losing Stella? Should she be more like her friend, daring death with her French cigarettes and her flamboyant clothes?

By the time that Rachel opened the door to her empty condo, it was five o’clock, and after an afternoon in the mall with Gabby, she was rededicated to her project of last things. She had bought nothing, while Gabby had dithered for hours before buying a gauzy orange pantsuit and bright red sandals. Rachel reheated some leftover lentil soup and spread hummus on toast and considered how she would spend her evening. She didn’t want to watch a movie – that was an activity that she and Stella had shared. For Stella, a two hour movie meant some lap time (while Rachel was seated and sipping espresso) and even more time on a warm chest (when the espresso was gone and Rachel stretched out the length of the couch). Besides, Rachel decided she had had enough sound track for the day and decided to read. Stella had always hated competing with a book, so while she might stay in the same room with the reader, she kept her distance.

Picking a book was not easy. On a night like this – a night when distraction was a high priority – a murder mystery would have been Rachel’s choice, and the old Rachel would very likely have picked up a paperback at the mall. But there was no book from the mall and, while there were some mysteries on her bookshelves, mysteries were not good re-reading material. Even if you seemed to have forgotten the plot, by the time you got to the middle, it had come back to you and you knew who the fiend was. No fun. Now is the time to start my new regimen, she thought, and picked up her old copy of Middlemarch and began to read once again about the austere Dorothea Brooke: “Miss Brooke had the kind of beauty that seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” Rachel knew that she had never been beautiful, but she reflected that perhaps her life might be thrown into relief by fewer and older possessions.

Later that evening, Rachel went looking for some Bach to listen to, and ended up re-organizing the hodgepodge of CD’s and cassette tapes in the cabinet under her stereo system. She had been meaning to throw out her old cassettes for years – the only cassette player she had now was an old boom box in the kitchen, but she thought she might get desperate for variety and she started to also sort the cassettes. Rachel had not looked at them in years and they turned out to be a treasure trove of music – from Glenn Gould to Joan Baez – that she had mostly forgotten she even owned. She started to put aside some of her old favorites to listen to and then started to wonder if they wouldn’t sound better on a component she could put through her stereo system. Then Rachel caught herself. The boom box worked fine, and could be moved to any room in the condo. When the Bach was over, she put on Joni Mitchell (“Big Yellow Taxi”) in the kitchen while she made herself a cup of herbal tea to accompany her (and Dorothea) to bed.

Rachel had always had a sense of self-discipline, but even she was surprised with how well she stuck to her new regime. For three months, she read old books (except for two murder mysteries she borrowed from the library), wore her old clothes, listened to music she owned (or the radio), and immediately threw into the recycling bin all the catalogues that came to the house. She had been pleasantly surprised when the next credit card contained nothing but grocery and gasoline charges. She would have no trouble keeping to her budget at this rate. And she was enjoying herself thoroughly. From Middlemarch, she progressed to The Magic Mountain and then decided to lighten things up by reading some Twain before she tackled Moby Dick (which she had started every summer and never finished). As she re-read books, she did mostly remember the plots, but two things happened – she slowed down and found that she got much more in tune with what the story was about when she wasn’t racing to see what happened and to get on with the next book. There was no sense in hurrying. She might have a limited amount of time left in her life, but she also had a limited number of books.

Rachel also spent more time taking care of things. She spent an entire morning cleaning out her microwave and then moved on to the toaster, which spilled out enough crumbs to keep the neighborhood birds busy for two days. She reorganized her closet, discovering lost treasures and worn-out sentimental favorites. She took her old sewing machine in to be cleaned and set in order so she could repair clothes; she looked up how to darn on the internet. On her hands and knees in front of the bathroom vanity, she pulled out all the shampoos, body creams, and medical remedies that she had either bought or been given over the years and had tucked away when lured by the attractions of a new product. She was surprised to find that she had enough shampoo and lotion to last a year. Some of the perfumed stuff was really too awful to consider, however, and this went in the trash along with the medicines that were past their expiration date. Everything else was grouped to be used until it was gone. CVS was going to have to do without her for a while.

Rachel did stop talking to people about her new system. After Gabby, she had tried to explain her initiative to Sybil. Sybil’s reaction was just as negative as Gabby’s, but for different reasons.

“You will get behind the times. What will you even talk to people about? It’s bad enough that the kids think we all emerged from the Dark Ages.” Sybil had two grown daughters and was desperate to be a greater presence in their lives than they seemed to appreciate. Both had moved great distances from home and seldom returned, but Sybil employed a combination of phone calls and e-mail that kept up a steady barrage on their privacy.

“I don’t seem to have trouble talking to people.” Rachel felt characteristically defensive with her sister. “Mostly people want to talk about the weather.”

“Well, it sounds like you have taken a vow of poverty or something. Like a Benedictine nun living according to the Rules of the Order. Have you gotten religion or something? There are enough rules in life without making things up.”

Rachel thought about this for a minute and wanted to think about it longer, but she did not want to talk to her sister about it. “Well, it’s cheap. I’m saving money.”

Sybil gave a dry laugh. “For what? There’s no one to leave it to but your nieces – not that they wouldn’t appreciate it. Anyway, it sounds boring.”

But Rachel found that it was anything but boring. What was boring was arguing with her sister. “I guess I’m just boring then.” She also made a mental note to get a will prepared and leave everything to the SPCA. And then she started thinking about what Sybil said about rules. As far as she could tell, everyone lived according to all kinds of rules – or tried to. Don’t drive drunk, cheat on your spouse, bathe at least once a day, keep certain body parts hidden most of the time. And it wasn’t as if the rules had not changed over time. In her grandmother’s day, bathing took place once a week and more body parts were hidden. Rules were not written in stone; they changed over time and circumstance. The difference was that Rachel was constructing her own rules, and she did not find it constricting at all. Rather, it felt empowering, and she actually felt more liberated in having fewer choices. And more time. Making decisions took time and energy. If she wasn’t going to learn new recipes, read new books, research new movies – she would have more leisure to enjoy the old ones. Slowly. Variety may have dwindled, but life seemed to have expanded in some way.

There were moments of decision. It came time to have her hair cut and colored; she had a standing appointment for this operation every six weeks. Rachel couldn’t image never cutting her hair and so she went ahead with the appointment. She talked with her hairdresser, though, about not having it colored again – just letting the gray grow out for a couple of months and then cutting it all short. Dominique was appalled, but the idea appealed to Rachel and she said she would call when it had grown out enough. Another moment of decision came when her subscription to local summer theater came due. She decided that she had always gone to four plays in the summer and she would continue. But Rachel thought about such things very deliberately and found the process satisfying.

She stopped looking at men as possible dates or mates. If some bearded man engaged her in conversation in the market, she didn’t try to extrapolate from the contents of his grocery cart with whom he co-habited. And she found that she had longer and nicer conversations on this basis and decided that she must no longer look predatory. Nor did she feel predatory – and it was not just men. Rachel was pleasant, but stopped seeing every new acquaintance as a potential new friend; however, she did look up some old ones that she had neglected. She was perfectly happy to live out her life in her house, surrounded by her things, her last things.

Rachel had to admit to herself, however, that it was sometimes lonely in the condo, and it was not human companionship that she missed. Rachel had never taken the cat carrier, dishes, and litter box to the shelter. They had been cleaned and stood nestled together in her utility room. Every time she opened the louvered door to get a mop or check the hot water heater or find a flower pot, Rachel told herself that she had to take a ride over to the shelter. But she never did. And when she thought about this, she found it very odd. It was, after all, the loss of Stella and her immediate decision to not replace her that started this new covenant under which she was happily living. But still, she missed something to talk to (cats might give only quizzical or disdainful reactions, but plants gave none) or something to hug (even if it squirmed out of your arms when the affection was other-initiated). Yet so much of the rest of it had worked out so well. She was saving money; she could afford to travel if she wanted. Her life was richer, less hectic, more meaningful. It seemed a shame to start to concede on this one issue, to go down the slope that would lead to afternoons in the mall agonizing over clothes, half-reading every new novel that hit the best-seller list, lusting over a new car.

She decided to compromise. She would get an adult cat and name her Stella.