by J.M. Phillippe
Two days before Christmas, I had to put my beloved cat Oscar down.
The holidays have been hard for me for a very long time. Grief is like a shadow that is always with you, but changes size and shape depending on what light is around. On the brightest moments of the brightest days, the shadow can shrink down so small you can’t even tell it’s there. Other times, it stretches out so far, it’s the only thing you can see.
The shadows that bother me the most are the ones that come after dark; cast by the light of streetlamps and headlights, they pile up two or three at a time, and are rarely still. There is no true dark where I live in Brooklyn, just as there is no actual silence, just various levels of noise you learn to live with. As such, my nights are filled with shadows.
Christmas lights throw their own particular shadows. The lights are my favorite part of the holiday, and I relish in the opportunity to throw them up on windows, and keep my (fake) tree up as long as possible to help ease the passing of dark-too-long days. I am struggling now with wanting to keep them up even longer, because there is already so much change in my small apartment with my cat gone. I am haunted by the shape of his absence: the lack of warmth against my legs when I sleep, the missing noise of him jumping up or down from things, the many places and things he is not laying on or in. His loss thickens the others that have come before: my grandparents, my brother, and my mother, not to mention other beloved pets. Every time I look for him and he’s not there, I think of the phone calls I can’t make, the people I can no longer hug, and the memories that are fixed and fading.
The passing of a new year is of course something worth celebrating, but it is also something that triggers my grief. Every new turn of the calendar adds to the time after someone I love passed. Every time I count down how long it’s been, I am newly shocked and thrown back into those early days of denial. No, really? It can’t have been that long already… And yet, it is.
Recently I heard someone talk about regression to the mean, a concept in statistics that states that if a variable is extreme on the first measurement, it will be closer to the average on the second (and vice versa). How I understand it from a clinical standpoint is that all things in life — the very big moments either good or bad — eventually return to a sort of baseline. The baseline itself may change over time, but the mean, the average, the day-to-day — we all come back to it eventually.
What I tell my clients is that if you want to see your overall progress toward something, you can’t look at a single data point — a single good day or bad day. You have to look at the trend over time to see if it’s moving in the right direction.
I am not sure what direction I want my life to move in, other than a vague urge to want to have a sense of progress. The loss of a pet is inevitable, if you live long enough, and I knew what I was getting into when I adopted my cat. In fact, I was more aware of the potential of his loss than pretty much any other loss in my life, and that in itself is a gift he gave me. Knowing our days together were naturally numbered, helped me better understand the nature of life and loss.
In the meantime, what I want most from 2018 is a regression to the mean. It will come — the grief will be less acute, the days will stay lighter longer, and the shadows will feel less omnipresent. I’ll adjust to a new normal, and, as heartbreaking as it sounds, not having him in my life will feel as normal as having him in life did for over a decade.
My one and only New Year’s Resolution is to give myself time. Time to grieve, time to heal, time to write, time to breathe, time to sleep, time to create, time to just be. Next year will come (if I am lucky), and I won’t have to do anything except let the days go by as they are wont to do.
In the meantime, I may keep my tree up until at least the end of January. Some things I’m just not ready to let go of yet.
J.M. Phillippe is the author of Perfect Likeness and the short story The Sight. She has lived in the deserts of California, the suburbs of Seattle, and the mad rush of New York City. She works as a clinical social worker in Brooklyn, New York and spends her free time binge-watching quality TV, drinking cider with amazing friends, and learning the art of radical self-love, one day at a time.