Thursday, February 11, 2010


Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of my cat Seymour. I've assigned the event to February 11 though it may have been the 12th. I do know the last time I saw him was on the evening of the 11th when I visited the vet's office and spent a little time with him. He had been having kidney and stomach problems and lost more than 20% of his body weight, going from a jolly 19 pounds to a stocky 14.5 in just a few days. I knew the prognosis was not good. His body was mostly rejecting the IV fluids. Sadly, for animals, kidney problems don't go away and often have no solution. This was especially true for a 16-year old cat. 

Still, I had hope on the 11th. The vet's assistant brought me to a clean white room with a bunch of average-sized and large cages, most of which were empty. Seymour was the only creature in his section, on the near right side of the room. They gave him one of the large cages. The cage door was opened for me and I got to interact with him for a short time. Careful not to dislodge the IV tube in his wrist, I gently petted him and he gave me a sweet but distant look. He appeared exhausted and just too skinny. When I rubbed his belly even more gently, his eyes came to life and I felt him purr for a moment. When I rubbed the back of his head, he looked genuinely at peace. He closed his eyes. If this was the last time he saw me, I wanted him to remember peace and comfort. I kept my hand there for a moment as he kept his eyes closed. I then pulled away slowly, closing the door carefully as I hoped he'd drift into sleep. As he lay there with his head on a towel and a clear tube feeding liquids through his white fur, I didn't want to leave him. But when he half-opened and glanced at me for a second, I just whispered goodbye and walked away. He didn't want me to see him suffer. And he didn't want him to see me cry.
The veterinarian that had been treating Seymour called early the next morning. He said Seymour passed away in the night, that his body kept rejecting the fluid, that his kidney just wasn't working, that 16 years is a long life for a cat. I never asked for a time of death so I've chosen to assume that it happened before midnight, thus ensuring that his pain didn't extend to February 12.

I expect that the anniversary of Seymour's death may one day pass without notice, on my part. I remember after my father died in 1995, I feared that as I approached his April birthday or the June anniversary of his death, it would all hit me hard, months of pent up emotions spilling out of me. But that didn't really happen. First of all, time changes everything. mourning evolves into merely remembering. Eventually, the days passed with little notice. That hasn't happened with Seymour's death. The emotions weren't really stuck inside me over that time. We live with our important losses in our everyday lives. We can't hide them.

We expect the death of a loved one to crush and devastate us but we're resilient. We go to work. We go to sleep. We have dinner with old friends and cousins and, when we go through entire days without bringing up the missing ones, we think we're okay. But the loss is recognizable, to those around us. So, if I haven't been myself these past 12 months - and it's true, I have not - I apologize.

Over the weekend, I was talking with a friend about what it means when someone (a man, usually) loves something (his record collection, a sports team, etc.) too much, to the detriment of his ability to actually love someone (another person). My friend and I were listening to a radio interview of an author whose novel featured a character obsessed with the "soundtrack of his life" - the songs that impacted him at particular times in his life. For this character, the obsession manifested itself in such a way that he became an overzealous collector of the physical manifestations of the songs (records, ticket stubs, cassettes, liner notes, etc.). Each object, the author and his interviewer argued, took him farther away from the thing he should have been "collecting" - actual human contact. Or actual life experience. 

One could argue that each object took the book's character away from the song itself, that his relationship with its sound and words and melody was the true human life experience and the rest was all just packaging. In The 40 Year-Old Virgin (a film that touched me deeply), the main character collects superhero action figures in their original boxes. It is not until he gets rid of his "toy collection" that he is able to break out of his isolation and become a (non-virginal) man. I'm simplifying what happened but I think it was the film's one mistake. There was no need for Steve Carell to sell his dolls. His was too smart of a character to live a life where action figures replace human contact. All he needed was to connect with the right person and, though she was the one who convinced him to get rid of his toys, Catherine Keener was the right person. (When is Catherine Keener not the right person?)

How does this all relate to Seymour? The radio interview I cite above reminded me of another film, High Fidelity. A major theme running through the movie and the book its based on is that of a man in love with his music more than his girlfriend. One scene, seemingly played for laughs but truly meaningful, features that man - John Cusack's character - trying to resolve a conflict between two other music-obsessed men, played by Jack Black and that one guy who looks like Moby. 

Black's character enters the record store where all three of them work, eager to play his new mix tape. He hears the song that's playing - Seymour Stein by Belle and Sebastian - and is enraged. He doesn't need this sad mopey maudlin pop. He turns off the music, replacing it with a song that, mathematically, is Seymour Stein's opposite, Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves. Then Jack Black dances maniacally, the Moby guy mopes, and Cusack calms everyone down and tries to resolve the conflict. In a lesser film, this would be the moment when Cusack realizes just how over the top his own music obsessions are. But this was a good film based on a great book and the main character's distance from his girlfriend was about a lot more than music. He had some other life inventory to complete, before coming to terms with love.
Let's go back to Seymour Stein, the much maligned Belle & Sebastian song that I feel ranks as one of the greatest ever. Ostensibly, it's about a couple of members of the Scottish band having a meal in America with Seymour Stein, the legendary record executive, sung from the perspective of one of the other band members who couldn't make it to dinner. The song is written as if he is singing to Stein himself. But running through the song is a heartbreaking longing for a lost innocence, an innocence lost the moment the band started having meals with record executives. The band (in song and in real life) never signed with Stein's label, Sire, They went with Matador. Still, the song became a symbol for the band and their transformation (I'm exaggerating here)  from cuddly indie-rock darlings to distant, stilted superstars writing songs about being famous. People - even their fans - hated that song. It was one of the band's songs written by the band's "secondary" songwriter/vocalist Stevie Jackson, the guy who's not Stuart Murdoch. I love Murdoch's songs but I've always felt that Jackson - who writes about two songs per album - is underrated and underutilized as a writer. If, at a Belle & Sebastian show, a fan yells out for Seymour Stein, he/she is likely to be beaten senseless by a gang of lanky wool-scarved bespectacled men, all of them former baristas well-versed in the more obscure of the martial arts.

But this was not a song about Scottish sellouts. The look on the face of (the guy who looks like) Moby in that scene when Jack Black violently interrupted Seymour Stein was one of shock and heartbreak. He loved that song and suddenly he's powerless to play it again. That song's hypnotic graces got to him. I don't know why he loved that song but I know why I loved it. I sang it to my cat all the time. When I came home from work and saw him run like a fat jaguar to the door, I crooned "Seymour Stein, I've been lonely." On those mornings when I'd wake up and feel particularly down and I'd find Seams still sleeping on my feet, I'd sing "Seymour, send her back to me." 

I knew I'd be writing something today that would attempt to tie together Seymour's death, High Fidelity, and the song Seymour Stein. The 40 Year-Old Virgin part was unexpected. But I truly didn't know where it would take me. I've told people that Seymour was "my favorite creature ever - human or non-human." So, during his 16 years, was it possible that I was giving him too much of my love, to the detriment of others - humans - who deserved love (family members, girlfriends, myself)? Or could it be that the love I felt for Seymour was just a substitute for the love I felt for my similarly named dad who died two years after Seymour was born. No, love is not zero-sum. Love can be infinite. I can love them both. Seymour is not my father, just as he is not the action figure or the long lost b-side needed to complete my collection (e.g., Lifter Puller's Bitchy Christmas or Prefab Sprout's Radio Love (on vinyl)). Seymour was a cat I loved and still love. The love was real and the sadness hasn't gone away.

And I haven't remembered that quite well enough. In the past 12 months, I've retreated into a greater sense of solitude, content to let friendships or other kinds of connections just fade away because it's just easier that way, because I won't be devastated again by one sudden movement and one early morning phone call. I'm filled with great ideas. I love ideas. I share the ideas. I start the work on these ideas. But I never finish. Through it all, I feel like I am too delicately getting by in life, that I walk away from what's difficult because to not to do so would be catastrophic (not a pun).

I talk a lot. I write often. But I have too many notebooks with writing on the first few pages and nothing on the next 80 pages. I have too many conversations that devolve into monologues. I have no shortage of thoughts. But I do feel a shortage of love, both given and received. I have an idea where some of it went. It went away with Seymour and with Samir, 14 years earlier. I just need to remember what I said moments ago: love is infinite, that the disappeared love is different in nature from the love that could be waiting for me around any corner.

Seymour, this one is for you:


Anonymous said...

You're right, Ali. Love *is* infinite and it never goes away, although it does change form. This is one of the great tragedies of Life...made even more so by our inability to see what is right in front of us, devastated as we are by what came before.

And you're right that love is right around the corner. It's right in front of you and beside you. I know for a fact it's been there for decades and remains steadfast and strong and all for you, despite the battering it’s taken.

It may not be who or what *you* want. This is another tragedy of Life: we can be loved deeply and still yearn for something else.

None of us really deserve Love, being the crappy human beings that we are. But we get it and it blinds us with its brilliance. The miracle is to stand up after we have been shattered by it.

Anonymous said...

1. You *do* have great ideas and you SHOULD share them. People believe in you.

2. It is my experience that Life is a Sassy Bitch and, if she wants to devastate you, she will, no matter how well insulated we think we are. So it’s best to jump in with a full heart, because to not do so causes a bigger catastrophe.

I wonder if you realize how your quest to avoid devastation (totally understandable) devastates those around you – and yourself. On the one hand, I hope not, because those kinds of realizations can be, well, devastating. On the other hand, the only way to ride the Wheel of Life is to stay in the center.

Anonymous said...

"And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." ~ Anais Nin