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A turn of a phrase

My cat died this week. It was tragic, really. He had a seizure, his body straining into a strange carnal whelp in his dying moments as my entire family stood above him in the foyer and watched, helpless. He was the gentlest animal I’ve ever dealt with personally, and I think everyone in my family had a tender spot in their heart for him.

My brother and I buried him in our backyard not long after, and as we did, I found tears coming to my eyes. Despite being a grown man with a cultural definition of masculinity and him only being a simple cat, I did not stop them.

The digging of the hole is often a cathartic experience for the sorrowful mourner, and I found myself taking my frustration with his death out on the tough, root-laden dirt, using vicious stabs with my shovel to tear it apart. When the hole was deep enough, we laid him within and dragged the dirt and grass and branches over the shallow grave, pounding them down with the shovel.

We stood together in the moonlight awkwardly over the grave, thinking about what to do or say, knowing that to turn and walk away in silence would not be sufficient. We paused, quietly, shifting our weight, looking down at the light brown dirt.

Then I said: “I’ll miss you buddy.”

And, after a moment, I continued: “So it goes.” It seemed fitting. Then we sauntered away into the darkness.

I’m sure most or you have read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. (If you haven’t, go read it now. Seriously. Billy Pilgrim may be a somewhat forgettable character, but the world he lives in certainly isn’t.) In the book, the aliens of tralfamadore have a phrase to summarize death: “So it goes.” The phrase acknowledges, to them, that death is but one of many moments in a life, no different than any other moment, no better or worse than any other time in a person’s life.

Of course, to human readers, (or just to me, at least) this symbolized that death is just another part of living, just another requirement of pulling in breath on this planet, and that it should be seen as much. It should be embraced and treated just as every other moment of a living being’s life, with emotion, with feeling, with tragedy. When I set down “Slaughterhouse Five” after finishing it in high school, the plot twists and turns soon drifted away from me, but that phrase–“so it goes”–clung to me like a sticky sweat.

It popped into my mind at random, seemingly irrelevant points in my day throughout high school and into college. I blurted it out drunkenly at parties for no apparent reason, ruining my chances with women. I scribbled it on pieces of paper before realizing I had done so. In short, it became part of my lexicon, part of my subconscious, part of me. It represented an ideal, an understanding about death, that has framed how I view the world.

(Aside:When Vonnegut died, and I hope Kurt’s up in Heaven now, I was in college, and I ended up at a party a little drunk for my own good. Long story short, I wound up wandering about campus in the middle of the night with a piece of chalk, scribbling some of Kurt’s best phrases, including “so it goes”, on sidewalks and the sides of buildings. I completely forgot about doing it until I saw the phrase “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved” written on the sidewalk like three days later. I momentarily got excited that someone else idolized Vonnegut on my campus and honored his death, but, alas, the memory of squatting to write it in a drunken stupor came flooding back to me.)

At moments like the one in my backyard a few days ago, that phrase helps me cope emotionally. The next day, I pondered how that had happened: how a supposedly meaningless, near gibberish phrase could turn into something I rely on in emotional moments.

And the answer came through the way I experienced them. Vonnegut took a phrase, as he loved to do, that had a bare, simple meaning and turned into something that seemed profound. (See: Welcome to the Monkey House, Cat’s Cradle.) But the words he used were not nearly as important as the concept he presented. The concept, I think, had always lingered somewhere in my mind as a vague cloud that I had trouble conceptualizing, let alone understanding it. Kurt was able to draw thick, black lines around that cloud and color it in– he let me truly see it.

And that’s the point of this post, I guess. He used words to capture that complicated concept of death because he was a writer. That sounds obvious, I know, but stay with me. Songwriters could capture the same concept in a series of notes, and those notes would linger with me. (Puff the Magic Dragon’s chords gives me a strong longing for a time of innocence, for example.) A director and an actor could implant an image in mind that would forever capture a feeling. Of course, all of these mediums use words, but these use other forms of art to make an emotional impression. Writers, in the end, only have their words. To capture that powerful concept, they can never show it nor describe it fully–the amount of time it takes to describe the concept, in my opinion, undermines the power of it. Rather, the simplest way is to instill it symbolically into a seemingly innocuous group of words. Although they do it only for their story, we are humans, and we do not forget so easily. That innocuous phrase is never the same. It becomes something powerful… something more. (Curse you, Linda Ellerbee, and your signoff. Billy Joel, on the other hand, captured the mood of the phrase nicely, in my opinion.)

As much as Vonnegut did that, another author has done that quite powerfully in his work. George R.R. Martin, in his “A Song of Ice and Fire”, gives a special meaning to innocuous words. Rather than influence the audience, however, he does it for the characters. *MINOR SPOILERS ALERT* For Jon Snow: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” For Tyrion, “Where do Whores go?” For Dany, “If I look back, I fall” or something stupid like that (I dunno– I hate the Dany chapters. Quite boring.) All of these phrases are seemingly meaningless. If you haven’t read the series, for example, they come across as anytime phrases with no depth. But Martin instills into those words the emotional experience surrounding them. For spoiler reasons, I won’t discuss the actual events, but those words come about at arguably the most important moment of those characters’ lives. This is just another example of George’s skill as a writer. Rather than have Jon or Tyrion constantly reminisce about the events, he instills the emotional memory of those events into a few words, and uses those words throughout the books as a portal to transport the character back to that memory. If it were a visual art, he could flashback to one image–they do it all the time. Or, he could use sound. (For you “The Wire” aficianados, how much emotional resonance does this tune have?) But writers have only one option, and they must use it well. They must turn a phrase into so much more.

I think this realization will help my writing, or I hope at least. Words are and will always be simply symbols, but in the hands of a good writer, they became more than just symbols. They became identifiers, definers, sparks of emotion. From Vonnegut to Martin, they can be used as tools to understand ourselves and the world around us.

I guess I wrote this all just to come to terms with the death of my cat, or, at least, to understand why I handled it the way I did. After evaluating, I can only thank Kurt, for he helped me to understand death a little more, to ease the pain, if only in the slightest. I wonder how many readers he has touched on that level. In my writing, I hope that I can get to a handful of people at that depth.

But, for now, I can think more fondly of my cat. To you, Asher, I can only say: So it goes. In the future, when that phrase drifts across my mind, it will make me think of you and smile.