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Words for Talulah

In death, as in life, I cling to words. I keep wanting to write phrases like, “my heart is breaking” or “our lives will never be the same,” and then I want to kick myself that such pale and simplistic platitudes are what come to mind. The problem is that in situations so complicated, so nuanced, so deep-within sorrowful, what is there really to say? All these letters, ordered in this way, to make whatever words, are incomplete. I want to say that they are false. I write “false.” But again, language has failed, because that is not true. My heart does feel like it’s breaking, it’s broken, but also hearts in the body don’t break. They are not glass or ceramic, or even bone. They are muscle and the blood keeps flowing in my veins and so it is not true that my heart has broken or stopped. It is true that Talulah’s has though. It’s true that her intestines were obstructed and that cancer had spread through her body.

The day I took her to the specialist at the hospital in one of the closest big cities, I talked to three doctors, two nurses, and three reception administrators. I listened to each word carefully. The words I used were careful, specific. I tell my writing students, diction is everything. Is this the kind of speaker/narrator/character who says “shit” or who says “defecate?” I don’t tell the doctors that Talulah “threw up,” I say her small body shuddered and an explosion of more liquid than I’ve seen come out of her became putrid on the floor. I don’t tell them it smelled “bad,” I tell them it smelled “putrid.” Doctors, like writers, are interested in the details. They know that possessing one detail can change a prognosis, what test to run, which illnesses might be suspects. When she stopped eating, I don’t just tell them she stopped eating, I explain how she used to eat. Trotting (not running, not walking) into the kitchen, sitting patiently while Scratch paces and meows, eager for food. I put her bowl down first because she eats slow. She smells it. She takes a few tentative licks, as if this is not the same brand of food she has been eating for the last few years, the one we found that she would actually eat because she has always been so picky. I tell them that’s when she’d eat, after the smelling and the licking, and looking up to see if Scratch was eating (we usually call it “going to town,” he is so enthusiastic in his eating). Then she eats half of what’s in her bowl. Like a stereotypical woman on a diet, she almost never cleaned her plate. Tuna was the closest she usually came to any kind of full eating commitment. Tuna from the can, packed in water. Not cat food tuna, or tuna from the squeezed dry envelope. It was when after trying multiple flavors of familiar foods, buying new foods, seeing her eat a little less each day, then the one day we gave her this very specific tuna, the one thing she always ate, from the can, packed in water, and she didn’t eat it; I got my class covered and immediately took her to the doctor.

This first doctor had no words. There were tests and medication and a return visit in 48 hours. Then again, no more words. That is when I am most afraid. “I wish I could tell you,” Talulah’s primary care physician kept saying. “I wish I could tell you exactly what is wrong.” What she meant was that she had no words for the cause of the symptoms. She knew something was wrong, scary wrong. She used the word “scary.” “It’s when we don’t know that it is the most scary,” she said. And I agree.

The specialist we saw 24 hours later, he was careful with his words. He said “masses.” Not tumors, not cyst, not lump. Because they did not know what it was, just that there was a crowding, a grouping, some thing or things blocking the intestine. And there was a large lymph node. That word is specific. When the specialist leaves the room, I look it up. I’ve heard that word. It is not one word, but two – I’ve heard that phrase. It is always said in the same breath as cancer. I know that word too. I type these two words in a text message to my partner who is waiting to get word from me. I make sure to give him the right words, the exact words I am told. My text message is half in quotation marks so he knows I am quoting. We are people who take language seriously. We teach students not to plagiarize, to “give credit, where credit is due.” When you paraphrase, you are taking both major and minor points from the source and that requires a citation. Even paraphrasing is too sloppy for this moment. Only quotations. He is also looking up these words. I can picture him, three hours away at home, on our couch, the laptop in front of him, our other cat, Scratch, on the couch beside him (maybe alongside him, he is also worried, a concept cats don’t express in English, but in words of their own language) – together they are typing “lymphoma” and “surgery.”

I do not like the words used by the second doctor. He is not yet practiced in giving the patient the benefit of both medical language and plain explanation. He is either using jargon or oversimplifying. I ask specific follow up questions based on specific words from the sentences he says and he looks confused. His confusion regarding my interrogation of his language makes me upset. I keep looking at his teeth. They are very straight and very white. I wonder if he whitens them to make the words that come out of this commercial-worthy mouth seem more trustworthy. I do not trust his whitening. I understand what he is saying, but only in the oversimplified way he thinks I need, which is not what I need. He doesn’t know any words for numbers. I ask for percentages. I use the word “ballpark” for him. He looks athletic. “I just need a ballpark estimate,” I say. “I know this isn’t a hard answer, I know this isn’t a clear indication of outcome, I just want as much information as possible.” He leaves the room to find the words from someone else.

I like the way the third doctor uses words. He is the primary surgeon and clearly more experienced. He uses words that tells me that he trusts that I am smart, even though he doesn’t know yet whether I am or not. He doesn’t rely on either jargon or oversimplification. He does not oversimplify anything. He uses the specific medical terms, then he explains them in detail, in non-medical language, and then he tells stories of what has happened to other dogs and cats who have had to confront these words. He is experienced both in words and in medicine. He has seen this before and he is able to communicate in narrative and I trust him because like me, he knows the power of cuentos. He does not call them that, I’m sure, but that is my word and that word holds power for me. That word does not have to belong to us both, because the meaning of the word does and that’s what counts.

During the whole process, I begin to lose words, even while I gain new ones. After surgery, Talulah’s eyes have mucus in the corners and the fur circling the eyes looks slick. I can’t think of the word “mucus,” I forget the word “gunky” (how my mom would refer to it – eye gunk). I point and stutter and say mocos. “What is all this mocos around her eyes?” I look at my partner. I don’t know why I can’t think of any other word in that moment. The nurse says, “Oh, mucus? Yes . . .” and she explains about the solution put on a pet’s eyes to keep them lubricated during surgery and recovery.

I am trying to use lighthearted language when I talk to Talulah. “Hola flaca,” I say to her and kiss her small head. I stroke the fur along her spine (which is too prominent, each notch on the spine pronounced). I say, “You’re my flacita now, huh?” My partner asks what that means. I think that I forgot he wouldn’t know that word. In retrospect, I think I said it because it sounds kinder, more gentle than “skinny,” than “weak.” Skinny and weak are so pointy. The long arms of the “k’s,” the peaks and falls of the “w,” the tinny drop of the double “n’s.” I prefer the short curves of the “a’s” and the “c.” Besides, Talulah is the one who practices my Spanish with me so in this mountainous land so far away from home I don’t lose what I already have – my slang, my California street Spanglish, the phrases my grandmother and I use together. Talulah is also who I practice with when trying to learn more broadly conversational Spanish. She would sit on my lap while I wrapped my tongue around conjugations. Practiced the “tu” phrases, since so much of my Spanish is childish in it’s “I” focus or “to be” forms. “¿Quieres agua?” I’d say and pat the sink for her to jump up. “¿Tiene un ratón?” I’d ask when she had her toy.

In the two weeks between finding out she is sick and her body’s passing, I tell as few people as possible. In life, as in death, I cling to words. Words make things real. If I say “lymphoma,” the disease has a signifier, it is signified. If I post it on Facebook, it will always exist. The words will float out into the abyss of internet where they can never be deleted; they will have the potential to pop up on the feeds of my 650+ Fb friends who will add more words in the form of questions, to which I may or may not have words to answer. But I need to tell some people. I need a few words, just enough words from our closest loved ones to feel like there is a cloud of kind words, loving words which could bind together as a net, help keep us buoyed long enough to find out how long the words “lymphoma,” “masses,” “surgery,” “recovery,” “chemo,” “ileus,” “aspirate,” will be in our everyday vocabulary.

In the 60 hours since Talulah’s body went limp in my arms, and the 28 and a half hours since we chose to announce our loss online, we have received many loving and supportive messages. I find myself writing over and over, “thank you for kind words,” “thank you for your loving words.” I am thankful for their thoughts, but it is only through their words that I know their thoughts. Some thoughts I can feel, and in my more attune moments, my calm moments, I think I can feel sentiments and vibrations from the living earth around me, but right now, I only want to feel Talulah’s presence, her head on my shoulder the last time, the weak beating of her heart against my own. I cannot focus on the thoughts of others, so it is their words that I see and read out loud, and therefore feel solid.

In death, as in life, I cling to words. This is why I do not use the words “good bye” or “see you later.” I whispered to Talulah, “please haunt us.” My partner says the word, “energy.” Her energy is with us, which is why the words “good bye” are inaccurate. My mom tells me over the phone yesterday that she believes in heaven and that we will all be reunited with our loved ones, human and otherwise. I don’t tell her the word “heaven” has little meaning for me, and even if it did, I cannot wait that long. I just say the word Talulah, because names are the most powerful words. I will say her name over and over so we can hear the words that mean we are home.

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“Swearing was invented as a compromise between running away and fighting.” 

― Peter Finley Dunne



“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” 
― Charles Bukowski

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