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The Cat in the Box and the Things We Can’t Explain

There was a cat in the old biology room. It was splayed out in a shadow box, covered with a cream sheet. I was rarely in the room, but my eyes were always pulled toward the box when I was. I felt like I shouldn’t look. The sheet itself says, “don’t look over here.” But it was uncovered once, and I had a visceral reaction to it, muscles tensing against the picture, my eyes darting to and away, only able to see a few seconds worth at a time, but always looking back again. I had to look. Not for class, just for my own curiosity - the perverse thing that probably killed the cat in the first place. It was what I could have expected: a garble of innards turned brown, stuffed and protruding, arms and legs pinned out like the Vitruvian Man.

Nothing in us cheers at that kind of unswathing, even in the wake of the good it does. We simply bear with it. I can remember giggling awkwardly through a dissection, and really, the laughter is an uneasy expression of our discomfiture. Who, really, loves to touch and explore death? It’s the loop play of our own mortality, the way there’s always one more dead being to pull apart and study. It’s curious the way our preserving bent as humans juxtaposes with our insatiable curiosity, the need we have to know. The way we see and touch, the answer literally pressed against our finger tips, as close as we can get, but that we still can’t understand. We do what we can, chalk dissection up as a necessary evil, and box and ship the things to classes.

I’ve been picturing this cat a lot recently. It was one of those back-of-the-mind memories that I’d forgotten completely until some present thing conjured it back. There’s some serious sickness on both sides of the family, blighting us all under the heavy strain of it. There’s a lot of praying and wondering and asking easy questions to avoid the pointed ones. It’s been hard. And one day, despite me, there was the cat, stretched out in its corner with its unwanted connection. I muddled around it in my quieter moments. I couldn’t care less about the cat itself - the bygone memory of a cat in a box, hopefully in some landfill by now. But I was upset that my mind immediately pared my family circumstances with the thing; it seemed icky and made me uncomfortable.

After a week of punishing my brain over the possibilities, trying badly to let the memory go or else find meaning in all the details, I broke down and brought it to my husband. The ever casual – “I’ve been thinking about a dead cat for a while now, why do you think that is?” We were in the bedroom where I’d been all day sick with the flu, a snowy mountain of tissues on the floor, me sitting under the pile of blankets I’d been nesting in all day. He had been beside me in the bed and nodded as I explained – me trying to cover my bases and not sound overly morbid. He said it made sense and then went quiet, walking over to the closet. From the other side of the door, he said, slightly muffled, “There’s this song by the band Mutemath, and there’s this verse that says, ‘we stare at the sun / But we never see anything there.’” I snorted, the band and the quote taking me off guard, picturing this blind fool gazing up at the sun. I imagined the black spots holing his world as he glances back down, wondering briefly if he’s looked too long and if he’ll ever be able to see again. The quote felt relievedly stupid, but it made a lot of sense. And more than that, what my husband said made me feel like I wasn’t crazy or alone. He got it. And that somehow, this unforeseen connection wasn’t untasteful as much as it was a desperate attempt to understand the horrible curve balls life throws at us. To conjure a vile image against a heartbreaking reality and say, “this explains something. This is connected in some feeble, but revelatory way, and I think I can walk forward with that.”

It’s a funny climax, but that’s the extent of it. No grand revelation from the dead cat, just this confounding mystery that comes from not being God. I often think of how progressive we are, compared to the bleeding and leeching ages past, and the even more horrific things prior. I wonder how we’ll seem to the future, if we find sure-fire cures for cancers and diabetes and a host of other incurables. Maybe we always think, in part, that we’re nearing the top of the mountain. And I’m not dissing all the work people have done to know what we do. It’s just, for all our history, we’ve cut past flesh, broken open bones, seen the marrow, and we still don’t get it. We don’t know every nuance of everything and we lose more cases than we want.

I’d say I’m comfortable with this, but subliminally I’m not – not that we don’t know but that we have zero control to surgically ascertain, for certain, the success story, which is what I want. I don’t want to sit in the waiting room, or wait at home for the text. I want the 100% guaranteed remission rate. Which is to say, frustratingly, that I want to be god – the thing I desperately don’t want to want. We’re complex beings, if we allow ourselves to follow our thoughts one after the other, and God knows this. Because, at the same time, I find our limits comforting, that we don’t know and we can’t know but that He does, and He isn’t unkind. “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” starts playing in my head, which is childish, but true. If He spoke out the world, He can heal a couple family members. And I know we’re not promised all the healing and medical miracles, but I will fervently pray until a conclusion comes. So, it all comes to the age old, “why do bad things happen to good people?” And I grant you that I sit in the very presence of that answer, pleading at the feet of the merciful interceder, but I can’t fully understand it.

We live in ellipses, like the hundreds of years between Malachi and Matthew, waiting for Jesus to come. We’re plagued by illnesses with an expiration date, but their future removal doesn’t erase our current suffering. We’re here, trusting Him in the bad diagnoses and with the too small percentage for the outcome we want, sometimes crying out and begging for a cure, mouthing prayers like Hannah. It is a hard living on this side of things, and I wrestle feverishly between faith and fear. Wendell Berry said it best, and I’m with him, looking forward to “[t]he deaths of time and pain, and death’s own death / In full-filled light and song, final Sabbath.”


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