Two weeks ago I killed my cat. Well, technically, the vet did it, and it’s not called killing, it’s called euthanasia or putting down or, most euphemistically, putting to sleep. I did this because he was old and sick. He weighed only 4.6 pounds, down from his eight pound prime. He had an infection in both eyes and one paw. He was almost completely dehydrated. Shrunken is how the vet described him. He gave him only another twenty-four hours to live, but then said he was such a tough cat he might hang on for another week, getting weaker and weaker. Everyone at the office was amazed he could still stand. I told them that the day before he had jumped on my bed. Twice. But I killed him, or I let him be killed, and then I buried him in the backyard, with the help of a friend. It was dark by the time I got started, and I was digging by the light of a railroad lantern, digging finally sitting down, with a trowel, because my six-months pregnant body could no longer manage the balancing act of digging down into the hole and pulling the shovel up carrying dirt. I was a poor lever operator.
Five months ago I nearly killed the thing that will become my baby. Technically again I would not have killed it. And they don’t call it killing, not unless they are the sort of people who hold signs outside of clinics with bloody fetuses. They call it abortion, or D&C, or, most euphemistically, termination. I decided not to kill the six-week old collection of cells, though. I decided to keep them and let them grow. This week I read that they now weigh two and a half pounds and have five senses and a full complement of body parts. This seems rather impossible, but apparently it is true.
Nobody ever criticizes you for putting your cat down. Even the most rabid anti-abortion people I know are okay with, as they say, putting an animal out of its suffering. Of course, no one says it’s easy, either. Go out and tell people that you had to put your cat or dog to sleep, and you will gain instant sympathy. Post it on a social network and people you barely even know will offer hugs and condolences.
Nobody posts on the internet that she put her embryo down. Many of us, of course, would support her, would offer her strength, would recognize that this, too, may have been a hard decision, or it may have been an easy one, but that the telling of it would not be easy. Because of course many people would not offer such support. They would tell her that she was wrong, that such decisions were not hers to make, that they should be beyond her control.
If you believe that God gave man dominion over all the animals, I suppose it stands to reason that you also feel no particular qualms about having control over their life and death. I never thought I had any particular qualms about it myself. It’s true that I don’t hunt, but it’s also true that I’m not a vegetarian. I kill flies and mosquitoes with impunity, and I feel little regret when I step on ants. Two of my cats died at home, before I had to make any decisions about whether to excercise my control over their lives, or at least over their death. I exercise control over my cats’ lives every day: I decide when to feed them; I tell them where they can and cannot go; I clip their claws and give them drugs when the vet prescribes them. But I’d never exercised this particular kind of control before: not the saying yes to the large does of anesthesia, not the petting and holding the cat for the last time while the vet left me alone in the room with him, not the praying that the baby inside me wouldn’t choose that moment, the moment when the syringe hit the cat’s leg, as a moment to kick or turn a somersault. That life and death intersect is something I know. But I didn’t want them to right then.
A great many people believe that you should not have control over human life, and in some instances, I am one of them — your typical pro-choice, anti-death penalty tax and spend bleeding heart liberal pacifist. No one — least of all the state — should be able to control the ending of another person’s life. But the beginning of life — that’s where everyone gets hung up.
The issue is often framed as that of who controls a woman’s body — the woman, her doctor, the church, the state? The belief, among those I consort with, is that the woman should be in charge. I believe that still, and I will continue to fight for it, but the past six months have led me to understand how little control one actually has.
I used birth control, but it did not work. As a friend of mine says, birth control is a misnomer. You’re not really in control of the situaiton. Contraception is better — you are trying to prevent something from happening, but it may or may not actually work. To be in the tiny, tiny percentage for whom it does not work is an odd experience, especially at age thirty-five, when you have a professional job and a savings account and are about to become a homeowner. But there you have it: you’re not in control. And if you decide, as I did, not to take a certain kind of control at that point, you lose control completely, not only of your body but also of yourself.
I am twenty-eight weeks pregnant. I weigh thirty-six pounds more than I did six months ago. In those six months, I have been nauseated, fatigued, and dehydrated. My blood sugar has dropped to the point that I’ve fainted. My whole body has at one or another time hurt, often several parts of it at once. I cannot remember the last time I woke up and felt good, or the last time I leaned over to pick something up or got up from sitting on the floor with anything resembling grace or ease. One goes in that time from pregnancy being a secret that nobody knows — at first, not even you — to a fact on display for everyone, a thing everyone sees and comments on. The baby — and it is a baby now — swims around and kicks and punches, and it is supposed to. At the hospital they lecture you: if the baby doesn’t move ten times every two hours, something is wrong. That is but one of a long list of things you are instructed to watch out for. If you get a headache or a fever, if you bleed or have stomach pain, if you vomit: all these things are out of your control, and all of them mean you must call the hospital, go in and be put under the control of the machines, the blood pressure cuff, the fetal heart monitor, the ultrasound, the people in scrubs and the people in white coats.
When I fainted, they took me away in an ambulance and put a needle in my arm. Around the other arm they put a blood pressure cuff, and it inflated and deflated every ten minutes. Around my wrist they put a band with my name and hospital number, the same one that was given to me when I was born. Somewhere the very first band with that number is in a baby book my mother made. Eventually, only when they knew that someone was coming to pick me up, they unhooked me and let me go, let me put my own clothes on and walk out the door.
I live now in a house that I bought myself, with money I earned. My old cat is buried here between two trees, where I imagine he watches the birds and feels the squirrels and chipmunks and gazes West toward the sunset, toward the place he came from, where I used to live, and where my other cat is buried. This past week I got two new cats to share my house with me. They have taken control. They jump on tables and counters, investigate behind and underneath the furniture. They run and jump and pounce, sometimes on each other and sometimes on things only they can see. They are, at times, even more active than my baby, who rarely stops moving in my womb. I do not bother to count his kicks — I can tell he is there and doing well.
In twelve more weeks, give or take, I’ll be back at the hospital, and my son will be born and get a number of his own. I will not control when that happens, although I hope to control a little bit how it happens: I hope to be there at the hospital with my mother and my doula and some friends. I hope not to be hooked up to machines the whole time, or to be made to lie flat on a bed. I hope to be able to see my son as soon as he is born, perhaps in a fog of pain, but not a fog of painkillers. I hope that my body will perform the way it was made to do, making milk for my baby to drink, but many years ago now I decided to exercise another sort of control: I had a breast reduction to ease the strain on my back, and to have the body that was more like the one I imagined and less like the one I was given. So I don’t know yet if the ducts that need to be there for the milk to come have managed to regrow from their severing, or if that particular control I tried to exercise so long ago will mean giving up another thing now.
Let go and let God, say the twelve-step people, whose Serenity Prayer is perhaps the clearest distillation of control that we have. They pray for the strength to change the things one cannot accept and to accept the things they cannot change, and they pray for the wisdom to know the difference.
I walk through life now wondering if there is a difference, or if the surest form of control is simply to accept change. I pray for my son and for myself, for my family and for my friends, but I rarely know any more what to ask for. Peace, I say. Change. Something. Whatever it is we need, if only we could know.