When I was in seventh grade biology, we were assigned a project wherein we all had to make a model of an animal cell. Most people probably did theirs with construction paper or modeling clay, but I made a pizza: the cytoplasm was the sauce and cheese, the lysosomes were little jalapenos, the mitochondria were olives (or maybe sausage bits), the nucleus was a giant tomato slice, and I even put a bit of DNA in the middle (alfalfa sprouts). Later that year, Josh (my then lab partner and now one of my oldest friends) and I found a pearl in the oyster we were dissecting. Another time in class we listened to “Mammal,” by They Might Be Giants, and when we had to write down some of the real biological terms we heard in the song for extra credit, I got the most points because I was the only one in the class with a copy of Apollo 18 at home. One time, Josh told our teacher that her teeth looked green, and I immediately scolded him and said that it was just the fluorescent light reflecting off of her sweatshirt, and apologized to her that he was so rude. We learned about parts per million and about ecosystems, about chloroplasts, and we looked at samples of our hair under microscopes. It was a great class.
I have mentioned this before, but I had a Wildlife Fact-File at home. It had a picture of a giraffe on the front (reticulated coloring!) and I convinced my parents to sign up for the bonus package that came with a stuffed arctic wolf named Iglu. Another thing, which you actually may not know about me, is that I have known how to spell (and define) ichthyology and entomology since third grade. In fourth grade, I attempted to start a wildlife coalition in my parents’ basement (by which I mean I decided to save the rainforest and then spent sixteen hours designing letterhead in Windows 3.1). I wanted to be a zoologist, or maybe a veterinarian (but not a marine biologist: everyone wanted to be a marine biologist and I don’t think anyone really understood what that meant). But the point is, I loved animals: they are so cute, for one thing, but also they—and I’m talking housepets here—love you, even if pretty much all you do is feed them. It’s nice. A relationship with a pet can really make you feel good. They are simple examples of the miracle of biology, of the weird links that we mammals have with each other even though uncounted centuries of evolution have made us only distant relatives on the phylogenetic tree.
Sometimes I think about the similarities that we have with other animals and it makes me wonder how different we really are from them. My old cats, Chuck and Moose, they had four limbs like I do, they have hearts that pump blood through their bodies like I do. They have lungs and they breathe and snore and vocalize. They get hungry. They take naps. They play. They get excited to see me. I guess it’s easy to personify them, to apply human traits to them, and ignore the differences: they have fur, they lack both a descended larynx and an opposable thumb, and they are quadrupeds. I used to think about our differences a lot, too, even though I didn’t like them as much.
But then, sometimes, I would think about what might happen if Chuck jumped out the window, or died suddenly, or ran away and got lost and never found his way back. I would have been sad if that had happened, certainly, but nothing would have made me sadder than thinking about how Moose’s animal brain would process it. Would he understand what happened? Would he miss having someone to nap next to? Would he ache with loneliness in thinking about his missing brother? Do animals understand death? If they do, can they go through a mourning and a healing process, or is that pain just stuck with them forever? Or would he even remember his brother after a few days? Would this hypothetical loss be like The Notebook? And if Chuck was out there, lost but not dead, would he think longingly about the nights he spent chasing Moose around the coffee table, or about falling asleep on my stomach during a marathon of Law and Order, or about the warmth of my apartment, or about the time he knocked the cat treats down from on top of the fridge and ate all of them while I was in the shower?
I don’t know. I’m not a cat brain scientist. And this isn’t about my cats, really. It’s just that thinking all of these thoughts about my cats and their possibly made up emotional bond with each other causes me a very real amount of emotional pain; it turns my reality into something very animal, visceral, mammalian. I sometimes feel like I’ve compartmentalized everything, like I have intellectualized all of my feelings to the extent that I don’t even feel them anymore but am nonetheless an expert at describing them. I have dissected my emotional self like I dissected the formaldehyde-soaked dead frog of my third grade year: all of the elements are there, the heart and the lungs and the gallbladder and the stomach and the eyes, but nothing is working. Once you have dissected an animal, once you have studied all of its parts to gain an understanding of the mechanisms that make it live, once you have done that all you have on your hands is a dead animal. And it’s not like a computer, you can’t just turn it on again once you’ve turned it off and tinkered with the RAM; once you dissect a frog, it’s dead and it is never coming back. And that is a monolithically unfair and ironic reality of our existence.
So it always surprises me, as someone who has elevated emotional autodissection to an art form, when I have an emotional reaction that I can’t explain. I do not know why thinking about a lost dog with a pink sweater made me cry. I do not know why thinking about separating my old cats makes me cry. I do not know why I had a recurring dream about eating a turkey sandwich after I decided to become vegetarian, although the theories on that are hilarious. I do not know why I have debilitating stage fright before singing performances but I can perform without singing without a trace of nerves, even if I am not working from a script. I don’t know why certain things upset me and I don’t know why certain things terrify me, while other things that are generally understood to be more upsetting or terrifying do not upset or terrify me at all. All I know is that I cannot ever watch a movie about a lost pet trying to find its way home, because even thinking about movies like that confuses and upsets me in ways I do not understand.
I have learned in the past year that I am also terrified and upset at the thought of losing either of my parents.
My mother has multiple sclerosis—she was diagnosed last year when I was home for Independence Day. Over Christmas, she had a heart attack (from which she has now made a full, or almost full, recovery). And three weeks ago today, my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. It has been a difficult year.
Since last summer, my interactions with my parents have been peppered with short, internal bursts of emotions that I do not know that I can adequately name. Lovefearfuturemiss? Prelossgratefulhappyareyouproudofme? Whenever one of these happens to me, I usually put it in my pocket and experience it later, in the car, before I pull out of the driveway and head back to wherever I am sleeping. Sometimes I need to excuse myself and stand in front of the mirror in the hall bathroom and grip the sink until my knuckles turn white, and then splash my face with cool water and return to whatever I was doing. I can’t name this, I can’t categorize it. What good would it do me to dissect a frog if I didn’t know the words and meanings of “pancreas” and “nictitating membrane” and “intestine”?
There aren’t words sometimes, there is no logic sometimes. Sometimes I can’t modus ponens my way out of a feeling. I just have to sit there and feel it, and usually cry or laugh or do something instinctual, something I didn’t learn by rote, something I didn’t need a textbook to pick up.
In eighth grade, when we were picking our high school classes, almost all of my friends chose Biology for their science credit. It was the natural choice for me too, since I loved animals and I loved learning about them, and I wanted to work with them, and I was naturally good at science. But Sean, who was two years ahead of me, told me that if you took Biology II, you would have to dissect a cat. A cat. Can you imagine me dissecting a cat?! Our family’s cat was like my child. If you are a parent, and you want to learn about the inside of your child, you do not dissect your child. You read about your child’s insides, and possibly take him to the doctor for an x-ray. So what kind of person would dissect a cat?
Not me, that’s who. I did not sign up for Biology; I signed up for Physical Science, which involved mostly rocks and particles and which was a precursor to Chemistry and Physics. Dissecting molecules is fine, because molecules do not have umbilical cords. I could have dissected a thousand more frogs. Frogs come from eggs. They have green or yellow skin, no hair or fur, cold blood, and once they are born they pretty much take care of themselves. They do not form complicated relationships with their mothers and they do not worry about disappointing their fathers. Frogs are different. Cats are too much like people, too much like me. I couldn’t do it—I still don’t think I could.
Sometimes, though, I wonder what might have happened if I had decided to take the biology track instead of the chemistry track in high school. What if I had dissected a cat? Would I know things that I don’t know now? Would it have unlocked some sort of secret about the fundamentals of the animal kingdom of which I am unaware? I might have opened up the cat’s abdomen and found some kind of truth, beyond its anatomy, beyond the names and locations of its organs and muscles and skeletal system. What if I had been exposed, then, in high school, face-to-face, with the cold, formaldehyde-tinged death of a fellow mammal? I guess I’m asking, wondering, if studying a mammalian kidney would have helped me understand my father, or if looking at a spinal cord or heart would help me understand my mother in some deeper way. Could that have primed me for the questions that would come up ten years later? Would this have given me a logical antecedent for the consequent I am currently struggling to prove?
I know that high school biology cannot possibly prime you for being confronted with your parents’ mortality. I’m not stupid. That is the problem—the problem is that I am the opposite of stupid. The things I hate the most, the things that hurt me the most in the world, are the things I cannot understand. I can read about them, I can listen to lectures on them, I can study, I can learn, I can learn and analyze and evaluate and create, but I will never really know or comprehend until I experience. I feel cheated, somehow, like the biology of pizza animal cells, and pearls in oysters, and mammal songs, has betrayed me. I guess my expectation was that if you learn enough, you can know everything. And that isn’t true. Sometimes all learning does is make you more painfully aware of what you don’t know.