Writers know that the first few lines in a short story or novel are crucial. It is those precious few seconds during which we must grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read more. We spend a great deal of time getting the beginning just right, sometimes going back after the rest of the story is written and chopping, revising, fine-tuning to perfect that hook.
The body of the tale is the meat of the sandwich though, isn’t it? Without that, there would be no reason to read it, nor to write it in the first place. Understandably, the majority of our effort is spent wording and timing and pacing these pieces in just the right way, and rightfully so.
But I think we don’t put as much attention to endings as we should. If we end a story too soon, too abruptly, it feels rushed, unfinished. The reader is left unsatisfied. If we drag it out too long, the impact of the story’s final plot point is weakened. The reader loses focus. Either of these mistakes can ruin the story’s sweet taste in the reader’s mouth.
And isn’t it that way with Life? We are told that the first weeks are crucial for a newborn infant’s development, that the first few years are essential to the growing child’s brain and mind. Parents give their all to those critical moments, then spend the rest of their lives helping their children to add or subtract from their growing stories so that they might have a full, rich experience throughout. Or perhaps the story is our own. We are born, we develop, we plan and live and experience and dream. We feel—pain, joy, love, regret, excitement, all the rest. We go through our lives from day to day and from week to week and from year to year, and while we give some passing thought to how it might end or what we’d like done after the fact, we don’t know what that end will be until it overtakes us. We can hope it will come on quiet feet and bring meaning, peace, rest.
I say “we,” but I am thinking of Smudge as I write. (If you don’t know who Smudge is, see the link under “About Me” entitled “What the Heck is a Smudge?”) He is old, almost seventeen years, and as some of you might remember, he had some serious health issues in January. The King of Our Roost who hates change spent a whole day and night at the ER Vet (shout out to Blue Pearl Veterinary Hospital—they’re the best), and came home traumatized and reluctant to even speak to us for a couple of days.
Since then, he’s not been himself. He’s played merry havoc with our routine over what he will or won’t eat on any given day, and while he had good moments and even good days, he’s eaten less and less and has steadily declined. He’s gotten so skinny I can feel his spine and his hip bones through his fur. A couple of times he even lost his balance and almost fell over. In the last few days, he’s been in obvious pain. It seemed so clear to us then that his story was at an end, and we wanted to write it in the best, most compassionate way for him.
On Saturday morning we finally called the vet to arrange his Final Visit for Monday evening. We selected his gravesite, bought a tree and some flowers to place there, and made all our other arrangements as needed ahead of time, since both Bobby and I knew neither of us would be worth a nickel afterward.
Then Saturday night, Smudge began to rally. He ate—better than he’s eaten in months—and though he’s still sleeping a lot, his improvement seems to have lasted through the next morning. It’s not even lunchtime on Sunday, and he’s eaten several times. Now we are torn between following through, as planned, or postponing in the hope that this is not a fluke, and he really is on the mend. We don’t want to cut his story short. We don’t want to draw it out and have his misery cast a pall over the joy that was his long, happy life. We are still reading this tale, and don’t yet know how it will end.
Writers can control how their written stories end to a large degree. They can revise and reshape the words to make it exactly right, but outside that narrow band, Life decides for us. All we can do is hang on and ride it out and make compassionate choices. At this moment, we still don’t how how—or when—Smudge’s story will be complete. We do know we will do everything in our power to make sure his Transition is an easy one, a fitting end to his wonderful story.
Postscript, Thursday March 8, 2018
Monday morning, Smudge had snapped back to misery and, after consulting with his life-long veterinarian, we went through with our plan. His story is now ended. He left peacefully, surrounded by his peeps, and now lies at the roots of a fig tree sapling near a beautiful wetland site. Safe travels, Sweet Boy. You are missed.
May 1, 2001 – March 5, 2018