Grandmother (1): My maternal grandmother is the first and only person I ever saw die. My cousins and I gathered around her hospital bed. The end was closing in on her; we could tell. A nurse came in to turn off the alarms on her heart monitor. She was eighty-nine years old, too old for the cavalry with their mysterious syringes, their clear plastic oxygen masks, their electronic paddles. We could still see the behavior of her heart drawn out for us like sheet music, a song being composed as we breathed. Slowly, and then quickly, the numbers went down: heart rate, blood oxygen, the various pressures of her plumbing. It was like watching the countdown to a space shuttle launch: 96, 92, 86, 61, 47. My grandmother’s mouth was open. Her eyes were closed. She moved, a little bit. As the numbers got smaller I became afraid. What would happen? Would there be some kind of sound? I focused on the dark cavern of her mouth. Sometimes when she moved I could see her tongue. It was small and dry. When I looked up again, the monitors said zero and the song of her heart had ended. We stood there for a long time in the quiet room. The idea of moving and talking felt strange now that there was a body in the room with no breath.
Hamsters (3): Two I found cool and stiff, buried in the bright, eco-friendly bedding I bought for them. Three I watched die:
- Puppy was boarding at my cousin’s house while I was away at college. I came to visit him on Thanksgiving and he was fading fast. I held him for a while, until the only movement was the machine-gun fire of his heart. I put him back in the cage in case he wanted some water. I watched him for a long time, but he didn’t move an inch. When I picked him up again, his heart was a dried raisin, crumpled in his chest.
- I watched Puppy II disappear beneath my boyfriend’s shoe, just as he was standing up from the couch. The sound was like stove-top popcorn, three kernels bursting open in quick succession. When he lifted his foot, his face broken, Puppy II moved the paper-doll remnants of his legs as if to run. Sean ushered me out of the room and didn’t let me back in until he’d cleaned every tiny hair and drop of blood from the carpet.
- Astrophil was the only hamster I ever took to the vet. He was clearly ill and it only cost $25 for the appointment and the medicine, which I administered faithfully with an eyedropper as Astrophil licked gobs of yogurt from my fingertips. By the time the end came, I had a new boyfriend, Steve, who stayed up with me until four a.m. as I watched Astrophil die in the palm of my hand. I held him for a while longer while Steve dug a shoebox-sized hole in the frozen earth behind my house. We dropped him into it together and I cried until there were no tears left behind my eyes.
Fish (>10): Most of the aquarium fish I didn’t see die. I would find their tiny shining bodies floating in the water like pollution, or scrape their transparent skeletons from the mesh mouth of the filter. Once, I watched my water frog pull an algae eater into its giant mouth. The fish fought its way out only to be swallowed again. The tip of its tail flopped frantically between the frog’s lips. I screamed for my father. I couldn’t see the fish as it died, but I could imagine it slowly suffocating, its gills squeezed shut against the walls of the frog’s shrinking esophagus. When it was over, my father pulled it out of the tank with his bare hand. We released it in the creek behind our house. It was January in Cleveland, but somehow I didn’t see this as amphibious capitol punishment. I thought only of the lives I’d saved and the lone algae eater left behind, whose mate I’d have to replace.
The fish I did see die are the ones I killed myself on fishing trips. You can knock a trout on the head with the back of your knife to stun it before you slit its throat. Some perch are small enough that you can cleave their heads clean off with little effort. It’s a painless death and their eyes are so black and unfeeling that you don’t really think about it as killing. On a camping trip with my husband and some friends, we fished a few catfish out of the small, stocked lake. The directions said to hang them by their heads, chop off the tails and the blood should drain fast, killing the fish painlessly. My husband, a former vegetarian, picked up the knife. He held the fish over the lake as the blood ran from its tail. It didn’t seem like enough blood. The fish writhed and flung its tail from side to side, it’s musculature obvious. When it stopped, my husband put it down to clean it. It twitched again as the knife cut through its rubbery skin. It was still alive and it became clear that we were torturing it. When it moved again, my husband scooped it up and broke its neck in one quick motion. He threw it back into lake, its tail gone and skin partly off, perhaps so he didn’t have to see the victim of his crime. We ate hamburgers for dinner.
Bugs, Insects, Arachnids (>50): I don’t think of my child-self as sadistic, but I’ve perpetrated all of the usual tortures on all of the usual victims. When I got bored burning my initials into my baseball glove with my magnifying glass, I switched to cutting worms in half with the laser light. On summer nights, I swung at lightning bugs with baseball bats with the neighborhood boys. We would count the streaks of phosphorescent light left on our weapons: the glowing tallies of our scores. I tried killing a slug once by rubbing salt from a pretzel stick onto its jelly flesh. When nothing happened, I smeared it across the sidewalk with my shoe. In recent years, I’ve slaughtered honeybees when I could catch them, dispatched flies with windshield washer fluid, and crushed numerous spiders between the folds of paper towels. Now, I kill only the invaders, the ones that find their way into my car, my basement, my child’s bedroom. Sometimes they remind me of the ones I killed for fun, or out of boredom, just because I could kill them and no one would know. Just to watch what would happen.