Guest post by Claudia Hajian
My neighborhood shopping center is one of those places that thinks it’s totally awesome, but really it’s not. For years now this sprawling piece of real estate in northeastern Queens has been renovating, constructing, expanding, displaying signs that try to whip us local consumers into a frenzy: “Coming soon! Panera Bread!”. Wow. Panera Bread!! Just when I thought they couldn’t top the commercial retail triumphs of GapKids, American Eagle Outfitters, Steve Madden shoes, and Victoria’s Secret. But like everyone else I go to the shopping center, since it does offer some sources of physical and mental sustenance; it has a health food store and a Barnes and Noble. So nourishment can be found in the form of organic tofu and new non-fiction, respectively.
A few months ago I was driving around the parking lot looking for a space. As I turned slowly into one of the rows, I spotted something unusual on the ground ahead, right out in the open. “What is that?”, I wondered. Dark grey. Furry. Scrawny. The animal lover in me groaned, “oh no”. As I came closer and rolled down my window, I saw that my worst fears were confirmed. It was a dead cat. A dead stray cat, flat on its side, pink tongue protruding from its mouth. There were no cuts or visible injuries anywhere on its body, except for one red, bloody eyeball bulging out of its socket. A screaming red, shiny wet marble that had violently popped out from trauma. Oh my god. That eyeball. I knew right then and there that the visual image of that eyeball would stay with me forever. It was a gruesome, frozen vestige of the cat’s final moment of fear and panic, when it was hit, struck, knocked over by a metal monster, a few yards midway between a Men’s Wearhouse and a Duane Reade. That’s where the friendless little cat died. A cat that made an unlucky wrong turn somewhere, unwisely crossed a heavily-trafficked Queens boulevard, when it should have just stayed away from that cemented acreage filled with blind spot prone SUVs and joyriding local kids. Oh little fella . . . how I wish you had kept to lurking in the gardens of homeowners on the other side of the street.
My heart broke for that cat. Poor mangy thing, lying there lifeless, ignored, unmourned. So after parking my car, I mourned for it. Nobody else was going to. I also dreaded its inevitable disposal at the hands of the mall maintenance crew. I suspect that a garbage bag and a dumpster were involved.
But it was not the death of the cat in and of itself, sad as that was, which so disturbed me. It was that awful, impersonal spot. If I had encountered the dead cat, say, in the park near my house, I would have found the scene far less heartbreaking. Why? I suppose because a quiet, pretty, undisturbed wooded area, on top of crunchy fallen leaves, amid shrubs, tree trunks, and wildflowers, just seems a nicer, more peaceful place for a creature to take its last breath and begin its journey into the afterlife. With birds chirping in the branches above, the cat’s body would break down and decompose into the organic matter of Mother Earth, to eventually give life to new living creatures. If we believe that physical surroundings contribute to spiritual transformation, most would agree that nature beats a parking lot every time. At this point, I wish I could write intelligently on the connection between energy and matter, but I can’t.
“Where” questions infiltrate our conversations and impart precision to our biographies, our memories, our identities. “Where were you born?”, “Where did you go to school?”, “Where did you two meet?”, “Where were you on 9-11?”. We heed old sayings about being in “the right place at the right time”, “there’s no place like home”, and let’s not forget the 1970s classic “Your place or mine?” 😉 It’s only logical to add “where” a life ended to that list. Whether we realize it or not, places matter. Places shepherd us through life, either as rudders or anchors. Restless small town dreamers may uproot and answer the beckoning call of a big city, while content small towners are happy to stay and dig their roots down even deeper. Religions acknowledge the significance of places with reverence. In Christianity, the sites of Jesus’ birth and death are holy places. As is Mecca. And the Temple Mount. And Lexington and Concord. We consecrate land on which some profound event, or miracle, or tragedy, took place. The mountains of Little Bighorn in Montana, site of Custer’s Last Stand. The beaches of Normandy where allied forces liberated Europe. And for some of us, even the courtyard of the Dakota Apartments on New York’s Upper West Side where John Lennon was shot. Places where people died hold vibrations and auras. They rattle and recollect. Places tell stories both great and mundane. Stories of births, deaths, successes and failures, battles and confrontations, planned gatherings and chance encounters. They are the sites of pilgrimages and shrines. Places own and absorb mortality. Places are the ultimate witnesses.
In December of 2004, my father suffered a fatal stroke. He collapsed on the floor of his bedroom in the home he built in 1968 on an abandoned lot in Queens. He died in the home he cherished, with his wife of 44 years just a couple of feet away. For months after Dad’s death, my mother, my brother and I felt some form of “relief” that at least the stroke didn’t happen when he was crossing a busy city street. Or driving. Among strangers, or alone. No. My father valued his home and family above all else. He was not a traveler or a seeker of things in unknown places. He was not a mountain-climber or a daredevil. So although my father’s death was sudden, searing, and catastrophic, it was spiritually harmonious in that he died shrouded in the familiarity, stability, and warmth of his home. To this day, I cannot enter my mother’s bedroom and stand in that spot near the bed without experiencing a palpable sense that it was the spot where Daddy died. It is both unsettling and comforting at the same time.
We are inclined to attach meaning to the death places of individuals in an attempt to make sense of the senseless and come to grips with death itself. But there are instances where the symbolism speaks for itself. Poetic ironies, or consistencies. finish off the narratives. Elvis Presley’s death in his Graceland bathroom; an indignity, the ignominious end of a once-charismatic, now bloated man undone by his own excesses. 24 year-old James Dean’s death in the twisted wreckage of his Porsche on a California highway: an icon in the making, American mythology at its finest. Marilyn Monroe’s death on her bed: Hollywood’s most enduring sex symbol, nude, sprawled on her sheets, the mysterious forces of her demise having visited upon her in the night. It’s hard to deny that some death places finalize the individual life in a fitting, albeit tragic, fashion. So maybe it is equally fitting that a homeless, solitary cat met its fate in an inhospitable spot like a shopping center parking lot. And that a hardworking family man died in his home.
For most of us, where we die will likely be unplanned, possibly random. We can hope that we take our last breath in a place of familiarity, even intimacy, surrounded by loved ones and the solace of hand-holding and tender words. But that scenario is one of preference, not predictability. The truth is that much of it will make no apparent sense at the time. Each of us will die however and wherever it happens. But when it does happen, that particular place – that spot right at that moment – will belong to us.
Claudia Hajian is a professional artist’s model in New York City. She writes about art, modeling, music, animals, life and love on her blog Museworthy.