I’m having an existential crisis. As an optimist, I try to forget that the world can be unbearably brutal sometimes. (Obviously things can get very bad, but they probably won’t! Most things tend to work out just fine in the end!) But all it takes is one crushing loss to challenge this sunshine and rainbows perspective and make a person wonder, WTF is the point of all this? Why are we here? To work as hard as we can to be happy just so fate can rear its ugly head and rip everything away?
Obviously, I’m suffering from a broken heart. After 13 years with my cat, Lily, I had to let her go. Losing a pet is like losing a family member. People know that when they get a pet, they will probably outlive it, so loss comes with the territory. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
I know Lily is “in a better place,” but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around where that is. After caring for someone for so long, it’s hard to stop caring for them and know they are OK. I can’t stop worrying about where her little soul is. Is she happy? Is she experiencing the love of the universe? Are her paws warm? The ambiguity is a lot to handle.
A few days after Lily passed, some friends and I were supposed to fly to Iceland for a trip we’d planned long before. Now, I was worried that I would be too sad to enjoy the trip. I considered canceling or postponing, but then I thought maybe it would help to get out of the house. Lily’s absence hurt most in the mornings, waking up without her there. Maybe if I could wake up someplace else, things might be easier.
Aside from that, I desperately needed to experience some beauty in this world to help me better understand its ugliness. If I could just see the aurora borealis, I thought, maybe I would somehow understand that Lily is OK. The electric green light waves streaking through the sky would be my proof that there’s more to the universe than meets the eye, and Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the strange phenomenon. If something so awe-inspiring exists, maybe it’s not such a long shot that Lily’s spirit isn’t as far away as it seems. Witnessing the Northern Lights firsthand would be like ticking an item off a list—wonders of the universe that I don’t fully understand but must be safely holding Lily’s spirit? Check. It seemed like a logical next step toward overcoming my grief, and I was hoping to mark that box as some sort of validation to help me move on.
As it turns out, Iceland is a great place to contemplate beauty and loss, two stark realities intertwined with the wonders of the countryside.
I knew it sounded ridiculous, but I told my husband, Marcus, anyway. He’s accustomed to my eccentricity in looking for signs. Before I left, he said: “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” It was the perfect thing to say. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but it definitely felt like I was embarking on a quest.
As it turns out, Iceland is a great place to contemplate beauty and loss, two stark realities intertwined with the wonders of the countryside. I didn’t know much about Iceland before booking my flight, but from a quick Google search I found there are many easy ways to die there: a giant, unforeseen sneaker wave can suck you into the sea; you can fall into a crack in a glacier or get trapped on the edge when it suddenly breaks off; you can die from hypothermia after a swift, unpredictable change in weather; or you can just slip off a rocky cliff. That’s not even factoring in the earthquakes, volcanoes, or less exciting causes of death, such as car accidents.
Bring it on, I thought as I packed my bags. If Lily can take it, so can I.
I drugged myself for the flight so I could get some sleep and make it through six hours without crying. I also drugged one of my traveling companions, an extremely nervous flyer. Usually I would tell him to buck up and face his fear, but it seems an existential crisis brings out a person’s more sensitive side.
It was cold and dark when we landed in Reykjavik. We rented a car and headed straight for the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous attraction. Our Lagoon tickets were for 8:00am, and we had to be there by 8:30am or forfeit our reservation.
As we sped through the backcountry roads, we realized it was going to be a very close call. I used my iPhone to navigate us through roundabout after roundabout, and we took each one just fast enough to make it feel more like an amusement park ride than a rental car. We could see the steam from the lagoon rising from a mile — ahem, a kilometer, away.
We parked the car and ran through the lot. It was 8:36am, but thankfully, the tall, blonde, beautiful people behind the counter didn’t seem to notice.
The Blue Lagoon in Iceland.
We took the required showers before entering the lagoon, and tried not to think about how cold we would be walking outside in our wet bathing suits and tiny towels. The sun was just coming up as we dashed out of the locker rooms and jumped into the electric blue water. The cold-to-hot sensation was magical.
I looked around and every single person was absolutely awestruck. We had all planned this vacation, which, for many people, was thousands of miles from home, and the experience had obviously surpassed expectations. Despite the best intentions and planning, vacations don’t always do that. Even though we were swimming with strangers, people were smiling ear to ear at one another, like we had just discovered the best thing in the whole world. We shared a moment of vacation triumph and unexpected camaraderie. I was so happy to be there that I actually forgot to be sad for a while.
Score one for beauty.
We wanted to see the Northern Lights that night, but it was too cloudy. The next few days had clouds in the forecast, as well. Not a good sign, but I still felt confident we would see them. We had to.
The next day, we took a road trip around the Golden Circle, which is a route that loops through numerous attractions, including national parks, waterfalls, a geyser, hot springs, pony farms, and a giant crater. Our first stop was at a waterfall that seemed too perfect to be real. I stood there and stared in awe, fighting back tears, and I wasn’t sure why. It was all so overwhelming. The world is so big and has been around for so long. A single spirit is a tiny speck in comparison, and a single kitty spirit is probably even smaller. How could it not get lost in the vastness of the universe? It felt like a punch to the gut. Beauty can take your breath away, but so can loss, and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s causing all the feels.
A waterfall in the Golden Circle.
The rest of the trip went by in similar fashion, only wetter. We drove for hours through a torrential downpour to visit more waterfalls. We saw the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which erupted in 2010 and endangered hundreds of Icelanders, but is most famous for destroying European flight patterns for weeks because of the giant plumes of ash. We stopped to pet ponies in the rain.
The following day, we took another road trip — this time to Vik, the southernmost village in Iceland and home of the black sand beach. Currents from the Atlantic make the waves there especially treacherous, and tourists are swallowed up regularly by sneaker waves.
The Vik beach welcome sign showcased a large photo of a woman who had recently died there. he was standing with her back to the ocean, fully clothed and holding a nice camera, but she was underwater from the waist down. She had a look of confusion on her face, like it hadn’t yet registered that she was about to die. I wondered if death was always that way. Even when it’s seconds away, is it hard to believe it’s actually the end?
The day was so foggy that the sky was completely white. Combined with the black sand beach and foaming white tides, it felt like being inside a black and white photo. The beach was short, and where the black sand ended there stood a vertical wall of rock. In some places, the bigger waves were coming up far enough to hit the rock wall, making the beach disappear completely. If an earthquake happened while walking on the beach, there would be no chance of survival, nowhere to go to escape the ocean. I wandered down the beach alone, testing fate.
The black sands of Vik Beach, in the southernmost village in Iceland.
I thought about the people I’d known who had died. Even if they were in a better place, it must be hard looking down at the people you left who miss you so much. I remember when my Grandma died. My Dad would take long walks in the rain. He said it’s the best time to cry because no one can tell. It wasn’t until that moment, cold rain pelting me in the face, mixing with hot tears, that I truly appreciated his advice.
The Northern Lights forecast wasn’t getting any better, but we were running out of time to see them. We decided to drive out into the countryside that night and give it a shot, so we packed the car with blankets and headed out into the darkness.
As we drove farther and farther into oblivion, I realized I had never been anywhere so dark. Obviously, my friends and I were concerned about randomly coming upon a roving band of murderers. The “Dangers of Iceland” webpage had failed to mention such a threat, but it never seems out of the question. We parked our car on the side of a country road, turned off all the lights, and locked the doors. The light from one car could been seen from kilometers away, so unless the murderers were on foot, we hoped to see them before they saw us.
And then we sat there… and sat there. We saw a strange orange glow off in the distance, but it was faint. The Northern Lights can be any color, but they are most commonly green. Were we just seeing light pollution from a nearby town? We waited to see something more obvious, but the sky was completely overcast. After a long time, we decided to go home. I felt defeated. But then again, I’d felt sad so much recently that it was all just piling on like extra weight: once you’re carrying so much, a little more doesn’t feel that different.
It wasn’t just about Lily dying. It was the reality that everyone would eventually die. Everyone you care about will die: your parents, your best friends, and even your spouse and children. And if you don’t live long enough to see them die, it’s because they watched you die first. No matter how much beauty there is in the world, does it really balance out all the sadness?
Lily was sick for a few years before she died. She had kidney failure, and there were times her bladder infections would get so bad that she left a trail of blood around our apartment. We had been giving her an IV every couple of days for the past few months. I felt guilty for sticking her with a needle, and I questioned whether it was time to let her go. Then I felt guilty for even considering it. But when she suddenly lost her vision, I knew her quality of life wasn’t good enough to keep going. She had lost her hearing years ago, and really, how much can a poor creature be expected to endure? I spoke with our vet, and we scheduled euthanasia for that evening. I had one last day to spend with my friend of 13 years.
I wanted to enjoy those last moments and soak them up, but I couldn’t. It was too heartbreakingly sad. Not being able to see or hear, Lily was extremely disoriented and agitated. I just kept holding her. If she didn’t know where she was, at least she would know she was in my arms. I sat there on the couch, cradling her and scream-crying uncontrollably at the top of my lungs. It felt like my heart was being ripped from my chest. She lay in my arms totally unaware of the devastating turn our relationship was about to take. Holding her in those last hours of her life was the most painful thing I’ve ever done.
One of the wonders of the human mind is its ability to effortlessly replay memories with uncanny accuracy. But it takes a lot of discipline to avoid fixating on the painful moments and remember the happy ones instead. With a painful memory so fresh, it still stung like a gaping wound.
As we drove back through the pitch-black countryside, I felt as lost as ever. My quest had failed. I didn’t see the Northern Lights, and I didn’t feel any closer to understanding the mysteries of the universe or the location of Lilian’s spirit. I had seen a lot of beauty on the trip, but I hadn’t found everything I was looking for.
On the flight home, I stared out the window into the icy water. Being a believer in signs, I thought the universe would comply with my wishes, and I was mad that it didn’t. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that part of the beauty of the universe is the uncertainty, the lack of control in our destiny. We can do all of the right things to lead a happy life, but when it’s over, we have no bargaining power with the universe. Just like I have no bargaining power with the Northern Lights. The beauty is wrapped up in the mystery.
Most people don’t know that I was allergic to Lily. She would give me itchy welts on my face when we would snuggle. Her tongue burned like a fire-poker, but the kisses were worth it. When Marcus came home on our last night with Lily, he hugged me, then inspected my face. “Is that from Lily?” he asked. I looked in the mirror and saw I had a perfect heart on my face. It was undeniably strange, even for my non-believer-in-signs husband. But the moment was overshadowed by the impending vet appointment, then the feeling of crushing loss.
Scrolling through photos on my phone on the plane ride home, I came across the photo with the heart. I had been looking for a sign this whole time, and there it was, branded on my face.
The heart-shaped welt.
I always hear that the way to live life fully is to open your heart and not be afraid of getting hurt. It’s hard to do that after you experience loss. But without understanding loss — and feeling it in the depths of your soul — I don’t think it would be possible to feel beauty that deeply either.
“But know this; the ones who love us never really leave us.” — Sirius Black