we don’t always get a choice.

In the days leading up to my 28th birthday, I wrote a letter from my future self to my current self. I stepped into my shoes at 29 and wrote a letter to myself at 28 — with the idea of capturing what I dreamt, and still dream, my reality will be as I turn 29 next year. (The exercise, which I’ve done for a few years now, is meant to help define my goals and actions for the year ahead.) Nine days after writing that letter, I was reminded that we don’t always get a choice in life.

There are quite simply moments where the life we dream of is out of our control. There are moments where our choices are made for us, and no matter how heartbreaking and painful they are or how cruel they feel, we cannot undo them. Sometimes, just like that, before we even know what’s happened, our dreams are pulled out from under us.

You see, in that letter to myself, I wrote about my deaf cat LBK — my best friend and adventure companion. In that letter, 29-year-old Emily wrote, “LBK is with you now. Finally reunited and happy.”

My family adopted LBK when I was 17 years old. She’s been by my side for the greater part of my 20s. She visited me at college and then lived with me in Wyoming and California. She and I camped in California together and road-tripped across the U.S. from California to Michigan together. When I came down to Argentina in 2016, she moved back in with my family. That move was only temporary — at least it was supposed to be. Now that I’m settled in Bariloche, I’d planned on bringing her to Argentina to live with me later this year following my U.S. visit. (She’d even brushed up on her Spanish.) Heartbreakingly, that dream will go unrealized; it’s a dream that cannot be.

A week after my birthday, on a Thursday evening in February, my mom called me. She had bad news. My mind jumped to thoughts of my sister and grandparents. But no, it was LBK. She had kidney failure. My heart dropped. I felt as though I couldn’t hold myself up. My mind raced, and among so many thoughts, the words of my letter to myself rang through my head: “LBK is with you now. Finally reunited and happy.”

My mom did all she could to treat LBK, but the kidney failure was too far along and not even two days later, I FaceTimed with her as we said goodbye to LBK and my mom euthanized her. It’s painful to realize you’ll never share a moment with someone you love ever again. It’s painful to realize you don’t get to have the adventures you dreamed of having. It’s painful to realize how quickly our dreams can be extinguished — and, in those moments, how powerless we are. It’s painful to realize that, when it comes to our lives and what happens, we don’t always get a choice.

We aren’t always in control of our reality. Heck, we’re rarely in control, but these bigger pills are tough to swallow.

We don’t always get a choice, but, as the saying goes, we do get to choose how we respond. In this situation — and so many others — I’m learning to accept the hand I’ve been dealt. I’m reluctant at times, and I can’t fully comprehend this new reality (especially at a distance), but I’m working on it. I’m working through it.

More than that, I’m learning to sit with the cards I’ve been dealt. Part of that is coming to grips with the cards themselves, recognizing what they are. Part of that is figuring out how I play those cards, how I move forward.

I still talk with my family about LBK. I still talk with my family about LBK as if she were still alive. Perhaps it’s a way of coping. Perhaps it’s about keeping her character alive. Perhaps it’s all of the above.

In the wake of a moment I did not choose, I am choosing to give myself time. I am choosing to give myself time to process what was, what is and what cannot be. Among many difficult realizations with the loss of LBK, it’s hard to realize that those words I wrote as I turned 28 won’t be true at 29. Of all the dreams I’m working toward this year, I never stopped twice to think about that one — that it might not be possible because she wouldn’t be here.

It’s tough to realize that we don’t always get a choice.

So how do we respond when we can’t quite come to terms with what’s happened? To be honest, I don’t have the answer here. I’m working through it — and perhaps the loss of my cat isn’t the best metaphor for this. But I think it’s a progression of continuing to live life, take steps and make moves that matter. And to be patient with ourselves and the process of coming to terms with the choices that are made for us — and either accepting those choices or fighting back. In cases like this, I think it’s a progression of acceptance, patience, adaptation and forward movement.

When LBK came to our family, she was a kitten. She’d been attacked by an animal, had two bite wounds in her neck and was skin and bones. She fit in the palm of my hand. My mom didn’t think this little baby kitten would live, but we took her in and worked to nurse her back to health. That autumn, I remember her sleeping on a towel next to my pillow every night. She was a sweetheart.

The little cat who wasn’t supposed to make it survived. We called her Little Baby Kitten and then later LBK. She loved and was loved. She adventured around the country — more than some people — and filled my life (and my family’s life) with joy. LBK didn’t choose to be attacked by an animal. She didn’t choose to be on the verge of death. She didn’t choose to be deaf or have a neurological disorder. But if I can speak to the character of that little cat, who became a rather large cat, she did choose to rise above the very things that so easily could’ve killed her. She didn’t choose the cards she was dealt, but she played them well. We don’t always get a choice with what life throws our way, but we do get to choose how we react.

I haven’t changed the letter to myself. I don’t plan to change it or scratch anything out — not with regard to LBK, not with regard to anything else. I set my dreams for a reason, and while the reality of some of them is out of my control, I think this year’s letter is a reminder that life is delicate. For better or worse, there are dreams within our control and dreams beyond our control. And while we don’t always get a choice as to what happens in our lives, we get to choose to keep making, pursuing and living our dreams, no matter what life throws our way. And I think that is a pretty brave and bold and beautiful thing.

My last photo of LBK. Frankfort, Michigan. August 2017.

April 24, 2018

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