Friendship, fear, death…and confessions

What do you say to a friend who is afraid to die? Even now, six months later, I still don’t know what to say.

VirgHer name was Virginia. She was 92. And she died this spring, a frail, withered shell of the woman she used to be. Her hearing was almost gone, and her memory was failing her. She could not walk without assistance and she had great difficulty swallowing (common in the elderly, I’m told). And even though her eyes were pale and rheumy, the fear was plain in them when she asked, “What’s going to happen to me?”

Other than some platitude about what good care the staff showed in their care of her (at her nursing home), I had nothing to offer. I don’t know the answer.

Her life was good, but not perfect. It was stereotypical in some ways in that her husband had passed away years before her, yet they had had a daughter who would continue their family line with her own son. But in other ways, Virginia took stereotypes and stomped them in the ground. Prior to World War II, she boarded a bus – alone – in her native Minnesota in order to join her older sister in California. She would live in various places, and she would serve as a Navy WAVE during the war and, later, as a Grey Lady at Letterman Hospital during the Korean War. She did not marry until the age of 31 – rare for women of her time and, not to mention, having a child at that age. Through it all, she worked at various jobs until I met her in the 1990s when we were both secretaries.

She taught me how to do cross-stitch. I took her to a Billy Joel concert for her…78th (I think) birthday. And…she entrusted me with her beloved tabby, Fluffy, when she felt she could no longer adequately care for the cat. To this day, I am undecided whether or not I betrayed that trust by lying to Virginia. For this is my confession: Fluffy died on December 17, 2004, not in December 2005. Some friends already know this and they tell me I did the right thing because, in December of 2004, Virginia was recovering from a hip replacement and subsequent pneumonia. She was in terrible shape, physically, emotionally, mentally. I could not tell her that Fluffy had cancer and was going to die soon. Fortunately, I had several pictures of the cat – so I could continue the lie – and gently worked my way up to Fluffy passing away the following December (I kept it the week before Christmas so I could keep the lie straight).

Fluffy

I took this picture of Fluffy with me to Virginia’s memorial service. I hope that Fluffy is with her now, and I hope Virginia forgives me. Most of all, I hope she is no longer afraid.

But instead of crying, I try to remember the laughter that Virginia could elicit with her sharp wit, even when it was aimed at me. She turned 80 just a few months after I turned 40. So when I called her to wish her happy birthday, I said “Hey, I’m half your age now!” Without missing a beat, she replied, “Well, thank God for that, I thought you’d never make it this far!”

 

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Giving Thanks

It’s cliche to be expressing thanks this time of year, but today – after a busy morning running around followed by a mid-afternoon nap in the big overstuffed chair – I awoke to two cats draped across my lap, purring. And I felt thankful. Thankful for small furry bodies keeping me warm on a rainy day. Thankful for their gazes which tell me that I am their whole world.

So I’d like to thank all the felines who came before who have shared their companionship and love…and their lessons about life and death…with me.

KC

To K.C., my first cat when I was a teenager. He loved to annoy my mother by sleeping on the clean linen and taught me that I would do pretty much anything to save my cat – including climbing out onto a slippery roof to retrieve him. He was the first to teach me that hearts can be broken from many miles away: he’d gone to live with my sister because I wasn’t able to keep him and passed away without me learning about it until later. (That’s my sister in the picture.)

Lovely

To Lovely, who wasn’t even my cat. She wandered into the basement one day while I was doing laundry. Emaciated and weak, she cried for attention. Sucker that I am, I took her to the vet and found that she had cancer. I’d never seen her in the neighborhood before so I can only assume that her owners, discovering her illness, had tossed her out like garbage. So I felt it my duty to give her peace with caring human hands holding her as she passed. It was the wonderful staff at Broadway Pet Hospital who dubbed her Lovely. They didn’t want her to die unnamed or unloved. Only in my life for a few days, I believe it was her task to teach me about death firsthand, preparing me for the time three years later that I would have to let go of Indy, who I had raised from kittenhood.

Indy1To Indy, my first cat as an adult. I found him at a pet store marked down multiple times from $9.99 to $3.99. He was the smartest cat I’ve had, able to open drawers and cupboards, digging out toys that I had hidden away. At night, he lay on my right side. I would drape my arm across his body and he would wrap his tail around my arm. He taught me the true, and sometimes expensive, responsibilities of cat ownership.

marian1To Marian, who taught me that I had enough love for more than one pet at a time. She would sit in my lap while I was on the computer and rub her slobbery face all over my hands while I typed. (Yes, cats can slobber.) And she taught me guilt. The day before she unexpectedly died from a blood clot, I’d been very busy and kept pushing her away, unable to give her the attention she craved. There was no time to apologize to her, only to tell the vet to end her suffering as quickly as possible. I’m sorry Marian.

FluffyTo Fluffy, who I took in as an elderly feline on behalf of an elderly friend who could no longer care for her. She turned out to be sick, so our time together was short, but it was long enough for many laughs, like the times – completely oblivious that there was already a cat sitting on my lap – would climb right on top of that cat (usually Annie).

 

AnnieTo Annie, who taught me that it’s the cats who are in charge. She would sit on the floor halfway in between the couch and the computer desk…and wait. When she felt that I had spent a sufficient amount of time at the computer, she issued her demands: a series of sharp “MOWS” (not meows, mows) until I obeyed her and sat on the couch, so she could sit on my lap. She had deep maternal instincts, helping to raise Turtle and Bender. She was the only cat who missed those who had passed before her, looking for them in their usual hidey spots.

And, of course, to Turtle, who I’ve written of many times before. She taught me that your soul mate is not always the same species as you.

And to Ariel, who I lost last month. She taught me that a single act of kindness can change your entire world.

You can see photos of Turtle and Ariel in earlier blogs.

BoysTo Bender and Paco, thank you for being with me today. What would I do without your head butts and forehead licks, Bender? And your nose rubs, Paco? I hope that I can do whatever is needed to make your lives better. We will always have love in this house.

And lest I forget the people:

Thank you friends and family. Thank you to the childhood friends who found me on Facebook (yeah, Facebook can be a huge sucking waste of time, but I’ve reconnected with many people important to my past. It’s also giving me a chance to learn about my nieces and nephews who grew up halfway across the country and a way to get to know my two sisters-in-law.)

Thanks to the friends who found themselves terrific spouses who I’m lucky to also count as my friends.

Thanks to the friends I’ve made in my world travel with Lindblad Expeditions. I look forward to traveling with you again.

Thanks to all of those friends and relatives who have raised intelligent, outspoken, independent, and interesting children. It gives me hope for the future.

Thanks to those of you who have bought my e-books. I hope that I’ve entertained you.

And many thanks to the ancient Mesopotamians for inventing beer.

Running on Empty

imageGoing home with the empty cat carrier. How many of us have been through that gut-wrenching experience? My first time was ten years ago with Marian, who woke me up in the middle of the night by jumping onto me in bed, screaming. Not meowing, not howling. Screaming. She promptly lost bladder control, tumbled off the bed, and began dragging herself toward the closet to hide. Her back legs would no longer work. I rushed her to the emergency veterinary clinic and was given a grim, devastating prognosis: saddle thrombosis (i.e., a blood clot in the abdominal aorta). It was, as the vet explained, one of the most excruciatingly painful ways for a quadruped to die. My decision was a no-brainer. She’d been too good of a companion for me to let her suffer. The vet ended it quickly, although not before Marian bit me in the face. That was my fault. I was trying to comfort her and just as the vet was saying “be careful, an animal in that much pain will bite” (literally – the words were just out of her mouth), Marian turned around and went ‘chomp’ – my nose was swollen for three days.

When Turtle died last year at home I took her to the vet in an Amazon.com box. It was an undignified method of transport, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of taking home an empty carrier. (Sorry, Turtle.) But yesterday, I braved that emotion once again when I took in Ariel for what I knew would be her final trip. She had stopped eating, was very confused, could barely walk, and had even peed in her bedding and then laid down where she had just peed. There was no dignity left for her, no peace, only pain and suffering. But I knew the staff at Broadway Pet Hospital would give her that dignified, peaceful ending. That last ‘magic carpet ride’ (as the attending vet called it) bundled in a warm towel to be taken into the back for insertion of a catheter to make administration of the fatal drug easier for her.

I held her head as she passed, grateful that I could be there for her. Grateful that I was privileged enough to be her mommy the last half of her life. I told her that Turtle was waiting for her to show her the way. And so was Sammy, the cat with whom she had shared a home the first half of her life (Sammy died earlier this year). I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to watch over her in her golden years. Admittedly, it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I already had enough cats, and – to be brutally honest – I did not like Ariel. Not only had my experience with Siamese cats been traumatic (friend Lisa had a Siamese named Chandar who hated me & stalked me whenever I visited), but Ariel was a nasty, bitchy little cat. I only took her in because I felt sorry for her previous owner who was temporarily in a housing situation which did not allow pets. Little did I know that Ariel’s bad temperament was due to three rotten molars. Teeth that had been bad for years (not just months), meaning she had been suffering horrible pain for years. After a month or so of recovery from their extraction, Ariel’s personality changed like flipping a light switch. She couldn’t get enough of expressing her gratitude by climbing into my lap and purring away. True to her somewhat solitary nature, that activity didn’t last forever, but she became the sweet cat she should always have been.

If only her previous owner (someone who I’m no longer friends with because of her oblivious nature and inability to listen to anyone – including those she claimed were her friends) had paid attention to her and given her the regular veterinary care a cat requires. But true to her nature, the ex-friend had no concept of the need for maintenance. That may not sound like an appropriate term to use for pets, but just as you need to maintain your car or any household appliances, your animals need that kind of care too. I can’t count the number of things in this woman’s house which were no longer operable because she either couldn’t take proper care of them or keep track of needed parts.  But, to her credit, when I informed the previous owner that I had “just spent $900 on what is now MY cat, thank you very much” she did not contest ownership, recognizing that the cat was better off in my care.

I’m glad that I got to show Ariel that she was loved. That humans were good. That her experiences were not representative of humans in general. I’m not just talking about the lack of proper care either. Her previous owner’s mother, with her bizarre and cruel sense of humor, would place Ariel in plastic grocery bags and then hang her from door knobs or the backs of chairs, and then either leave her there to climb out on her own or tickle her until she got irritated and jumped out. Until the day, of course, Ariel turned around and attacked her tormenter. This resulted in the mother saying, “this cat is vicious – you must declaw her immediately.” And the ex-friend obliged. While I feel there are rare justifications for declawing a cat, this is not one of them. I objected. And I told my ex-friend to tell her mother to stop torturing the cat. Her response: “I’ve asked her.” I said “It’s your house. It’s your cat. Don’t ask. TELL her.” Her response: “I can’t tell her what to do. She’s my mother.” Bullshit. No offense to my mom, if she ever did that to one of my pets (which she would never do!), I’d kick her out of my house. But this ex-friend didn’t have the guts.

Now, before you go form a lynch mob to string this cruel woman up, she passed a few years ago. Not to speak ill of the dead (well, I guess I just did, didn’t I?): good riddance, God rest your evil little soul. At least her passing saved me the awkward conversation with Ariel’s previous owner (still my friend at that time) to confess that I never liked her mother anyway. There was something wrong with that woman. And before you ask, no I did not inform her previous owner that Ariel was near death or invite her to see her one last time. She forfeited that right some time ago.

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Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright

imageTonight, the fire in her eyes still burns brightly…but for how long? She is 19 years old, her kidney function is nearly non-existant, her desire for food is waning, and the muscles in her back legs are wasting away threatening her ability to walk and stand. Every other day she looks and acts like she’s at death’s door, and then the next day she stands up (albeit wobbly) with an eager expression of “feed me!”

All pet owners have been there…on death watch. I hate to call it that, but that’s what it is. Looking for that fine line between “life is still good” and “ready for a peaceful forever sleep.”  There comes that moment when our pets tell us it’s time for them to go, but sometimes is so hard to recognize as we wallow in our denial and impending grief.

After last Thursday, I was convinced she would be dead by Friday, or at least would not live through the weekend. But here she is today, with enough spunk to once again fool me into thinking that she swallowed that pill I just stuck down her throat.  “No, really, human, I did, can’t you see me pretending to swallow? Don’t watch while I turn my head and spit the pill out on the bathroom floor.” Crafty little skinny one, she is.

I look at her and wonder what wings dare she aspire? To fly away to heaven or stay for a few more days on this mortal earth? Would she rather be left alone to die in peace? Or would she welcome one more head rub even while she protests one more hug? I think that may be it, that moment when I pick her up and she does not protest being held, that I will know she is no longer herself.

And then we will both water heaven with our tears.

A Hole in my Soul

Image

A year ago today, in the dark chill of a January morning, a piece of my soul was forever ripped away. After a few gasps for air with lungs rapidly shutting down, Turtle’s limbs relaxed and she was gone. I knew that she was, but I denied it, continuing to lay there with my beloved cat on my chest. I told myself that the gentle rise and fall I felt was her breath, not mine. But soon her body began to stiffen and chill like the winter air. I couldn’t ignore the truth any longer. It was time to drive her to the veterinary clinic and hand her off for delivery to the crematorium. I wrapped her in a towel and, as undignified as it was, I put her in a box. I couldn’t bear the thought of returning home with an empty cat carrier in my hand as I’ve done in years past.

Turtle is, of course, not the first pet I’ve lost, but the hardest to lose. She was my soulmate and I miss her still. I think of those last few days, of the joy of having her with me for one last Christmas and one last New Year’s. But I also reflect on what I could have done to make her passage easier. I knew that she was ready to go on Friday, the 4th. I could tell. It’s something you come to learn as a pet owner. But I needed to go to the office. I vowed that I would only work a partial day and get back as quickly as possible. But that didn’t quite happen. I wasn’t able to escape until close to the end of the day, giving me only an extra hour to spend with her. And the vet closes early on Fridays. Selfishly, I did not rush to take her in for euthanasia because I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I told myself she’d make it through the night.

But as I lay awake with her, holding her on my chest, I knew she wouldn’t. Turtle suffered through two seizures before the end came. While I doubt she was aware of much after the first seizure (maybe even before), I too suffered watching her, feeling her little body tremble and thrash. I begged her to let go and slip away; I told her it was okay to go to kitty heaven, to join Indy & Marian & Annie & Fluffy. But I still watched the clock tick away the minutes for nearly an hour before those final gasps for air came on January 5, 2013.

ImageSo tonight I light a candle for her memory, and I look through her photo album at her kitten pictures, and I choose to remember her healthy and happy, draped across my face sound asleep. And I remember those little moments I wish I’d caught on film like when Turtle was a wee little furball, and she came bounding across the room like a rubber ball, bounced off the coffee table, bounced off the sofa, and bounced right past my head and up on to the window screen, her tiny claws latched on tight. She hung there for a moment, looking around, and then started screaming her little head off. It took me a couple minutes to peel her off the screen.

Thank you, Turtle, for 16 years of love. Can you feel my tears?