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!”

 

A Hole in my Soul

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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?

The Best Christmas Ever

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Presents under the tree, turkey in the oven, friends and family gathered ‘round, phone calls from loved ones far away. These are the kinds of things which make a perfect Christmas.

But the perfect Christmas isn’t always the best Christmas – that one Christmas which remains in the forefront of your memory.

I usually spend my holidays with good friends who ‘adopted’ me into their family years ago. And it’s usually a rollicking good time: food, laughter, some liquor, playing with the kids, playing games ranging from Fluxx, to Munchkin, to Chez Geek, to Battle Cattle, to Give Me The Brain.

But last year, those four “disease vectors” (otherwise known as my friends’ four young children) had brought home a nasty flu bug which was making its rounds through the family. They didn’t want to infect anyone else. Christmas got cancelled.

I thought about making other plans, but I knew that 2012 would be the last Christmas for my beloved cat, Turtle. She was 16 and her kidneys were failing. And she was painfully thin. I decided to stay home and devote my holiday to her.

I tried to get her interested in the cat toys I opened, but it was the other three kitties who pounced on the fluffy mice and wrapping paper. Turtle only wanted to climb into my lap. laptime So after all the gifts were opened, and my hot chocolate all gone, I put on a DVD and we cuddled in the big chair. She was never much for curling up into a ball on my lap except on occasion. So she took her usual position: stretched out across my torso, her head resting on my right shoulder.

(As a kitten, Turtle would plant her face in the side of my neck while kneading it with her paws and sucking on my skin. [I’m told that’s a sign she was weened too early.] Ever since, she’s been most comfortable when she’s as close as possible to my face. We would often sleep cheek to cheek.)

So we spent Christmas like that, her face next to mine, my arms wrapped around her, keeping her warm. It was the last day I heard her purr. And it was the best, most rewarding, Christmas I’ve ever spent, for she would be gone eleven days later.

Sometimes you don’t need to do anything for Christmas except spend some time with a loved one: person or pet. And you don’t need to give anything except some love. Image