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!”

 

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.

image

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?