A Long Good-bye: On Death and the Sacred Agony of Patience

My cat died yesterday.  Diagnosed with mouth cancer at the beginning of last September, his cancer moved quickly but killed him slowly.  Today, there is a hole, not so much in my heart, but in my life that I don’t know quite how to fill.  For the past two months, all of my life has been spent solely in trying to build my business and taking care of my little guy.  But the past two weeks, my life has been lived purely for him.

Throughout this ordeal, I’ve shut out a lot of people.  Why?  Because people wanted me to talk about how I was feeling.  I know they were all well-meaning but what none of them realized is that it hurt to talk.  It hurt my chest.  That in living with the day-to-day decay of my beloved pet, talking about it was an added cruelty.  Besides, what was there to talk about it?  The time in January when he vomited on the wall?  Or how in December, in a playful moment, our kitten bit or scratched our cat in the tumor and it caused a chain reaction of blood and drainage that would run for several days and then stop for several more, only to run again?  How I’m still finding drops of blood on the wall, the yoga mat, a CD, my papers?  How two weeks ago like a child nodding and fighting sleep, my cat fought death?  How from last Wednesday night to Sunday morning, I slept maybe a total of 14 hours?  How at 2:35 a.m. on Sunday, my cat sat in the bathtub shaking his face trying to remove a piece of tissue that hung like a loose tooth and how I had to gently remove this bit of noxious flesh?  Or how for two hours, I watched him move from tub to toilet to floor and flip from side-to-side trying to get comfortable; how I dreaded when he flipped onto his left because the hole where his lower cheek had been only an hour before gaped as a bloody accusation?  How I dozed on a sleeping bag on the bathroom floor with him on it and after an hour, I was finally able to move both of us to the couch?  How decaying flesh smells of minerals and acid and how that smell permeates everything and worse, how you actually get used to it?  Is this what people wanted me to talk about?  Who wants to hear this reality?  This was his death; it became my life.

Of course, there was another reason I didn’t want to talk.  The inevitable question: Why don’t you just put him to sleep?

I did not put him to sleep because until the very end, his personality was intact.  Three days before he stopped eating, he jumped onto my husband’s lap and attempted to steal bacon from his plate.  Three days before he died, he sat straight and regal in the bathtub, and did one of his favorite things: he drank from the faucet.  One day before dying, he walked outside onto our deck covered with a foot of snow and sat looking at the forest.  He still used his litter box.  Even in the last week, when he started to cling to me, we’d play with his tail.  I would say, Where’s that tail?  Give me your tail! and he’d place it in my hand.  As long as he was still himself, I couldn’t have him killed. 

I know many people will judge me: either I will be seen as a kook, expending energy and emotion on a mere animal or I will be deemed cruel.  Believe me; I’ve judged myself, wondering if I’ve made the right choices.  This judgment even infiltrated my dreams: last week, two weeks ago perhaps, I dreamed I had tried to blow up a rock in the basement of a house and my kitten’s eyes filled with glass and blood.  As I was getting ready to take the kitten to a vet, I worried that the vet would take one look at my cat in his cancerous agony and report me for animal cruelty.  I woke up, horrified.

But every time I’ve questioned myself, I’ve gone back to the beginning when the cat was diagnosed and the options were all catastrophic: chemo, radiation or a surgery that probably would have killed him quicker.  All of those options were an immediate punch in the gut.  I had given myself a week to consider everything but I knew: this was to happen naturally.  The way death and life are meant to be.

In every moment that broke my heart anew; in witnessing an incredible will to live even in the midst of ghastly physical changes; in pleading with God to put my cat out of his misery if only to end my own, deep inside I knew that this journey was sacred.  That as much as I wanted to get back to normal or just be given the chance to relax into a new kind of normal; that as much as I wanted to grieve fully, what was required of me was only to be present.  Patient.  Accepting.  I had to surrender to the process.  As his caregiver since he was five weeks old; as the person who ultimately decided not to interfere with Nature, it was my responsibility then to see him through this.  To hold the pad filled with hydrogen peroxide against the blood.  To find foods he enjoyed when he became finicky.  To stop what I was doing and hold him against my chest the last week.  To go without sleep because he really needed me at the end; because I knew I could sleep when he passed. 

This, I had tried to explain but ultimately I couldn’t.  In a world where everything is quick and emotions are manipulated and we’re all just supposed to take a pill and get on with it, how could I tell anyone without sounding crazy that what I was making time for in my life was death?  How could I relay the sacredness of this decision, this journey, when at times, I myself felt impatient, out of my mind, or so damn angry and exhausted?  I couldn’t.  I am now.  If only to make sense of what I’ve been doing.  If only not to have to explain it ever again. 

I chose to take this journey in this way.  I chose to make it meaningful.  Sure, it would have been much easier taking my cat to the vet two or three months ago.  It would have saved us both a lot of pain, but also a lot of joy.  More importantly, I would have missed an opportunity to face death.  No, I haven’t made friends with it and I am forever scared of my own, but in the last dreadful moments, I didn’t run from it.  I held my hand gently on his chest, hoping to comfort his last breaths.  I wiped his face and paws.  Both my husband and I tried to close his eyes but they remained open.  And dreading the moment for six months—fearing it—finally, without fear but a child’s sense of wonder mixed with revulsion, I picked up my dead cat and cradled him in a basket.  We tucked in a nearly hairless pink bear whose ass he kicked for the last 14 years, and covered him with a towel.   In the backyard, underneath a pine tree my husband named Maggie, who has been here long before us and will be here long after, in a perfect hole in between two of her roots, we lowered our little Garou. 

Finally, he is able to rest.  I think, maybe I can, too.  And even though there’s a hole surrounding me with a danger of becoming burdened with self-recrimination and grief, I have already started to fill it in positively.  Just a bit.  Before writing this, I scrubbed the bathroom, removing the remnants of these past few days.  I’ve done laundry and run the dishwasher.  Tomorrow, I’m going to have a massage.  It’s a start.

It has to be.  Life is sacred.  All of it.  Even the parts that hurt.  And realizing that, honoring what I’ve experienced, is the only way I know how to fill the hole.

Thank you, my little guy.  You are forever loved and cherished. 

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One Response to A Long Good-bye: On Death and the Sacred Agony of Patience

  1. Kay Beer says:

    http://1lovelife.blogspot.com/

    I sat and cried at the bottom of the garden when I had my cat put down, and the tears were worse when I collected her from the vet as discovered I had dug the wrong shaped hole!

    You may well ask how can a hole be the wrong shape but I had no notion that my dearly departed cat would be frozen and fixed. I have to re-dig the hole, make it wider so that I could lay her gently to rest.

    I promised myself that I don’t think I can ever do it again but today my son had to have his cat put down, Minky will be missed, and I know how he feels: Sad and lost.

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