The Dying

08 August 2010

I haven’t been close to terminal illness. By “close,” I mean in immediate proximity for prolonged periods of time. And, I have never been a caretaker for the terminally ill.

My father died of cancer, a terminal illness that lingers and disfigures its prey. I would go to his home dutifully. I would sit where he told me to sit and look at his emaciated frame and bulging eyes, and listen to his stories, his fabrications and delusions and his spiteful attacks on my mother. When I visited on weekend mornings, I brought him butter biscuits from Hardees. This was all I could do for him. I did not “care” for him. He had my brother for those gruesome tasks, and he had the inadequate home health aide from hospice. When he stopped wanting my presence, and set my brother and I at each other’s throats, I stopped visiting. That was three weeks before his merciful death. My brother has not forgiven my absence.

So I never cared for him. I observed. And listened. And then I left. At the funeral, the health aide told me that he had called for me repeatedly during the three weeks’ of my absence.

My mother died suddenly, three years before my father, in the same house. I found her. I had gone to visit with her on Mother’s Day. She was crouched on the bathroom tiled floor, her body holding more cold than I believed could be possible for a human being. I draped her form, and brushed her hair, and repeated a litany of woeful sounds.

When I was very young, running barefoot through the neighborhood, my mother stopped me and urged me to visit Mrs. Pratt. She was our next door neighbor, and she was dying. I cannot imagine what my face revealed to my mother. My thoughts remain clear. “I do not want to look at death.”

Dusty at the start of her illness
Dusty at the start of her illness

Since then, I have seen death plenty of times. In almost every instance, I have been spared the view of dying. Death is one thing. It is undeniable. It is shocking. Death jolts you out of the everyday concerns and trivial struggles and blares its dark trumpet in your ears.

Dying is something different. My first, prolonged view of dying has been with my cat, Dusty. This moment, after three months of hope, I realize she is dying.

Even so, even faced with the tremendous evidence of her dying – her shaky head, her incontinence, the wasting away of her muscles, how her eyes stare and stare, the smell of her – even now, I have the tiniest tendril of hope.

This witness to dying has become a sequence of lessons. I realize that this little cat, that I so often took for granted, was – is – such a presence. She came out of nowhere, appearing on my driveway just a few weeks after another cat passed out of my life. Her resemblance was so uncanny that I mistook her at first. And then, as she became a part of my morning and evening rituals, I found myself comparing her to the first cat, such an unfair thing! In comparing her, I didn’t recognize her beauty and sweetness. I’ve learned that regret cannot be reversed.

Dusty in the sun
Dusty in the sun

So, another moment with her, and her eyes are wide open with a look of astonishment. She will not eat, though just an hour ago, she ate several tablespoons of mushed food. She can flip her tail. I draw a flannel robe over her, lightly, and curl my arm around her body to give her heat. And I talk to her. She reaches with one paw, as she’s always done, our hand-holding, but she cannot even tense her claws. The end of her tail twitches. Her eyes are wide open.

Death is not such a bad thing, I’m thinking. It’s the dying that hurts.

We’ve had our conversations, Dusty and I. Though she says little. She will come thru with a burst of vitality, and eat voraciously. Then she will fall back into the dying. I ask her weighty questions. Because I can’t find the answers.

I recognize that my little sun-loving, warmth-hugging cat had not been well for some time. But I was “busy” and did not notice. This is a regret that makes me cry. Because… what-if?

From the start of her illness, I’ve held to two things: she will come home and she will get well, or she will come home and die. I’ve scoured my conscience, debated my decision, wondered if she has suffered, wonder if she will survive, wonder if I have done the right thing, wonder what the right thing is. I haven’t learned this lesson. All I know is that I hope with this simplistic, childish desire that she will live, or that she will die into something better.

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