Lion strength weakens to nothing? --Rumi
Last week I lost a dear old companion, my very first cat, known officially as "Ekatarina", known to her family as "Boo." She came all the way from Russia, twenty years ago. An "applehead" Siamese, she was always ready for a cuddle. She loved sleeping curled up next to my tummy, under the covers and would come to join me in bed when I snapped my fingers. I always worried about her getting enough air, but that obviously didn't affect her in the least. She loved pizza crust and tuna fish. She lived to be over a hundred years old in "people" years and really only faltered a week and a half ago when she suddenly had trouble walking.
Boo was my first cat, I'd only had dogs as a child and held an unfounded prejudice against felines as pets. I could not have been more off-base. As I got to know Boo, and what it was like to have a cat for a pet, I learned what intelligent, affectionate creatures cats truly are. They learn how to use a litter box almost instantaneously. They love to be brushed. They love to have their chins rubbed. They love to have their ears scratched. They love laps. They greet you at the door. They are polite at the dinner table. And, if they are tall enough, they can even work door handles. No soft surface (a sweatshirt, a dishtowel, a mousepad, a jacket) is deemed unworthy of curling up to sleep on. They are curious, clever and industrious. There is nothing as relaxing as taking a nap with a purring cat on your chest. No tranquilizer or relaxant could ever work so quickly and effectively.
I haven't had much contact with Boo since getting divorced several years ago. I check in on her and three other cats when my former spouse travels, but I've had no prolonged time with my first little cat girl. A week and a half ago, her dad called me to say she had been acting funny that morning and he was taking her to the vet. Her thyroid was out of whack (as it so happens, so is mine) and she was prescribed medication that she had to take twice a day. Unfortunately her dad needed to leave town for a week-and-a-half on business. I knew that running over to his house twice a day, even though it's only five minutes away, would be cumbersome and I'd be constantly worried. So I offered to take her in while he was gone. I have two cats, who have not been enamored of other cats coming around the house, but I ignored that potential problem. I got home from work at 11:30 p.m. and her dad brought her over after that. She settled into her cat bed and went to sleep.
Much to my surprise, my two cats acted with total class. They were curious but never really approached Boo choosing instead to peak around corners at her. They allowed her to eat first from the food dishes hanging back until she'd finished (she had a remarkably strong appetite). They let her take over one of their cushions in front of the heat register. They were quiet and subdued. I cannot help but think that they recognized that she was old and not well. Her weight was only 4.5 pounds and you could see every bone in her ancient spine.
I nursed her for a week and then discovered her early one morning having had a stroke in the night. She was breathing but not truly conscious. She had defecated and urinated. I was able to get my daughter off to school and then take Boo to her vet's to have him help her along. I had to wait thirty minutes, but I stayed with her and stroked her head. I think her soul had already departed but I didn't want her to be alone and wanted to see her through to the end.
It was sad, but I didn't want to be cowardly about death with my old friend. We've sanitized our interactions with death to the point where we are nearly dysfunctional in having to deal with it. Death is part of life and instead of turning away from its reality we should be willing to face it with equanimity and maturity. I recently purchased a copy of The TIbetan Book of Dying which I'd like to explore in the coming months. I want to learn how to treat this passage as a natural part of the life process, not as something to be feared and reviled.
I feel truly privileged and fortunate to have had this special time with my old friend and to know that I made her last days as comfortable as possible. It was good for my daughter to see this part of her life too and she was incredibly mature about the whole thing. So, as always, I'm thinking about what we can learn from this:
- We should treat our elders with respect.
- We should accept the aging process as a natural part of life. This is not to say that we shouldn't take care of ourselves, but rather that we must realize that age is eventually natural and not something to be viewed as ugly.
- In fact, we should welcome age and the experience and wisdom that can accompany it. Every old person is not naturally wise, but no young people are (they can be smart, but not wise--that only comes with time).
- We should do better by those who are dying. No one deserves to die in a sub-standard facility and proper amounts of pain medication should absolutely be administered to help people along.
- Life should not be unnaturally prolonged--what purpose does that serve? No heroic measures.
- We should all live with a sense that we've done good work here and that if our time comes, we are satisfied that we have served a purpose and loved well.
Rumi says that the reason why the lion loses its strength is that he wears robes that are only borrowed. It behooves us to remember that life is temporal and time eternal.
Good-bye my dear cat friend, may your next journey be as wonderful as the last.