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"Falling Apart: Death and Birth"
Our cat Rosie, a gray tabby who now weighs just four pounds, is dying. She’s completely deaf, nearly blind, and has been since spring. But she holds on, and we can’t bring ourselves to put her to sleep. She was five weeks old when Carol and I found her at a shelter—the same week we moved to Chicago from Iowa to start our new lives together—twenty-one years ago. The kids say she’s over one hundred—that a cat year equals five human years. One of my days feels like five to Rosie. The idea intrigues me. How does that work? Is cat time slower because they never worry—about what to say or wear, or if they are late to a meeting? Does Rosie have some sort of heightened kitty consciousness that allows her to live more in the present? Or maybe if I curled up in a bright square of sunlight on the oak floor for a few hours each day, those hours would begin to slow for me too, to elongate, to become something else. I wish the present would slow down.
I care for Rosie like she is an aging grandmother. I buy her gourmet food and litter: the aged-cheddar-cheese-and-albacoretuna dry blend for seniors, and the odorless, all-natural multicat litter with “quick clumping technology.” Each morning I pour some milk in a mason jar lid and take it down to her in the basement. She can no longer manage the stairs, but lately she seems to prefer the basement. Today I can’t see her, but I can hear her. She makes bizarre sounds now—odd, mournful meows that sound like a baby crying. It started when she lost her hearing. No longer sneaky or surprising, she half creeps, half limps out of the shadows of my workroom toward what seems to be the highlight of her day—a few ounces of skim milk.
As much as I love this cat, I have to admit that when she goes, it won’t be so terrible. Why? It’s a quality-of-life issue—hers and mine. She’s in physical pain. I’m not, but am concerned about hygiene. Our clothes dryer is right next to her litter box, and she has just started peeing on our clean laundry rather than in the box. I find little nuggets of poop all over the basement. It’s not her fault; her body functions autonomously from her brain. Things are decaying, falling apart. It is, it seems, her time.
I think of this decay now, sitting outside at dusk on the back porch of our house. The wild green buzz of summer is gone. The robins and goldfinches and bluebirds have flown south or are preparing to. It is the fall. And everything falls—not just the leaves. The temperature falls as the earth again tilts away from the sun. Darkness falls more quickly as the days shorten. Plants droop and dry up and break apart. Trees fall into dormancy and stop growing. Their leaves and seeds fall into the cool air, and then to the ground, where they will rot and root and become something new. This is the season of decay—a word that means “to fall away”—to return to your constituent parts, to what you are made of. We die and fall apart, but the parts go on. The same is true for the human species. Though lately I’m finding how much harder it is to accept this cycle with people than it is with pets or plants—particularly if they die suddenly, and seem to fall outside of the natural cycle of time.
Yesterday I saw our friend John at the YMCA. He lives four blocks away from us, but I know him mainly through Carol, who works with his wife, Ellen. They are both school social workers who run programs that assist new immigrant families. Ellen has cancer. She’s just fifty-six, and their family is very close; she’s the kind of mother you can see in her three boys. So, when I ask John, “How are you doing?” as he stands ready to get on the treadmill, it’s a huge question—probably too big to have asked.
“Oh, as well as I can,” he says. His eyes are exhausted and teary, and I can only presume he is running from and toward the enormous weight of loss, of losing Ellen. I wish I could think of something comforting and useful to say.
“Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help.” I say “us,” but we both know I mean Carol, in whom I can also feel the pending loss of Ellen. Ever since Ellen called to say they were stopping radiation, and that she had perhaps two months left, Carol has been depressed and preoccupied. I imagine the questions she carries: Why is this happening? Why Ellen? What really matters anymore? How do I live in gratitude for Ellen’s life, and for life in general? How long can an hour be, or a day, up against the end of a life?
Carol visited Ellen this afternoon. Tonight in bed she was writing about it in her journal. When I asked her how it had gone, she broke down. Unable to speak, she handed me the journal.
Went to see Ellen today. She’s in a lot of pain. The radiation damaged her bones and joints. “I don’t know when I should give up,” she said. “I’m not done yet. I’m just not done. That’s what John and I keep saying to each other. I have more to do. My son said he’d move up the wedding for me. I really want to see him get married. I really do. (Now we are both crying.) But I want to see him have babies, too.” Then she just wailed, and John came in to see if she was OK. And then we all cried for what was coming, for what we couldn’t stop.
A week later John calls us to see whether someone can come over and stay with Ellen for a couple of hours in the afternoon while he picks his son and his son’s fiance up at the airport. Ellen is near the end, but no one knows exactly how near, so her sons fly in to visit whenever they can to spend a day or two with their beloved mother. I tell John that Carol is gone, but that Abby and I can come over. Before we go, I remind Abby that Ellen is very sick. “I remember from when they came over for dinner,” she says. “She can’t talk or walk very good.”
When we arrive, John takes us into the living room, where Ellen is sleeping on a foldout sofa. “I don’t know if she’ll wake up while you’re here,” he says, “but here’s some water and a Popsicle if she wants it.” He gives us his cell phone number. Then he kisses her, says, “I love you.” Her eyes open to these words. She’s groggy, but John explains clearly and gently, “Tom and Abby are here with you until I get back from the airport if you need anything.” “Who?” “Tom. Carol’s Tom, and Abby.” “Oh. OK,” she says faintly, in her low voice, which is a bit slurred now. Then Abby greets Ellen, but she doesn’t seem to notice. John sets Abby up on a nearby computer with a blinking, beeping video game and then is off to the airport. I sit down in a chair next to the sofa bed.
Ellen has always had a striking presence; she is the kind of person in whom you sense compassion even before they speak. But I barely recognize her now. Her long, silver-brown hair is gone, and her bald head is only partly covered by a bandana above her emaciated body. I’m taken aback by all that has fallen away. Yet also keenly aware of her spirit, of her presence.
She stays awake after John leaves. I feel awkward sitting next to a woman I admire but don’t know well enough for a sacred moment like this—and when she is completely vulnerable. So I ask a sequence of dumb questions, including, “How are you doing?” At this she starts coughing, so I ask if she wants some water. She says yes and raises her right arm to show she wants to sit up. I try to support her back, but she grimaces whenever she moves her gaunt body. Finally, I get her sitting up with her feet over the side of the bed. There is no back support, and no position that feels good, so she kind of leans/falls over against me—shoulder to shoulder. Her weight is slight.
“I think I need to lean on you,” she says, “Is that OK?” And for the first time I hear Ellen, the humor, the presence. She is comforting me in my awkwardness.
“Yeah,” I say smiling. “I think I can handle that.” I give her a cup of water with a lid and a straw. She takes some sips, gives it back, and looks up at me for a second. The spirit of humor, of fun, is suddenly gone. Her dark eyes seem to carry some deep but unwelcome wisdom—the acceptance of the unacceptable. Then she starts coughing again, which worries me, because even the small coughs shake her whole body, and seem to hurt her. I hold out the water, and she takes a few more sips and the coughing stops.
“Don’t tell them about the coughing,” she says. “They worry about everything.” She leans back into my shoulder. Her head hangs down, her gaze falling to the carpet. “How sad that we don’t see the miracle in these little things,” she says in a gravelly whisper. “The little things aren’t little.”
I don’t know whether she is talking about the water, or the carpet, or just being alive. But I can sense the dark spiral of her sadness, of loss, of time itself—how her seconds and minutes and hours are no longer numbers hurriedly scribbled in a datebook but the whole living, loving, and breathing world—the one that was/ is always here, but which she will leave. The littlest things: the delight or sorrow in her sons’ eyes, the eternal rhythm of the ocean at her favorite seashore, or the wonder of an evening walk with John through this very ordinary neighborhood. The littlest things aren’t little: warm air, cool water, human touch.
Ellen and I just sit there for a while leaning on each other, with the beeping electronic music of the computer game in the background.
“Is she doing OK?” Ellen asks, now suddenly aware of Abby.
“Yeah, she’s fine,” I say. Abby looks over and smiles.
A few minutes later Ellen says she has to go to the bathroom, which I wasn’t prepared for. Facing her on the sofa, I lean over and lift her under both arms. She grabs the back of my arms and pulls. She is light and fragile when I lift her to her feet, but all of her joints hurt, so she exhales loudly and groans. Immediately sensing my worry, she says, “I’m OK” before I can ask. And then she looks up at me, and somehow we both recognize that we are in a dance position, as if, in spite of her weakness, we are about to cha-cha across the kitchen. Maybe it’s because last year, Ellen, John, Carol, and I all went square dancing together. I’m not sure. But we both recognize the absurdity of the moment.
“You lead,” she finally says, a sparkle of light flickering back up in her eyes. We are each grasping each others’ forearms, though I’m lifting and she’s leaning.
“Do you know the box step?” I ask.
“Yep,” she says. She can’t smile like she used to, but I can hear it in her voice—a lightness. And then we shuffle-slide across the kitchen tiles in tiny increments. It takes four or five long minutes to go fifteen feet. But we finally make it. I close the door. Ten minutes later, when she opens the door, we resume our dance position and slowly waltz back to the sofa, where she lies down, exhausted.
Today I find Rosie in the basement with two feet in the litter box and two feet out. She can’t lift any of her legs to move in either direction. She may have been standing like that for an hour. Her fur is dirty and matted because she can no longer clean herself. And she’s shaking. I put my hand on her back: “Oh Rosie, this just isn’t fair.” She turns her head toward me and tries to purr, but it comes out garbled and high pitched, like a sound some other animal makes—maybe a guinea pig. I pick Rosie up, clean off the clumps of urine-soaked litter that stick to her feet and legs, and lay her on her rug. Carol and I have known this cat for half our lives, and so I’m convinced that Rosie understands my sympathy, that she draws comfort from my voice.
After work that day, I run home, pick Rosie up, and take her to the local vet. I’ve never been there before, so I’m at first startled by a beautifully framed 3-by-3-foot family portrait hanging on the wall by the front desk. It’s a family of wheaten terriers—a close-up of their heads and shoulders with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. I imagine the photographer with his tripod trying to get the dogs to sit still, to pose them in that setting against their desire to be sniffing out rabbits. One of the dogs—perhaps the father—actually seems to be smiling.
When the doctor examines Rosie, he finds cataracts, a urinarytract infection, and more infection (and perhaps tumors) in her lungs. He says she is in much pain, and that putting her to sleep is a “reasonable and humane” option. I put Rosie back in the little cardboard carrier and talk with the secretary about our options.
“We offer euthanasia by injection and cremation,” she says, and hands me a price list: $210: Private cremation. Rosie’s body would be burned separately. All the ashes would be hers. $170: Semiprivate cremation. Rosie would be burned with other animals, whose bodies would be divided only by a few bricks. Rosie’s ashes would be mixed with those of the dachshund or dalmatian that were burned alongside her. $85: Euthanasia only, and they dispose of the body. $65: Euthanasia, and you keep the body.
We choose the low-budget option and tell the kids. They’re sad, but because they’ve watched Rosie’s decline, they also seem to have known this day was coming.
“What do you mean, ‘Put her to sleep’?” Bennett asks. “I thought she was going to die.”
“You’re right, she is,” Carol says. “It’s not really sleep; it’s death.”
“Will it hurt her?” Abby asks.
“The doctor said that it won’t. They give her a shot that puts her to sleep, but it’s so strong a dose that after she’s asleep for a few minutes, her heart will stop.”
“And that’s when she dies?” Bennett says, wanting confirmation. “Yes. So they do ‘put her to sleep,’ but then she dies right after. She shouldn’t feel any pain.”
The next morning the kids all say their good-byes to Rosie as we make their lunches in the kitchen. Tessa brings her upstairs, cuddling her in her arms. She and Abby are crying. Finally, we get them off to school.
Early afternoon, Carol and I take Rosie to the vet. They put us in a little sterile room where we sit with the cat we love and wait to let her go. “Do you want to hold her while they do it?” Carol asks, and we both tear up. The doctor comes in. He is young and kind.
“Have you had enough time to say your good-byes?” he asks. “Yes,” we both say, and Carol lays Rosie on my lap. The doctor says he’ll inject her with pentobarbital, a barbiturate used for anesthesia. But the dose is tripled, so Rosie will go to sleep in a minute or so, and then a minute or two later her brain and heart will stop.
Rosie seems completely relaxed and happy to be on my lap. She is purring. This stops when the vet injects her thigh, but she is oddly calm to the stick. Then the doctor leaves us alone. We both have our hands on Rosie, and can feel her breath and the soft pump of her tired old heart. We say, “I love you” again, almost as if she were a person. And then, after twenty-one years— twenty-one human years—the rhythm of her heart stops. A last breath rises and falls away, and she is dead. And I remember why spirit means “breath”—how the body is not all there is, even for a cat.
We lay Rosie in an orange Nike shoebox. An hour later, when the kids arrive home from school, they want to see her. I open the box, put my fingers on her belly, and can’t believe she is still warm. And the way she’s curled up, it’s hard to believe that she’s dead, that she won’t wake up. It’s both comforting and a little eerie. She really looks like she’s sleeping. Bennett looks confused when he sees her.
“She’s dead?” he says, perhaps fearful of any surprises. “Yeah,” I say.
“Her blood is still warm for a little while, but she’s dead. We can bury her.”
“How do you know for sure she’s dead?”
Bennett doesn’t say anything, but I know he’s thinking about Chip and Patch, a pair of hamsters that died last fall. It was my fault. We left town for forty-eight hours, and the weather abruptly changed. The temperature dropped from 60 down to 30. We hadn’t turned the furnace on yet, and so the hamsters froze to death. We found them cold and stiff and huddled together on the floor of their cage. But when we picked them up and held them for a minute, they blinked their eyes and started to move their legs and stretch. They had come back from the dead. Like two furry little frozen batteries, the hamsters revived, their nervous systems and hearts somehow jump-started by the warmth of our hands. They died two days later, but the miracle of their resurrection, and the possibility that an animal could rise from the dead, had stuck with Bennett.
So I confirm the finality of Rosie’s death. “We’re absolutely sure. The doctor even checked.”
“OK,” he finally said, now tearing up. I pull Bennett into my arms, and he curls into my lap with his head on my chest. He rarely cuddles like this with me, and never for very long. Unless he is sick or tired, after a few seconds he is up and gone. But today he settles in, and his warm body is a comfort.
From the Hardcover edition.