Tag Archive | death

Full of Surprises

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My friend Deb is allergic to cats, but has ended up with a few over the years because we live in the country with lots of feral cats and she has a soft heart. Currently she has only one, Shadowcat, who has wormed her way into the house. But last winter a couple of black cats started showing up on the porch, a short-haired bow-legged boy who’d run to greet you, and his long-haired more skeptical sister. We discovered that Deb’s neighbors had moved away and left the young cats behind. Within a few months, the boy was predictably run over, and the girl was adopted.

The friends who adopted the girl left on a long trip a few weeks after they took her home, with our promise that we’d take care of her in their absence. Since we were sort of the reason they adopted her. And because that is the kind of place we live, where we all pick up the pieces. They set up a nice bunch of beds and roosts in their garage, with all the things we’d need to care for her with the utmost convenience, including a free-feed station where she could eat all the kibble she wanted. She was a prickly little thing, hissing at Deb when she tried to pet her, and just ignoring me.

After a week, I thought she was getting too fat on the free feed, so started rationing her to one cup a day. A week later, she was even fatter! I was pretty sure what this meant. So Deb and I hauled her off to the good doctor, who confirmed that she was pregnant.

"In thirty years I've only done five or six C-sections on cats," he said. "I do that many every year on dogs. Don't worry about it, she'll do just fine."

“In thirty years I’ve only done five or six C-sections on cats,” he said. “I do that many every year on dogs. Don’t worry about it, she’ll do just fine. Cut a door or window in a box, give her some privacy.”

“Not just one or two pregnant,” he said, “more like four or five. And you can expect them in two or three weeks, closer to two I think.”

The neighbors were still a month away. They had no idea! Clearly there had been a miscommunication when they’d had her checked out. They hadn’t settled on a name before they left, and gave us license to name her if it came clear to us. We laughed all the way to the vet playing with names, and on the way home the name did come to us: Heidi. Heidi Ho.

I went into midwife mode, committed to building her trust before her time came. If there were any complications with the birth or afterwards I wanted at least a chance of being able to handle her and the kittens. And I wanted to start handling the babies shortly after they were born, so the proud grandparents didn’t come home to a shop full of feral kittens with a hissing mother that wouldn’t let them close.

For a couple of weeks she looked like she had a football stuck inside her sideways. Last week she started that legs-wide pregnant-lady waddle. Then one day the football had shifted.

For a couple of weeks she looked like she had a football stuck inside her sideways. Last week she started that legs-wide pregnant-lady waddle. Then one day the football had shifted.

I brought a quarter can of wet food every day, and sat across the room while she ate. I set up three nest boxes, two carrying crates with blankets, and a cardboard box arrangement lined with towels. I talked and sang to her (“oh she’s da heidi heidi ho!”) and stayed with her for ten or twenty minutes after she ate, watching her waddle around the garage and check out the nest boxes, or sit and clean herself. Eventually she’d take a treat from my fingers and let me rub her head a little, but I never heard her purr and she never wanted a lap or a real petting.

I set up nest boxes.

I set up nest boxes.

Last week I eased into touching her belly while she ate, checking her nipples and letting my hands rest on her swollen sides. On Sunday I felt one of the kittens move, and more action on Monday. Tuesday I opened the garage door and she didn’t come running. Across the room I heard little peeps and mews. Two weeks four days.

As I cleaned the litter box she came trotting across the room. She gobbled her wet food as I snuck a peek into the cardboard box she had chosen for a nest. She ran and checked on me a couple of times but let me take pictures. After she ate she curled back around her babies and let me watch them nurse. I couldn’t get an accurate count the way they were squirming all over each other, but thought I counted eight. I was surprised at how huge they seemed, to have been out of her less than 24 hours. I congratulated her on the wonderful job she had done.

How huge they looked.

How huge they looked for being out less than a day. How had they all fit inside her?

She rolled over and let me watch her nurse.

She rolled over and let me watch her nurse, purring loudly all the while.

Naturally I was smitten the moment I looked in on the little wad of wiggling kittens. But right now my hands are full and my pockets empty. The Colonel always advised me never to take responsibility for more lives than I could manage to care for adequately. I went into this thing knowing that I would not take a kitten out of this litter. I was sorely tempted to think about it, though, after watching them for just a few minutes.

When I checked the pictures at home, I could see there was a little foot that never moved in all the images and videos. Uh oh. A little dead one. So I ran back over, tricked Heidi with another blob of food, and reached in quickly to the back of the box to remove the kitten carcass. Poor little cold dead one. I brought it home and buried it under the peach tree.

There was a little cold dead one.

There was a little cold dead one.

I buried it under the peach tree.

I buried it under the blooming peach tree.

That was my kitten, the little dead one. Holding its cold little body for just a few minutes, stroking the soft dead fur on its little head, looking at its little open paws… I felt a little surge of love and grief. I said a few words about what a good kitten it would have been, such a good cat, how much it would have meant to me, and then covered it with dirt and straw, inside the tree fence so the dogs can’t dig it up. I placed a tiny bouquet of apple blossoms over the grave. A silly tiny thing, but still: one small thing I could do in a world of endless death. Lately I’ve been remembering that child I was at nine, and thinking maybe that was my prime. Before everything else. At nine, I would have buried that kitten with somber pomp and circumstance, deep and heartfelt ritual. And so I did something like that yesterday.

It was so much easier! So much easier to bury a stillborn kitten that could have been mine, than to love and live with it for five years, or ten, or fifteen as I have with other cats, and then lose it to the inevitable death that comes for all our pets before we’re ready. We’re rarely ready for death, even when we’ve had weeks or months to prepare. That first final emptiness when we look at the dead body of a beloved pet, or person, is always a shock, at least for me. So I got that loss over with preemptively, bringing home my share of the litter, living that little moment of might-have-been, and laying it to rest. Whew.

Seven little warm unnecessary adorable kittens.

Seven little warm unnecessary (adorable) kittens.

I went again today to tend the little mama, un petit d’un petit herself, and her litter. While Heidi was eating I took the top off the nest and folded up the damp, birth-stained towel, set in a clean one, and started to move the babies. MWEEE! MWAAA! they shrieked, and she came running. She stepped in and watched anxiously as I hastily, gently, moved them all onto the new bedding and removed the old. Then she curled around them, and I settled the box back over them. She purred and purred on her nice dry towel. Seven of them! Seven little warm unnecessary kittens. Deb and I have already lined up homes for most of them. Maybe, just maybe… Day Two, and already the wheels of rationalization are turning. No! I will not!

Helping Joanie Die

Miss Joanie with Little Doctor Vincent on her lap during a visit to my house a few years ago. Both of them are gone now.

Miss Joanie with Little Doctor Vincent on her lap during a visit to my house years ago. Both of them are gone now.

January was a hard month for me. A lot of things overlapped, most of them quite challenging. The most challenging was helping Joanie die. Miss Joanie to me, and to most who know her now. Once, she was Joanie D, married, living in Florida with a sailboat, traveling the world with her second husband. Before that she was Joanie G, young and in love, marrying, giving birth to three sons, raising them. Before that she was Joanie someone else, her maiden name. 

Joanie in high school was a cheerleader, and she had incredible legs until she died. I saw them the night before she died, stretched out straight on the bed, her still shapely calves in their loose skin pressing a line of shadow against each shinbone. Miss Joanie used to sit outside in her wheelchair on summer days in shorts, tanning those beautiful legs. All us girls admired them. That, and they, her legs, pleased her, but she was never vain. We laughed with her about our envy of her great legs and she laughed with us, with never a smirk or hint of vanity. And before she was a cheerleader, she was a little girl growing up in the 1930s.

She was my neighbor and my friend for more than four years, and I was her Hospice volunteer for almost three. We played cards a lot until her vision deteriorated too far. For a couple of years I took Miss Joanie to church, until my back prevented me from transferring her in and out of the car. Her son picked up where I left off there; she made a couple of good friends at church, and by the end, one of them told me, people vied to hold her hands in the circle that closed each service.

While I was taking her to church, I watched a lot of well-meaning parishioners come close to talk cheerfully to her, too loudly, too slowly. At first I explained to them that she could hear them just fine, and understood everything they said but couldn’t articulate a response very well. Only a few of them would sit with us at fellowship after the service, drinking coffee and eating an often random combination of food, like brownies, leftover St. Patrick’s Day cake, cookies, fruit cocktail, and cheese and crackers. Joanie loved the coffee and snacks, though she took too-big bites, crumbled the cake everywhere, and drooled. Miss Joanie had PSP, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, the rare brain disease that also killed my mother.

In summer we’d go for drives up into the high country to enjoy the wildflowers, or out along the Black Canyon in autumn to admire golden aspens and red oaks. Eventually all we did was go for drives; her caregiver Ilene would settle her into the car and I’d take her out for a few hours, then bring her home. We’d drive to Hotchkiss or Paonia, stopping to photograph an eagle or some blooming cactus, a stack of old irrigation wheels glinting in the sun or a tangled deer carcass. In town she’d get a chocolate shake and I’d get vanilla, and we’d take an hour or two to drive back home, sometimes exploring up a side road like Minnesota Creek or taking the dirt road up over Scenic Mesa and winding down across the Smith Fork Canyon and back up on that tiny track clinging to the pink cliffs.

We didn’t talk much. It kept getting harder for her to speak and for me to hear and understand her. But we communicated plenty. Every now and then she’d get out a perfectly comprehensible sentence or two: How are your bees? She was fascinated by that endeavor, and so supportive of whatever I was doing in the garden, for work, travels. But when I’d ask how she was feeling, she often lost her voice. Sometimes she answered clearly: I’m afraid I’m going blind, or I don’t seem to be getting any better. And near the end, My spirit feels like it’s leaving my body.

“Are you afraid of dying?” I asked her then. It’s so final, she answered. And then her voice disappeared into a whisper so thin you couldn’t hear it, and finally just a breath.

From the beginning I had promised her I would be with her at the end. During her last month I visited almost every day. One day I asked if she’d like me to read from the book I wrote about my mother’s experience with PSP, and it was as though she’d been waiting years for me to ask. It isn’t a happy book, but I read pieces I thought might help her understand what was happening to her and come to terms with her inevitable death. The next few days, on a lighter note, I read from the rough draft of The Colonel’s Daughter, and after that stories, essays, poems.

“Do you want me to read some more?” I’d ask, and she’d answer with a long, guttural yes. In her last few weeks, we’d sit cuddled on the couch, my arm around her, sometimes reading, sometimes just sitting. When I arrived she would greet me with a searching look from her blind eyes; I’d bend close to tell her hello and she’d touch my face gently, reach for my hair, run her fingers through it.

Her last week, on Monday, I told her stories about things we had done together, remembering all the drives we had taken, wildlife we’d seen, adventures we’d shared. Her eyes were glazed and cloudy, her body stiff and still. She reached her left hand up and out into the room, and leaned forward on the couch.

“Do you see someone?” I asked. She turned to me, curled into me, wrapped her arm around my waist and plucked at the fleece blanket beside me. I covered her and held her. She curled tighter against me, her head on my chest, our arms around each other. We sat that way a long time, until she was ready to go lie down. Ilene tucked her in and I kissed her goodbye.

She got up the next morning and sat for a few hours, though by the time I arrived she was half asleep in her bed. She held my hand tightly as I sat beside her and talked softly. In the next few days, her friends came to sit with her, hold vigil, help her out, say goodbye. On Wednesday, the night of my birthday, I called her friend Millie to let her know it would be soon, and she showed up with a borrowed hymnal, from which we sang together. I kissed her goodbye again and she pressed her lips hard against mine.

The next morning I walked in the house and heard a number of voices singing “Over the Rainbow” back in her bedroom. Marla, Millie, Ilene, the singing Hospice nurse, and Miss Joanie’s son had been singing what they could remember of some favorite songs. From then on she was rarely alone. Between her son, her caregivers, her friends, and Hospice, she was attended by loving presence, comforting her through spells of agitation and anguish, singing softly, reassuring her, encouraging her on her next big adventure.

I’m not sure she believed in “the next big adventure,” and I think she was scared. Letting go was hard. For two days she remained apparently unconscious as we sat and talked around her. Her breathing changed, and changed again. It was short and easy, it was deep and labored, it paused for ten seconds at a time then resumed in gasps. We all thought it would stop any minute.

Her two sons who live out of state called again, and she opened her eyes and smiled to hear them; she also cried. She had a rough couple of nights. On Saturday night when I came, her eyes were open and anguished. She did not move, but I could feel her acknowledge my arrival. The others left for a dinner break.

She lay in a beautiful teal satin nightgown with a lace collar and cuffs, those hands that had touched my hair so delicately a few days before now still and fragile, a tiny figure in her sheets. Her half-open eyes looked toward me, her brows pinching and wrinkling as if she were trying to say something. I picked up Millie’s hymnal and began to softly sing Christmas carols. I sang for almost an hour. Her breathing calmed, her eyes eased shut. When my voice dried up I just sat with my hand resting lightly on her arm, sending quiet love, murmuring now and then how brave she was, what a good job she was doing, what a good life she had lived, that it was okay to let go.

The dog barked. Her eyes popped open. Her son came in the room. He wanted to be alone with her. There were also other reasons I had to leave, the overlap of other challenges. It was the hardest goodbye. I had hoped to slip away while she was asleep. I had promised I’d be with her at the end, and I felt she wanted me to stay. She forced some sounds from her throat; she was trying to speak, I was sure of it. She looked out, knowing but unseeing, pouring out her feeling, It’s so final, her eyebrows mobile and expressive between her frozen, clouded blue eyes, eyes that still knew.

I felt I was betraying her but I had to tear myself away. She was in good hands. I had done what I could. Before I was out of her driveway I was crying. On the way home sheets of emotion rolled through me in tingling waves. I slowed down, unable to see through tears that wouldn’t stop. I cried all the way home and then some.

No one can know what really lies behind the eyes of a dying person who can no longer speak. I have seen three women die, and all three have looked at me with eyes that seem to express unutterable anguish, some dark mix of sorrow, anger, pleading, or confusion. I hated myself for walking away from Joanie’s eyes, for doing what I had to do.

Sunday evening I came to sit with her again, while her son went home for dinner. Her breathing was rough, again with apnea, a fifteen second pause between a set of short inhalations and panting exhalations, sometimes accompanied by moans. In each cycle, her first and last inhalations were softer than the interim breaths, a reliable indicator of the pattern. She had her eyes open when I arrived, was present but not entirely inside the room. She knew what was happening.

Saturday I had left in despair. Sunday I left in peace, knowing I had found something to give her, something I believe eased her on her journey. I gave her a mantra. When my mother died, her last incomprehensible words to me had been asking for a mantra, a way of breathing I had showed her a couple of weeks earlier. I did not get it. I tried too hard, too far and wide, to figure out what she was asking for, and in the end I gave her an accidental alternative mantra that she latched onto and pushed out with each breath for three hours, until her last. As though she needed something for her mind to hold onto as she navigated the unknown transition.

I tried to give Joanie that mantra, starting months before when it became clear she was on her way out, and she tried but even then she could not form the sounds to sync with her breath. As I sat with her on her last night, I did that breath for her until something else occurred to me.

I said metta for her. I began to softly chant: May Miss Joanie be at peace. May Miss Joanie be free from fear and suffering. May Miss Joanie be happy and at ease. May Joanie be at peace, may she be free from fear, may she be happy. Peace, free, happy.

Peace, free, happy. I repeated the words with her exhalations, over and over. Peace, free, happy. She finally closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed. I did not stop. For an hour I repeated the words with her exhalations, and more slowly during the apnea; she calmed, she became at ease, she let go of fear.

Maybe. That’s what it felt like. Ilene came in and gave her some morphine before I started, I’m sure that helped. After her son returned I continued the chant as I left the room. I felt that I had given her that something for her mind to hold onto, a rhythm to carry her out, a prayer that eased her way.

Ilene called me two hours later to say that Miss Joanie had breathed her last. I am sad that I was not there when she left this world. It would have been a miraculous moment to witness. But she was not alone. Ilene was with her, and was amazed by the subtlety of it.

“It wasn’t long after you left,” she said. “Her breathing pattern changed again. The apnea went away. Her breathing got real shallow, and faster. I called the night nurse, then I called her son. He came right over. She was gone just before he came into the room. Her breathing stopped. I thought it was the apnea again, and I waited, and waited, and she just didn’t breathe again.”

May Miss Joanie rest in peace.