on death and dying

2013 November 25
by steph

Cats aren’t supposed to be this floppy. That’s what I was thinking that night. But by then you weren’t a cat anymore; just a cat-shaped facsimile. You had a resemblance to my cat, as long as I didn’t look too long or too closely. Cats aren’t supposed to be so stiff, either. That’s what I was thinking the next morning. But by then you weren’t really even a cat-shaped facsimile; you were just a lump of meat wearing a Mira-skin coat.

At first, your death felt liquid. You still looked like you. You still felt and smelled like you. But your head lolled, and your neck and back had no tone when I picked you up. Holding you felt like holding a bag of water. I was awash in tears and lost in an ocean of grief and guilt. I kept expecting to see your sides move when you breathed, but you were done breathing. And then after a while, your death felt solid, cold. Your eyes stared sightless. Your soft belly was still yielding, but it felt cool and dense when I smoothed over the downy fur there, in a way that it never felt when you lived. It wasn’t flesh any more; just meat. The spaces between things, where you lived, had solidified and hardened and formed a barrier, a wall.

It happened so quickly. Just seconds after the injection, the vet looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, Mom; she’s gone.” And her tone of voice was almost surprised, despite hers having been the hand to administer the injection. And I just wanted to hit her for her tone of voice. I wanted her to stop talking and leave me alone. I knew you were gone. You’d been gone since two days earlier when you’d managed to stagger to the backdoor, then collapsed against the door frame when I opened the door for you, unable to go any further, and seemingly forgetting what you’d come there for in the first place. From there it was just a patient wait for your body to catch up to the rest of you. And yes, there were moments when you came back, temporarily. Death is a process, after all; it doesn’t happen all at once. I knew that the final stage in that process had just happened before my eyes, at my direction. I didn’t need her words confirming it.

It’s an awful responsibility, choosing the moment when another being’s life will end. It feels huge and awful. I find myself over and over again asking: What gives me the right? And it’s a new revelation every time when I realize it’s not a right; it’s a responsibility. Caring for you is my responsibility; it was for the 19+ years we shared. It’s supposed to feel huge and awful, because choosing to end a life is not a responsibility to take lightly.

There are options for caring for the living: which foods to feed you, how often to visit the vet, whether to let you drink from the toilet boil. Death eliminates those options, and that makes it feel different, but it’s not. It’s still caring for you in the best way I can. Death is inevitable. In your case, when I made that decision, death was also imminent. Part of me wishes I’d chosen to act sooner, just in case you were suffering and I couldn’t tell; part of me wishes I’d waited longer to act, cuddled you on my lap and given you pain meds until you wound down on your own and stopped ticking; and part of me knows that I made the best choice I could, that my aim was to bring you comfort while I still could, and prevent you from suffering when I first suspected that the comfort of my lap and the pain meds fell short of meeting your needs. And that’s the part of me that knows there’s no real way to know with certainty that the timing I chose was “right.” It’s a process, and I’ll never know what your experience of it was. All I have is my own experience to go by.

Mira napping, summer 2013There are so many little reminders of you. Mistaking a riff of music or the call of a bird for your voice, just for a fraction of an instant. Picking up your food dish to clean it and put it away permanently. Deciding what to do with the stool we left out so you could climb up to and down from the bed in two hops when you stopped being able to make it in one. Seeing a shadow on the couch and for an instant thinking it was you, curled up napping there. The small collection of prescriptions from the vet. No doubt the reminders will fade eventually, the reality of life without you will sink in and feel more every-day. I can feel that process starting already. But as Ferne said, what is remembered, lives; so as long as I live, you will too, my Mir-cat. I like to think of the air that I breathed as containing molecules that you had once breathed in, too. That on a biochemical level as well as a daily one, we shared life together. That we are all one, made of star-stuff, alive or dead. And life, while we have it, is a very precious gift.

I keep remembering the things I didn’t do for you: never allowed you to live in a single-cat household; never got the cat-door installed in this house; rarely let you outside at night, however much you wanted it; sometimes didn’t let you outside at all, when I got tired of your constant state of wanting to be on the other side of that door, whichever side that was. But I try to remind myself of the things I did do, too: get a house that had a yard where it was safe to let you roam (or nap); feed and water you; cuddle you and pet you and brush you; sneak you bits of tuna when Cali wasn’t looking to make sure you got your fair share (or maybe a little extra); rearrange the laptop so there was room for you in my lap, too.

Another thing I keep remembering is to say and show my love to those who matter. In your case I knew the end was coming, and I could spend those last few days showering you with affection and attention and caring for you. But I won’t always get that opportunity, and your death has reminded me of that–reminded me that it’s the years before the end that set that tone. The little day-to-day things that go on for years are what memories are made of, and I’m more resolved than ever to try to make my little day-to-day actions full of love.

I’ve always had an aversion to the phrase “passed away.” In large part because it’s complicit in our culture’s tendency to sweep death under the rug. Tiptoe around it, don’t talk about it. Part of me hated that they escorted me out the back door so that I could walk home with your body in a cardboard box without anyone else there seeing me leave. I didn’t want you to “pass away,” to float silently out of life without acknowledgement, avoiding the eyes and awareness of the others in the well-lit lobby in exchange for the darkness of the parking lot. Yeah, it’s no fun to be seen by whoever happens to be in the lobby when I’m red-eyed and snot-nosed, crying and carrying a tiny coffin-shaped box. Because it’s no fun to be red-eyed and snot-nosed, crying and carrying a tiny coffin-shaped box. But it’s real. And I have to wonder if they did it for me, or for all those folks who would’ve seen me and known that I was carrying death home in a box. Because they would have been even more uncomfortable than I, I bet.

Yet while part of me has these judgments, another part of me knows that they feel compassion. They know how hard it is to be the one who decides. And how hard their jobs must be, to be the ones who do–inserting the needles and pushing down on the plungers. To want so badly to say something that makes it better, even while knowing that words aren’t going to make it better, or easier. It is what it is. And it’s hard. Acknowledging that what once was, is no more–that sucks. It’s hard to stay in that place of awkwardness and fear. Hard to stay there when it’s me feeling the grief, and in some ways even harder, I think, when I’m just witnessing someone else’s grief, because even someone else’s grief reminds me of my own. My own grief, and my own eventual death. I understand that sometimes it’s easier just not to think about it.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. 2013 November 25

    Sending compassion your direction.

    I’m sorry.

    This is beautifully written.

    • 2013 November 25
      steph permalink

      Thanks, Noah.

  2. 2013 November 25
    Robin permalink

    Sending comfort and prayers your way. A loss is a loss, no matter the form or being.

    • 2013 November 25
      steph permalink

      Thank you, Robin.

  3. 2013 November 25
    Mom permalink

    I cried when I read your FB post and I cried again when I read your blog. Grieving with you from a distance!

    • 2013 November 25
      steph permalink

      Thanks for sharing, Mom. Grief feels easier, shared.

  4. 2013 November 25
    Dad permalink

    Your mom and I are very much alike about shedding tears. Sending virtual hugs and virtual and physical LOVE your way. I agree with Noah also, beautifully written.

    • 2013 November 25
      steph permalink

      Thanks, Dad. I love you too. *hugs* back.