I had said goodbye and was heading for the door when Mama stopped me with an out-of-the-blue question:
“How is Smudge?”
I turned back toward her, surprised; she rarely asks about my cat. She doesn’t like cats, though we always had one or more living outside when I was growing up.
“She’s, um, old. I guess she’s okay. Sort of.”
The truth is I have been wrestling for a while with the question of what to do about my 17-year-old diabetic cat, but I wasn’t prepared to have the conversation with my mother. She was going for it.
“She’s had a long life and given you joy. You’ve been through a lot together.”
That’s when my eyes filled up. Sometimes the conversation chooses us.
“We have traveled a long distance together,” I said. “Thank you for asking about her. I have been struggling about letting her go. I don’t think she is suffering, but I can’t really know. She isn’t enjoying life much though. And I’m not enjoying her much.”
I began to forget who we were talking about.
“You will miss her, and grieve her absence.” Mama said. “But maybe it’s time.”
Mama might know exactly who she is talking about.
“I will miss her,” I agreed, my eyes filling again.
I gave her a closer hug, and another kiss, and left.
I am stunned that she brought up Smudge that day last week. I had just come from my yoga class where my mat buddy had asked about my sister’s cat, as she does from time to time. Susan volunteers at a cat rescue and put us on to the sweet cat that my sister Rebecca adopted. Then she asked about Smudge. I told her I was grappling with the decision to let her go when it isn’t clear that she is miserable. “Ask yourself if you can name five things she used to enjoy that she no longer does,” Susan suggested.
She sleeps. That’s all I could come up with. I have to carry her to her food bowl, add treats to the food to get her to start eating so I can give her the twice daily insulin injection she’s been getting for 10½ years. She’s not drinking much water, and constant water intake is a signature trademark of diabetes. Consequently she is constipated and sometimes poops in inappropriate places. She cries and whines, perhaps because she is constipated. I have seen the same thing in Mama again and again. I can’t think of five things she still takes pleasure in either.
I have lamented that humans in this country are criminal if they choose to end their life with dignity; and helping a loved one die is definitely a crime. My mother is ready to leave earth’s bonds, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Everyone says, “She is doing great! How wonderful!” No, she is not doing great.
She can walk, pushing her walker in endless loops around the hall. She can feed herself, but mostly with her fingers now because she can’t see to connect utensil with bite, and it embarrasses her. She only occasionally enjoys what she eats. She walks because she has to, she eats because she has to, she drinks fluids because she has to, she refuses to enjoy sleeping during the day, though that’s when she sleeps best. When I find her napping in the recliner, she says she was trying to get up to walk. Every. Single. Time.
Smudge doesn’t eat if she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t drink if she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t walk if she doesn’t want to, she sleeps because she can. Unlike Mama, Smudge doesn’t walk like she can’t see, but five and a half years ago the vet told me she was getting cataracts. I look into her eyes now and those mountain-lake-deep pools of green are blank clouds, like Mama’s. The light has gone out.
Unlike for Mama, I can choose to release Smudge from this existence that is barely existing, but I haven’t been able to. My previous cat Maggie, who had a cancer diagnosis that I wasn’t going to treat, made it clear she was ready to go, spending one night in the closet of each family member until settling into mine and refusing to come out. But not all animals, human or four-legged, come to life’s end the same way.
Two months ago I had an online conversation with a retired vet following a comment I made in this blog about needing feline hospice. She provided helpful medical advice, telling me that oral fluids are not enough to relieve chronic dehydration; even if she did drink more, I would have to provide subcutaneous fluids at least every other day. She also gave psychological advice.
“Are you afraid of playing God?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It feels wrong to end her life when it’s so unclear that it’s time. And I feel like I would be doing it for me, not for her.”
“Smudge is alive because you have been playing God since she was diagnosed with diabetes,” she said. I could hear the gentleness in her typed words.
And while it’s tempting to compare these two old-olds in my life, there are some significant differences (of course). She continued:
“Although she may not be suffering, she also doesn’t have much a life. The main difference [between her and your mother] is that Smudge has no fear (or awareness) of dying so there is no mental factor to consider (except yours). There is not just a lack of words [to tell you what she feels and what she wants], there is a lack of thoughts. Humans are the only animals who have a concept of time and know they are going to die.”
Susan, my yoga friend, suggested that I have a conversation with Smudge (not unlike the one we need to have with Mama): “Tell her it’s okay to let go.”
I talk to Smudge, and as she looks back at me and relaxes into my arms, I realize she is the one telling me: “It’s okay to let me go.”
I recall Susan’s kind words, and my mother’s, and reread those from the vet, and I am a little more ready to say goodbye. I don’t need hospice, I am hospice. I can release my tuxedo kitty who has traveled through homes and relationships with me, of whom I have taken good care for many years, to meet her predecessors—twin sister Sydney, Smoky, Fraidy, Nevermore, TJ, and Maggie—in the great cat house in the hereafter, where she can be outside again, chasing rabbits and lying in the warm sun.
I may be judged by some, but that’s okay. I have been putting my true self out there on this blog for a long time, opening myself to the views of those with different experiences and philosophies.
I am getting ready, knowing I am opening myself to the vulnerable place of choosing grief before grief chooses me.