Wednesday, November 02, 2011

"Death is the only experience that is not lived through."--Wittgenstein

It will seem silly to consider this in terms of the life of a cat; but it's the only lesson I have right now.

On Hallowe'en a cat that had been with us for 16 years, finally died. I say "finally" because, looking back, it is obvious the cat was in distress for a year or more. As he aged his personality changed, but it didn't really change until the last year. Before that, he was still a kitten, still as playful and anxious to play as he had ever been. He never grew old gracefully or settled into the role of alpha male among our three unrelated cats. He ruled them, but he remained the amiable kitten and most sociable feline I'd ever seen. Anyone who came to the house was greeted by him, and he insisted on having their attention; but he returned their attention with his affections, not his demands. That much slowly changed in the last 6 months of his life, or what turned out to be the last. He also gradually lost eyesight, from a cause we never determined. In the last weeks, he would walk into things, wander in circles, feel along walls with his whiskers and blunder into blind alleys made by walls and furniture, and seem bewildered.

His blood panels and physical exams showed everything was working normally; but in the last month of his life, he decayed so sharply it was clear something was going badly wrong. The first response was steroids and antibiotics, a course of treatment new to us though we have had cats for over thirty years now. The first two died without major medical intervention, both in old age (almost two decades ago, now). The first died of kidney failure, a sudden collapse that made euthanasia the only humane response. The second, his litter mate, died when he failed to get out of the way as I drove the car into the driveway (I still feel guilty about that). It was just as well, as we were moving and couldn't take them with us, and they were too old to be separated from us. The third died of a stroke, screaming in such sudden distress that euthanasia was again a relief. This spring we euthanized a fourth cat, with a tumor almost the size of his abdomen. The last died on the couch in his sleep on Hallowe'en. He was a black cat; somehow the date was fitting.

One week earlier, we'd taken him to the vet because he was in obvious distress; barely eating, barely drinking, and listless. Antibiotics and steroids were tried, a new course of treatment for us. He responded, and by the sixth day seemed almost back to his old self; not the kitten self he'd always been, but the old cat he'd recently become. On the seventh day, he'd collapsed again. On Hallowe'en, I came home at mid-day to find him in such distress I thought sure the only recourse was the needle.

But it was steroids, again; another try, another brave attempt. His heart and lungs were good, the blood panel had shown no problems. The cause was a mystery, but a mystery that could be solved with treatment. I took him home, and he lay on his side, mewing hoarsely and kicking his front legs. His back legs refused to move. He released is bladder and I cleaned it up, and then he slowly quieted. I decided to try the steroid pill, the high dosage wonder that was going to tell us if it was a brain tumor or brain inflammation he suffered from (a good response to this meant the latter, no response would mean the former). He wouldn't even swallow; he simply closed his eyes. I thought I'd killed him, but he opened his eyes which could barely see (he'd seem myopic to me, in his last days; able to see on that which was very close to him), and he sagged into sleep. He breathed raspingly, and we put him on the couch. Shortly, without even noticing it, he stopped breathing.

I have seen people die, and animals die. They do it the same way, sometimes with consciousness of what seems to be happening (yes, animals too), sometimes without. This death was a shock, because modern medicine had convinced me another injection would stave it off, would have an effect, would be enough this time. It wasn't, but who could know? Who could be sure? He seemed to rally at the vet's office, to show a strength I otherwise thought he had lost. But it was just the distress of being in a strange place; not even the blush on the cheek of the dying, it was the last energy he had.

"What if" haunts these situations. Once, when I still served a church, I was called to the hospital just down the street from the parsonage. I'd heard the ambulance, and with the phone call I knew it was one of "mine". In the emergency room I talked to the wife while her husband, having had a heart attack, was attended nearby. Then the doctor came in and told her there was undoubtedly extensive brain damage due to oxygen deprivation (he'd stopped breathing for a time), that his chances of recovery were slim, so: should they take him upstairs, or disconnect him now?

She turned to me (I can still see her), and asked: "What should I do?"

How to answer such a question? How to know?

In the end, she decided to send him upstairs. He died in the elevator, relieving us all of responsibility. I buried him a few days later, in a small town far from the church, where my memory is the funeral director greeting me with "Oh, you're one of those" when I pulled my robe bag from the trunk of the car.

But responsibility for the living, for not letting them join the silent majority of the dead; or responsibility for sending them along, whether we let them go or force their passage (there is really little difference): that is the issue where we gaze into the future even after the event is past, and wonder: "What if?"

For the cat, there was nothing we could do; but should we have tried? Should we have eschewed another set of pointless injections, an attempt at forcing pills down his throat? Should we have known better, perhaps just left him at home to die in familiar surroundings and such comfort as we could offer, rather than the terror and pain of moving him across town to the vet's office, and back again? He was silent with fear on the way there, mewing with pain and misery on the way back. Was it worth it? Was it wise? Was it the foolish desire for someone to confirm or confute what we thought we knew? Was it a desire for someone to know, someone who pretended to know, but really could only guess, as we could? When he finally died, we had to fight the feeling that he was just sleeping so deeply we couldn't be sure he wasn't breathing. We wanted the vet to confirm our diagnosis one last time. Had it been earlier in the day, we might have; but we had to wait until morning. By early night it was clear the body was growing cold, and finally stiff. There was no mistake then.

There was plenty of time for mistakes before that; but no need to worry about them after that.

This is, finally, what death is. Finality; the point where no more mistakes can be made, where no more uncertainty is faced. Death is the end of the future, of possibilities, of questions. The question of the dead is what to do with the body, but there are no more questions about what happens next for the loved one. There is nothing next for them. Now it is up to you. Now a new story begins, one that is without them.

It's not the same for a pet as it is for a person. For a person, the question can be: did we do enough? For a pet, the question can be: should we have stopped sooner? In the end, it doesn't matter. It is hard, however, to accept that.

Death is a finality, in a world where nothing is final. You will say to me "But you are a Christian, a pastor! How can you believe death is the end?" Because it is. It is as final as it was for the disciples at the tomb. What came next was not the logical extension of death, was not the mere slipping off the mortal coil to reveal the butterfly soul that could fly to heaven. It was something else altogether. I believe in the resurrection; perhaps even for pets. But the resurrection is not the next stage of dying; it is not the room to which death is the doorway. Death is a finality; but only for the one dying. For the rest of us, it is a hole which the world closes over, but which we, one way or another, do not. Even the resurrection will not fill that hole; only, in hope of the resurrection of the dead, unbreak it.


  1. Rmj, your consideration of death in terms of a dying pet cat is not silly at all. Your post is quite a moving meditation on death, which is, after all, final, both for the pets and for humans. And yet, my great hope lies in the resurrection.

  2. Anonymous7:10 PM

    I'm sorry about your cat, RMJ.

    Anthony McCarthy

  3. Ah yes, my sympathy to you and your family on the death of your cat. 16 years is a long time, and I'm sure you and your family will miss him.

  4. Thank you, Mimi, and Anthony.

    It's odd. He was the smallest cat we've ever had (relative to some very large cats) and certainly the quietest (the first two we had in our marriage clearly had some Siamese in them): the house seems larger now, and quieter.

  5. Rmj, I am late in learning about the loss of your cat. I am sorry for your loss and I want to tell you that the way you describe your experience—the doubts and uncertainties and the final certainty — has assuaged my own distress over the loss of my companion, Lenore. Thank you.