So, it turns out, my cat is dying.
This isn’t big in the way of surprises – he’s 18 years old – but it is hard nonetheless: I’ve known him for 17 of those years, and he’s been my companion for 16. There aren’t many people I’ve known as long, and I include on this list most of my family. (We’d been cheerfully estranged for many years, then started reconnecting for various reasons, with the final train-wreck coming in the form of FaceBook. Classic “don’t do it, wuss.”)
Over the years, I’ve tended to name most of my cats after American Philosophers, including the mustachioed feral cat who adopted me. She (as it turned out) is named “Groucho.”
But my oldest buddy, the one who is in his final stages, I named for the more formally recognizable philosopher George Santayana.
A friend originally tried to adopt Santayana off the street, but after a noble effort, finally had to concede defeat as the other cats in her household would not accept him, and the conflict was getting dangerously intense. I took Santayana in when I already had two cats of my own, certain that two was enough but unwilling to allow the effort that had been invested in Santayana go to waste. As it turned out, he got along famously with my two males, and so his household was firmly established. That was in 1998.
Kidney failure is, by most accounts, a quiet and gentle way to go. But it can take time. Time that leaves the body a wasted shell of its former self. Time when the living must sit with the dying.
So I have been sitting with my dying cat.
This is not my first cat to die, nor will it be my last. I am a cat person, and I like having them in my world. (There are, by the bye, three kinds of cat people:
- Those who like cats
- Those whom cats like
- Those who are like cats.
These are clearly non-exclusive categories; I score high in all three.) But this is the first co-traveller I’ve decided to allow to pass at home, with me as primary care-giver. As I’ve mentioned, kidney failure is a peaceful way to go. And since the stress of a vet visit would do nothing to enhance that peace (in this situation) I decided to let nature take its course in familiar and worry-free surroundings.
It is a peaceful way to go, and there is not much for the care-giver to do except sit with the dying cat. Not much … but occasionally some.
One of the symptoms of kidney failure is mental confusion. Others include weakness (total loss of appetite, toxins in the blood) and extreme sleepiness (ditto.) It is one thing to watch your friend physically deteriorating, but the mental loss is acutely painful. And yes, cats do have minds.
Early in the Spring of 2000, I’d made my commitment to return to grad school to complete my Ph.D. In philosophy. Prior to moving to Carbondale, IL (home campus of SIUC) with my three cats – which, of course, included Santayana – I went to the meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (unfortunately abbreviated as “SAAP”) in Indianapolis. At that meeting, I heard the fellow who was to become my dissertation director, colleague, and now co-author, give a plenary talk. During that talk, he said two things that told me I HAD to meet this man: he named all three of my favorite philosophers in a single sentence (John Dewey, Ernst Cassirer, Alfred North Whitehead) and he talked about knowing what his cats were thinking. This last caused significant distress amongst some fellow philosophical attendees – seriously misplaced distress, given their explicitly stated philosophical commitments – about this “squirrelly notion” of knowing what a cat was thinking. My colleague offered some wiggle room on the assertion, but when I did finally catch up with him, we both agreed: Yes, I know what my cats are thinking. This is the easiest thing in the world, because cats do not lie, and they wear their minds all over and about the very surface of their bodies.
Unless they are suffering from kidney failure. And then the disorientation and confusion can leave them in such a state that they do not know themselves what they think or want. It is rather like dementia, in case you’re unsure. I’ve some experience with that, as well.
For a little while, the confusion was relatively small. Darkness would set in, and Santayana would decide it was time to go to bed. But in his mind, that meant I should go to bed as well, so that he could crawl under the covers and snug up next to me. But I wasn’t in bed, and that was wrong, so he’d come out and yell at me. Never mind it was only 7:30 at night; it was dark. But it does no one any good, me going to bed early –
Being dead doesn’t frighten me at all; the day I die will be the first time in my adult life that I sleep through the night. Such a thing is a prospect to be relished. The scary thing is dying, and all the savage indignities that vulture so intently upon that –
so I’d have to find ways of giving Santayana permission to sleep, even though I wasn’t there. Eventually I would go to bed, and he’d come under the covers with me.
Until he lost bladder control. This was expected.
We now have an arrangement where I’ve placed a garbage bag on the bed as a tarp, a double-folded towel for softness and warmth that he lays on, and then over the top a sweatshirt I’ve worn many times which is infused with my scent. That has worked now for a couple of nights.
Santayana can get “wiggly” during the day or night, but he’s become so weak that he’s hardly able to move himself. I occasionally used to do “the tour” with him, holding him up and letting him visit the water bowl and the litter box, but these visits have stopped now, at his insistence. Each time I held him at one or the other spot, he’d try to walk away (even though he was unable to walk.) The wiggliness even includes my lap, although it used to be a favorite spot of his. Instead, he’ll struggle off my lap and onto the bench where I’m sitting; his head will touch the back of the bench, and he’ll immediately fall asleep. So I’ve placed a towel there as well, to provide a warm spot to nap, and then drape the sweatshirt over him. This way he is warm and right next to me as I work, so that when he briefly awakens I can assure him that all is well, and he can go back to sleeping peacefully.
In the meantime, I sip my grief as quietly as I may, that I do not unnecessarily disturb him.
Santayana: 1996 — 2014
[Update] Santayana died shortly after the above was written. At that time I was a volunteer DJ at a community radio station. I could not go in with Santayana in the condition he was in, so I had a friend covering my show. I called in the song below as a request. As the song was playing, Santayana squawked. I picked him up and held him. He died in my arms as this song was playing.