Friday, June 8, 2012

The choice to live, or not.

 The choice to live or the choice to die is something many of us have no say in.  When is it okay to say “I’m done” because your quality of life, is not a livable life.   

Currently, I’m in Oregon visiting my in laws.  The day before I got here my mother in law sent me an email with the sad news that their 17 year old cat (inherited after my sister in law passed away 3 years ago)  was dying from kidney failure. Summer had three cats, and Lightning will be the second to pass away.  Lightning (lighnin’ as we call her) is a spunky white cat, who used to chronically steal food, lick the butter if you forgot to cover it, perch on you daintily as you slept, and is a cat who has lead a life of service.   To understand this life of service you have to understand the mysterious myriad of illnesses that surrounded my sister in law, that eventually lead to her death, a death that taught us about what quality of life really means. 

Here is a long story from the NYTimes about Summer’s life, that you can read at your leisure.  Lightning is the white cat standing looking out a window.  In the magazine there were more pictures, and Ms. Lightning managed to push her furry head into all of them!  Read the article, or at least part of it because the abridged paragraph below doesn’t do her story any justice at all. 

Summer was a mystery that no doctor could figure out.  The time that I spent with her was when she was selected to come to the NIH (National Institute of Health) to be poked, prodded and written about.  They couldn’t cure her, but hoped that the knowledge that they could gain from studying her, might help others down the line.  She lived in chronic pain, knowing that these illnesses would eventually end her life. She was on dialysis, mobility issues, lost one eye, but she never lost her spirit.  People in chronic pain develop this biting wit and sarcasm as a defense mechanism, but from what I know of Summer that’s just how she was.  Strangely, with all of the undiagnosed diseases that Summer had, her cats seemed in some way to take them on.  Lightning occasionally had a seizure when she was younger, like Summer did and even had a touchy digestive system.    

Summer taught us about quality, or lack of quality of life.  In the end, she started bleeding, and they didn’t know where the blood came from or how to stop it. They gave her blood, and more blood and more and finally she said, ‘enough is enough.’ What is the point of being alive, when you aren’t living, stuck in a hospital bleeding out the blood that I just had injected.  What type of life do I have hooked up to these machines, incapable of doing anything more than lying here waiting for death?  She she made a choice. She chose to die.  She chose to have all her friends over to give away all her earthly possessions and tell them good-bye.  Our last conversation with her was on our wedding day (June 22) and the last thing she said before bye, was “I’ve got to go, the cat is eating my avocado!” Two days later, she passed away. On her own terms, in her own house, surrounded by family and friends. 

Lightning is 17 years old.  She’s an old cat that was the constantly companion to Summer. She hates being picked up because Summer couldn’t pick up the cats, so she never got used to being held like that. A recent vet visit determined that she was in the late stages of kidney failure, an inevitability in cats of advanced age, and the vet suggested subcutaneous saline injections. So home my father in law and the cat came, laden with a large bag of saline fluid, needles and tubing. While injections on a healthy cat with fat on it’s bones might be easy, it’s extremely difficult to ‘tent’ skin on a skinny dehydrated cat.  Let’s just say the first injection was both traumatic, probably not terribly effective and the last time we did it.  Instead when the time came to do the injection again, we decided that we would let her go on her own terms and that the trauma of the injection wasn’t worth the few days of benefit that she might gain from the injection. 

While she hadn’t been eating, she seemed to really like the small crumbles of turkey I gave her the night I arrived, so it was an issue of finding out what she could and would eat.  Actually, I only thought to feed her turkey because Newton is obsessed with smelling my food but never eats people food, and she seemed to want to both smell and eat my food.  The important thing though was that water. We started offering her water hourly in a bowl, where she was laying (rather than having to get up), and she started drinking. MY MIL ground up some cat food, added warm water and the gravy from it, and she started lapping that up.  I even suggested she get a ‘ride’ over to the litter box, and she greatly appreciated that as well.  

Lightning hasn’t given up. She will die, but she has chosen to hang on. Maybe she wants to make it until Summer’s birthday on 6/12, or the date that she passed away on 6/24, but either way she’s with us now.  She slept with me last night, which warmed my heart because the past times I visited she slept with me the entire trip.  Her quality of life isn’t bad. She’s not in pain, she’s just tired.  Similarly, Summer fought through the exhaustion,  lack of appetite, and failing kidneys until she was able to make a choice to say that enough is enough.  We can’t cure her, we can’t fix her, but we can let her make the choice of when to give up, and she’s not ready to.  

Not many people go on vacation to take people to cataract surgery (that’s in a couple of hours) or do home hospice for a cat, but I don’t mind. I didn’t think Lightning would last until this visit, and the idea of being there when my mother in law can see clearly with both eyes (without glasses) for the first time in her life,  are amazing memories that I will hold dear.  

Friday, June 1, 2012


Death seems to be a prominent feature in this year, and I am not liking it at all.  Mere months ago my childhood best friend lost her mother and weeks later her father.  Their passing as a hit to me, not only because of the pivotal role they played in my childhood, but because they weren't that old.  I never felt like I 'grew-up' yet here I am, looking mortality in it's face.  I don't think that death is malevolent, but a necessity, for without death we can't have life.  This book really changed how I look at death. Yes, it's fiction and fantasy but it is also a powerful examination of the inevitable.

Anyone that follows me on facebook saw that my grandfather passed away yesterday.  I didn't know him well but I would like to share what I did know. It is going to be rough, and spotty and not necessarily completely accurate. It's from my memory, without calling family to back up the facts.

See, I didn't know him well. It's hard to mourn someone you barely knew, but it still hurts.  Leonard Stamper, otherwise known as Pete, was from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  His mother's name was Lee Ilya and she was a 6 foot tall red head.  I'm giving her name for my first daughter, because from the time I heard it, I knew I loved that name. My grandfather and grandmother divorced when my mother was young. Their relationship was tumultuous and certainly not monogamous, as my mother discovered in her 40's that she was named after a woman he met in a bar. My family likes to keep it classy.

My mom remembers sitting on his shoulders as a little girl, but I didn't meet him in person until I was in college. In high school I got mail from him. I guess my mom talked to him about my liking to collect quarters, and one of his hobbies was collecting coins.  I received a box in the mail, and it had some proof sets of the quarters that had been minted that year.  These coins are the only gift I ever received from him, and I thank him for fostering a love of coin collecting in me.  My collection is tiny, mostly still the things that he sent me, and I value it highly.

I met him over a summer vacation from college. My brother came upstairs and woke me up saying something about a strange man yelling at the door. My parents weren't home at the time and I was confused as to a. why there was some strange man at the door and b. why the hell my brother wouldn't take care of it. I managed to pull myself out of bed and head downstairs to figure out what the hell was going on.  He had a red truck, and drove straight up from TX to Ohio to bring my mom a box of pictures. Family history. My mom loves to study history and geneology and it's fitting that he gave them to her.  In my sleep fogged brain, I couldn't figure out what he was yelling. was probably his damn accent, but he was yelling "auuuuuuuuuuud?! Auuuuuuuuuuuuud?!" one of the only people allowed to call my mom that, and not get kicked.

My grandfather was a Southern man through and through.  He was so Southern, it oozed out of him.  His accent was so thick you could cut it with a knife, and talking to him on the phone was almost impossible.  Talking to him was like talking to a southern stereotype, and I had a damn hard time not laughing at him. Oh, who am I joking, I totally did.
 One thing I hated about my grandfather, was his racism.  I deplore racism, and perhaps one of the reasons that my mother was so vehement about teaching us about the evils of racism was because of her father. He was a Korean War POW, and perhaps that experience had some part in his racism, but I really think it was just growing up in the segregated South and being too stubborn to care or change.  When we were looking through the pictures that he brought us, he said something and used the n-word. I had literally never heard someone drop a racial slur like that, and without thinking about it, blurted out something along the lines of "we don't use that language in this house, and if you want to you can leave!" I took him (and myself) by surprise and he apologized and said, "that was just what we called people back then" and he knew it wasn't right.  You would think that my parents would be angry that I spoke to an elder like that, but my mom still tells this story. I think she was glowing with the pride that I stood up for something that she impressed so strongly into us.

The next time I saw him was my cousin's wedding. I don't think it was the same summer, but it very well may have been. I remember asking if he'd seen my grandmother, and he commented that he hadn't seen her in (trying to do math in my head....) 40? years. I was walking next to him, and pointed her out to him. He grunted in approval and commented that "she held up pretty well over the years." Is that a Southern compliment?

He died of lung cancer. Smoking cigarettes for half a century (plus) can and will kill you.  He battled this disease for most of the last decade, and it finally took him. I truly believe that he came to see us years ago because he thought it was going to die then, and he needed to make peace before he left this world.  In the last decade, he managed to make peace with his daughters and foster some sort of relationship with all of them.  He finished what he set out to do, and it was okay for him to go.  He had a DNR. He wanted his passing to be just that, not a tug to stay on this plane of existence, but an acceptance that death will take us all.  

In a weird twist of fate, my wonderful friend's father passed away yesterday and we had a long discussion last night and I was mourning his passing only to wake up this morning and find out that my grandfather had passed away.  It has been a strange, and a bit surreal of an experience.

Today my 5 year college reunion starts, followed by Slumber Parties training, work, a party and finally my trip to Oregon.  Hopefully I can write more there, but until then I bid you adieu and leave you with this prayer:

Omy God!  O Thou forgiver of sins, bestower of gifts, dispeller of afflictions! 
Verily, I beseech thee to forgive the sins of such as have abandoned the physical garment and have ascended to the spiritual world. 
O my Lord!  Purify them from trespasses, dispel their sorrows, and change their darkness into light.  Cause them to enter the garden of happiness, cleanse them with the most pure water, and grant them to behold Thy splendors on the loftiest mount.