Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jonathan's Resonant Death

In January, our cat Jonathan died. He had been quite ill around Christmas, with a serious and mysterious bleeding issue that stumped three different vets. We thought he was going to die then, but thankfully the bleeding stopped. He remained severely congested, though, barely able to breathe, physically weak, and his dramatic weight loss continued -- from a solid 18.5 pounds to something under 10 in less than a month. In the days before his death, he'd seemed to rally: I'd started giving him subcutaneous fluids and remembered how we'd microwaved wet food for the stuffed-up feral cats we'd nursed. With his sniffer getting more information again, Jonathan had more appetite.

That Saturday, I had a rare chance to spend the morning relaxing downstairs -- a much-needed respite, with Emily on the east coast dealing with a major family crisis and me at home trying to cope with a hyper not-yet-housetrained puppy, three cats, a full work schedule, and total exhaustion. When I went upstairs to the bedroom to get dressed, I didn't see Jonathan sleeping in his usual spot at the foot of the bed. I figured he must've gone into the closet again, where I'd found him the night before. As my line of sight passed the wooden footboard, though, I saw him lying on the ground, the HEPA filter on its side near his still form.

I recognized the eerie grin of death in an instant.

I went over to confirm what I already knew from the too-wide eyes and too-tight skin over skull. Jonathan wasn't breathing, no matter how closely I watched his now-shrunken belly. He must have died hours earlier. Later, when I'd move the air filter, his body would remain indented where the top of the plastic cylinder had fallen against him. I'd be able to feel the cold in his limbs through latex gloves that provided at least a modicum of distance between my emotions and the practicalities at hand.

Haunted by the image of him lying there, I was distraught. Had I failed him somehow by not being with him when he died? How could I have been reading a book downstairs and not known? Why didn't I check on him, as I'd remembered and forgotten to do several times that morning? Why hadn't I thought sooner to heat up his food so he could smell it? Shouldn't I have picked up the subcutaneous fluids from the vet more quickly? Should we have paid to take him to another specialist? Would that liver panel at the pet hospital have held the clue the doctors needed to cure him? Was this my fault?

~ ~ ~

A few relevant facts I should mention:
  • We'd gotten Jonathan the previous July when my dad could no longer take care of his cats. Even though Emily and I already had two cats, Jonathan had been my mom's favorite when she was alive. I just couldn't let him go to a shelter.
  • Because of a perceived slight at Emily's and my wedding, my mom hadn't talked to me for the last year and a half of her life.
  • The night my mom died, she was alone. When my brother came home from work, he found her body lying on the floor where she'd fallen out of the bed. She was already cold.
To say Jonathan's death reverberated is an understatement.

~ ~ ~

I called Emily with the news, sobbing. She did all she could to comfort me from a continent away, both of us wishing (for a million reasons) that she were with me at home instead. She also suggested that I call our friend Kat to come over and help me take care of Jonathan's body. I'd call Kat later in the evening, asking her to bring food and some completely untaxing comedies (Miss Congeniality, anyone?), but for whatever reason, I wanted to be alone to bury Jonathan.

After looking online to make sure it was legal to bury him in our back yard (it was) and to find out how deep a hole I'd need (several sites recommended at least three feet so that predators wouldn't dig anything up), I pulled the shovel out of the storage shed and began digging in the back corner. As with shopping for a glass vase to hold my mother's ashes, I once again faced the question of "how big is big enough?" I tried to imagine what he looked like curled up for a contented catnap, though my brain mostly served up what he looked like as a corpse in rigor mortis. I dug until my hands grew red and tender from the friction of flesh on wood.

Then it was time to move Jonathan's body. I wasn't sure at first what to wrap him in -- a California King sheet seemed ridiculous and wasteful, while something disposable like newspaper was unthinkable. Then I remembered the beautiful towel he'd slept on during the worst of his illness, which we weren't sure was even salvageable. We'd received it as a wedding gift. It now seemed a fitting shroud.

I put on my latex gloves and moved him to the spread out towel. Even after years of reading mysteries and watching cop shows, the stiffness in his limbs still took me aback. I lifted him into an empty a cardboard box and carried him downstairs and outside.

At the grave, I was surprised when the tape measure informed me that I'd only dug two feet down. I moved the box away and started digging again. By two and a half feet, between the angle of the surrounding fences, the consistency of the soil crumbling back in on itself, and sheer emotional fatigue, I couldn't make any more headway. It would have to do.

As I looked into the hole, which passed several root structures and into a second soil type and yet was still 20% too shallow, I couldn't help thinking just how deep six feet under really is.

Finally, it was time to lay Jonathan to rest. I had the idea to use some nearby ivy to lower his shrouded body into the hole, but the strands proved impractical. I was left dropping him in as gently as possible. His outstretched, unbending legs kept him from lying entirely flat.

As I was preparing to sprinkle some drops of lavender oil on him as part of the ritual of saying goodbye, Groucho -- my favorite of the feral cat colony we take care of -- joined me graveside. He looked in the hole, and sat down next to me as I said a few parting words to Jonathan. I think he sensed my sorrow, as so many animals do, and came to bear witness. Silent and comforting, full of life yet calm, Groucho was the perfect company for the occasion, particularly as I started the heartwrenching task of shoveling dirt onto a body hidden inside an ivory and embroidered towel.

~ ~ ~

In the days after Jonathan died, I missed him intensely. We'd never lived in our new house without him, and suddenly, he was gone. It helped to start substituting images of him diminished by illness with memories of his lively, vibrant self. He was an extremely affectionate cat (whether you were interested in getting head butts at the time or not). He had a gigantic purr that caused the fur on the sides of his neck to vibrate. When you petted him, he'd start giving himself a bath; often, a scritch on his left caused a lick to the left, and if you switched your hand to the other side, his tongue would follow suit. He sniffed at everything, frequently and loudly. He was also just a big linebacker of a cat -- we often joked that he was an Agent of Gravity because when he was on your lap, you were reminded of its continued presence. He could be a bully to the other cats, deciding he wanted whatever it was they had at the moment, whether that meant our attention or a spot on the couch. Still, he wound up resolving their longstanding conflict by giving them a common enemy.

These days, I mostly think of Jonathan when I let the dog out back. I look to that far corner of the yard where the pile of stones that helped settle the grave still sits. I remind myself that even if I had done things differently -- had a brilliant insight sooner or reached out one last time -- the outcome might still have been the same. I haven't failed anybody. So I say goodbye the best I can, call for the pup, and get back to the business of living.

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Anonymous Tom Geller said...

I just read this. Nicely done.

12:46 AM  

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