The wise and wonderful Val recently bestowed on me the Best Blog Thinker Award. In the words of the creator of the award--
"This award acknowledges the values that every Blogger displays in their effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values with each message they write. Awards like this have been created with the intention of promoting community among Bloggers. It`s a way to show appreciation and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."
Wow - what an honor! Especially coming from Val, who has one of the best blogs going. I in turn would like to pass this award along to four others, as follows:
Merle Wayne Sneed, who often makes me laugh with his tales of Hooterville, sometimes makes me cry with his sad but tender tales of childhood, and always make me think.
Barry of An Explorer's View of Life, who tells stories of both the fiction and non-fiction varieties with such poignancy, lyricism, charm, and ease.
Willow of Life at Willow Manor, who enriches the blogosphere with thoughtful prose that is interwoven with lovely paintings, photographs, poetry, and music.
Aileen of Infinite Connections, who discusses a wide variety of topics with a wonderful combination of fearlessness, keen analysis, and good humor.
I of course would have chosen Val, Reya, and Geli, but they already have received the award from others.
For me the past two weeks have been a time of great sorrow, and when confronted with sorrow I usually turn to music. Listening to Jessye Norman is a treat on any day, but listening to her sing Amazing Grace when you're ailing is hard to beat.
The phone rang as I was making lunch this past Saturday, and I could see from the caller ID that it was my vet's office. I wasn't awaiting any test results or anything, so I was a bit perplexed as I answered. At the other end of the line was the vet clinic's senior veterinary technician who had worked with my long-time vet, Dr. Julie Giles, for many years.
I could tell as soon as I heard her voice that something was very wrong, and I had a sinking feeling that I knew what. I wished that time would stand still so that I would not have to hear the dreaded news, and I had already started to cry when I heard the words, "Julie left us." I pounded my kitchen counters with my fists and wept as I learned that Dr. Giles had died at home on Wednesday, Feb. 11. At some point I collected myself enough to say that I was so very sorry to hear this news and would be keeping the entire vet clinic staff in my thoughts over the coming weeks and months. My fiance had come into the kitchen as soon as he realized that I was distraught, and as I hung up I just collapsed into his arms, not believing that what I heard was true but at the same time knowing all too well that it was.
It might sound odd to react in such a way to the death of one's vet, but Julie Giles was no ordinary vet. I completely and immediately adored her from the very first time Arthur and I saw her at DuPont Vet Clinic in 1998, although I didn't immediately know why. As I got to know Dr. Giles better over the next 11 years as my pet ranks grew to 7 and as she opened and ran Union Vet Clinic on Capitol Hill, I began to feel a real bond with her. Early in our relationship, Julie and I discovered that we were from the same part of North Carolina, so we always had a hometown connection. But even more than that, Dr. Giles impressed me time and again with her intellect, intuition, effusiveness, sense of humor, free-flowing laughter, and profound kindness. And of course she was a damn fine vet. She kept many of my friends' pets alive well beyond their average life expectancies, and on more than one occasion she successfully diagnosed and treated conditions that other vets had missed. When Dr. Giles learned several years ago that she had multiple sclerosis, she greeted that news with courage, strength, and poise, thus deepening my admiration for her all the more.
Although my relationship with Julie Giles was strictly that of client-to-vet, I nonetheless could say without hesitation that I truly loved her, much as I would have loved a cool older sister had I been blessed to have one. Today's post over at The Gold Puppy deals with the mysteries of how human beings can bring out the best and worst in one another, and while reading that post I realized that part of why I loved Julie Giles so much was because whenever I was in her presence I could not help but feel happier and uplifted. It literally was impossible for me to be in the same room with her and not smile. She brought out the happy and fun sides of my personality that usually live well beneath the surface, and for that I will always be thankful to her.
I have spent enough hours in Union Vet Clinic and in conversation with other pet owners over the years to know that I am far from alone in my adoration of Dr. Giles. There are legions of pet owners on Capitol Hill who trusted their pets' care to Dr. Giles, had great affection for her as a person, and found themselves leaving her office happier than when they arrived. As the Capitol Hill neighborhood over the last week gradually learned of Dr. Giles's death, a sense of loss and grief descended on the entire community.
Julie Giles was a great light in the world during her time in it, and she will be deeply missed and mourned by those whose lives she touched. Although she will continue to live in the hearts and memories of those of us who knew her, the world will never be quite the same without the woman herself in it. I hope that you at last have found peace, dear Julie. We all shall miss you.
As my regular readers already know, Arthur the cat was diagnosed with incurable cancer last Thursday. By this Monday, it was clear that the medications intended to keep him out of pain were not working. After watching him decline steadily each day after his grim diagnosis, I knew that euthanizing him was unambiguously the right thing to do. When J and I took Arthur to the vet on Monday afternoon, I felt that we all three were ready for Arthur's suffering to end. I also felt that the knowledge that we were doing what was best would somehow make it easy to carry out our decision.
Well, it was not easy. I stayed with Arthur while the vet administered the drugs, first Valium to calm him a bit and then an overdose of anesthesia to permanently end his pain. I gave him one last kiss on the head, thanked him for 11 fine years, and wished him well on his journey while the vet did her thing, and by the time she finished the second injection he was gone. She checked with the stethoscope to make sure, but I knew he was gone. It is hard to explain how or why, but I was aware of the exact moment of his death. I just knew.
Although I have had a couple of experiences with pets and humans who clearly were in the process of dying, this was the first time that I was present at the moment when a soul actually crossed over. It was such a strange sensation to be in the presence of a creature who was alive one second and dead the next. After the vet hugged me and left the room, I finally allowed myself to cry freely as I kept uncontrollably stroking Arthur's body, which looked so much smaller without his animating spirit there any more. I wondered if his soul was still hanging around and watching from above, and maybe understanding the full depth of my love for him.
My grief for Arthur began the instant I knew he was gone, and it has not yet stopped. Although it seems silly in retrospect, I was somehow thinking that I would get to skip the grieving process because I knew that Arthur's death was for the best, but it does not work that way, does it? I found myself totally unable to intellectualize my way out of feeling depressed. One of the best things I did for myself this week -- on Tuesday morning when I woke up and realized that I was a hopeless wreck, all for the love of a dead cat -- was to stop trying to feel any differently and just be with the grief for a while. I know that these feelings will pass, as do all people, things, thoughts, and emotions, but while they want to be here I will not try to suppress them or make them go away.
I know I've said this more than once before, but I think that we humans really do ourselves a great disservice when we fear and seek to avoid death and when we try to escape from or otherwise deny the more difficult and painful human emotions that can be associated with it. It is an inescapable truth that everything that lives will one day die. In my experience at least, it also is an inescapable truth that suppressed emotions don't really go away, but rather in their unresolved states keep finding new and creative ways to torment us. In what must be the greatest of all paradoxes, it is in seeking to avoid death and pain that we bring ourselves greater pain and prevent ourselves from living fully while we are here.
It seems to me that acknowledging death and difficult emotions as an integral part of our human experience is a more honest and ultimately more peaceful approach to them, so I am going to grieve for Arthur the cat until I'm all grieved out. Right now I still miss my kitty, sometimes so much that I cry, but I know that it is OK (actually better than OK) to feel this way. Thank you, Arthur -- you taught me a lot, both in life and in death.
I wind up posting about my doggies a lot, but today's post is devoted to one of my five cats (no, I am not a crazy cat lady - five cats is what happens when two cat lovers combine households).
This picture is of me with Arthur, who is the first pet that I acquired after I starting living on my own. I'll never forget the night in January 1998 when one of my law school pals called me and said, "Hey, do you want a cute 3-month-old black kitten? I have one sitting on my lap right now who needs a home." My friend and her housemates on Capitol Hill had taken in a mama cat who had given birth to five kittens, and this one was the last to need a home. I'd been wanting a cat of my own for a while - I'd been living on my own without one for five years - and it was right around my birthday, so figured that there was no harm in at least going to look at my friend's kitten. But before I did that, I went to PetSmart to get a cat carrier, kitten food (wet and dry), food and water bowls, a litter box, kitty litter, and a scoop - not that I had already made up my mind or anything. . . .
I lived downtown at the time, so I drove up to Capitol Hill on an icy night to look at the little black kitty, and he stole my heart immediately. His mama cat, Ebony, clearly was not pleased when she realized that I was taking her last baby, so my glee was mixed with guilt as I left my friend's home and drove toward my own. When I finally got back to my apartment and saw this little bundle of shiny black-coated, kitteny joy romping around my apartment, I forgot the guilt and experienced unadulterated happiness. I called my mother to tell her I'd actually gone through with the adoption, and we discussed some potential names. I wanted a real boy name but not something on the top-10 baby names list. At some point my mother said, "What about Arthur?" "Hmmm. Arthur. That's pretty good," I said, at which point the little kitty looked at me. So I stuck with Arthur as his name. (Although I didn't know it at the time, this was the beginning of an "old Jewish man" naming theme for all of my subsequent pets).
Arthur was sweet as a kitten but he also was hell on wheels. He climbed the draperies from top to bottom, shredded the couch, and for a while liked to pounce all over me when I slept. Luckily, for us both, I let him live through kittenhood and he turned into a pretty mellow young cat, but as he got older he decided he didn't really like any humans other than me. All guests to my apartment, and later my house when I moved to Arthur's home turf of Capitol Hill, received a mandatory "Arthur warning" upon entering. "He will come up to you and rub against your leg like you're his best friend, but no matter how strong the temptation DO NOT PET HIM!!! As soon as you reach your arm toward him HE WILL SHRED YOU!!!" Most people quite sensibly gave him a wide berth after a warning like that, but some of my hard-core cat loving friends just could not help themselves. The most notable of these was my friend HSA, who actively invited Arthur to shred her and took to calling him "the shiny wicked guy." "Shiny and wicked" was a description that stuck (it sounded better than Darth Vader, which was what I tended to call him when he got in one of his moods), and I still describe him as such today. He is one handsome shiny black dude, even though he can still be wicked at times.
I think that Mr. Shiny and Wicked probably delayed J's decision to move in with me, in part out of fear for his own safety and in part out of fear of what might happen to his two cats. I promised J that all the cats eventually would work things out just fine, although there probably would be a period of fur-flying and weird yowling sounds, and I argued strenuously that J would be safe if he became The Food Guy. The cats integrated far more quickly and peaceably than my fondest hopes, and after a few weeks of being The Food Guy, J no longer walked half way around a room to avoid Arthur. After a few months of being The Food Guy, J actually made friends with Arthur. But Arthur continued to have dominion over all the other cats, and the dogs, too, for that matter. OK, I admit it, Arthur is the alpha-creature of the entire house, even the humans, although he lets us keep our blood in our own veins because he realizes that we are his devoted servants.
Arthur is now nearly 11.5, and J and I have noticed that he has been slowing down a bit over the past couple months. Two weeks ago he was leaving us evidence of pretty bad urinary tract distress, so we took him to the vet and got meds for that. Although Arthur stopped leaving the evidence after he finished the meds, this Tuesday and Wednesday a.m. he didn't eat much and he walked around our house extremely slowly looking like he was stoned. I was worried that he had a UT blockage and so took him to our usual vet first thing on Wednesday a.m. on an emergency basis. He was not blocked, but an x-dray showed fluid in his abdominal cavity, which was evidence of a much bigger kind of problem. We spent half the day yesterday at South Paws Veterinary Referral Center (a very impressive place) seeing an internal medicine specialist to try to find out what was going on.
It turns out that Arthur has cancerous tumors throughout his entire abdominal cavity, including in his bladder (which explains why he was leaving us all the scary UT evidence). It obviously is too late for a cure or even a life-prolonging treatment, so we are giving him prednisone and subcutaneous fluids to see if that will at least bring him some comfort for whatever time he naturally has left. The vet said that some cats do really well with this kind of palliative care and get a few more quality months, while for others it does not work at all. J and I now are in the unenviable position of monitoring Arthur carefully to determine when enough is enough -- although I will miss Arthur terribly when he goes, I don't want him to suffer needlessly for even one minute for the sole point of delaying my own grief.
This morning Arthur ate fairly well and moved around OK - slowly, but without any evidence of pain - and he seems to be hanging out comfortably with the other cats. He's staked out one of the dining room chairs as his safe spot, and Thomas, who was my second cat and is Arthur's best cat pal, will not leave Arthur's side and has taken up residence in the adjacent chair. The other cats, and even the dogs, are hanging around the dining room a lot, too. They all know. In fact, I think that Jacob the dog has known for a while -- he and Arthur have traditionally been neutral toward one another, but about six weeks ago Jacob started going up to Arthur on a daily basis to sniff and lick him. I thought it was sweet, but a bit odd, when I first observed it, but in retrospect I think that was Jacob's way of acknowledging Arthur's condition and starting to take care of him.
Now we're all taking special care of Mr. Arthur and will continue to do so for as long as we can keep him comfortable, and we are preparing ourselves for the inevitable day when that will no longer be possible. Last year, as I watched several of my friends lose their beloved pets, I thought to myself how lucky I was that my oldest cat was only 11 and should have lots more time. Shows you what I knew. These last three days have been a stark reminder for me of how unpredictable and tenuous life is and of how little I really control. I suppose that if there is a bright side to this situation, perhaps it is receiving a reminder of some of life's inevitable truths.