Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Obituary for Ambrosius

"Teach me the measure of my days,
Thou Maker of my frame;
I would survey life's narrow space
And learn how frail I am.

A span is all that we can boast,
An inch or two of time;
We are but vanity and dust
In all our flower and prime." *

A small cat with a big presence proved to be a truly magnificent yardstick by which I will ever measure my own life's narrow space.

The remarkable and beloved Ambrosius (fondly called "Bro" for short, and truly a spiritual brother to me in some dimension that transcends words or bodily form) died this morning, the blessing of euthanization ending a gradual, dignified process of dying. I can think of no ultimate goal in my personal life more worthy than dying as gracefully as he did.

If you have not read his biography, check out http://pinwheelfarm.blogspot.com/2007/08/ambrosius.html.

Here is the story of his dying.

Except I don't know where to begin. Hindsight is, as so often said, 20-20.

Last Tuesday night, when I was getting ready for bed, I found him laying in a pool of urine in the bathroom, green goo running from his nose. I picked him up, dried him off, and he seemed to be pretty much his normal self again. But, the green goo and urine clearly indicated a problem, and I gave him a strengthening treat of tunafish. Obviously, he was sick enough to require a trip to the vet in the morning. And suddenly a veil was lifted from my eyes, and I realized that so many little things I'd thoughtlessly rationalized away were actually pieces of a terrible puzzle.

His eyes had recently tended more than usual to have crusty "eye boogers"--but everyone's eyes have been a bit crusty with the dry heat of the wood stove in the extreme cold weather we'd been having?

He'd been spending a lot of time hunched on the footstool in front of the woodstove--but haven't we all been huddling near there for warmth a lot lately? When I threw him outside, I usually saw him curled on a pile of fleeces in the barn, not out hunting--but what intelligent mouse would venture forth in broad daylight in this bitter cold weather, when it could be safe among the bales of hay in the solar barn?

His fur had been looking a bit ragged, not quite as smooth and fluffy as its usual winter glory--but wasn't that just ordinary wintery static electricity? And the fine fur was uncharacteristically developing little mats all over his body. (I realized later that at some point I had not noticed, he had ceased to groom himself.)

A friend had lifted him up and exclaimed about how light he felt, and I'd noticed he was bonier than usual--weren't we all losing a few pounds as the winter wore on?

His food dish outside was never empty, and when I sat him out there he would sniff at the food and then turn and follow me around the farm--obviously he was getting enough to eat so he wasn't hungry. I didn't have to fill it as often as usual, but then I'd also given my new housemate permission to fill it at will, so I didn't really know how much was being consumed, or not.

He had been urinating in the house with increasing frequency--but wasn't that just his disgust with not being able to dig a decent hole in the frozen dirt outside, coupled with housemates who would let him in and forget to put him out often enough? He did, at least, go to creative extremes to minimize the damage--it certainly wasn't malicious or territorial marking. On more than one occasion, he somehow managed to perch on waste baskets in order to "go" on piles of toilet tissue that we put in the trash rather than the slop buckets destined for the outhouse during the bahtroom remodelling. A paint roller pan evidently looked a lot like a cat box (which he's never had, unless the tenants had one for him during my sabbatical), as did a dish tub full of old bills under my desk, and an unused cardboard box. One time he used a piece of newspaper spread to protect the floor from paint during the bathroom remodelling. He even perched on the rim of a dishpan with an inch of water in it, remnant of thawing a water bucket in the entry way, and fouled the water...if ever there were cats that could have been trained to use the toilet, he was one.

Suddenly I realized that he had gradually lost his appetite a long time earlier, and had at the minimum an upper respiratory infection, and was urinating in the house because of illness.

I thought about his appearance on New Year's Day, when he came into the house in the morning with all the fur on his neck in stiff little spikes. I had joked that he had spend New Year's Eve with a couple of little girls and a bottle of hair-styling mousse...but perhaps it was something more toxic.

I also remembered the extended period of car trouble involving leaking antifreeze during the snow and ice and thaws. I know how deadly it is to cats, but it was leaking onto the gravel so there wasn't much I could do, and it seemed to soak in. But it could have run off into the meltwater puddles he sometimes drank from.

Anyhow, obviously the "next indicated thing" was to take him to the vet first thing on Wednesday morning. They drew blood, put him on antibiotics for the respiratory infection, gave him a dose of sub-cutaneous fluids, and recommended tempting him with canned cat food since his gums seemed inflamed. Moist food would help his dehydration, as well. I stopped by the store and spent an hour deciphering labels on kitty litter (that'll be a whole 'nother blog entry...) and canned cat food, preparing to play cat nurse for a few days. I tempted him with cream and 9-lives, which he ate gingerly.

But Wednesday night, nothing I tried to feed him could tempt him. Not the canned cat food, not the tuna. He would lap the tuna juice or the cat food broth a little, but not eat the solids, even though he seemed interested in the fragrance. Remembering a bout I'd had with infected gums myself, long ago, I thought perhaps his mouth was too much pain for him to eat, so I mashed every tempting meat-like substance I could think of into nourishing gruels...he merely sniffed at them.

I took him back to the vet on Thursday. The test results were back, and they were grim. They indicated at most 25% kidney function...and that was for blood drawn more than 24 hours earlier, before his significant overnight decline.

The vet offered several options, beginning with keeping him in the animal hospital a few days to rehydrate him and see if that would help flush out his system and bring the blood chemistry into a better balance. A mere $300-$400. "No", I said matter-of-factly, with no bitterness or despair. "He's dying; what's the point?" She looked me in the eye and I saw her sudden rememberance that I'm a "farm girl". "Or", she said with a glimmer of hope and encouragement (relief, I suspect, at realizing she would not have to deal with a hysterical, irrational, grief-stricken, handwringing pet mom), "I can show you how to give the sub-q fluids, it's not that hard. You can do it for him." And a couple minutes later I had learned the rudiments of a new skill. She gave me measured doses of a painkiller to see if that might ease any oral discomfort enough to encourage him to eat.

I have watched enough sheep die this summer to recognize that point at which the balance has irrevokably tipped towards death. And I understood at that point that my role had changed from attempting to heal to assisting to die. And somehow I understood at that moment that this new role was perhaps more important than any other, that it would be a profound blessing and gift in my life from this day forward.
We quickly settled into a schedule for his treatments. It was clear after the first day that his downward spiral would not reverse itself even with this regimen; he ceased all interest in food or water except for rare sips from the dogs' rather scummy water bucket in the entryway.

So this weekend was a time of leave-taking, of saying goodbye, of learning final wisdom from this beautiful creature about how to die with dignity. A gentle, peaceful time of letting go little by little. Of course, with his long history of extended "walkabouts" and "going missing", imagining the farm without him isn't that hard; I've relinquished him to his fate time and time again over the years.

My daughter and her family spent an evening with us, stroking him and taking pictures (I'll post a few when I get them) while he rested in his characteristic pose on my left shoulder. He seemed to bask in the attention. Other longtime friends were invited to visit if they so desired. Apprentice EF paid his respects.

He spent nearly every moment resting quietly in the classic "meatloaf" position: haunches symmetrical, tail curled around, front paws folded under, head erect, ears perked forward. He seemed relaxed and interested in what was going on around him, if somewhat uninvolved. Mostly he hung out in the bathroom where I'd found him that first night. We had house guests the first couple days, so during the day and night, when I wasn't home, I'd close him in there with all his tempting dishes of food, the cat box, etc. I'd run the shower for awhile to humidify the room and ease his breathing...the antibiotics did seem to clear up the green goo situation, and he was breathing much better until the very end.

When I was home and the door was open, sometimes he would come hang out in the kitchen on the mat by the sink, again in meatloaf position. I would move his dishes near him. Toss figured out very quickly to leave the tempting goodies alone until they were judged "not fresh" and used to dress her plain dry food. In the end, when the guests had gone and my housemate had left on a trip, Toss spent the day home alone with the cat and his food, and never bothered it. She liked to lay where she could see him in the bathroom, even though it meant laying her aging bones on the hard wood floor instead of the soft rug.

Friday night, it became clear he wouldn't eat again, and I stopped trying to tempt him. I consulted with the vet Saturday morning, and we decided to stop the antibiotics and painkiller. I would save the remaining doses of painkiller in case he was clearly in pain near the end.

The texture of my days remained largely the same as ever. I attended my scheduled workshifts and special events, giving each my full attention. The regular activities of his routine care, random moments of checking on him and exchanging the squints that telegraph "I love you" between cat and caregiver--these were enough for both of us. No hovering, no smothering.

Each night I would work at the computer until about midnight, as usual. Then I would fetch him for his fluids. The old IV pole I've had for years was used mainly to hold a kerosene lamp out in the woodlot for midnight firewood-sawing sessions in past years; the adjusting screw had rusted firmly with the height at its maximum of nearly 8 feet. So treatments were given in the entryway--the only room of the house with 8' ceilings--perched on a couple of 5-gallon buckets so that the tubing would reach him in my arms. He clearly didn't care for the treatments, but would resign himself to firm restraint.

After the treatment, we would retire to the living room, where I'd feed the fire for the night. We'd sit in the "comfy chair" and watch the flames curl around the logs, and sit. And sit. No purrs now, but a deep communion of sorts. Love. Now and then a tear--but of joy, of gratitude for all this remarkable cat has enriched my life through the 9 or so years I've had him (How old is he? Hmmm...farming has interfered with my journalling of events, so I don't recall when I got him. Except it was while R. had the horses down the street. And that was when I had Jasmine the pony. And I'd gotten Jas for my 40th birthday, "giving myself a happy childhood". And my 50th was last spring...so he must be 9 or 10.)

Saturday night, I started our usual routine. But he wasn't lying in the bathroom. I looked in the kitchen, thinking I'd distractedly managed to walk past him without seeing him on the mat. No, he wasn't there either. Maybe getting a sip of water from the dog bucket in the entry? No. Crawled off into some corner to die? I searched the entire house, every conceivable hiding place. Nothing.

I repeated the entire search sequence. Twice more, each time more thoroughly, checking smaller and more unlikely places. Still no cat. I was beginning to believe in miracles. "Cat-saint Ambrosius miraculously ascends to Heaven, leaving astonished owner." (The day had begun with attending a Catholic baptism, prompting reflections on saints in general.) I was debating who to call at midnght (by now nearly 1 a.m.) for assistance and consultation. The sherriff? The local crisis hotline? Yeah, and get labeled a raving lunatic. Cats just don't vanish through closed doors.

Eventually I looked one more time in the kitchen cabinet whose door often didn't quite close. There in the furthest darkest corner was Ambrosius in meatloaf position, looking at me with a level stare.

He had clearly decided he did not want the sub-q treatments. Period.

OK, Cat, you win. It's your death, have it your way.

Now what? We're in a stand-off. It seems like not a very good idea, in the long run interest of the household, for him to just curl up and die in the kitchen cupboard, in case there might be a release of bodily fluids in the process. But I also didn't want to disrespect him by grabbing him and dragging him out, either...I could barely reach him even to touch his nose, and I knew from the experience of giving him the antibiotic tablets that he still had a good set of claws and knew how to use them.

I pulled my head out of the cabinet and closed my eyes in thought and prayer. "OK, God, I get it that he doesn't want the treatment. Bro, I'll honor your wish. But God, I don't want to leave him in the cabinet, and I need to get some sleep for driving the bus tomorrow!" After a few moments, I opened my eyes and stuck my head back in the cabinet. No cat! Dazed, I withdrew my head and turned around. He was sitting behind me on the mat as calmly as if he had never been in the cabinet. In those few seconds, he had somehow soundlessly emerged from the cabinet full of noisy stainless steel bowls and passed through a space about 4 inches wide between my body and the cabinet door.

We retired to the fireside for our evening meditation without the treatment...a relief, a simplification of both our lives. When I grew drowsy, I laid him on the bed quilt and crawled under him. So many times in my own grief or illness, through the years, he had comforted me by resting serenely on my stomach as I lay in bed. Now the position was the same, but it was he who was ill. A while later I realized that he had noiselessly left the high bed, and returned to his post in the bathroom.

Sunday passed in the familiar rhythm, emptier with neither food-tempting nor pill-administering nor fluid-injecting. A comfortable emptiness. The sense of profound waiting for death gathered about the house, the deeply spiritual "gathering" of a Quaker meeting. The unmistakable certainty of God in everyone present. Coincidentally, this was the weekend that none of my Sunday apprentices were in town, so we were only three old friends (me, Toss, and Bro) gathered to witness one friend's final slow journey into the unknown.

God had also arranged for this to be the weekend that the Shape-Note Singing met, so I made a pilgrimage across town to sing the archaic, solemn harmonies woven with imagery of pre-penicillin Christian life--which is to say, a fascination with death, dying, and the afterlife as a release from the toils and sorrows of life before the Industrial Revolution. Last month, and the precious January as well, the monthly Sing had been held at the farm, graced by Ambrosius's presence, so the gathered singers (only the staunchest were not somewhere else attending to Superbowl traditions) offered tender understanding of my impending loss. In Shape Note culture, there lingers a tradition of "singing the dying over" into the life beyond this one, and it seemed as if in some way we were doing that at a distance of across town.

After the singing, the day was still warm for the first of February. I gathered Bro to my shoulder, as he so loved, and we took a slow tour of the farm, his last survey of his kingdom. I left him lay on the hay in the sunny solar barn while I ran te water for the north sheep pen, and when I came back he was gone. This time he had melted through several cattle panel pen dividers to rest contentedly in a bed of fresh hay outside the barn, basking in the sun. But when I approached, he looked up as if to say, "Is it time?" and willingly rode my shoulder back to the house. I have never before been so conscious of the unevenness of the frozen, mole-mounded yard, but my jarring steps did not seem to discomfort him.

As the evening drew on, I could tell that he was drawing nearer to death, though I couldn't put my finger on any particular sign. But by the time for our nightly fireside communion, he had begun to vocalize softly now and then, a faintly querelous voice of discomfort and uncertainty. It seemed as if things had reached a point where he was not sure how to proceed. I gave him a dose of painkiller, though I hated to force it on him, and the discomfort seemed to lessen after awhile. But he was restless now, not able to sustain his usual melding into my shoulder. He lay in my arms on my slouched stomach, and I noticed that we fell into synchronous breathing, mine relaxed and deep, his slightly laboring and attentuated in a way that witnessed to his fragile hold on life.
I took him to bed again, and that seemed easier for him for awhile. Again, he had the strength to move from the bed to the nearby bench and then to the floor, soundlessly. I slept peacefully, knowing I had a duty to perform for him in the morning and a bus to drive in the afternoon.

I woke to discomforted vocalizing at about 5:30 (as I'd awakened the previous night at that time), and gave the last dose of painkiller.

I set the alarm for 8 a.m. when the vet would be in, and called for an appointment when it rang. We were scheduled for 10:45 a.m. I ate my usual breakfast and did the farm chores. We sat by the fire again, and this time his breathing was slower than mine. I thought any breath could be his last, and in a small way thought this would be fitting. But there was no hesitation or regret when I rose from the chair at the appointed time and placed him once again in the picnic basket that I'd been using as a cat carrier for him.

Tears, yes, of course tears as I gently pulled his frail form from the basket in the exam room. He took a few hesitating steps around the now-familiar counter. The vet brought the simple necessities: a towel to lay him on, clippers to bare the skin over a vein, the syringe. He did not resist our fussing, and as I stroked him the merciful fluid eased him through the passage he had been searching for all night. I could not see the transition between his intermittant breaths and no breath at all, nor feel the ceasing of his heart or the fading of his spirit. But the vet check his heart, and nodded to me that it was done.

Tenderly into the basket for the ride home, a beloved empty husk. A plastic bag, a box, the freezer where I store things not for human consumption.

In time the earth that gave him life in the form of so many mouse dinners will yield its implacable winter cold, and he'll be laid in honor beneath the west end of the Torii. Only the very most special animal friends lie under this gate to the spirit realm; the more commonplace ones and the criminals (Bartok, sentenced to death though he was only a few healthy years old because of repeated random sudden blood-drawing unprovoked biting) lie nearby between the willows.

His companionship throughout his life has been one of my greatest blessings. To share so intimately in his dying was the greatest honor and gift of all. I will never be the same. And he will never be forgotten.

Amen. But not "here endeth the lesson", for Ambrosius's lesson will never really end.

*#485 from the Mennonite "blue hymnal"--by Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 39.


Joe said...

What a moving narrative. My father-in-law died recently and reading about "Bro" brings back nice memories.

Gretel said...

I'm so sorry. I feel bad for getting mad at him now when he started to gnaw at your fresh bread and the meat that we had left to thaw on the counter. Flora is in California right now and on her way to Iowa to visit and I called her to tell her and we reminisced on life with him. She got a picture of him when we were tearing feed sags in front of the woodstove one day. He made himself at home on the paper and refused to move. We were, after all, not taking full advantage of the sunlight.
I hope another kitten wanders your way soon.