There’s Nothing Harder

One of the most heart-wrenching moments in the film Terms of Endearment is when Aurora Greenway is sitting by her daughter Emma’s hospital bed.  Emma’s husband, Flap, has fallen asleep.  She turns to look at her mother, and as Aurora gazes back, Emma raises her hand to her face, biting her fingers, and gradually, gracefully, her hand drops as her eyes glaze over.

Aurora, immobilized with shock, turns her head away as a nurse enters the room and awakens Flap to tell him, “She’s gone.”  The news jolts him awake and he stands up as Aurora goes to her daughter’s side.  She clings to him, staring in disbelief at the bed.

“Oh, God–I’m so stupid–so stupid! Somehow I thought–somehow I thought when she finally went–that it would be a relief!” Leaning over her daughter, she kisses her for the last time.  “Oh–my sweet little darling! There’s nothing harder!”

This morning my cat crawled to the back door to look at the trees and birds.  He had never wanted to go outdoors; we have a porch where he liked to sit in the sun and commune with a feral cat friend of his.  But today, when I found him, he was lying next to a puddle of his urine, almost unable to move.  I washed him and dried him, and carried him to my room.  The vet had given me a bottle of Tramadol to ease his pain, but I knew by now there was nothing left to help him.  All the expensive, useless drugs I had stuffed down his throat, rubbed in his ears and injected him with had done nothing but make him hate me.  I wrapped him in a soft towel and laid him on my bed in the same spot where I had put him ten years ago, the day we adopted him.  For awhile he lay breathing quietly, and then he struggled to stand up, wanting to jump from my bed to the window, something he had done a thousand times.  He was too weak to make the leap.  I picked him up from the floor and set him in the window.  I was sure then that he was preparing himself for the inevitable.  He watched the birds and looked at the damp green spring world.  He lay there breathing the sweet rain-cooled air before he got up to try unsuccessfully to jump back to my bed; again, I picked him up from the floor.  The sad, confused look in his eyes broke my heart.

I settled him down, gave him some more Tramadol, and he seemed almost asleep.  My ex-husband, who had a lecture scheduled in a town near the border, came in to check on him. For the first time in weeks, our kitty yowled.  “Bowr…Bowr…” he cried, his name for my ex.  He laid his palm on the kitty’s little head, said goodbye to him, and escaped, leaving us alone.  The moment he heard the door slam and the key turn in the lock, all the hope went out of his eyes.  The person he loved most had walked away and left him with me, whom he no longer loved at all.

I had read about the signs of death in cats.  They have seizures, drool, arch their backs in a hideous way–all which he did for the next fifteen minutes.  I held him in my arms while he alternately stiffened and relaxed, groaning.  I wet his mouth with drops of water, and that seemed to calm him.  Then he began to pant and I knew the end was near.  His eyes were wide open and his ears were still alert, still listening, still perhaps hoping to the end that my ex would come back to see him.  Even though I kept whispering, “It’s okay…it’s okay,” he knew I was lying.  It wasn’t okay.  It would never be okay again.

I took him in my arms, holding him over my shoulder to help him breathe.  I clung to his warm, trembling little body, ravaged to skin and bones by the cancer that had taken his strength and his life away.  With one final gasp, gradually, gracefully he went limp, his head dropping to my shoulder, and I knew he was gone.  Just like Terms of Endearment, I had thought his death would be a relief because his suffering would be over.  But the expression on his face showed the intense fight he had battled with death.  All his life he had kept in shape.  For an indoor cat, he was in Olympic condition.  He used to do calisthenics every morning before breakfast.  No doubt it was the strength of his heart, the only muscle in his body that hadn’t weakened, that kept him going so long.  He fought as hard as he could, but it was no use.

I leaned over him as I laid him down again, feeling for his breath, his heartbeat, but he had already begun to stiffen.  His eyes remained open.  I stroked his velvet ears, their peaks alert to the end.  Burying my face in his soft fur, I wept and fell to my knees, pounding the floor, unable to believe yet that he was gone.

Through my tears, I had noted the time.  He died at 2:14 PM.

The towel on which he had died was damp and smelled of death.  He deserved a better shroud, something he loved.  I had a silk blouse he used to sleep on in warm weather.  I wrapped him in it, covering all of him but one ear.  I wanted to be able before we buried him to touch that soft little part of him, remembering how much he loved how it felt when we scratched him behind his ears.  Gently I caressed it again, feeling the uselessness of the gesture, and again I wept for the loss of his sweet soul.  “I’m sorry,” I whispered.  “I’m sorry.”

Carrying him to the living room, I sat on our favorite chair, the one he used to fly over every day during his workout.  For hours, it seemed, I rocked him, kissing his little head, and feeling numb.   All I could do now was put him somewhere soft, and the answer to that was the pink satin couch that had been covered with a coarse red cover for the last ten years so he wouldn’t scratch the upholstery.  At last he could lie there once more on a place he had been refused nearly all of his short life.  I yanked the covering away, revealing the pink satin once again, and laid him on it, wrapped in my silk blouse to lie in state until tomorrow.  His burial will be at a friend’s country house.  My ex said it’s the most beautiful, natural place he’s ever seen anywhere near this town.

Looking at my kitty lying so still, so quiet, I started to cry.  All I could hear were those words playing over and over in my mind.

There’s nothing harder….


Nothing Good Happens at 5:00 AM


It isn’t morning.

It isn’t night.

It’s limbo.

I’ve been in limbo.  I know.  Several years ago, I deliberately overdosed and died in the ambulance. They revived me, but I’ve never forgotten where I went.  For me, there was no bright light or welcoming aura.  I was suspended in time and space in a dark and empty place.  Certainly it was peaceful, but I knew nobody else was there with me.  Ever since that experience, I have prayed for people who take their own lives because I have known the absolute despair that leads to the act.  I pray that they find the love and the warmth of other souls, and that they are not lonely.  If they are in limbo, where I was, I pray to heaven to forgive their desperation.  Most suicides die alone.  I almost did.  But here I am, back on earth for now, praying for souls in limbo as I was–or perhaps still am.   I’ll have to die to find out.

5:00 in the morning…it makes me think about catching planes, wandering half-asleep through airports, waiting most of the time–waiting to go home, or worse, waiting to leave home.  They put me on a plane to spend time at a rehab.  40 days, and, as Joe Friday said, “It’s all dead time.”  I was supposed to spend 90 days in another place, but I’d had enough.  I went home and back to graduate school, but that wasn’t the right choice either.  So I shut myself in, sheltered by my ex-husband, and there I have remained ever since, our failed marriage only a blip in the radar of our 28-year friendship.

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is a portrait of what 5:00 AM looks like, or used to look like, back when a person could get a cup of coffee and cigarettes at the local all-night diner and talk to someone at the counter.  Ah, but those days are over.  They tore down the diner and built a McDonald’s there.  So, if you want to get out of the house, nothing is open at this hour.  If you drive anywhere, you might get stopped by a bored cop who wants to know where you’re going.  I spent about twenty minutes sitting in my car one night waiting for a cop to run my DMV and discover I have a spotless driving record.

At this rate, you might as well stay home and watch TV…but at 5:00 AM there’s nothing on television but evangelists, infomercials, and young news anchors who are stuck trying to be cheery while talking about last night’s shootings, automobile accidents, and the latest way someone has destroyed someone’s life or property.

(It’s not such a wonderful world anymore, Louis Armstrong.  Especially at 5:00 AM.)

If you drink, by now the buzz has faded, and the hangover is just beginning.  If you don’t drink, and you’ve been awake all night, as I have been, you reach for a pill…or two…maybe more.  I used to have a deck of cards that I took everywhere to pass the time playing Solitaire.  When my grandmother was alive, she and I were fierce double-Solitaire competitors.  No one could beat either one of us.  I haven’t played it since she died.  There’s no one left to play it with.

This is the time of day when somebody decides to deliver bad news over long-distance.  It’s just before dawn, the time when dying souls leave their bodies and disappear.  Conversely, there’s no one to call if you need comfort.  No one to talk to.  I understand now why people over 50 are awake at this time.  You’re growing old, you’re scared, agitated or depressed, and everything that ever happened to you in your life rolls around inside your skull until you want to scream.  Time for more pills.

Lately, I think about death a great deal.  My sweet little cat is dying of cancer.  He doesn’t want to die, and gets up every day to have breakfast and sleep in the sun at the back door.  He was only diagnosed a month ago, but he’s already lost most of his weight and he’s wasting away.  When I pick him up, just to hold him for a few minutes, all I feel is skin and bone.  Worst of all, he doesn’t trust me anymore.  Can’t say that I blame him.  All I have done since he got sick is take him to the vet where they performed tests on him, prescribed pills that I had to shove down his throat, analgesic lotion to rub in his ears, and syringes to stick him for pain medication.  He got tears in his eyes the first time I treated him.  He doesn’t understand why I am punishing him his way, making him feel so awful.  For me, it’s torture upon torture.  I love him so much, but he never runs to greet me anymore, never lies on my bed to snuggle up and sleep at night, never purrs when I pet him.  He sleeps on the floor in my ex-husband’s room, far away from me.

Of all the people who contract cancer, my cat deserves it the very least.  He never did anything evil in his whole life–a life that began with us 10 years ago when some horrible person dumped him on the street.  The little black kitty was thin, hungry, frightened and feared strangers, but in time he became a cheerful, happy, funny, sweet creature who gave us nothing but joy.  It was always good to see him, and he was always happy to see us.  Now, it’s devastating to see him so determined to live while everybody around us urges me to “put him down.”  Well, no.  I’m not God.  I can’t make that decision.  A human can ask to be euthanized in some countries.  Humans are capable of asking for that knowing well what the procedure will be.  But all my cat would understand is that he would be taken into strangers’ hands to restrain him and stick into his veins two syringes filled with two kinds of medicine, one to paralyze him, and one to stop his heart.  Who’s to say he won’t be aware of that when it happens?  Who knows how much it will hurt?  Nobody has an answer to that.  All he would know is that he couldn’t move or breathe.

That’s no way for a cat to die–or for anyone to die.

With every day he grows weaker.  This morning he refused his breakfast.  He visited his litter-box and then went to lie in the patch of morning sun in the room where he sleeps.  He still has control over himself, and he has maintained his dignity throughout this ordeal.  It will be his decision when to close his eyes and breathe his last.  For him, there will be no limbo–only sweet, lasting peace.