Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Experiencing Death VIII: Choosing the Moment

We have an ornament that we hang on our colorfully-decorated tree, in memory of our cat Luna. This is our third holiday season without her. The ornament is a little cream-colored cat with wings and dangling legs. At this time of year, I still find myself looking for her sleeping form beneath the tree. But already the grief has ebbed to longing. That ornament reminds me of the joy Luna brought to our house and that’s what I remember.
The night before she died it was obvious that she wasn’t all right. We had kept an eye on her all day and besides seeming overly tired, the main concern was that she seemed to have difficulty breathing. When I got ready for bed, she was on the couch and she barely responded to me, which was abnormal. Every night before, she would follow me in, and climb on top of me. That particular night she didn’t even twitch as I passed. I didn’t even hesitate. Moved by something greater than me, I lifted her gently and eased her into my lap, noting her whimper when I lifted her. No, she was not all right, and though we would try to convince ourselves she would be okay, I think in that moment, I knew something I couldn’t put words to. I knew our time was precious.
I didn’t sleep. I didn’t even nod off for a second. The spirit world was so ripe to me it was viscous and I was scared to leave Luna unattended. I remember every minute, every labored breath in, every whimpering exhalation and every second-too-long between them, when my heart caught in my throat. I remember the hot heat that emanated from her, like the last coal burning out in the fireplace. The entire night she never tried to move from where I had propped her on my lap. She never shifted her position, and neither did I. Not even for a moment.
I could feel how important each second was, in a bordering-on-obsession way. But as a highly-sensitive person, I have always stopped my world for these moments- the ones I know we can’t do over. Only that night could I feel the full force of how much weight she had so recently lost. I was still awake when my partner woke for work and we agreed we should take Luna to the vet as soon as we could. I fed her a bit of water with a pipette which she seemed thirsty for but soon wouldn’t take more of. I tried to offer her some wet food and she wanted it, crying at me, but she seemed to know better than to eat it. We took her to the walk-in vet.
We weren’t prepared to be forced with a final decision less than three hours later. I wasn’t prepared for the answer to my question of “How long before she’s in pain and it’s too cruel to wait?” to be “Oh, honey.” She only had hours left and her pain wasn’t going to stop.
In that moment, there is no decision to be made. It won’t stop you from second guessing later on, but in the moment it is the only choice available- end the pain. Luna seemed far readier than we were, perched like a rabbit on the floor of the exam room, content and unafraid (totally unusual for her) while we waited for lab results. But after forcing an x-ray on her next, she couldn’t breathe and was in apparent agony.
The reality still stands that we chose for her to be ready to die. And that is not an easy thing to swallow. We women, who can gift life into the world whether we choose to or not, we women who bleed every month for that right and that chance, we women are capable of gifting that kind of mercy death and carrying the burden of that choice. I cannot speak for men because I am not one, and I do not know where the strength for such mercy comes from in them.
I held Luna’s face in my hands and I didn’t look away from her eyes. I told her what a good girl she was and how much we loved her. She was the best girl ever. When the poison was injected, her eyes widened with… fear, pain, fire? Who knows. She had lost so much weight that it barely took a second. I barely had time to breathe in. And then she went limp. Her eyes dulled with the sparkle life gives them. She was gone.
I don’t care what anyone thinks. I ripped her out of the plastic bag they put her in and carried her home in her blanket, the weight of her suddenly so heavy in my arms. She was lighter than a feather in life and heavy as bricks in death. Is it our soul, our spirit that lightens our time upon the earth?
I would not take back sharing her death with her, even though the memory of it causes me pain. It was pain she experienced so that she could finally be at peace and I believe it was important that I share in that truth. In our society, we have trouble letting go, and as long as that is an issue we face, our cultural relationship with death will not change.
I think that one of the hardest life lessons we can make is that sometimes, we have to tell death it’s okay. No one should have to live in pain that’s caused by their body either slowly or quickly shutting down in a way that makes it impossible for them to have any quality of life- unless they want to and choose to ride it out. I could have made the choice to watch Luna slowly die in agony, unable to drink or eat, because I wasn’t ready. That would have been horrifically unfair.
It’s something I think about, watching people with terminal illness in the news, trying to fight for the right to choose their own moment of death, rather than spend their last days unconscious on medication because otherwise they could not tolerate the pain. We are so willing to put down our four-legged friends because it’s the humane thing to do, whether they can consent or not, but we don’t give consenting adults who have been given a death sentence the right to die in peace.
I can’t imagine it would be easy to accept that choice from a loved one. But I think I could come to terms with respecting it. Personally, it still doesn’t feel easy to say, “I opened the door for death to enter.” I still miss Luna terribly, but even looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Relevant Posts:
The Beginning I Saw in the End (published March 23, 2011)
Eulogy I Wish I’d Given (published March 14, 2012)
Experiencing Death: The Unborn Baby (published May 16, 2012)
Experiencing Death II: My Father’s Father (published June 13, 2012)
Experiencing Death III: Squirrel in the Road (published July 11, 2012)
Experiencing Death IV: The Body at Daggett Lake (published August 15, 2012)
Experiencing Death V: Suicide (published September 9, 2012)
Experiencing Death VI: Alone with the Dead (published October 17, 2012)
Experiencing Death VII: There in the Room (published November 14, 2012)

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