Lili is showing us how to die, and also how to live. We know that this is her time, but we can't help questioning our decision to let her leave us. It seems better to fight. There must be treatments, surgeries, medications that will give us more time, regardless of how futile and annoying they will seem to this tiny cat who knows what she wants to do.
People who love their animals are not very good at letting them choose. We may claim to believe in the life of the soul after death, but we are attached to our physical bodies, and can't really imagine living as energy beings without boundaries. But animals understand, and they choose many ways to leave us, with such compassion for our clumsy efforts to interfere and "save" them.
Lili knows, just as her ancestors knew, that there is a time to go home, to live in spirit form. I feel stupid and incompetent because I didn't notice the change. Dave came home after a few days in Wisconsin, and he noticed, because he is an old soul. Lili's body was just bones and skin, the muscle mass evaporating. Always a small cat, she had lost one of her six pounds, and her movements had become slow, tentative - as if the tendons might snap and allow her skeleton to suddenly collapse. She still jumped onto the counter somehow, so I refused to see how her body had deteriorated. Not yet, I stubbornly thought. It's too soon.
She is not quite 17 years old. I thought we had more time to prepare. I tell myself I am calm, but I'm a fake. The words that come so easily and with such certainty when I'm helping a client through such a loss, the simple choice made by a loving companion, sound hollow in my heart. I tell Lili that this is her choice, but that choice is unacceptable to me, and I want to fight, to argue, to bring her back and make her whole again.
It is such a simple thing to die. The animals choose to leave us when it is their time. They go to a place without GPS, and a time that cannot be measured. In spirit, they are free again to do amazing work in dimensions we cannot perceive, and I can explain all of those things to other people. Now, I am one of them, and the fear of loss invades every cell of my body. The oils I use to anoint Lili's frail body seem inadequate, because I am seeking a miracle. I want to feed her, rush her to the hospital, stop this process. I am fighting to respect her choice, and afraid that I am failing her.
It seems wrong that death should be allowed to take her so easily. We should battle the darkness. This is our Lili, who declared herself a "brave princess" after surviving the brutality of a small boy, crawling away from death, carrying her scars inside and learning to be safe again, finally, in our family. She helped us forgive that boy, her look of deep knowing a salve for our frustration. We had not been there to save her from pain, and we couldn't completely erase the skittishness that made her bolt from the unexpected noise or sudden movement. Only now does she lie quietly in my arms, too weak to move.
There has been a chain of deaths this spring. First, an aunt in hospice, so suddenly felled by a stroke, the first of three lessons in how to die. By the time we joined the family, her consciousness lay deeply buried, her eyes closed, her breathing already slowing, while the conversation swirled gently through the room, the shared memories provoking laughter and tears, and it seemed that she heard and shared the time with us as she turned to greet her angels.
The second was a family friend from our summer commune, an elder who carried its history sure to be lost with his passing. Yesterday, in Wisconsin, the memorial service revived memories of my own father's death almost 30 years ago. Their family stood by ours that year, and it was now our turn to stand helplessly as they became like us, knowing their pain as we revisited our own. Yet through the pain his well-lived life was honored in eulogy, song, and story, and we learned thing we never knew about this man who was part of our summer "village" for so many decades. Again, the laughter flowed through the tears as we said goodbye.
Some say that deaths come in threes, and our Lili is the last of such a triad. It can be harder to say goodbye to the animals in our lives than the people. We question everything we understand about death, and choice, and somehow every decision seems wrong, and every word inadequate. Dave and I have agreed that Lili is choosing to let her body die, and wants no medical intervention. She heard our conversation about hydrating her with water injected under her skin - a process she had already experienced - and crept under the bed, the action a "no way in hell" response as clear as human words.
In a moment of panic, I called our cat clinic to discuss options for euthanasia at home - such a cold and clinical term for an alleged act of mercy. I felt silly, having taught others that animals don't much care about the physical shells they so easily leave behind, and laugh at our clumsy attempts to honor them by keeping ashes in urns on our bookcases, aging like the last pieces of crumbly bread in a dark drawer. The empty bodies don't interest them, because no one lives there, but we want to keep something tangible, a ridiculous tether to a being beyond our reach.
We are reluctant to attend the dying, as if they are contagious. But the dying are going home again, like the eager graduate who looks forward to the next life adventure. Dave and I should know this. We felt the angels come to escort our cat Boo before sunrise on a January morning years ago, and our cat Frosty peacefully left his body and the pain of cancer on an August evening in the emergency clinic. Now, Lili is showing us how to die, and we are duty-bound to let her teach the lesson.
She lies next to me on the bed, where she has sleep so often, and the words have all been said. The ritual is important, as I've counseled so many others - we need to say the words our hearts ache to hold back: We love you. We understand if it's time to go, but wish you could stay with us forever. We honor your choice. And the hardest of all - goodbye. And it feels a little silly, because she knows our thoughts before we utter the words.
It is hard to stop touching her fur, massaging her side, stroking her chin, and I ignore the smell of death that is noticeable as her body dehydrates and her organs shut down one by one. Her breathing is shallow, and ragged gasps punctuate the darkness of the silent room. The other cats are with Dave in the living room, except for Lacey, the youngest, who keeps a vigil near Dave's pillow, and Tucker, the oldest, who has circled her body, sniffed her once, and understood. He wants to sit on my chest as I write this, teaching his own lesson: Let go. Let her choose.
It won't be long now, and I am remembering everything I have said to others as they prepare for the time of grieving: Let go and the angels will come. They are going to join their team and will have work to do on the Other Side. Release the guilt. They never really leave us, and they come to check in afterward. But underneath, my heart is crying out, "No! It's not time yet!" And I fight the lesson this warrior princess is teaching, because I am selfish and I want to keep her with me forever.
And yet again, I realize that we humans are the ignorant ones. As always, the animals know.
[Lili made her peaceful transition into spirit this morning - Sunday, June 20, 2015 - and she left a hole in our family that will never be filled.]
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