All hip bones and sagging skin
Hollow eyes, naked ears.
Still chasing leaves
As if running down prey;
But time to go, time to go
Listen to the Buddha:
He’s lying in the sun, breath heavy and fast, sides shrunken, bones of the chest and neck showing through the skin, backs of the ears and the toes almost hairless now. Just an old cat suffering from age and pain and a host of ailments. “Just put him down,” people tell me especially after they hear I have to clean up his feces several times a day and live with puppy training pads on my bedroom floor because that’s the only way to keep him from urinating on the carpet.
Only one room still has carpet, in fact. He ruined all the rest so we’ve replaced it with hardwood, an oddly beautiful gift he’s given me through his feline dementia. And he still climbs onto my lap while I write, sleeps by my side at night, meets me at the door with his companion cat, who doesn’t understand why there are no wrestling matches every day.
My husband would be relieved to see him go–as I would be much of the time–but has come to understand and accept why we go on with him: not because I can’t bear to part with him but because he still has a pure enjoyment in much of life. I feel I need to respect and support that in an old cat no less than I would in any person.
Yesterday, I bought a new scratch pad laced with cat nip (which I’ve been referring to as “medical cat nip”) and he scratched and rolled and rubbed his cheek on it, then plowed through a bowl of cat food to satisfy the “munchies.” And as we ate dinner, this old arthritic boy came barreling down the hall top speed, startling his companion, and stretching his paws up onto the cat perch. This is not a cat ready to “go gently.” And I feel I need to respect that as well.
We don’t go to extraordinary measures to keep him alive. He’s off almost all medication because the drugs for one illness just make another worse. And he gets to eat the cheap grocery store cat food he loves rather than the “special diet” that is supposed to make him feel better. He’s in hospice with us. We just want to give him comfort.
I will respect his right to die when his quality of life degrades or he is in pain. But I will also respect and show compassion for his delight in life until then, this old, skinny, balding orange tiger. Even as I clean up his latest gift.
We did a lot of “Om”-ing back in the ’70s. Meditation was practically a competitive sport. We’d sit Lotus position, eyes only half closed so we could sneak looks at those around us. “How does she get her foot that high on her damn thigh?” “Oh, c’mon, look at the math geek–half lotus, how sad.” Not only did we not empty our minds, we practically hoarded, adding as many random thoughts as we could cram in. Forget about “gently bringing the puppy back”; we might as well have been at a dog park.
I was a Lit major then. But we all were, weren’t we? Literature or Philosophy: two perfect majors for those who believed a decent salary was a tool of the Devil. I prefer to think I naively believed I could make a living wage teaching Jane Austen under an oak tree–but that life is truly another story and this story rolled together in that most basic of beliefs: Everything Changes.
What struck me recently is that I might have had some sense of the value meditation would bring as I aged, even as I played it like a varsity sport, when I read a collection of Louis MacNeice poems. I loved MacNeice in college, especially “BagPipe Music.” And when I reread it, I thought: “Yes, maybe I wasn’t totally clueless about the depth meditation can bring to life.”
“Bagpipe Music”: The title says nothing about the content but everything about the lope of the poem from line to line, the bouncing repetition whose gentle lilt hides the darkness of the lines caught in opening couplet:
‘It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.’
And in the last two lines, after much ill omen and ill will and images of young urbanites trying to outrun their fate, I might have first wrapped my brain–as a young urbanite trying to outrun my fate–around the importance of the “now.”
‘The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.’
Yup, Everything Changes and you can’t stop it so…
Which led me to my other favorite poem from college and one that I chose as a reading at my third wedding–when I was older, hopefully wiser, and had finally ditched the Philosophy majors: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”
Put two of its most resonant lines with that last couplet of MacNeice and there it is: Mindfulness; Everything changes; Be Here Now.
‘The grave’s a fine and private place
But none, I think, do there embrace.’
My Lotus position was never that great anyway.
When I was young, if I was young, I believed the lies about how age creeps up on you, setting in like a fog, oozing into your pores a bit at a time. I also believed Sandburg when he said that the fog comes in quietly “on little cat’s feet.” Well, neither the fog not the fog of age comes on quietly, not creeping, not oozing.
No, age leaps from hiding in the innocent branch of the willow and rips out the throat of your youth, fierce tiger, not gentle kitten. While I waited for the tiny lines, each signaling some new wisdom, the tiger raked its claws across my forehead in the night leaving deep gullies and yet no new wisdom. One morning, your skin is soft; the next hard and dull. As you dance one night away in heels and silk, you have no prescience that by morning your feet will only tolerate flats and that the bulky cotton sweater you saved from your last husband will now become your daily uniform.
I was going to be a star. I would write a vibrant dissertation that would astound my profs. Or find my voice at last and sing blues in smoky taverns. Maybe Christie-like disappear into Egypt to dig dinosaur bones. Age had other ideas. While I painted myself as the Renaissance Man, moving from dabbling first at academia, then at business, then on again like a bored but broke Gatsby, I missed that really I just wasn’t meant to be the star. While refusing to settle down, I settled sideways, never up.
There would always be time.
The tiger had other ideas.
No wiser, just older.
|No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
T. S. Eliot “Prufrock”