I watch her from across the room and see her stumble. She seems a bit wobbly this week, and I feel helpless. I pick her up and shower her with kisses, as I smooth out the water trapped in the fur of her forehead, spreading it into the fur of her neck and shoulders – an impromptu bath. I noticed this trend of dipping her head in the stream of water coming through the spout of her water fountain about the same time that the head tremor appeared. She is the fifth cat for whom I’ve had sole responsibility in my adult life, and I still crave the understanding of KSL [kitty sign language].
The workshops that I am developing and sharing this year are based on the changing seasons and how, just like nature, we humans move through cycles in our lives. It is a practice in mindfulness, to take notice of what is happening around us and what is happening within us. Using the garden metaphor, our year takes us from planting a seed, to sprouting and growth, to blossom and fruit, to harvest, and finally to rest – before the cycle begins again.
Much like the seasons move through a rise and fall throughout the solar year, so does the moon through the lunar month.
In the life of a beloved pet (in my case, a sweet cat named Morgan), the new moon would welcome a suckling kitten – brand new and filled with sweetness and hope. The two weeks that fall between the new moon and the full moon are the waxing time of life, as they become feisty, playful, adventurous, curious and a little destructive. When the moon is full, the cat is a healthy adult. This phase feels like it shines for a good long time, until one day… the light gradually begins to pour out of the cup of the moon. In the waning phase of moon and cat, things begin to change. They start to lose weight and you can feel the sharpness of bone through their fur. Health issues start to appear. Getting them to eat well is a struggle. And suddenly, you realize that you are only months, weeks, or days from dark moon.
The parallels in the health of my cats and the health of my father are not lost on me. Gwydion was with me for thirteen years, and in his waning year, my father was suffering an undiagnosed B12 deficiency. Several trips to Mayo clinic failed to recognize the elephant in the blood work, and by the time a local neurologist discovered it, permanent nerve damage was done. That was in 2008. The same year that Gwydion developed some kind of cancer, and as we were boosting Dad’s B12 to help him grow stronger, I was coming to terms with letting my boy go.
Now, in 2019 I see my kitty stumble, and reflect on the state of my father’s struggle to stand and walk without falling. Once again, the cup of the moon pours out Her light… and I can feel darkness descending.
The lives of our pets are fleeting in comparison to our own lengthy stay upon planet Earth. So really, my father is in the waning part of the year… maybe late autumn, while Morgan is in the waning part of the moon, like the waning crescent. Somehow it helps, I think, to view our lives this way. A continuous cycle of change. I know each year with the emerging spring, that winter will come again. (In Florida, that can be enormously comforting.)
With all of the reading I’ve done on death and dying, and with greater understanding of the way that energy and consciousness (that which we are beyond this earthly shell) moves through space and time, my approach to nurturing both Morgan and Dad is more mindful.
If either of them does not want to eat, I offer an alternative. If they refuse that option, I let them be. I will treat for comfort, but I will not put either of them through anything that will be traumatic with the intention of prolonging life. Great clarity was attained in my reading of Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise, and the painful awareness of his palliative care patients who ultimately felt resentful for prolonged dying. His style is poetic and blunt, so it’s not the easiest read, but it is honest and insightful.
Dad and Morgan can both be quite stubborn. Getting Morgan to take her medicine or eat her food is often a struggle, while she is quite good at water consumption. I don’t have to worry about dehydration, at least. Dad, on the other hand… consumes very little liquid, because getting up to empty his bladder requires so much effort. At least I can easily get him to tip his head back while I dump a hand full of pills into his mouth. I remind him every once in a while that dehydration means a hospital visit, but then I drop it.
Learning to have healthy boundaries means respecting the autonomy of others. My approach to caring for my waning beloveds is more about presence and holding space than fixing things. When it is time for each to go… they will go. We are all meant to go at some point, after all. I can do nothing to stop them. What I can do… is love them. I can love them when they are sweet, and I can love them when they are cranky. I can love them when they move easily to my will and good intentions, and I can love them through their resistance.
My personal practice of mindful presence is to do my best to take notice of changes, to ask for help if I need it, and to offer pathways toward comfort and peace. At least in Dad’s case, I can ask him if something we are doing is helpful or bothersome. Most of the time he isn’t really sure, but there is always comfort in knowing you are not making it worse.
With Morgan, it is harder. Bargaining with a cat is complicated, and the only way I can determine if something is helping is if her behavior changes. When she turns her nose up at the same food she ate with gusto yesterday, I don’t know what has changed or how to make it better. There are days when I have five different kinds of food down for her and dump it all the next day, barely touched. I consult with her doctor periodically, and I try each suggestion. At the end of the day, we don’t seem to be making much of a difference. And so I return to my practice… and hold her close.
Imagining the beauty of the moon in the night sky, even at the noon hour, I love the way She makes me feel. She reflects the radiance of the Sun and illuminates the darkness. I guess that’s what our pets do for us, isn’t it? They illuminate our personal darkness. They are bringers of light. They add beauty and magick to our lives like nothing else my mind can gather. Even when the moon is dark, I know that She is there and I can feel her pull my internal tides… just as I sit in the living room now, while Morgan is at the library window… I can feel her pulling my heart ever to her own. I will hate to see her go.
Even facing the inevitable, fifth great loss in 27 years, I wouldn’t change a thing. It turns out that it really is better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.
When Morgan’s brother died four years ago, our veterinarian sent us a card, sharing our grief. The quote within captures this feeling so well:
“We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan…”The Once Again Prince, from “Separate Life Times” by Irving Townsend
Being of service has always been my joy. Getting to serve my most beloved beings throughout their waning phase of life is not only my joy, but also my privilege and great honor. Their immortality is assured in the radiant fullness of my cherished memories.
Thank you for walking this path with me.