The Sweet Hell of Caregiving

Caregiving

There’s nothing like it really, taking care of someone who is dying. Because every day is a crisis and a miracle, maybe the end, maybe squeaking through to see another day. And there’s no one to tell you how to do it, because how could there be? Every day is different and numbingly the same.

Some people call parents caregivers and, yes, they do give care, but unless their child has cancer or other special needs, it is not the same as that other caregiving, the one where parent and child are reversed, the one where everything is turned upside-down. Getting a kid to school on time with a freshly prepared lunch is a challenge, but it’s not feeding someone through a tube five times a day, it’s not going to the doctor three or four times a week, it’s not giving shots and breathing treatments and walkers and supplemental oxygen.

It’s not hearing that thump in the middle of the night, the night you were praying to finally get some rest. It’s not calling 911 in the wee hours of the morning, watching the room fill up with a dozen sleepy fireman, yawning as they wait for the paramedics to decide whether the patient stays or goes. It’s not trying to sleep in a chair in a trauma bay, being woken up by a doctor who wants to know exactly what happened, being woken up by a nurse who wants to know what medicine he takes, being woken up by a med student who is helping the doctor who woke you up fifteen minutes earlier. It’s being grilled by a social worker, asking why you weren’t there to help him get to the bathroom, trying to explain that you aren’t a robot, that you needed some sleep, that he tried to get the bathroom alone so you could rest. It’s being downgraded (upgraded?) from Trauma to the ER and finally to an actual hospital room. It’s hoping that this time the urinal won’t spill on the sheets. It’s tripping on the oxygen tube and bruising your ankle so bad that you wind up in a boot. It’s eating alone watching reruns of ancient TV shows because he is no longer allowed to eat real food. It’s struggling through a medical building with a walker and an oxygen tank on a dolly because the medical supply place has sent a wheelchair so big you can’t lift it. It’s being tired and lost and guilty and angry all at the same time.

Then one day, caregiving is over. And people go on as if you haven’t been living in a combat zone for months and months, as if everything is fine, as if nothing has ever even happened. But it has happened. To him, to you. And when you go to lunch at one of the old places, the places you went when it wasn’t quite so bad, when he could still eat, when it was just the walker and not the oxygen tank, you sit at his favorite table and you cry.

One Less Set of Footsteps

Calvin and Hobbes
Calvin and Hobbes

So Calvin just asked to go outside to pee on the tires and sit in the doghouse like he always does about this time, but today Hobby will not be going with him.

Or tomorrow either.

It was always a losing fight, old cat, aging kidneys, but he fought hard. For four months, he kept battling back from the dips and crashes that come with a body losing the fight against itself. Some days he was his old self, wanting to be held, sunning himself on the back step. Other days he looked like he wouldn’t make it through the night. But he did. Over and over.

But this week, he seemed a little more tired, a little less better when he got his fluids and his heart pills and his supplements. And his brother Calvin was a little more attentive, sitting shoulder to shoulder with him, washing his head.

Wednesday morning when I woke up, I couldn’t find him. Anywhere. He wasn’t under the bed, he wasn’t sitting on the bathroom rug, he wasn’t in the sandbox, he wasn’t in the kitchen. Calvin and I looked everywhere. Finally, I called him, although he hasn’t come when he was called for a long long time. And a dark little nose poked out of the kitty cave at the bottom of the cat tree.

In all these long four months, he’s never hidden, never gone off by himself at all. Mostly the opposite, not wanting to be alone. But today he wanted to be alone.

And that’s what cats do when they’re ready to die.

I rubbed his head, told him I loved him and walked back to my room, trying to decide what to do. Should I drag him out and give him his morning round of pills and potions or should I let this decision be his?

There’s not a handbook on when to let someone go. Oh, sure, there are graphs and charts and quality of life indicators, but that’s all external. That’s the way a machine thinks. The equation between people and pets is a lot more complicated.

I was on the phone with Brian, hoping he had the answer, medicate, don’t medicate, call the vet, let him be, when I saw Hobby staggering down the hall to the bedroom, his legs going all directions like a marionette with broken strings, but he was determined to make it down the hall, moving forward even as he veered to the side. I hung up the phone and ran to lift him onto the bed. His body stiffened and went limp and it was over, just that fast.

So today, for the first time in four months, there are no IVs to give, no potassium supplements to squirt into mouths, no pills to take, no accidents to clean. Calvin stretches out on the towel they used to share, staring down the hall at nothing, waiting for a brother who isn’t going to come.

And so we grieve in our own way. Calvin spent an hour with Hobby’s body, one leg draped across him, pressed as close as he could get. I write a blog post trying to justify not dragging him out and giving him his meds, even though they would not have had enough time to work.

But maybe it was better the way it was. I gave him permission to go, he gave me a chance to say goodbye.

And maybe there’s no more to love than that.