Of course I do have a biological family but they are far away so I’ve done what many people have done and built an ad hock family around me consisting of friends and pets. This gathering of the familiars are the people I spend the holidays with, the ones I grieved with on 9-11 and the ones I celebrate my achievements with.
My two families have very little in common. My friend family is large while the biological family is down to just my Mom, two brother and a few cousins. One is sprawling covering many states while the other; the genetic family now covers less than a few miles. As different as they might be my two families started intersecting in a most uncomfortable way a few months back. Illness struck both families on both coasts with amazing similarities. My brother Richard on the east side was loosing his battle with Parkinson’s, while on the west my beloved cat Steven was exhibiting many of the same symptoms.
At it’s best Richard and I had a strained relationship. In spite of our almost twin like appearance and the fact that we both had a rare genetic disorder we hadn’t done much together since the day we both had our spleens removed in adjoining operating rooms. That was almost 40 years ago.
Steven became the first of my west coast family. I found him at one of those Sunday afternoon cat adoptions. He was but one of 50 cats yet the only one that reached out and tried to grab every person who passed his cage. The plan had been to get some unusual looking cat. You know, 3 legs, missing an eye or some extra toes. I wanted not just a cat. I wanted a conversation piece, but Steven’s desire to have a person won me over the moment I held him. He put both arms around my neck and purred until he fell asleep. So Steven, the plane old tabby, the type of cat I had sworn not to get, beat the odds and came home with me to the first of many houses we would share together.
In the last 13 years jobs changed, many art shows were hung and dismantled, girlfriends came and went. When everything else kept changing Steven remained the one constant.
Back when Steven was a kitten Richard was leading the exciting life in New York City. He was an East Village icon. Singing songs, producing his first of many records and sleeping with groupies. Steven was always sick do to one illness or another. There were the near fatal asthma attacks, a heart murmur, a thyroid condition and the arthritic back that kept him moving slowly up and down the steps of my loft.
During trips to India and Africa I would have bad dreams that Steven had gotten sick or worse yet, somehow escaped. When I’d arrive home, even after a month or two he’d be there standing 5 feet from the door waiting for me to walk in.
Four years ago after my own bilateral hip replacements, Steven who had quite the regular routine would forgo his morning ritual of sitting in the morning sun to keep me company in bed. He spent a full 3 weeks by my side until I was mobile again and then, and only then did he resume his daily cat schedule. Richard phoned once during that same period.
Maybe it was because we both had arthritis but Steven became my best buddy. Lucky for him I was dating a Veterinarian and thanks to her skills and free medical services we kept Steven going longer than he would have had he been adopted by any other home. She repeatedly reminded me that Steven was getting better health care than 95% of the world’s population. I’d insist it was her duty as a Vet to make sure that Steven never died. At the same time I’d make deals with him to stay alive for 3 more years, no matter how long it had been since the last time we agreed on the very same thing.
In spite of compounding illnesses Steven hung on while Richard started to notice small abnormalities. First a twitching finger then nausea for no reason. His skill on the guitar faded, then his ability to drive and even use email and the phone. The brother that never called was now unable to call. We spoke so rarely that I really noticed no difference.
As plans were being made to relocate Richard to a nursing home Steven too started to falter. When I went back east to pack up Richard’s belongings special arrangement needed to be made for Steven that included not just the normal feeding but twice a day IVs, and just as with my brother, a complicated schedule of pills and shots had to be followed.
By the time I found my seat on the plane they both had problems balancing. Even with 4 legs Steven fell from time to time. Richard now so stooped over that he was in need of assistance when walking acquiesced to a cane rather than face the indignity of the walker.
At this time the two of them became one giant ball of illness and their individual conditions became indistinguishable to me. Neither was self-sufficient and both had bleak futures. Both needed help eating and both lost weight. Both would from time to time get that vacant look of confusion when situations changed around them rapidly. Worst of all both of these once independent characters had considerably shrunken worlds. Richard was moved from his cute little seaside cottage to a small 7 by 11 foot room in the nursing home down the street from my mother’s condo. Steven who had always made good use of my spacious loft for bug chasing and shadow jumping was now living full time in the bathroom to be near the litter box.
I’d see Steven struggle to get up out of his cat bed here in California and then back in NY I had to watch as Richard would spend excruciating minutes trying to get out of a chair before asking for help. Both would fall and have trouble getting up again.
My last night in New York I drove my brother back to the nursing home. We spent the day packing up his life and placing it in clearly labeled boxes that were next to be moved into storage. He was sporadically confused as to why he couldn’t go back to his house. He looked lost and little when I told him he had to stay at the home because his bed had already been packed up. He seemed so out of place with all those older people, most 20 to 30 years his senior but unfortunately he really wasn’t. I looked back at him as I was stepping in the elevator. He looked up at me and was either completely confused or hurt that I was leaving him there. Either way it was gut wrenching.
When I got back to California I spotted that same look of confusion on Steven when I’d move him out of the bathroom, even for just a few minutes to clean the floor. He tried over and over to get back to the little corner spot he now called home. He was shaky and confused but doggedly. not a good term for a cat I guess, focused on getting back to his safe spot, a bed made of towels under the shelves.
Both of them just wanted to go home and neither could. It was almost too much to deal with.
Last Sunday night, clad in his now required premi diapers with a small hole cut in them for his tail, Steven sat on my chest and we watched TV together for the last time. By Monday he had stopped purring and on Tuesday he didn’t seem to know who I was. At noon there was a seizure and within an hour I had packed him up and we, some of my local family, brought him to the girlfriend veterinarian’s office to stop his suffering.
Richard and I had just one conversation about when he thought it would be time to end things. What specific conditions would signal that his quality of life had deteriorated so much that the time was right. “I’ll leave it to you to put a pillow over my head” he told me about 2 years ago. Being the more logical of the two I declined the offer. I told him it would be up to him to plan things before it got too late because I was not the type that would excel in prison. In the time that passed he made no plans. My Mother, now in her mid 80’s is once again my brother’s protector just as she was when he was a child.
According to our conversation Richard has passed the point that he would be comfortable continuing on, but I suspect that is a line that has changed many times for him in the last year.
Legally, for him, quality of life no longer matters, only that he has a heart beat. He remains in the nursing home lingering and deteriorating, not allowed the dignity afforded my best pal Steven to have a dignified ending, even if the timing was of my choosing… except of course for being 3 years too soon.