I had a friend once who said she was a witch. She was real proud of that, that connection to a greater source. She also thought that canaries escaped their cages and somehow found their way to her back yard where she had seed out for them. I tried to tell her that goldfinches weren't canaries, they were wild birds that went to anybody's yard where there was seed, including mine. She didn't hear me. She also was convinced that Death was the Enemy and Life was all about defeating Death. The term "witch" has it's origins in "wise one" and the concept is that like many folks in meditative and magickal paths a person should try to shed delusions and confusions and find a Truth at least once in their life. One of the Truths I believe in is that Death is a short step from one form to another and that like the very fabric of Existence itself, Life is eternal. Only the forms change.
Today I said goodbye to an old friend who by now is making that short step to another form. Oona was a gentle lady who wanted only to be stroked and listened to. She would follow me about waiting for the chance to stick her head under my hand, even if I was napping on the couch or working on something in the house. Lately Oona has been sharing her form with a growth, a kind of cancer, and that cancer was slowly taking away her ability to enjoy life. She was able to eat a few teaspoons of milk and then sometimes would throw it up. Not a very lady-like way to go about the day. She also was getting confused and would forget which food dish was hers, or even what room she was in, and she would call out for someone to come and help her out.
So today I helped her Out.
It's a funny thing that people can read about all kinds of things like tsunamis and torture chambers in Syria run by the CIA but when a little furry friend seems to be stumbling in the Way of Things, we cry.
I was a little nervous this morning about my choice to let some technician stick a needle in Oona and pump her full of drugs. I always think of Janis when the subject comes up. She probably had a moment or two when she realized that this particular high was not going to end.
Years ago I was swimming in a canal in Yuma while my babysitter was away in the bushes making out with her boyfriend. She had given me a floatation vest but didn't take the time to tie it on me before she trotted off with her little friend. So as I paddled around the canal I somehow paddled out of the vest. Contrary to what some people may think it does not require only a relaxed mind to float in water; it requires a certain ratio of fat to muscle and I had the wrong numbers for floating. I sank like a rock to the bottom of the canal. At five years of age or so I knew enough to kick when I hit, to try for the surface. Maybe that's an instinct. I also had seen in cartoons that, like baseball, in drowning it's three strikes and you're out. I hit the surface lightly, not even enough to get out a yelp and then dropped again to the sandy floor of the canal. That was two. I had one more chance for life. I had my eyes open by then and could see the rocks on the surface and the sparkling ripples on the surface of the water as I once more kicked to the sunlight, but once again my body had other ideas, and I found myself going down for the third time, just like in the cartoons, with my arms outstretched upwards. I recall thinking that I was supposed to see my life flashing before me but maybe at that age there wasn't a lot to see and I just relaxed and figured, "Well, this is it." Then my fingers touched the vest floating on the surface and I kicked up in a frantic last ditch effort. I caught the vest and hugged it to me, coughing and gasping for air. I managed to paddle slowly to the edge of the canal, a muddy little canal used for irrigating the cantalope fields. As I struggled to pull myself up onto the mud my hand slapped down on a little insect known as a mud dauber because they pick up bits of mud and sculp nests for their eggs on the sides of things, like garages and bridges. They also have the ability to sting several times without dying, unlike a honeybee. So I got hit several times on the palm and would have let go of the beast, but that would have meant slipping back into the water and another round of drowning. I think I either crushed it or it slipped away, saving it's own life. I don't really know for sure, but I lay there coughing up dirty water and wheezing and crying in pain. My babysitter heard me and came and got me. She knew things had gone badly awry and took me home, leaving me there alone while she took off with her boyfriend. When mom got home she found me with a swollen hand, a bad cough and a blackened, burnt back from the hot Arizona noonday sun, the same sun that sparkled so pretty on those dirty waters. My back bled and peeled for some time and they couldn't even smear Noxema on it for a few days until some skin grew back. The babysitter was never re-hired and I doubt she got paid, although I don't recall being able to tell anyone about the boyfriend. I figured that out years later when I thought about the event. Dad was upset with my version of the story because he was one of those folks who thought that all you had to do was relax and you floated. "Everybody floats in water!" he would say when he tossed me into the public pool to teach me how to swim. Eventually I learned how to swim underwater and got good at it, so that worked out. I still float about twelve inches under the surface, in spite of a much greater proportion of fat on my frame, thanks to years of beers.
My early experiences with death very many and all included this feeling that "Well, this is it..." My bouts of pneumonia, complete with feverish hallucinations of monsters sitting on the bedside watching me; my falls off rocky mountains, tall trees and the occasional light pole. I came to accept that death was just around the corner and so far it wasn't so bad, certainly not "the Enemy". It was almost an old friend who always seemed to have to leave the party early. but always with a promise of a return. I couldn't quite understand my father crying when he got the telegram about Grandma Shirley passing away with a heart failure. I got a better taste of it when Teddy took the turn and my wife of the time told me to "get over it." When I had decided to take a turn off a cliff on my motorcycle and join Tedddy one morning he stopped by to give me a heads-up about timing. "You have things to do. It's not your time." Granddad Shirley passed away in the Vets Hospital about two weeks after he asked mom and dad not to put him there because it's where old soldiers go to die. When I saw him years later on the other side he was sitting on a tall hillside watching the storms over the mountains across the valley. I asked him how he was doing and he smiled that slow Tennessee smile and told me, "Well, Billy, it's not too bad. See those clouds over there? Real pretty." Teddy said much the same thing. "It's interesting."
When old Fred Brighton lost all her teeth and was wasted away to a bag of fur and bones and infections were eating up her jaw I knew I had to help her make that last step. To say I cried like a baby was not quite true. A baby cries because something is all wrong and it's the worse pain they have ever felt. I cried because it was all right and it was a familiar pain, one you get to feel too many times. I buried her in the garden in the sun, along with a tee shirt for a pillow and some catnip to make the journey colorful.
I told Oona on my word of honor that I would make her a crypt inside my altar under the apple and cherry group that shades my Goddesses. Like an Egyptian princess she would become some part of a great holy thing and would listen to my prayers and receive my offerings. I told her I will make a nice statues of a Cat in Glory, with her feet all close together like she could sit on a quarter. Like angels on the head of a pin she will sit on my altar to my Lady of Life and Death and in the sun the goldfinches will come and fight over thistle seed. If a canary should break loose from it's cage I hope it will find it's way to Oona's statue and sing it's little heart out for my old friend to hear.
As I handed Oona to the girl at the vet's I started to cry like I had hoped I wouldn't, but wished I would. If I hadn't cried it would have meant I was not being compassionate, just dumping off an old cat who had outlived her time. But like a man I cried, like a baby I cried, like a friend who is saying goodbye I cried and when the poor girl offered me some tissues I said, "It doesn't make it better..." but I knew it was right. It was time.
I know Teddy will show her around, Fred will find her some nice catnip and Granddad will be happy to sit by her and stroke her soft fur while they watch the storm clouds that create the rainbows on the other side of the valley. See ya later, Oona.