I’ve written before about my parents. About how my siblings and I were raised in an animal-integrated household and how we lost both of our parents to cancer in a six-month window of time. When I first wrote, “The Cats Flew First Class,” only people with the link to the page could read it. It was a bit far removed from the purpose of my animal welfare website and I thought it would be upsetting to some people, so I hid it for years on a special page. I’ve since shared it a few times as I’ve marked the passing of my parents and thought back to how their lives were enriched by their cats who turned into therapy cats (and who later went to live in Austin with my aunt for many years before they passed away as well).
I’ve had my dad on my brain a lot lately. As fickle as my memory sometimes seems to be – some things stay and some don’t last – the last few days or his life are etched on my memory in both bad ways and incredible ways. I think of his passing as The Long Farewell. My dad was diagnosed with Stage 2 non-small cell lung cancer on September 12, 2009, which later moved to his brain and ultimately led to his death just over a year later. I got the “come now” call on October 23, 2010, and he was gone five days later, on October 28, 2010. The last thing he said to me from his hospital bed, in barely a whisper with my ear right next to his lips was, “help. I have to go.” I’ve always thought of his words as relating to a destination, but that’s just based on my beliefs. I told him we were helping him and he could go. We would take care of mom.
Time does not heal all wounds. Our losses begin as gaping wounds which time turns into scars that stay with us always and change who we are as people. They become part of us moving forward. I think about my parents every day and I miss them every day. Whether I am making important decisions or I am engaged in my animal advocacy work or even just enjoying the sun on a beautiful day, I am always mindful of the lessons they taught me as I strive to honor them with my own life. It was my dad who encouraged me years ago to put my name on my website at a time when I had not; many of my views could make me a target for haters and I originally published the website anonymously. “If it’s important enough to write about, it’s important enough to stand behind,” he said. Agreed, dad, agreed. Some days I feel the scars of my parents' deaths more deeply than others, particularly near or on the anniversary of the dates they left. If you have not lost someone very close to you, that may sound strange. Why would anyone want to mark the day that someone died? It’s just something that happens. We can’t possibly forget the dates on which people left this Earthly place and we tend to relive what happened in one form or another as “the day” approaches.” This year as I have reflected on dad’s final days, I have found myself thinking of another man of a different species. His name is Cinnabun.
My dad was in a hospital in Encinitas when I got back to San Diego on October 24th. There was no more treatment to help him and he needed to be moved to another facility. He made it clear in the weeks leading up to his death that he didn’t want to die at home. He knew it would be too hard for mom to continue to live in the house they had shared for 40 years if that happened. I found myself trying to scheme a way to bring the cats to the hospital to visit dad, but was too scattered to figure out a way to pull it off. My brother found a wonderful place for dad to go which was a concept I had never heard of before: residential senior and end-of-life care. Dad was moved to an Eagles Nest Eldercare Home in northern Escondido on October 25, 2010. It was a house on a residential street that looked like every other house from the outside. The inside also looked pretty much like any other house and it was just the people who lived inside who were different – they were all people living with debilitating conditions and people like dad who were going to die.
I will be forever grateful to the administrators, Kevin Calhoun and Maria Richley, for their compassion. I was thrilled that Doug had found such a great place for dad. It was clean and inviting and nothing at all like a hospital environment. There were recliners set up in a living room area for residents to watch television or listen to music, a large dining room where people could sit to eat if able, and each person there had his or her own bedroom. The best part of the experience, other than the people caring for dad was a little dog named Cinnabun. He wasn’t an official therapy dog, but he might as well have been. He was an adorable little bundle of fur with an outgoing personality who loved to play with toys. He brought smiles and an incredible amount of entertainment to what could be considered a depressing environment. Having a dog running around the house helped us all as we did our very best to get through our last days, knowing our time was so very limited. It’s hard. You know what is coming, but you also know you have to be strong and you have to be careful about your inner energy and the things you say, lest your loved one feel your despair. All of our conversations referenced dad and included him as if he was participating even though he could not speak.
A group of us were visiting dad on his second day he was at Eagle’s Nest. Maria took the time to shave dad’s beard and gently trim and clean his fingernails. She said, “everyone needs a little TLC to feel their best.” It was an act of care and tenderness. While she was tending to dad’s Earthly body and a group of us sat around and visited, Cinnabun decided it was time to tend to dad’s heart and his soul. The little dog jumped right up on dad’s lap with no invitation and made himself comfortable. We were surprised at first. Dad was no longer able to speak by this time and had not moved on his own for days that I observed. But he did that day. He reached out and touched Cinnabun as we all looked on and my tears began to flow. Dad’s body was shutting down and his life was ending, yet here was the comfort of a small dog, of hand on soft fur. That image will be with me always, along with my memory of dad’s last words to me.
Dad taught us so many lessons over the years. About the value of family and hard work and about humor and the love of reading and to always, always get the oil changed in my car following the maintenance schedule. Many of the lessons we learned were about compassion for all people and compassion for all living creatures, great or small. We grew to know the value of having companion animals in our lives who helped us become better people as we provided them with their new homes and their new lives.
No one gets to choose how they leave this world. Life happens, Death happens. When my time comes, I can only hope that I will have had that last touch of hand on soft fur and the warmth of an animal companion as I hopefully look forward to seeing those who have gone ahead of me, both human and animal.
I love you, dad. I miss you. I wish you could have stayed longer.
Thank you, Cinnabun. I am told you have continued to help care and comfort the elderly and dying all these years. Yours is a Higher Calling indeed.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson