I have a 15-year-old cat. Her name is Bitsen, and like all cats whose names relate to small size, she is--or rather was--huge, a beach ball of a round waddling kitty, a brown tabby with sweet sea-green eyes, a rather long nose, and a complete hatred and disdain for humanity.
She is an ex-feral. If anybody but my mother had adopted this cat, Bitsen would have found her ass on the curb in short order. She wasn't cuddly. She hated everybody. And she wasn't even pretty, by cat standards, much less graceful. But my mom loved hard-luck cases, and with her patience and love, Bitsen eventually learned to sit beside her on the sofa, how to sleep on people's heads on their pillows, and how to, if not be social with other kitties, at least to pretend to take an interest, which means in practical terms that she's obsessed with anuses. "LET ME SNIFF YOUR BUTT!" she'll meow, and charge up waddling to the other kitties and jam her snoot into their rear ends, then jam her butt into their faces. After some initial trepidation and fights, the other cats eventually just learned to live with it.
When Mom died, she told me on her deathbed that she wouldn't be offended if I put Bitsen to sleep, which horrified me beyond all comprehension. Instead, I adopted her. This was some 10 years ago or so. She's about 15 now.
Now, 15 is a damned fine run for a cat, more than a lot of cats get, and I don't think she's going to see another birthday. She's losing weight, isn't eating a whole lot, and though she's cheerful and friendly enough still, it's clear she is fading, and when that starts up, cats' bodies don't tend to fuck around. She has that serious, concerned look of a cat who is starting to go about the serious business of dying.
I know that look, but how I respond to it is a lot different now than it was some years ago.
You see, once upon a time I was an evangelical Christian, a fundamentalist, and I was terrified of death. I was all about RAPTURE and all, even though secretly I was terrified I wasn't good enough and distrusted such an easy "out." But Rapture means never having to come face to face with my own mortality. And so I trusted in it. Christians are supposed to live in hope of the Resurrection, but fundies live in the hope that they won't die at all to be resurrected--that this cop-out will all happen in their lifetimes. It's a cruel lie, of course, one that just about all Christian denominations denounce, with exceptionally shaky theological backing even by fundamentalist theological standards. But the bad theology, thousands of years of disproven predictions, the logical holes, none of it mattered in the face of the hope of never dying. Jesus was coming back, which meant I didn't have to worry about getting old or go about that serious business of dying myself. Deconverting left me face-to-face with the fact that yes, I'm going to die one day, and so is everybody, and like Montaigne, I went through a period when that scared me senseless before I made peace with it.
When my mother went into the hospital for her last stay there, I was already a pagan, but paganism doesn't teach fear and avoidance of death. I mean it's not like you go plunging up into its grille, but rather that it's not something to be scared of or to try to prolong by inhuman measures. "Death, when it comes, is neither friend nor enemy," as the grief-struck, shattered, newly-widowed Clearbrook whispered in Elfquest long ago; "it just is."
And so in my wandering around the hospital a couple days later, I found myself in the chapel by myself trying to figure out what to write in the prayer book. I don't consider intercessory prayer part of my normal spiritual routine, but I felt moved to pray that afternoon. I thought if I read the prayers of those who'd come before me, I might be inspired somehow. The three-ring binder in the back of the chapel had a pen tied to it with twine; inside it were just regular sheets of paper with a printed header advising that this was where people might write down their prayers.
But reading them proved pointless, worse than useless. "I'm praying for my sister's healing from this horrible disease!" crowed one. "I'm trusting you to get my father home alive from that cancer!" gloated another. "I am claiming my husband's cancer to go into full remission!" wrote another, this one in huge looping letters that took up one entire page. Page after page of demands, of denial, of wishful thinking. Lots of cancer, if you're wondering; these people weren't praying for a safe return from a simple operation or a vaccination, but for reversals of the worst that an imperfect world throws at human evolution.
When I got to the first blank page, then, I was seething with anger--at myself really, because I had once thought like this. But also great sadness that these people were missing the whole point, that they were so oblivious, so willfully ignorant, so shamefully dismissive of the truth their loved ones were confronting, and it was all because of their own fear of death. People were dying, and all they could do was ignore it was happening or go nuts. Instead of making peace or finding some kind of consolation or reconciliation, they were down here demanding their deity do the impossible. Every one of these pages was filled top to bottom with their demands, their entreaties, their foregone expectations, their presumption.
Me? I wrote to the heathen gods I worshipped: "Every one of her organs is gone. The cancer is everywhere. She's all but comatose, and on a steady drip of ultra-powerful drugs. I know she's going to die. Just make it painless and fast. The docs say it'll be weeks, maybe even months, and she's in unbearable pain already even without extraordinary measures. Don't let that happen." And I offered to plant a garden in thanks if this could please happen. Then, feeling foolish that I'd spent even that much time on this fool's errand, I marched upstairs and spent as much time as I could with her learning her last wishes, hearing her deathbed confessions, and helping her with her fears as best a foolish, reeling, frightened child could, rather than ignore her state and pretend she was going to get healed and--worst of all--lie to her. That night she went into a coma; the next morning she passed away. Had I lived in denial, in fear of death, we would both have missed that day.
If there were a divine intelligence that could have made my mother young and healthy again, or make Bitsen vibrant and anus-sniffing again, that'd be one thing. But if such medical miracles ever do become possible, it sure won't be any divinities doing it. Getting old is part of being alive, and losing friends and family is the price we pay for having friends and family in the first place. But Christians see this price and bury their heads in the sand rather than pay it. And it's so sad. By making us terrified of death, Christianity deprives us of the most intense, important connection with another being that we can possibly experience.
So I know that Bitsen is napping now, and my goal is not to pray stupidly for her to become a kitten again--because we both know how well that's gonna work--or even for whatever illness she has now to miraculously heal to give her what, another six weeks? Six months? She's old. She's tired. And she knows that it's warm and cozy under the side table with the blanket we put there for her, and she just wants to rest. Rather than run in fear, I will be beside her, making these last days comfortable for her, and helping her as best I can, as a friend should, and being strong for her like I have done many times before for those I have lost over the years. I hurt, and it's going to hurt for a while, but I'm not going to let that make me focus on myself instead of on making her last days easier.
Because death is neither a friend nor an enemy. It is neither good nor bad. It just is. And when you're scared of it, you're not dealing with it in a healthy way, and worst of all, you're letting your focus be on you, not on the person doing the serious work of dying.