Death, the subject we tend to dread the most, is always present somewhere in the mind, usually at an unconscious level. Sometimes it is tinged with hope and a sense of relief; often, with a terror of the unknown.
I wish I could simply say, like Hamlet's mother, "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity," and let it go at that. But fear of the final goodbye and the extinction of our consciousness and identity runs too deep.
For the past year, our cat, Lizzie, a nineteen-year-old tabby cat, has been teaching us a lesson in dying with dignity. When the vet yesterday officially said what we knew--that her kidneys have failed--she also said Lizzie has been very tolerant of her condition. She has always been a quiet, indoor cat, a model of patience and simplicity, who now spends most of her life sleeping.
Her disease has gradually made her confused, as she walks slowly around very familiar territory, looking disoriented. She neither eats nor plays; yet, when petted, she will still wag her tail and purr a bit.
As my wife and I watch her, we think, invariably, of our own end. We are aware of neighbors and friends whose lives are ebbing away.
Lizzie is lucky to be spared the knowledge that she will die. She remains placid most of the time while we wonder about when to end her life: should we prolong it another week, waiting for nature to take its course? When is the right time to say goodbye?
If Lizzie can wait (without knowing she's waiting), why can't we?
This gentle cat has taught us many lessons, provoked many laughs during the past fifteen years, and inspired many stories. Now I think it is her destiny to teach us something about accepting death as the natural part of life it is and as something to be welcomed with relief.