Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Finding Meaning from Loss

The fear of a loved one dying has tormented me since childhood. It's left my OCD simmering for far too long.

And this Monday it happened. I lost my beloved cat, Vincent, who my mom and I adopted when I was in grade 9 at 14 years old. I'm 30 now.

This wasn't the first time to lose someone special to me: Mummu Mary, Papa, Ghangi (none of who were family by blood but family nonetheless). Brandon chuckles when I reference their "names." 

"It's like you're talking about a cartoon!"

I can't recall the feelings of grief from those losses. I'm sure I was sad. I was an only child and they were my elderly buddies growing up. 

But Monday. Monday was when I lost a loved one that I've been fearing losing for years.  We had Vincent from 3 months of age all the way up to 16 years of age. I (embarrassingly?) lived with my mom until I was 25. When I moved out to live with my now husband, we literally moved 45 seconds away. This meant my bond with Vincent continued as I visited him and my mom on a regular basis. 

Vincent had his annual check-up in May. The vet said that if he didn't know his age and he showed up on his doorstep, he'd think he was maybe 8 years old. Half his age. He did blood work as a precaution and everything looked great. 

"He probably has a few years left in him."

But then Friday came. Except I didn't know until Saturday when my mom informed me that Vincent hadn't eaten for 24 hours, hadn't taken a bowel movement since Wednesday, was refusing his treats (this was abnormal. He would have loved to help promote Temptations, I'm sure) and he was lethargic. 

I had us at the emergency vet that day. 

As I was about to choose my Late Night with Jimmy Fallon t-shirt to throw on, I paused and thought, "No. I don't want this t-shirt associated with him dying."

I was hoping it was my OCD, that I was being paranoid Melanie. 

But when the emergency vet examined him in a somber silence, I knew. 

"He has jaundice in his eyes and ears."

"That means he's dying," I sobbed. I remembered a friend's cat had died after that sign. 

The vet nodded and explained Vincent was palliative. That there was a mass in his abdomen, his liver was shutting down. He said we would likely have to euthanize him. 

I don't like thinking back to this. It's vivid but like a dream. It was last Saturday but feels like it was from a parallel universe. 

"Will he make it through the weekend?"

The vet was hopeful. Plus we were told he wasn't in pain. This was important. We needed him to make it to Monday. We needed him to see his regular vet. Surely his regular vet would know what to do. 

We left with tears and food to give him via a syringe. 

I cried more than I've ever cried. I felt the pain of grief that I had been dreading. I was with family but felt alone, detached. I called a crisis line, even a prayer line I randomly remembered my mom telling me about years ago. 

I went back and forth to my mom's the whole weekend, hating seeing him in such stillness but hating being away from him. Occasionally, he would seem like his old self - making use of his scratching post, proudly displaying his paws stretched out in front of him. But then he would return to a position that scared us. A position where we would stare and try to see if he was still breathing. His occasional distress meows were heartbreaking. 

On Sunday, we spent 40 minutes outside in the gazebo with him. My mom purchased it for him. He was an indoor cat but it allowed him a vacation from the confines of her home. He loved his gazebo. It was our last time in the gazebo together. 

My mom texted me at 4am on Monday morning to report that he had vomited the water she gave him via syringe. This wasn't good. 

My husband and I went over. My mom had barely slept, giving him his syringe every two hours. She needed sleep. I crawled into her bed with Vincent, she set up in the living room and Brandon claimed the guest room. 

It was special getting to sleep near him on what ended up being his last night with us. When I lived at home, he slept on my bed. It was like we were coming full circle. 

Monday came. He was still alive. He looked like he was withering away. But I had hope (or denial). The vet would hook him up to an IV. The "mass" would really be a bowel movement. The jaundice would be gone. A few days at the vet and he'd be back in business.

The news was bleak: pancreatic cancer. No way of screening for it, happens fast, progresses quickly, no cure or treatment. The emergency vet's word choice of palliative was spot on. I asked about research being done for a cure but due to it being rare, there's no money for research. The vet said Vincent was now in pain and pre-diabetic. He was advocating for our guy. My "brother" as we called him. Clive and Doug's uncle (who live with my husband and I).

We took some photos and said our goodbyes then went upstairs to where he would be sedated then euthanized. I kissed him on the forehead. We didn't want to watch. We wanted to remember him as the Vincent we knew, even though he wasn't the Vincent we knew anymore. 

My best friend came to sit with us, just like she had over the weekend. She's a guardian angel that girl. She's a wife and mother of two young children but when my mom or me have been in need, the stars align and she's there. 

Brandon and Melissa offered to go to my mom's and gather all of Vincent's belongings so my mom and me wouldn't be bombarded by memories. Brandon got us McDonald's for breakfast, cooked us dinner. 

I took some time off work to grieve. It wouldn't be fair to clients to try to support them when I experienced such a loss, a loss so closely linked to what drives my OCD. I was now advocating for myself, for my needs. It all happened so fast. But I'm thankful we had the weekend with him. I'm thankful for the beautiful weather the past few days. I'm thankful that we caught his regular vet before he left on holidays today. I'm thankful Vincent made it to Monday.

Some people may minimize the fact that he was a cat. But if a distant family member died who I rarely spoke to, would I be devastated? No. When a cat who I grew up with, who has been a huge part of my life, who has provided us with so many cherished memories, when that cat dies, it is heartbreaking. 

And when it brings my fear of death to the forefront, it's especially tough. I had to put aside judgements from society and do what I needed for me. 

I also needed to honour Vincent (who, by the way, I almost named Alatheena thinking cats looked like girls). It hurts too much to just let it hurt. I needed to make something positive out of it. 
I chose to fully commit to my OCD treatment, to work on the exposures I've been avoiding. And I've been doing it. 

I'm rinsing dishes casually, just enough so they aren't a pain to clean later, as opposed to soaking them with water at the chance that Clive and Doug would find crumbs in the sink, eat them and die. Brandon did the dishes today and commended me on how much food he found in the sink. 

I'm no longer monitoring Brandon lock our front door. 

I'm leaving the room with something "dangerous" out. 

I let Clive and Doug play in my tote bag today and in a gift bag that I found hanging on my mailbox with a precious gift from a friend. Normally everything is dangerous. And it still feels dangerous but I'm taking the risk. I'm doing it for Vincent. 

I'm throwing myself into it because I want to. I'm willing to feel the anxiety. I'm tired of being afraid of death. I'm tired of all the compulsions to try to prevent my loved ones from dying. 

Vincent died and it wasn't something I could have prevented. This is something I knew rationally but when it happened, things clicked. I want to live my life for me, for Vincent. Death could happen at any moment. It's terrifying. But compulsions to try to prevent it is another kind of torture.

My fear of death hasn't magically disappeared but I have a newfound sense of commitment to treatment. 

Brandon suggested that instead of "Veni, vini, vici," which means "I came, I saw, I conquered," I say "Veni, vini, Vincy."

Today we picked up his ashes that were split between two urns for my mom and I. My best friend, husband, mom and I had a ceremony in Vincent's honour. We lit a candle and my mom and I read letters we wrote to Vincent. We laughed and cried. There's been a lot of laughter and tears. 

My mom and I have been embracing the therapy of nature, sitting outside and reading grief recovery workbooks, sharing stories of Vincent. It's been healing, cathartic. 

I've learned that society doesn't teach us how to grieve, society doesn't know what to say. In one of my books, they passionately discourage the "time heals" cliche. They pose the question of whether you'd tell someone with a broken bone that time heals. No. They would need to have the bone set in order to heal. There is emotional work to be done to heal. 

The authors also challenge how people say "you'll never get over the loss of ____" This makes it sound like you're sentenced to a life of misery. You can heal and remember the loved one. 

They have taught me to be patient with society if such cliches are thrown my way. I'm thankful for the wisdom. 

I'm thankful for Vincent.
Veni, vini, Vincy!
From holding him at the shelter, to dressing him up as dapper as can be in his new home to saying goodbye this past weekend.

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