Personal: Spending time with Tisha

Tisha in 2006
Tisha in 2006

My heart breaks and my eyes fill when I see this photo, because it has been so long since Tisha has had this much flesh on him, had a neck unencumbered by tumors or bandages, and most of all looked so carefree. In the past few months our boy has shrunk to mere fur over bones. I can pick him up with one hand — and he doesn’t protest. When I pet him, his spine is like a string of prayer beads. His knife-edged scapulae give new meaning to the phrase shoulder blade. Although he no longer bathes himself, and his face and paws are crusted in old drool, food, and probably old waste as well, the fur on his torso remains smooth. He’s like a rock tumbled through the ocean, the hard edges of his bones just slightly softened by the skin and fur over them. I put my hands lightly on his rib cage and feel him breathe.

After his momentous surgery in July, Tisha has held up remarkably well: he’s been walking around, eating, and as always, purring deeply at any attention from us. When I get ready to sit in the happy chair, he always comes to me, no matter how asleep or unconscious he looked a moment ago. He waits on the footrest while I get under the blanket, and the instant I’m settled, he’s on my lap, purr rumbling.

Saturday night we came home from my parents’ house to find Tisha sitting on the happy chair. He didn’t budge from it when he saw us. Erik put some food in a dish and topped it with crumbled bacon, and held it out to Tisha. He didn’t respond. Maybe he’s thirsty, I thought, and I held up his water dish. He went eagerly to it, but though he lowered his face and moved his mouth, he didn’t take anything in. I stroked his head, and he didn’t purr. These things have never happened before, I realized. No food. No water. No purr. Is this it? Then I remembered there was still one more test.

“I’m going to see if he’ll still sit on my lap,” I told Erik. I climbed onto the armrest and Tisha stood up to make room for me. When I sat down, he moved onto me. There’s still this, I thought. I stroked him and got a few half-purrs. Erik heard them too, and we looked at each other.

“Maybe it hurts him now to purr,” Erik said.

Earlier that afternoon, I’d been in the car with my mom, on our way to visit my grandpa, and she’d mentioned her sadness that a relative recently died alone.

“People shouldn’t be alone at that time,” she said. “I even read somewhere that there is an organization you can call, and they will send someone to sit with you if you don’t have your own family.”

Tisha crouched on my lap the way he always sits these days, his head always slightly lifted, never curled up with ease. I stroked him and watched his face and felt him breathe, and I said to Erik, “I’m going to sit with him tonight.” I closed my eyes and sent my love through my hands. May you be at peace, I thought to him, may you rest, may you be comfortable. Erik went to brush his teeth, and I told Tisha, “If you want to go, go. You don’t need to stay.” He breathed.

Erik came back and I said to him, “His ears aren’t moving.”

“Tisha,” Erik said. “Tisha-cat.” Tisha didn’t stir an ear or a whisker.

“He’s not even blinking,” I said. “I don’t know how much of him is still with us.”

Erik brought me a cup of water, my phone, a journal and pen, and placed them at my side next to the tissues that were already there. “Call me if you need anything,” he said. He kissed me and turned out the lights, and went to bed.

The wind waved the bare branches of the plum tree outside the sliding glass doors. As I took off my glasses, the city lights faded. Lyapa came up to curl at my feet. I kept my hands on Tisha. I breathed. He breathed.

After a time, he got up and went to the kitchen. I waited a few minutes, then got up myself, used the bathroom, and brushed my teeth. When I came back, he was still in the kitchen.

It won’t be tonight, I heard him say in my head.

I’ll stay here a little while longer anyway, I thought to him, Just in case.

But he remained in the corner of the kitchen. I nodded off briefly in the chair, then awoke and got up. I checked with Tisha in the kitchen. No change. I moved down the hallway and joined Erik in bed.

“It won’t be tonight,” I told him, and he murmured and put his arms around me.

This morning Erik woke first, and left the bedroom. When he came back I turned toward him and asked, “How are the kitties?”

“I can’t find Tisha,” he said.

“Last night he was in the kitchen, by the water dish,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “He might still be there then. I didn’t look.”

He’ll be there, I thought, but I still needed to check. I walked out to the kitchen and there he was, hunched over the water dish just as he had been hours before. Lyapa curved around my legs, looking for pettings. I stroked Tisha’s head and got a few more of the half-purrs.

Erik came out and turned on the heater, and I brought Tisha’s bed into the kitchen. “Do you want to be in your bed, Tisha-cat?” I asked him, and kept on petting him. After a minute he stood up and walked into the bed. He stepped one foot right into the water dish but it was as if it never happened; he didn’t even flinch. He’s not responding, and I thought again, I don’t know how much of him is still with us. I carried him, in the bed, over to the heater. For a while I petted him, but Lyapa kept coming between us, forcing Tisha’s head to move whenever her body touched it. I suppose we are blessed to have the most oblivious other cat in the world. After Tisha is gone, she won’t mope.

I left Tisha to report to Erik, but when I came back, the bed was empty. I peeked into the kitchen, and Tisha was at the water dish again, his face over it, but not drinking. I made myself some tea, and when I looked again Tisha was back in the bed, standing in it. Later he sat, and then curled up awkwardly, but within an hour he was back in that corner of the kitchen, where he has stayed ever since. Eventually I brought the bed back to him, and put him in it. He’s there now.

I now know that one of the fates worse than death is waiting for death and not getting it. All through Tisha’s long illness I haven’t cried much, but today all those tears came out. It’s not that he’s dying. It’s that he looks so uncomfortable, and I can’t do anything for him. He crouches there unresponsive, he won’t come to me in the chair, and I don’t even know if he likes it when I pet him or sit with him. At one point during the day I put him on my lap and he immediately got out of it. Whatever he needs today, it’s not my cuddling vigil of last night, and that leaves me helplessly anguished. When I put my hands on him now I can barely feel his breath, it’s become so faint. I can’t help him.

If he is still with us in the morning, we will take him to the vet, and unless he has some magic up his sleeve, we will ask him to end it. I don’t like the artificiality of a lethal injection, and I wish it didn’t have to be a hospital. What I really wish for, rather than this deliberate arbitrary death, is to take our tiger-cat to some quiet place, hold him close for a moment, then give him up to the waiting hands of God. Or whoever works for Receiving at the afterworld. Take good care of him, I would tell them, take good care of him for me.

My heart hurts.