Hospital patients do whatever they can to be make a long-stay more comfortable. Last week Steve moved out of the ICU into the somewhat friendlier neighborhood of “the floor.” It’s always better to be out of the “unit” and onto the “floor” but Steve said he missed the view from the unit. He did not, however, miss the photos of his cats.
In his new room he had head shots of each of his seven cats posted on his bulletin board. Taped to the foot of his bed was a large photo of the cat (actual size!) who always slept with him—you guessed it—at the foot of his bed. Spread over the hospital sheets was a fleece blanket that had been enthusiastically chewed by his dog.
He rubbed one of the chew spots reverently and said, “We couldn’t figure out why he was chewing this blanket until we realized it was exactly the same texture and color of the stuffed toys we kept giving him.” Live and learn.
He has Stage IV cancer and yes, we’ve talked about his death, but today he didn’t want to talk about death. “I want to talk about animals!” he announced with a huge grin.
He gestures towards the head shots. “We had eight cats but one died.”
Okay, so today it is animals with just a dash of death, I think.
“It was horrible,” he says.
“My wife was doing laundry. She opened the dryer, checked the clothes and decided they weren’t dry enough. She was rushing around and left for some reason. When she came back, she closed the dryer door and restarted it.”
“Oh, no. You mean—”
“The next morning that cat was stiff as a board!”
“Oh, my god. I guess he thought the clothes were dry enough.”
He laughed. “Yeah! But I thought my wife would never get it over it.”
“That’s horrible, Steve.”
“It was, but fortunately I didn’t say something stupid.” We both sat for almost a full minutes thinking about this. It would have so easy to say the obvious, “You shouldn’t have been rushing! Why did you leave the door open? Why didn’t you look?”
Finally he said, “I guess there’s a lesson there.”
“For cats or for humans?” I asked.
So we discussed how it’s true for both humans and cats that when we find something that seems too good to be true—it probably is. It may seem perfect: warm and cozy and right in front of us—just want we wanted. But what is the bigger picture?
I suggested it’s like when you meet someone and fall madly in love. It pays to step back, look at the bigger picture. (Am I in a laundry room? Is this a warm clothes dryer?). Consider the future (is it possible this door will lock shut?).
He liked this analogy but looked at it from a different perspective—that of his wife. It pays to slow down and focus on one thing at time (Is possible that I will attract this person with all my warmth and charm, then rush off, ignore them, then trap them in a chaotic world that ultimately kills them?)
These are things to think about!” he said. “Although I didn’t think about them when I fell in love with my wife.”
And that’s when he started to cry. He told me before that his deepest pain around the thought of dying was leaving his wife. I know he wanted to talk about animals but it’s hard to ignore death when it’s all around him. Really hard in a pandemic and especially hard when you have Stage IV cancer. I reached over and just put my hand on his arm because personally, I hate it when someone starts talking to me or God forbid—asks me me questions when I’m crying.
“I’m just really tired now,” he said. This is patient-speak for, “I need you to leave.”
“Would it help you if I said a prayer before I go?” I asked.
“Sure. If you like. If you want to. Why not? It couldn’t hurt.” This is patient-speak for, “Yes, please, even if I told you that I’m no longer Catholic and not even sure I believe in God but I am really desperate.”
I prayed for healing and strength and thanked God for his wife, the dog and all the cats—in that order. He smiled and thanked me.
At least I didn’t say anything stupid.