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Wednesday, January 06, 2021
Early October brought yet another bad night with cats, this one involving the mini-blinds and an unbearable racket as I was trying to fall asleep. I kept losing my patience and tossing Duckworth and Marvin into the bathroom, followed by a loud, satisfying (to me) slam of the door. When I had to pee in the middle of the night, I let them out, and soon heard a loudish crash: a pretty blue ceramic pot given to me by my sister, falling onto the hardwood floor. Fortunately (for the cats), I could detect only one small sign of damage, and that might have been there before. Into the bathroom went the cats once again.
Before my alarm went off, I leapt out of bed to do something I’d decided would have to be done: I moved nearly all my books to the two bookshelves in the living room and moved a bunch of small items and pieces of paper to the bookshelf in the walk-in closet, which is off limits to the cats. I don’t necessarily want anyone who comes in here seeing all my books, or touching them (cooties!), let alone asking to borrow them, but I was sick of having papers knocked to the floor and then used as toys, and I could see that Marvin was very close to hopping up onto a shelf where there were a lot of little things I really didn’t want disturbed.
In my saner moments, I reminded myself: Whatever it is, it can be repaired, replaced, repainted, restored to its former condition of cleanliness, or, if all else fails, remembered.
While on call I received a request to visit a patient who had just been diagnosed with the same kind of cancer his mother and grandmother had had. The patient’s grandmother, with metastatic cancer, declined chemotherapy and lived on for many years, eventually dying of something else. The patient’s mother’s cancer was also advanced and she had survived it. My patient, alas, was just in his early 30s and said his diagnosis was completely unexpected. He knew he was experiencing some pain; that it was cancer never crossed his mind. The COVID pandemic delayed medical visits and tests.
I had two long visits with this (not spiritual or religious) patient where we talked about nothing in particular. He was determined to “fight,” and he was concerned about the effect of his diagnosis on his family. Our second visit was taken up almost entirely with discussing the feeding tube that was scheduled to be placed that same day. We did not discuss anything particularly deep or personal, but the patient seemed to appreciate having company.
The very next day, the patient ended up in the ICU, and when I went to see him, he was intubated and unresponsive. I learned that his team did not expect him to leave the ICU alive. The next time I went to see him, he stared out the door at me with no expression. I wasn’t sure if he even remembered me, or if he wanted me to visit or would prefer I didn’t. He was unable to speak, and also unable to shake his head “no,” but he could slightly nod his head “yes.” He could also make the “thumbs up” gesture, and used this to indicate that he would like to communicate via writing. I asked his nurse about this, and she said he had tried, but not been able to.
I gave the patient a pen and paper and he labored repeatedly to express himself, making a mark or two, after which his hand fell weakly away. At times he pointed at himself and then at me. Clearly he was writing “I,” which he did over and over, but I couldn’t make out anything else. A speech therapist came in and figured out that the next word was “really.” After the speech therapist was gone, I finally figured out what the patient was trying to say. I asked him, “Are you trying to say you really like me?” The patient nodded, and I nearly wept: This patient, with whom I had discussed nothing in particular, felt connected to me and was willing to expend a huge amount of his little remaining energy to express this. Even though what we discussed had seemed mundane, it had indeed mattered that I—that the chaplain—was there.
In the end, his family decided to say their goodbyes and leave, after which he would be transitioned to comfort care. If they had discussed this with me, I would have affirmed their decision. I would have said that the patient could feel their love from any distance, and I would have meant it. I would have said whatever decision they made was the right decision, and I would have meant it. But inside myself, I felt a bit shocked, and sorry that he would likely die alone, even if he didn’t know it. On his final day, I sat with him three different times, for as long as I could.
One day in mid-September, Tom and I walked around the block to talk to one of our neighbors about a couple of practices of his that had been causing us some dismay. This is the fellow who for years stepped out his back door several times a day, took a hit off his bong—filling my place with secondhand smoke, if my windows were open—then coughed his head off. The grand finale was when he coughed up a giant loogie and spat it onto the ground. I was grumbling about this to Tom and was surprised when he said he really hated the spitting, too. I thought he was going to say, “What guy who smokes weed and spits?”
I said I was thinking of going to talk to him about it and asked Tom if he would come with me. I was surprised again when he said, “Sure.” We picked a day, but when that day rolled around, it was too hot. We picked another day, but it proved to be too smoky. Then our neighbor seemed to be out of town, and so forth.
Finally, there came a day when, alas, our neighbor was certainly home and it wasn’t too hot or too smoky to spend 15 minutes outside. I had been rehearsing a speech, and felt quite nervous as I meditated beforehand. It occurred to me that I more than usually did not know what was about to happen, which was slightly thrilling. Tom and I strolled around the block, arriving disappointingly soon, and I rang the bell that I thought must be this fellow’s. Someone buzzed us in instantly, and we went into the lobby. A woman came out of a nearby door and I said, “Maybe we rang the wrong bell.”
She said, “Who are you looking for?”
I said, “The smoking guy.” She looked puzzled.
I said, “The guy who smokes weed out back.”
She said, “Oh! He lives here, but he’s not here right now.”
She said she was his partner, so I said maybe we could tell her what was on our minds and she could pass it on. I delivered my spiel, during which she smiled and nodded understandingly, and then she said, “I’ll try to pass that on with the grace with which you delivered it.” How nice! I thanked her for her kindness, and off we went, lighter in heart and step.
This was back in September, and I can report that the nice woman’s partner has not smoked outside their back door even once since then; sometimes I hear him coughing from far away. After a couple of weeks, I sent them a heartfelt thank-you note.
At my wits’ end one lousy day with kittens—some days the misbehavior seemed relentless—I emailed a few people to say how much I hate living with these cats. Hammett’s cat sitter immediately replied to say that maybe I would have to return the cats and adopt an old cat. A relative who has cats said she was sorry this was happening and could I send them back? This had occurred to me many times, but having it seconded by others felt heartbreaking. I should know by now how futile it is to imagine a future scenario, imagine how I will feel about it, and then try to make a decision based on that. This never seems to have much to do with reality. That is, the thought of handing the cats over and bidding them goodbye is horrendously sad, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.
I went and took a look at adoptable cats at the SPCA just to see if a one-year-old cat perfect for me happened to be right there, and saw two sad things. One was a cat whose owner was looking for a new home for him when I was shopping for Duckworth and Marvin. That cat was still listed there. He bites. Also when I was looking for D&M, I saw the cutest kitten and almost indicated my interest in him. In fact, I think I had visited the website to go ahead and do that only to find that his picture was no longer there. Someone else had adopted him. Well, now they wished to unadopt him. There was a photo of him, two months older, in the Rehoming section. That’s where photos of Duckworth and Marvin would be if I decided to give them up. (Which I have since definitely decided not to do.)
I had more discussion with Hammett’s cat sitter and she said a very wise thing:
I understand. We all get frustrated and then feel bad afterward. My partner and I ask ourselves: What is it that they are trying to teach us? What can we learn? Maybe what we need to learn is patience with our own frustration.
So, onward and upward with cats. When I went to put away their toys before bedtime that day, I saw that I had forgotten to put them out! That can’t have helped.
Monday, January 04, 2021
I had mostly been using Duckworth’s one white whisker to tell him and Marvin (formerly Howie) apart, though there are several other differences, including their general shapes and their profiles. Marvin’s nose doesn’t curve but goes pretty much straight down, giving him a rather exotic look. However, you have to be looking at him from the side to see this. Duckworth has a round little belly. Also, Duckworth’s fur is silky soft and Marvin’s is a little scrubbier, like Hammett’s was. I was thinking one day that if Duckworth were to lose that one white whisker, I could always go back to telling them apart by looking for the distinctive markings on top of Marvin’s head, as if someone had dipped three fingers in peanut butter, or gold leaf, and stroked his head. I took a look at him to confirm this—and saw that those markings were entirely gone, and then one day Duckworth lost that white whisker. He has never grown it back, and even now I still sometimes find it difficult to be sure which cat I'm talking to.
Sometime in August, the cats’ diarrhea finally cleared up, which was great because I was getting really tired of scraping diarrhea off everything in the bathroom.
My parents’ departed charming and beloved cat dribbled poop everywhere he went in his old age. I remember going to visit, which I hope to do again someday, and seeing all the chairs and couches covered with towels.
“Do these towels cover the poop?” I asked.
“No, they cover the upholstery.”
“What covers the poop?”
“What?!? How do you sit on poop?”
“Let me demonstrate,” said my father. He extracted a folded white cotton handkerchief from his pocket and said, “Pretend that’s poop.” He tossed the handkerchief onto the seat of the nearest chair and sat down on it.
Aha! So that’s how it’s done.
The cats have been pretty hard on a lot of my possessions. Shredded items include my bicycle seat, sheets, the brand-new shower curtain, the hardwood floor, the paint on the bathroom windowsill, the binding of at least one book, and various shoelaces. I’m trying to learn to love the feeling of grit affixed to the bottom of my feet, because I don’t have time to do anything about it.
However, so far they do not make any particular effort to get out the front door when it opens, which I was quite worried about, since there are two of them, and they also do not seem interested in shredding the upholstered chair. They use the horizontal and vertical scratching surfaces provided.
I see that they teach each other—I was going to say “for good or ill,” but I think it might be only for ill. Marvin has so far not taught Duckworth to cover up his poop, but he has taught him how to let his tongue dangle, flapping, out of his mouth, ready in case there is a suckling opportunity, whether of one’s brother or oneself. It’s kind of gross looking. Because Duckworth does not involve himself with covering up poop, he is perfectly pristine at all times. He smells like cotton candy. Picking him up is like hoisting two loaves’ worth of bread dough; he evidently lacks bones, and he radiates relaxation, often yawning while held. Marvin, whose manner is often worried and tense, does the right thing in regard to his own poop and sometimes in regard to Duckworth’s, as well, and consequently is sometimes filthy; he is undoubtedly the cat who tracked all the diarrhea throughout the place.
Hammett has not been forgotten. I show Duckworth and Marvin a photo of him periodically: “Now, if you want to see what an actual good cat looks like, here’s a photo of one.”
I am using the spray bottle to deter just a few things: hopping onto the kitchen counter or ironing board, and participation in my daily exercises. Regarding the latter, they can get excited and take an exploratory nip of a finger now and then, or try to seize fabric—i.e., my pants—that is moving in a rhythmic manner. For some things, I have adopted the view that their “bad” behavior is a request for affection, even though I’m sure it is usually not. The cat is probably not thinking, “I wish Mom would pick me up,” but rather, “Who even is that chick? I just want to shred these shoelaces.”
One evening as I lay in bed, I felt someone adjusting my coiffure. When I reached back to investigate, I stuck my finger right into the open mouth of a cat and felt its little snip-snap teeth encircling my finger.
Friday, December 25, 2020
Late in August, I went to the laundromat when there were a lot of wildfires and a lot of smoke, and had a mild conflict with a fellow in there who wanted the door left open to let the COVID out, whereas I wanted it closed to keep the smoke out. The laundromat has probably been the place of greatest tension in my life these past months.
One day I found Duckworth chewing the toaster wire and was mainly just surprised it had taken him so long to think of doing this. I concluded I would have to wad the wire up and conceal it underneath the toaster somehow, but when I started to devise a procedure, I discovered there are hooks on the underside of the toaster for precisely this purpose! I never knew they were there.
One of the most exasperating thing the cats were doing that month was to hop onto the counter next to kitchen sink, then onto the windowsill, and then into the dish drainer or into the sink itself. Exasperated, I finally tossed a handful of water into Duckworth’s face and then of course felt terrible. However, when I confessed to my friend Marian in Santa Fe, in our monthly phone conversation, she said she didn’t think that was so bad, and told me about a friend using a squirt bottle of water to bring an end to selected cat behaviors. My father said the same thing.
The SPCA does not advocate any negative response to behavior unless it’s “remote”—something that happens when the owner isn’t around, like a cat putting a paw down onto previously installed sticky tape. Nonetheless, I started employing with the cats the squirt bottle of distilled water I use for ironing and it worked like a charm, though I hated seeing their shocked little faces the first couple of times. One good thing about this is that it’s a method I’m choosing rather than a heated reaction; I’m not necessarily angry when I squirt the squirt bottle. If anything, sometimes I’m mournful, but I was also thrilled not to have one cat after the other leaping onto the counter.
With travel to New Mexico on hold, we had our graduation from the chaplaincy program at Upaya Institute and Zen Center over Zoom. Roshi talked about us expressing ourselves in the world in a way that is “generative” for us. I often think of the Zen idea of “one continuous mistake,” which is comforting to me; on this occasion, another teacher reminded us that along with our continuous mistakes, there is continuous retaking of our vows.
When my boss and I had a planned conversation about the possibility of my hours being reduced (as for other per diems), I told her that I knew she was doing her best for everyone and for the department as a whole, and that whatever she needed to do, I was on board. She smiled (over Zoom) and thanked me.
I decided that if I were to hear about a per diem chaplain position becoming available at the hospital where I did Clinical Pastoral Education, I would apply, and within 24 hours, I did hear that, so I applied, was invited for an interview, and now am working there, as well, which is wonderful. At the interview, the director and manager, both people I like very much indeed, asked me how my chaplaincy has changed since I graduated from CPE. I told them that I now have even less idea how it’s done, which made them smile.
It is somewhat stressful to trying to schedule shifts for two different jobs—what if I tell Job One that I can’t work on a certain day so that I can offer it to Job Two, but then Job Two doesn’t give me that day, either? The timing is quite beyond my control, so I just have to work with the information I have.
At Job Two, there are day shifts and night shifts. I initially vowed to myself that I would never, ever do a night shift, because managing sleep is already a challenge. But a night shift pays twice as much as a day shift because it’s twice as many hours (some of which are spent sleeping), so now I request night shifts only, and just have to spend the following day recuperating. It’s worth it, both financially and because I get to do a lot of interesting things at Job Two at night. It is thrilling, in fact.
Sorry to leave this blog stuck for so long on an unpleasant yet ultimately gratifying occasion at Rainbow. Various things happened after that. One day at work, I spoke with two patients who had received terrible news, including one who had been removed from the transplant list—a death sentence—because other medical complications had arisen, making him ineligible. He went from waiting for a kidney to going home with hospice.
As I was on my way to another room, I heard someone yelling loudly, “There she is!” At first I just walked on, but then conscience impelled me to double back and see what the patient wanted. It turned out to be one of my very favorite patients of all time, last seen about 18 months ago. How lucky that I had to go to this other unit and that the room of my favorite patient happened to be one of the four, out of about 60 on a floor, that I would pass en route to my destination. The patient and I reminisced about our prior time together. I had given him a stone and he said he still had it on his night stand. I decided to go back to carrying around a polished stone, so I can give it away.
While I was with another patient, a care team member came in carrying a box made out of thick metal.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“Something radioactive.” After this person gave the patient a shot, preparation for a scan in a few hours, she said to me, “He’s radioactive, so you might want to move over there.” She pointed toward a spot at the farthest possible remove from the patient. I took her advice.
I also had quite a long talk with a young patient who said, toward the end of the hour, “You’re a recovering alcoholic, right?”
I said, “Well—yes, as a matter of fact, I am, but how did you know that?”
He said, “Oh, I thought all chaplains were recovering alcoholics.”
One horrible afternoon, I was paged because a patient in the ICU was being transitioned to comfort care. This happens all the time and generally means that a respiratory therapist performs “terminal extubation” of the patient, who is unconscious. After extubation, the patient often dies immediately, or sometimes in the following hours, or sometimes days or even weeks later.
On this day, the RN said, “The patient is conscious and communicating.”
That was shocking. I said, “Oh, no!” and the RN said, “Yes, I know.”
I’m not even sure what “transitioning to comfort care” means for someone who is perfectly awake. As I write this, I guess it just means only providing care that is geared toward comfort, and no care that is meant to be curative. But then, why call the chaplain? That implies something more imminent.
I entered the room to find the patient, indeed awake, with two weeping relatives at his bedside, and I wept, too. This was happening because insurance wouldn’t pay for the care he needed, and that in turn was because he was an undocumented immigrant.