Saying a very special goodbye

Estelle’s lipstick was apple-red and generous.  She did not limit its application to lips, but wore it in the general area of her mouth.  Together with pink rouge, color stood out brightly on her pale face.  She wore a threadbare dinner dress, years faded.  Estelle had dressed carefully for the visit and I showed respect.

I met Estelle in the winter of her life.  92 years old, she lived by herself in a proud Victorian house, not far from our office.   The broad wooden porch, paint pealing, recalled gathering on hot summer nights.  Leaves left from fall’s passing covered the sparse lawn.  Broken sun through ancient window glass cast ripples of light over empty furniture.

We had caught her illness too late to cure and her age prevented aggressive therapy.  She accepted this with tears and pride.  So many had already passed, she understood her time had come. Estelle had only one remaining concern.  She was worried about her cat.

Now, I never met that equally elderly cat, but I did see a picture.  Felix was a large, probably over fed, immaculate grey tabby.  Like its owner, Felix was a bit over dressed. In the image, he wore a bright, large, rhinestone collar.  I do not remember any lipstick.

Estelle wanted to end life in her home of many decades.  She wanted to be with her cat.  She was concerned who would let Felix out and in each day.  The descent down the stairs from her bedroom was getting harder.  Her neighborhood had long transitioned and she had no friends.  Her nearest relative, a nephew, did not live close.  She did not want to confine her feline companion to the house, just because she was no longer mobile.

When I was a child, my father’s answer to this problem was to cut a hole in the garage doors, with a small flap.  This gave our pets the independence they desired and released us from the task of cleaning litter boxes.  After thought, Estelle settled on this solution.  Her nephew agreed to create the cat door.

This gave joy and comfort to both Estelle and Felix.  The cat had the freedom to explore and take in the smells of spring.  I picture him rolling in fresh mulch or basking in warming sun.  Felix always returned to Estelle to sit on the sofa or at her feet during quiet meals.  Her thin hand would stroke his heated fur. Their love continued as Estelle’s life approached its end.

In her last weeks Estelle took to bed.  We arranged a full time aide and hospice, so she was able to stay in her home.  The cat remained loyal, spending most of his time on her bed.   However, not satisfied with our medical care, Felix decided further treatment was required.

Felix started to bring Estelle sanative gifts from the outside world.  Apparently seeking, as loved ones do, to build up her strength, he delivered choice morsels.  Felix began to hunt in the neighborhood for Estelle.

Generally, he brought Estelle birds.  The old cat would scour the yards and gardens, and then carry his gift through the cat door, up the stairs and into her sick room. He would place each prize on the bed at her feet.  Estelle would react in confusion, understanding the gift’s nature, but upset by the kill.  She would gently scold Felix even as she thanked him for his generosity.  The aide would become hysterical.

The frantic response induced from the aide and Estelle’s failure to eat these fine offerings did not dissuade Felix.  He continued the healing hunt.  When birds did not restore Estelle, he moved to mice.  Failing mice, he brought home a half eaten piece of chicken.  It was when Felix bought home the panicked, raging, running-around-the-whole-house squirrel that the nephew taped up the cat door.

Estelle died a short time after and the old tabby went to live in the nephew’s home.  That had been Estelle’s last wish.   However, the love given by that cat stays with me.  Her sole remaining friend, doing all he could to help, saying a very special goodbye.

James C. Salwitz is an oncologist.

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