Paws and Effect
It's 2020 and the hits just keep coming! Pandemic, lockdown, and finally, the deaths of two of the most important beings in my life.

Another collar to add to my altar. Photo by JaneA Kelley

Y’all, it’s been a hard year, but the last few months have been especially hard for me.

First, there’s the one-two punch of a global pandemic and an impulsive and unstable fascist president’s lies, stochastic terrorism, and corruption, not to mention his administration’s incompetent approach to the COVID-19 crisis. That’s bad enough. (If you think my characterization of Trump as a fascist is a problem, I’d say that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s damn well a duck. I despise the man and have done so ever since I first heard about him. And if you’re upset about me despising a fascist, you’re the one with the problem, not me.)

Then on August 6, Thomas died at the age of 19.

Then, less than a month later, on September 3, my mother died at the age of 81.

And now I’m going to be a bad blogger and not even attempt to do search engine optimization on this post. I just don’t care anymore. People will find this site or they won’t, people will find this post or they won’t, people will read this post or they won’t. I’m just putting this out there and howling into the wind, punch-drunk with all that 2020 has brought me and those I love.

Let me start with Thomas’s story. That’s his collar you see up there in my altar cabinet, along with the collars of my other beloved feline companions long gone.

You may recall that in a post I wrote back in July, I talked a little about Thomas’s issues with upper respiratory congestion and coughing. Well, in early August, the coughing and congestion returned again. I got another appointment at my veterinarian, and based on X-rays and symptoms, they suspected another upper respiratory infection and put him on antibiotics. But the medications didn’t help him get better, and finally, on August 4, things got really bad. Thomas was straining to breathe. His poor little chest was just heaving, and I was afraid he was going to get exhausted and give up trying, so I rushed him to my local BluePearl emergency and specialty vet hospital. Because of the pandemic, I couldn’t come in and wait with him; they just met me at the door and put him in an oxygen cage while they were waiting for a vet to examine him. I sat outside in my car for almost an hour, waiting for word from the vet about what was going on and wondering if Thomas was okay.

Bella was sad without her Thomas.

Bella was so sad without her Thomas. Photo by JaneA Kelley

When the vet did call me, she said that she thought there was more going on than an upper respiratory infection, especially because he had a history of this stuff going back six months, and she recommended a CT scan of his skull to see if he had a tumor in his nasal cavity. But because the CT scan would require sedation, they wanted to do a cardiac ultrasound because he’d developed a heart murmur and they wanted to make sure it was safe to anesthetize him. The estimate for all that was $7,500.

Fortunately for me, Thomas was covered by Trupanion pet insurance (Bella and Tara are Trupanion kitties, too), and BluePearl has a service called Trupanion Express, which allows them to submit pre-approvals for care and get a decision within just a few minutes about how much Trupanion would cover. I knew that since Thomas had no pre-existing history of nasal problems, he would be covered; it was just a matter of how much they would pay out. I’d recently gotten a little unexpected windfall so I had the money to cover what Trupanion wouldn’t. I told them to go ahead and paid a deposit of $800–his deductible was $250, Trupanion doesn’t cover the exam fee so that was another $150 or so, and then I needed to pay 10% co-insurance (that is, Trupanion pays 90% and I pay 10% of all covered costs). I also told them that given Thomas’s age and general health–he also had kidney disease and hyperthyroidism–my main interest was in making him comfortable rather than pursuing aggressive treatment.

The next day they did the CT scan. His vet called me and said, “Well, Thomas’s results are interesting.”

“Interesting” is never a good word when spoken by medical professionals.

The scan didn’t show a tumor in Thomas’s nasal cavity, but it had revealed a large tumor in his brain, close to his skull. She told me that while it probably wasn’t causing him pain right now, once the tumor reached his skull and started eating at the bone, it would be very painful indeed.

Although I’d sensed that Thomas might be near the end of his life, it really hit me in that moment.

“The radiologist will read the CT scan as soon as she can,” the vet said, “but this tumor was pretty obvious.”

The next day, the vet called me again. She said the radiologist had read the scan and noticed that he had numerous other cancerous spots in his brain, which were most likely metastatic lesions from a tumor somewhere else in his body.

I knew then that there was only one thing I could humanely do. But I dithered on the phone with the vet about maybe bringing him home to say goodbye to Bella and Tara.

“Why don’t you come in and visit with him,” she said. “That may help you make a decision.”

So, I did. And I knew when they put me in the room where they had the table of urns and handouts about grief resources what the inevitable outcome was going to be. Still, I hoped that maybe he’d be okay to take home.

A tech brought Thomas in, all wrapped up in a warm fleece blanket, and put him in my arms. As I held him, I cried until my mask was wet with tears and snot.

I held Thomas in my arms and cried.

I held Thomas in my arms and cried. I knew it was the end.

About 30 seconds after I started petting him, he squirmed his way out from the blanket and started exploring the room. But his gait was strange–ataxic, as the medical professionals call it, which means a sort of wide-legged, staggering walk. He still sniffed around all the chair legs and corners of the room. I noticed that Thomas’s pupils were fully dilated, but he wasn’t acting blind. Then he hopped into a garbage can half full of disposable masks and tissues.

“Oh, Thomas,” I said, my voice filled with despair, “I know you feel like garbage, and I’m so sorry.”

The vet came in and sat in a chair near me.

“I can’t let him stay like this,” I told her. I mentioned that I noticed his gait and his pupils.

“Yeah, that might be because of …” she tapped the side of her head.

“I’m sure it is,” I said. “And as much as I’d like to take him home to say goodbye to Bella and Tara, I’m afraid that he may decompensate in the middle of the night and suffer even more. I can’t let that happen.” Tears started rolling down my face, soaking the top of my mask.

“It’s time,” I said. “It’s time to let him go.”

The vet’s looked at me, her eyes full of compassion. “I think you’re doing the right thing,” she said.

I held Thomas in my lap as she administered the sedative and then the euthanasia drug.

In the cruelest irony of all, after I’d left the euthanasia and started walking to the car, my phone rang. It was my regular vet calling to check up on how Thomas was doing, since they knew he’d been admitted to BluePearl.

“Not very well, actually,” I said. “In fact, I just had him euthanized.” I explained what the CT scan had revealed, what I observed when I got to see him in the room, and that I knew I couldn’t let him suffer anymore.

And as soon as I got off the phone with my vet, a freaking Amazon delivery driver called me and asked how he could get into the building to drop off the printer I’d ordered. I told him I couldn’t let him in because I was at the emergency vet with my cat. He said he’d try to deliver it again the next day.

I went home, still in a state of shock. Bella and Tara greeted me at the door.

“Thomas is gone,” I told them. Tears filled my eyes again. “He is dead. He was very sick and he wasn’t going to get better.”

I picked up his dish and went to dump the pot of water I kept on the stove for him so he could stay hydrated. As I poured the water out and it ran down the drain, I just wailed. I had a good old “ugly cry” for the next hour, while Bella and Tara took turns climbing into my lap and brushing my face with theirs.

I’m so grateful I had the pet insurance because I was able to get the tests that showed it was undeniably the right thing to do to let him go. This was the first-ever euthanasia I’d experienced where I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would be nothing that would make him better, he’d only get worse and suffer more if I waited. But this was the cat who saved my life back in 2004 when I adopted him.

A brown tabby cat and a black cat snuggled together, cheek to cheek

2009: Thomas loved his Dahlia from the moment they met.

But 2020 wasn’t done with me yet.

While all this was going on with Thomas, I was also trying to manage my mother’s end-of-life care from 3,000 miles away. COVID-19 had made it impossible for me to travel to Maine that summer to visit with my mother because Maine demanded a 2-week quarantine for visitors coming from out of state and I couldn’t afford to take at least two unpaid weeks off AND buy a plane ticket AND rent a hotel room or Airbnb (all of which were closed for at least half the summer anyway).

My mother had been ill for a long time. She had severe heart valve disease and persistent atrial fibrillation, along with a severe blockage of one of her carotid arteries–the arteries that provide blood to the brain–so I knew her time on this earth wasn’t long. But in May, things got a lot worse: she was admitted to the emergency room at her local hospital in a delusional fugue, with her heart rate out of control. Mom had never been delusional before, so I knew then that this was the beginning of the end. Somehow she’d managed to recover enough after two weeks that the discharge planners couldn’t find a reason to keep her in the hospital and a cognitive assessment revealed that she was okay enough to be safe to go home, as she was no longer delusional.

But the problem was community care. She was entitled to about 20 hours a week of home care and a weekly home visit from a nurse. Hospice was also involved by this time, and they were working with her. But there were simply not enough people working as care aides to get her the hours of care she needed. In fact, the agency responsible for her care said there were at least 2,000 people in Maine who needed in-home care but weren’t getting it because of the staffing problems. Home care aides are very poorly paid for their work, and anyone who can move to a private agency where the pay is better, does just that. Because my mother was poor and on Medicare and Medicaid, she didn’t have access to private care.

Mom and me when I was a baby

This is a picture of my mother holding me, when I was about six months old. I love this picture because the expression on her face speaks volumes about the love she had for me.

A month later, she was in the hospital again, with the same symptoms. I called her in the ER and she was all “fucking this” and “fucking that” and “fucking shitheads”–and my mother never, never swore, at least not in public! I knew she was definitely having cognition problems. And then she started in with these dysphoric delusions about her landlord (who lived in the same building but next door, and who was also her friend) and her other friends, which continued for at least a week while she was hospitalized once again.

And once again she was out in two weeks, this time to a nursing home for “rehab.” And after two weeks, her insurance wouldn’t cover her nursing home care, either, because she “no longer needed it” and “was safe to go back home.” She hated every minute she was there and complained to me about the food and her roommates and the noise, but even if the therapists and her insurance thought she was safe at home, I knew she’d just be back in the same situation within a week, even though I did my best to line up private home care for all the hours I could afford–about 12 hours a week, and I could afford it at that rate for about a month at the most.

Sure enough, Mom was back in the hospital in a week with the same symptoms as before. This time the discharge planners recommended I pursue guardianship because it was clear she wasn’t capable of making good decisions for herself, so I started that process. Again, from the other side of the country. But one thing that made this process a lot easier was that everyone in Maine really did their best to help me. The clerks at the Waldo County Probate Court helped me get the right papers together to file for guardianship, and I was granted an emergency guardianship that would last 60 days, during which time a hearing for permanent guardianship would be scheduled.

The guardianship made it easier for me to ensure that good medical decisions were being made on her behalf because I was the one making them. I called her at least every other day while she was in the hospital and after she was discharged to a nursing home. Once again she didn’t like the nursing home–she’d said for years that she didn’t want to go to a nursing home, but that was the only safe option–and she couldn’t stand being in 14-day quarantine because of COVID-19. When she was finally cleared, she was transferred to an assisted living unit, where she again complained about her roommate situation. I explained that the cost of getting her a private room was more than my monthly salary, so as much as I wanted to get her a private room, I simply could not. She understood, and I believe that despite never knowing whether I was going to get Nice Janice or Mean Janice when I got on the phone with her, that she knew I loved her and I was doing the very best I could to act in her interests, advocate for her, and get her needs met.

My mother and I had a difficult relationship for a long time. I felt like she didn’t understand or care about my emotional needs when I was a child, and when I was an adolescent I felt like she was trying to absorb me into her and I fought like hell to keep my selfhood apart from her. She was a fiercely intelligent but troubled woman, suffering from PTSD from an eight-year marriage in which my father physically and verbally abused her and chronic pain from psoriatic arthritis. She managed her PTSD and pain by drinking. A lot. And being as unreasonable and irrational as any alcoholic is wont to be.

Even through much of my adulthood, I felt like I had to fight against being absorbed into her. I refused to share my inner thoughts and feelings with her because I was afraid (from experience, during the years when she was drinking) that she would use them against me, and it was hard for me to see her as a different woman than she was back then. She’d quit drinking in 1988, after a two-week bender following the election of George Bush to the White House, but she still had a lot of alcoholic-type behavior.

There had been a lot of hurt given and received on both sides of the mother-daughter dynamic over the years, but some time, I guess it was in 2017, I just had this moment of what I called radical compassion: I realized that no matter what my mother had done to me, that was in the past, and she was now a sick old woman, abandoned by her two sons and distant from her daughter. I couldn’t bear the idea of her suffering the feeling that she’d been abandoned by all her children just when she needed them most. So I picked up the phone and made a tentative call to her one Sunday afternoon. She seemed genuinely glad to hear from me and asked me to stay in touch.

That was the beginning of weekly phone conversations and the beginning of healing our relationship. And in 2018, I went to Maine for the first time since I’d moved to Seattle five years earlier. I was hesitant: I wasn’t sure how Mom was going to treat me and I was worried that I would encounter my crazy younger brother’s crazy ex-wife at the local co-op store and have to deal with all that shit, which is a whole other part of my experience in Maine that I totally wasn’t ready to deal with!

2018: Mom and me at the top of Cadillac Mountain

2018: Mom and me at the top of Cadillac Mountain. Photo taken by a kind stranger–thank you, stranger, for memorializing this, the last trip Mom ever got to take to Cadillac. Mom was 79 years old, six inches shorter and 80 pounds lighter than she’d been in her younger years.

But the trip turned out to be really lovely. I took Mom for a ride up to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. I took her out to eat at Angler’s Restaurant in Searsport, where I treated myself to baked stuffed lobster and her to her favorite dish, fried oysters and sweet potato fries. We spent a lot of time together talking about all kinds of things. It was such a healing experience in so many ways.

I was listening to this song on Spotify a lot as I was preparing for my trip to Maine and on the flights to and from, and it became the theme song for the joy and healing I experienced.

When I returned to Maine in 2019, Mom was too sick to make the hour-long trip to Acadia, so I’m glad we went in 2018.

On September 3, less than a month after Thomas died, Mom died.

She was an amazing woman in many ways, a participant in history and politics, an activist, the owner of a metaphysical shop which was a beautiful, safe space for people to learn about different spiritual traditions and purchase beautiful jewelry and incense, and lots of other cool things. She ran that shop, Azure Dragonfly, for almost 30 years, and it was her career. She didn’t make much money–her business sense wasn’t necessarily the greatest–but she enjoyed running the shop and serving as a mentor and guide to spiritual seekers, and that’s really what matters.

Here’s a link to her obituary, in case you want to read her story. I paid $350 to put a 1,200-word obituary in the local paper because her life had meaning. It was interesting and cool, and I’m sick of women’s history being erased by the general idea that women’s lives somehow aren’t as worth remembering as men’s.

And now it’s the end of October. I was going to write this post a lot earlier, but time got away from me. And, like I said, I’m so punch-drunk from what this bizarre year has thrown at me that I sometimes don’t know whether I’m coming or going. But I know my plan is to honor bth Thomas’s and Mom’s memories.

Janice Kelley

This photo is from when my mother was in her early 60s, while she was still running her shop.

Mom was proud of my accomplishments and my writing, and I would have died by suicide if I hadn’t met Thomas. So I’m honoring both of them by writing the memoir of my years with Thomas. I’m also honoring myself by telling my truth–something I’ve never had the chance to share because of my own fear of my anger and understanding of the futility of arguing with crazy. I don’t know when it’s going to be done, but I do know that the memoir project is going to take the vast majority of my writing energy. I doubt I’ll be posting much on this blog, but I’ll try to keep it alive as much as I can.

But there you go. If you’ve read this far, congratulations–3,400 words is a lot to read for a blog post! Now you know what’s going on in my life.

And while you’re here, I have a favor to ask: The 2020 election is going to be the most consequential in American history. We’re being asked to make a choice between a fascist and a corporate Democrat. (Oh, by the way, today’s Democrats would have been called Republicans in the 1970s–so much for that “radical leftist Democrat” horseshit the right-wing spin machine is cranking out.) The corporate Democrat sucks, but the fascist sucks more. At least if the corporate Democrat wins, we have a chance of pulling this nation back from the brink of dictatorship and an administration whose casual cruelty is just breathtaking. Please vote!

And hell yeah, I’ll talk all the politics I want and be as loudly liberal and queer and nonbinary and pagan as I want. Mom would be proud of me for living my truth and sharing it with the world.

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