When the body fails the person
What are we doing, what are we witnessing, when a dear one’s body fails?
Today we ended our cat Shadow’s life.
Since January he had been struggling against a rapidly increasing loss of mobility caused by major spinal disc degeneration and arthritis.
With the help of two first class, all-women vet services, we had found one medical or physical accommodation after another to keep him active. Able to get around with a floppy hind end, able to use his litter box, able to demand and enjoy treats and bellyrubs.
Every time we feared that he had reached end-stage conditions, some change of meds and surroundings would give us more time with him. He kept giving us cues that he was still very much alive.
This week, though, total loss of hind end use had confined him to the living room sofa, with food, water, ramp, litter box—everything arranged within a few feet so he could pull himself to it with his front legs.
Where is the person?
When the body fails, where is the person?
I am not helped much by traditional notions of an immortal soul. There may or may not be some reality gestured toward by that metaphor. But the whether-or-not is for me what the Buddha called “an unprofitable question.”
I am a poet and mystic, but I am also a student of biology and psychology, in particular the neurobiology of consciousness. Nothing in my experience answers this question, so I have to simply step back and observe what I do experience, without drawing conclusions.
For months after my mother died in 2011, I experienced a recurring cognitive dissonance. I will let Crippled Wolf, one of my totem animals, retell the story (excerpted from “Bereft,” on my old Walhydra’s Porch blog, 7/11/2021).
In the 2006 movie Eight Below, a team of husky and malamute sled dogs take care of each other and survive for six months in Antarctica after a severe storm forces their human companions to abandon them.
The part of the story which resonates most for Crippled Wolf comes when Dewey, one of the huskies, falls off a steep slope and is fatally injured. The other dogs stay to comfort their teammate until he dies, but then they move on—except for the youngest dog, Max. Max, seeming not to understand what has happened, stays beside Dewey’s body for a day or so longer before following the others.
Crippled Wolf sees himself in Max. Rationally he understands what death is, yet that deeper animal part of him continues not to understand.
How can a person simply stop being?
He keeps going back to that nursing home bed with the curtains drawn around it and sitting next to the body, just as he did repeatedly on the night his mother died. Looking at the still face, touching the hands. Unable to reconcile memory of her with physical reality.
Wanting to hold onto the person
When the body fails and the caregivers must decide, when the person can no longer use the body, or at least not without great suffering. What then?
This morning, watching Shadow sleep on the sofa, I said to my husband Jim, “I feel like we are getting ready to kill the person we know.”
I know this is the right caregiving decision, but my animal being does not want it.
Where is the person?
Human beings are trapped in the illusion of linear time: things begin, continue, change, and end.
But still, here is an alternative that I cannot claim to have experienced directly, yet which all of my experience seems to confirm:
Every moment of everything exists all at once, as if in an infinitely dimensioned sphere of Being. The path of our mortal lives is just a fragment of a line through that sphere along which we move.
And so it is,
“Shadow in his element,” by Mike Shell (4/19/2023).