Saturday, January 28, 2017

Death and Really Living

This is my cat.
Her name is Sasha. She turned 13 in October.

Sasha is dying.

Blah. That sucks to write. But, it's true. She has polycystic kidneys, and I've known for the past 7 years that eventually she would succumb to renal failure or die from complications relating to that.

The story of how I came to be in possession of Sasha is an interesting one. I was 17, a senior in high school. I had a group project for our AP English class to work on, so four of us met at a girl named Kathleen's house on a Sunday. I was very stressed because senior year of high school was rough, to put it lightly, and I guess it all came down to this: I was having a hard time feeling loved. I vaguely remember having a fight with my parents that morning or the night before, probably about missing church to work on a school project. I was stressed over our project, and at the fact that I felt lazy because I couldn't put as much effort into it as the others, because I had to work from 12-5 at the mall. It was a busy day at Build-a-Bear (yes, I worked at Build-a-Bear- this deserves multiple posts later), and I snapped at a co-worker who was having no patience with me. I ended up bawling in the backroom and questioning my whole existence in life. After work, I went back to Kathleen's house, where her mom gave me a tea pot to try to make me feel better (she had learned that morning that I didn't drink coffee, and felt we had bonded over that). As I sat at my computer crying, she sat down next to me and said, "Do you want a cat?" She proceeded to tell me that her other daughter had found two stray cats outside and had been nursing them to health. I wiped my tears and said, "Yes. Yes I do." My boyfriend attempted to tell me that this was not a good idea, since I was having trouble at home anyway, bringing home a surprise animal, especially when my parents had two dogs, probably wasn't a good idea. But, I DO WHAT I WANT! So, Sasha became mine.

She was so small on that day in October that she fit inside the palm of my hand and rode halfway home inside my purse. She couldn't have been more than 6 weeks old. And judging by the size of her brother, she was the runt.

Fast forward to 2017. Three weeks ago, our vet advised that we place Sasha on a special renal diet, potassium supplements, blood pressure medication, a phosphate binder, with the possibility of an ACE inhibitor and a one-day hospital stay to get her system flushed out.

On Wednesday, I brought Sasha back to the vet for follow-up blood work, and admitted to my doctor what Brandon had forced me to realize: we are paying to keep her alive. Even if all of these medications helped, it would extend her life for what, weeks? Months, if we're lucky? She doesn't like the diet food very much and has already stopped eating her normal food, too. She doesn't eat period if I administer the phosphate or blood pressure meds. I told our vet I wouldn't pay to put her in the hospital because I really don't have funds for that. What our vet said next was so simple and yet so poignant.

Dr. G said, "You just want her to be a cat."

Yes. I want her to be a cat. Not a patient. Just a cat.

So, I've been giving her small bits of turkey and ham, because deli meat is her favorite thing in the world. I've been allowing her outside, where she hasn't been since we moved to our house in 2013. I've stopped giving her dry or renal diet cat food and bought Fancy Feast gravy lovers. And, I'm not giving her any medication.

This is how I want to go.

If I get diagnosed with a terminal disease, I don't want to be a patient, I just want to be me. If I'm going to pass on, I want my last days to be spent anywhere else but in a hospital bed. I don't want to be pumped full of medication that will make me sick and inhibit my appetite. I want to be able to enjoy my favorite foods without worrying about how they're going to affect me. I want to be able to spend my final days with the people that I love, making memories, enjoying my life. People say they want to live like they were dying. I want to really live, even while I'm dying.

I want to live my last days like Craig Sager, celebrated sportscaster and journalist, who passed away in December of 2016. He was diagnosed with Leukemia twice, and passed away less than 3 years from his first diagnosis in 2014. He missed the entire 2014 playoffs for chemo and radiation, and when it was determined that he was no longer in remission, but had 3-6 months left to live, he received one last bone marrow transplant. After that, he was done. Not physically, but emotionally, spiritually, he had had it. Once, he sneaked out of his hospital in Houston to attend a Rockets basketball game. I can remember seeing him in the stands being interviewed, asking him what he was doing there. He came to countless Astros games in between his treatments, often against doctor's wishes. When the medical staff surrounding him was saying he needed to be wearing a mask and staying in bed, he said he just couldn't live like that, and went to the nearest sports arena, where he felt the most enjoyment away from home. How often do I quit because it's too hard? How often do I stop fighting and resign myself to whatever sadness and pain must be coming my way? Craig challenges me to keep doing what I love no matter what the circumstances, because that's what life is for.

I want to live my last days like Alyssa Ferguson, world-changer from my church, who passed away from brain cancer on Thursday. She, along with her mom and sister, have a disorder that makes them more susceptible to cancers, and her mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Alyssa was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, when she was 12 years old. In the three years of her fight, she stayed cheerful and optimistic. She wore a smile on her face and stylish hats on her head. She used her life for others, spending her "wish" not on herself for a trip to Disney World, as I would undoubtedly do, but to build a well for a small village in Africa that had never before had clean drinking water. Christian recording artist Matthew West wrote a song for her, entitled "World Changers". Listen to it here. A month ago, Alyssa was given hours or days to live, and was placed on hospice care. The Ferguson family even began plans for a memorial service for Alyssa to be held at our church on January 8th. Alyssa beat the odds and stayed on hospice care for an entire month. She was able to be moved to hospice home care and enjoy her 15th birthday surrounded by friends and family, eating a stack of 15 pancakes topped with candles, and a snowball fight outside. She loved life, and she kept living, even when she was given a death sentence, and she was handed that sentence more times than I can count. How often do I just give up because the way seems hopeless, only to feel embarrassed at how childish and faithless I acted? Alyssa challenges me to really live.

So, some people may think I am being cruel to my cat for not giving her the medical attention she needs. I don't. I don't want her to be a patient. Craig didn't want to be a patient anymore, neither did Alyssa, and neither do I. I want to live. Not physically survive, but thrive. Enjoy life. Really live, until death comes. And it will come for us all. So, what's your choice? Try to fight to live forever, but in a state of misery? Or live with passion and fire for what this life has given you?

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