Life changes. My dear sweet Tinkerbelle is retiring from therapy work. She has been a Pet Partner therapy cat for 4 years, but now as she approaches 15, it is time for her to rest.
Don’t get me wrong, Tink is still living a full and healthy life, but she has a heart murmur that puts her at risk of heart attack and stroke, so we’re going to keep her as stress-free as possible. Tinkerbelle’s new agenda includes naps, purrs, eating, and love. Did I mention naps?
Tinkerbelle and I will regret not visiting our wonderful hospice friends, and in time, I hope to discover another cat with the ability to pass the Pet Partners rigorous test. For now, I would like to look back on some of Tink’s stories selflessly helping others.
I will always remember Tinkerbelle’s first hospice assignment. I was nervous, but Tink knew exactly what to do. Tinkerbelle taught me to treat the dying no differently than anyone else: with love, respect, and a positive attitude.
Tinkerbelle didn’t know Susan was dying. Or if she did, it made no difference to the small black cat. At 13, Tink has a few health problems of her own, though luckily none so far have brought her to the state Susan was in. Tink and I visited the elderly lady each week for 2 months until she finally succumbed to her cancer. Even in those last days, she loved to see the cat. Tink did nothing more than lay in her little bed beside Susan, but the warmth of her fur brought visible peace up until the last.
Everyone has a cat story. Though Tinkerbelle and I are a team, all I have to do to get things rolling is place Tinkerbelle on bed or lap and ask, “Did you have a cat?” No matter how sick, how far gone with disease or dementia, the face softens, the eyes light, and for a few moments, the patient is back with her own furry friend. Whether a barn cat or a pedigreed Siamese, that first cat of childhood will be remembered forever.
Mike had been a combat pilot in Vietnam. The proud man in the flimsy hospital gown was now diminished to a shadow of his former self, but his pride in serving his country had never lessened. Neither had his love for cats. Some men are dog people, but Mike wasn’t shy about his preference for felines. Tinkerbelle lay beside him on his bed and he petted her as he talked about his life. At the end, though he was unresponsive, I placed his hand on Tink’s back. As I spoke softly, telling little Tinkerbelle stories, his fingers smoothed her fur.
Lana cries when we leave. I hold her hand, have her pet Tinkerbelle one last time, and promise to return, but we both know that next visit may never come. She has gotten better about it lately, maybe trusting our promise to come back soon or maybe coming to terms with her death. Tinkerbelle, always happy to see the bedridden lady, curls beside her. She would probably stay like that for hours. Sometimes I wish she could.
Teresa M. was in total denial. Though she was relegated to a hospital bed, she would not accept what everyone was telling her: that she was dying. Our visits were always the same: at first she would be upbeat, talking about her plans and dreams. Then she would become angry at what all those ‘damned’ doctors told her. And finally the tears. Tinkerbelle would curl up in her arms, her gentle purr evening out some of the chaos in Teresa’s fearful mind. Teresa would nod off then, holding Tink tight.
It saddens me to see what agony some people go through at the end of life. When Mrs. P. told me she was completely confined to her bed, I offered a sympathetic, ‘I’m so sorry.’ I wasn’t prepared for her response, however. Wide-eyed, she replied ‘Why?’ She went on to say, ‘I’m blessed. I’ve had a good, productive life. I have friends and family.’ Arthritic fingers stroked Tinkerbelle’s back. ‘And I have you and Tinkerbelle. I am truly blessed.’
Art had never petted a cat before. Bashful and smiling, the nonagenarian needed instructions… “You place your hand on her head, just so. Smooth down the back gently, so.” He did it, remarking how soft she was, how beautiful. Art had grown up in rural Germany, where cats were in barns and extremely feral. As he told me of his childhood, an ocean away, he continued to pet Tinkerbelle. He was a natural.
Sarah grew her own tomatoes; liver cancer wasn’t going to get her down! And when she could no longer get around, she got a care giver to hang them outside her window where they cascaded red and yellow fruit. Sarah loved all of nature and loved her visits with Tinkerbelle.
Kellie believes that when she dies, she will be with God and all her animals. She is not afraid.
One of Tinkerbelle’s hospice patients had a little dog. Though Tink had passed her Pet Partners test which included encounter with a dog, I was worried, but Tink rose above it. She ignored the dog, knowing she was queen.
Elaine was 100. She had just got her first tattoo. Though she accepted her death, she was determined to live fully until it came. She loved Tinkerbelle’s visits, because nothing says ‘life’ like a cat snuggling in your arms.
Tinkerbelle and I got the call out of the blue. A woman was actively dying and she wished to touch a cat one more time. I got Tink bathed, brushed, and ready in record time. The woman, Maddie, was uncommunicative. She was surrounded by her family, talking in low tones and some were crying. The blinds were drawn, waiting for the end. I set Tinkerbelle beside the frail woman and told her I’d brought her a cat. I guided her cold hand to Tinkerbelle’s warm fur, where it lay for the remainder of the visit. The woman never woke or moved, but her breathing seemed to get a bit lighter. The biggest difference was the family. They began to talk about cats gone by; stories became anecdotes and even a little laughter was heard. Someone opened the blinds. Outside the January sunshine shone like silver.
The hardest part of working with hospice patients is their inevitable decline and death. That’s when Tinkerbelle helps me with my own grief. I hold her in my arms and light a candle for the life that had touched our own.