January 22, 2017
The Tao of Miles and Theo
Recently I shared the news that Miles the Cat’s suffering had ended as he moved beyond these earthly confines. A few weeks earlier I had shared “How the Light Gets In,” an essay about grief and love. The piece focused specifically on my friendship with Jennifer Jackson, who has since also physically left us, but the intention of the essay was to reach beyond the personal. In a similar fashion, this brief taste of writing seeks to tie those two events together just a bit as I express my thanks and gratitude to my friend Dr. Nancy Henry (aka Theo, a nickname bestowed upon her at Sewanee Academy, the boarding school where we first met in 1975).
Although such was never my goal, in the past few years I have written several articles on end of life issues and grieving. While the themes of loss might have differed from piece to piece, the guiding light of love was the intended unifying energy of each. I have never claimed to be an expert on the subject of confronting death nor have I ever suggested that it is an easy process; I have simply been writing from my observations and experience.
While I do not equate the loss of a child, a spouse, a parent or any loved one with the parting of my friends belonging to other animal species, I have had enough experience with all of the above to at least have a reasonable sense of the similarities and distinctions. And that experience has taught me that the process of every loss is unique and immeasurable.
Watching the increasing agony of my friend Miles the Cat was extremely difficult. As I mention in Winter Sun: A Memoir of Love and Hospice, Miles has been essential to my surviving some very dark moments—moments that spiraled beyond the mental state of grief. Given our history, I shared his pain and suffering very intimately.
A trip to the vet was a natural step. I’m similar to my mother in that way—my first impulse as a caregiver is to use all of my powers, limited as they may be, to diagnose and treat sickness or ailments. Truly many of the “home remedies” and nature-based treatments are not the fantasies some might have you believe. But I’m also quick to recognize when to seek help. In fact, at this point in life I don’t mind admitting that being willing to ask for help can literally be a lifesaving character trait. So I took Miles to the vet and listened to various suggestions and options. I like this vet and trust her skills, but I also have eyes that have learned to look beyond the landscape of medical science and especially beyond that of the medical industry—whether with humans or cats. I went home and meditatively listened to my intuition, letting it mix with the words of the vet. And then I called Theo.
Theo is an esteemed doctor of veterinary medicine and professor at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, some six hours from my home in Woodstock, but I wasn’t calling for free advice or instruction as such. I was calling to describe the situation—including the vet’s suggestions and my own thoughts—to a friend who I knew would understand. She listened and then she shared, applying both wisdom and compassion with every word. As I’ve aged my intuition has sharpened, but sometimes my ability to read that intuition gets blurred. My thinking gets in the way. Because I trusted Theo, I was prepared to accept it if she felt that I was straying from the wisest path. After the chat I felt reassured that in this case my best thinking wasn’t leading me astray.
A couple of weeks passed, and Miles continued to decline. I knew he was no longer just having “issues.” He was suffering and looking for a dark, safe place in which to quietly wait for the moment of death to arrive. When Miles moved in with son Paul and me in 2006, I promised that I would take care of him (Paul, who was about 12 at the time, was in a support role). The deal was this: Miles’s job was to be the cat and my job was to be the responsible and loving human. The relationship remained solid for ten years, but now my binding pledge was weighing heavily on my tired shoulders. Miles was still doing his job, and he was still trusting me to do mine. That much I knew. But now I was struggling with the question of what to do—or, more accurately—when to do it.
In the contentment of middle age, my default in life is to let love take the lead. So I called Theo. She had touched base a couple of times since the initial call, so she wasn’t surprised to hear from me. Again I spoke and she listened; then she shared wisdom and compassion. The next day I made an appointment with the vet.
My wife Virginia and stepdaughter Erin, both of whom had grown quite fond of Miles since he joined them (with me) in 2013, accompanied me as I took our friend to the clinic. The young vet did not try to steer us toward further diagnostics or any other procedure this time. To her credit, she demonstrated that she is on her way to becoming a veterinary physician in the Dr. Henry mold. I held Miles in my lap as he eased quietly out of his withered body. Calm tears fell all around.
When we returned home I went down the basement stairs toward my office. The entire basement, including my office, had been home to Miles. Now he was gone. For a brief moment I broke into an uncontrolled sob. Then I wiped my eyes and began gathering his things and cleaning up the physical signs of his final days. This is a drill with which I am familiar.
Just as I have written in the past, I held the love close as I mourned. And when I say “the love,” I am referring to something immeasurable and ultimately undefinable. In Winter Sun, I write of telling my wife Janice, as she was dying, to “hold the love close; let it take you where you are going,” and assuring her that I would do the same. The love of which I spoke was my love for her and her love for me—our love—but that is only a particular starting point for the greater sustaining love. What I was saying, and what I am saying, is that my experience is that love is all we have to hold onto once the intellect fails us—and in the end, the intellect most assuredly fails us.
On this day as I pluck at the keyboard, a copper urn sits on a bookshelf in my office. The contents inside are waiting for Paul to join us for the mixing of ashes with earth. There is still sadness in my heart, but I am holding the love close. In the essay “How the Light Gets In,” I wrote of how my friend Jennifer was a conduit of light in my darkness, and that her light was love. I say “a” because there were many others. I simply focused on Jennifer as a beautiful and particularly profound example.
For this latest moment of sadness and grief, my friend Theo was a profound conduit. As with Jennifer I am certain that Theo is a constant conduit as she moves through the world. My certainty is not an intellectual conclusion; it is simply an awareness I have gained by paying close attention to my friends.
Theo and me, 2015
My father, an Episcopal priest and my greatest teacher, once wrote, “The Voice I faintly heard as a child still speaks through thick and thin. When I heed, He steadies my wavering feet and I can hear in the background the sounds of the company of heaven.” My own journey has led me to a different sense of theology, though always with my dad’s teachings as a foundation. When I find myself in the profound pain that accompanies life, the refrain “hold the love close; let it take you where you are going” speaks to me in the faintly audible background of sacred sounds. When I heed, I am guided through the worldly sadness.