Cathy was working at a house for women trying to kick addictions when I met her. Her sense of humor was brash and brittle-dry. She was a native New Jerseyan in a New England Patriots jacket. Cathy was someone who’d give you the proverbial shirt off her back—just don’t hold your breath waiting for that Patriots jacket.
At the time, Cathy was four years sober. I never knew drunk Cathy. I do know that drunk Cathy was the reason she only got to see her daughter Elizabeth on weekends.
Then Cathy got sick. Originally misdiagnosed with pneumonia, it was actually cancer. When Cathy got too sick to work, she wanted to go live with her parents in New Jersey, but her health insurance stopped at the Massachusetts border. She moved in with us instead. From here she could easily visit Elizabeth on weekends. “I don’t know how long I’ll be here,” Cathy said, “but if the time comes I can’t drive anymore—just shoot me.”
In the early ‘90’s my then-girlfriend introduced me to Paul and his AIDS, and brought me into the circle of care surrounding them. Over months we watched him melt from plump to skeletal.
We watched ginger freckles become bed sores and lesions. While he still could, we talked about his Names Quilt panel. “There must be sequins,” he says. “It must sparkle.” He was already casting a shadow over the doorstep of death when he asked us to promise we will make it. And I do. I promise, fervent in that moment, as fervent as my silent, guilty prayers for Death to come and take Paul quickly, take him tonight, bring this suffering to its end. There is no hope now but mercy.
Cathy’s first post-chemo numbers look promising. “Keep coming back,” they say, perversely. ‘Keep coming back’ is what they say at the end of AA meetings—come back for support, for strength, for serenity. Today they say keep coming back for another dose of poison. And another. And another.
Tired becomes exhausted, becomes whatever comes after that. Cathy cannot climb stairs. During her next chemotherapy, we work like shoemaker’s elves to transform the house to meet her needs. The spare room is dismantled and reassembled in the living room. “I don’t know how long I can do this,” Cathy says when she gets home, “but if I ever can’t walk anymore, just shoot me.”
We don’t know that Cancer has already secreted itself deep inside tissues, is eating through bones. Unknowing, we all watch Jeopardy with the two tiny kittens we’d gotten for the kids, but maybe really for Cathy, with whom they fall asleep, purring into her embattled body.
Little Kitty arrived in our ramshackle student slum house during senior year, courtesy of the impulsive housemate. She made herself scarce for keg parties, during one of which someone drew her portrait in spray paint on the dining room wall. We’ll be charged for that damage.
In the chaos following graduation, everyone leaves until it’s just Little Kitty and me left. None of them had claimed her. I can neither take her with me nor abandon her to this neighborhood. I bring her to Chandler Street where the receptionist reminds me, “This is a kill shelter. If she’s not adopted, she’ll be euthanized. Do you understand?”
She waits for my answer.
I don’t understand, but I sign anyway. I walk back to Allston praying to Little Kitty for forgiveness. Silent ‘I’m sorry’s’ fall with tears, unnoticed in Boston’s anonymous streetscape.
At the spinal specialist, they bring a wheelchair for Cathy. We learn what Cancer is doing to her spine. She can still stand on her own, but not walk without pain. She takes the three steps into our house then rolls into the living-bed-room.
One morning Cathy falls out of bed. She’s home alone with the kittens and Cancer. Paramedics take her to the doctor who refers her to the residential facility. Cathy says, “I don’t know how long I can stand it there, but if Nurse Ratched has to help me pee, just shoot me.”
We move Cathy into the place we call Rehab Center, and not Hospice. Elizabeth comes up to decorate the room with colorful sheets tacked to the walls, festive chains of lights, and framed pictures everywhere. When Elizabeth leaves, the nurses take everything down. Fire hazards. We smuggle the kittens in to sniff everything and purr against Cathy’s bone-thin legs. I leave a minirecorder with her so she can make a recording for Elizabeth. Cathy says, “I don’t know if I’m ready for that. If I can’t talk to my own daughter…”
Within days, I get the call: meet the ambulance at the hospital. I arrive as it does, watch it disgorge Cathy writhing on the gurney, every bump an ecstasy of pain. In the treatment room medical staff consult, three more friends arrive. We are holding her hands, rubbing her feet, wiping hair from her eyes. She’s talking in struggling words. She’s restless, trying to sit up, stand up. She’s seeing things we cannot.
The chaplain beckons me to the hall. “Carebridge gave her the maximum dose of morphine. The doctors here can’t do much except give her more. There’s a small chance the hospital in Springfield may be able to do one more thing to keep her conscious until Elizabeth arrives. There’s a bigger chance they could not. And the ambulance ride will without doubt be painful.”
The hospital chaplain waits for my answer. Time collapses on itself. Every moment of life and death is now.
Morphine shots are produced. I make another fervent promise: We’ll take care of Elizabeth, I say. Soon the writhing stops, but not the stream of words and sounds and now and then laughter.
We hold her hands, and bless her feet, and bathe her head, and wonder if she is seeing something beautiful—maybe mercy—just out of reach.
[Karen Bellavance-Grace is a recipient of the 2018 Forge Fellowship]