I have written before that although I lost myself when I was caregiving, I also found myself in caregiving. I might have fought it when things were difficult or devastating, but I also learned to embrace the beauty of caregiving and to recognize the strength that I do possess when I am in the role of caregiver. I have lost my dad and Ben, but my role continues and it is a perfectly imperfect fit. That became especially clear to me over the past few days, while caring for my ailing cat, Disney.
Disney is almost sweet 16, and sweet she is. She is the most gentle, loving girl, and a little bit of a spoiled brat, but as Ben would say, I created that monster. She’s got a lot of medical issues- diabetes, thyroid, arthritis, heart murmur. With each diagnosis or complication, I’ve channeled my inner Dory and I “just keep swimming.”
Disney was originally diagnosed with a thyroid problem and diabetes just two weeks after Ben passed away, and the news sent me reeling but I was not going to let the undertow drown me. I was told that I would manage her condition by administering injections of insulin twice a day. I am a squeamish person and this had me terribly nervous. But, I reminded myself of all the very ugly and messy things I had to do for my dad and for Ben. “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Yes, and thank you, Christopher Robin, I am. Disney is a wonderful patient, and she makes things pretty easy. She has begun to eat the pill pocket containing her thyroid medication, leaving the pill visibly displayed for me, showing that I have not outsmarted her. But, as her caregiver, I have to ensure that she gets what she needs.
A couple of days ago I took Disney to the veterinarian for a follow-up visit, pointing out that she was not eating as well as usual. The vet suspected some kidney damage and an infection. Her blood sugar was also very low. She stayed in the hospital overnight for glucose infusions and monitoring. Then, it was determined that she should have an ultrasound. I was able to visit her during her two night stay, and when I was with her she curled up against me and closed her eyes, because all is well in Disney’s world when her mommy is with her. I love the quiet, sweet moments when I know that I am comforting her.
We were sent home with new medications, including one to be given with a syringe, and fluids to be administered under her skin with what looks like an IV drip. I think her vet thought I would pass out or break down as I wrote down all the notes and when I saw the set-up. As Dory says, “You can do whatever you put your mind to.”
When we got home and before we went to sleep she was not acting right. She had two accidents on the bed, which I attributed to the infection. But, she was extremely lethargic and wobbly. Then, she had what turned out to be a seizure. I held her in my arms and she calmed down. After another similar episode, I decided that I had to call the Emergency Room at around 4:30AM. The doctor asked several questions and heard Disney’s distress meow, and said that I should get her to the ER. I sat and waited for a report, as I had done so many times with my dad and Ben. I felt that same exhaustion and worry. And, I realized that although I was distraught, I only wanted to care for and console this little girl whom I love so much. I am most comfortable in the role of caregiver. It is who I am.
It turned out that Disney’s blood sugar was super low, and had I not taken her to the ER, she might even have died. I am still having trouble wrapping my head around that. She was kept in the hospital for several hours for monitoring while they intravenously administered dextrose. She perked up and was doing much better, so I was allowed to bring her home. We are adjusting her insulin dosages but I must carefully watch her behavior and reactions. As I cancelled my weekend plans with friends to be with her, I had flashbacks of the many plans I had to cancel or postpone due to issues with my dad and Ben. Of course, there were times I was very disappointed about not going out, but caregiving was my priority and, at the time, because of so many conflicting emotions and so much chaos, I don’t think I even realized that I took pride in being the person they trusted and on whom they depended. It is only in retrospect that I began to realize that it was through caregiving that I really knew who I was and what I was meant to do. Now, I know that Disney will feel better if I am home with her and I love that I make her feel better and that I will be able to give the vet necessary information to inform the treatment plan as we move forward.
I was afraid to go to sleep last night for fear that something would happen. Eventually, we both fell asleep. I awoke to her on the bed staring at me. She did not want to eat much of her breakfast, which has me concerned, but I will be in touch with her veterinarian. She definitely was not thrilled with all of the medications, but was very cooperative. She has been very cuddly and purring a lot, which is a good sign. As I’m writing this I am smiling, because although this is stressful, it is the normal with which I am most comfortable. This is who I am. And, for the first time, I’m feeling proud of it. Like Hank, I’m OK with crazy!
I admit that I am terrified of losing Disney. Intellectually, I know that she has health concerns, and that she is a senior cat. Emotionally, she is just such a lovely cat and she has been there for me as I cared for and lost my dad and then Ben. At my loneliest, most frightened and most inconsolable, she was there with cuddles. She is the cuddliest cat I’ve ever met. People who don’t love animals don’t understand. People like me, who love our pets, don’t understand people who don’t understand the love we feel for our furbabies. But, I was raised in a family that unquestionably valued our dogs as family members. My dad loved my cats, too, though he did unabashedly compare them to our Schnauzers! Some people might take offense at my comparing caregiving for Disney to that of my dad and Ben. I can tell you that my dad would have had it no other way and he would be flattered. Ben would completely understand and he, too, would be flattered. The bond that is felt when caring for someone you love, human or otherwise, is profound and priceless, despite the difficulties.
I summoned the courage to ask the vet if she felt that I should brace myself for losing Disney soon. Thankfully, she said that we do not yet have to make that decision. But, she said that with all of Disney’s health issues, it is a challenge to manage all of her conditions. It is a lot of medication, additional vet visits and always the risk of ER visits. This is a big financial and emotional expense and challenge. In my mind, if she has a good quality of life and just needs management of her conditions, I am up for the task. Disney has always risen to the occasion of comforting me and giving me joy and laughter. She did that for Ben, too. She was definitely affected by the way he changed as a result of ALS and in her own way, she was protective of him. When he was in the hospice in his last days, I was allowed to bring her to visit him. At first, she didn’t like being on the bed with him because her arthritis renders her uncomfortable at times. She sat on the chair next to him and intently watched him. At one point he asked me to lift her and put his hand on her. When I put her on my lap to bring her closer, she pulled herself onto the bed and curled up on him. I put his hands on her and she turned on her side. They both closed their eyes. I believe that in that moment they said their good-byes. It was beautiful. For me, Disney represents a very close remaining connection to Ben. I’m sharing a photo of them in the hospice. I generally don’t share these personal photos, because they are difficult memories and private, but I do think that it is important for people to see the realities of disease.
I will never be selfish and prioritize my desire to keep Disney with me over her quality of life. But, once again, I am lovingly, proudly and purposefully, though sadly, in the position of caregiver, and I will do whatever I can to give her a good quality of life and a lot of love, as she did for my dad, Ben and me.