Ruminations on the end of the life of my friend Phantom
Loss is inevitable, and everyone has experienced it. As a death penalty abolitionist, I always scoffed at the suggestion that the death penalty was needed as it brought closure to the victim’s family. After losing a best friend or a member of the family, there is no closure. I dearly miss those who have passed, including my animal friends -- Febe, Bert and Ernie. Add to the list my little buddy Phantom who was euthanized on September 29, 2015.
Two recent interviews on the radio highlighted how intense a relationship with an animal friend can be. Roger Angell has a piece in THE NEW YORKER titled “This Old Man.” While much of the prose is about how his body is failing him, in the radio interview he also reminisced about Harry his fox terrier. So I read the portion about the demise of his dog: “Harry took his leave (another surprise) on a June afternoon three years ago, a few days after his eighth birthday. Alone in our fifth-floor apartment, as was usual during working hours, he became unhinged by a noisy thunderstorm and went out a front window left a quarter open on a muggy day.” After Angell retrieved Harry from the street, he and his wife couldn’t stop weeping.
The other interview was on Fresh Air with Laurie Anderson, who discussed her documentary HEART OF A DOG. The film is about loss, and Anderson has suffered several, including her husband Lou Reed and their dog Lolabelle. The canine had been blind for a few years, and began declining rapidly. An animal trainer convinced Anderson that the dog’s death should be a natural process, as happens in the wild. As I understand, rather than inducing death we should accept that an animal may suffer as life ebbs out of it.
Both interviews highlighted the strong bonds some people develop with their animals. And, I am one of those people, as I really miss Phantom.
I got a call in 2004 from a friend who knew I was an animal lover. Her roommates didn’t want a cat living with them, so, of course, I had to rescue this guy. When I went to get the cat, my friend brought him to the door three times. Twice he jumped from her arms and ran into the basement. Finally, on the third attempt he became an unhappy captive. I went home, opened the door, released my new roommate, and went to work at the American Friends Service Committee.
It was obvious the tabby was around, but for two weeks I had not seen him. Then he came out of the shadows, while I was at the computer. Sauntering down the stairs from the second floor, he was making musical sounds with the voice to announce his arrival. I appropriately named him Phantom of the Opera. Besides his operatic talents, he was a talker, so I spoke to him as well. Slowly he became a best friend, who enjoyed sitting on my lap or on the computer table. At night, he slept in my bed.
A people person, he enjoyed meeting visitors. Always wary of a new face, Phantom would assess the situation before getting close to a person. Only a few people gave him bad vibrations. He relished his time outside. Someone who was to watch him while I was away on vacation failed in her duties. So he scratched out a hole in an upstairs window screen and got on the roof so he could do some gallivanting outside.
After five years, it was time to move. Phantom sensed that something was happening, as furniture was being moved out and other furniture was coming in. And there were new people passing through. I hoped to take him with me to the new address the night before I had to move. But he would not come in that evening. The next morning, I found him sitting on a chair on a neighbor’s porch. I left the front door open as I gathered the last of my belongings. After about an hour, he came inside. I closed the door hoping to maneuver him into the cat carrier. When he went upstairs into a bare bedroom, I followed and closed the door. He wasn’t interested in hearing that we had to move out. I had to chase him around the room, and finally got hold of him. We went downstairs and with some pluck, I finally got him in the cat carrier. Soon, though, the little resister broke out. So back upstairs in the bedroom, we repeated the process. This time I made sure the latch was secure on the carrier. We then rode a few miles, and he moved into our new abode.
Since he was in a new neighborhood, I fretted about letting him go outside. In response to an email I sent seeking advice, twenty people got back to me. The advice boiled down to keeping him inside for one or two weeks, and when he ventured outside to leave water and food by the door. On his first evening in this house, I took out the garbage. This gave him a chance to bolt outside. When I went to bed at midnight, he was not around. I feared the worst: that he headed back to the other neighborhood. Not a chance! He was outside the back door when I came downstairs the next morning.
Phantom enjoyed the new neighborhood and had his territory established. One day, though, I noticed he was limping, and took him to be examined. He had a puncture wound on his shoulder which became infected. Some critter bit him. But after the wound was cleaned and the antibiotics kicked in, his vim and vigor returned.
My partner Janice came to Baltimore from Kentucky for a visit. What a surprise, as Phantom immediately went over to her when she walked inside the house. His usual wariness around people was absent. They quickly bonded.
Now Phantom began to travel with us. On one visit he got to meet my brother and sister-in-law in Myrtle Beach. And he really enjoyed staying with Janice in Lexington. A special place there was her deck, where the little guy liked to laze during the day into the evening. He also visited Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia.
After five years, it was time to move again. Unfortunately for an outdoor cat, he was now stuck inside a second-floor apartment. But he did travel with me on the road to Kentucky.
Earlier this year, the three of us were going from Baltimore to Lexington. It was late on a rainy night, and we stopped at a motel in a rural area of West Virginia. While we were gathering our luggage, Phantom took the opportunity to jump from the van and do some exploring. We did our best to try to coax him back into the van, but that was not on his agenda. He eventually disappeared. I came out a few hours later to look for my little buddy, but despite my calls, he did not respond. It was high anxiety time for me.
Before breakfast I went back out to find him. I heard him, and found him hidden in a tangle of branches and briars. Janice came out to help plan this rescue mission. I climbed down into the area where he was hiding, and she came from the opposite direction. Then I flushed him out, and she grabbed his tail. The family was re-united. Several hours later, we were in Lexington, and soon he was catting around outside on the deck.
Janice was here in August, when Phantom stopped eating. The vet said he had a sinus infection and ulcers in his throat. So she prescribed two medications, which we slipped into his food. Soon he had an appetite, and Janusia took him back to Lexington. However, after a few weeks Phantom again stopped eating. The vet In Lexington said he was 95% sure our cat had lymphoma. Of course, I wanted another opinion. So when Janice and Phantom returned in September, I scheduled a visit with the vet who diagnosed him with the infection and the ulcers. On September 28, she more or less told us that he would not recover. By this time he was grinding his teeth, not eating and suffering from halitosis. We took him home that evening to be with us one last night.
The following morning, he did lick some raspberry ice cream before going into hiding. After we got our hands on him, Janice carried him in a towel to the van. As I drove to the 8:45 AM appointment, he climbed on my lap and surveyed the Baltimore scenery. Once there, I clipped some of his fur and whiskers. Janice stayed outside, as I went into the examination room with Phantom and a technician. Then the vet came in as Phantom was on his side looking at me. An injection soon ended his life, but his eyes remained open. The vet gave me time for a final good bye, and I gave him a final rub.
Our tabby was very talkative that last night. I doubt that he slept, and Janice said he sensed the situation. As Dylan Thomas recommended, Phantom did not go gentle into that good night. He raged, raged against the dying of the light. I cried, as Phantom and I were together since 2004, and we had a great ride. His ashes are sitting on the table in my apartment, as we are unsure what is best for Phantom’s remains. I miss him bunches, and will probably wait until we have a house before getting another cat.
Phantom is still with us, and the thought reminds me of John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH:
“Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?
“Tom Joad: Then it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.”
The loss of a friend inevitably reminds me of John Donne’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. Below is an edited version of a portion of that great poem:
"All animalkind is of one author, and is one volume; when one animal dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No animal is an island, entire of itself...any animal’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in animalkind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Phantom will always be a precious friend. Yet out there is another cat who needs a home.
Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs