Goodbye, My Darling

Death and the Coronavirus in Paris

I was grateful beyond words for the kind messages so many of you sent about the Smudge. I read them all many times. I so wish the story had a happy ending. It should have. In a world I’d prefer, my readers’ good will, generosity, and love would have been enough to save her. But the world does not seem to work that way. As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport. 

France has now entered what the government calls “Stage 3”—a full-blown, accelerating coronavirus epidemic across French territory. Public officials have been warning in ever-more alarmed terms that this is gravely serious; the prime minister has been on television, hour after hour, to implore French citizens to refrain from embracing, stay at home if they can, and keep their distance from each other if they can’t.

But to my surprise, many refuse to believe it, or if they do, refuse to behave as if they believed it. Many Parisians appear to believe a virus is like a terrorist attack, something to be couragiously defied by refusing in any way to give in to its demands. I’ve been appalled to see such uncontrollable carelessness. No matter how often they hear it, the public at large can’t bring itself to believe that a non-trivial number of us are now loaded weapons.

I see clearly now that contagion and infection are not intuitive concepts. Humans have no instinctive understanding of viruses, a source of illness too small to see, hiding in the body of another human being. I see better why it took humanity so long to arrive at the germ theory of disease—and why Ignaz Semmelweis suffered a nervous breakdown.

More than half of the patients in the ICU are under the age of sixty. Government ministers are beside themselves. “French people are not taking the situation seriously enough,” said the head of the national health agency, Jerome Salomon.

Because people have refused to behave sensibly of their own volition, the prime minister yesterday ordered the closure of all schools, cafés, shopping malls, restaurants, libraries, gyms, nightclubs, conference rooms, and museums. “We have observed that the first measures we have taken have not been correctly applied.”

All activity that is not “indispensable for the continuity of the life of the nation” has been ordered to a halt. “I trust that the French people can understand the seriousness of the situation,” said the prime minister. His trust is misplaced. The sun came out this morning, and so did every idiot in Paris. They were jogging in packs by the banks of the Seine, kiss-kiss-kissing on the streets, dawdling and gossiping in the épiceries, hawking up snot, touching their noses. Some say the virus is a hoax. The Gilets Jaunes believe the government has made it all up to get them off the streets. Even last night, the police and the fire department had to intervene in the 13th arrondissement to put out the trash fires and disperse “recalcitrant groups.”

If your children are studying exponential growth in school, show them these live French infection-rate graphs to impress upon them that this is a practical and important concept. The bad students in France who didn’t pay attention during math class, you can explain to them, are all going to die. Unfortunately, they’re going to take more than a few good students with them—but that’s probably not an age-appropriate moral.

I’m not sure what age you have to be before it seems appropriate.

Over the coming days, the government announced today, train, bus and plane travel on French territory will be restricted.

“I say this gravely,” said the prime minister. “We must all together show greater discipline in the application of these measures.”

It’s all very strange. It’s not what I expected to happen in the year 2020, although I’m not sure why not.

For several days, I thought the Smudge might recover. Cats, I learned, have a much better hope of full recovery from a stroke than humans do. She was perkier after receiving intravenous fluids, and she was eating. Her blood work and vital signs were normal for a cat her age: There did not seem to be an obvious underlying disease.

She had lost her vision. I would have sworn she saw me when I walked into her room at the clinic, and she seemed keen to learn more about the hamsters who live there on a permanent basis, serving as the hospital television. I didn’t believe Dr. Cartiaux, at first, when he told me that she was blind. But when I waved my hand before her eyes, I realized saw that her eyes didn’t follow my fingers. She had recognized my voice.

Dr. Cartiaux told me it was impossible to offer a firm prognosis. The reasonable thing would be for me to bring her home, make her comfortable, and hope for the best. He prescribed steroids, a medication to oxygenate her brain, and another to stimulate her appetite. He smiled at me encouragingly when we left. His face wasn’t grave, and I let myself be hopeful.

In retrospect, I think she had another stroke later that night. My brother had urged me to confine her to her carrier instead of bringing her into the bed with me. He thought she might hurt herself, or another cat might hurt her, while I slept. But I couldn’t bear to be separated from her, and I fell asleep—anxiously—with her in my arms. I was relieved when I woke up to see she was still tucked safely in the crook of my elbow. Then I realized it was because she’d had no choice. She could no longer stand up or control her hind legs. They paddled and twitched on their own.

As far as I could tell, she wasn’t in pain. She didn’t cry out. She purred, quietly, when I stroked her. But she was far too passive—almost limp. She should have been frantic. I called the clinic. Dr. Flachaire said it sounded discouraging, but it was possible the pill I had given her to stimulate her appetite had sedated her, or even that she was, understandably, depressed. She suggested I wait to see if she improved over the course of the next few days.

I think I knew she couldn’t possibly recover. This was just too severe. But I kept looking at veterinary websites that told me cats do recover completely from strokes, and thinking of human stroke victims who look awful in the aftermath but recover with time.

Later that day, she rallied. She lifted her head and looked much more alert, and I allowed myself to hope again. I kept thinking that if I could just keep her body nourished and hydrated, her brain might be able to heal. I didn’t want to bring her back to the clinic for nasogastric feeding—I told myself that this was because it would cause her too much stress, but in retrospect, I realize it was because I was terrified they would tell me she would never get better.

So I tried mushing up her food in the blender and feeding it to her with an eyedropper. To my surprise, she suckled lustily, like a kitten. She was hungry. This was a cat who still wanted to live, I thought. I spent the next days puréeing everything she might like—tuna, chicken, sardines—and feeding the revolting stuff to her, dropful by dropful, all day long. She refused to eat unless I put the food in her mouth, but she seemed to like being fed. She put up no fuss. But she didn’t put up much of a fuss when I made her swallow her medication, either. A healthy cat won’t allow you to do that without exacting a price in blood. Nor did she try to wash herself, even though the puréed food dribbled all over her whiskers and chin. She no longer had the energy, or perhaps she could no longer make her tongue and her limbs do what she told them.

I cleaned her face and her fur with a warm washcloth. She purred. She seemed to like it when I warmed her afterward with the blow dryer. I fed and cleaned her over and over again, unsure how to interpret her passivity. Was she dying, or was she just willing to trust me to take care of her? Was she suffering? Would she get better?

I carried her to the litter box, but she just toppled over. I knew fluids were going in. I worried that if they didn’t come out, they would poison her.

But she kept allowing me to feed her, and purring in my arms. She wasn’t comatose or vegetative. Her ears followed me intently wherever I went, and she was acutely aware of her sisters and brothers.

They kept their distance. They were spooked by her appearance. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t.

My other cats come from another litter, and I reckon a yak got mixed up in their ancestry. They’re hefty ladies and fellows, and the Smudge would openly mock their befuddlement and embonpoint. Everyone who entered my apartment saw immediately, and said, that the Smudge was obviously more clever than the others, to the point of being almost another species. There was something knowing about her, sly.

Once, in Istanbul, my girlfriend who designs jewelry and dabbles in witchcraft told me that the Smudge was in fact a seven-foot-tall black man. “She’s here for your protection,” she said, as if telling me the refrigerator was there to chill my food.

I was never sure what to say when she said things like that. I finally said, “Really? And the other ones? What are they?”

“They’re cats.” She looked at me pityingly, as if I was spiritually retarded.

Certainly, the Smudge was athletic in ways the other cats couldn’t begin to comprehend. In the time it took poor Mo to set his haunches in motion, waddle off the bed, then land on the floor with a great thump, the Smudge would effortlessly fly from the floor to the top of the bathroom door, ride the door like a swing, springing off just in time to leap to end of the bathtub, then she’d prance up and down the edge, like a Romanian gymnast. She always stuck the landing. She never missed.

She was so tiny, I suspect, because malnutrition in her kittenhood stunted her growth. Still, it seemed the other cats never realized she was so tiny that they could kill her the way they’d kill a mouse. They gave her respect. Sometimes, she would steal their food, just for kicks. She’d dash off with it, gum it up, then drop it on the floor. She particularly enjoyed watching poor Mo trot after the stolen tidbit, his haunches and the floor shaking underneath him. He was not too proud to eat her leftovers. He was not too proud to eat anyone’s.

She stole my food, too—she’d swipe it right off my fork. After assuring herself it was no tastier than her own, she’d drop it on the floor and wait to see if I wanted it enough to follow Mo’s example. She looked at me with amused contempt. Because I can.

But here she was utterly defenseless. It must have terrified her—although I just don’t know what she was feeling, and that bothers me terribly. I know these cats so well. We’ve been together every day and night for fifteen years. Cats have no power of speech under the best of circumstances, so it makes no sense to say she had lost her power of speech. But I could no longer tell what she was feeling and thinking.

I assume—though I don’t know for sure—that cats don’t in any way narrate to themselves the story of their lives. I don’t think she could have been tormented, as we would be, by the abstract idea that she was now brain-damaged, blind, and paralyzed. I can’t know how well cats understand the idea of death, or whether she feared it. So I don’t know whether her last days were to her an inexpressible horror, or if it’s possible she felt confused, but otherwise comfortable and glad to be near me. I kept her against my body, all day and all night, to reassure her. Her ears twitched when another cat neared. I think she was afraid of them. I hope she knew I would never allow them to hurt her, but I don’t know if a cat can understand that. The barrier between our species seemed more vast than usual. I just can’t know what it feels like to be a cat who has suffered devastating neurological damage.

She lost control over her bladder and her bowels that night. I’d been concerned she was in pain from urinary retention and was relieved things were moving through her, but I sensed—perhaps I imagined—that she was mortified. I bathed her and laundered the sheets, but hesitated to scrub her fur too aggressively; I didn’t want to frighten or hurt her.

Perhaps she found the lingering scent on her fur unbearable. I wonder if that’s why she stopped letting me to feed her. Suddenly, she seemed to realize she could just clamp her jaws down on the dropper and refuse to swallow. She did this with remarkable strength for an animal who now weighed scarcly more than a handkerchief. It almost seemed she’d made a decision that she did not want to live that way—blind, paralyzed, incontinent. That she found it incompatible with her dignity and her nature as a cat.

When I brought her back to the clinic, I asked my father to come with me: I wanted his opinion. He had the same reaction I did, when I opened her carrier to show her to him. Her eyes seemed so bright. We knew she couldn’t see, but they still seemed so bright. She was wrapped in my sweatshirt, peering out like a human baby—and she was so cute, so vulnerable, so warm, so soft, so alive.

The veterinarian examined her gently. I asked her if there was any realistic hope. Three of my cats have now died at that clinic, but I think they received the best possible care. Last year, Daisy developed a deadly case of hepatic lipidosis. She had looked almost as ill the Smudge. But they veterinarians managed to bring her back from the brink of death.

It was impossible to say, she told me. Her blood work wasn’t alarming. Neither was her temperature. Cats often recover fully from strokes. They adjust well to blindness. But clearly, she wasn’t recovering well.

It was possible, she told me, that a brain tumor was involved. The only way to know would be to do an MRI, but she didn’t recommend it. The risk of the anesthesia outweighed the value of any information it would convey. No matter what it showed, there could be no cure: You wouldn’t subject an elderly, uncomprehending cat to brain surgery and chemotherapy. The only way to know if she could be saved was to wait and see. But we would have to feed and rehydrate her intravenously, at the clinic.

This pandemic is forcing us all to consider things we generally prefer to deny, things we have to deny if we’re to stay reasonably even-keeled. The cliché that you should live each day as if it were your last is vapid even by the standards of vapid clichés: The very last way I’d wish to live any day of my life is as if it were my last—which is apt to be terrified, intubated, emaciated, unable to control my bladder and bowels, delirious, and drugged out of my wits. This is what death is really like. There’s a limit to how much truth any one of us wishes to accept. I’m very willing to hope that it gets better after death, but dying itself just looks ghastly.

I watched my grandmother and my mother die. I’ve watched three of my beloved family of seven cats die. I do not want to see anyone I love die again, ever. I don’t want anyone I love to die again, ever. I don’t want to die—and I don’t want to be the last one left on this side of the veil, either.

I wish Parisians would stop coughing on me and my father.

Had I understood how rapidly the epidemic would arrive, I wouldn’t have asked my father to come with me to the vet’s. But I’d just been in Mauritania, and without Internet access, for weeks. The words “deadly epidemic” sounded like more media hysteria—I didn’t pay much attention. Then I was distracted by the Smudge’s plight. Now I’m thinking, “What was I thinking? Dragging my 78-year-old father outside?” If you’re reading this in the United States, take note: You’ll be asking yourself the same question in, give or take, ten days.

Gaby, my adoptive London mother, just finished her 92nd and final cycle of Cetuximab. From now on, she will receive only palliative treatment. She was looking forward to enjoying, for the first time in five years, a spell of time during which she still feels well and isn’t obliged to drag herself to the hospital three times a week for treatment. She wanted to spend this time with her friends and her family. What’s she supposed to do? Say goodbye to everyone on Skype?

Perhaps I could remain in the same oblivious denial as so many Parisians—it’s true, after all, that most of us will be fine—if I hadn’t just seen my cat go, so suddenly, from being alive—warm, lit by some internal force, a distinct spirit held together by something mysterious—to the state of being dead, which is entirely different and altogether disgusting. I’m usually as capable as anyone of denying mortality and hoping for the best. But my defense mechanisms just got ground into the dust again.

From The Mostly True Tale of the Seven Kittens of Istanbul:

We gave her morphine. That comforts me. She couldn’t have been in unbearable pain, physical or emotional, after that, could she?

Her brothers, Toshiro and Mo, both died at that clinic in the early hours of the morning. I’ve felt so awful thinking that from their perspective, I betrayed them. Exactly as they felt most sick and vulnerable, I denied them their animal instinct to hide in a dark, safe place; I took them to an alien bright room that smelled of other animals’ fear, then handed them to people who shined lights into their eyes, put thermometers in their anuses, and stuck needles in their veins. I even helped to hold them down so they couldn’t escape. They could not possibly have experienced this as anything but torture and terror, and they could not possibly have understood why I allowed this to happen. They trusted me all their lives, and then I responded to their last calls of distress by trapping them, stuffing them in bags, taking them from their homes—their beds, their familiar smells, their brothers and sisters—on a bumpy journey through streets full of smells they had never smelled and noises they had never heard. Then I abandoned them. They died alone, bewildered.

But I know that if I hadn’t done that, they would have died in agony. Dying cats become dehydrated, their heads loll, their fur falls out, they have seizures, sometimes for hours; they gasp desperately for breath. Rationally, I don’t believe the comforts of home, or my presence, would have helped them more than those needles full of morphine.

I wish I knew, for sure, what they would have wanted, if they had only understood.

If the coronavirus comes to get me, consider this an advance directive: Keep me alive through any heroic measures you like, but I want to go out blitzed out of my mind with twelve Fentanyl lollipops in my mouth, a Vicodan IV, and a double-Percodan enema, and this is my Last Will and Testament: being high is far more important to me than having one last lucid conversation with you; if you’ve got something you need to say to me before I shuffle off this mortal coil, say it now, because when I’m dying, I want to be higher than I’ve ever been before—and that’s high, believe me—drooling and smiling benignly at you from beyond that noctilucent cloud. I want it to be just the way Gaby’s nurse promises: “You’ll be off your tits.”

The Smudge was glassy-eyed when I left her, and barely responsive. I didn’t know if that was because she was near death or just off her tits, and neither did the doctor. I so badly hoped she would make it through the night. But when the phone rang, early in the morning, I knew she hadn’t.

I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you one more time, my little mouse.

Goodbye, my darling.