Catherine Kirkwood holds an MFA from Goddard College, a PhD in Women’s Studies from the University of York, England, and a BS in psychobiology. Her work has appeared in the Pitkin Review, and in the fiction anthology New Voices. Her acclaimed feminist work, Leaving Abusive Partners, has been translated and sold internationally. Cut Away is her first novel (Arktoi Books 2010). Catherine lives in Seattle in a yellow cottage with her partner Kayleen, a Border Collie, and a vintage cat. Visit her at CatherineKirkwood.net
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On Death and Kindness
Two weeks ago my nineteen and a half year old cat died. Usually when one of my pets begins decline I spring into frenzied action, calling on every reasonable resource to prolong their life and make their death bearable. My vet, a man made up of all sorts of kindness, once gave me a much appreciated rule I’ve come to count on: when the course is irreversible and they stop eating, it is merciful to put them down. This time, though, because of the cat’s easily spooked nature and her preference for quiet, familiar spaces, I just let her be. It took about a day and a half. She stopped eating then kept on slipping rapidly. She did not appear to be in pain. We lay with each other until it was time. I think this is what she would have wanted.
Was that kindness? Or was it simply that a year ago, almost exactly, my mother died and forced me to accept that death just comes. No matter how much you try to avoid it or dress it up, it just comes. Seemed like facing it head on was the only kindness I could give my old, feline friend with any honesty.
There were enormous, irrefutable kindnesses along the path of my mother’s death: Her caregivers bathed and cried over her still body. Although she was no longer able to respond, our cousins drove and flew hundreds of miles, gathering in her room to talk, reminisce, laugh, and be a family one last time. My partner flew up and down the west coast, gracefully torn between taking care of home and me. My brothers and father, exhausted with the lion’s share of the past year plus of care, sat by my mother’s side every hour of her final days.
These are the kindnesses I will not forget. Generous, heartfelt, freely offered, and sustaining. But there were also kindnesses that touched raw places. Their effects were more hit and miss. These make me wonder about the nature of kindness and, passing as it does through the layers within each of each of us, whether kindness is ever simple.
After the MRI in which it was determined the brain tumor had returned, an oncologist comes to our room – at our request – to discuss whether there is anything more we can do. Mom has not spoken for a day. She has not communicated at all since morning, when she declined surgery even if the tumor is operable. We know what the final outcome will be. But we are a family that covers all bases – something Mom has taught us – and we want to hear from the oncologist what he recommends. He comes in, does a cursory examination, and then taps her on the chest, asking in a loud, abrupt voice: “Anyone in there?” On her good days, a question like this would elicit a searing, smart retort or dismissive silence. When she does not move her lips, I can’t tell whether she is rising to occasion, or not. Our conversation with the doctor is odd. It slowly dawns on me that the doctor suspects we are considering putting a dying woman through surgery. He is doing his brutal best to dissuade us. So intent is he, so exhausted are we, this misapprehension is never set right. We just swallow the moment, get him out of the room, and go on. I don’t like him. But, in his own way, he is pushing kindness.
The day before, I am trying to feed Mom applesauce. She has a hard time letting me know what she wants. She says only yes and no, and not often. She is having trouble swallowing. Then she starts choking. They have to bring in this suction thing to get the food out of her mouth. The nurse is unhappy with me. He sets up an evaluation of her ability to eat. When the occupational therapist comes to perform the evaluation, Mom is sleeping. The therapist does not want to wake her. The nurse keeps on me. Every time he sees me, he insists that she needs to be evaluated before I try again. I feel stupid, over-zealous. I am only trying to help. Later, when I can muster gratitude over a welling sense of shame, I thank him. He looks relieved then confesses that the one thing that makes him gag is using that vacuum thing on a choking patient.
I believe the world is full of kindness. That, if we are not in a state of terror caused by our own dark places, it is the natural human state to perceive them in others and reach out, steady each other. But when the fall is certain and final, the reaching becomes less graceful. The grabbing for balance, clumsy. Painful. Are these attempts unkind?
The evening before, Mom is unable to lift food to her mouth. The nurses insist we must learn to feed her. They try to teach me. Nurses, it turns out, are not supposed to manually feed. The family must do it if she is to eat. But I am the youngest. I have no children of my own. I do not know when and how to be firm, how to get the food in without either slopping it everywhere or, worse, hurting her. One nurse tries to reassure me: even if she does not get much nutrition, the act of feeding is sustaining, an act of love. I wipe the entire contents of the tub from mom’s chin, then use a handy-wipe to make sure she doesn’t end up sticky.
Was this saccharin kindness? You can’t live on love. Later, in a desperate attempt to get the big picture on the screen, I blurt out to a doctor how feeding is an act of love. He looks at me, says nothing, and moves on to other topics. I feel betrayed, tripped up. My words sound stupid, even to me. At the time, though, they seemed like they might mean something. Does it count as kindness if its impact evaporates when exposed to air?
The night nurse comes on. She is no-nonsense. I am a little frightened of her – or, more honestly, I am frightened that I will not be strong enough to push for what Mom needs if this nurse doesn’t want to give it. I tell her Mom hasn’t eaten. She leaves and comes back with a small tub of chocolate pudding she has found in the kitchen. She stands over my mother with a full spoon says in a thick accent ‘Mrs. Keerkvood, open!’ Mom does and she deftly tucks the spoon in, slips it out, and fills it with more pudding while Mom slowly chews. She handles a few more bites then puts the cup in my hand: ‘Now. You will try.’ Mom’s in a rhythm. I steel myself, do exactly what I have just seen. Mom eats the whole little tub. Triumph. The nurse and I grin at each other. Mom lays back, chocolate on her lips, eyes closed.
Sometimes kindness isn’t meant to catch you. Instead, it reaches out and tucks a thing in your pocket for later, for the time after the fall that comes. Not words of wisdom about how it will be, or what is to come, just a moment that lights up in memory, reveals the threads that hold after to before. How do we know when we give these kindnesses? How do we recognize the moment when we receive them? Perhaps we can’t. Maybe that is what makes them different. Something that knits all the other moments into something whole.
Before I go, the nurse tucks Mom in and says to her, “Mrs Keerkvood. Repeat after me: Good night.” Mom does. “Sleep tight.” Does again. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Mom says these words, each of them, clearly. When I kiss my mother goodnight she is still smiling.
Next week, an essay by Eleanor Brown (on Tuesday, Jan. 25). Please submit your questions and / or Q4K essays (no longer than 1,000 words, and no attachments please) to questforkindness[at]gmail.com