This morning, I rolled over in bed, glanced at the bedside clock, and did the calculation that has become my post-birth morning ritual—six and a half hours of sleep. This is my record so far, made possible by the fact that today, Sunday, my lovely wife Kris was kind enough to put the baby down for her early morning nap in the guest room. Sleep, glorious sleep! I have always been a fan, but now more than ever.
Last week was my first full week back at work since our daughter was born. She’s three and a half weeks old now, and we’re still learning her routine and ours. Add to the equation that I have revisions due on a manuscript at the end of next week, and you might understand why sleep is such a valuable commodity in our household right now, one that Kris and I are becoming accomplished at bartering: “If you take the nine-to-midnight shift, I’ll get up with her in the middle of the night.” And, “If you take her now, I’ll wash the bottles and mix the formula so you don’t have to later.” Former college soccer teammates, we understand the value of teamwork in combating the inevitable fatigue of parenting a newborn.
The extra sleep Kris gifted me with last night has given me the energy to sit down before the computer and put words to screen on a topic I’ve been pondering the past few days. Have you ever been introduced to a new word or idea and then proceeded to see it multiple times in quick succession? Well, a related synchronicity happened to me this week in the form of a new-to-me concept: the notion that birth and death, matching bookends to every person’s life regardless of gender, race, or nationality, are in fact very similar experiences.
This idea is beautifully explored in an audio book I’ve been listening to this past week, Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat by David Dosa. The author is a doctor who specializes in geriatrics, while Oscar is a feline resident of Steere House–a nursing home where Dosa works–who can apparently predict when a person is about to die. I knew nothing about the book when it popped up on the list of IPod-compatible audio books available for check-out on my local library’s online catalog late last Sunday night. But I needed something to listen to on my daily commute, and I was too tired to spend much time searching, and it sounded reasonably interesting and potentially uplifting to an animal-lover like me. Am I glad I clicked the download button! A natural storyteller, Dosa manages to impart useful medical knowledge along with poignant ruminations on the human condition as he relates the remarkable, thought-provoking story of Oscar the cat.
At the beginning of the book, Dosa reports that he was skeptical when the staff at Steere House first told him that Oscar would sit with patients who were dying, offering comfort and peace to patients and loved ones alike. The quintessential scientist, Dosa decided to investigate these reports of Oscar’s incredible timing. The resulting memoir-like narrative offers more information on end-of-life care and the experience of watching a loved one die than it does about Oscar the cat, but I didn’t mind this fact. Building his story around interviews with family and staff members, Dosa explores the nature of illness and death, the process of aging, the difficulties of caregiving, and the occasional failings of our existing health care system.
He does, of course, also discuss Oscar, the book’s titular subject. One of the family members Dosa speaks with sums up Oscar’s actions in a way that particularly resonates with me. The interviewee, whose elderly father died at Steere House, describes Oscar’s presence at the very end as special because somehow, the cat made the process of dying feel like a normal part of life. Just as natural, the woman tells Dosa, as a child’s birth.
I heard this part of the book Friday afternoon on my way home from work. When I got home, I took the baby from my wife and, while she did things like drink a glass of water, change her clothes, and perform other, similar functions that hadn’t been possible during her lone-parenting shift, I bounced our daughter on the exercise ball to soothe her and told Kris about Dosa’s book. We talked at length about the stories I’d listened to that day, including the comparison between the process of birth, still vivid in both of our memories, and that of death. Neither of us has ever sat with a loved one as they died, but we agreed that after experiencing our daughter’s birth and the complications that accompanied Kris’s labor—in another time and/ or place, both mother and child could have died—we felt that we had a better idea of what to expect from the act of dying.
This is where the uncanny factor of synchronicity comes in. Twenty-four hours after Kris and I had this conversation, our sister-in-law, G., called. She and Kris’s brother had recently been present at the death of a friend in late-stage terminal cancer. As she recounted the story of her friend’s final evening, I could hear Dosa’s conversations with the family members of Steere House patients overlaying G.’s words. The similarities were remarkable, and I realized that just as all new parents have a birth story that, while unique, typically shares many commonalities with the stories of other parents of newborns, so too might many death stories intersect.
At one point, G. told us, the terminally ill friend opened her eyes and said to those gathered at her bedside, “I’m losing it.”
“It’s okay,” her friends and family members told her. “We’re here with you. We’re not going anywhere.”
The dying woman closed her eyes. A little while later she looked up and said, “Now what?”
“Now you go to sleep,” one of her loved ones said.
She closed her eyes again, and within a matter of hours, she was gone.
At the very end, G.’s friend was lucky. She died at home, surrounded by people who loved her and were willing to accompany her as far as they could along her final journey. She experienced the last act of her life surrounded by love and light. She died in a way that, I would imagine, many of us might hope to.
In Dosa’s book, the patients are lucky at the end, too. They have a devoted companion who comes to them and offers emotional support and physical comfort at a time when they and the people who love them need it most. Throughout the book, Dosa asks why Oscar does what he does. I haven’t reached the last chapter yet, but I imagine there is no answer to this question. We can’t ask Oscar, and he can’t tell us; such is the nature of human-animal interaction. Probably it’s enough that he’s been there for so many people.
At our daughter’s birth, it was the dedication of the many people in the room—our midwife, her assistant, the nurses, the doctor—that saw Kris and me through, and that made Alex’s story a dramatic account of beginnings rather than a tragic one of endings. For that, I will be eternally grateful.
This, of course, makes sleep deprivation seem like a very small price to pay. As I told Kris a few days ago, I keep thinking of describing our daughter’s birth in the form of a MasterCard commercial: “Unplanned hospital birth, X thousands of dollars; home-visit nurses, X dollars a day; healthy and happy mother and daughter, priceless.”
Because, well, they are.