On one of the three television screens in the elevator that I used to get from floor two to floor one (all the stairs are marked “Emergency Only”), I saw the story about the cat that can predict death.
When I looked up the story in the NE Journal of Medicine, I realized it’s a bit more than that. Oscar, the cat, is attending to people in their final hour. He’s the ultimate, purring, unanxious presence, that can hop right in the bed with the person.
I’m visiting with a couple of friends in Nashville. One, CJ Sentell, just returned from hiking in Nepal and now he’s continuing the second year of his PhD program at Vanderbilt.
His mom, Beth, is a wonderful seminary friend, who decided to jump on a plane from Shreveport so she could visit us all at the same time.
Beth has been serving small churches in North Louisiana for almost ten years. For a while there, not long after she began her pastorate, she said she felt like the Angel of Death. People were passing, one after another, and she began to know when they were going to die.
“How can you tell?”
“I don’t know…it’s just the angle that their head is on the pillow…I don’t know. I can just tell.”
Death seems to come in waves in congregations. I went through the same thing in my church in Rhode Island. Sitting with people day after day, I could start to tell when death was imminent.
I visited the Steere House a lot, where Oscar the cat lives. One of my favorite church members lived there. Georgia was a fabulous artist who had about a dozen children, and was suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Actually, she wasn’t suffering at all. She was having a great time with it. People around her may have been suffering, but she didn’t notice that either. The first time I visited her, she had eight unfinished watercolor paintings scattered about her bed. She looked at them and told me wonderful stories about being an artist and living in New York City.
Every few minutes, she looked up and said, “Now, who are you?” When I explained, she would scribble the details down in a small spiral notebook. “Okay, you’re the pastor.” Then she would look at me with surprise, “I’ve never met a lady minister before. And you’re so young.”
“Yes. I am. You know, they just make pastors in all sorts shapes and sizes these days,” I’d reply, and she’d laugh and laugh. Then she would tell me how she was an artist who lived in New York City. We would spend all afternoon on this verbal treadmill, talking and talking, but never quite getting anywhere. I hated leaving.
Georgia had to move out of the Steere House. I never got the details straight as to why. But after visiting so much, I’m glad Oscar’s there.
I wonder if the cat can smell death. Or maybe all animals are like those vultures circling in the sky. Maybe most of them know when someone’s about to die, and it’s just this animal instinct that clergy learn when they’ve been at bedsides so often.
Whatever it is, I’m glad the patients have a warm body, purring next to them, showing them the way.
the photo of Oscar came from the NEJM site