Schrödinger’s Cat

Slow goodbyes and why they’re not

I’ve always loved this photo of Simon, taken in the wee small hours of the morning when we were the only beasts in our house awake.

Simon is, most certainly, dying.

I want to believe he’s dying in the same way we all are. Slowly, with no clear end in sight beyond the eventual certainty of dust and ashes.

But I’m steeling myself for the likelihood that we are looking at something more accelerated. Of all of the things the emergency vet told us might have caused his abdomen to fill with fluid — something referred to alternatively on his paperwork as abdominal effusion and ascites — the ones we haven’t ruled out yet are largely terminal. The most likely answer is cancer. We’re waiting for more test results.

In the meanwhile, Simon is home. Because he developed an upper respiratory infection at the hospital, we have to keep him locked in a bathroom, isolated from his brother cat and two sister cats, and off of his favorite lounging furniture. He is drinking but not eating. He still purrs when he sits on our laps, which he was doing until I began typing this sentence, when he clumsily jumped down to have more water. The hospital is going to fill a prescription for an appetite stimulant.

The bathroom in which Simon currently resides is at the top of the stairs, so I pass it several times daily. Sometimes I continue with whatever I was doing the had me going up or down the stairs in the first place. Sometimes I come in and sit with him for a few minutes, like I’m doing now. Most times, though, I stand in front of the door, debating whether to open it.

Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger is best known for his eponymous feline thought experiment. To grossly oversimplify: Schrödinger posited that if you placed a live cat in a closed box with a vial of poison, the cat was simultaneously alive and dead based on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. (It’s more complicated than that. There’s radiation involved. Anyway.) Obviously, such a thing is impossible.

But when I was younger I always understood the experiment in a slightly different way. As long as that box stays sealed, you have no reason to believe the cat who was alive when the box was sealed is anything but alive now. It’s only when you open the box that you find out for sure.

So when I stand at the top of the stairs, with my head pressed against the bathroom door and my hand resting on its handle, it’s because of how I interpreted the contrarian musings of a long-dead Austrian scientist. It’s because as long as the door is closed, I have no reason to believe Simon is anything but alive.

Across the back of my right hand, an old scar. It’s hardly visible anymore if you aren’t looking for it, but I know it’s there, a daily reminder of my family’s German Shepherd, Shadow, who jumped, puppy-eager to grab a toy from my raised hand and then, bite-grab already in progress, found no toy there and closed his sharp milk teeth around my hand, sliding an inch or two with his mouth clamped shut before ultimately giving up.

Shadow died when I was in college. I have nothing left of him, except for a photo in which he sits beside a besuited, almost-eighteen-year-old me —and the scar . With this mark on my hand, his memory is always with me.

Next to that scar from Shadow, a longer, more prominent, more jagged scar. This one came from Simon, after he found himself caught by our dog and continued to fight to get free long after I separated the two. Still thinking he had to fight for his freedom, he delivered a deep gash to my right hand and assorted other scratches for good measure. I got cat scratch fever from that episode, and my hand took months to fully heal.

But I got a good story out of it. I tried numerous creams and ointments to try to make the scar fade. Now I’m glad they didn’t work, and I’m left with a permanent reminder of my big furry friend. This scar makes Simon my own Schrödinger’s Cat, so that even when he does die, he will be both alive and dead simultaneously.

I wrote this a few days ago but something didn’t feel quite right about it, so I’ve been revising in the interim, and there are updates now to Simon’s condition.

The appetite stimulant seems to be working, and Simon ate a good amount of his breakfast today, some of it while sitting in Ross’s lap. He still wants to snuggle and purr and join his siblings in our bedroom (or at least, he wants to be on our bed, siblings or not). But the vet from the animal hospital called yesterday to let us know the latest tests confirmed our fears: cancer — an unspecified type of carcinoma. We have an appointment with a veterinary oncologist Wednesday to determine next steps, and we’ll get him started on steroids, which should help abate some of his symptoms. We know our time with Simon is short, and our focus is on making him comfortable instead of making him better. Hopefully he will at least kick the upper respiratory infection soon so his life can feel a little more normal.

But for now, he is happily purring in my lap, nudging my arm in a way that makes it clear he’d like me to put my phone down. So I will.

Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey

Written by

Teller of tales-mine and others'. Eater of foods-cooked and ordered. Yoga enthusiast. Phillies fan. Former Texan.

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