Monday, February 1, 2010

The Announcer

When one thinks of death, the image that often comes to mind is that of a scary-looking skeleton, enshrouded in a black cloak, branding a scythe. But what if the real “Grim Reaper” is instead attired in gray and white fur?

In ancient Egypt cats were believed to be the guardians of the land of spirits; their job was to ensure that souls who had departed didn’t try to escape and mingle in the world of the living. Furthermore, they had the task to guide the souls to their final resting place; their superior eyesight was essential during the journey across the divide. A few millennia later, this concept is coming back to life; personified, this time around, in the semblances of Oscar, a 5-year-old cat who was adopted as a kitten by the staff in 2005, and grew up in a third-floor dementia unit, at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The facility treats people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses. Oscar is not described as a “people’s cat”, and does not cuddle with anybody, but he will snuggle with patients in the final hours before their death. The accuracy of Oscar’s predictions of death is so high, that the staff of the nursing home relies on his “picks” to call the families of the dying patients as soon as he jumps on their beds.

In one of his books, Carlos Castaneda talks of a time when Juan Matus, his spiritual teacher, found himself in front of a dying man. Don Juan announced the man’s imminent departure because of an enlargement and opening of the other man’s solar plexus, the chakra located in the stomach area, which is believed to be the door used by the soul to leave the body. Could Oscar be picking up on the same thing? Animals are known to read energy fields much more proficiently than humans, so it would seem plausible. If he can, maybe he’s simply trying to facilitate the process by offering support, love and warmth to the sick person in transition. In one case, when Oscar was sent out of the room by a family member, he paced behind the closed door, meowing in displeasure. Regardless of the qualification of his gift, Oscar prevents sick patients from dying alone. Just this fact is enough to make him a valuable part of the staff.

Recently, Oscar’s unbelievable gift was profiled in a book written by David Dosa, a 37-year-old geriatrician and professor at Brown University in Providence, RI. The book is entitled “Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat”, and will be released this week. Dr. Dosa based his observation on five years worth of correct calls, and the response of many grateful families who could not be with their loved ones at the time of their departures.

Somehow, this story just makes me smile. Although I hope it will be many years before my trip on earth is over, the thought of a purring angel of death with whiskers and soft fur makes crossing through the veil sound like a very peaceful moment indeed.