Chester, the Cat
Carrie Hutton reached into her mailbox, took out the stack of mail and thumbed through the envelopes that were folded inside a Kohl's circular and a Harriet Carter catalog: car insurance bill, phone bill, electric bill, Visa statement, a past due invoice from her doctor's office and a second notice from her auto mechanic.
Fighting her mounting frustration, she walked into her efficiency apartment and tossed the mail on her kitchen table. She then went to the refrigerator and took out the pasta with Ragu sauce that was left over from the previous night's dinner. It wasn't a very appetizing meal, but it was cheap. After she finished eating, Carrie washed her meal down with a glass of tap water—no Evian or Dasani on her budget. She eyed the stack of bills and frowned as she walked out of the kitchen.
After taking a shower and washing her hair, she sat on the couch, curled her legs up beneath her and reached for her novel on the end table.
Thank God for the public library, the only free form of entertainment left, she thought as she escaped her never-ending financial problems by engrossing herself in a world of fiction.
Such was Carrie Hutton's life, but all this was about to change.
* * *
The following afternoon, while Carrie was sitting at her desk typing a deposition for her employer, a criminal defense lawyer in Essex Green, she received a telephone call from the Puritan Falls Hospital informing her that her grandmother had been taken to the emergency room.
"Don't get upset. It's nothing serious," Sarah Ryerson, the emergency room doctor, assured her. "Your grandmother just sprained her ankle, but given her age, we would like to keep her overnight for observation. She should be able to go home tomorrow."
As she was leaving the hospital, Carrie encountered Great Aunt Sophie, her grandmother's younger sister.
"Is Norma all right?" Sophie asked anxiously.
"Yes. It was only a sprained ankle."
"Oh, thank God! I've been so worried about her, living all by herself in that big house."
"Maybe it's time to think about putting her in a nursing home."
Sophie looked horrified.
"I couldn't do that. My sister would never forgive me. Norma told me years ago, after your grandfather passed away, that she wanted to remain in that house and die in her own bed. I tried to talk her into moving into the seniors housing complex with me, but she wouldn't hear of it."
Carrie shrugged with indifference.
"Well, if she doesn't want to leave, I don't suppose you can make her."
Sophie's face suddenly lit up.
"I've got a fantastic idea! You're not married yet. Why don't you move in with your grandmother? That way you can be there in case she should fall or something."
"But I work during the day."
"That's no problem. I can go over there a few times a week and keep an eye on her while you're working."
Carrie took several minutes to consider the possibilities such an arrangement presented. While the idea of playing babysitter to a senile old woman didn't leave her overjoyed, the financial benefits couldn't be ignored. With no rent or utility bills, she could really put a dent in her credit card balance.
"Okay," she agreed. "I'll pack a few things tonight and move in tomorrow when Grandma gets out of the hospital."
* * *
Surprisingly, Carrie's life changed little after moving in with her grandmother: it still sucked. The only difference was that when she came home from work, she cooked dinner for two rather than one. Night after night Grandma sat on the couch monopolizing the remote control, delighting in one moronic reality show after another. Because of her failing hearing, she kept the volume turned up to the point where her granddaughter could no longer concentrate on what she was reading, and Carrie invariably had to put down her book until the old woman finally went upstairs to bed.
After just a few weeks, Norma's choice of television programs began to grate on the younger woman's nerves.
"There are millions of hard-working people in this world busting their asses to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, and these damned fools just throw their money away!" she exclaimed while her grandmother watched an episode of Platinum Weddings.
"Your wedding gown was much prettier than hers is," Norma announced.
Carrie didn't bother to tell the old woman that she'd never been married. It wouldn't have done any good anyway since Norma, who had been suffering from dementia for several years, often spoke in non sequiturs.
"More than half a million dollars for a wedding!" Carrie muttered with disgust. "And they will probably be divorced in less than two years. Christ! If I had that much money I would be able to pay off all my bills and still have enough left over to buy a nice condo and a new car."
"Money? What do you need money for, dear? You can live here with me for as long as you like, and after I'm gone, you will inherit this house and all my money."
Carrie wasn't sure if the old woman was speaking rationally or if she was having another senior moment, but the mere mention of a possible inheritance was enough to make Carrie's spirits rise.
The following morning she telephoned her grandmother's attorney. The lawyer confirmed that Norma did have a will and that Carrie was the sole heir. Her heart raced. The house must be worth close to $750,000, and that was a conservative estimate. Then there were the expensive antique furnishings, the silverware and the jewelry. And there might be bank accounts and investments as well. She couldn't help wondering just how much money she would inherit when her grandmother died. Knowing the ninety-two-year-old woman probably would not have many years left, Carrie happily endured life in the old house in Puritan Falls, all the while dreaming of the luxury condo she would buy when Norma finally passed away.
Then, seven months after Carrie had moved into her grandmother's house, the old woman's health began to deteriorate. The decline began when she caught the flu, which quickly turned into a mild case of pneumonia.
"I'm afraid the prognosis is not good," Dr. Sarah Ryerson informed Carrie when Norma was brought into the hospital for an upper respiratory ailment. "I'm sorry."
"Thank you. I suppose at her age, it's to be expected."
"Your grandmother is going to need full-time medical care."
"You mean she has to remain in the hospital?"
"I don't think hospitalization is necessary. There's an excellent nursing home in Copperwell. I think you might want to consider placing your grandmother there."
"Good nursing homes are expensive," Carrie said, expressing her concern for the cost of such care. "How long are we talking about?"
"A few months at most. Sadly, I don't believe your grandmother will last much longer than that. If you would like, I can make a call to the administrator and see if there are any rooms available."
Carrie was torn. On one hand, the weight of having to keep watch over her dying grandmother would be lifted from her shoulders, but on the other the cost of the nursing home would reduce her inheritance.
"Thank you, doctor. I'd appreciate that," she said, foolishly making an immediate decision.
It's Murphy's Law at work; it has to be! Carrie thought with exasperation when several days after her grandmother was transferred from the Puritan Falls Hospital to the Laurel Springs Home for the Aged, the old woman's health began to show definite signs of improvement.
Six months after moving into the nursing home Norma was gaining strength and giving every indication of lingering on for months, possibly even years. There were several nights when Carrie cried herself to sleep, imagining her inheritance ticking away like the dial on a gas pump.
* * *
One day at work Carrie was having a sandwich with Tracey Lutz, a fellow secretary, in the law office's lunchroom.
"There's an article here in the Boston Globe about Laurel Springs nursing home," Tracey announced, lifting her head up from the newspaper she was reading. "Isn't that where your grandmother is?"
"Yes. Why? What does it say?" Carrie asked, hoping the nursing home was guilty of some gross negligence that would allow her to sue them for a substantial sum of money.
"Apparently they have a cat there that knows when a patient is about to die—I didn't know they allowed animals in nursing homes."
"There are a number of pets in that place: cats, fish, birds," Carrie explained, disappointed that there wouldn't be grounds for a financial settlement. "I suppose the owners think the animals give comfort and companionship to the elderly."
"That's so sweet," Tracey gushed.
"What's this about a cat that knows when people are going to die?"
"One of the doctors at the nursing home claims the cat shows up in the patient's room, jumps up on the bed and cuddles up to the dying man or woman. An hour or so later ...."
She let her voice trail off, not wanting to remind her coworker of the inevitable.
"Are you sure you're reading the Boston Globe and not the National Tattler?" Carrie asked with a laugh.
"The story is on the level. In fact, there's going to be a write-up on the cat in the New England Journal of Medicine. Here, see for yourself."
Carrie read the article but put little credence in it. Her incredulity, however, didn't stop her from mentioning the extraordinary animal to one of the nurses at Laurel Springs when she saw a gray striped feline sitting on a stack of patients' files one day while she was visiting her grandmother.
"Is that the cat that can predict the future?" she joked.
The nurse laughed.
"No, that's Buttons," Nurse Violet Jenner replied, affectionately scratching the gray cat's neck. "Chester is the one with the unusual gift."
"Let me guess. This Chester is a black cat, right? No wonder it's bad luck to have a black cat cross your path."
"Actually, Chester is orange, like Morris the cat on the 9 Lives commercials."
"Chester the orange cat," Carrie chuckled, "a.k.a. the Grim Reaper."
"Chester's remarkable ability to sense imminent death is nothing to ridicule, Miss Hutton. He brings peace and a gentle passing to the patients here. He's been more compassionate with the dying than many doctors and nurses I've seen."
"And where is Chester now?"
"He's sleeping in the solarium. He only goes into a patient's room when the end is near."
"Thanks for the warning. If I see an orange cat in my grandmother's room, I'll be sure to ring for the emergency resuscitation team."
* * *
Carrie's patience was beginning to wear thin. Her credit card balance had steadily decreased over the past year, but she was still in debt. To make matters worse, her car was on its last legs. The mechanic had given it six months at most—too bad he wasn't as prone to error as her grandmother's doctor apparently was.
"Where am I going to find the money for another car?" she moaned as she sat at her grandmother's kitchen table, eating a bowl of granola cereal for breakfast.
A second, less urgent but more cataclysmic question wracked her brain, a question she dared not utter. How long would it be until the nursing home bills ate up the old woman's assets? Where would Carrie go if the house had to be sold?
"It's not fair," she cried. "Why spend all that time and money keeping a half-comatose, ninety-three-year-old woman alive?"
With the weight of despair bearing down on her, Carrie got dressed and drove to Laurel Springs. It was Sunday, the day she visited her grandmother. The visits seemed so pointless, yet Carrie and her Great Aunt Sophie continued the once-a-week pilgrimage to the nursing home in Copperwell despite the fact that Norma slept most of the time they were there, and on those rare occasions when she was awake, she was usually delusional.
Later that afternoon, as Carrie and Great Aunt Sophie sat watching an old Bette Davis movie on the portable television in Norma's room, Nurse Jenner walked in with the old woman's medication in a small paper cup.
"She's sleeping so peacefully; I hate to wake her up," the nurse declared.
"Why don't you leave her pills with me?" Sophie offered. "I'll give them to her when she wakes up."
At 2:45, during the commercial break of the Bette Davis movie, Sophie went into the bathroom. As soon as she heard the door click shut behind her, Carrie picked up the red and yellow capsule that stabilized her grandmother's blood pressure, opened it and poured the white powder into a vase of flowers at the old woman's bedside.
God helps them that help themselves, she thought without guilt.
Moments later a devious smile appeared on Carrie's face when she saw the orange cat in the hall outside her grandmother's room. It was Chester, and if what everyone at Laurel Springs said about him was true, he was indeed a welcome sight.
Around three o'clock, Sophie gently shook her sister.
"Wake up, Sleeping Beauty," she said cheerfully. "It's time to take your medicine."
With her sister's help, the old woman swallowed the cup full of pills, including the empty red and yellow capsule, and washed them down with a glass of water. When the Bette Davis movie ended, it was Sophie who suggested she and Carrie leave.
"It's time for us to go now, Norma," she told her sister, who continued to stare at something neither of the other two women could see. "You get some rest, and we'll be back next Sunday."
"She was looking better today, don't you think?" Carrie asked, projecting an exuberance that wasn't entirely artificial.
"I have this horrible feeling, this sense of foreboding ...."
The old woman suddenly stopped speaking when she saw a large orange cat standing beside the nurses' station. Was he waiting?
* * *
Carrie Hutton's silent vigil began that Sunday evening when she arrived home from Laurel Springs. She knew that if something happened to her grandmother, the nursing home would immediately phone her. She nervously paced the floor like an expectant father, trying to will the phone to ring, but the silence of the room was broken only by the sound of her footsteps.
"Damn it! How long is she going to hold on to life?"
Carrie had nothing against Norma. On the contrary, in her own twisted way, she loved her grandmother and viewed the old woman's death as a blessing for both of them. What kind of life did Norma have? Wasn't death with the hope of going on to a better place preferable to her moribund existence?
It was after midnight when Carrie finally walked upstairs to her room and went to bed, cursing her perpetual bad luck. The call finally came the following morning.
"We don't think your grandmother is in any immediate danger," the doctor informed her, "but we wanted you to be aware of the change in her condition. We've increased the dosage of her blood pressure medication accordingly. We'll keep you posted on her progress."
Carrie's hopes skyrocketed. The new, higher dosage on top of the complete lack of medication the previous day might have a devastating effect on the old woman's health.
That evening Carrie stopped at Laurel Springs on her way home from work.
"How's my grandmother?" she asked the attending physician, intent on maintaining the appearance of a worried granddaughter up to the very end.
The doctor took her by the arm and pulled her aside.
"She's slipping fast," he announced in a soft, compassionate tone he reserved for the next of kin. "I must be honest with you. I'm afraid it doesn't look good."
Carrie lowered her eyes so the doctor wouldn't be able to read the delight she felt that the old woman would finally shuffle off the mortal coil, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare.
"I think I'll sit with her awhile."
"Good idea," the doctor agreed.
As Carrie walked down the hall toward her grandmother's room, she was pleased to see Chester coming from the opposite direction.
"Here, kitty, kitty," she called to him from the doorway, and the orange cat followed her inside. "That's a good cat."
She expected Chester to jump up on her grandmother's bed, to lie beside the old woman and purr while he kept his deathwatch. Instead, the cat circled around Carrie's legs, rubbing against her calves and meowing softly.
"No, Chester, go by Grandma Norma."
She picked up the animal and placed him on the bed, but Chester apparently had a mind of his own. He jumped down and continued to walk around Carrie's legs.
Chester looked up at the young woman with its piercing green eyes, and Carrie shivered. Suddenly the sight of the cat terrified her.
"Go away! Scat! Shoo!"
Chester pressed up against her leg. Carrie took a quick step back and lost her footing.
* * *
"What was that?" the nurse's aide asked when she heard a noise coming from Norma's room.
"It sounds like someone fell," Nurse Jenner replied, hurrying to see if the old woman was injured.
The two women found the patient's granddaughter sprawled on the floor with Chester beside her.
"Quick. Go get Doctor Garcia," Violet ordered.
Alas, there was nothing to be done for Carrie Hutton. While trying to avoid contact with the cat, she had fallen and hit her head on the metal cabinet in her grandmother's room. The blow was severe enough to cause death.
"I could have told you she was dead," Violet whispered to the nurse's aide after Carrie's body was removed from the room.
"Chester," she replied nodding her head in the direction of the orange cat. "As soon as I saw him walk past the nurses' station, I knew somebody's time had come."
The nurse's aide stared in awe as Chester walked out of Norma's room and headed toward the solarium, where he jumped up onto the windowsill and promptly fell asleep.
This story is based on Oscar the Cat whose incredible story appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Boston Globe.
Salem isn't able to sense imminent death, but he has been known to detect the smell of chocolate on someone's breath from as far as a hundred feet away.