When Daddy was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. He was 91 years old, and I knew it was time to let him go. But as the diesease stole away his strength and made him so weak he could barely move or talk, I longed to make him feel as safe and secure in his last days as he'd always made me feel.
We put Daddy in hospice care. Mama, my brother, Bob, and I checked him in that first day. Mama set up flowers and plants in the private room, Bob lined family photos on Dad's bedside table where he could see them easily, and I slipped an extra pillow under his head. He stared out the window so fixedly, I wasn't even sure he knew we were in the room.
"I don't know if any of this helps, Daddy," I whispered to him, touching his outstretched hand. "I just wish you ucould tell me what you need." He squeezed my fingers with a familiar firmness, and our eyes met for a moment. Then his gaze lost focus and drifted away. Something brushed my leg, and I looked down. Sitting at my feet was a plump gray-and-white tabby cat. She looked up at me, eyes closing in a friendly cat-smile, then rubbed her soft, furry side against my leg.
"That must be the cat the nurse at the front desk was telling us about," Mama said, bending down to scratch her under the chin. "Her name is Hope."
"She lives here?" I asked. Bob picked the cat up and laid her carefully on the bed at Dad's feet.
"For some time now. Apparently she has a way with sick people," he said.
Hope glanced at Daddy, then made her way purposefully up the sheets, lay down beside his legs and began purring. A smile crept over the tired lines of Daddy's face. "Looks like she's made a new friend," Mama said.
For the rest of the day, Hope hardly left Dad's side. She lay curled in a gray ball on his legs as Mama, Bob and I sat by the bed. We read and talked to Daddy, and at first he seemed to understand. His eyes would even fill sometimes with that good humor we knew so well. But after a while he seemed to drift away, staring at the window or the wall.
By the end of the day, we'd all fallen into silence, watching the light grow dimmer through the window. The only sounds in the room were Daddy's slow breathing and Hope's purr, steady and gentle beneath it.
That first night, I stayed with Daddy. Bob had to work in the morning and Mama was worn out from the long day. I lay awake in the bed next to Daddy's, listening to him breathe. Staring into the darkness, I saw our whole life together: Daddy holding me as a baby, teaching me how to swim,how to dance, how to make a garden grow.
Daddy used to pick wildflowers by the hundreds and dry them for their seeds. These he carried in his pockets everywhere he went, and he scattered them by the handful wherever he found a bare patch of earth. I remembered my first day of school, how upset I had been at the thought of leaving him and Mama. But on the bus ride there, I'd seen bright yellow patches of Daddy's wildflowers all along the roadside, and I felt like he was still with me.
The next day, Daddy's condition was worse. His face was pale, and he looked at us with a blank, uncomprehending gaze. On the morning of the third day, he had a fit of trembling in his arms and legs so intense it shook the bed. I crawled in beside him and wrapped his body in my arks to stop the shaking. Dear Lord, help me comfort him. Hope jumped onto the bed and nestled a space for herself, with gentle insistence, between us. She propped her front paws on Daddy's stomach and brushed her tail against me.
After the trembling stopped, I returned to my bed. I'd always felt so safe when Daddy held me wrapped in his strong arms. It seemed impossible that this frail figure sleeping in the bed beside me could be the same man.
I turned onto my side, burying my face in the pillow, and tears sprang to my eyes. After a moment, something soft brushed against my nose, and I looked up. Hope had jumped onto the bed beside me, her silent warmth soothing my sorrow.
Daddy passed in and out of consciousness the whole next day, and I wondered with each breath if it would be his last. That night, I shut out the lights, feeling emotionally and physically drained. But as soon as my head touched the pillow, I felt a soft weight beside me. Almost every night after that, Hope slept in the bed beside me.
On the fifth day, Daddy's breathing became labored and erratic. Mama, Bob and I gathered around his bed. From her spot at her feet, Hope raised her head and perked up her ears. She seemed to study Daddy's face, then stood and padded quietly to his shoulder. She laid her head on the pillow by his ear and began to purr. Within minutes his breathing became peaceful once again.
Mama was so shaken by that close call that she had to leave the room and sit in the hall. Hope got up from her place on Daddy's pillow and followed her. As soon as I was sure his breathing had lapsed back to normal, I went to the door and looked out. Mama was holding Hope in her lap, her face pressed against the cat's soft fur, murmuring into her ear. Even as I watched, I could see the fear and heartache ease out of Mama's face.
After seven days in hospice care, Daddy fell into a deep, untroubled sleep from which we knew he wouldn't wake. We sat around his bed the last day, holding his hand and saying prayers.
Hope never left Daddy's hospice room once, not even to eat. We stroked her where she lay at Daddy's side, peacefully purring. And as we waited, that steady sound seemed to fill the room. When Daddy finally left this world, slipping easily from sleep, Hope continued to purr in his lap, soft as a whisper, until even she was quiet.
That spring, every road I drove down in our little town seemed to be lined with Daddy's wildflowers. They poked their yellow heads from empty lots and friends' gardens, brighter than they'd ever been before. And whenever I saw them I thought about the last week Daddy and I had spent together.
Somehow, I felt sure that I had been able to comfort Daddy in the little ways that matter most, and that he had understoodall the things I'd wanted to say to him. I think that was because Hope was there, passing between us. She knew exactly what we all needed. It was as simple as being together.
editor's note: Although Jane Jordan Heinrich has asked practically everybody in Baytown, Texas, nobody is sure how Hope the cat came to live in the fifth-floor hospice of the San Jacinto Hospital. "They all know her, though," Jane says. As Jane took some photos of Hope to the Fed Ex office, the clerk there remarked, "I know that cat! She looked after my dad!" Wherever Hope came from, there's no doubt she's found her home.