When Mrs Rothstein took her last breath at two minutes past three last Monday, it didn't come as a big surprise. After all, Harry had stayed in her room for two nights in a row. And whenever Harry decides to make a night-time visit, it only means one thing. Someone is about to kiss this world goodbye. Deep down I believe Mrs Rothstein realised that too, because when I spoke to her a couple of hours before she passed away, she gave me a tired smile and told me she was ready. And just as sure as night is followed by day, Harry came dashing out of her room when the nurse came to check on her a few minutes later. He had a satisfied, almost arrogant look on his face, as if he wanted her to know that his work was done. Then when he reached the double doors at the end of the corridor, he turned around and let out a satisfied meow, before disappearing down the stairs.
That’s our Harry, a fourteen year old black and white American Shorthair cat, and now that you've been introduced to him, it's probably time I tell you a little bit about myself. My name is David Dubinsky, and I work as a night supervisor at 'The Meadows', a medium sized nursing home somewhere on the east coast. The place is nothing special, in fact there's one just like it in every town and city across the nation. A place where old people come to die when they can no longer look after themselves.
A lot of folks think of it as a depressing place, but I have no problems with it. It's an easy job, and more importantly the pay is decent. Besides, most nights are quiet so I get to do my own thing. That's probably why I've stayed here for as long as I have. In July I will have spent eight years here.
However my stint at ‘The Meadows’ is nowhere as long as Harry's, but then again he's an old-timer. When I arrived here he was well into his fourth year of patrolling its corridors and sleeping on its beds. He was bequeathed to the home by a relative of a former client – that’s how the management prefer that we refer to our patients - who had closed her eyes for the last time.
And here's the thing. During the seven and a half years that I've spent here, I've never once seen Harry not accurately predicting a death. He always gets it right, and as you can imagine in a place such as this, it happens on a regular basis. At least once a week there are people 'checking out'. Add it all up and you get quite a substantial number of deaths.
The pattern is always the same. Two days before it happens, Harry will jump up on the bed in question, snuggle up to its occupant’s feet and just lie there and let us know that the room will soon be available for another tired soul. If there are multiple deaths, meaning that more than one client is ready to switch off their lights at the same time, Harry will simply divide his attention between the various beds.
You'd think it’d be a fairly horrific experience to have Harry snuggle up next to you, given his uncanny ability to foresee the end, but that isn't the case. Most of our patients suffer from dementia and other cognitive ailments, and are thus blissfully unaware of the significance of his presence. They just see him as a cat, who wants to spend some time with them.
But someone like Mrs Rothstein, who is alert until the very end, probably knows what it means. That's just the way it is. Word gets around, even if you try to keep a lid on it. And in those cases, you'd think his presence would upset them, but oddly enough it doesn't. I guess when you’ve reached that last leg of your journey, after having travelled for eighty or ninety odd years; you've come to terms with your fate and are ready to embrace whatever is waiting on the other side.
And why not?
The kids have all grown up and lead their own lives, more often than not somewhere far away and only come visiting once or twice a year. Friends and acquaintances have passed away, and you feel like you don't have a purpose in life anymore. You've done your bit, and all you’re really doing is waiting, day in and day out. The only thing that changes are the days on the calendar and your growing sense of isolation and loneliness.
You do that for a few years, all by yourself in an institution filled with people, the majority of whom are incapable of engaging in a meaningful conversation, and dying no longer seems like such a bad option. It becomes something you welcome and pray for. In the end you accept that your work here on earth is done and that the time has come to hand over the baton to someone else.
Now that I’ve provided you with some background information, it's time for me to get to the point. To get the awful burden I’ve been carrying around off my chest. It's something that has been bothering me, and I don't quite know how to interpret it. I don't know if I should be worried, or whether there's a completely rational explanation to it all. It's been going on for two nights now, and I haven't been able to sleep because of it. Nor will I be able to do so until I have my answer. I guess I’ll find out one way or the other when this night finally turns into day. Then and only then will I be able to close my eyes and sleep peacefully.
You see, Harry came snuggling up to my feet when my shift started last night. And not once during that time did he get up. He just kept looking at me every now and then with eyes that were filled with sadness. And whenever I met his gaze, he quickly looked away as if he’d done something wrong. At first I wasn't that worried, thinking he just wanted some company. But as the hours dragged on and he continued to hang around, I started to worry. And when I drove home the following morning anxiety kicked in. And it didn't exactly ease when he came sauntering into my office earlier this evening when I started my shift. He just walked over to my chair like he did yesterday and parked his furry self next to my feet. That was three hours ago, and he hasn't moved since.
I don't know what to make of it. It has never happened before. In fact it's the first time I've ever seen him in my office. Normally when he's not sleeping in one of the clients' beds, he can be found in the big communal living room down on the ground floor, tucked up on the couch, catching up on his beauty sleep.
Now, I’m reasonably fit, having turned sixty only a few months ago. I don't have any ailments or defects that I'm aware of, so the odds of something serious happening to me tonight are extremely slim. But still, it’s unnerving. Harry is exhibiting the exact same signs that he is whenever one of our clients are about to die. The only difference this time is that I'm the sole focus of his attention.
I sincerely hope that this night shall be an uneventful one, and that it shall pass without any dramas of any kind. I'm nearing my retirement, but I still got another twenty or so years left in me before I'm ready to kick the bucket. Hopefully Harry just got tired of sleeping on the beds and decided he wanted a change of scenery.
At least that's what I hope...