25 March, 2021

Remembering Shawn Allin

Shawn at the Tikal Mayan ruins in Guatemala.
This will be the fourth blog post in a row that I've written about death, euthanasia, and/or suicide. Maybe you, the reader, will think this is a sign that I am focusing in an unhealthy way on these issues ever since Jasper's death last week. Well, maybe I am. It's been a difficult time for both Katherine and myself. Every time we reach over to pet Jasper only to find an empty armrest, it is a newly punched hole in our collective ability to be okay with how life is now.

However, this time I have an excuse. A few days ago, I received an email from someone asking me about my memories of Shawn Allin. Shawn was my friend, teacher, and mentor. His first day of teaching classes at Spring Hill College was also my first day of taking classes there. We hit it off immediately. Four years later, my final days at Spring Hill College were also his final days. Except instead of moving on, as I did, to places beyond the university, he died suddenly in his office, possibly of suicide.

Carpe Diem is near Spring Hill College.
I'm calling him Shawn now. It's weird because of course I'd call him Shawn now. We were friends. But when I met him, he was Dr. Allin to me, and when I think of him today, that's the name that pops up in my head. Still, I'll try to address him as Shawn here, as he undoubtedly would be addressed by me today, had he ended up living.

I knew only a small part of Shawn. I never visited his home. He never talked with me about his passion for motorcycles (nor of his apparently quite rad motorcycle helmet with satanic goat images airbrushed on it!). I never asked him about the rollerblades he used to travel on campus. We never discussed the obscure punk musical albums displayed in his office. The only times we had dinner together was when we both stayed late in the Chemistry building doing work of some kind. (I would help to analyze and graph data from his and his upper-level students' experiments.) But we did have lunch occasionally, and we would meet for afternoon tea at Carpe Diem. He would loan me countless books, which we'd then discuss later that week. We were close enough that when summer break came, he invited me to come with him to the badlands of South Dakota to dig for dinosaur bones

Shawn w/ Fr. Michael Williams
blessing Quinlan Hall in 2003.
But we never really talked about his personal hopes and dreams, nor the problems he was having after his divorce with his depression. I didn't learn about these things until after he died. Throughout the time I knew him, he kept his personal problems separate from his interactions with me.

Does this make me less of a friend? Or perhaps he had a personal rule not to fraternize too closely with students at the institution at which he worked? I don't know. I can't know. But he was certainly a friend to me, and I very much enjoyed his company.

The person who emailed me a few days ago asked me to tell a few stories about Shawn. I was given permission to also share those stories here, on my blog. These small stories come partly from the small sliver of his life that he chose to share with me, but also from the long discussions I had with others after his death.

Shawn's first class at Spring Hill was also my first class. This coincidence, alongside the fact that I was more of an adult than his other students (I was 21), meant that he ended up singling me out as an initial friend at the school. I remember going to his office after that first class and being amazed at all the cool knickknacks on his desk. There were mathematical structures, models of chemical bonds, simple physics machines…. But also there was a plethora of books.

Books were one of Shawn's things. He had a number of varied interests, and so obviously you might expect him to own books on several different topics. But he didn't just own the books in order to have the content at hand; he liked books for books' sake. Each book was treated extremely well. There were no marks within, no dog-eared copies. But you always could tell his books apart: he would emboss the title page of every book in his possession with his name: From the library of Shawn B. Allin. It was the only mark that you'd ever find in any of the books in his collection.

Shawn w/ Gregory Morgan at Rydex Commons
Nevertheless, within an hour of meeting him, he had already decided to loan two of his books to me. I was honored, especially as he gave a stern warning about how well to treat them. The first was The Panda's Thumb, by Stephen Jay Gould. I adored it. Gould was an excellent writer and Shawn was absolutely perfect in picking that first borrowed book to entice me to keep coming back for more. (After Shawn died, his family gave me his copy, which I treasure to this day.) The second was In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, by John Gribbin, which also enamored me. He had caught on quite quickly to my prior interests in quantum physics and skepticism, and chose perfectly to suit my interests. I stayed up half the night reading both books and returned them first thing in the morning before classes started. Upon their return, he smiled gently: "Eric," he started, in his distinct Canadian accent, "I anticipate this will be the start of a great friendship."

He continued to loan me books every week until I had exhausted the portion of his library that was suitable for me to read. (I turned down the motorcycle and punk rock books.) It was a tradition that lasted years, well after I had ceased taking any classes with him. In fact, I only took two classes of his in my freshman year. All of my interactions with him afterward were solely due to our friendship.

  • We toasted to the ill-fated Superconducting Super-Collider.
  • We discussed changes in our understanding of quasars, which were only just recently discovered to be different than how they were described in the books I had previously read about them.
  • We talked for hours about skepticism and its role in society; about Carl Sagan's excellent The Demon-Haunted World; and after he died, I attended several skeptic conferences like The Amaz!ng Meeting, where I met several of the authors whose books he had lent me.
  • In class, he would jump onto a chair to reach up high to the periodic table behind him and explain why it's grouped into four blocks, talking with a glint in his eye that showed his dedication to the topic.
  • He told me privately that my being a 21 year old freshman was a good thing, because my life experience is priceless: I appreciated college whereas so many other students did not.
  • Once, when we spoke of philosophical concepts that might not make sense, he argued that 'nothing' as a philosophical concept could only be the absence of properties, and could not properly be attributed properties in itself, as I was claiming at the time. (I have since come around to his point of view on this, but only much, much later, for different reasons than he was arguing.)

Gumbo Buttes of the Badlands.
I stayed w/ Shawn here to dig dino bones.
Despite being otherwise close to him, I didn't spend much time around Lynn, his wife. I'm not sure if he intended to keep these parts of his life separate, or if it was just happenstance. But every time I saw them together, he would use me to illustrate some point of his. I recall once that he had been having some friendly argument with Lynn, claiming that lots of people knew what buckyballs were. Lynn didn't believe him, so when I dropped by, he picked a buckyball model from one of his shelves and loudly asked: "Eric, tell Lynn here that you know what the name of this object is." I froze, stammering, and Lynn laughed: "See? No one knows what a buckyball is. You're just a bad judge of what is common knowledge."

1000 miles from Spring Hill College,
we traveled on this road in the Badlands.
Shawn helped to organize events that would help the students learn more about social justice. He set up a viewing of the movie Hotel Rwanda once in the main hall, and he'd often organize students around Amnesty International interventions. I can remember my fingers hurting after stuffing envelopes for hours; if I think long and hard, I may even be able to remember Condoleezza Rice's office address at the time. (My fingers hurt now just thinking about it.)

I suspect the divorce hit him hard. I can't say for sure, because he never talked about it with me. But a common friend of ours, Bill, was someone that he did confide in. I can relay a few things that I learned from Bill, though I learned these things only after Shawn died.

Covered w/ dirt for 65m years, but only
a few days in the sun bleached these bones white.
Another few weeks would ruin them.
Shawn had been dealing with bouts of depression for as long as Bill knew him. In 2001, these became more regular and more intense. He sought medical treatment for his depression, but it was sporadic at best. After the divorce (the summer before he died), Shawn spent three weeks in Marmarth, ND, with Bill. Bill has a place in Marmarth where he stays while he is doing fossil prospecting; I visited there in the summer previously with Shawn.

I wasn't there during those three weeks, but Bill says that Shawn was not only depressed, but also full of hatred. He was angry at his situation, at his marriage falling apart, and even at his fellow faculty. According to Bill, he had felt that he had found a home among like-minded faculty with a similar high level of standards, but for the previous year he had been very hard on his colleagues for not attaining the levels that he thought they should. Bill seemed to think that this feeling was borne more out of his depression than from how his fellow colleagues actually were. I can offer no opinion on this, because Shawn always hid this side of himself from me. But it was bad enough that he accepted a position at Monmouth College in Monmouth, IL, and was planning to leave Spring Hill College at the same time that I was.

He never ended up moving there, though. He died suddenly, in his office, only a month or so after accepting the position at Monmouth.

This is after digging for a bit.
Had I known he was going to die, I would have prioritized
taking photos with Shawn in them, rather than just of the bones.
I don't actually know what happened. His death could have been accidental. Certainly, it seems strange to accept a position elsewhere, earnestly go looking for a new house, and then to so quickly decide otherwise. But Bill believed his death may have been intentional. Certainly, if it was suicide, it was not due to his rational thought. Shawn most certainly had depression and had had it for a very long time. I never saw that side of him; he kept his depression hidden in all of his actions as a teacher. But his closer friends, like Bill, knew, and I wish so much that he had just figured out something that could have dealt with these extreme emotions pharmaceutically.

I should also mention that another very close friend of his does not believe it was suicide. They were high school sweethearts a long while previous, and had been talking again after Shawn's divorce. Mere hours before he died, he sent a very normal-seeming email to her. This may be taken as strong evidence that what happened was an accident, and not intentional. If there was a suicide note, it was kept private and I was never informed of it. I also know that he had just filled a new prescription the previous day for pneumonia. Maybe it was an allergic reaction? But, if so, this was never stated to be the case publicly. On balance, I believe that it was likely suicide.

Near Marmarth, ND.
In those days, I didn't have a mobile phone. As such, I don't have any personal photos of his office, nor of his person. The photos you see here are all that I have of him. All are taken by other people. It's strange, looking back on them. I have aphantasia, and so have a terrible memory for faces. Nevertheless just glancing through these photos immediately brings me back.

Shawn was my teacher. I didn't end up going into science, like he wanted, but when he learned that I'd switched to a double major in philosophy and mathematics, he would debate me endlessly on philosophy of science, Bayes' theorem, and the limits of what we can know. We were both staunch atheists, but for some reason we never talked about it. This may be because I was a student at (and he was a teacher at) a Jesuit university, and he seemed to have personal rules about what is or is not an appropriate topic of conversation with one of his students.

Shawn loved tortoises.
I don't know a whole lot about his life outside of Spring Hill College. But I did know him as a friend and mentor, and he definitely inspired me in particular to do and be a better person. I do not think that I would be as successful as I am today if it were not for some of his influences. His push for social justice in particular helped me to realize the direction of where I ended up today.

I'd also like to share a few other aspects of Shawn that the person who emailed me might not be aware of.

Shawn published 31 times in various chemistry journals. Five of those have been cited multiple times, and one, on the Solvent Effects of Molecular Hyperpolarizability Calculations, has an astonishing 47 citations today, 8 of which occurred within the last year. (For reference, a mere 10 citations already puts your work in the top 24% of the most cited work worldwide; 47 citations brings you closer to the top 3–5%.) This means that the work that Shawn provided to the scientific community lives on to this day.

Our department was well represented yesterday at Honors Convocation and Undergraduate Research Symposium. Dr Allyn...

Posted by Spring Hill College Department of Chemistry, Physics, Engineering on Saturday, April 21, 2018

Shawn has been memorialized in a dissertation. At Spring Hill College, exceptional chemistry students continue to earn the Shawn B. Allin Memorial Award each year. He is remembered years later as being a huge positive influence (see page 12). Alyn Gamble wrote an excellent article about him in Volume 86 Number 10 of the SpringHillian. (If you only click one link in this blogpost, click this one. Gamble is an excellent writer, and their article about Shawn in the school newspaper was very well done.)

In the years since I posted in my blog of Shawn's passing, I've received several emails. Here are a few excerpts from them:

"I grew up with Shawn in Sarnia, Ontario and from what I can gather, he was as beautiful a person 'all grown up' as he was when we were kids.  I was shocked and saddened by the news of his passing.  Always had hoped that I would have the chance to connect with him again someday.  Your website gave me a chance to do that.  I hold him in my heart.  Thank you."

"I know that he valued teaching and treasured those times when he knew that his efforts mattered to students. … Treasure those times when his efforts mattered."

"Shawn was my first love and we dated all through high school and during our 4 years at the University of Waterloo.  I also dated Shawn while be worked at EcoPlastics in Toronto but when things didn't work out, he returned to school (University of Guelph) and I moved on with my life. … I broke my leg about 3 weeks ago and had been talking with him daily due to my limited mobility.  We spent a lot of time discussing his challenges and we reviewed, in great detail, his career decisions and his acceptance of the offer in Ill. … Shawn has told me lots about you and his other friends at Spring Hill.  He mentioned that you were a superior human being and that he enjoyed all of his discussions with you over coffee at Carpe Diem.  I now wish that I had kept all of the messages that he sent me so that you could read - in Shawn's own words - how much he liked you and appreciated you as a friend."

"Shawn was the Allin's pride and joy - a doctor - a professor - a brilliant man with so much potential - let them know about the gifts that he gave to you and about your friendship - that will give them comfort."

Shawn was 41 when he died. I will turn 40 later this year. Maybe this means it is appropriate that I remember him now, as I am the age that he was when he was still loaning me books and grabbing a drink with me at Carpe Diem. I can only hope to make a difference as much as he did in his 41 years of life.

I miss you, Shawn. Thank you for being my friend.

17 March, 2021

Review: Two Arms and a Head

Two Arms and a Head: The Death of a Newly Paraplegic PhilosopherTwo Arms and a Head: The Death of a Newly Paraplegic Philosopher by Clayton Atreus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two days ago, I held Jasper in my arms as he died. My grief at his sudden death has overwhelmed me, and I've struggled to find ways to deal with it.

My latest method, apparently, has been to read this book-length suicide note by Clayton Atreus. I wouldn't say that it has helped much with my reaction to Jasper's passing, but I did find Two Arms and a Head compelling reading. Atreus became paraplegic in a tragic accident, and he ultimately disvalued the resulting life afterward so significantly that he committed suicide.

I doubt that I would have gotten along with Atreus, had I met him in his prime. His experience of life differs greatly from mine, and, to be quite honest, feels a bit shallow. But he is correct when he says that we are our own arbiters of our own value, and the fact that he values differently than I is not a good reason to dismiss his point of view.

Atreus gives a defense of his sanity in choosing to die prematurely, explaining his disagreements with other persons with a similar disability. He provides a cogent argument, even if in the process of doing so he shows just how different his values are from what I would consider the norm. Several times, he makes claims that I completely disagree with; I would certainly, for example, live 25 years in what he called a "head garden", as a full quadriplegic, rather than die immediately, and perhaps I fall prey to the same typical mind fallacy as he does when I say that I believe there are many who would agree with me rather than with him about this. Nevertheless, these disagreements are ultimately ones of personal value, and they do not harm the greater argument that he makes in his suicide note.

His disrespect for the larger community of activists with disabilities like his is tough to read. Rather than just argue against them, he uses derogatory terms for them that I find particularly distasteful. But, in a way, I almost want to forgive him for this, as from his perspective their actions certainly seem to have caused him a lot of unnecessary pain.

It's hard rating a text like this so highly. I can't stress how much I doubt I would have gotten along with someone as shallow as he in his prime. I find it utterly surprising that he can't even admit the possibility that people might not be lying when they say that they honestly can find life fulfilling and meaningful even with a major disability. I wonder if he would have been receptive to the argument that future humans might very well (in a post-singularity existence, for example) have access to abilities and experiences that we cannot currently imagine. Compared to these future specimens, our most thriving exemplars of humanity might be considered severely disabled. Yet we thrive nevertheless! And so could he, if he allowed himself to enjoy other things.

Then again, I imagine Atreus replying: that would not be me. And I suppose he'd be right, as he appears to define himself in just such a way that would make him impervious to this kind of argument. How convenient for him.

Jasper's death a few days ago was done as a form of euthanasia. The doctor put him to sleep, then stopped his heart. My heart broke in the process, too. Maybe it wasn't the best idea to seek out an essay that argues, in part, for allowing euthanasia of this kind. It hasn't helped me in any real way. But reading Atreus' words did help me to connect with Clayton Atreus, in an odd way, at least for the few hours that his text had me spellbound.

If you're interested in also connecting with him, I recommend the book. It's available in full at 2arms1head.com. Atreus is smart, writes well, is kind of an asshole, and he lacks sufficient epistemic humility. But his suicide note is worth reading, even if it uses unnecessary derogatory terms in several places. I'm going to go ahead and give him a break on that, given the fact that he's doing it while in the process of preparing to end his own life.

Note: While Two Arms and a Head is recommended, I didn't bother reading his contemporary account of the accident, which he also posted on forums as it happened here: advrider.com/f/threads/seattle-to-arg...

View all my reviews

15 March, 2021

ἔσχατος ἐχθρὸς καταργεῖται ὁ θάνατος

Twitter user @jimkwik asked the other day for the happiest 4 word story people could come up with. Before deleting his response in favor of AI alignment message marketing, Eliezer Yudkowsky answered: “Death isn’t the end.”

He's right. Death is the scourge of value at the individual level. We must do what we can to stop it.

I won't spend time here defending the idea that reducing deaths are important. The trite arguments about overpopulation and death being part of life are easily dispatched even through listening to a bit of light fiction, such as CGP Grey’s retelling of Nick Bostrom’s Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant. (I prefer the sheer power of Bostrom's original essay, but Grey's adapted and animated version also hits the main ideas well enough.)

Dylan Thomas is right: We should not go gentle into that good night; we must rage against the dying of the light. Certainly this is true if you believe in the A-theory of time, but I think it remains nearly as true even if you subscribe to the B-theory of time. If having a bar of chocolate is good, having a longer bar of chocolate may be better. So, too, is this true if we extend the length of time that we exist.

(I want to take a moment here to address the idea that the B-theory of time should make us more accepting of death. The question is: more accepting than what in comparison? If you start out believing naively that the A-theory of time is the only possible situation that can hold true, then you may think that death is a kind of erasure. If you believe this, then learning of the B-theory of time will give comfort in realizing that, even after death, one still exists, just earlier in time. And this is no less of an existence than saying that one still exists even if they are far to the left of where your reference point lies. So it is true that, in this situation, understanding that {the B-theory of time might be a better way of looking at things} will result in one feeling more comfortable with death than they were previously. But that doesn't mean we should be accepting of it! Just because a store of value still exists unerased does not mean that we should not lament not having even more of that store of value if that death had not occurred.)

Eneasz Brodski's HPMOR podcast
is particularly well done.
Fiction is rife with this idea. The title of this journal entry, ἔσχατος ἐχθρὸς καταργεῖται ὁ θάνατος, comes from 1 Corinthians, where the hero, the literal second coming of Jesus, will, after defeating all tyrants and evil-doers, take on the final enemy: death itself. This idea, that death is the ultimate enemy, is one which inspires me greatly. The central theme of Yudkowsky's Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality may be (obviously) the methods of rational thinking, but the end goal — the only end goal if you find yourself in sudden possession of magical ability — is to figure out how to end death. (Well, I guess not the only end goal. But you know what I mean.) This theme continues beautifully in Alexander Davis' sequel Significant Digits, and even further in Nanashi Saito's further sequel Orders of Magnitude. While these stories are merely rational fiction, they should and do inspire those of us who want to do what we can to further the lifespan of all of us.

(Incidentally, while I fully endorse reading at least HPMOR if you have any interest in rational fiction and the Harry Potter fictional setting, its anti-death message is only the 2nd most inspiring concept I've encountered in fiction. Hal Clement's much shorter Mission of Gravity has a surprisingly heartfelt message that I find even more inspiring. It's not rational fiction, but it's perhaps one of my favorite hard science fiction stories written prior to the past couple of decades.)

My beloved companion, Jasper Hess.
Yesterday, Jasper died. The grief I felt from his sudden absence remains greater than any prior grief I've ever felt. Jasper was a daily part of my life for the past eight years. He was a beloved part of my close personal family. I feel utterly distraught by his sudden death.

Seeking comfort, my mind went to possible situations that would allow him to still exist. For others, this might have consisted of visions of heaven. Of his soul continuing on in some other place, or in another time. Perhaps of reincarnation, or as the oneness of all things. But I don't particularly take stock in non-physicalist theories (as does 56% of professional philosophers (the 2020 philpapers survey will update this soon!)), so this is not where my mind went.

Fleetingly, I reminded myself of the B-theory of time. That Jasper exists still, but…his existence now is still. I received little comfort.

Then I thought of the possible infinite extent of the universe. Even in the least exotic Tegmark level 1 infinite universe, there are only so many combinations of rearranged Planck-length particles that can occur in a given observable universe. (If you have a set of 100 lego bricks, and you are instructed to build something out of them in a given standard amount of space, and then you repeat this ad infinitum, then you can only make so many things before you start to repeat yourself. If the universe is level 1 infinite in extent, then there are infinite observable-universe-size volumes, in which only a finite number of lego bricks (5.4x10^61 planck lengths) can exist. Therefore, unless there is some reason to suspect a form of order in that infinitude that precludes there being other copies of you, there almost certainly exist other copies of you.) I imagined Jasper living still, but then I thought also of him as a Boltzmann brain, and the comfort was ruined. S-risks threatened to take over in my imagination, so I relented and briefly stopped thinking about infinities.

I am still so attached to the continuity of consciousness. It's hard to envision the set of all versions of me as the proper reference class, rather than just this one instance. I keep thinking that I am separate from other identical versions of me, and this results in the horror that death remains the end, even when identical copies exist elsewhere. Yet I know that many people that I highly respect maintain that instead we should consider ourselves to be the group of all identical people, and that when time causes that identicality to break because of different circumstances, our awareness will follow probabilistically to the various outcomes. This gives us the idea of quantum immortality, but it is more than this: it provides immortality even amongst other situations where copies exist elsewhere, e.g., in other Tegmarkian levels.

From here we get to Greg Egan's Dust Theory, which he introduces in the scifi novel Permutation City. (If these concepts are new to you, I highly suggest reading the novel before looking at the dust theory faq, as the novel properly dramatizes the unveiling of the theory in a way that is spoiled if you understand the theory first.)

Further afield (or perhaps less afield?) are the strange loops from Douglas Hofstadter, which holds that we exist in others' minds. (His I am a Strange Loop is well worth reading, regardless of how seriously you end up taking the thesis.)

But even if Jasper's existence remains through any of these ideas, I no longer have access to him. He isn't here. I cannot hold him. These otherwise comforting ideas just don't emotionally help me in the here and now. Jasper is dead, and the me that exists writing this cannot be with him.

There are worse things than death. Existential risk, for example, seems worse because it is a kind of mega-death. But also Roko's Basilisk-esque S-risk scenarios are technically worse outcomes, and maybe Nell Watson's W-risk scenarios are equally frightening. But the death of an individual nevertheless still unnerves me. Maybe death is not technically the ultimate enemy. But these other end bosses seem like exceptionally powerful optional bosses, not the main villain of the story.

So is it strange that I have not yet signed up for cryonics?

Don't get me wrong: the likelihood of cryonics being able to extend my lifespan is very, very low. You might be tempted to call it negligible. But the upside, if it works, is so great that even an exceptionally tiny chance cannot be immediately dismissed as negligible. If the cost is not so high for insurance that would pay for cryonics, then why not take the chance? The expected value is surely positive here, even if the absolute chance of it paying out is incredibly low.

Yet I still have not signed up. I feel wary of this being an example of Pascal's mugging. But, if one day I do sign up, how bad will it have been to know that I did not also sign up Jasper? I feel torn.

Death may not be the ultimate enemy, but it is surely close enough that we should all band together to defeat it. The effective altruism arguments for organizations like the SENS Research Foundation seem interestingly compelling, especially while I grieve for Jasper, but then I remember that we are not the only ones that matter. As Pablo Stafforini so astutely points out:

"Longevity research occupies an unstable position in the space of possible EA cause areas: it is very 'hardcore' and 'weird' on some dimensions, but not at all on others. The EAs in principle most receptive to the case for longevity research tend also to be those most willing to question the 'common-sense' views that only humans, and present humans, matter morally. But, as you note, one needs to exclude animals and take a person-affecting view to derive the 'obvious corollary that curing aging is our number one priority'. As a consequence, such potential supporters of longevity research end up deprioritizing this cause area relative to less human-centric or more long-termist alternatives."

It is perhaps selfishness that makes me feel as I currently do. At the end, I just want Jasper back. I want the events of the past few days to be undone, All Night Laundry-style.

And so I cry.

14 March, 2021

Jasper Hess

Jasper occasionally
has a drinking problem.
When Jasper was young, his nickname was Saucer Eyes. Such huge eyes on such a tiny kitty! His human family at the time was normal, I suppose, but not what I would call great. They bought him, presumably, from a breeder, as he is full blooded Himalayan. They had his front claws taken out, presumably because they valued their furniture more than his lack of suffering. But they were still loving, in their own way, welcoming him into their home.

Welcoming, that is, until, when Jasper was but two, it turned out that one of the human children turned out to be severely allergic to Jasper’s fur. He had been part of their loving home, but now he had to go. While they didn’t want to send him to a pound, they did start asking among friends and family who might be able to take him in. And so word got around, the sister of the human parent talked about it while doing hair at the salon, and Terry spoke up: “I know the perfect person who can take care of Jasper.

Terry’s daughter, Katherine, soon met with Jasper. It was an uneasy meeting at first. Jasper does NOT like change. Upon seeing his new home, he hid and was not seen for days, only coming out for water, food, and the litter box. But Katherine was persistent, and after a few days of hiding in his new home, Jasper left a dead bug on the table where Katherine ate breakfast each morning. It was at this moment that she realized it was all going to work out.

Now, Jasper is 18 years old. He has slowed down. He doesn’t play with toys anymore. He’s been eating less. But he is still a beloved part of this family, and he always will be.

But cats’ lives are short. Jasper nears the end of his life. Today, as I write this, he is in the emergency room. They are doing blood work and giving an MRI. Afterward, we are not sure what will happen. He has not been well lately. His has lost proprioceptive knowledge of where his back feet are. He has lost enough muscle mass that he has very little energy. But worse: he has been acting confused. He has been acting out of character in terms of where he chooses to walk. He appears to have some sort of possible neurological issues.

Soon, we will find out if these issues are temporary, possibly as side effects to a new medication that he has recently been put on, or if this is a newly arisen problem that we can’t really do that much to help about. If the former, then we will get more time with him. If the latter…

Jasper is a beloved member of our family. Grief haunts this moment of time, caught between the emotional turmoil of rushing to the hospital and when we learn what will happen next. For now, we are stuck in the car. Covid prevents us from being able to even be in the building where Jasper now is being examined. The wait is excruciating.

Last evening I slept while Katherine stayed up with Jasper. When I woke, she slept, and I took care of Jasper. Mostly this consisted of holding him, trying to encourage him to eat, allowing him to get down when he wanted. During my time with him, I let him walk around as he chose, even though it was strangely out of character for him. Eventually, he would run out of energy, and I would retrieve him, bringing him to my arms and giving him care. By the late morning, I gave him to Katherine, though she still slept, and let him rest in her arms. They stayed like this for several hours. But, after a time, he seemed uncomfortable, yet was too weak even to move himself to a better position. That’s when I helped to rearrange how he lay, and woke Katherine to let her know the issue. We called his petsitter, who asked us questions to see what we should do, and he started to open his mouth, breathing no longer solely through his nose. This was enough to cause us to get to the car and drive here, where we now wait.

We love you, Jasper.
The wait. It rests uneasily. Not being able to even be in the building with him now… It hurts. The saying, I think, is that fear can be palpable; only now do I feel it in just this way. It is like a fog around me, obstructing not my movement nor my sight, but my… …? Obstructing my courage, maybe? It’s strange. I can _feel_ the fear trapping me in. But I don’t know how to convey it other than to say: my fear is palpable.

Soon, we will get a call. The doctor on the other end will just be a few meters away, inside the building in front of us. She will be with Jasper. She will tell us what will happen next. But for now I wait.




Edit a few hours later:
Jasper is dead. He died in our arms. I feel terrible.






This afternoon Eric and I held Jasper the cat as he passed away. For sixteen years, he has been my constant companion...

Posted by Katherine Hess on Sunday, March 14, 2021