Psychopomp

Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings links to an article about a cat who lies down, apparently without fail, next to people in the dementia ward of a nursing home, when they’re about to die.

Twenty-five minutes later, the door finally opens, and out walks a nurse’s aide carrying dirty linens. “Hello, Oscar,” she says. “Are you going inside?” Oscar lets her pass, then makes his way into the room, where there are two people. Lying in a corner bed and facing the wall, Mrs. T. is asleep in a fetal position. Her body is thin and wasted from the breast cancer that has been eating away at her organs. She is mildly jaundiced and has not spoken in several days. Sitting next to her is her daughter, who glances up from her novel to warmly greet the visitor. “Hello, Oscar. How are you today?”

Oscar takes no notice of the woman and leaps up onto the bed. He surveys Mrs. T. She is clearly in the terminal phase of illness, and her breathing is labored. Oscar’s examination is interrupted by a nurse, who walks in to ask the daughter whether Mrs. T. is uncomfortable and needs more morphine. The daughter shakes her head, and the nurse retreats. Oscar returns to his work. He sniffs the air, gives Mrs. T. one final look, then jumps off the bed and quickly leaves the room. Not today.

Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar arrives at Room 313. The door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar’s presence. Concerned, she hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. She grabs Mrs. K.’s chart off the medical-records rack and begins to make phone calls.

Within a half hour the family starts to arrive. Chairs are brought into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is called to deliver last rites. And still, Oscar has not budged, instead purring and gently nuzzling Mrs. K. A young grandson asks his mother, “What is the cat doing here?” The mother, fighting back tears, tells him, “He is here to help Grandma get to heaven.” Thirty minutes later, Mrs. K. takes her last earthly breath. With this, Oscar sits up, looks around, then departs the room so quietly that the grieving family barely notices.

Various commenters at ObWi gave their theories about how Oscar senses impending death. Maybe smell; maybe some sort of electrical sense like sharks have. I support the “smell” theory myself, for no other reason that that it seems more right to me.

In the comment thread, someone contested the view that cats might have developed the ability to sense death as part of their evolution as predators by arguing that cats are hunters, not scavengers. I don’t know if that’s such a huge difference, though; I would think that any carnivore who knows when its prey is going to die anyway, and can wait it out, would have an advantage over a carnivore who spends calories chasing down its prey whether it needs to or not.

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22 thoughts on “Psychopomp

  1. Eric

    I would think cats have probably even had the talent since before the Egyptians, but I hear ya. Seriously though, if you were in a nursing home would you want that thing walking around? No thank you.

  2. Steve

    I can’t believe you gobbled this story up and entertained no doubt or critical skepticism that maybe these people are just total cheeseballs.

    If anything, cats might’ve developed the ability to detect the weakest in the herd to know which Zebra would be the easiest to catch and eat, not to nuzzle it and guide it into heaven.

    Good point. I probably should have said something more like, “In the comment thread, someone contested the view that cats might have developed the ability to sense death as part of their evolution as predators by arguing that cats are hunters, not scavengers. I don’t know if that’s such a huge difference, though; I would think that any carnivore who knows when its prey is going to die anyway, and can wait it out, would have an advantage over a carnivore who spends calories chasing down its prey whether it needs to or not.” Instead, I only said exactly that.

    I saw nothing in that article that seemed obviously wrong. They claim the cat has predicted every single death in that ward since, presumably, it started lying down next to pre-corpses. I’m fully prepared to read some article showing that it was all just confirmation bias on the part of the staff, and the statistics show that the cat’s ability to sense when people are going to die is no better than chance. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem ridiculous to me that a predator could have a finely-honed sense about that sort of thing.

    Also, you pluralized with an apostrophe, and seem to be a little hazy on your understanding of what, “technically,” a parasite is. Do better next time.

  3. Tom

    Cat’s suck. All domesticated pets are technically parasites and the cat isn’t even a helpful parasite.

    I can’t believe you gobbled this story up and entertained no doubt or critical skepticism that maybe these people are just total cheeseballs.

    If anything, cats might’ve developed the ability to detect the weakest in the herd to know which Zebra would be the easiest to catch and eat, not to nuzzle it and guide it into heaven.

    Or maybe it’s a parasitic response, and they’re trying to nurture their meal ticket back to health so they’re not kicked to the alley.

  4. Tom

    plural pronoun matched the plural noun. I can decline like a motherfucker.

    do you work sep 29/30? I might come up for your ball killing then. have beer waiting.

  5. Nicole

    Wait now it is just one ball? I think that the cat story vindicated my need for pop culture references on the nerd blog. There was recently an article in People about this cat.

  6. Eric

    My boss calls me yesterday and says he’s got this huge project he needs me to finish by tomorrow and to “take all the extra time you need”. Five minutes later I’m online slacking off and you drop Xeno Tactic on me. Thank you, Pedro. Beat Lvl 3 last night (after discovering upgrades).

  7. pedro

    Eric-

    Don’t sleep on the Vulcan cannon upgrade to max. It’s cheap and the sniper gun gets in a lot of shots.

    I can’t beat 6. In fact, can’t make it past lv 72. It’s impossible.

  8. Eric

    Word. I noticed it’s a big jump for that last upgrade. Consistently get to 35-37 on lvl 4. The helicopters always funk me up. I’ve gotten to the point I want to draw it out on a piece of paper. It’s only a matter of time, and I have nothing but.

  9. Eric

    Cable/Internet can’t make it out until the 27th!!! So sad, luckily for me Xeno Tactic can still be played if I select ‘work offline’. Took some doing, but I beat mission 4 this afternoon, and surprisingly mission 5 went down pretty easy (on my third try). I took screenshots so as to setup easier when I lost and had to restart. I need a few days of mental prep before I even think about mission 6.

  10. pedro

    Steve-

    You know I love you!

    To beat level 2, you need to set up a gauntlet. Run those fuckers from the top wave to the lefttop corner using vulcans as the walls….then run the left waves up into the same corner…then simply create a gauntlet using your chosen alien killing weapons….this way you’re not splitting your fire…all the guns are being used on all waves (as opposed to trying to create 2 separate defensive points).

    My trick is to max out a plasma to BFG status up in the top center as soon as possible. A BFG will frag any flyers that try to get through…and it’s the flyers that do the most damage in the tougher levels.

    I got to lvl 83 over the weekend…but the flyers that come out in or around that wave have something like 35K hp each. I don’t think that even if I had 20 redmaxed DCAs I could take ’em all down.

  11. pedro

    I’ve come to terms with lvl 6 being unbeatable. People have HACKED the game and still cannot beat it without giving themselves triple the life normal to the game.

  12. Eric

    So I was playing xeno tactics after a month or so hiatus and I just realized that my selling back weapons doesn’t need to be just to replace the exact same space. If I’m careful with my planning I can actually open passages the aliens have already passed by and then block the one they were headed towards, thereby directing them back through the same gauntlet!!!! I haven’t gotten it to work successfully yet and I don’t think I have the patience to apply it to level 6, but I thought I’d share for the betterment of mankind.

  13. pedro

    Even with the tower switch strategy, I couldn’t make it past level 92 on board 6. It’s a viable one….you just need to plan out which tower you’re going to sell and switch. Best design is when you only have to move the tower a space or two over to open/black the aliens.

    But yea. lvl 6 can’t be beat and it takes too long to lose…so I don’t bother anymore. THe first 70 levels are a chore at this point. Wish you could save your progress within the game rather than restart.

    Try a game called Caravaner. It’s like fallout, but free and online.

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