The Nursing Home Cat

Gabriel was just an ordinary cat. Nothing special about him. Yet he knew, he always knew when someone was about to die. Then he’d appear at that person’s door, establish himself on the bed and stay until the last breath. He’d become a legend in the nursing home where he was the resident therapy pet. People joked about him at breakfast: “Well, I didn’t sleep so well last night, but at least I didn’t get a visit from Gabriel.”

Sally often sat by the bedsides of patients who were near death. She didn’t wait to be asked; she simply saw a need and filled it. Nobody really knew why. There was speculation that she was lonely, that she was a busybody, that she’d once been a doctor and was now atoning for some horrible mistake. Like a seasoned politician, Sally neither confirmed nor denied. She just went her way. Quiet, watchful, sleek and self-contained.

If directly questioned, she’d say, “What would it be like to be at the end of one’s life and not see a familiar face?” There was no answer to that, and eventually everyone came to expect her, to count on her presence in those last moments.

So when an elderly man, a friend, lay dying on Christmas Eve, Sally was there. The corridor outside the old man’s room had been minimally decorated by the staff. After they’d given out night meds, fetched extra blankets, filled water glasses and turned down the lights, they strung a tinsel garland around the nurses’ station, hauled a silver tree out of the supply closet and stuck it at the end of the hall. It was about all they had the energy for, what with the sore feet and backaches.

Sally stood in the hall and watched. She didn’t offer to help or make suggestions as to how she’d do it. Nevertheless, her wordless scrutiny made the staff nervous. They exhaled when she stepped back into the dying man’s room.

He was conscious. “Sal? Is that you?” His voice was weak, but she heard.

“Of course it is, Homer. Who else? Not your very important daughter-in-law and not your oh-so-busy son. Want to wet your mouth? You can have ice chips. I asked.”

“No, don’t want ‘em.” He coughed convulsively.  “What day is it?”

“December twenty-fourth. Christmas Eve.”

“Can’t die today or tomorrow, then. Spoil Christmas for my family.”

“I guess you’ll die when it’s your time, Homer.”

Sally held back her opinion about his family. They both knew he’d been deposited at the nursing home to breathe his last where it wouldn’t inconvenience the relatives. They were gathered around a festive table at that very moment. When Sally thought of his family laughing and feasting while their father lay dying, her fingers curved into claws.

He changed the subject. “You seen that durn cat?  Slinks around here like a shadow, shows up when a guy’s about to croak, curls up on the bed and purrs him out of this world.”

She was familiar with the cat, a large, inky tom named Gabriel. In fact, Gabriel was prowling the hall outside Homer’s room, arching his back and rubbing his whiskery face on the door. She saw no need to mention it.  

“Is there anything you want, Homer?”

He stopped plucking at the bedsheet and regarded her with surprising clarity. “Well, I don’t want that damn cat, that’s for sure. There is something, but you probably won’t want to bother, though.”

“Tell me.”

He did.

Sally nodded.  “I’ll be back in an hour,” she said. “Don’t leave yet.”


“I think he’s gone,” Sally said to the night nurse. It was three a.m. and they heard the lonely wail of a freight train in the distance.

“So many choose to go with the train,” the nurse murmured.

She walked with Sally back into Homer’s room, then stopped short inside the threshold. They stood in a Christmas snow-globe. Starry lights outlined the bed. Fragrant orange and clove garland draped the window. A tiny cedar tree cast its twinkling shadow on the ceiling. Carols filled the air. In the middle of all that holiday cheer, the dead man smiled.

“He wanted one last Christmas,” Sally said, smiling back at Homer. She made a sound in her throat that might have been a purr.

Gabriel padded off down the corridor, tail swishing. He wasn’t needed that night.


6 thoughts on “The Nursing Home Cat

  1. Oh Wow! It’s just too early in the day to be squallin’, but that’s what I’m doing! This is a great story, Doris! Thank you! Merry Christmas and a Joyous New Year!


  2. Doris this short story struck a familiar chord with us. Our Dad passed away at Hospice when a train stopped on the track that ran nearby. His nurse, Freida, told Pat, Beth and me that a number of patients passed when trains stopped outside to load more cars off the sideline. She related it to hopping on the Glory train.


    • I remembered Pat telling me that sweet story, and it found its way into my fiction. You have to be careful what you say to a writer!


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