Stephen Swearingen was an only child, parents gone. Divorced, no children. A manager at Marshalls, he'd work his shift and return to his Northeast Portland home to be with his two cats.
We describe a successful life as one boasting an impressive resume, a good salary and a career with a fancy title, expense account and corner office. Swearingen had none of that. He was one of us, one of the extraordinarily ordinary people we see in the grocery store, on the bus or sitting in chairs at the DMV.
Swearingen battled diabetes. Dialysis made him sick. He used a walker. When he fell at work, co-workers had to help him up, not a problem because he was a slight man, only 5-feet-2. His doctors told him to quit working. He refused.
But last October, though only 60, Swearingen decided it was time to face death. He quit dialysis.
"It was about quality of life," said his ex-wife, Cheryle Foster, who remained friendly with Swearingen. "He was so sick. He decided enough was enough."
He did not fear death. But he worried about what would happen to his cats, Cali and Tallulah, both 21 years old.
Growing up, Swearingen never had a pet, not even a goldfish. More than 30 years ago, though, he and Foster were walking in the front door of a shopping mall when they spotted a man with a box of kittens he wanted to get rid of.
Foster encouraged Swearingen to get a kitten. If the man was still there when they were done shopping, Swearingen said, he'd take it as a sign. That's how Erin came into his life. He took her to the vet one day and learned two other cats had been abandoned. He adopted them as well and named them Cali and Tallulah.
"He said cats give love, but don't suffocate you like a dog," Foster said. "They're independent. If you don't play with a cat, they don't act like a dog that sits in the corner acting dejected."
Erin died, but Cali and Tallulah lived on and on and on, sleeping with Swearingen, close to his head and body, reminding him that he was loved.
As his days drew to a close, Swearingen wanted to do right by his cats. He contacted the Oregon Humane Society and joined the Friends Forever Program, giving them money so the cats would be cared for, fed, loved and comforted in strange surroundings, until they could be adopted by a good family vetted by society officials.
By late January, hospice workers had been called to his home.
"He introduced us to his cats," said Sarah Wheeler, a licensed clinical social worker with Hospice Care of the Northwest. She said a three-person team worked with Swearingen, and he talked constantly about his cats and what they meant to him.
"This man certainly knew how to give and receive love from animals," Wheeler said. "The unconditional love, the simplicity of the relationship. He took such comfort from them."
One day, Swearingen mustered the strength and asked Wheeler for a favor: He wanted to be baptized before he died. The agency called in Chaplain Curtis Buthe, who works with them and has been a pastor for 26 years.
"It was the most unusual baptismal I've ever been involved with," Buthe said. "He talked with those of us in his room about his cats. He knew he didn't have long to live. He wanted the cats on the bed when he was baptized."
And so, they were.
Cali and Thulula, rescued by this man now dying, snuggled close, purring as he gently stroked them for what he certainly knew would be one of the last times.
"I didn't get all the details from him," Buthe said. "But I sensed that life had not always been easy. With his cats, he found a powerful love."
Buthe performed the baptism while Swearingen lay dying.
"The cats didn't mind the water splashing around," Buthe said. "Even when they got some water on them, they stayed with him."
Days later, Swearingen fell so ill he had to be moved from his home to a care center where he'd spend his last hours.
"People from the humane society came to get the cats," Wheeler said. "We reassured him they'd be safe."
He gave them both a final pet.
He said goodbye.
He let them go.
What we all want out of life is love.
Truth is, it's sometimes hard to find.
Sometimes a pet is the one that gives you the warmth and connection that is necessary to live a full life. Pets are part of your history: there while you go through everything, good and bad, that life throws your way.
They don't give a damn about a resume.
Or a fancy car.
Or a title.
They ask only that you love them.
And they love you back.
If you've experienced it, consider yourself blessed.
Swearingen found room in his heart for two cats, Cali and Tallulah.
Five days after he said goodbye, he died. It was Valentine's Day.
It somehow seems appropriate.
--Tom Hallman Jr.
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