She has been my friend, my faithful furry companion, for twenty-one years and seven months. Sitting here tonight, listening to the raindrops patter softly on the fallen leaves covering the ground outside, I know I’m standing watch on the final moments of her life.
I know this time has been coming. How could I not know? None of us can live forever and she long since defied all reasonable expectations. I’ve kept an eye out, recently, for any signs of pain or misery and there just haven’t been any. But there have been changes. Of course there have.
Several months ago, she began to accumulate an impressive pelt of clumpy dreadlocks along her back. I told myself this was perhaps a religious or cultural expression or maybe just a fashion statement, but . . . she’s a cat. I know it’s because she can no longer groom herself. She won’t allow me to comb her and I can’t bring myself to risk injuring her by trying to cut them off.
A month ago, she lost the ability to hear, although I think she can still feel the rumbles of sound when I put my mouth up to that soft place just behind her ear and tell her that I love her. I know she can still see and can smell a freshly opened can of cat food from two rooms away.
In the last few weeks, she has lost weight and body mass and feels almost insubstantial when I pick her up. A mere semblance of a cat.
Just yesterday, she was still able to jump up onto a chair and from there leap onto the dining room table to access her food bowl. Some routines you maintain even after you no longer need to keep cat food out of reach of the dog.
Just yesterday, I woke to the morning routine of her growl-and-hiss standoff with The Intruder Cat, letting me know she had survived the night to fight another day.
Just yesterday, she spent most of the day curled up and sleeping in the nest I’d made in a corner of the living room couch with a towel and one of my old soft sweatshirts.
But today . . . today has been different. And difficult.
Today, she made it into the kitchen and then didn’t leave.
Today, she sat on the throw rug under my writing chair pulled up to the kitchen table, even when I wasn’t in the room.
Today, she had a tough time walking the few shaky inches from the rug to the water bowl.
Today, she licked at the tuna fish I gave her but I’m not sure she actually ate any of it.
Today, The Intruder Cat didn’t even try to mess with her.
Today, she still purrs when I pick her up and hold her.
But I know even this moderate degree of decline won’t last. I know she won’t last much longer. I know it down deep in my bones, with the certainty that comes from knowing a creature for twenty-one years. And seven months.
She has always been a fierce fighter, this feral cat we adopted from the wild at the tearful insistence of my children and tried to domesticate. She has always had a killer instinct for small things that moved in the night, gleefully and efficiently killing the mice and lizards and bugs that crossed her path. Just last week, she annihilated and devoured a cricket in three seconds flat, leaving only the saw-blade back legs for which she has contempt.
She was at first wary of the loud exuberance of my children, reluctantly tolerant of our various dogs, perpetually and consistently terrified of The Great Outdoors. And she was inexplicably and unconditionally attached to me, the one person in the family who never, ever wanted to have a cat.
Officially, we named her Coconut — what can I say, we lived in south Florida and it seemed like a good idea at the time — although none of us ever called her by that name. Never. Not even once. She has, over the years, had more nicknames than I can recall. Mostly, we called her Kitty. Or Mitten, for her white paws. Or Kitty Mitten. Mitty Kitty. Mew. Mow-meow. Mewey. We called her all the silly rhyming names you call your first cat, with complete disregard for whether there might ever be another cat who might also someday be called “kitty.”
She answered to none of them. She allowed herself to be held only on her own terms and mostly this involved bribes of food. Her idea of snuggling was to sit on the opposite end of the couch and glower. Unless she was cold, then she’d deign to sit next to you. But never on your lap. Not willingly.
When she was small and new to us and thought hiding was the better part of valour, she would crawl up on the back of the couch where I was sitting and burrow under my hair and wrap herself around the back of my neck. This was a very strange feeling, for someone who had never had a cat, but it was an effective hiding place. When she was still a tiny kitten, she’d sleep curled up on my chest at night, or stretch out along my side if I turned over. This made it difficult to breathe. And yet somehow it felt like a precious privilege, to bear and lift her weight with each breath.
Tonight, she manages to look slightly irritated that I’ve picked her up and dampened her fur with tears. Not for the first time, but perhaps for the last.
Mind you, I still don’t particularly like cats. Much. But I love her.
I will miss her when she’s gone.
Soon. She will be gone soon. I know this with inexplicable certainty.
For twenty-one years and seven months, she has been there for me, through more joy and heartache and drudgery and the ups and downs of everyday life than I could ever recount.
So tonight, I stand watch.
Tonight, I am here for her. For this cat I didn’t want, didn’t know I needed, and don’t quite know how I will do without.
* * *
I wrote the words above on Tuesday night. Twenty-four hours later, her condition had rapidly deteriorated to the point where there was no remedy and no humane alternative for survival. It was time for the dreaded end of life measures.
This cat has always been extraordinarily traumatized by car trips and interactions with strangers. There is simply no way to overstate that. I didn’t want to subject her to that trauma in the last moments of her life. I know that some veterinarians offer in-home euthanasia, so I called our regular vet to ask about that option. It wasn’t something they offered. They referred me to another doctor who did offer it, but she was out of town. She referred me, long distance while on vacation, to a different doctor who it turned out was too far away. Regardless, she in turn referred me to yet another doctor who generously agreed to cancel his plans with friends and drive 45 minutes out of his way to come help me.
He agreed to do this at the last minute of the last hour of a long workday. On the eve of a major holiday.
Although I am writing these words on a day dedicated to giving thanks, I’m not sure how to adequately express the depth of my gratitude. This veterinarian — the last in a long line of generous individuals who were relentless in their determination to help — not only agreed to help me, he did so with grace and patience and compassion and dignity. In the process, he offered wisdom and conversation and acceptance. And a great big hug.
I’m not a particularly religious person, but I sincerely wish all blessings and good karma and brownie points and love will rain down upon these professionals who comprised the daisy chain of referral and caring that made this traumatic event less so. They truly are heroes in the lives of animals, and people, in need.
I won’t get into the details here, but suffice it to say my cat was as fierce and ornery during this process of dying as she was in every other aspect of living. Oddly, I found this comforting.
I was afraid I had waited too long, even though her deterioration happened so quickly, afraid that she was too far gone and diminished and destroyed. That she was in too much pain. Too incapacitated. I was full of dread that by waiting to make this decision I had selfishly made her a helpless victim. The guilt that I had let her get to that point was devastating. But she responded the way she always has to any stranger who dared to get too close and touch her without permission.
To be clear, nothing the vet did was painful. He was remarkably gentle. If anything, the initial sedative eliminated any pain she might have been feeling. She was just pissed off that a stranger was touching her. She was defiant and ornery and, even though she was clearly and undeniably and irrevocably at the end of her life, she displayed the irascible temperament that has always been uniquely hers and watching it filled me with admiration and gratitude. And respect.
She fought the good fight, this contrary little wildcat, for twenty-one years and seven months. Not a minute less and not a minute more than necessary. At the very end, she heaved a big sigh and peacefully drifted away. That’s how I want to go, when it’s my time. When it is, inevitably, my time to go. Let me be fierce and fearless and fucking feral.
(There’s a slideshow here, for those of you reading in feeds and who perhaps can’t see it.)
This song, these lyrics, are in my head tonight.
“I’ll be seeing you
in all the old familiar places
that this heart of mine embraces
all day through.”
Goddamn, I’m going to miss that cat. I already do.
Rest in peace, Mitty Kitten. You earned every bit of it.