My husband and I bid goodbye to our old lady cat a few days ago. We knew it was coming, this unavoidable deadline that every living creature must meet eventually. In our case, once she was diagnosed with cancer, we knew it would only be a matter of months. Our house became a hospice. The cat was the centerpiece and the rest of the household revolved around her needs. The goal was to keep her as comfortable as possible and make her remaining days on earth as pleasant as we could. Looking back now, I know that we accomplished that.
At first, it was easy to pretend everything was ok. The cat seemed relatively healthy and enjoyed all the extra attention. But she kept losing weight and eventually it was impossible not to notice that she was ill. Our attention became laser focused then. How was she this morning? Where is she now? Under the bed or under the sofa? Did she eat today? How often is she at the water dish? How many trips to the litter pan? Did she get her medicine? My husband texted me regularly to ask how she was. All of this constant attention came to a screeching halt when she died. Now I feel like I am free floating, with a sense that there is something I should be doing, but knowing there is nothing to be done. It’s over.
We had a vet come to the house when the time came. We spent the early morning hours with our cat before the vet arrived. She sat on the window sill, breathing in the fresh morning air, enjoying the sunshine. I’ll spare you the rest of the details. Suffice to say, it was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do. It was a mercy to end her pain but, as her suffering ended, ours began. Even now, days later, I am torn between moments of intense grief contrasted by a calm inner peace, knowing that she is free from her broken body. Now the cat has left the building, leaving us to endure our pain as we clean up the hospice center that our house had become. The amount of accommodation we made for this little animal was like a tangled ball of yarn, only fully realized when the cat died. Now it must be untangled.
A friend asked me if I can feel the cat’s presence lingering around. I don’t sense her presence, but I do feel her absence. The spot in the bathroom where we used to have a litter pan is now achingly bare. The visual emptiness shocks me every time I walk into the room. Because the cat was always sneaking drinks out of my water glass, I gave up defending it and gave her one of her own, which remained where mine used to be so she thought she was getting away with something. I hid my own glass and then had to remember not to drink out of hers. Now I don’t have to hide my glass anymore, and I have to remember that I can drink from it. These acquired habits are tortuous in the aftermath.
Because her territory was mainly on the second floor where I write, she was a fixture in my space, either lying beside me under a blanket, or under the couch, or on the pillow behind my head. We gently battled each other for space on that couch. Her very last moments were spent there. Every morning, she woke us up, enjoying a cuddle with me while my husband prepared her breakfast and medication. Now all the routines are shattered. We no longer need to scoop or sweep or refill. We don’t need to feed or administer pain medication. All of this is done. The place seems agonizingly clean and sterile without her. It’s an empty hospital room.
Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye. It’s only been three days. My brain is still rewiring. I think I hear her padding into the room or moving around under the couch. She was so intimately connected to my moment-by-moment daily life that my brain keeps searching for her, wondering where she is. She must be here somewhere. But I know she’s only a memory now.
My husband put together a little photo album of her, starting with her as a tiny kitten no bigger than the palm of your hand. Next came a picture of her about age five or six, in the peak of health, her black coat glossy and beautiful. Then the more recent shots from the past year, when she looked older, thinner and less flush with life. The final pictures were taken during the last week. Her decline was so gradual that it is shocking now to see the different versions of her. She was so diminished at the end.
Our time with her was a microcosm of what life on earth is all about. We are born and hopefully make the best of our circumstances. In her case, she was born a feral kitten, rescued by my husband, and she went on to enjoy a sweet pampered life that any cat would wish for. I see the progression in her pictures and know that I am slowly making the same march. In my heart, I know that she is in a better place now, but my body still trembles with grief. It must sense that, one day, it too will have to give me up in the same way that my cat’s body had to give her up. The body is impermanent and unsustainable.
So, after a life lived, what is left? What remains now is not only the memory, but the love. I miss her companionship and her constant unconditional love. I had no idea how much she gave me until she was gone. We will always have that because it lives in our hearts, sustainable, alive, and indestructible. My heart hurts now thinking about her and how painful it is to let go of her. But to feel it, to lean into the hurt, it makes me feel closer to her. I don’t want to let go yet. Eventually, I’ll have more moments of peace than grief when I remember her.
This wound will heal and scar. Life will go on.
Until it doesn’t, again.