October 21. The date is emblazoned on my memory as though it were carved and backlit. Today is October 21. Exactly one year ago, today, I woke up in so much pain I could barely breathe. Exactly one year ago, today, my life changed utterly and completely. Exactly one year ago, today, the few remaining vestiges of young adulthood I still perpetrated were quenched.
And so it seems fitting, somehow, that my beloved old lady cat, now 17 years old, is also looking towards ending her time with me. I’ve had her since I was 24; she’s been a constant feature of my entire adult life. Now, her kidneys are failing, and this week she was nearly taken out by an ordinary bladder infection. She’s recovered somewhat, but she’s lost even more weight and appears more fragile than I’ve ever seen her. There’s no avoiding the fact that she won’t be here much longer.
I expected myself to have more emotional resistance to it, but it turns out that I’m surprisingly level. Close friends have offered their sympathies to us both, but apart from a few stomach-dropping moments, when she was on the edge, it hasn’t been all that tumultuous, for either of us. I don’t have any resentment or longing surrounding her failing health, and certainly, neither does she.
The situation has put me in mind of one client in particular that I remember from a vet clinic I worked a few years ago. The woman was elderly and quite disabled, and she brought her even more elderly and disabled cat in twice a week so we could clean and feed it. The cat was emaciated, and so stiff and wracked from illness and arthritis that she could no longer groom herself, feed herself, or avail herself of a litter box. We handled the animal as gently as possible, combing her slick, matted fur, tending to her inflamed nether regions while she winced and whimpered, administering fluids, and force-feeding soft food with a syringe. Even those small mercies seemed to cause her more pain. It was with heavy heart that I would lift the little thing, nothing but a small bundle skin and bones at that point, and gently place her back inside the carrier each week.
I remember being furious with the owner, although I never let on once I brought the carrier and its passenger back out to the waiting room and set them in the basket atop the woman’s walker. How dare you selfishly insist that this poor cat, who should have slipped this mortal coil long since, remain with you in this wretched state? I would think. I contemplated various [illegal] compassionate interventions such as slipping a narcotic into the animal’s fluid bag, or hooking her up to the sedative air exchange mask we use for surgery, but despite my considerable empathy for the miserable creature, something inside me prevented me from taking such measures, however well-intended.
Now, I’m thinking perhaps I should have gone and done something after all. Being old and ill sucks. My cat has been losing weight steadily for over two years. She’s never been active, but lately she’s been less so than ever. As long as she was still eating, begging to be let out [or in] every ten minutes, and taking the occasional swipe at the younger cats, I let her be. Now, though, it seems we’ve reached a turning point; she is considerably weaker after her recent ordeal, and is less social than ever, avoiding her four-footed roommates and largely remaining under the furniture, where I’ve placed folded blankets and cat beds so she can stay warm.
As recently as this Spring, when she began to really slow down, I laid down next to her and asked her not to leave just yet, because I wasn’t ready. But now, I’m comfortable with what happens either way – whether she rallies and goes back to her windowsills and roommate-bashing, or chooses instead to take her leave.
If only I was as willing to part with the life I had before the pain onset a year ago. Why can’t I have the same gratitude for it as I have for the years spent with my cat, the same calm assurance that the timing is right and the change is only natural? Why am I so desperate to cling to some tiny fragment of my young and blissfully ignorant self? Why am I still so angry, so upset that it’s gone?
At veterinary hospitals and clinics, once an animal has been euthanized, it is wrapped in a heavy plastic bag and placed in the freezer. Once a week, a special truck picks up the freezer’s contents and transports them to a crematorium. These facilities are often specifically designed for the purpose, maintaining a sort of pet potter’s field nearby for the ashes. Some owners want their pet’s ashes returned to them; in that case, the technician who helped with the euthanasia places a tag marked “private” on the bag. Private cremation is more expensive, but many people choose to do it anyway, so they can keep a little memorial to their furry friend in their homes.
I feel no such urge with my own cat. I have her in my heart. I have pictures and memories. I don’t need the leftover bits of a a temple she no longer occupies. I face the loss of my old self, however, with no such equanimity. I’m not ready. It doesn’t feel natural. And so the grief is different, a blade still pressed to the wound, which bleeds afresh each time I run up against a new obstacle.
Fortunately, emotional reactions do not have discrete boundaries. My calmness about the forthcoming passage of my beloved feline has had a dampening affect on my bitterness surrounding my physical condition, such that I’ve been less anxious over the last few days. I’ve even seen little glimmers of my former kindness and patience in my interactions with friends and other apes, including other drivers. It seems strange that an event that would have caused me so much distress just a few months ago is now a link to a tiny corner of serenity.
Perhaps it’s because, with regards to the cat, I know exactly what to do. My years as a veterinary assistant have me well-prepared for this eventuality. I’ve witnessed dozens of euthanasias, and they are nearly always peaceful, if sad, events. I have no foreboding or dread about what will be required of me. I’ve seen enough old and ill animals to know that when they’re ready to go, it’s best to spare them the last few days of pain as their bodies shut down.
But for myself and my own condition, I don’t have any years of training to apply. I don’t know when, or how, or how much to let go of. I don’t know how much pain I’m causing myself by hanging on. Pain of all sorts has become such a feature of my normal existence that at this point it’s mostly background noise, like a faint ringing in my ears that I’ve learned to ignore as long as the volume remains low.
I’m still terrified that I will lose some essential part of myself if I turn my back on the old me and leave. While it’s possible that whatever part of myself I leave behind wasn’t doing me much good anyway, I have no way of knowing that. In fact, I have no way of knowing if there’s even anything else to leave on the side of the road, after all of the things I’ve already let go. It’s possible that I’m clinging to shadows and hallucinations, and that whatever I think I’m holding on to is long gone.
I wonder if, once my cat finally lets me know it’s time, and I stroke her fur as she slips away, the finality of everything that’s happened will hit me all at once. Perhaps the two events are linked not just by my response to them, but my perception of their significance to me. I do feel stripped of most of my former casing. All that’s left is for me to step out of what remains, just as my old friend will step out of hers, and let it go. The cat has no regrets. Maybe, if I can learn to focus on what it is in front of me instead of what is behind me, I will be able to part with mine, too.