Tuesday, April 12, 2011


The garbage truck has just turned the corner. It takes away the last of the cat litter, the tins of cat food, the final visible signs of our cat who died last week at nearly 17 years of age.

She had been in decline for weeks now, but most especially the last two weeks of her life. I was pretty sure she was not going to make it, but I took her to the vet anyhow, in case somehow it was an abscessed tooth, a parasite, or something easily curable.

It was not.

Vets have to do a careful dance with their clients. Some can bite and some can scratch. As for those who pay the bills, there is great variety too, and the vet we saw, new to the practice we have been part of for all these years, cautiously offered bloodwork, ultrasound, x-ray, appetite-inducing medicine and even exploratory surgery.

Our cat did not bite and we did not either. I began to cry but I shook my head. One thing I am tremendously grateful for is that our philosophy was clear and I had the words to express it at the very same time as my heart was breaking. She was our beloved pet, but she was an animal and she was old and we would not waste money to prolong her suffering. Two hours later, after we had said our goodbyes, tried to record her purrs, photographed ourselves with her listless self, she was given an injection that killed her within ten seconds.

Our cat's name, Eleuthera, is Greek. It means 'freedom.' For years, we thought it was an ironic name, given that she was a mostly indoor cat. But, she enjoyed a different sort of freedom right to the very end: the freedom of being loved completely. This is the other matter I am grateful for: we were able to love her enough to let her go gracefully and at the right time. Weirdly, it reminded me of how my oldest child weaned himself - we were so synchronized that it was an unconscious, almost unnoticed agreement. I think our cat would have died within a very few days and yet not long before she was still pouncing and purring.

A cat is not theoretical in any way. Cats are utterly present - or now, in our case, absent. We played back her purrs while she was still with us and they sounded wrong, mechanical, artificial. Dave said that purring is felt as much as heard. And that has been my experience of grieving a cat too. I had a thousand names for this cat, pet names, but I had never written any of them down. They were oral names, relational ones.

This does not hurt like the loss of a person: it is less. But, in an odd way, it is more. She could curl up in the smallest, most unexpected place and so I expect to see her anywhere and everywhere, a little paw to come under the bathroom door. It feels as if, say, the colour green was removed and while there are other colours, you see that there were bits of green everywhere and its absence stings. The world is less colourful.

She should have died twelve years ago. We were renovating our old house and had taken special care to close the doors of the bedrooms being gutted. I was eight months pregnant with our second child when, one night, we heard remote mews. We checked the outside door - nothing. We searched the house - no cat. And then we realized that the plaintive cries were coming from inside a wall. The cat had slithered into the renovation room and had fallen down between open joists into the room below. Dave and I looked at each other and had no idea what to do. Leaving her and encasing her in concrete, Mafia-style, were suggested. But, as I couldn't actually kill an ant while I was pregnant, we tried harder. Midnight found Dave holding a skillsaw on the kitchen wall, calculating how low he could cut without slicing off a curious cat's head. The space between the joists was too narrow for his arm to fit down, but my belly was too big for me to manage it. In the end, I turned sideways and reached down to rescue a bundle of trembling fur, to set her free.

I have written before about how I gave her a voice - an irreverent, wickedly funny voice. One of the challenges for me is to find a place for that voice in my own self.

The night she died and all the next day, mourning doves appeared in our garden, on our house, in the trees around the house. They called out their gentle, sad coos even in the night when I was awake. I have not heard or seen them since.

I think it was CS Lewis who said, of grief, that it was like quitting smoking -- which would be quite bearable, if only one could have a cigarette. It's been five days now so I'm better than I was and the kids are fine. I'd be perfectly fine too, I think, if I could only hold my kitten.

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