To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
Lucy came into my life during a dark hour for both of us.
For myself, I had just started EMDR therapy, after 4 years of untreated c-PTSD. I had finally gotten to a point where I was “circling the drain” mentally, and I knew I needed help.
Lucy’s owner had just died, and as she was a 16 year old cat with a rare condition (Feline Bowen’s Disease) and kidney problems, nobody wanted her, and she was living in the office of the nursing home where her owner had died.
Lucy’s story affected me deeply from the moment I first heard it. She was a tiny little thing, only 7 pounds, a black and white tuxedo cat with the white line on her face somehow smudged to one side, like she had moved her head while God was painting her. This was very in-character for Lucy, who never got over her dislike for being told where to sit and when, and for how long. But her owner’s family had come and cleared out the room in the nursing home, and left this little cat behind without a word to anyone. Lucy had been abandoned with her litter box, and nobody else in the world. It broke my heart to hear it, and I adopted her the same week.
She missed her owner. That was obvious. She would walk around the apartment crying, and there were times when I would look at her, and she would look so sad, that I would just spontaneously hug her. She always extricated herself from such embraces, of course (but might sneak back for a pet later). Though she insisted on sleeping on my chest, it took her a few weeks to start sitting on my lap. Once she started, she never stopped.
Once she settled in, she loved being in my apartment, after that office. I had been severely depressed, and not opening the blinds on my windows. One day I saw her trying to sit in the slivers of light that were peeking through the slats. I opened the blinds for her. After that, I opened the blinds in my apartment every day, so that Lucy could have sunlight.
Lucy also helped me take care of myself. She would wait for me to come home and run to greet me, which made me want to leave the office on time. She was affectionate and loving, so I started to let go of evening obligations to spend time with her, and ended up developing much needed boundaries for myself, and personal time. She liked to go to bed with me, and was always fairly adamant about when bedtime was, so I started going to bed earlier instead of letting my anxiety keep me up all night.
There’s no one point in Lucy’s story where it became obvious she was failing. I don’t remember the day she stopped playing, or the day she stopped rolling around in the sunlight. I remember small things, that when put together, make me say “Oh, there.” There was the day she tried to jump onto the kitchen counter, and couldn’t, and when she fell, she sat in a puzzled daze for a bit with her leg at an awkward angle, where previously she would have landed on her feet and been fine. I checked her for injuries and there were none; she was a senior cat who couldn’t jump 4 feet anymore, and that was okay. She came over to the couch and we cuddled a bit. It didn’t feel like “the end.”
There was also the day that I went to bed, and she didn’t come with me. She stayed on the couch all night instead. It was odd, but perhaps I had been sleeping restlessly and she was fed up of me. There was the day I got up to make breakfast, and she stayed in bed instead of following me. Also odd, but she was a senior cat in the winter. I guessed she wanted to be warm, and that was okay. In the last week of February, she took to sleeping on my laptop bag when I was working late, instead of trying to jump into my lap. In hindsight I realize she was probably feeling too weak to try and make that jump (I sit at the kitchen bar, on a high stool), and was trying to be as close to my scent as she could be. When I was done I sat beside her and we actually played a little. She jumped onto the sofa and talked to me, and she seemed a bit sleepy and wobbly, but okay. A few days later she did jump up on the bar to watch me make dinner for my birthday (March 5). She seemed okay.
The weirdest thing in some ways, is how “Okay” every gradual decline was in the moment, right up until March 7, when I noticed some new “Bowenoids” on her chest that had been weeping onto her paws where she lay down – and she hadn’t bothered to clean herself. None of this seemed okay. I took her to the vet on Monday, March 9. On Tuesday, the vet confirmed that Lucy was in end-stage kidney failure, and that her heart was failing too. Even if we hospitalized her, she said, she only had days left.
My head was reeling. Somehow, in 6 months, my little girl had gone through all 4 stages of kidney failure, without me noticing. I knew she had kidney problems – she was on prescription food for them – but to suddenly be “end-stage”? I wracked my brain, trying to think of anything I could have seen that was “more” than “an old cat slowing down.” There was nothing. If she was in pain she’d hidden it well, remained affectionate and loving, and curious about what I was doing, following me around. After the call, I went home from work early and sat with her. I hugged her and looked her in the eyes and asked her, “Is this it? Are you ready to go?” I told her: “You have to tell me, Lucy, if you’re ready to go. I can’t make this decision without you.”
Ever rebellious, Lucy gave no answer, and so, not even knowing if I was making the right decision, I asked the vet to make an appointment for in-home euthanasia. As I was weeping on the call, Lucy pulled herself shakily to her feet and began nuzzling the hand that was holding the phone, head-butting against me in her most enthusiastic way. I like to hope that somehow, that was her telling me I was doing the right thing. She loved me, and she was ready.
Today was Lucy’s last day with me. I honestly was afraid that I had left the final decision too late, and that she was going to die during the night in some horrible, urine-soaked, kidney-failing way. She was so weak, she could barely stand. She walked like she was drunk. And worst of all, she was mewing at me in a breathy whisper, like her throat was too dry to make a sound. I picked her up and she weighed nothing. I carried her to bed for our last night together. In typical Lucy style she immediately got off the bed and staggered back into the living room. So I grabbed a blanket and went to sleep on the couch next to her. She woke me up at 1.11AM by crawling onto my chest. We lay there in the dark together for a bit, and then she got up to get some water. I went into the bedroom, and this time, she followed me.
At 6AM I woke up, and we lay in bed together for an hour. I stroked her black fur from nose to tail, and she lay on my chest and purred loud and deep. She seemed better, but I had spent the evening reading, and I knew cats might “rally” in the mornings. I had taken a photo of the way she looked last night, when I had thought for sure that she was going to die. She was fast asleep, with her head at an odd angle, and she was so thin that she simply looked dead, and not in a pleasant way. Only sleeping though – I’d gotten up to get some water, and she had jolted awake, stretching out one Bowenoid-stained paw towards me, making that breathy mewing sound again. I understood. She didn’t want me to leave.
And I didn’t. I made a 10-minute run to get us some yummy food for breakfast – turkey and gravy for her, decidedly NON-prescription, after all this time on prescriptive kidney food – and fruit for me. And then I lay down one of her favorite blankets on the floor in the living room, and we sat together with our picnic snacks in the sunlight until the vet came. She loved the food. She purred again when we settled in for cuddles, but then she started to drowse, and she just wanted to be close. She got up periodically to pace, and to cry at me. I said to her each time, “I know, Lucy. It’s almost over.” At one point we lay down side-by-side in the sunlight together, not touching, because she was not wanting to be touched, and somehow we both just knew, we were both waiting now.
There was only one moment of pain. When the vet arrived, and gave her the sedative shot. She cried and struggled and tried to get away. I pulled her into my arms and my lap, and she curled up close against me and nestled her nose deeply under my arm. It was the last thing she ever did. Within seconds she was asleep. I felt bad. She had fallen asleep so quickly… had there been time for my cuddles to make up for the scare and the pain of the shot? But I reminded myself that kidney failure, if left to a natural death, could be a horrible way for a cat to die. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to her yowling in pain as her system shut down; I didn’t want her to suffer for the hours that would take. And if I had chosen hospitalization or in-home care, her final days would have been nothing but needles and struggling. One needle – that was best, I thought, as the vet asked me to lie her down on her blanket – the blanket I had originally brought her home in. I lay on the floor beside her, stroking her head and under her chin – both hands, my full attention, as she had always preferred. Her green eyes looked clear and bright, reflecting the sunlight as if gazing peacefully into a distance I couldn’t see. She had already gone in all ways but the physical, I realized. Her little spirit had already relaxed into what was coming. She was relieved. She was lying ‘asleep’ with her eyes open and slow, steady breaths, and she was relieved.
I’d had things I’d wanted to say. I’d wanted to thank her for being a good cat. For coming into my life when it was so dark, and for being a reason to get up in the morning and come home at night, and for being a reason to get better. I wanted to tell her one last time that she was “my little girl.” But I had already told her these things, over and over, in our last few days together. I had told her that I was scared to go to business school without her, that I had been looking forward to coming home every Saturday and telling her about it. I told her I had been looking forward to many more years with her. That if it was up to me, she would have lived much, much longer. That I was going to miss her. That it was okay that she was done. That last one I told her, many times. She had developed a habit of trying to stay awake for me whenever I was home, I’d noticed. I told her, over and over, “It’s okay that you are ready.” But when the moment came I had nothing to say except “Thank you, Lucy.” Over and over again. She looked up at the sky with her green eyes shining and her face relaxed. It doesn’t matter if she heard me. I had already said it so many times.
The vet gave the second injection. In a matter of seconds, her little heart stopped. “She’s gone,” the vet said. There was no final exhale. There was no shuddering, no convulsions, no excretion. She lay there in the exact same position, looking up at the sky with her green eyes clearer and brighter than I had seen them in a long time. I started crying. I kept telling her “Thank you.” I kissed her head. I stroked her body and let my hands rest on her shiny black coat. That was my Lucy. So soft and small. She didn’t seem dead.
The vet scooped her up in the blanket like a baby. She said, “You might not want to look, now.” I told her, “It’s okay. It will help me, to see it’s just a body now. No Lucy in there.” I asked if I could hold her in my arms and the vet gave her to me, wrapped up like a baby. I held her, and she weighed nothing. Her little paws crossed over each other, limp and unmoving. Her eyes continued to shine in the sunlight, with an expression of rest on her God-smudged face. It had been a while, I realized, since I saw her so at rest. She was definitely gone.
I held her against my bones, then gave her back to the vet, and I watched as she carried Lucy away to the car in her arms, still wrapped up like a baby. My baby; my little girl. Right up to the end.
I went for a walk, then came back, and opened up the house. All the windows and doors, to let the air flow in, and death flow out. I cleaned all of Lucy’s things – her dishes, her litter box – and put them away with her toys. I turned on the fan – something I didn’t do much, in Lucy’s last few weeks. I know cats prefer heat, and her body temperature had started to drop, so I didn’t want to do anything to make her colder. Everyone copes differently, I know; today was Lucy’s last day, and tomorrow needs to be my first day without her. It will be easier if I don’t have visual cues that tell me to expect to see her.
Lucy, I hope you’re able to re-unite with your beloved owner. I hope I did okay by you, in your final months. I hope you know I loved you, and that you have taken a piece of my heart forever. I want you to know, that I knew from the beginning, what I was getting into. I knew you were sick, even before we met. All I wanted to do, was make sure you were loved and in a comfortable warm home until you were ready to leave. I hope it was enough. I hope I was enough. Thank you for finding me. You taught me so much, about love. You taught me to be patient, and kind, even in the depths of frustration. You helped me get outside of myself and care about somebody else at a time when I could barely care for myself. You were a light in a dark place. I hope I was one for you as well. You were a good cat. My little girl. I’m going to miss you. Much love, always.