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My cat is dying. She got lymphoma and I caught it too late, or it caught me too late, depending on which way you look at it. The signs were there alright, but I didn’t see them. Life rushes on and before you know it, you’re bent over your favourite Siamese staring at her hip bones jutting through her skin like the haggard branches of a dead tree, wondering when she got so skinny, as if it happened overnight.
“She’s dying,” I say to my son as he strokes her through the bars of the hospital cage. She’s hooked up to a drip after a round of chemo but she’s still purring like a steam train. I love the vivid purr of cat. It’s about the only sign that they’re interested in needing you and sometimes, in times like these, the sound is so strong that it’s like an opera of need.
“I don’t want her to die.” Tears well up in his eyes.
“Well, she’s going to,” I say. “It’s just a matter of when.”
It only occurs to me afterward that I could’ve mentioned God or Kitty Heaven – he’s only five years old. But this comforting lie doesn’t even cross my mind, though I don’t think twice about putting cake and a glass of beer under the Christmas tree every December.
He clings to me and I cling to the cat, stroking her between her now enormous ears on her now tiny head.
I said to the vet, “Well if we do all these things – drain her lungs, give her the drugs, drips and so on, will she have a bit longer?”
He looks at me with tired eyes. “We’ll make her as comfortable as she can, but she’s very ill.”
“I’m aware it may seem selfish,” I say, “I’m under no illusions. I know she is going to die, I just thought it would be nice to have some more time.”
“I tell you what,” he says. “Let’s do the drain, give the chemo and see how we go. If she doesn’t respond, no point in throwing more money at it, we’ll have to consider calling it a day.”
I nod. The rules are in place and if she doesn’t adhere to them, well then, like he says. We’ll call it a day.
I put Smilla in her basket to take her home and the friend of my son, who came with us to fetch her, says, “Whenever I’ve come for a play date I’ve seen that Smilla has very old eyes. You could see she was dying.” He’s the kind of kid that hasn’t said more than two words to me in the two years I’ve been giving him lifts home and now all of a sudden he’s got an astute observation on the death of my twelve year old cat. I’m a bit shocked. How did he see her old, dying eyes, and I didn’t? I resist the urge to ask him when he first noticed her dying eyes and why he didn’t tell me sooner.
In the car on the way back, she’s roving all over the car meowing. This time he says, “You can see they put light back in Smilla’s eyes. She’s not dying anymore.”
Well of course she’s still dying. He’s making an association between her coming out of hospital and her eyes. He couldn’t really see my cat was dying anymore than me, her dutiful owner. Secretly, I’m relieved at this.
The cat has been home for five hours and I’ve gone to look at her at least twenty times. She’s got little bags of pills zippered up in neat plastic squares marked with both our names as if we are a married couple. She’s the wife, taking on my name; her existence dependent on me. I am making a call as to where and when she dies; she simply has to trust me. My partner says it’s marked that way to denote who pays the bills and I quip back, “See what I mean?”
My youngest tries to cuddle her without killing her, but it’s not easy. Two year olds tend to do things in a killer kind of way without meaning to and the older one shouts at her for being mean. I try to explain that she’s got a big sore inside her and she needs to be gentle.
“Put a plaster on the sore,” she advises with gravely, her eyes the same plain blue as my now ten years dead sister-in- law. Maybe it’s true. The dead live on somehow, inside us all.
The cat hasn’t done much of anything all week. She lies in her basket, sleeping. Occasionally she’ll get up for a bit to eat or she’ll go lie in the sun. I have brief guilty thoughts: perhaps she’s suffering; perhaps I shouldn’t have tried all the chemo and medical procedures- I did it for me and not her. And then I have longer more complicated guilty thoughts: this is costing me a fortune- I’m spending money I don’t have on a cat that is going to die anyway. Why have a dug my heels in about this? Then: What better way to spend your money than on prolonging a life? Would you rather spend it on credit card debt? New boots? You have the correct priorities. The priorities that matter. Love for a being is measured by what you put into it, regardless of the outcome.
Despite the cacophony of thoughts, I have a niggling feeling though, that I am doing it because I’m afraid of death.
The cat won’t eat her food. I’ve offered her chicken, fish, beef in cubed, minced and chunk form and I’m considering making cat soup. It’s ironic given I’ve spent a good portion of her life yelling at her not to eat so much. She’s got a history of bulimia- eating until she vomits – which I didn’t deal with responsibly. All I did was nudge her out of her food bowl and refuse to feed her on demand. Imagine doing that to your 16 year old daughter? Padlocking the fridge door and refusing to talk about it?
The cat’s breathing is laboured and her eyes are closed. I tell myself I’ll give it to Monday.
I have a shower; boil an egg, read a newspaper. The cat lies in her basket always on the periphery of my vision. When I leave the room, I’m wondering if the noise I hear is her getting out of her basket or her breathing. I make myself another cup of tea and sit back down. My partner and the kids have gone out. “Maybe you better take her to the vet,” he said gently, before walking out the door.
Through this whole thing, he hasn’t offered one single opinion on what he thinks I should be doing with the cat. “You need to do what you need to do,” was the only thing he offered – though I knew he would’ve put her down from the moment the prognosis was given.
“Dammit, Smilla,” I shout, throwing the newspaper aside.
I bundle her into her basket and race at breakneck speed to the vet.
Later Saturday morning
The veterinarians’ clinic always smells like cleaning products and animal. I realise that is not a surprising work of fictional description, but it really is amazing how you can’t scrub away the smell of animal. I wonder if a hospital smells of human. If a dog went into a hospital, would he go, “All that bleach just isn’t getting rid of the smell of human.”
I wait in reception with the cat in her basket between my feet. I’ve kind of prepared myself and kind of not. I find I’m often like this in moments of dread – I know what’s coming but I can’t think about it properly; I just have to let it come at me like a truck without brakes. I know I can’t do anything to stop it so I let it smash straight into me, head-on full impact.
I’d talked to her in the car while she meowed in evenly spaced spurts, but I can’t remember what I said. Something along the lines of, “It’s going to be ok, baby, don’t worry,” over and over, same as her meows.
The vet said the inevitable and I said I didn’t want to watch. He explained how he would do it: put a catheter in her leg and give her an overdose.
I cried. And cried and cried. I cried and sobbed until my head ached and my throat throbbed.
Then I cuddled her thin, weak little body; looked one last time into her soft, dying eyes, put her down on the table and left.
I knew that by the time I drove my car into my garage and put the kettle on, she would be gone.
A pet dying isn’t simply a matter of a favourite animal passing on. It’s a reminder of all the other deaths that we’ll have to face in our future – near and distant. As much as it’s an animal, it brings mortality straight up in your face, big and strange and murky. One day it’s going to be a mother, a sister, a friend – someone whose time is up before it should be; someone’s whose time has gone on too long.
Pets are a good way to prepare for death. It helps children understand what goneness is and how much it hurts. What I struggle with most is this: the journey of the cat to her death reminded me that it will eventually be me. Someone will be putting the key into their front door, switching on their computer and settling down in front of it with a nice mug of tea, and at that moment, with a click of the mouse, I’ll be gone.