My cat died. She was around 17 years old. She was a feral cat that we rescued 15 years ago and she lived with me and my family of humans and creatures, remaining feral for 14 of those years. When she went deaf in her last year of life, I swiftly came up behind her and caught her up in my arms. She struggled and then for the first time in her life she welcomed my embrace and relaxed in my arms. Over the next year, she would make almost a nuisance of herself demanding affection: climbing onto my chest and relentlessly rubbing her face on mine as I lay on the sofa and jumping into my lap and the laps of visitors as we met to eat or talk. She was as determined in her brazen demands for love as she had before been hyper-vigilant in her need for isolation. She was stubborn. She was determined.
The cancer disfigured her beautiful face. As the tumor grew, the side of her face stretched grotesquely, exposing her teeth and tongue on her right side. Her eye eventually turned pale in color and daily I cleaned a soft scab from over the top of it. She drooled, her eye wept, and she smelled badly. The vet said that no one would blame me if I put her down and I reminded him that I didn’t believe it was my place to make that call. It is hard to watch life slow and eventually transform to what we call dying, death, and then dead. I questioned my decision countless times, despite the fact that I had sat with the dying before. Was I doing the right thing letting her die her own death? Is there an amount of pain that is truly unbearable, and would I recognize it and, if I did, what would I do? And so, I turned to her. This incredible being, stubbornly strong.
She ate daily the soft food we bought special for her, slopping it all over herself and the floor in an attempt to ingest some. She used every day the litter box that I had moved upstairs for her convenience. Before I isolated her to the upstairs for her own safety, she would make the trip down two flights of stairs to use the basement box. Often in the morning, I would wake to see her sitting at the window sill watching the sun rise and the birds in the trees. She was living her life. And she was determined to live it right up until the end. We were inspired by her. By the beauty of her journey from living to dying. Each day I wrapped her frail body in a soft towel and stepped into a warm shower and careful cleaned her face, cupping one hand to catch warm water while the steam softened dried food, mucus from her weeping eye, and occasional fecal matter from her backside. She welcomed it daily, this cat which I couldn’t touch for 14 years. This cat that we had to trap for the vet who made house calls. This cat that cried a sorrowful moan while we held her wrapped tightly in a towel while she was vetted. This cat that I never thought I would know I cared for more intimately than any other being. I would tell my family, “I don’t think she will last much longer, say your goodbyes,” and a month would pass. I would tell my family, “I don’t know, but I think it will be this week, spend time with her,” and a month would pass. This was our habit.
Nine months later, on what would be her last day, I sat in the morning sun and rocked her in a chair. Usually, we would rock for a minute or two and then she would tire and wish to return her bed and sleep. But this morning she didn’t tire. She rested her head on my chest and occasionally looked up at me longingly. I felt her desire to be with me. I was overwhelmed with what seemed like gratitude and, after an hour, I told her that when I returned from the “girls outing” with my college bound daughter I would sit again on the deck and rock her in the chair. As I lay her in her bed, I hesitated about our lunch out. Life choices.
On my return I could now see with confidence, it was time. My family sat with me on the deck as the sun faded with the day. She was wrapped in a soft towel and lay on my chest. It took her less than an hour to go. At times she made lapping gestures with her tongue as if drinking and her paw moved, pawing at the imaginary water dish just as she had always done when drinking. Her legs pumped hard and fast like she was running. She seemed to know what she needed, where she was going, and how to get there. I was humbled by her certainty, and when I felt my body tense with nervousness and self-doubt as witness to her journey, I breathed and reminded myself that it was support I was there to offer. Not judgement of the right or wrong way to die, but support for the way she was dying. I breathed in and brought my awareness to her passage and my attention to the space that I held for her safe and secure journey. And when she passed, I knew I had without a doubt done the right thing to stand by her and let her die her way.