Saturday, February 8, 2014

Letting Go

I rarely feel like an adult. I act like one because I know I'm the age where I have to (people my age who can't manage that are a source of constant irritation), but I can't say I ever really feel like one.

Like most people of my generation I suffer from being overly privileged. I'm well aware of how well my life has gone up to this point, regardless of whether or not I've deserved it. I didn't have to pay for college. I lucked into a happy marriage with a man who always astounds me with his love, compassion, and patience. I had just one frustrating season of job hunting before I landed in my career of choice. When others my age are starting to lose grandparents, parents even, I have yet to lose a person close to me. I got pregnant so easily that, with just a week and half left, I'm still kind of waiting for something to go horribly wrong. It's silly that I ever complain about anything. Everything is going well, and I'll always feel a little ridiculous sharing this story. Some will roll their eyes, and rightly so, because maybe they've been through so much more. But maybe others will understand, or at least understand that this is the worst thing I've been through in an admittedly easy life.

I'd noticed that she was losing weight. She was always on the bigger side. Vets always urged us to make her lose a pound or two. Suddenly I could feel her bones under her fur, fur that was oddly limp and thin when it use to be soft and thick. I pushed it away for a few weeks. Then there was finally a moment, when I was holding her, crying because I was hand feeding her, begging her to nourish herself, that I knew an adult moment was coming. I was going to lose her, and it would be soon.

I'm not a pet person really. Some people have the need to have animals in the house all the time, and usually more than one. For me it was never about that. I was satisfied with just her, my constant companion of sixteen years, when few other things were constant. Houses, roommates, friends, and boyfriends changed, but there was always the two of us. She hadn't been a pet for a long time.

One day I quietly told my husband that I should make her an appointment over my winter break. I knew what I would hear, and I knew I couldn't handle it and also work. I was setting myself up for a thoroughly depressing Christmas, but at least I could grieve in total privacy.

I wept all the way to that appointment. I failed in hiding my tears in the waiting room. A tech who's always adored her tried to comfort me, tell me that she would get better soon, but I knew better. Neither a person nor an animal goes from being perfectly healthy to a skeleton in just a month or two. She was so thin that I'd been able to feel her kidneys the day before the appointment. Maybe it was my growing maternal instincts, but I knew I would not be wrong. They took us to the examination room and I just cried. I couldn't stop. Before examining her the vet tried to be hopeful as well, assured me that it could be something treatable, like diabetes. My husband asked her to do a full body examination first before we did any extensive testing. I could see it in her face when the examination was done.

It happens like it does in the movies. You hear that it's a tumor. You hear the word "inoperable." You hear that on the slim chance that it is something else, she's not likely to survive the surgery. She's already lost nearly two-thirds of her body weight. She sits there calmly as the vets pets her. It seems like she knew.

Assured by the vet that she's not in pain, we decide to return after Christmas. On the way home I cry and cry and cry.

Even then I felt foolish. How spoiled I am, that at twenty-five I can still cry over a cat like she's a person.

I held her for a while when we got home. She rested on top of my growing belly, the closest she would ever be to my son, her head on my shoulder. Not at all normal behavior for her. She knew, and I realized she'd been waiting for me to know too. Over the next four days, the days she had left, she grew drastically worse. It was like she was finally able to accept it and prepare herself. She took to a pile of laundry in the kitchen and would rarely move from there. She stopped using the stairs. Stopped spending the night with us. Stopped making it to her litter box on time. She helped me see that we were doing the right thing for her, but it's a miserable moment. The moment when you realize that you're making your first really adult decision, the one where you decide that it's someone's time to die.

The day before we took her I was up early, restless. I sat on the couch watching TV, in my usual place. I was surprised to see her inch from her spot in the kitchen and make her way to me. She hopped up next to me, the way she'd always done, and we had our last morning together that was just like all the others. We watched the Dr. Who Christmas special. I cried because he regenerated, and because it was so fitting to what was coming.

I'd asked Tim to make the appointment as early as possible. I couldn't spend the day of anticipating it. So we took her back at 8am. That morning she ate solid food for the first time in days, and actually approached us to be fed. I immediately thought we were making a mistake again. Really I knew that this was typical of the last moments of both people and animals, and that it is often God's way of giving them a final reprieve from their suffering.

All the same, I make Tim ask the vet to check her again to be sure. Of course, it's still there, still starving her to death, and we are saving her great pain in the near future. They give her a shot of anesthesia, and for a second she's herself again, sharply turning her head toward them and meowing with indignation that anyone would dare give her a shot. It's her last fiery moment, a return to herself after so much weakness. Then they leave us alone with her. I pick her up and cry, and my husband holds us both. She's alert for a few more seconds before she falls asleep, but I hold her and hold that moment. She's teaching me how to let go, a lesson I've been lucky enough to avoid before this moment. It should have happened a long time ago, but it didn't, and it's now, and I cry because I'm nine again, and I'm holding her on the way home from the shelter, and I want to be back at that moment, with sixteen more impossible years. 

Finally I know she sleeps, and I ask him to go let the vet know. The vet comes in, and reminds me that I don't have to stay for this next part. The vet says that she doesn't know who is here and who isn't, but I know I could never leave her now, when everyone should have somebody with them. There is a consent form, and I sign it. I could make my husband do it, but I know that it should be me. So I hold onto her while she's given the shot. I feel her breathing slow, then stop. The vet tells us when she is gone. It was truly peaceful. It's surreal to me how like herself she looks-- that just seconds before she had been inside herself and now she isn't. 

The vet leaves again to give us time. I kiss her and just stare for a long time, tears quietly falling. Then I hear him start to go and I remember that he's suffering too. When other people cry I immediately stop crying. It's always been that way. My instinct to soothe kicks in and I hold him, and let him cry. He apologizes and I know that he feels guilty, that he wanted to be the comforter, not the comforted. Of course I don't care. I'm just touched that he loved her so much in such a short time.

The vet comes back and I babble about how I got her for my ninth birthday, that my dad wishes so much that he could be there. They were always second-closest next to her and I. The vet hugs us both and says that she can tell Sassy was always loved. After they remove her we go home, and we immediately begin to remove her litter box, bowls, brushes. I don't think I can handle it otherwise. Then we go back to bed, emotionally exhausted, but hopeful and a little relieved as well. The burden of the moment is gone at least, and now we will recover.

They called me a couple of weeks later when her ashes were ready. I went alone-- bad choice. I'd done really well over the weeks and didn't think I would have a problem. The receptionist looked pained for me when I whispered why I was there (whispered because I didn't want to upset the kids who were very happy with their dog a few feet away). She brought me a nice paper bag with a lovely pine box inside. I couldn't help but start to tear up a little. I was surprised at how beautifully they'd prepared her, and how compassionately both she and I had been treated. No one at the clinic was desensitized because this happens around them all the time. My cat was special and loved, they understood that, and they were genuinely sorry for me. It really does say something about how wonderful people can be.

On the way home I cried again. I cried and I couldn't stop. I haven't cried about it since then. Life is busy, and busy is a blessing. In a rare moment that I talked about it, someone asked me when I'd get another pet. They'd recently lost a pet and are getting another shortly. That really hit home for me that I'm not a pet person. I don't need an animal in the house. It was never about her being an animal. It was about me being a child and going through most of my life with that very special kind of companionship, the kind that stems from the intense love that a child can invest. I don't have a child's love to invest anymore. I had it for her because we'd established it long ago. We were well into the comfortable "old couple" phase, where sitting next to each other was enough for both of us. I will never have a pet again. One day, our son will ask us for a pet, and we'll say yes. But that pet will be his, and he will invest a child's love and grow with that pet (a dog, I'm assuming), just like I did. I will certainly love that animal, but I will love watching it be a faithful companion to my son more. And when I see them together, I'll remember my own faithful companion, and our fully lived life together.