Teach me how to say good-bye

I don’t think it hit me at home until last night, at around 1:30. 

Kyle had already rolled over and fallen asleep, and I’d just finished reading an article about baby elephants (because the lack of motor control in their trunks is the cutest thing ever) and was rolling over to follow suit. And for some reason, that rolling over made everything hit me. 

For months before now, my cat Tinkerbell was too frail and old to climb up onto our bed, and even when we lifted her onto the bed, she wouldn’t stay long, and her departure always made us panic that she’d managed to break something, because to the last, she was not smart enough to realize that maybe she shouldn’t jump off of things that are so high. But last night, for some reason, my arms felt really empty without the possibility of her being there. The nights when she would be on the bed, I would cuddle with her until she got fed up with me, and all I wanted last night was just one more cuddle, just one more hug. 

It was pretty bad. I eventually got up (it was now encroaching on 2 a.m.) and got my old teddy bear from the bookcase where he’s been sitting for a while. He’s an ancient thing, a stuffed animal I got right around my first birthday, and he’s caught more tears and been through more hugs than almost anything I own. As toys in their 30s go, he’s not in the best shape, but he’s almost Real in the Velveteen Rabbit sense. Missing an eye, all his stuffing in the wrong places, a few awkward tears, burns on his back from one time when my mom tried to dry him in their fancy dryer and it was set too high for a nearly 40 year old bear.

But anyway, I haven’t held him while I was sleeping in a really long time; after all, I have a husband now. And last night, Kyle was there, snoring away, but I needed something smaller and more… I guess primal to hold onto. So I got my bear, Patchwork Bear. And I cried.

We don’t know what made Tinkerbell so sick lately. She’s been going downhill for upwards of a year, maybe 18 months, but we’d agreed at some point around the last time we spent $1500 because she was constipated that diagnostic tests were just too expensive for a cat that wasn’t likely to live much longer anyway. Any sort of treatments we’d give her would just stress her out and would ultimately be for us, so that we could put off saying good-bye and feeling like this. 

And throughout the last ~18 months or so, she’d been somewhat normal. Lost a lot of weight, became more and more reclusive, but still wandered out and screamed at us to feed her first thing in the morning and last thing at night, still puked to show her displeasure, still loved getting pet behind the ears and under the chin and on the neck. 

It was really just this week that she leaned into that decline. All of a sudden, she stopped eating completely. She stopped drinking more than kitty sips of water. She started to be incontinent. She was wandering places that she didn’t usually like to be–the front door, her old room, the dining room–and meowing for no reason. 

We called the vet, and the vet confirmed what I already knew: it was time. 

We’ve been talking about her death for a long time, because she was an OLD cat. Not record-breaking (she’d never have given us that satisfaction), but old enough that she’d stopped looking alive about two years ago. She’d had kitty incontinence for a while, which resulted in us closing off a whole room of our house solely for her use until she was in too much pain from arthritis and too tired to climb up and down the stairs (said room is, by the way, getting refloored as soon as I can get a decent estimate and get someone out here to do it). We talked a lot about the next cat we would get (“not until we’ve fixed the cat room!” Kyle continues to insist as I scroll through pictures of black cats and ginger cats and Maine Coons that look like Ron Perlman and Oriental shorthairs with ears too big for their heads), and it always came with the joke that she’d live forever just out of spite.

Spite fueled her a lot–after all, her first introduction to domestic life involved our dog excitedly deciding she was a new chew toy and putting her entire head inside of his mouth–but she was also very lovey once she decided you were Hers. She’d butt her head against your legs, roll around on the floor while giving you big cute eyes so you’d forgive her for puking her dinner up and asking for more. She communicated with a lot of squeaking and “brrt?” noises, and especially towards the end of her life, she’d give these purry, gurgly meows whenever we were petting her, as if to say, “Yes, that is delightful, do not stop.”

She was the runt of her litter, so she always ate her food way too fast, especially when there were other cats in the house; after all, if she DIDN’T eat the food fast enough, there might not be any left. And then, like the absolute genius she was, she would horf it all back up and beg for more. And just when I’d be SO. ANNOYED. with her for doing that, she’d delicately (or indelicately, when she was young and weighing in at 15 lbs) curl up right over my heart and fall asleep there, purring all the while as I inhaled her fur and had many coughing fits because of it. 

Kyle and I took Tinkerbell to the vet for the last time on Friday night. Despite Covid, the vet’s office let us be in the room with them and her to say good-bye; otherwise, we’d have had to wait outside. They had a little electric candle that they lit at the front desk to let other families know to please be quiet because we were saying good-bye to her. 

Very little of it was surprising or unexpected to me, because I’d spent the days leading up to her death reading about what would happen. I knew they’d put in a catheter, and I knew she’d fall asleep quickly. I knew it would be painless for her. I knew she’d let out a little sigh as the last air left her lungs. I knew her eyes would be open once she died, because closing your eyes requires muscle tension, and she had none once she was gone. 

The only two unexpected bits were exactly how sick she was and how above and beyond our vet and vet tech went to make her happy and comfortable. Because as it turned out, she’d lost so much weight that she was down to less than 2.5 lbs. It took them a long time to find a vein for the catheter, but they assured us that was normal for a cat of her age (adding, too, that she was the second oldest cat they’d seen there lately; the oldest being 21). And then, when it was time to let go, the vet tech suddenly asked, “Does she like cheese?” and I managed to say that she did, in between sobs (those enormous ones, coming from a pain so deep inside of you that it’s part of your very making). The tech gave her one ENORMOUS squirt of squeezy cheese, you know the fake stuff from the can, and she devoured that so fast that he managed to give her two more before the vet was ready to administer the final injections.

And then, it was over, so fast that it didn’t seem real. I cried and I cried, but I didn’t hold her body or cuddle her or stay for a long time afterwards because… well, that wasn’t her anymore. She’s gone, moved onto her next kitty life (from her idiocy, I assume that she was pretty early on in the nine lives cycle; maybe her third or fourth life, tops).

I know you can’t really look at death and say that anything happens afterwards with real certainty. Despite not knowing, I take a lot of comfort in the fact that no matter what, if anything, happens to any extra-physical part of me–a soul or spirit or the me of me–the atoms that make up my physical body will return to the cosmos that birthed them and become parts of stars and flowers and cockroaches and raindrops and soil and everything else in the universe at some point. And maybe, by chance, my atoms and the atoms of the people I love will meet up and make a spiderweb or a comet or a cloud together. And the atoms from Tinkerbell’s ashes (since we’re having her cremated, rather than deal with figuring out whether we can bury her in the backyard and risk attracting the foxes and bears and bobcats that have been running around our town lately) might be part of that, too, and that’s comforting enough on its own.

But I still like to think (even though I couldn’t prove it and wouldn’t expect anyone to agree with me) that maybe, on Friday evening, a mama cat was having a litter and maybe, she had one girl kitten who was born with a taste for squeezy cheese, and maybe in 6-8 weeks, when the floor in Tinkerbell’s old room is all fixed and we’re able to adopt another cat, I’ll see her picture on a website; and when I go to meet her, she’ll start purring like mad–too quiet to hear but easy enough to feel–because she found me again.

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