A couple of months ago, I was working at my kitchen table at my laptop, with the door to the backyard open so my cats could come and go. I got up to go into another room, and there, lying quietly on my living room couch, was an old, grey, skinny cat, looking at me somberly.
I had seen this cat around for awhile; he would hang out by my backdoor when I fed my cats and let them out for their potty break. I usually left food out for him because that’s clearly what he had come for. He had a collar on, so I assumed he was someone’s cat and was just trawling for extra food. I didn’t like him very much because he was always fighting with my cats. They hated him. But I’m a softie and I will feed a hungry critter.
He had never let me get anywhere near him, and so we had developed a kind of détente. I fed him, he watched me, and we got along for awhile that way, except when I had to chase him off from fighting with my other cats.
Now, here he was on my couch, starving and barely able to walk.
Long story short: I took him in, fed him, and installed him in his nest in the home office. He had something wrong with his hip, so it pained him to walk, and he would breathe hard even after just a little exertion. But that cat purred. Like crazy. He purred as soon as he saw me in the mornings. He purred when I’d go sit with him in the evenings and watch TV. He’d purr when I had people over and, even though he was deaf, he somehow knew when there was a gathering in the living room, and he’d hobble out to come hang out with us. He was a scrawny old dude with bald ears, one broken tooth, a bump on top of his head, and nicked ears. He looked like he’d just crawled out of a train wreck.
But he was one of the sweetest cats I ever knew.
I called him Greybeard.
Because I’m not particularly financially stable, I put off bringing him to the vet until a kindly family member offered to pay for a checkup. We both knew that the outcome might not be what we hoped for, but he was clearly not well, and we didn’t want him to suffer. I brought him to the free pet checkup event at Petfood Express and they had checked him for a microchip, but they weren't equipped to examine him in the way he needed.
Yesterday, I brought him in to the vet’s, and he was purring as the vet tech examined him. She fell in love with him in a moment.
But the vet was concerned about his breathing problems, and when she x-rayed him, she brought me in to look at the results. The poor guy was very sick, had a mass and a lot of fluid in his abdomen, and the vet feared heart disease. There was also what looked like a BB embedded in his hip, which explained his trouble walking. She looked at me and said “I don’t think he’s going to get better”. At that moment, one of the staff came in and urgently asked for the vet, and she went out. She came back in a second later and beckoned to me. I followed her to the lab, where Greybeard was struggling to breathe. The vet said he was going into cardiac arrest. All of us in the room looked at each other, and I said “I guess it’s time to let him go, then”. Everyone nodded.
I looked at him on that table, fighting hard for life, and burst into tears.
I wanted to be with him at the end, so they brought him in to the exam room, sedated, and I watched as the vet pushed the pink liquid into his vein that would end his life. I watched as his eyes grew dim. The vet said “He’s gone”. I had to know for myself, so I put my hand on his tiny chest, felt a little flutter, and then nothing.
And then he was just a corpse; a dead thing you’d find on a road.
I’ve been there before for a cat in this transition – when I came home one evening and found my cat Merlin lying on the floor unable to move his hind legs. I brought him to the emergency vet, who sat on the floor and told me Merlin had thrown a blood clot and recovery would be painful, not guaranteed, and very expensive. So I let him go, too.
I found my other, old, three-legged cat collapsed in a pool of liquid one day after coming home from work. She was already cold.
I was there when my mom’s much beloved cat went missing, and got the phone call when my mom found out from the neighbors that they had found the body – mangled by raccoons – and buried it when she had been out of town. She was devastated.
As a kid, I saw our sweet, loyal Lhasa Apso have a heart attack in the front hallway, and came home from school soon after to find that he had died. I would hear his footsteps in the hallways for years after that.
Love is so challenging because letting go is an inherent part of it. Even positive and expected transitions - like kids growing up and becoming independent - can be hard on us. Yet last night I finally realized how much of a privilege it is to be there for another creature’s transition into whatever happens next.
I’ve known people who have had so much loss in their lives that they refuse to let anyone or anything into their hearts again. I’m like that in certain ways, but for some reason, not with animals. Maybe because I don’t fear that they can hurt me in the terrible ways humans can. The loss I feel when a treasured animal companion dies feels like a tribute to the life that ended, not grief for myself.
I don’t know where Greybeard is now, but I hope he can run and breathe without pain, and that there’s nobody there who would shoot him with a BB. I’m very grateful that he showed up on my couch.
What Is Joy?
Can life really be joyful, even when hard things happen? Maybe not on the surface, but below our pain and fear, below the judgment of ourselves and others, there's a kernel that's an inherent and unstoppable desire to live; to see what happens next. At JATHT, we'll explore life, love, joy, and sorrow and hopefully learn something in the process. Welcome!