December 15, 2011.
Today I said good-bye to a part of my everyday.
Almost 17 years ago a friend told me that a stray cat had given birth to kittens on his back porch and they were old enough to find new homes. He asked if I wanted one before he took the others to the shelter, so I went over to see them. We watched them playing together for some time, laughing as people do at the antics of baby animals. One of the cream colored furballs seemed to stand back a bit more and just watch and observe. That seemed like me, like my behavior. But there was another cream colored kitten and I felt that it would be better to have two, so that they would have a buddy around, and I had read that they are easier to manage when not alone.
I had been thinking at that time about getting a dog, and when I suddenly had two kittens, I thought it would be funny to give them “dog” names. So I named them “Pepe” (instead of “puppy”) and "Diogi" (in reference to the letters D-O-G.) And for the past 16 plus years, they have been part of my personal tribe. Anyone who develops true relationships with pets will realize that animals have very distinct and individual personalities. Some scientists will warn against the practice of “anthropomorphism” when it comes to dealing with the animal kingdom. That basically means not attributing “human type” emotions when explaining their behavior. But I find that unnecessarily reactive. Its too far in the opposite direction. I do not think animals experience feelings of “revenge” or “animosity” but I firmly believe that they feel joy, sadness, guilt, loss and most importantly, affection. (I would further suggest anyone interested in considering this behavioral and philosophical question to read “When Elephants Weep” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy.)
About a year and a half ago, a stray cat had gotten into the garage and Pepe, while an “indoor” cat, defended his territory and came out of the encounter injured to the point of almost dying. I had never declawed my cats as part of me felt that having claws was part of what it was to “be” a cat. And while he was able to defend himself, he never fully recovered to his pre-fight self. He lost a lot of weight and never regained it all. I identified with this as a few years ago I developed a very severe and chronic condition that prevented me from being able to properly ingest and digest food for about a year, and I had dropped down to about 120 pounds. I’m at the point now of needing to be more disciplined to tone up as I am back to 185 pounds, but that’s another story.
In the past few months, Pepe had lost even more weight and even most recently he had started to have trouble walking sometimes. He was regurgitating sometimes and had begun to not practice what most pet owners will agree is the EASIEST thing about having a cat which was using his own litter box. I began to fear the inevitable, but Pepe still enjoyed sitting by me in the chair, purring loudly while I petted him. He enjoyed being petted from head to tail and even a gentle tug on his tail as I did. He was a bit stand-offish with most people, especially kids, but he was always my buddy. I am grateful that he never lost that desire, to sit beside me, content and at ease.
Just a few days ago, after meowing loudly to wake me for his morning meal, he just sat by the bowl and looked at the food for the longest time. He didn’t dive right in. So I took a few pieces of chicken that I cooked as his treats and put it on the food. Even still it took him a while to get interested. I resolved that I would at least take him to the vet to see if there was an issue of which I was unaware and unable to determine on my own. I was also preparing myself for the vet to say that he was indeed nearing the end of a domestic cats life expectancy. In my mind, I sometimes dreaded feeling that I would come home from work and find him expired, or waking up and not having him in the room and having to find him hidden somewhere, gone off to pass as animals may do in the wild.
When I took him into the vet, he got the requisite “what a nice cat” and “what a sweet face” that he normally got, but his overall demeanor was very subdued. And the vets kind but resolute findings. Pepe’s weight was less than 6 pounds (down from an all time high of 13 pounds and a steady 8-9 pounds since the altercation.) Even more disturbing, his kidneys had shrunk to a precarious point which indicated imminent failure, and then the final, sobering finding, multiple, irregularly shaped tumors throughout his abdomen. The vet seemed to think that Pepe would soon waste away. His recommendation, while expected at some point, was suddenly before me. Now seemed to be the time. Pepe was laying quietly in my lap and I felt myself consciously trying to imprint into my mind the feel of his fur under my hand as I petted him from head to tail. As much as possible, I committed to memory the feel of his tail as it curled around my hand in response to the petting. I looked at him hoping to decipher some sense of what he must be thinking, knowing he did not like being in the exam room, but he seemed calm as he tucked his head into the crook of my arm. Yet, I knew that I had to make this decision. The vet felt that his little body was already shutting down. I felt no shame, even as a grown man, when I felt large, warm tears stream down my face. He was a friend and it was up to me to make this decision. So I did.
As the vet administered the final injection of meds that would quiet Pepe’s life, I thought my mind would be filled with corny repetitions of “good-bye” or “I love you little guy” but instead the words that kept ringing through my mind were “Thank you.” I realized how blessed I had been that this little piece of the infinite, disguised in cat form, had spent almost 17 years being part of my every day. A small fragment of the universe, developed its own consciousness, and was part of my tribe. As a 46 year old man, I have certainly lost pets and people before. But to realize such a sense of gratitude was a gift that I had not received before. And I find it fitting that it was being taught by a life-being that would never plan to hurt me, never hold onto feelings of anger or resentment, and would always just look to me for a simple act of gentle kindness and would offer simple company and a reason to smile from time to time. Again, all I can say and all I feel is “Thank you.” We should all be so grateful.
I want to take this lesson as far as I can in my life. To commit to memory the look of the faces of my friends and family. The sound of their laughter. The smells associated with the seasons and the environment surrounding me. Everything I think I love, I want to experience more fully. That is quite something to learn from a 17 year old cat. I couldn’t’ feel luckier. I know that the pain of losing a beloved pet is personal. I will not strive to make it more or less than it is. It does hurt. It hurts as much as it should. And that is ok. I do not ask that it hurt less, as I know it will eventually hurt "sweeter."