I’m old enough to have had lots of animals – and people – die on me. Other cats. Good friends and mentors. Grandparents. Parents. Rock-and-roll heroes. And most recently, my first and favorite chicken, Miss Buffy. None, however, affected me quite the same as losing Lucy.Our kitty of eighteen years, nearly a quarter of my lifetime, is gone. Take all the tears in my life of nearly sixty-eight years and they might add up to the salty river I’ve shed in the past few days and weeks.
If you were to ask whether a grown man crying over a dying cat is normal, that would be a fair question. Yes, it is a bit embarrassing. On the other hand, my wife posted on Facebook a notice of our loss and got a host of heartfelt comments. I suspect that anyone who has outlived a longtime house pet understands.We struggled daily with the timing of the inevitable: When is the right time? How do you know? Is she in pain? What’s best for kitty? How can you ever know for sure? Waiting for the vet to arrive like the grim reaper, I was torn between wanting the clock to speed up or stop.
I went through this once before with my one-and-only hunting dog, Levi. The vet came out to the parking lot and put him to sleep in the back of my Pinto station wagon, where Levi had spent much his life accompanying me everywhere. Then I drove home and dug a hole in my backyard garden and laid him on his rug (“Go to your spot, Levi!”) and covered him with dirt. I gave him a headstone – a football-sized piece of white limestone shaped like a gnome from a trip we had made together to the Florida Keys. Though that was thirty years ago, sometimes I still picture him there, his underground bones smoldering to dust, and wonder if my timing was right.Lucy – our little bitch, our favorite diva – went out with dignity in her own bed. I was proud of her. When the vet tried to shave the hind leg of this placid-appearing old cat in order to find a vein for the fatal injection, Lucy summoned a last shot of adrenaline, hissed and clawed, and tried to take off his hand – one last “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
I thought I would be better the day after, taking care of the mechanics of loss – washing her blankets and putting away her cat things for a time when we bring a new kitty, or kitties, into our lives. I wasn’t prepared for how empty the house felt. Outdoors, rain howled in the fir trees and wind chimes sang their monotonous tunes.I cleaned up the last of Lucy’s ubiquitous shed hair, the errant kitty litter, and the carpet spots from her end-of-days sickness – which she bore with stoic cat-grace, never complaining, never whining, just slowly, but irrevocably winding down. Probably what finally got her was diabetes.
With an old cat like Lucy, what you lose are small things; her days of frenetic cat antics were long past. There is a personality missing. Routines are shattered – feeding and watering, dealing with poop and pee and hairballs, putting her to bed at night. Suddenly, the house stays cleaner longer. My allergies are better. But there is a new silence. A loneliness has taken residence. Everything seems a bit more fragile.Maybe our grief and anxiety at such times is about more than just a pet. How can it not remind us of the truly great sadnesses that lie in our futures, those nightmares we usually keep at bay?
When we dropped off Lucy for cremation, I asked Adam at the funeral home if I could see the crematorium. “Probably not since it’s in use right now,” he said, taking my box. No doubt it was a former human under transformation to ashes since he said they only get about one pet cremation a month. I can understand not wanting an audience. If it was me, I wouldn’t want one, either. I just thought it would be interesting to see, since there is a better-than-fair chance that it’s exactly the place I’ll end up one day. Adam explained that the pet and people remains shouldn’t get mixed up since they only do one body at a time and capture by vacuum all the ashes after each use. I found that oddly comforting.
Lucy wasn’t even my cat. Oh sure, she tolerated me for the most part and allowed me the privilege of regularly scratching her head. Her kitty cuddling, however, she reserved for Eva (although even that in Lucy-defined doses). Hard as this has been for me, it’s been worse for Eva.
Our shared grief over our shared loss has brought us closer together than ever. I didn’t think that possible, but it’s true. So I guess I should say, thank you, Lucy, for that surprise. A final, lasting gift for the unconditional love we gave her. Not bad for just a cat.
Here’s a concluding thought from an essay, “This Old Man” by Roger Angell, in last week’s The New Yorker:
TEACHER: Good morning, class. This is the first day of school and we’re going to introduce ourselves. I’ll call you, one by one, and you can tell us your name and maybe what your dad or your mom does for a living. You, please, over at this end.
SMALL BOY: My name is Irving and my dad is a mechanic.TEACHER: A mechanic! Thank you, Irving. Next?
SMALL GIRL: My name is Emma and my mom is a lawyer.TEACHER: How nice for you, Emma! Next?
SECOND SMALL BOY: My name is Luke and my dad is dead.TEACHER: Oh, Luke, how sad for you. We’re all very sorry about that, aren’t we, class? Luke, do you think you could tell us what Dad did before he died?
LUKE (seizes his throat): He went “N’gugngghhh!”