Thursday morning, the cat I’ve had since I was 20 lost her battle with old age and kidney failure. She was 16. It’s never easy to lose a pet, or a friend. You think that when you get older you won’t take things as hard, but the truth is that you just take it a little different.
About six months after I got Ryan as a kitten, my basset hound, Chelsea, died from stomach cancer, and it was devastating. I put her old nametag from her collar on my keychain and carried it around with me for years, as I went from school to school, party to party, apartment to apartment. My therapist gave me this great book called, That Dog! so that I could try to get in tune with the cycle of life. I was pretty sure that no other pet dying would hit me like Chelsea’s death did.
It turns out that Ryan’s death was just as tough to take, but different. More . . . adult. This time, I had to be the one to make the final decision to put her down. We tried to save her with subcutaneous fluids and hospitalization, appetite stimulants and anti-nausea shots, but this last time when she came back from the hospital, I could tell she wasn’t herself. Two weeks ago, she killed a lizard and brought it to my bedside. But now, she was doing things like sitting in the planter outside and stumbling around, nearly falling down as she tried to navigate the bed, and just . . . just not acting like a cat. So we took her in.
And I held her in my arms this time, while they gave her the shots. I did not want her to be alone. And for myself, I’m glad that I did, because the gravity of it all didn’t really hit me until I felt her body relax in my arms, for the last time. First with the sedative, and then, a softer, gentler relaxation, and I knew she was gone.
Before that moment, I was in that mode where you have decided you are going to do what is right, regardless of how difficult it is. You are all business, just focusing on the task at hand. It is that same mode in which you spend much of parenthood, particularly in those first few days when breastfeeding feels like a white hot staple gun of pain radiating through your whole body, but you grit your teeth and swallow hard, way in the back of your throat, and you can hear and feel the pain even in your ear canal.
Because you would rather die than let your baby know how much it hurts.
And then it hits you that, somehow — without realizing it — you have been readying yourself for that moment your whole life, growing strong enough to endure that pain without flinching so that your child can get what he needs from you. And that you never knew until that moment how strong you were, or what it meant to go through great pain, without showing it, all because of love.
I will miss you, my old friend. And I will keep sleeping with your pillow placed right above my head, because after all of these years, I’m not sure I can get to sleep with it any other way.