I have avoided this story because it still carries pain.
Mary Oliver, a wonderful poet, in “In Blackwater Woods,” summed up how we relate to the mortality of those we love, both human and animal. The quote is famous precisely because it is apropos for our relationship to the animals that almost invariably predecease us:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
From September 9, 1997 until September 9, 2006, I shared a huge part of my life with a small orange and white mutt cat I named Pushkin. I wrote about her earlier as “Joey,” adopted from the Bergen County animal shelter. I have said before and say now that she was the most singular non-human presence ever in my life: a unique mix of cattitude and empathy who helped rescue me from loneliness. In the first winter of my separation, with the cat relatively new in my life, she would crawl into my lap as I sat drunk and crying in my office. She would demand in her curiously communicative way to be petted because it made her feel good and me feel better. I could take my head out of my ass for 15 minutes.
She shared space with Casper and Macy for about 7 weeks, and didn’t seem to miss them a bit when they left.
I adopted a second cat, her buddy, early in 1999, a little black male cat I named Miles for another “black cat,” Miles Davis. Miles would fly around the apartment like a helium balloon losing air, and this pistol of a cat around changed Pushkin’s personality. She took to him at once and they rampaged around the apartment together.
In August 2000 we moved to my S.O.’s house on the Jersey Shore. All four cats were thrown together again. Plus Cid, who was still a puppy. It got a bit crazy. The cats renewed acquaintances, and even Pushkin and Macy–two strong females who initially hated each other–established a form of silent toleration.
The changes began in June 2002. Miles lost a bunch of weight, the vet saw a huge tumor around his liver, and we agreed to let him go. It was June 25, 2002. And God, it hurt…but I think it hurt Pushkin more than it hurt me. I believe she really loved Miles like a combination boyfriend and child. She protected him from the dog until he learned to outwit Cid by outrunning him; she shared the food bowl with him; they hung out and slept together. In the latter picture, Miles looks like a seal…he was beautifully sleek even if you had a hell of a time getting him to hold still.
Now Miles was gone and I had to “tell” Pushkin. Of course she knew her companion was sick–cats and dogs learn the world via their noses and Miles smelled ill. When we got back from the vet after putting Miles down (even the vet was crying), I went into the bedroom where Pushkin was sitting (in dread? anticipation?) on some clothes and held my hands under her nose. I’d been holding Miles no more than an hour before. Pushkin sniffed for a few seconds, then screeched and ripped at my arm. Grief and rage. I don’t know if cats have a concept of Death as such but she got the message: her friend was gone.
The next day she became my dog. That is, she followed me around, would not let me out of her sight, was more clingy than I’d ever known her. The other cats seemed upset, the dog was very upset because he and Miles evolved to playing chasing games all the time.
And then, in the summer of 2006, it was Pushkin’s turn.
I knew she was an old cat but I figured she had a few years left in her. And I didn’t want to face what was happening. Early in the summer she could not keep down her food, started to lose bladder control, and her weight was way down. The vet gave her a steroid shot and some antibiotics, and her appetite took off–but she didn’t gain weight.
Now it wasn’t If. It was When. I was praying she’d survive until the end of the year. But that was for me, not for her–and she had other ideas.
She couldn’t jump anymore. If the dog came at her she meowed feebly but could not spring clear or fight back. It was terrible to watch.
On Thursday, September 7 at 11:15 AM, Pushkin voided blood on the bathroom floor. I wet a towel and cleaned it up. I picked her up, stared into her face, and started to cry because she suddenly seemed dead behind the eyes, as though her soul had escaped. There was no avoiding the fact that it was over for my cat. All she could do now was lay in a sunbeam and breathe raspily. I called the vet and we arranged for Saturday morning at 9:15. There was no question that all her systems were shutting down. But her awareness hung on until the very end. I am absolutely certain she knew what I was going to do for her: what she wanted and needed.
And this is how she told me:
I had an appointment in the afternoon and, on the way to the door, found Pushkin by the refrigerator, crouched down for warmth on a hot day. I called her by name. For the first time in nine years she turned her head in response to her name. Her face was one of the saddest sights I’ve ever seen.
My friend Ginny, an animal communicator, told me that when an animal knows it’s time to go, it will communicate it wordlessly to those who are open to the message. Pushkin’s face seemed be speaking so I could hear her. “I don’t want to play anymore. Can I go home now, please?” I told her that on Saturday morning we would make it all go away.
On Friday afternoon, I got home from work and my S.O. was playing Parsifal on the stereo, Act III, the redemption and revival of Amfortas through the Holy Grail. I held Pushkin and listened, then wept again because I knew there was no Holy Grail that would save this beloved animal resting in my lap.
And when Saturday morning came I realized that September 9 was the ninth anniversary of the day I adopted her. I measured her years by the date I adopted her, so on that day she turned 17 years old. I’d given her a gift–a home and love–and she’d repaid it a hundredfold with companionship and her own form of devotion. Now my last gift to her would be release from her sadness and discomfort.
We were about to leave for the vet when Cid came in. He saw us moving an unresisting Pushkin into the carrying box, and he lost it. He began barking and yelping, almost in panic, as though he knew this cat he really liked was going to leave him. He and Pushkin over the years formed not quite an alliance but a mutual tolerance that sometimes turned funny. The dog would stick his nose up Pushkin’s butt. And the cat loved it. Go figure.
The vet told us she didn’t seem to be in pain, just that nothing worked anymore and it would be cruel to keep her alive for no reason. The chances were good that she had liver cancer. I cried and said goodbye to her, then held her, told the doctor we were ready, and he gave her a large sedative dose to relax her. Pushkin was totally somnolent. He came back, shaved a piece of her back leg, and injected a dose of phenobarbital into a vein. She was dead in a few seconds.
Reste, douce Image
Shortly before we left for the vet, my S.O. took this picture of the two of us:
Ginny said I looked like I was trying to memorize ever contour of her. I guess I was.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m tearing up again as I write this. I used to joke that Pushkin a.k.a. PushyCat, was my 4-legged daughter, and that’s not so far from the truth.
When we got home, we put the carrier out so the other animals could smell it. But they already knew. Cid was morose, and Casper and Tolstoy were hiding under the bed, huddled together.
I rejected the option of burying her in the yard or in a pet cemetery, or of having her ashes returned to me. I had lived with the cat and I have my memories of her. She was a treasured gift I had on loan and when the time came to let her go, I let her go. I returned her. The most and least I could do for her at the end was to ease her journey into whatever has come next for her: be it that proverbial sunlit Rainbow Bridge where we’ll see each other again, or just the peace of eternal darkness without pain. She knows by now but will not say.