On Halloween morning, my husband and I made the difficult decision to put down our best cat ever. He had rapidly declined over the course of a week or so, refusing to eat and becoming more and more jaundiced. I was not ready for the heavy waves of grief that came over me in the first few days. I would notice something — his favorite blanket, the empty spot in the sun, a clump of his fur in the corner of the room — and dissolve into flat-out, nose dripping, “boo hoo” sobs.
I felt the grief physically — fingernails scratching the inside of my stomach, a weight in my chest. This is not a metaphor. Something heavy took up residence behind my sternum, used my heart and lungs for ballast, pulled them until they pressed so hard on the pericardium I thought it would burst.
I used to complain that every morning he would brush against my legs just as I was getting ready to walk out the door. The truth is, though, that there was joy in the few minutes of brushing fur from my trousers before I stepped out. Like a brush of lipstick on a cheek or a sweater bunched up from a tender embrace, this was a reminder of a private moment left on me as I moved into the public world.
He was just a cat.
He was not just a cat. He was a test, and a promise, and proof that human beings will do loving things for no other reason than the rightness of it. I knew when he came to live with us that someday we would see him die. It is fine to know this rationally, philosophically, and even to joke about the day. When the day comes, though, and the talk is as real as watching your companion slip away as you scratch his head and sing his nicknames, the heart makes its own reality. It takes away your strength, blurs your vision and forces you to breathe. It is all well to understand with the brain, but the heart know you must also stop and feel.
Here is when I knew that our life with this cat would be a great love: Shortly after he came to live with us, we went abroad for several weeks. A trusted, cat-loving friend came to our home every day to feed, water, and nurture him. Still, our absence made him so nervous that he pulled out all the fur from his neck. When we got home, he rushed up to us, bare neck and furry face. He was healthy and well-fed, but he looked like a tiny demented lion. As he rubbed his head on our legs and purred, I knew that for him, we were everything.
Our acknowledgement of this responsibility made it somehow easier to make the decision to put him down, and infinitely harder to say goodbye. I hope the years that his life was in our care were well spent. Was I compassionate? Was I kind? Did I protect and care for that life, and did I make it better? I sincerely think I did, and that I made the right decision to usher that life out of the world. And I desperately wish I didn’t have to.