Saying Goodbye, Again

Yesterday, I said goodbye to my cat Patch. Now, I’m looking over at the corner of the sectional where we had erected a blanket tent, a warm refuge that she retreated into during her last months of life. She spent so much time there that we missed her sudden and striking decline. She was always independent, right until the end.

To understand my relationship with Patch, you need to understand how important pets have been to my husband and I as we have built our family. We are both dog and cat people, but cats were allowable in our small one-bedroom apartment and dogs were not. So, cats were it for the first year of our married life, and we took in his 16-year old childhood cat and went together to adopt a kitten.

Patch was not that kitten.

Our first kitten was Lestat, an all-black male we named after the main character in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire series. Les was a classic cuddler, both sweet and playful. He had the most endearing personality that I have ever seen in a cat, so much so that even Kitty (the elder statesman of the house) tolerated him. And then, literally out of nowhere, he was sick. He was lethargic and couldn’t be touched anywhere due to terrible pain. When he was diagnosed with feline infectious peritonitis we put a $1,000 spinal tap we couldn’t afford on our credit card, but money wasn’t going to do anything. His brief life ended in a veterinary clinic, laying in my arms.

That was 20 years ago so I remember the feelings of that day better than the details. I remember feeling appreciation for my mother who drove more than an hour into an unfamiliar place, without question, just because I had called and said I needed her. I remember feeling anger because it wasn’t fair, we had done everything right and he was just a baby. I remember feeling comforted that he wasn’t suffering anymore. And, I remember one more indescribable feeling, the feeling that comes with the harsh realization that this was what it meant to be an adult. It was the feeling of absorbing the full brunt of helplessness and somehow having enough left over to say goodbye.

I bring up Les to let you know that I was emotionally raw when barely a month later my husband picked Patch up from the shelter on his own as a surprise. He knew I was grieving for Lestat and he wanted to do something. I don’t know if I was ready, but at that point ready wasn’t really relevant. There was a kitten in my kitchen and she needed care.

When Patch came home she was a little slip of a thing that the shelter estimated was about four months old. She had been found wandering along the side of I-75, remarkably clean but with a bad case of ear mites. She was aloof and skittish, shrinking away from us whenever we picked her up or tried to pet her. We speculated that she had been abused.

She was my cat and she wanted nothing to do with me.

We focused on what we could do. We took her to the vet and got her on medication. We swabbed her ears until the mites were gone. We bought food and toys and gave her space to be her own cat. We waited patiently for her to come to us and when she did, we petted her the way she liked to be petted until she was done and walked away. Over time, I learned to love the cat she was, not the cat I wanted her to be.

She had been with us for about a year when I realized how important she had become to us. One morning as we were getting ready for work, she darted out the door, ran into the bramble behind our apartment and disappeared. We panicked, she was a tiny thing and we feared the worst. We had visions of her being attacked by a wild animal or a large dog, or of being hit by a car on the busy six lane road we lived on. We tried coaxing her back, but in the end we had to leave for work with her out there. Worried sick, neither of us were very productive that day. We weren’t ready to say goodbye.

Thankfully, when I walked in the door that night she was at the back door waiting for me. It was in my relief that I knew no matter what kind of cat she was, she was mine. As much as she could be anyone’s.

Patch was unapologetically her own cat. She was a strong and nimble creature that had the physicality to go anywhere she wanted to go, regularly jumping onto and over things that surprised us. Until the end she could still make the jump from the back of the couch to the bar counter to ask for water. She demanded running water and I remember buying the expensive filtered water dish long before we could afford such luxuries. In her last year, we gave into her demand for water right from the faucet. I’m sure there are people who find that crazy. I might have too, before she was ours.

In her later years, she mellowed out a bit. One of my favorite memories was of her laying on the sun on our back deck. She always loved the heat — the fireplace, the sunshine, an air vent, behind the tv, next to someone on the couch — but we were nervous about letting her outside. Our relief at her coming home that one day never took away the anxiousness about what could happen. But at one point we got the courage to let her outside on a warm summer day. She sniffed around a bit and settled in the strongest, warmest puddle of sunshine she could find. She lay there until she was done and then she meowed at the door. She knew she was home and didn’t need to wander anymore.

When I said goodbye to her yesterday, I wasn’t thinking about any of this. I was thinking that she had a tumor the size of a golf ball on her tiny neck. I was thinking she hadn’t eaten or used the litter box in two days. I was thinking that she rarely came out from under her blanket fort. I was thinking that she needed me to be the adult, to absorb that horrible feeling of helplessness and still have enough left to say goodbye.

In the end she was independent, but she wasn’t alone.

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