On Felines and Grieving

My cat Andre was given a death sentence. This is me, coping.

The End. And After.

Saturday, December 28, 2013 was an oddly warm day in Cleveland. Not warm enough that you’d bust out shorts and a tee, but warm and sunny enough that you’d wander outside without your coat over your long-sleeved shirt to smoke a cigarette and be perfectly comfortable. I kept walking outside from the dark bar I was in, at noon, and being surprised by how warm the sun was. 

It was so nice outside that, as I walked Andre to my aunt’s car earlier that morning, I considered setting the carrier down and opening the cage, just to see if he would come out, and sniff, and explore, and feel the sun. 

Since he was always trying to run out my apartment door and all, but obviously could never get further than the dimly lit hallway. 

***

On Friday night I knew it was time. He hadn’t stopped drooling or generally looking like a sleepy zombie since i’d left for work that day. This time, he was oozing drool and snot from his mouth AND his nose. He refused to leave the carrier (the cats both seemed to like it in there so I keep it out and open), and kept looking around as if reacting to noises that weren’t there, as far as I could tell. 

I begged my aunt to come over and look at him, as I consider her an expert in these things. She’s had a bunch of cats and is in the medical profession and is generally the sort of no-nonsense person I need around in this sort of situation. I’m neurotic and overly-emotional and anxious so I always need a human barometer around me. 

Her initial reaction was “You’re crazy, he’s fine” but the more we talked, and observed, she changed her tune. Before she left, she went to find him, where he’d gone to hide in the dark bedroom. She stood in the bedroom doorway silently staring at him for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a minute, and told me “Well. Maybe you’re right, maybe it’s his time.” 

The rest of the night is unimportant. I cried. I fought with loved ones. I lashed out and every single one of my worst tendencies was exaggerated. I was indecisive about everything. I tried my hardest to both mentally make peace with what would happen the next day and also let Andre be. I slept. 

***

I woke up calm and focused. I called the vet and told them my intentions and the time they gave me to come in seemed far too soon.  I took a gazillion pictures of Andre, even though he looked miserable. About 10 minutes before my aunt arrived to take us to the vet, I followed Andre into the bedroom, snapping pictures, talking to him. Maybe it was the tone of my voice, but he performed for me, and at the very last second, he flopped into his very last “cute kitty” pose, on his back curled into a perfect circle, head cocked touching his front paws. I digitally preserved the moment. 

***

The vet said “Well we can do a blood test, see where his kidneys are” and my aunt said “No no no. Look at him. Look at her. We’re done.”

Thank god for my Aunt Joyce.

***

Then I was signing things and didn’t really read what I was signing and protesting the fact that the cost was almost $100 less than what they quoted me on the phone while my aunt protested my protestations, but I wanted to make sure I was getting exactly what I asked for. 

Then the room was full of people and Andre was being laid down flat and I was told to go stand by his head and Aunt Joyce and I were petting him and everyone else was doing other things and it wasn’t like when you go to the human doctor where before they give you a shot they tell you it might hurt and here it comes I was just petting and looking in his eyes and petting and saying I’m sorry because what else do you say and I didn’t even know he was gone until the doc told me that his eyes wouldn’t close.

***

Walking out I felt dazed but composed. There was a bench right outside the door where we stopped to sit and smoke cigarettes. I said I didn’t want to go home yet, to Petey, with an empty cat carrier. I said I wanted to drink. 

Even through my grief, I was paranoid the entire time that someone would yell at us for smoking too close to the door. 

***

We spent two hours in a bar where I did shots and drank hard cider. We talked about Andre, and Petey, and cats of hers that had died, and our family, and other stuff. 

I came home drunk with that empty carrier and didn’t know what to even do with or say to Petey. 

I talked to the friends I didn’t expect to talk to, and didn’t talk to the people I planned on calling. I fell asleep for two and a half hours, waking up to a phone call from a friend telling me he was on his way to pick me up for a party we were attending. 

And I did attend. Smelly, greasy, sad, confused, both drunk and hungover. I attended. 

***

Three days later, on New Year’s Eve, on my way to a party, I opened my mailbox to see a card from my vet, which I knew contained Andre’s paw print. 

I decided to check my mail the next day instead. 

***

A week later, I picked up Andre’s ashes from the vet. They’re in a lovely wooden box with flowers on top. They assured me the box is sealed and that I can’t knock it over or break it so ashes fly all over and general hijinx ensues, which was a legitimate concern I had. 

***

Here we are. I have plans to get the paw print card framed, as it’s irreplaceable. I finally swept my apartment, even though doing so made me feel like I was throwing away the last remnants of my favored pet. I stopped crying every day, until now, because obviously.

Petey has started making more sounds and drinking out of my water glass with his paw. Today, I moved the cat carrier, because it was the place he started spending most of his time and it disturbed me, but he still will not touch the cat bed where Andre spent most of his time during the last week of his life. 

***

I’m moving on but the moving on in and of itself is painful, like being okay is somehow disrespectful to this creature I loved to a probably unhealthy degree. I’m still getting used to coming home to only one cat.

But. I sleep through the night. And I’ll soon be putting all the posters back on the wall that Andre tore down during his reign of terror. Things change, life goes on, etc. Etc. Etc. 

Etc. 

The Aftermath

I realize there’s a chunk missing from this narrative, but today I’m still not ready to talk about Andre’s last day, or the time leading up to making the shittiest decision I’ve ever had to make. I’ll write that when I’m ready, but for now, Andre is gone and that’s all that’s important for appreciating the rest of what I write here today.

To start, I’m ok. I’m not great, and I cry a lot, but I’m ok. I know I needn’t apologize for my feelings, even though I keep feeling the need to explain myself, and say ‘but I know it’s just a cat’ or something else that would absolve me of coming off as silly, but I also know there have been people, friends and loved ones, who have been legitimately concerned for me these last few weeks. Because I imagine that watching someone you care about experience true grief for the first time is…disconcerting, for lack of a better word. 

I can say I’m ok because, in truth, the worst is over. I mourned for weeks leading up to Andre’s death, but that mourning was also complicated by questions and worry and anxiety. Those other things aren’t a factor anymore. 

Me and Petey are coping. Honestly? I feel like I’m living with a stranger, but a stranger I’m becoming more comfortable with. I’ve made no bones about the fact that Andre was my preferred pet, for whatever reason, who knows, but Petey never needed that from me. Now Petey and I are both a little different. He almost never used to make sounds, he didn’t meow, just chirped, but now he’s found his voice. He meows frequently lately, not in a mournful way, not in a pleading way, but in the way of a mute finally speaking for the first time, these strange, high pitched meows. 

Petey was never afraid to climb on you when you were laying down, but today he crawled on my lap and hung out while I was sitting in a chair. Maybe I finally have me a lap cat. 

I also think Petey has been playing the long con on me. Most people know about Andre’s behavioral issues, and most days when I came home and found the bathroom trashcan overturned and the contents strewn about, or the doors underneath the sink open, things I HAVE seen Andre do, I always assumed it was Andre. 

Until this week when those things continued to happen even though Andre isn’t here.

I know at some point in the not too distant future, Petey is going to be my best friend. But I’m not quite ready for him to be that yet.

Grief. I’ve done some research and yeah, I’m not a unique snowflake, every thought I’ve had and feeling I feel has been thought and felt before. This is comforting and frustrating. 

I’m still dealing with weird guilt feelings, regretting all the times I was angry at Andre for being so destructive and disruptive, replaying every time I swatted him off the bed or away from whatever thing he was trying to knock down. But I also know that pets are pets and they’ll do these things and we’ll be angry at them. In my craziest moments I imagine that he remembered all those things and didn’t know how much I loved him, but then I remember that despite all those times, he still slept with me every night and flopped down and purred and showed me his belly, including on the day he died. So his memory is not as long as mine, or just infinitely forgiving.

I’ve also experienced the Classic Grief Move of not wanting to be okay, because being okay means moving on and moving on means letting go, that if I can hold onto my grief I can hold onto a part of my weird little kitty.

I thought I’d be a Grief Cleaner, but right now I’m a Grief Hoarder because I don’t want to sweep or clean or throw out old dusty blankets because Andre still lingers there somewhere. 

On that note, in the last few months I’d acquired three new places for the cats to sleep, a bed and a cubby and a climbing thing. Andre and Petey frequented them all. Now that Andre is gone, the only places I’ve seen Petey hang out are on my bed and in the cat carrier. I can’t even entice him onto the cat bed. It’s weird and makes me sad. 

The mornings have been hard on me, because we had a routine, a routine that always ended with Andre on the purple chair, propped up on the arm, looking out the window. Leaving for work on Monday morning was painful. 

Also hard on me: receiving the card from my vet, with Andre’s paw print, name and death date. It also included the saddest, most heartwrenching poem of all time and I crumbled; I deflated.

I still haven’t gotten the call to go pick up his ashes.

All of this being said, I’m ok. I managed to lose myself in a movie and have a dinner where I laughed instead of cried, and rang in the new year without tears and even talked about Andre without choking up. 

Petey and I, we’re making progress.

The Planning

As a way to take charge of whatever I can about Andre’s situation, I decided to plan his passing/funeral/whatever you want to call it. I’ve never had to put an animal to sleep before, somehow, and didn’t know anything about the procedure, or even costs. 

My vet’s office was super sweet and talked me through my options. I pretty much already knew what I wanted, but needed confirmation on the particulars. Since I’ve heard different things from different people, I asked about going in with him or not. Specifically, I inquired about what most people choose. She said that she’s only ever seen two people NOT accompany their pet through the procedure. And I also found out it’s going to cost me $256 for the euthanasia, private cremation, and memorial box with ashes. A small price to pay, I guess, to keep Andre with me forever. 

She also went out of her way to inform me of their holiday hours, told me I can make The Appointment and cancel it as many times as I need to, and reaffirmed the locations and hours of ER vets in case of a problem. It was overall a good conversation about a terrible topic, but in the end I felt comforted and armed with, if nothing else, the power of knowledge.

The truth is, even though we only discovered this a week ago, and Andre seems functional and not showing any of the Serious Signs they told me to look for, I know I don’t have six months with him. He gobbles up food and drinks his water, and shows signs of the personality that has both enamored me and plagued me over the years, but mostly he sleeps, occasionally staring up at me with sick eyes. He’s always been a thin, slight cat, which means I can see the quickness of his breath and the beating of his heart, and it doesn’t seem quite right. And he drools. 

So. I’m still in the limbo of obsessing over the Right Time and being scared of keeping him miserable for too long, so I called the ASPCA Grief Hotline, and I wasn’t thrilled with the results. The website says that they will discuss with you plans for euthanasia, including timing, help you deal with the grief or impending grief of your pet, talk to you about the other pets in the house, among other things.

When I called it went to a voicemail. I guess, instead of multiple volunteers, there is seriously ONE lady who does this. She’s a psychologist and all that. When she called me back, I explained the situation, and the entire conversation was her, in so many words, telling me to put him down asap. Granted, I realize that sometimes you need an outside person to slap you back into reality, but that is NOT why I called this hotline. When I told her the various things my vet told me to look for, she said that vets don’t know, they aren’t with the pet all the time, which is TRUE and FAIR but…what else do we really have to go on? We trust mechanics to fix our cars and tell us when something needs fixed and when it doesn’t because most of us don’t know jack shit about cars. Vets are the same principal. Why try and shake my trust in the only people who can really help guide me and offer me advice?

Then she explained to me how animals behave in the wild, and that if Andre had his druthers, he’d just wander off and lay down and wait for death to take him, whether naturally or at the hands of another animal or the elements. ALSO TRUE AND FAIR. But Andre has had behavioral issues his whole life, where I always felt like he was trying to tell me something, so that combined with the fact that he’s always attempted to run out my front door (he can’t get anywhere, I live on the 4th floor of an apartment), suddenly made me wonder if he’s been wanting to go off and die for years. This theory basically eliminates all the things people have been saying to me about giving him a good life and rescuing him from the shelter and all that. Maybe it’s a bunch of bullshit. Maybe he’s always felt terrible and just wanted to die, and I prevented that.

Oh and she told me that if he’s having any breathing issues, that “breath thirst can be more torturous than starvation or dehydration”. So, thanks for that.

Needless to say, I wasn’t comforted by my grief counseling. The only bit of info she gave me is that she takes over 3,000 calls a year, and in the vast majority of them, the person says that they cried over their pet more than their parent who died, or what have you. And she hopes some day we’ll be able to see, on an MRI perhaps, whatever receptors relate to pet love and pattern it to see why grieving for an animal is often so much more intense than grieving for a person. 

So where do we stand? I have an appointment for Andre’s bloodwork on January 25th, with the idea in mind that that may be The Day. However, if he doesn’t perk up, or if he gets worse, The Day may be sooner than that. Deep down, I feel like Andre will be ready whenever, even tomorrow. But this last bit of time is for me. 

Good Grief

I don’t know where to begin with the facts so I’ll start with the grief. After Andre’s terminal diagnosis on Sunday, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried into Monday morning, and at work on Monday, and on Monday night and so on and so forth until today, less than a week later, and I’m still crying.

The tears catch me unawares sometimes. A fleeting thought will cause them and suddenly I’m bolting for the bathroom or crying into my cheeseburger. I’ve cried on the phone and to my vet and to my bosses and to friends and family members. There just seems to be no end to it. 

And then it dawned on me: I’ve never grieved before. Not really, not in the textbook definition of grieving. I’ve never lost someone so close to me it made my bones ache. But my bones ache now. 

Andre’s diagnosis of polycystic kidney disease, at the young age of three and a half, has opened up some deep pit of despair I didn’t know was hiding inside of me. It seems about more, and bigger than, just my tiny, weird cat. 

I feel like I’m grieving for the family members I barely knew who died, and the people who grieved them more. I feel like I’m finally mourning my sick mother who, while alive, has not been herself for 15 years. I feel like I’m mourning all the pets an ex and I had to give away when we broke up. I’m mourning this situation with my entire soul and I’m exhausted. 

What’s worse is, this has seemed to make every type of anxiety I’ve had in my life rear its ugly head. I’m afraid to leave the house, afraid that something bad will happen when I’m gone, even though the vets assured me there will be major signs, this won’t happen suddenly. 

Andre used to keep me up most nights. Now he sleeps, but I wake up looking for my cats and making sure they’re alright. I’m in obsessive mode, watching him eat, watching him breathe, taking note of every behavior. I’m googling things and researching things and have talked to vets more in the last week than I have in the three and a half years I’ve had my cats. 

I’m very seriously considering calling a pet grief hotline. If not now, soon. 

I’m plagued by fictional scenarios. I’m in a waiting game and I’m trying to crack the code. When will it be time? Will I know? Everyone says I’ll know but I can’t know that until it happens. What if I wait too long? What if my grief and fear get the better of me and I jump the gun? What if I’m selfish? What if he dies when I’m not home and I come home late and I don’t know what to do with him? What if watching him die scars me for life? What if NOT watching him die plagues me forever? What if Petey is never the same after his brother is gone? What if I resent Petey for still being here when my heart can’t bear to love a cat right now? What if Andre doesn’t know I love him? 

I know I can’t know the answer to any of those questions until the time comes, but I’m a worrier. I was afraid of being kidnapped as a child so I didn’t play outside much. This is who I am. 

Maybe I’ve just never had to confront death before. Maybe I’m just coming to terms with my own mortality, through the tawny eyes of my sick kitty. And I’m terrified. I’m terrified.