We are in the process of saying goodbye to our cat, Reese. I had a good cryfest about it yesterday as I did yard work with my husband on our property, out in nature, with wilderness and beauty visible from all sides. Funny, I thought it would be a good, healthy thing to be outdoors, working, getting my mind off our dying cat. Instead, tears just poured out of me as I clipped, yanked, hauled, dumped, under the intense heat of the sun on this too-hot-but-that’s-the-new-normal October day.
Reese has kidney disease (and feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy but that’s another story) and it’s killing him. For two and a half years, he’s battled it admirably, but his decline in the past few months has been marked. Blame, as well, the record-breaking Northern California heat waves, one after another, with no air conditioning to cool off our 90-degree house, making his decline accelerate. And now it’s time to do the hardest thing imaginable: take him to the vet to have him put to sleep. Yesterday afternoon I cried and cried, which is somewhat curious because he’s not even dead yet; he’s still here with us, in the bathroom, on the counter, crouched close to a water dish. He knows he wants water but his body is shutting down and telling him “no more food and drink.” He wants to hide in the deepest corners of the house—another primal instinct that every longtime pet owner comes to understand. He’s telling us goodbye.
I lost my dad two and a half months ago. I lost my favorite nature spot on earth, Big Basin State Park, to the CZU Complex fires two months ago today. 1000 families in our Santa Cruz Mountain communities lost their homes at the same time. There’s so much loss in the air. Maybe it’s no wonder yesterday was a cryfest. It’s all mashed up together inside of me. And yet, when a loss is so personal—right under your nose throughout the day, meowing for attention, gently butting your hand so that you keep scratching his head in that way he loves, gazing at you as he purrs like a tank—it’s almost easier to grieve than the Really Big Stuff, like your dad’s death, or your community’s mass devastation. Pets are such a comfortable conduit for it all. You can clutch them, bury your face in their fur, and feel an immediate sense of relief and release, like a cool breeze on a hot day. When it’s the pet you’re losing, well, that’s rough. And when the pet is seven years old, and not eighteen, like our cat we lost several years back, that’s even more wrenching. It’s too soon. It’s way too soon. This isn’t fair.
But that’s life. And death. Once again, my cats are teaching me.
I penned a blog years back, “10 Things my Cats Have Taught me About Ballet.” Writing it offered me a whimsical insight that made me chuckle. Even today, I feel a wan smile creep over my face as I read them. Here are a few:
- Stretch. Stretch a lot. Stretch extra big every time you yawn.
- Be in the moment. Don’t go doing one movement and be thinking about another.
- Take long naps so that you’re refreshed when you do decide to move around again.
- Sudden bursts of maniacal energy as you sprint across the room can be fun.
- When you get hurt, be it physical or emotional, go find a quiet corner, hole up, and lick your wounds. Let them heal before you throw yourself back Out There. Then, when they are healed, don’t linger. Go throw yourself back Out There.
Today, here are some more lessons our beloved, dying Reese is teaching me:
- Trust your instincts. Your body knows and understands what is too much, too little
- Know when it’s time to go, and don’t try too hard to resist it
- Don’t get caught up in feelings and thoughts when you’re in pain. Pain is uncomfortable and you only compound it when you overthink it. Hunker down and just breathe.
- Love your people and purr when you can. When it’s just too hard to purr anymore, they’ll understand. Your pain is theirs.
I know I’m not the only one to suffer this sense of loss, both the kind where you watch your pet’s decline with dread and concern and sorrow, and the wrench that comes after the vet (or nature) has released them from this world. In my mindfulness meditation practice, author and Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön reminds me of that, and counsels that as I breathe in my pain, I can breathe in the pain of all who are suffering in the same way right now. It’s a good practice, because it makes you feel less alone with your pain, and reminds you, in the gentlest, most soothing of ways, that it’s not just about you and your pain. The human condition is so much huger than that. It’s all our pain. And I know, with great certainty, that many of you have been in this raw, aching place, too. And that’s helping me right now.
Finally, I’m reminded that death can, paradoxically, be seen as a wonderful celebration of life. My dad’s departure, the closeness my siblings and I enjoyed that week, the shared meals, shared stories, a stirring vigil, a beautiful funeral Mass and gravesite service, where laughter and levity fit in beautifully with the rest, reminded me of that.
Today I will find a place to celebrate, both what was, and the loss that will eventually enrich and deepen my life. You will be missed dearly, sweet Reese. And thank you, sweet Natasha, for remaining here with us, to remind us how much we love and find consolation in you.