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Letting go: how do you say goodbye to a beloved pet?

(August 4, 2003)

Card copyright Medical Arts Press

I've owned cats for twenty-one years that is, I've owned the same cats for twenty-one years.

No, that's not really true; you never own cats. Cats let you live with them, and feed them, and, at times of their choosing, you are allowed to express your love for them.

The cats are the true owners they own your heart.

I have had my two cats, Paris and Remington, for twenty-one years. Paris came first. She was the first cat I chose to share my life with, and she was the first cat that I had to choose to end her life.

This past Sunday, I said farewell forever to my precious Paris.

Looking back: Choosing a kitten - or how she chose me!

I was performing in a play 21 years ago, during which a cast member was going to one and all trying to convince people to take a kitten. He had two female cats who both produced litters within two weeks of each other, large litters. He had 18 kittens to try to place with good homes.

This fellow actor tried to convince me to take a kitten. But, no! You see, growing up I had been a "dog person." I'd never lived with cats, except for a brief time when a roommate brought a cat home unannounced. When that roommate moved out she left the poor feline behind, telling me to just take the cat to a shelter. (I have never understood people who think that pets are a disposable commodity.) In the years since then, I had befriended many a true cat fancier (unlike my past, unlamented roommate). Seeing cats through their eyes, it seemed like the furry guys might be nice to come home to.

After the play ended, I found myself often thinking about those  homeless kittens. So, I gave my fellow actor a call, saying I might be interested in a kitt he interrupted me mid-sentence, saying he'd be right over! I didn't have a chance to say a word more, he was off the phone and out the door.

A few minutes later, there on my doorstep was my friend with a large dog kennel from which emanated high-pitched mewls. He pushed past me, talking non-stop and explaining how he had brought me a kitty sampler. He placed the kennel in the middle of my living room floor, flung open the wire door, and the kitten sampler tumbled out onto my carpet.

The very first kitten out was a black-and-white cat, what I call a "saddle shoe cat," and others sometimes call a "Tuxedo cat" or just plain "black-and-white." She was the most adventuresome of the bunch first out and first across the floor. She was the first to tentatively examine my piano bench, and after mastering climbing onto the strut across the base, started a game of "King of the Hill" from the piano bench and winning with ease.

She captured my heart immediately. There were lots of kittens in the sampler, of all colors and all personalities. My significant other of the time was pushing for the Siamese kitten. He said this was the obvious choice since the cat matched my decor (looking back, how could I not have known this boyfriend of mine was a closested homosexual? His fashion sense was just too excellent).

But I was unswayed by design considerations, the saddle shoe kitten was the one I could not take my eyes off. She was fearless! She seemed instantly at ease in these new surroundings. I knew from the first that she would be mine. And from the start, I was hers.

Choosing a name for the Kitten

I knew next to nothing about cats, not even how to tell the sex of a kitten. Not knowing if my new feline border was a male or a female made selecting a name problematic. This furry roommate of mine had a black body, with four white paws, and a perfectly white belly. Her most fascinating feature was her face, which was mostly black with a white muzzle. In the midst of this white muzzle that circled the nose and mouth, right above the lips, was a perfect black oblong that looked just like a moustache.

I thought the moustache made the cat look decidedly French, so I called my new roommate Paris. As it turned out, my little Paris was a girl. The only moustached female in the neighborhood.

Within two weeks, I had called my friend back and asked if the Siamese kitten was still available. Paris and I got along wonderfully from the start and we spent wonderful time playing in the evening after work. But she seemed just a little too glad to see me when I came home each night. I could tell she was lonely during the day, and could use a companion. So, I got my second kitten not for myself, but for Paris.

The Siamese was the perfect candidate, not just because they were first cousins, but definitely not because the cat matched my decor. The Siamese kitten was the opposite of Paris. Where Paris was fearless, the Siamese was the proverbial "scaredy cat." This cat had never ventured forth from kitty sampler kennel. The Siamese had to be pushed out and then scampered immediately into my bedroom and under the bed, where it took three of us to chase him out when it was time for him to go.

Paris was my first cat, and I wanted to make sure that she remained the dominant cat in the house. With the fearful Siamese, I didn't think dominance would be an issue ... I was right.

Remington is the name I chose for the Siamese, not after the typewriter or the shaver, but for my favorite TV character of the time: Remington Steele. Like the fictional character, my Remington is gorgeous, he knows he's gorgeous, and he talks too much.

Living with Cats

I would need volumes to describe the joys of the twenty-one years with Paris and Remington. Paris grew up to be a small, sleek adult half the size of Remington. But I don't think Remington ever realized that Paris was bigger than he; she remained the dominant cat in the household for all their lives.

I had intended that these cats would be strictly indoor cats. But Remington had other ideas.  On nice days, I would leave the cats out on the screened porch while I was at work. They both enjoyed the warmth out there and watching the birds and the lizards. Remington would always meow piteously when I went outside and didn't let him follow.

I thought that when I got the two kittens fixed at the age of six months that Remington would stop clamoring to go outside. But the operation failed to quell his wander lust. His meowing matured into that ear-splitting howl unique to Siamese cats -- oh and how he would howl!

After nine months of it I could take it no more and flung the back door open saying, "Fine, you want outside, go outside!" My scaredy-cat, who was terrified by piano benches and indoor furniture, loved the outdoors and playing the great hunter.

From that day on, Paris and Remington were indoor/outdoor cats. Remington loved it and would stay outside for hours on end. They stayed inside the house while I was at work, so got to enjoy early evening romps or extended weekend explorations through the wilds of the green space behind my house.

Paris would go outside for short breaks, but would always come home soon to be inside her own domain. I think one reason Remington loved the outdoors was because in that environment, he was the dominant cat. But I think that was more by Paris' choice than by nature. Of the two cats, Paris was the better hunter (which I hated, she was an excellent "birder" and I had to get rid of my bird feeder, since I did not want to entice birds into my yard now that I had my two predators occasionally outside).

My two cats divided up the animal world. Remington, as he did inside the house, seemed to prefer all things low to the ground he specialized in hunting burrowing creatures, including mice and rats, and would try for rabbits, but never succeeded in catching one. Actually, he never seemed to succeed in catching anything adult. He would proudly bring back his kills and drop them on the back doormat. An endless parade of baby kills: baby mice, baby rats, and once even a baby armadillo. Paris, as she did inside, always went for the high ground. She loved to soar with the birds and loved to climb the highest tree (or inside, scale the tallest drapes, ACCKK!)

But both Remington and Paris would come in at night and sleep with me. They have both been a part of my life for twenty-one years, and it's hard to believe that one of them is gone.

Senior Cats

When I moved into my new house three years ago, I put up a bird feeder in the back yard. Paris' birding days were long over, and Remington was only the great hunter when he took his cat naps. They missed having a screened porch, but they did enjoy sitting on the concrete slab outside my dining room. The slab was only five feet from the bird feeder and, like a lifelong couple at an old folks home, they would spend hours just sitting on the slab watching the birds come and go. The birds eventually learned that they had nothing to fear from these two, and the ground-feeding birds would often feed just a few feet from the senior cats.

I'd watch them watching the birds, thinking the only thing they needed was a pair of cat-size rocking chairs. They looked as if they were swapping old memories, retelling their stories of "remember when I'd could leap up that high and pick a bird right out of the sky." They rarely wandered outside, except when I did yard work. I'd leave the back door open for them to come and go. But they always opted to follow me around like puppies, stopping when I stopped, moving when I moved -- and always somewhat relieved when I would come in out of the hot sun and return them to their air conditioning.

In her later years, Paris developed diabetes. Twice daily I injected her with insulin -- so much easier than trying to give a cat a pill! She never fought me about the injections. She'd just wait in the morning and the evening for me to prepare the food bowls. As soon as I would put them down, she'd start in on her food and I gave her the injection while she ate. She never batted an eyelid, just kept chowing down. And she was delighted with my vet's orders -- feed her more wet food! Paris always went nuts over canned food and tender vittles. Now she got to enjoy them twice a day.

The Beginning of the End

Then one Saturday morning, Paris didn't come out for breakfast. I went looking for her, but when she wanted to hide, she was exceedingly good at it. At that time I was working nights and weekends. I still had not seen Paris by the time I had to leave for work, nor could I find her on my return.

She had now missed two insulin injections and I was getting concerned. I was assigned to be reader that evening at the Saturday church service, and my thoughts were much on Paris as I read from the old and new testaments. And I prayed that I would find her on my return home that night.

And found her I did, she was stretched out in one of her hiding places in the garage, lying in a pool of her own urine, with her eyes wide open. At first I thought she was already gone -- I had to hold my hand under her nostrils to even detect the faint breath.

I wrapped her in a towel and rushed to the emergency vet. In the car, she moved convulsively, I can't say whether she knew I was there, but at least I knew she could move.

I had never before been to the emergency vet. They were very good to me and to Paris, but I did hate to leave her in the hands of strangers. They called a bit later, having the results of the initial tests. Her sugar was up, but not out of bounds, so the problem wasn't the diabetes. She still had not regained true consciousness and was having minor convulsions. They could not tell immediately what was wrong, but would run tests and would have the results in the morning.

The vet said that for a twenty-one year old cat, she was in remarkably good health, according to the blood work. All the results were negative.

She rallied during the night, regaining consciousness and sitting up. She even took fresh water and food and demanded some serious petting from the staff.

But at 8:00 am the next morning she went into convulsions and again went into a coma-like state.

The doctors said everything they tested her for came out negative. They believed that she had a brain tumor, and said that there would be nothing to be done for a tumor in a cat of her age.

She never regained consciousness again, and I had to say good-bye to my dear, dear furry friend of 21 years.

I've never been one to dwell on the death of pets. My own sister died at the age of 32, leaving behind two infant children. So whenever I saw people having hysterics over an animal, I would compare to the loss of a young mother and think it ridiculous the histrionics over an animal.

Yet I was so sad to make the decision to end Paris' life, even though I knew there was no hope. I arranged to pay the bill before going in the backroom --- I didn't want to have to deal with finances afterward.

Euthanizing your pet - Isn't that such a cold word?

The staff was so considerate and caring. They brought her unconscious body in to a private room, which they had darkened except for a small light on the table where they placed her. They left me alone to say my good-byes.

How to say goodbye? I didn't pick her up to hold her. She never liked being picked up. She would spend hour after hour in my lap, but she had to leap up there herself. She would not tolerate being picked up. So I just put my arms around her as she lay there. Her eyes were open, and she had some convulsive movements to her jaws.

A doctor would say that she had no conscious knowledge of my being there. But I knew she could hear me say good-bye. I just stroked her, and whispered, "You were my first. Of all the kittens I could have had, I chose you. And you were the best. And I will miss you so much."

I buried her in the back yard, close the birdfeeder. Somewhere, she's chasing birds again.