On Watching My Cat Die

My cat is dying.

I didn't have pets growing up. We were poor. We didn't have the resources to take care of an animal. That's the only excuse I can think of for why we didn't have a pet. My mom and dad had two cats before I was born, but we never considered bringing an animal into the house and I never asked. I was content to play with the neighbor's dog and stroke the stray cats that congregated on my grandma's front porch. It never occurred to me that there was a void in my life, that I was missing out on anything.

In 2010, four years after my father's death and the year my mother re-married another man, we finally got a cat. My first pet. My mom and stepdad brought Bella home from the shelter where she'd been living for eight months. Someone paid half her fee, so the financial cost was lessened. She was an old cat, already eight years old by the time she came into our home. I remember the first night she was with us. I was up late by myself in the living room and, for some reason, she ran around in a random, spastic way, like she was running after something that wasn't there. Her strangeness scared me at first. I had no experience with animals. I didn't know their language or how to interact with them.

It didn't take long to fall in love with her. She is white with patches of brown fur. Her eyes are large and round and green. I think she taught me how to love in a different way. At night, she climbed on my chest, then when I slept on my stomach she sat on my back. Sometimes she even plopped down on my head. The physicality of her astounded me. I'd put my ear to her purring body and feel the mass of fur against my skin and it felt like I was connected to another being so fully. I wondered if she had thoughts. What do cats think? What do they feel? I'd stare into her eyes and wonder what she saw when she gazed back at me. Did she know how much I loved her? Could she feel that love in the way I caressed her fur, in my hunger for her, how I'd take her in my arms and not let go until she escaped my grasp and ran away?

She'd had babies and her stomach hung down nearly to the floor. It would swing back and forth when she sprinted down our hallway. She'd ignore us all day but at night she came alive, meowing and laying on her back, signalling that she wanted us to rub her belly. She is an individual. I may have another cat in the future but that cat won't be her. It won't have her personality and idiosyncrasies. It won't smell like her or feel like her or sound like her.

I'm not ready to let go.

She hasn't let go either. Maybe she is staying for us.

In the waning days of her life, we are her caretakers. We give her water, feed her, hold her to our chests and she doesn't wriggle from our arms.

We've had her for six years. We recently made an arduous move from North Carolina to Rhode Island. It haunts me that perhaps this move has precipitated her declining health. Perhaps this new environment and leaving home has weakened her? I'll never know. I do know that it's hard to ache for home and watch my cat die. My sorrow deepens.

As much as I love Bella, I've noticed that I keep my distance from her. I realize this is a pattern in my life. Before my father died, I stayed away. As my grandmother's health deteriorated, I rarely visited her. I am ravaged by guilt. I can't look death in the face. I can't watch the body disintegrate. I can't watch what I love disappear.

But, even with all my fear, I take Bella's frail body in my arms and I try to face death, to provide comfort to this creature who gave me so much love. I think she deserves at least this. I want her to feel this love I carry. I want her to be wrapped in it. I want her to die in it.

Note: My cat passed away the night after I wrote this.