That's why I found myself so surprised at my utter grief at the recent loss of my 15 year old cat, Daphne.
Of course I knew I'd be saddened as we lived through what were certainly her final days. We'd watched the sweet girl go from a healthy geriatric puff ball of white with flame orange markings and the prettiest sky blue eyes to a skeletally sad frame struggling to eat and keep up with her daily routine. Vet visits had uncovered none of the usual old cat suspects; let's call it congestive heart failure and see how she does. And we did for about two months.
It was decided we'd wait and watch, and when she was no longer eating or showed us signs of obvious suffering, we'd know to let her go. Easier said than done, however.
The old girl was a remarkable teacher in her last days. Despite being a feline whisper of flesh, she found beauty in each day. She enjoyed the little bit of food she could manage; she made her way down the deck stairs to be with me as I watered the grass or cut from the garden, insisting I rub her lamb's wool belly and scratch her head. She'd give a half-hearted but expected hiss to the "outsider" cat of the past 11 years, tabby Bea; she'd sun herself below the bird feeder, one arm extended in her beautiful sphinx pose, lording over her domain.
Yet she continued to waste away, and as we watched it worsen, we struggled and grappled with just what that definition of suffering truly was. An internet search showed cats aren't as demonstrative in showing pain. Great. But as most pet owners know, the special connection of human heart to animal heart gave us rest -- we knew we'd pick up on her signals when the time came.
A normal morning in the Texas Hill Country on Tuesday, August 5th, found me carrying out the rations of bird seed and cat food. What wasn't normal was I was only greeted by 2 cats. Where was Daphne? My secret hope was that I might find her in a serene pose of death on the soft grass below where she so loved to watch the day saunter past.
I called once, twice. No Daphne. I looked in the hidden box she'd sometimes curl up in. I called her name as I hesitantly stepped down the deck stairs. Nothing. Not even her gaunt body resting on the cool tile under the deck as she'd been doing in the past weeks. Just as I was about to allow alarm to set in, I heard her painstaking attempt to meow and let me know she'd heard me.
I looked towards her call, and there she was...up on the concrete barrier that divides the lower yard from the upper. She hopped down -- how, I'll never know -- and I scooped her up, hugging her nothingness and telling her it was breakfast time.
But unlike even the evening before, she wasn't interested. Only water seemed to appeal to her, yet she couldn't swallow, it seemed. I waited, gave her time as I watered the plants; a routine she loved to participate in by lapping at the leaking plant water. She joined me as I tenderly talked to her.
She was unable to drink, to even lick at the water. Distressed weak meows emitted from her as she so
wanted to drink but could not. I took her to her water bowl, and the same scenario repeated. I knew she was asking me, telling me, to help. It was time.
My husband Marty called just as I entered the house in subdued frantic mode, trying to figure out the course of this requirement, yet trying to keep steady. When he asked how Daphne was, I could only mange to say, "Not good. It's time." Through tears I recreated the preceding 15 minutes, adding I had to take her to the vet, yet I didn't want to go alone. What to do, what to do?!
Within 30 minutes, he was home, despite having to orchestrate major rearrangement at the hospital. As I dressed, Marty gathered Daphne in the pink flowered towel that so befittingly portrayed her gentle personality. Snug and secure and too weak to protest, she rested in his arms as he took her around the deck, throughout the yard, and into the house, gently talking to her of her wonderful life that began in Rockport, took her on to Corpus Christi, and finally lead to 11 fun years on a hillside outside of Kerrville, Texas. The three of us spent a few quiet moments together, then we took Daphne outside to say good bye to her somewhat neurotic sister Zena, the one who consistently swatted and hissed when her sibling seemed to be getting an extra petting or to the food bowl first or whatever seemed not right in the mind of a semi Siamese. The two bumped noses...no hiss or swat.
I have lost many a pet throughout my life, but I've never participated in euthanasia. Maybe having a sweet one pass in your arms is part of what hit my heart so hard; I don't know. But it was peaceful and done with great compassion by the vet and his tech. Daphne was handed back to me after the initial injection to lull her into a peaceful sleep before the overdose of anesthetic was administered to stop the heart. I held her baby-style as she continued to purr, her head nestled against my chest. As I stroked and kissed the top of her head, the soft purrs slowed, then ceased altogether.
We grieved as any would. We miss her talkative voice, her carefree attitude, her little face in the kitchen window each night, and first to the door each morning. Going outside was hard; still is but it's gentler each day. Maybe it's been so long since I've lost a long-term pet, but the hole they leave in the daily sweetness of life is a pretty big one. Maybe it's my season in life; I watch myself age, I watch my parents become elderly, I watch my children be the age I swear I was just yesterday. Maybe it's that I adopted Daphne and Zena at a tumultuous time in my life, and they became a joyful distraction to me and my boys. Maybe it's just that God given connection we're gifted with and I realize it more genuinely than I did in earlier years. Whatever it is, it's real and it's a tender reminder of the cycle of life, the preciousness of each day, and the gratitude for the blessings we have.
Thanks, sweet Puff Kitty, for the gift of your companionship and love all these years. Thanks, too, for the poignant lessons you crafted for us through your graceful exit. We'll always have a special place for you and all the other gentle creature souls who've decorated our lives with unconditional love.
Author's Note: We chose to have Daphne cremated since our yard is too rocky for proper burial. The vet clinic uses an incredible place in Canyon Lake, Texas called "Paws in Heaven". I've included some photographs of what they send when the remains are returned. It's a sweet service they provide, and they sure do it right. Daph's remains are in a little white urn where we'll most likely keep her until Zena's time to go. We'll then place them together, just as they came into the world, with plans to scatter their essence over the hillside they loved.