When I saw “First Time With Mortality” as a suggested topic when we sat down to tackle some writing exercises on a muggy Saturday morning for one of our Drinkers With Writing Problems meetings, I felt it was a fitting one to grab. That same evening I had been invited to go to a dinner party centered on discussing death, as part of a research project the host was developing.
I had also just recently welcomed a cat into my home, an older cat. Knowing I may only have 5-10 years with this cuddly fellow based on average lifespans for a cat, and considering my first experience with death involved the family cat, writing about my first time with mortality, felt a bit raw.
I was 13 years old when we noticed our cat Lilly starting to slow down. She was 17 years old. She was in the family before I was even born. She was my white, fuzzy older sister, who was nice and tolerant of my exploratory gropes and squeezes at her fur when I was small. As a senior cat, arthritis was kicking in and she looked in pain strolling across the kitchen.
One Saturday afternoon, my mom and dad were with my brother at one of his ski meets. I stayed back home, and was watching TV in the family room when I noticed one of Lilly’s eyes was filled with some sort of thick cloud. I was worried she was going blind. The unsettling concept of her body possibly falling apart set in and I remember wanting to get a hold of my parents, to call them home right away. This felt like an emergency. But they came home before the anxiety could push me to that point of making calls around town to send someone out into some field where skiers raced.
We took her to the vet a day or two later and learned that her kidneys were failing. Her body was losing its ability to retain fluid and she was in a constant state of thirst. I tried to think about that discomfort, what it would be like to be thirsty all of the time; no matter how much water you drank, you never felt quenched.
It was recommended that it was time to put her to sleep and our family, after difficult consideration, decided it may be so.
The day before we were to take her in, I found her lying on a rug in the basement. She had this nervous look on her face, but also a bit of calm resignation. It seemed she knew what was going on; this was the end of her life.
I laid down next to her, petted her gently for a long while and the tears dripped from my eyes. I think it was the first time my heart felt such turmoil, and my stomach knotted and bubbled. I didn’t have an appetite to eat the dinner that was cooking in the kitchen directly above us.
The next day after school, my mom, dad and brother took Lilly to the vet for the procedure. I couldn’t stomach going with them and seeing the procedure. I saw the look on Lilly’s face as she was carried out to the car in the pet carrier. She looked terrified. And I stood back, not rushing over to comfort her, or save her.
What was more convenient was going upstairs and trying to do my homework. But I couldn’t focus on my homework. I felt like I should be crying but my eyes felt dried out. I felt more terrified than anything. I couldn’t get that image of the look on her face, and the sound of her soft meow, to clear out of my head. Knowing that was the last I would see of her and that was the last she would see of me flushed up feelings of guilt and regret that I didn’t go with them, that I wouldn’t be there for her. I tried to vanquish the uneasy feelings I was experiencing. I defaulted to justification. I reminded myself that she lived a good life, that she lived to a good age for a cat, that she was going to a better place and I’d see her again someday, that if I had gone with, one more body hanging over her would have freaked her out even more, that maybe I was too young to see death actually happen, in the act.
I tried to feel good. I wanted to feel good about myself again but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being selfish, that as a loving family member I should be able to endure feeling sad, for her, for her final, scary moment on Earth.
I had made cross out of some branches and went out to dig her a little grave in the woods behind our house. I wanted to do my part in giving her a proper goodbye.
When my parents and brother returned home, Lilly was wrapped in a yellow towel and looked deflated, like air was let out of her. We buried her and it was the first time I saw tears come out of my dad’s eyes.
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