This is not about the life and death of an aging parent; but then again, it is. Our 18-year-old cat was a parent of four before she came under our care—a stray one-year-old, who we found struggling to get suet we’d hung from a limb for the birds during the March 1993 blizzard. She came fleetingly and sporadically at first– to eat chicken I put out for her–and ultimately worked her way into our garage, our home, and our hearts.
She was fiercely independent; resisted any obvious help we tried to give for many years. Inclement weather or not she refused to enter our home. She enjoyed roaming around our property but was accustomed to handling her own affairs. Only the food did she accept, but not if she thought we were watching (which we did through a window).
As she aged, her needs gradually changed. She accepted more from us, on her terms of course. Protection from other animals, who sometimes ate her food, sent her into our heated garage when we put her food there. A cat door enabled her to come and go at will. And in winter she jumped up on a box near the radiator, where we immediately added a carpet remnant for her comfort. She kept us at arms’ length but obviously knew we were there for her.
When her life and limb were threatened after a cat fight, we trapped her and took her to the vet’s. He suggested she might be better as an indoor cat in another home—translated: I was a bad mother.
But my husband and I knew this cat well. She was miserable cooped up. When we tried putting her food in our kitchen, not one paw would cross the threshold unless we left a nearby door–or the door to the garage–open for a quick get-away.
When another cat found the cat door and thus our cat’s food, she became secure eating in the kitchen with her get-away-doors closed—until she was finished eating. Then came the meow to leave. Of course, we complied.
During another bad winter several years ago, she decided to explore the main floor of our home and ended up sleeping on the carpet in front of a floor to ceiling window. It was then—at age thirteen or fourteen—that she started to become a house cat. While she spent as much time as possible outside, she came in to eat and sleep and began to let us pet her on a regular basis. She expanded her territory in the house until she had explored every room from basement to attic. She had favorite places to sleep, but never on the furniture. And catching her for her yearly check-ups at the vet’s became less of an ordeal.
We came home one March night and saw her sitting in the living room, looking out the floor to ceiling window. But she didn’t move—didn’t hear the door shut it seemed. We called her name. She didn’t hear that either. At 18 years of age, we knew some aging event was taking place.
And so we learned she was almost deaf and had kidney failure. We were told we could give her fluids and it was easy to do. We tried—it was easy—but it involved holding her. Although she finally loved being petted, she never liked being held. And she evaded us for days after catching her and doing the fluid routine. So it came down to: is it better for her to live a little longer, feeling threatened by us and the life-extending fluids; or should she live less long and feel secure.
I thought back to a friend’s 90-something-year old mother who liked to have a drink or two but wasn’t allowed because of a medication—whereupon she stopped taking that medication. When her child (my friend) asked my opinion, I put the question to her to answer. Live longer or live happier? She continued to drink and lived a very long life. My friend helped her parent age well.
We watched out for our cat for 17 years. She died just outside the door to our bedroom the other night. And now she’s gone—leaving an unimaginable sadness. When you put a lot into something, it means a lot to you. And when you put even more than a lot into something, over time it penetrates and infiltrates every fiber of your being. Those who are dedicated caregivers know this.
We help aging parents; we help aging pets. And it’s very hard to say goodbye– even when we’ve done our best and feel good that we let her (in this case) live life and ultimately leave life her way.