This weekend, I put my cat to sleep. It was not expected, and I’m pretty heartbroken. I also feel silly. There are larger and more important tragedies every day. We had three great years together, and for that I should be grateful. I know I gave him a really good life. He was just a cat. I don’t even like cats.
But oh man do I miss my little cat.
Percival was the first adult decision I ever made — my first real, long-term commitment. I got him a few weeks into my first real grown-up job as a lawyer, working at a law firm in Manhattan — a job I never thought I would be doing, and that still makes me feel far more serious and responsible than I actually am. I’m not sure why I decided to adopt a kitten; I wanted a dog but didn’t have the time, I guess, and a cat-creature seemed better than no creature at all. So I went on PetFinder and found the most perfect black-and-white tuxedo kitten named Che. He was super handsome, so my room mate and I went to the shelter to get him; she decided she also wanted a kitten, so she was going to get his brother. When we got there, there were four kittens in the litter — three healthy, shiny, gorgeous tuxedo kitties, and one teeny-tiny filthy grey kitty who didn’t match at all. The shelter lady swore up and down that the little grey was part of the same litter, but I suspect she was lying; I think he was probably from a later litter, but either all of his siblings had been adopted or for whatever reason didn’t make it, and she didn’t want prospective cat-adopters to think he was a lemon and look past him. Either way, my room mate and I each picked up the tuxedo kitties, cooed over them, and played with them, trying to select which ones to take home. The little grey one kept scooting towards our hands every time we reached into the cage. Unlike the other kittens, he was legitimately dirty, and his eyes were full of gunk, and his nose was runny, and he was slightly cross-eyed. The shelter lady told us he had ringworm, so we should be sure to wash our hands after touching any of the cats. I took pity on him, because it was clear that the pretty kitties got all of the attention and no one ever bothered to hold the messed up little grey one.
I picked him up and scratched him. He stretched his little face up toward mine, flipped his whole body into a reclining-on-his back position, nuzzled his face into the side of my boob and fell asleep purring.
He was mine.
I named him Omar Little after my favorite character on The Wire. That name lasted all of three days — little Omar was a huge cuddly wuss of a cat who, if he were a kid, would get regularly beat up on the playground. I re-christened him Percival. My room mate adopted one of his handsome tuxedo brothers, who she named Leopold. And then it was Percy and Leo in our dilapidated, tenement-style East Village apartment for the next eight months. In those months, I started working very intense hours, I broke up with my boyfriend, and I became increasingly unsure of the path I had chosen to take. Then I moved to Brooklyn with a different girl and took Percy with me.
I remember saying that Percy was the only thing I couldn’t ever leave behind; that he was the only real, flesh-and-blood commitment that I had, and that felt both intimidating and wonderful. He was my responsibility. He was the only part of my life that I didn’t have the full freedom to just up and walk away from. He was just a cat, I know, and not a child or a partner, but I was nowhere near having a child or a partner and he was my cat; he was my living, breathing little buddy who depended entirely on me for his survival. I said to my roommate that it was so strange to think that this little cat, who I got on a whim when I was 25, would be around for all of the milestones in the next 20 years of my life — that he would meet more boyfriends than my parents, that he would live in a home I purchased, that he would be a shared pet if I ever got married, that if I left New York he would be the only thing definitely coming with me. He was just a cat, but he was the one thing that for the next decade or two was not up in the air; he would be a constant presence, the one thing that wasn’t a variable. That felt really significant when I was 25 and working a job I wasn’t sure I wanted and ending a romantic relationship and just feeling entirely lost.
Percy was not a smart cat. He was possibly one of the least intelligent cats I have ever met. He fell off stairs, he was utterly incapable of connecting bad behavior to negative consequences (i.e., if you stand on the kitchen table where you are not allowed, you will get sprayed with water), he once poisoned himself by jumping up on said table and sticking his face on a bouquet of lilies. But his stupidity also made him the nicest, friendliest cat I have ever met. As far as he was concerned, human beings were petting machines, existing entirely to give him all of the attention and physical contact he craved (which was a lot), and also to sometimes feed him. I’m not sure it ever occurred to him that a person could do him harm — he would rush to the front door every time the buzzer rang, because delivery men meant guaranteed pets and scratches. If you were on the couch, he was either on your lap or on the couch backing right behind your head so he could put his face on yours. He slept in my bed every night, either right on top of my feet or in the little spoon position — he just had to be touching me. Shannon, my current roommate and long-term closest friend, is a teacher and gets up very early, so around 5:30 he would hear the bathroom door close, leave my bed and go wait for her outside of the shower (and sometimes fulfill his rubber band fetish by fishing into her make-up bag, stealing a rubber band, and then running around the apartment with it in his mouth before depositing it in his water dish). Then he would sit in her bedroom just hanging out until she got ready, and after she left would return to me. When I wake up, I roll onto my back for ten minutes or so before getting out of bed. Percy would hear the roll-over, and veeeeeery gingerly walk up onto my chest and lay down, setting his little head in the crook of my neck. I think he liked to feel my heartbeat on his heartbeat, and my breathing matching his breathing.
When I came home, Percy was always waiting at the door, ears perked, eyes wide. He would be so happy to have his girl home that his little brain would basically short-circuit, and he would jerk his head to the right two or three times before letting his whole body follow, collapsing on the ground on his back, stretching his legs in all directions. Every day, I would squat down and rub his belly — after work, at 4am when I was getting home from being out, at 3pm on a Sunday when I came back from brunch. Whenever I opened that door, he was there. When I had a Summer of Medical Disasters these past few months, which I won’t detail but which had me in an emotional tailspin as my entire body seemed to fail me piece by piece, he was there. Whenever he was there, he got a belly rub. That’s just how we did things. He’s just a cat. I feel silly for saying this. But squatting on my kitchen floor, petting my little buddy, brought me more comfort than anything else, right when I needed it most.
Percy was not a healthy cat. He was always scrawny and skinny and sickly. And the problem with having a weakness for sickly, damaged animals is that you end up with sickly, damaged animals. We went to the vet every few months because he was losing weight or not eating or poisoning himself with lilies or or or or. Half the time he got patched up, and half the time the vet just said “He’s just not a well cat, but there’s nothing medically wrong with him.” He wasn’t a thriver. He was a lemon. He was also sweet and cuddly and affectionate and good-natured. He warmed the hearts of cat-haters everywhere (including myself). When he lost weight, again, I didn’t think too much of it. He was always half-way sick without ever really being sick, right?
Until he was really sick.
I took him to the vet on Saturday because he was just too skinny and too lethargic; every day seemed significantly worse than the day before. A week ago, I could say that he wasn’t a kitten anymore; maybe he was upset that I had been traveling so much; he had lost weight before; most cats just lounge around all day, right? He had just had an x-ray and full blood work done in July, so I figured nothing too terrible could crop up in three months. I figured we’d go in, the vet would tell me he needed X medicine, and that would be it.
But when we went in, the vet took one look at him and she said, “I don’t think this is going to be good news.”
His gums showed signs of jaundice. His belly was full of fluid. When she did an x-ray, you couldn’t see any of his organs. His liver was failing. He had a kitty virus he had picked up in the shelter, that sometimes mutates into an incurable, untreatable disease in immunocompromised cats. It was not good news. There was nothing that could be done. The vet told me I needed to consider putting him down, right then.
I couldn’t do it.
I took him home. I wanted my room mate, who was as much his girl as I was, to have time with him. The vet said he maybe had a few days, but to watch him closely; this disease, she said, moved fast. She gave me a steroid to give to him. I predicted we had a week. That was Saturday.
Sunday, my friend P came over and we spent the day petting Percy and letting him sleep in the sun on the previously disallowed kitchen table. As I held my hand on his ribs, his breathing became shallow, and I thought he might stop right then and there. P started to cry. She called Shannon and told her to come home.
When P left, Shannon and I went on Percy Watch. My sister was visiting from Boston, so she sat with us too. We decided he was ok enough to make it another day; we would have one final night and then one final morning, where we could lay in bed and cuddle him and have some closure. He seemed ok, we decided.
And then he didn’t.
He couldn’t breathe very well — we started to see his tiny ribs heave and jerk as he tried to breathe through the fluid that now occupied most of his little body. He crouched, he rolled over, he sat — he was trying to get into any position that wasn’t uncomfortable. He started to cry a little bit. I’ll leave out the rest of it, because it’s sad and not worth detailing. He was on the kitchen floor. The three of us were squatting on the floor with him. I looked at Shannon and my sister and I asked them again and again, “Do you think he can make it through the night? What do you think? What do we do?” and no one could give me an answer. Shannon, who is 100 times kinder than I am and also 100 times tougher, finally breathed, “I don’t think he’s going to have a good night.” We looked at each other and I could tell she was trying not to cry; I could tell that she was trying to balance doing the best thing for an animal she loved with trying to do the best thing for a girl she loved. She was trying to find a way to choose us both.
The truth is, I needed one more night with him. None of this was expected; I couldn’t just put him down like this. He had to wake up with me one more time, and lay on my chest, and know that his people loved him. More than that, I needed him. I didn’t want to wake up without him. I wasn’t ready to let my little buddy go. And I could have had him a little longer, if I wanted — he probably would have hung on for one more night. I could have snuggled him Monday morning, and then rushed him to the vet. I needed him, and he was right there, and it was entirely my call.
Instead, I tried to do right by him. I don’t know if I made the right decision, but I took him in to be put down at 11pm on a Sunday. He probably would have made it through the night, but it would have been a bad night; the night would have been for me and not for him. Or maybe I’m just saying that to make myself feel better, since I made the call to cut off the life of a three-year-old cat who probably wanted nothing more than to just be petted and snuggled and loved. I don’t know.
He’s just a cat. The ambiguity of this decision, the question of when “it’s time,” the fact that there’s never an obvious or easy answer isn’t nearly as heavy with a cat as with a person. But on Sunday night it felt pretty heavy.
I carried him in my arms to the vet. He hated his carrier, and I wasn’t going to make him spend his last few minutes in it. He was an indoor cat, and his eyes were huge the entire ten-minute walk over. I like to think he was curious and interested in what was going on around him, and not scared.
When Percy died, I was holding him like a baby, and whispering in his ears and kissing his nose. He liked it when you whispered to him, I think because the smell and feeling of breath on his face felt good. My roommate couldn’t take being in the room, so she waited in the lobby. My sister stood next to me and rubbed my back. I told him he was my sweet baby, my little bunny, my good boy. I pressed my nose to his nose as the vet put in two injections. And that was it. He wasn’t alone. The fact that I didn’t leave him alone brings me more comfort than anything else, right now.
My apartment feels really empty now. I came home from work today and no one was at the door. I woke up this morning and I rolled over on my back and nothing else happened.
I feel silly writing this post. He was just a cat (and also, I’m not a big fan of the hyper-personal, hyper-emotional blog posts, at least when they come from me). People go through tragedies which are much worse, much more debilitating, much more incomprehensibly awful ever single day. I am a lucky bitch if one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my entire life is putting a cat to sleep. The truth is, I’ve gone through harder things, but none of them have been my call; this was hard particularly because it was my decision. That is still phenomenally, unfairly, offensively lucky.
But here we are. And here is this entirely awful, self-indulgent exercise.
This weekend, I saw a woman whose company I’ve long enjoyed but who I don’t know as well as I would like to, and we had a brief but good conversation. Last night she sent me a message on Facebook saying she enjoyed seeing me, and sending love, and saying a variety of things that warmed my heart in a moment where I felt like my heart had stopped. It was one of the first things I read after putting Percy down, and it was so wonderful and loving that I wasn’t quite sure where to put it. She had no clue about what was going on, and her message was entirely un-kitty-related. I sent her back a brief message saying it was good to see her too, and she couldn’t possibly know how much her message was just what I needed at that particular time. She wrote back, “We are always right on time and we always get the messages we need, you know?”
Yesterday, one of my closest friends who now lives in DC and who visited this weekend and was the person who finally said, “Jill, Percy doesn’t look right and you need to take him to the vet,” sent me a bouquet of lilies — a flower I love but that poisoned Percy a few years ago, and caused one of his many near-death experiences. She has also called and g-chatted and emailed multiple times a day since Sunday, and she has never once made me feel silly or self-indulgent for feeling sad. Shannon, my roommate, was home when I came home today — and when I walked in the door and started to cry, she said, “I did the same thing,” and then she started to cry too. Then I saw those lilies and I felt a little better. Then Shannon opened a bottle of wine and poured me a nice tall glass, and we made dinner together. I checked my email and saw that my mom had written to me, after I had emailed her last night about Percy’s death, since I couldn’t take saying the words out loud. My mom wrote that I was Percy’s mom, and I was good to him, and that whenever I saw a box or stairs or any of his other weird beloved things, I would think of him, and he would always be in my heart and I would always be in his. And she also wrote, “If you hear a thump, know that little Percy just fell off the stairs again.”
My mom is more “spiritual” than I am. She believes in the presence of the dead. I’m not sure I do, when I think about it too hard, but I like the idea. The idea brings me comfort. I like to think the idea is true. I like that she knows the idea is true. I like that she tells me it’s true.
We are always right on time, and we always get the messages we need.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this. I suppose if I’m entirely honest with myself, it’s because I need something — confirmation that I’m not a complete asshole for publicly grieving. That it’s ok that I’m so sad about “just a cat.” Maybe it’s just a need to write down why he was important to me, to explain how sweet and good he was. Maybe it’s that sick Millennial belief that nothing is really true, that nothing really happened, unless it’s documented on Facebook or on a blog (I hope that’s not it). Maybe it’s the same dynamic as the one that compels therapists and mental health professionals to always say (and tell others to say) “Do you want to tell me about her / him?” when someone you know has a loved one who passed away.
I think, as trite as it feels, this is me telling you about him. It feels uncomfortable and awful. He was just a cat; I’m not suggesting he’s the same as a parent or a sibling or a grandparent or a child. I think that’s ok, though; I don’t think that all grieving processes have to be the same, or even comparable. He was my first adult commitment, and his death was my first truly soul-crushing, truly alone adult decision. He was the first creature I loved because I chose to. I’m writing this, I guess, to memorialize that.