A Ghost Is Born
Needless to say, yesterday was not a good day.
Aurora had been doing fine as of Sunday, when she spent most of the day outside in her favorite spot beneath a flowering shrub next to my upstairs neighbors' buddha statue. On Monday morning I noticed a bit of a change; she seemed a little listless, and didn't immediately get up to eat when I set food out. But, both cats have done this before, particularly when the weather starts to warm up, so I didn't think anything of it.
Tuesday morning was about the same, but by Tuesday evening when I got home there was a definite downhill slide. Still, she was ambulatory, eating, and responsive. Even so, I figured it would be a good idea to get her in to see the vet. 18 is pretty much the upper age limit for indoor-only cats, and Aurora, born and raised as a barn cat, has always been indoor/outdoor, which statistically means she'd already far exceeeded her general life-expectancy. Unfortunately, they were already closed, so I left a message asking them to call me first thing in the morning.
I got a call about 7:30 a.m., just as I was getting up, and they told me to bring her in about 11:30. When I checked on her, she was clearly going fast: she didn't respond to her name, or to physical contact, and was listless, clearly weak and dehydrated, despite having settled down right next to her water bowl.
Like a dummy I went to work about 8:15 a.m., intending to come back and take her in; by the time I got home around 11:15 she was already gone.
I'm not at all ashamed to admit, I pretty much lost it at that point.
I finally managed to call my friend Dawn, who knew her well, to let her know. Then, I called the vet, who said I could either bring her in to them, or contact Seattle Animal Control - ugh! Then, I called work and told them I wasn't coming back for the rest of the day.
Then, I lost it again for a while.
When I was able to pull myself together, I wrapped Aurora in a clean white towel and gently carried her down to "Little Nellie", carefully placed her in the trunk, and drove her to the vet, where they made a couple of notations, gave me a form to fill out, then went over the cremation arrangements. They said they'd spread her ashes under an apple tree; I sort of joked that sounded nice, and where could I sign up for that? I don't think they thought it was funny, and really it was more just an attempt to lighten the obsidian misery I was feeling.
Then, they took her away, while I signed a credit card slip.
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. Every surface - the window ledge where she liked to sit when she couldn't go outside; her water bowl and food dish; her favorite napping spot on the blanket set on my recliner chair; the pillow where she slept next to me at night - everything seemed to contain ghostly resonances, like amputees with "phantom limb syndrome", where they can feel arms and legs that aren't there any more. Every time I'd look at some empty space, my mind kept wanting to fill it in with her small, solid presence, trying to will away the absence, make it real again.
By early evening I knew I had to get out of the apartment, try to focus my thoughts, energy, and emotions on something else. So, I put on some headphones and went out for a walk. But it was hard; despite full-volume, the music couldn't drown out the sound of my own reeling brain, and I had to stop several times as another wave of guilt, and remorse, and grief washed over me. It's still hard, writing this is hard. But, I want to remember, I don't want to forget what it felt like, even though it was mostly pain.
It wasn't her death per se that caught me off-guard; like I said, when cats reach their mid-teens you have to expect the end is going to come within a matter of a few years at most. And she'd been having some physical problems for a couple of years; a touch of arthritis, a lowering of metabolism and activity levels, etc., etc. It was the rapidity of her decline that shocked me most. There was no point in performing a necropsy, since it seemed pretty clear whatever had taken her wasn't some feline-transmittable disease. She was old, and something - kidneys would be the best guess - just stopped working all of a sudden. She didn't linger, and I don't think she was in a great deal of pain at the end, but probably more scared and confused, not understanding what was happending to her.
The one thing I regret most was not staying at her side for those final few hours. She was a good friend, a loyal companion, who trusted me to take care of her, and she deserved better than to die alone on a cold kitchen floor. That's what hurts the most, the feeling that I abandoned her when she needed me most.
I am glad, however, that she didn't die at the vet; putting her down, however humane the method for doing so, would have been unbearable. So, in the end, she relieved me of the awful, awful burdon of making that decision, and for that I am grateful.
It will get better, I know. Even now, I feel like I'm floating somewhere between 4 and 5 on the Kubler-Ross Scale, and so I just have to accept that's where I'm going to be for a while.
Jenny The Pirate, whom I've had almost as long as Aurora, and who's only six or so months younger, is still amazingly active for her advanced years; ironic, since calicoes are not generally noted for being terribly robust. But, I think she's got a good shot at outliving her elder companion (although in fairness I should note the two of them never really got along, but over the years managed to just barely tolerate each other), so there's some small consolation in that. But, I also know she's not going to be around forever, either. In a few years she's going to go down the same path, and once again I'm going to find myself sitting in an empty apartment blubbering over another empty hole that's just been scooped out of the inside of my heart.
With the exception of the ten weeks I spent in Europe in 2000, Aurora has been my constant companion for more than 18 years; longer than I've lived with any other living thing, including parents, siblings, relatives, lovers, friends, roommates. It's not something to let go of easily, and I'm not going to without a fight. They say people who've been in long relationships continue to talk to their spouse or partner long after their physical being has vanished into dust. I know there are going to be nights when I instinctively reach out in my sleep to nuzzle a phantom neck, and it's going to be a long time before I get used to those empty spaces where she used to sit, or lay, or walk being just - empty.
Until then, I hope the apples grow big and juicy. I'd dearly love to enjoy one on a bright summer's day, in the yard, next to the contented expression that graces the face of the Buddha.
on 2:06 PM