Nineteen years is a long time for a cat. I was always proud of his longevity. I was proud of my ability to keep him alive – even when we were living in coyote country, because he was fearless and a risk-taker. He didn’t even have his front claws anymore, but he was tough. We were together for fifteen years. I adopted him when he was four years old from the Jackson County Humane Society in Southern Illinois. It was between him and a young kitten named Linguine, but the day he crawled into my lap and I learned this was his second turn in the shelter (he was a return adoption), I knew he was coming home with me.
There are so many stories I could tell about him – about his love of pretzels and potato chips, how he liked to go for walks (leash-less, of course), and his excellent hunting abilities, in spite of the impairment he was given. But I only have one story to tell right now, and this is about our last hours.
I’m not sure how long he was sick, but the vet told me back in January that it was his liver. Because he was so strong and independent, it seemed to take him years to decline. But the prognosis now was grim. I struggled whether or not to take him in as he grew thinner and weaker. We had put our dear dog Gravy to sleep when his time came and brought his ashes home. That was extremely painful, but necessary. As Mesmo’s decline came more rapidly, I kept waffling about the decision to put him to sleep. Even that morning, I was unsure. But the thought of stuffing him into a carrier and taking him to the vet was heartbreaking and I just couldn’t do it. Plus I felt like his spirit was so strong, this was HIS choice, even if it was painful.
I was at work most of the day, with Bill keeping an eye on him and telling him to wait for me. The minute I got home, I settled in next to him. I lay down on the couch and slowly slid the cardboard box toward me, by my head. Many animals will hide when it is time, but not Mesmo. His last steps that morning had been toward me, out of the back room where slept at night. I have no doubt he wanted me there with him.
The last hours we spent together were the moments I clung to after he passed. They were the most poignant and powerful ones we ever experienced together. I stroked him gently, and he meowed at me (always a talker), although his vocal chords had also given out by this time. But he could still purr; I could feel it in his chest. I had been talking to my mom, who had sat with her dying cat, about the end – I wanted to know what was coming in case he struggled. After awhile, his breathing became shallower, so I sat on the floor in front of his box. I hesitated to touch him now – I’m not sure why, but I suppose I didn’t want to intrude. He knew I was there and I hoped that was enough. I watched and listened carefully – I knew he was close. I turned to my laptop, which was right by my side, to tell my mom of his progress, and when I turned back, seconds later, he was gone.
I looked carefully and saw no movement. Remaining calm, I very softly placed my hand on his side: no breathing. I slid my hand under his armpit: no heartbeat, no purr. His jaw was slack and his eyes were empty. I said nothing, but gently stroked him a few more times and just looked at him. There was a strange peace in the moment, utter quiet. It felt right somehow. I lit a candle and just sat with him for a while. Bill rung a bell and at that moment I felt a sudden burst of feline joy in the air. And then I began to cry.
I cried a lot over the next couple of days, usually unexpectedly, and very painfully at the moment of burial. But I kept going back to our last moments together. I found myself wishing I had seen his last breath, but I suppose I wasn’t meant to. But I’ll never forget that feeling of intimacy and quiet as I stayed by his side, nor will I forget the moments after, when I felt his soul fly free.
There was gratitude with the choice I made. I don’t believe he suffered and I was able to experience a powerful transition. Death is not a joyful experience, but it doesn’t have to be an entirely negative or frightening one. It’s all part of life – and to recognize and embrace the process can provide powerful healing. I will always hold my last moments with Mesmo as some of our most precious.