It is 2am, no 3, no 2 when my bleary eyes blink at the clock. He stands at my bedside. “Mama.” he says softly. “Mama” he repeats when he sees I am awake. “I can’t sleep” I lift the blanket in an invitation and he climbs in. Within 30 seconds his long lashes are resting on his cheek and his fingers curl at his face. I, however, am up.
Between my shoulder pain, my miniature bed hog, and one and a half cats, my portion of the bed is crowded. My husband sleeps through. The one upside to being deaf in his left ear is that he can put his good ear on the pillow and stay blissfully unaware of the goings-on in our bedroom in the small hours of the morning.
I know that sleep will come slowly, so I lie in my slim slice of bed and try to make use of my extra hours of awake time. I think about what Steve and I were discussing right before we turned out the lights, whether or not to put our cat to sleep.
When my husband and I met we each had 2 cats and a dog. Mine were all boys. His were all girls. It was the furry Brady bunch minus Alice to cook and clean. Fourteen years later we have one last cat left from the original bunch. For 2 years we have been taking her to the vet twice a month to get an antibiotic and steroid shot to ease some sort of sinus situation that she can’t fight off.
Tonight I listen. She is about in the middle of her sinus cycle. I can hear her breathe as she pulls in and out with extra effort, but she doesn’t have her choking sounds that mark the worst of it. When she really needs the shot she is a mucous spewing Darth Vader who I can hear from half a house away.
She was the bottom of the barrel in our menagerie. Everyone but the Saint Bernard and the peaceful cat with dreadlocks picked on her. Her defense was to flatten herself and stay completely still while she was under attack. Her big move was making no move. I would intervene on her behalf then stay and watch her slowly rise to her feet and slink away in distrust.
For the past six months she has been dropping weight. Recently my husband and I took her into the vet together, thinking we would be getting the final answer on her health. The vet came into the room puzzled. “All of her blood work is good.” He told us. “Her kidney function is perfect, I think we just continue to treat her sinus condition and keep things going.” He went on, “as long as she continues eating and eliminating we can assume she is doing relatively well.” Steve and I looked at each other in strangled silence, her regular elimination may be a sign of health, but it is also a problem.
For years she has been peeing on our stuff. Bags, beds, towels, rugs, couches, sweatshirts, the bare floor were all regular targets. In fact anything less than 4 feet off of the floor was fair game. Three years ago we had taken her in for a medical work up that showed this was behavioral not medical. To address the situation we switched litter, added litterboxes, changed litterbox location. In case it was emotional we separated her from her worst enemy. Still she peed. Sometimes it would be weeks between incidents, sometimes hours. If you have dealt with pervasive cat pee you know our struggle.
Tonight as I think about arranging her death I go through the same calculations I have in the past. What proportion of her life is positive? She doesn’t care that her hair is greasy. She doesn’t care that half of her tail has been amputated leaving a long, strong, unattractive stump. She probably does care about her breathing difficulties. Because of treatment she only deals with them half the time, so is that enough? Is half the time not being able to breathe well enough of a reason to hasten her death? How much are we factoring in the misery of misplaced cat pee into this irreversible decision. I don’t think she is at death’s door. Maybe just on his front path. How close does she need to be to the end for this to be an act of mercy, rather than one of convenience.
Lying in my bed with my too thin blanket I look longingly across the room towards my regular quilt. It is in the wicker basket waiting to be washed. She had wet my bed just this afternoon. Steve and I stripped it together, half laughing half crying. Before we did it we lifted her so, so, gently off of the bed and placed her on the floor where she stood at a slight uneasy angle before walking slowly to the water bowl. Presumably re-loading.
As she wakes up beside me I pet her and hear her purr rise to the noise level of her breathing. She navigates over my son and makes it to my water glass. I’ve chosen the widest one so she can fit her head in it. I look at her ears nicked with years of bullying and want to take them between my fingers. I know it will make her twitch so I don’t do it. As much as her peeing makes me miserable I still want to take care of her. I don’t know whether taking care is to help her fight or to let go. I know how she would handle it if she could choose. She has never participated in a fight in her life. If death were a visible beast barreling towards her she would lie down low and wait for it to be over.
She travels from bedside table to blanket stumbling twice in her journey. As I examine her skeletal form and her crusted eyes meet mine. I wonder if she has anything to tell me. She is really just trying to find a spot to rest. I stroke her as she settles down so slowly. I can see the speed of her heartbeat in her fur. She is alive, and then she won’t be.
After we wake up I call the boys in to say goodbye. I explain that she might not be here when they get home from school. The boy that snuggled her last night meets my eyes as he reaches towards his cat.
“Rest in Peace” he tells her, kissing her bony head.