To say he died obscures any number of things, including the crucial fact that I had to choose his death, had to call someone and make an appointment, had to express this decision and sign papers in order for it to happen. One lives in this knowledge. It is harder to keep in mind that not making this choice means choosing his suffering. When a cat’s teeth are neither decayed nor infected but too painful to allow him to eat; when painkillers don’t remedy this or enable him to do anything besides lay on the floor; when he is frightened by the running water he still seeks out to drink, despite being too ill to drink it; when he is in too much pain to hold or pet; when he fights the few extant medications he’s on and the only possible, if tenuous, future he might have is one with even more medications and even fewer of the joys of his earlier days, it is all but impossible to choose that future for him.
I’ve read a great many pieces about end of life care for people: this article, Roz Chast’s noted book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, and the redoubtable Being Mortal. All of them seem to say that aging and death are inevitable, natural processes. That comfort and kindness mean recognizing that there is a time for letting go. That there are conditions and times when continued treatment means continued misery for the patient rather than ending their pain or improving their lives. These realities meant that despite the offers of the best veterinary care money could buy for my aged cat — hospitalization in a clinic more than an hour away from home, more bloodwork, ultrasounds to investigate the possibility of a tumor — it seemed most principled, pragmatic, and above all, kind, to bring the cat’s sufferings to end. A chart explaining the relative ages of cats and dogs to their human companions that hung on the exam room wall stopped at 15. My strong and determined Oliver, at 17, had reached an age that was, quite literally, off the chart. All the evidence at hand suggested to me that while I might keep him alive a little longer, it wouldn’t be the life where he watched birds, ventured out onto the deck in the summer, or followed me to bed at night.
It is not easy to conclude that the best choice one can make for a companion of nearly two decades is to end his life. It is not a choice that one doesn’t revisit, in mind, wondering if one had indeed made the right choice. I’ve decided that though habits of language encourage us to focus on the idea that we can determine a singular act that is correct or appropriate — that we’ve made the right choice — and that even though this sort of decision cannot be undone, that one simply makes the best choice one can, rather than one that is perfect in its absolute-ness. The existence of a perfect future where Oliver would be free of pain and remain with me seemed like one that was exceedingly unlikely to manifest. Yet a certain amount of regret and doubt accompanies loss, and what-if? lingers, and these uncertainties, the unknow-able-ness of other futures, is part of what one must learn to live with.
Letting Ollie go seemed to end not just his life but to sever a tangible connection to my own past. When I acquired him as a kitten, I was still in my twenties; now I understand the inclination to describe one self as a woman of a certain age. Then I was writing my dissertation; now I advise others completing their first scholarly work. He moved with me from Indiana to the nation’s capital and lived amid the cultural aftershocks of the 2001 attacks. He lived with me as I wrote my first magazine article, and now I’ve resumed writing a column I founded some years ago. He’s spent time in every garden I’ve created. Now this witness to all those events is no more, and walking through the house where he’d last lived after he was gone made plain that where Ollie was was home.
In The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman gives voice to the sense of loss that comes with living with creatures whose life span is shorter than one’s own when Serafina Pekkala describes men as “creatures of a brief season.” She tells Lyra, “We love them; they are brave, proud, beautiful, clever; and they die almost at once. They die so soon that our hearts are continually racked with pain …. Each time becomes more painful, until finally your heart is broken.” According to Serafina, when one’s heart is completely broken, life ends. Ollie is the second cat I’ve raised and lost, and it seems as though a part of my heart was indeed wrenched away, that his end is also a step toward my own end.
His absence makes itself felt every moment, since his vitality was so pronounced. He had a favorite place, a space adapted to his needs, in nearly every room. It’s easy to see a flicker of movement or a dark shape under a chair and think, for a moment, that he’s there. I hold each precious memory of his days — and there were days when he was determinedly bad, eating electronic cables and German knitting needles or tearing away the paper tags that marked carefully selected points of scholarly evidence from books — since I can hold him no longer. It is imperfect, and it is the best that I can do.