On July 5, we said goodbye to our beautiful and loving cat Sox. Both his illness and death hit me hard. But I realized, finally, that not marking this important passing was a barrier. It feels very strange to come back and talk about books and running and so much fun stuff without talking about this important part of my life. Even if it feels too private. And even though it’s definitely an attempt that is completely imperfect. (I’ve scrapped lots of drafts already.)
In early June, on a Friday night, Sox lost control of his right back leg, and the next day, when my boyfriend and I brought him in to the vet, we found out he had cancer. It was pressing on his nerves, and that’s why he’d lost control of his leg. Given his age—15—and how huge the tumor was (probably one-third to half the size of his entire torso area on the X-ray), the prognosis was really bad. The doctor said there was not much we could do besides make him comfortable. There would come a time, and soon, when a hard decision would need to be made. He’d become increasingly ill, and before long, he’d lose complete control of all his limbs, period.
“How long do you think he has?” I asked.
“Two weeks, a month,” he said. “Not long.”
There’s nothing like knowing you’re going to lose a loved one to snap you out of autopilot, and make you realize: No matter how much you appreciate your life and lives in it, nothing is a given. How many times had I fed Sox and his much younger brother, Amos, worried over them, cleaned their litter boxes, made sure I gave them equal attention? How many times had I felt a tap tap on my leg during the work day and knew I would look down to see Sox’s little paw demanding permission to sit on my lap. To which I would say, “I’m trying to work,” as I leaned back and let him on. Every time. I never really stopped to think, this too shall end.
All these little things, and plenty more like them, are acts of love and connection that accrue over time and give happiness and purpose. In this pet realm, more than nine years of it. My boyfriend and he came into my life as a great package deal, they’d been through things even before I was in the picture. But once I was, Sox loved me as if I’d raised him from a kitten. I adored him right away.
The last time Sox sat on my lap was the night he lost control of his leg, the night before we took him into the vet. I dissolved into tears immediately, because I just knew something was really wrong, though I never would’ve guessed cancer. (We’d already been through some medical issues earlier in the year with Amos.) My boyfriend put Sox on my lap and my little tuxedo guy pressed against me, him doing his usual, “Feel better, k?” One of the best things about him was the way he gave comfort. He could never stand to see you sad, and would snuggle you, a worried look on his face so you had no choice but to feel better. That night, I felt so upset already (who knew how much more there was to come), but I calmed down so I wouldn’t distress him as well. But you know what? What I didn’t think was, “That’s the last time he will sit on my lap.” After the thousands and thousands of times he’s done so. And that wasn’t the only thing that changed.
He got worse and fast. You could almost see the weight falling away, and he deteriorated day by day. He stayed his absolutely sweet self, of course. Sweet and loving as always. But for the next month, my life revolved around setting up little beds so he could be with us (or simply giving him a rug when he started laying in weird places), reading on the floor next to him so I could pet him, giving him syringes of pain medicine, trying to find food he would eat since as time went on that got exponentially more difficult, etc. etc. This was a new reality, and gone were all his typical behaviors. There would be no more lap sitting, or him laying in his round brown bed we called a “cookie,” and the cat who’d never been able to get enough petting eventually became so sensitive, he even moved away from my touch a few times at the end.
And then, on July 4—after a few days of free-fall worsening and him not eating at all, not even the broth from the broth-based food I’d found and definitely not the acute care food—he crashed. We were in the kitchen, me preparing food for the 4th of July family barbeque, when I looked over and saw that he was literally collapsing. His limbs completely went out and the frantic look on this former fierce and regal cat’s face as he struggled against it was utterly heartbreaking. My boyfriend had been walking through just at the same time, and he quickly helped Sox onto a rug I’d set down. Needless to say, I didn’t go to the barbeque. (I literally made my boyfriend get out for a while. Though he didn’t want to, I think he needed it. Later that night, when I went to bed, they got their alone time.) But that afternoon, I spent just sitting next him and singing softly. I patted him only briefly so as not to disturb him, while Amos lay next to him on the other side, a position he’d steadfastly held since our finding out about the illness.
Earlier, in June, not long after I’d found out about the cancer and during a call about bloodwork, I’d talked to the other vet at the clinic, Dr. H, about the inevitable hard decision that would have to be made, and asked her, “How will we know when it’s time?” The decision to euthanize is one I’d never actually thought that I’d have to make, but if you have a pet that you care for in a way that enables them to live a long life, the odds are you may face it. The short version for me is that although I absolutely love both Sox and Amos, the idea that they would have a horrible suffering life is intolerable to me. But that doesn’t make the decision any easier or raise any fewer questions. Dr. H said simply, “Believe me, you’ll just know.”
Although just a few days previously I’d picked up a new pack of pain syringes and was maybe in some sort of hopeful denial that we had lots of time, the next morning, on July 5, there was no more hope or denial, just a sad knowing. It was clearly time, or at least as clear as such a huge thing could be. Yet, one of the things that’s so painful in all of this is that I so want for Sox to have still known at the end how loved he was. But honestly, by the end, I think his mind had left him. He even had these kitten-like moments, but with this vacant, dazed look in his eyes. But there’s that fear that for all I know, his life force still said, “More time!!” I’ll simply never know. We did the best we could with not enough information, which is a lot like life generally, only I’m not usually so conscious of that fact, nor do the consequences seem so huge.
So after I made the necessary arrangements, we went to the vet clinic. We were truly blessed with a wonderful and compassionate doctor and vet tech/practice manager. The latter, in particular, had worked very hard to make every visit, call, and interaction in the previous month so much better than it would have been, if not for her having been a part of it. They were both so soothing and sweet to us, and I am forever grateful to them for making a terrible experience better. They made Sox as comfortable as possible, and we were allowed to be in the room with him the whole time and for as long as we wanted after.
Still, it was what it was. Which was heartbreaking. I definitely haven’t skated through life without my fair share of challenges, but for me, that experience was the saddest, hardest thing I’ve ever been through.
When we got home that day, Amos’s little head peeked around our legs looking for his brother. He continued to do that for weeks afterward, and when the reality that Sox wasn’t coming back sunk in, Amos’s grief really took hold. (And by that, I mean beyond the crazed reactions to Sox’s left-behind stuff in the early days.) I adopted Amos from the shelter as a kitten more than 8 years ago, when Sox was an adult, and it took awhile for Sox to accept Amos (partly because Amos can be, let’s just say, aggressively rambunctious). But, for Amos, he’s never been alone until now. The last couple days (cross fingers) I think I am finally starting to see signs that he’s going in a more positive direction, and maybe at some point we’ll think of getting him another sibling.
A long time ago, a woman I worked for told me something along the lines of, “Don’t get a pet. You’ll come to love and depend on them, and then in 10 to 15 years they’ll die and break your heart. It’s not worth it.”
Well, she got one part of that right. But the “worth it” part, not so much. It definitely has been.
Sox was a great cat, and I seriously can’t believe my always-there little guy is actually gone. But here’s at least one thing: A few days ago, I got up in the middle of the night, my cell phone shining in front of me as a flashlight, and my heart felt like it stopped. For a second, I thought I literally saw him in front of me, not in that ‘oh he used to sit there’ way, but literally. It was just a moment, but it was so strong. And then I realized it was just the cell light casting a shadow on Amos in the hallway, making him look darker and bigger where the shadow outlined his form a few inches away from his body.
Darker and bigger. Our losses steal some of our “lightness,” certainly. Perhaps we come to have a bigger shadow ourselves, and we are also heavier, weighted down a bit more, but oh, what we gain. Grief, when it comes from love (as a feeling and a verb) given freely albeit imperfectly, is definitely worth the price of the happiness it bought. Although I don’t 100% feel that right now, I believe that’s true.
Mr. Sox aka Sexy aka SexyBeast aka loving and loved feline with a thousand names….
We love and miss you. We’re moving on (or trying), but we’ll never forget you.
by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.