My old blind cat Sweetie died at the age of 20-something. I don’t know what that is in human years, exactly, but recently I’ve thought of her as 106.
For the past couple of years, my home office has been a kitty nursing home, with her litter box and food bowl at one end, the rug folded and put away to save it from her accidents. It often did not smell very good, so I stopped using the day bed in there.
First thing in the morning and first thing when I got home from work I fed her the smelly soft food that was all she could eat. I scooped her poop a lot, to keep the smell bearable. These were the sacrifices I made for her. I felt that taking care of her in her old age was my duty, and I obscurely felt that if I did this for her, someday someone might treat me well, if and when I get very, very old.
Her fur was like a chinchilla’s–a fluffy dark gray undercoat like soft goose down, with a silky smooth overcoat. Stroking her was a pleasurable and sensuous experience when she was younger, although for the past few years it was more like stroking a fur-covered skeleton. You felt how fragile she was when you touched her. Getting herself stroked and petted was her absolute favorite thing in the world, and she never got enough of it.
Her persistence was an awesome thing to behold, and it served her well when her blindness came upon her. It was easy to forget her, because she slept nineteen hours a day. When she woke up and the need to be fed or petted entered her head, she was obsessed with connecting with the person who would respond to her: me.
In her darkness, she mapped her territory, which consisted of my office, the hallway, the bathroom, and our bedroom. After a couple of embarrassing incidents where she bumped the flat top of her head into walls and furniture, she learned to walk slowly, relying on her whiskers and other senses to warn her of an obstacle. Over the last few years, she lost the ability to fully withdraw her claws, so you could hear her click-click down the hall as she searched for you.
Her courage was impressive. Until the day she died, she still managed to scramble up onto the day bed in my office and the tall king-size bed in our bedroom. This feat is the equivalent of me scaling a 15-foot wall at the age of 106. That in itself was a formidable expression of pure, white-hot will. But it was the spectacle of watching her jump off the bed, with aplomb, that inspired awe at her resolution.
She would very slowly approach the edge, bracing herself on her incredibly skinny haunches. When she was quite sure she had located the edge, she would walk her paws a few inches down the side, tilting until her bony ass was higher than her shoulders. Finally she’d make up her mind and tumble off, landing with a thump. The jolt did not appear to bother her too much, or maybe she was just stoical about it.
I imagine myself, a 106-year-old great-grandmother jumping off the top of that 15-foot wall, into total blackness, not knowing if somebody has left stuff on the floor where I’m about to land. To paraphrase E.B.White’s Charlotte, that was “Some cat!”
The day Sweetie died it was obvious that she was failing. We made her comfortable, told her she was a good girl, and petted her a lot. We buried her in the back yard, wrapped in one of my old cotton t-shirts.
I’m very glad I took her outside a few times this summer, so I have a memory of her lying in the grass, radiating pleasure and contentment.
Yes, I cried. And now, I still expect to hear her click-clicking as she hunts for me in the mornings and when I get home. But I am also enjoying the full use of my office again, and freedom from smelly food and litter chores. This makes me think, a lot, about life and death, because, as far as I can tell, we feel exactly the same mixture of grief and relief after a loved person who has been ill for a long time dies.