“…love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” – Kabil Gibran
Two weeks ago I mentioned that we were awaiting test results to see if our beloved kitty had lymphoma or not. His test came back negative. You’d be forgiven for thinking this story might have a happy ending. We hoped it would too. Dear reader, it’s with a heavy heart I tell you it does not. On the evening of August 29, 2019 our sweet, beautiful Watson breathed his last. Exploratory surgery revealed a network of inoperable cysts and lesions attacking his intestines and pancreas. There was nothing more we could do, so we made the agonizing choice to euthanize him. I was not remotely prepared for how difficult, painful, and gut wrenching this whole process has been.
For some reason, I keep fixating on his last day. It makes no sense on the surface. He was so sick, so frail, just miserable with his cone of shame; such a stark contrast to the vibrant, happy, curious, funny cat he always was. Shouldn’t that be the way I want to remember him? But I feel compelled to preserve it.
This is the second-to-last picture I ever took of him.
Staring out the back door was one of his favorite pastimes. He never tried to get out, he just liked to survey the backyard. It was a gorgeous day outside: bright sun, clear blue skies. The grass was so green it almost looked neon. Seeing Watson muster the energy to do this one last time both broke and melted my heart.
About an hour before the vet was scheduled to arrive, we sort of misplaced the cat. Oops. He’d been lying in the sunroom, we stepped away for like, two minutes, and he was gone. We soon found him crouched at the top of the stairs on the second floor. We pet him, he meowed, then he turned and walked into my office. I followed, and broke into tears for the millionth time that day when he immediately sought “his spot”. This is the last picture I ever took of him.
Every day while I worked, Watson would stride into my office and demand attention. I’d scold him for interrupting, then always pet him or let him hop onto my lap. He’d purr – his purr always sounded like a motor boat scraping rocks – and then he would hop down and settle in the corner by my desk. It’s where I keep a stack of different colored napkins and placemats for my food photos. He would, without fail, rest his head on them like it was a pillow. I’d gently chide him that he was getting black fur all over my napkins that GO WITH FOOD, but I never made him leave. It became a tradition, a ritual, something of a talisman for my writing. The same dance, every day.
That this is how he chose to spend the last hour of his life will gut me for a very long time. Instead of sitting in my desk chair as usual, I sat on the floor next to him and sobbed, petting him gently and choking out how much I loved him and would miss him. We watched the sun begin to set, the minutes slowly ticking away, until the clock said seven. The vet was due soon.
“Okay, buddy, we have to leave now.” A soft meow in protest.
I carefully picked him up and carried him downstairs to the kitchen, where we fed him the last of this smoked salmon. I’d made and photographed these sandwiches the week before, right after finding out he didn’t have lymphoma. During the few happy days where we thought he’d make a full recovery. I had planned on using the rest of the salmon to make another round of sandwiches. But I fed it to Watson instead. Smoked fish was one of his absolute favorite human treats (the other was roasted turkey).
After he ate, we carried him downstairs to the basement, placed him in his favorite cat bed, and waited. It took the vet another excruciating thirty minutes to arrive. We mostly paced.
I won’t describe watching him get put to sleep. If you have ever done this, you know the intense pain, you know the feeling of your heart being ripped from your chest. If you haven’t experienced it, reading a detailed account won’t emotionally prepare you for it. It’s better to remain ignorant until the last minute.
He’s been gone for almost a week. Today is the first time I’ve returned to my office. Despite the bright, cheerful orange walls, it’s bland in here now. Empty, lonely. I had no idea losing a pet was this hard. I mean, this is part of what you sign up for when you adopt a cat or dog, right? It’s not like I didn’t know their average lifespan, and at 14 years, Watson was well within peak actuarial tables for meeting his maker. But I cannot imagine a world without my little buddy, a world without yoga interference or fishing him out of kitchen cabinets. Of course that is nonsensical: there was always going to be a world without Watson. The Grim Reaper spares no one.
And perhaps that is why I’ve been centered on his death. Because his last days, frail and heartbreaking though they were, will always be a part of his life, a part of his story. It’s not right to erase them. I just finished reading God Land by Lyz Lenz. The last chapter is about Holy Saturday, which is the day between Good Friday and Palm Sunday. Evangelical Christians do everything they can to ignore and erase this day, despite the Easter story being the entire bedrock of their faith. My childhood was steeped in that religion, and until reading Lenz’s book, I’d literally never heard of Holy Saturday. It is the dark day preceding Easter Sunday when Jesus was fully dead, his body in the tomb. Given that Jesus didn’t stay dead, I suppose it’s an easy day to pretend out of existence. But it’s probably unhealthy to do so, and speaks to broader issues beyond just one weekend in one organized religion.
Sitting with Watson on his last day, that interminable, torturous, tear-filled day, was a way to honor him and love him. He was such a presence, always underfoot, such a light in our life, and now it’s been extinguished. The void he left is palpable. I know we will remember him with smiles and laughter soon enough, and that’s a good thing. But I don’t want to forget his last days, or ignore the intensity of watching him pass. My childhood religion taught me to gloss over death. My church handed me escape routes and band-aids and grief short cuts like heaven (or the Rainbow Bridge?) and the meaningless platitudes that accompany it. I hold no religious or spiritual faiths of any kind now, so I have to stare this death and its anguish straight in the face. I can’t hide. I have to bathe in it, be consumed by it. We have two more cats, Crick and Rosalind Franklin (yes, we named our cats after the scientists who discovered DNA, we are nerds) and they are 14 and 13, respectively. I will endure this again. It will be messy, and ugly, and soul-crushing. Again. But it feels oddly clarifying to reflect in this manner, to think and read over Lenz’s words about Holy Saturday and holding space for death. It’s a focus that is somehow clear-eyed through the blurry vision of tears. I miss my funny little weirdo cat so much. I know I’ll heal and adjust and it won’t always feel this raw. For now though, it just hurts. But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Smoked Salmon BLT's with Herbed Mayo
- ¼ cup mayonnaise
- 1 tsp chopped fresh basil
- 1 tsp chopped fresh parsley
- 1 tsp chopped fresh oregano
- 4 slices of whole-grain bread
- 4 Bibb lettuce leaves
- 1 large tomato, preferably heirloom, sliced
- 6 slices of bacon, cooked
- 4 oz. smoked salmon
- In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise with the basil, parsley, and oregano.
- Spread the mayo on 2 slices of bread, for 2 sandwiches. Layer the lettuce, tomato, bacon, and smoked salmon on each sandwich equally. Top with the second slice of bread and serve immediately.