This essay was originally published on March 17, 2015.
When you’re diagnosed with cancer, the days, weeks, and months following that news are filled with loss. You lose a body part or two, you lose your hair, you sometimes lose your dignity, and often times, you even have to sacrifice your livelihood because the treatment leaves you incapable of earning a living. In most cases, you can recover those losses; I can even replace my breasts if I want to, but I’ve yet to make that decision.
The other day, I suffered an irretrievable loss. My cat, Lily (pictured above), passed away on Sunday, and I am heartbroken. Lily had been with me through many ups-and-downs in my life, and she was only eight days short of her 18th birthday when I had to let her go. In many ways, it is harder to make peace with losing a pet because you count on them for support you sometimes cannot get from humans. Anyone who tells you that humans are capable of the kind of unconditional love animals are, is full of shit; an animal loves in a way humans can’t, and that’s just the way it is.
Lily came into my life from somewhere in the Pocono region of Pennsylvania. A former colleague of mine was in possession of a female cat that was regularly birthing litters of kittens. In March, 1997, he asked me if I’d be interested in adopting one from her latest batch, and I said yes. I asked him to choose one of the females, and bring her to me when she was about three months old. At the time he asked me, I had just gone to contract on a house. Anyone who has ever transacted real estate in New York state knows you can feel your hair growing during the time it takes to seal the deal. Finally, early that June, “Twitcher” came to live with me. The name was bestowed upon her by my co-worker’s children, because she twitched a lot after she was born. My ex-husband re-named her Lily. She joined Clarkie, the male cat I adopted from the county animal shelter in October, 1994.
Lily and Clarkie were my first pets. I wasn’t allowed to have pets as a child for two reasons: the first was because a bird my brother had before I was born, died while it was left to fend for itself when he and my parents were visiting the family in Toronto. Second, my mother had no affection whatsoever for animals. They loved her, but for some reason, she was unable to return their affection. My father was ambivalent, and fond of quoting a Yiddish expression which meant (loosely translated) that cats plugged up your head. So, I was 27 and living on my own when I finally adopted my first pet.
Regaling you with stories about both Lily and Clarkie would require me to write pages, so I will condense by saying that both cats brought so much joy to my life. I can’t imagine going through life without caring for an animal. It became a passion of mine and I don’t intend to give it up. Many people feel that way about children, but for me, that wasn’t an option. I’ve never been sorry I haven’t had kids, even though I do like them. Pets, however, are more my speed. Say and think what you will, but I’m being completely honest. I’d rather clean a litter box than change a diaper; and yes, I’ve done both.
Clarkie lead a life of leisure with me in two apartments and my house, before he passed away in April, 2007. He was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his mouth that winter, and I tried like hell to save him. I never knew exactly how old he was, but I was told he was approximately one year-old when I adopted him, which meant he was 14 or 15 years-old when I lost him. At that point, I had lost both my parents, and a few other people I was close to. Somehow, losing my first pet was a blow that hurt worse than all those human deaths combined. Clarkie was there for me when my dad passed away in 1996; he slept on my head and kneaded his paws, claws intact, on my face. He nursed me through bronchitis, colds, and kidney stones, and waited patiently in the window for me to return whenever I was out. He once pulled a chicken carcass out of the garbage and picked it completely clean on the kitchen floor. I never figured out how he got at it without upending the garbage pail, which was under the sink, inside a cabinet.
Lily, on the other hand, kept me company in a few dark, unhappy places. She endured 24 hours on the road during an aborted trip to Toronto, when exceedingly officious Canadian border wingnuts would not let me bring furniture into Canada, because I wasn’t yet officially a resident of Ontario. That bureaucratic horror cost me one sleepless night in a grungy motel room, and thousands of dollars in legal fees. She accompanied me on a move to the Washington D.C. area, and was happy in her home there, because she had about 1,000 square feet of carpeting to sink her claws into. From there, we successfully made it, furniture in tow, to Toronto, where we lived with a psychotic relative for a little over a year. Lily knew who she was dealing with: one night, said psycho was rewarded with a gash on the nose for encroaching too far into Lily’s personal space. A few weeks later, she sent me to the emergency room for penicillin and a tetanus shot after a swipe of her paw scratched my eyeball. Not long after, the psycho threatened to dump her in an animal shelter. We moved out into our own apartment.
Lily’s last two-and-a-half years were spent in the company of Mr. Stinkman, a portly, fluffy feline who wanted so badly to be her friend. She tolerated Mr. Stinkman, but they never really became friends. This made me sad because I wanted her to love him the way she loved Clarkie. She had grown old and tired at that point, and I think all the drama of the previous few years had taken its toll on her.
In hindsight, I think Lily started to really decline after I was diagnosed with breast cancer. She lost a bit of weight before we left Toronto, but she was still spry, hungry, and somewhat kittenish when we got here. It was last summer, as I recuperated from surgery, and before I started chemotherapy, when I noticed things were changing. Maybe she hung on long enough to make sure I would be okay. The irony of her dying eight days before such a milestone birthday, and five days before I finish radiation is not lost on me. She’d had enough.
When I took her to the vet to be euthanized, she died in the examination room, before the doctor could administer the injection. It was peaceful, and I don’t think she was in any pain. That’s the best we can hope for, when our beloved furry friends decide it’s time to go. I’m heartbroken, and I’m trying like hell to get through this last week of treatment. Of all that I’ve lost over these months of being a cancer patient, I feel this one most acutely, and it will stay with me longer than anything else.