Goodybe, Old Buddy
I lost a 14 year friend last night. Held his head in my hands as the doctor injected an overdose of anasthetic into his veins, watched as his eyes became still and that ineffable spark of life in his body went out. I was staring too hard at his face to notice when he finally stopped breathing. Even then, at 11:30 pm on a Friday night in the 24-hour emergency pet hospital in Berkeley, lightheaded from not having eaten enough and slightly nauseous from what I had to decide, I wondered at how one second, he was there, and the next, he wasn’t. It wasn’t just the breath, it was something else, some heat, some bit of life, that faded away like the image at the end of a movie. Blink. Something was gone, and then he was just a still, lifeless mound of black on a pile of blankets in a room at midnight.
The cute-in-a-scruffy-way young vet who had a hard time looking me in the eyes was pretty sure it was a blood clot that had cut off the circulation to Merlin’s hind legs. The prognosis was bad – any treatment would have been expensive, painful, and not likely to work. Most cats throw another clot soon after the first, which is incredibly painful. So, I signed the paper and sat with Merlin for the last five minutes of his life stroking his sweet face like black velvet, and feeling myself letting him go.
I think the loneliest feeling in the world must be to be in a stark, sterile room, alone, close to midnight, on a Friday, having to decide between the life and death of your closest companion. I can’t imagine the feeling of having to make that decision for a child or partner.
Merlin was a fat, cantankerous cat. He snored. He bit and scratched – not from meanness, but because he didn’t know his own capabilities for causing pain. He was lazy, and never caught anything but a tossed stuffed mouse toy. Any interaction was on his terms alone. Sometimes he gave me a look that, if it were a person, would have withered me in my tracks. As it was, I knew him for a big softie who loved to curl up with his back against me at night, loved his chin to be scratched, and hated it when I pulled on his tail (which I did anyway, just to hear that cute, cranky sound he made when I did it.)
Merlin and I were very close, probably too close. I sometimes joked to him that he was my real boyfriend; the most consistent, present, and affectionate male in my life who wasn’t related to me. He was the one I came home to at night, the one I missed when I was out of town, the one who shared my bed, the one I reached out for in the night when I had a bad dream or couldn’t sleep. I remember once, on a particularly bad night when I had had a fight with a boyfriend and was feeling low, I accidentally stepped on Merlin and he ran to hide from me. When I couldn’t coax him out to eat, I started sobbing uncontrollably. His withholding of love seemed to me the last straw, that night.
I got Merlin from the Berkeley animal shelter when he was 4 weeks old. He wasn’t that much bigger than a tennis ball. I had just moved into my first “adult” apartment – the first apartment where I had to pay the rent myself, the first place I moved into after college. He ‘s been with me my entire grownup life.
Waking up this morning, every little sound seemed to me to be Merlin, and after every sound, I remembered anew that he was no longer there with me. That wasn’t him jumping onto his favorite sunning spot in the window of my office, or him pawing food bits out of his food bowl so he could eat them on the floor (I always thought that was a weird thing to do, but hey, he was quirky.) He wouldn’t pad into my room, take his normal circuitous path to the bed, then sit and stare at me for a bit before curling up and going back to sleep. Or reach out his paw as I got out of bed, trying to snag some part of me with one long claw.
This has been a summer of loss for me, a summer that started out so promising. I’ve lost a friend, gained and lost a lover, lost a long-time animal companion. I know these losses don’t account for much on the spectrum of losses, and I’m grateful that I’m being taught my lessons in impermanence in such a mild way. Not that those losses haven’t hurt, but I know people who have lost more, much more, this summer. But you can’t compare grief, I guess. And grief and loss are necessary complements to love. You can’t have one without the other. The flip side of all the grief this summer is that in order to feel it, I must have the capacity to love, also.
I’m sitting here drinking strong, bittersweet coffee. That’s appropriate, I think. The weather is fabulous, the sky blue and sun strong. In awhile I’ll go pick up Merlin’s body from the vet and bury him along with Xochi, the other kitty spirit in my life, and think of how much he loved the sun.