My cat died on Friday.
I knew it was coming; Oliver was old and had been in decline for a while. He needed insulin shots twice a day. He’d all but stopped eating. And now his arthritis had rendered him incontinent. Even so, I’ve felt utterly blindsided by his death, in part because we had to have him euthanized.
I think the worst thing about losing a pet, beyond the pain of the actual loss, is the particular loneliness of that grief. There’s a certain amount of embarrassment that comes with grieving a pet. One feels a sense of urgency to “get over it” or at least stop talking about it. Anything beyond a day or two is considered unseemly. Most people are too polite to say so, but you are expected to get back to your duties.
Say what you will about pet ownership: that it’s unnatural, that the doting is bizarre and even perverted, a fetish adopted by wealthy, indulgent societies, and then exploited for profit by the pet “industry.” (Pet insurance companies and people that make Halloween costumes for dogs and even some veterinarians.) Maybe all of that is true. But there is also something to be said for inter-species love. It connects to some beautiful, ancient, fundamental thing within us — though what that thing is, isn’t exactly clear. That we can love and be loved by creatures who are not like us is reassuring. It’s hopeful. It suggests that a harmony with the planet’s “other” inhabitants is possible; we do have it in us. The love is real, and it is a powerful thing. Social conventions notwithstanding, it also feels shabby not to mourn openly and deeply.
Individually, as pet owners, we understand this, and when someone we know loses a pet, we sympathize with them. Why then this collective, tacitly-understood expectation that grief for an animal should be brief and relatively tidy?
I want to remember Oliver the way he was when he was at his best. I want to remember his prowess as a hunter — a skill I didn’t like and also couldn’t help but admire. I want to remember the time he took a walk with us, of his own volition. I want to remember how he got tired on that walk and I had to carry him home. I want to remember the way he looked in front of the fireplace with his big, green-gold eyes at half-mast and his fur glowing orange in the firelight.
And I do remember those things. But now I also remember the way he cried when the vet put the needle in his arm. I remember how quickly the light went out in his eyes and his big head drooped between his front legs, and how I was suddenly, sickeningly unsure that we were doing the right thing, only it was too late. And how his body, lying there on the table seemed so perfect to me, so strong and sleek and handsome.
The vet assured us that our choice had been merciful, but losing a pet this way, you can’t help but wonder. How much did Oliver understand? How ready was he? I’ll never know.
That night my husband and I took a walk to escape the oppressive gloom in our house. It was an apricot-colored evening, wonderfully soft. We went to give the cemetery peacock a cupful of birdseed, a kind of offering. On the way home, we stopped to watch the sun set behind a bank of clouds. It was one of those sunsets with the big, sympathy card rays of light shooting out. Look, I said pointing at a particular cloud all lit up around the edges. It looked like a cat, larger than life and curled up in front of the ultimate fireplace.
Maybe it’s sentimental, but I really want to believe it was.