[Editor’s note: This post discusses pet death.]
I had to put my 18-year-old cat to sleep last week. She’d been diagnosed with kidney disease (always fatal) a year and a half ago, so her death was no shock. And luckily, her decline was sudden; she didn’t suffer. But dealing with the aftermath has been much more difficult than I’d anticipated.
The year I turned 13 must have been one of the few years we had money. For my birthday, my mother treated not only me but my friend Leslie to tickets to see Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria. I had fallen in love with Cirque du Soleil after seeing some specials on HBO (regardless of our financial status, we always had cable) and I was beyond thrilled to attend a live show. The show took place in tents set up in downtown Atlanta and was breathtaking from start to finish.
Leslie’s cat had also recently had kittens, a short-haired male and a long-haired female. Their mother was Patches, a calico, and their father must have been a squirrel. The female kitten (variously named Yoko and Linda) stole my heart and I begged my parents to let me adopt her. Not only did our other cat, Shiloh, despise me, but Leslie and her family would be moving away soon. The kitten would be a way to stay connected with my friend. My parents finally said yes, and the kitten came home with us as soon as she was old enough.
My mom suggested Fluffy and Fluffernutter as names. I toyed with Grizabella. But then it hit me: Alegria. It means “happiness.” It was the name of the show Leslie and I attended, and this was originally Leslie’s kitten.
We still wound up calling her Fluffy, anyway.
At first she slept with me, curled tightly against the small of my back. As she got bigger, she took delight in standing on my dresser and knocking everything over, so she was exiled from my bedroom for many years.
Because I was 13, and she was so cute, I’d feed her from my plate. I never thought about the consequences of that, how for the next 18 years she wouldn’t just beg, she’d steal food from my plate, both by licking and by reaching out with a paw. She was dextrous, able to scoop up bits of food or treats, able to get drops of whatever liquid from a glass or mug, able to open doors. She particularly liked sweet, creamy foods that’d get stuck in her fur. And she’d tap me on the leg, thigh, or butt, to alert me that she wanted something. Mom called her “The Mad Tapper.”
Allie tried to befriend our older cat, Shiloh. Shiloh was always a grump who only liked my dad. She had no interest in a kitten, despite being only about 5 years old herself. I had to laugh as history repeated itself: When Allie was 13, my husband and I adopted a second cat, Sarafina (who was 4 at the time). For the next five years, Sarafina tried to befriend Alegria and Allie would have none of it.
And so Alegria was my faithful companion for many years. I was sad to say goodbye when I left for college. In my third year of school, I moved off-campus and in with a boyfriend. I should have realized the bad things to come when I asked him if Alegria could come to live with us and he said no. Not because he didn’t like cats (he already had one) but because she already had a home and we should adopt a cat who didn’t have a home.
We did not adopt a homeless cat.
The following year saw me in my own apartment and Allie came to live with me (Shiloh had passed away by this point). She helped me with all of my assignments, always sitting on my thigh as I worked on my homework. Her fur was long and fluffy, and her tummy swayed from side to side as she walked. She was so tiny but had the loudest voice of any cat I’ve ever known.
When I moved to Oregon for grad school, Alegria returned to my mom’s house. That year was a bad one for my mother, mentally and physically, and so Allie then moved in with my sister. My sister and her boyfriend already had three cats. Soon Allie ruled them all, and taught them the paw trick (tapping, opening doors).
Based on my previous experience, I was nervous when I moved in with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, after grad school, that he wouldn’t want Allie to live with us. But he insisted and my sister packed Allie up, put her on a plane, and sent her to Oregon. After just a few months, my husband asked when we could get another cat and we soon adopted Sarafina.
The average lifespan for an indoor cat is about 15 years, so as time moved on, I knew I was lucky to still have Allie, and for her to still be so healthy. She scared me one night in 2010: she jumped on my lap and her chest was covered in blood. What I thought was a cyst (actually a benign tumor) on her abdomen had burst. We took her to an emergency vet who patched her up; she wound up having the tumor surgically removed. She recovered by sitting on my lap and helping me play Dragon Age II for a week straight.
And she remained in good health until the summer of 2012, when she was diagnosed with kidney disease. Kidney disease is always fatal; cats can have kidney transplants and other extreme measures, but there’s no real cure. She had been showing symptoms for some time, but I hadn’t recognized them: vomiting clear liquid and patchy fur. The fur is what prompted us to take her in and have her tested.
The vet pointed out that it’s hard to tell how long a cat can live with kidney disease; some last years, others months. Allie’s advanced age didn’t help. The original prognosis was six months. She lived a year and a half.
She slept a lot, as elderly cats do. But she still enjoyed treats and bossing Sarafina around. She still played with string and toy mice. Alegria helped me grade papers just as she used to help me with my homework. I bought her pet stairs so she could climb in bed each night and sleep next to my head.
And then last week she crashed. She vomited and dry heaved frequently, and finally, on the last day, she did her best to hide in dark corners, refusing food and drink. She wouldn’t lift her head. She smelled bad. We took her to the vet and he recommended euthanasia.
I was prepared for that. It was clearly time to say goodbye. Eighteen years (and two months) is a good run for any cat. She died wrapped in a warm blanket, peacefully, with me and my husband at her side.
But as I write this today, it is the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. April will be the 13th anniversary of my father’s death. I had hoped Alegria would be able to make it a little longer. I could use her today. Sarafina is a good kitty, and I love her, but it’s not the same. In fact, for my column this week, I had planned on writing about my mother. Year Five is so hard, harder than Four or Six.
Allie’s death is like a door firmly closing forever. No going back to that part of my life. My siblings are much older than me; we never really lived together. There are experiences I only share with Allie (and my parents), and now it’s just me.