Our cat, Sugar, is getting old. The final, swift decline one tends to see in aging cats is not yet upon her; she’s still the lovely creature we’ve known for nearly two decades – eyes bright, coat soft and glossy, purr ready and resonant. Our friends marvel at her apparent health at over 18 years…but we know her kidney function is slowly degrading, on bad days days the arthritis makes her walk stiffly and slowly, and some of the wartlike growths beneath that plush fur are becoming disturbingly large.
My wife Cathy and I have been bracing ourselves. We know Sugar can’t have much time left. She’s already beaten the 15-year average for well-cared-for indoor cats by more than three years; if she makes it to 20, that would be statistically quite exceptional. But she could slide into final senescence tomorrow and be dead within a month; on the odds, actually, that should have happened already.
Neither my wife nor I can avert our eyes from these facts. We don’t talk about them much, though. We don’t have to. When Sugar is interacting with both of us, we can see the shadow of anticipated sorrow on each other all too clearly.
I don’t think losing a pet can get much more difficult than this is going to be. Sugar was literally a deathbed charge from Cathy’s mother, Mary. Cathy’s stepfather Jerry had given the kitten to Mary to comfort her during a long dying from pleural cancer; when he quietly fell dead, Mary was in the terminal ward. Mary’s last words to us, before she slid into final coma, were “Eric, please take care of Cathy…and Cathy, please take care of my cat.”
We took Sugar home that night through the blackest thunderstorm I have seen before or since; I found out later that as we were driving down PA422 past Limerick we passed within a mile and a half of where four small tornadoes were touching down right about then. Sugar was just 18 months old. We think she found Jerry’s body, her other human had vanished days before, and strangers had put her in a box to take her somewhere unknown. It takes no effort of memory for me to hear her screaming piteously from inside the cat carrier on my lap.
On arriving home, we put Sugar in a cat bed and stumbled upstairs to ours, exhausted. And hadn’t quite fallen asleep when we heard a desolate yowl from the other side of the bedroom door. It was unmistakably the sound of a cat who needed comforting. I no longer remember which of us got up to let her in (Cathy thinks she did), but I do remember Sugar gazing at us from the open doorway for a long few moments before visibly reaching a decision, jumping onto the bed, and curling up between us. That simple act of trust won us over irrevocably.
Ever since that black night in 1994, Sugar has been…just amazing. Some fortunate conjunction of genetics and good nurturing shoved her all the way over to the right end of the bell curve for positive qualities in a cat. She is sunny in her disposition, unfailingly affectionate, and good with houseguests, strangers and children. She greets her humans at the front door and nurses them when they’re sick. She charms pretty much everyone she meets; we have standing offers from two families to look after her when we travel, and would have a third if not for allergies.
Even more exceptionally, Sugar is polite. She’s good at figuring out what humans want and doing it. Doesn’t pester humans who don’t want to play, actually quiets down when a sleepy Cathy says “Another ten minutes, please?” before morning feeding, only claws the one couch in the basement we’ve already written off, and whole months go by when we never have to raise our voices at her. We can live with an occasional spin of the toilet-paper roll, and she seems to know that, too.
And she’s always there. Purring contentedly somewhere on the bedclothes as we fall asleep. Wrapping herself around a human’s feet as we sit and work. Oscillating between Cathy and me almost as if on a schedule when we’re both in the house, so neither of us feels neglected. Poking about inquisitively as we tinker with computers or cook or play games. Spreading her uncomplicated affection over both of us like a warm cloak. It has become difficult to remember what life was like without her.
Of course, the cost of having a pet who’s such a paragon is that it will be more wrenching to lose her. A Buddhist would say that you can avoid grief only by not being attached, but how do can do that when the meaning of a relationship is all about the attachment? None of the complexities and distances of a bond with another human save us here; Sugar’s willingness to love and be loved is so simple, so unstinting, that it would feel evil to try to put protective emotional distance between ourselves and her, even though we know her death is otherwise likely to leave a painful hole in our lives.
But I am not writing to wallow in a grief that’s still in the future. I’m here to say that there is a way to cope which we have gradually been finding. That is to accept that Sugar should already be dead, and treat every month of her remaining life as a gift to all three of us.
If Sugar were to die tomorrow, she would have had a longer and happier life than most cats ever do. There is not a day since we brought her home that we haven’t felt fortunate in her; honoring Mary’s deathbed charge has never been something either of us regretted even for a microsecond. These are the things to remember; that we have done right by Sugar, and Sugar by us, and every additional moment we get with her is a jewel stolen from the forces of entropy.
The day that Sugar goes will be hard on us – especially since, given the progressive kidney failure, we’ll probably have to euthanize her to save her from a death as painful as Mary’s. But at least, instead of being trapped in grief for what has been taken, we will able to remember that Sugar lived long past when her time should have come, and treasure every one of those stolen jewels.