Stolen jewels

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.

Categorized as General


  1. Salut. You and Cathy have been good to your feline overlord. She is well pleased with her monkey servants. Especially with your willingness to let her have your rattan waste basket as her upstairs scratching post.

    I contend that if reincarnation exists, Sugar was an especially virtuous Buddhist in a former life.

  2. >A Buddhist would say that you can avoid grief only by not being attached

    Misunderstanding of the buddhist insight. (Buddhists may misunderstand it too.)

    Trying to avoid grief is the problem in the first place. You suffer because you recoil from it. You don’t need to prevent grief. So, don’t. Nor should you have to hide grief, or cure it, or ‘get over’ it or…
    The stronger the grief, the better the thing that was lost. The only way to avoid loss is to have nothing to lose – buddhists call this impermanence – so rather, isn’t it better to risk the greatest griefs you possibly can? If you take a road because you’re avoiding grief, doesn’t that mean you’re trading something you would find important for something you find trivial?
    More technically, in seeking to avoid grief, most seek to prevent loss – absolutely prevent it, instead of taking only cost-effective measures against it.

  3. @ Ken Burnside: It’s not exactly that we tolerate Sugar’s use of the wastebasket in Eric’s office: it’s more that we don’t scold her very hard. But we haven’t found a scratching surface she likes better.

  4. I had to put my 18 year old cat down about 18 months ago. I am finally close to being ready for another kitten. I know your (eventual) pain, and I applaud you for your wisdom in accepting every moment with Sugar as a gift.

  5. My cat is only 13, and in excellent health, but that’s old enough for me to worry about how I’ll cope when he’s gone sometimes. I hope he lives to be much older, so I can take comfort in his living an exceptionally long life.

  6. We put down our 19 year old indoor/outdoor cat 6 years ago.

    It was doubly hard because the girls, then 14 and 17, had known him all their lives.

    It was triply hard because we didn’t plan properly and went to the emergency vet late at night, and I don’t know whether the drugs were ice cold or what, but the cat was obviously in significant pain during the last (blessedly short) moments of his life — and the girls witnessed that.

    All the other animals I’ve seen put down went much more peacefully than that.

    Make sure you have a good vet, and try not to let events overtake you, so that you can control the time and circumstances to make it gentle.

    About a year and a half before he died, we took him to the vet’s to treat the results of a scuffle with another cat, and the vet was very surprised, given his age, that the location of the wounds indicated he was fighting, not running. He had gone quite deaf and a little blind, but he was still in the habit of acting as if he owned the world, so I kept expecting him to get eaten by a coyote or killed by a loose dog some time during the last couple of years of his life. We were all relatively prepared for that as part of the natural cycle of things, but he was in such obvious pain at the end that we finally took him to the vet.

    Although he wouldn’t back down from a challenge, he made friends easily. If he was inside, one of the neighbor cats would come over and meow at our back sliding glass door until we let him out to go play.

    But it was all worthwhile, and I would do it again in a heartbeat, but for a couple of reasons, my wife’s not really up to it (and the dog we have now is very antisocial).

    Embrace the pain and sorrow, not as the price of the relationship, but as the measure of the relationship.

  7. Having had to put down a family pet ( and helped others ) I can well understand the feelings that you are going through. Let me just say that sometimes the “taking care” of a pet is to not let an animal suffer needlessly.

    Planning ahead doesn’t lessen the grief, but makes it easier to take the hard choices and not delay what needs to be done.

    “dogs have masters, cats have servants”

  8. Barnaby was a strange cat. My father bought him when he was TDY in a place far away from us for companionship. Mostly, Dad took him home out of pity due to the kitty mill conditions he found when he answered the newspaper add. Barnaby was a BIG Siamese/Himalayan mix of some sort. For the first two years, he was known as the ghost cat. He only came out at night and ramained hidden during the day. Dad would wake up to find Barnaby staring at him while he slept, only to run and hide when he woke up. After Dad moved home, Barnaby finally came around and decided human contact wasn’t so bad, after seeing Mom pet one of our other cats.

    Barnaby passed the mirror test, only because he was too blind to see his reflection. Barnaby was utterly fearless. He would march on anything, bayonets fixed, and regularly did so. Barnaby was well traveled, having lived in several states of the US, and done a stint with my parents in Mexico for 4 years. Unfortunately he decided it was his job to put my parents older insulin dependent diabetic cat out of his misery. He was obviously not happy living around such a lesser example of a cat. When my wife and I visited for the holidays, he parked himself on my suitcase and refused to budge. Into the car went Barnaby and he traveled with us 12 hours without complaint and became our cat. He was much happier, and lived with us for about five years. During this time he kept my wife company when I was away for TDY. Barnaby eventually had kidney failure, at an early age. He only lived to be about 10 years old. We made repeated trips to the vet for fluids, trying to help him get better. In the end, he let me know it was time. He rode with me to the vet, sans a carrier, seated in the passenger seat, gaunt, but regal. He did not fight or struggle in any way. It was time.

    Since scattering Barnaby’s ashes on the hillside under the tall cedars, I have buried too many of my furry friends. Boudreaux was the hardest, he used to ride around on my shoulders in the car, cool calm and collected. He died from cytauxzoonosis way too young. I currently have 3 cats and two dogs, when they leave it is always painful, but I am glad I have known them.

  9. I’ve lost three cats– the first was chased away by another cat, the next two died. It was hard for me, but their lives were a blessing to me and I hope I to them.

  10. Sugar always treats me like I belong there when I’m visiting, be it for an hour or a week. She’s one of the friendliest cats I’ve ever met.

    Give her a scritch for me, and when it comes time for her final rest, know that my thoughts will be there with you.

  11. My cat lasted almost twenty years I was proud of that, and I let her go too long at the end- she was down to three and a half pounds (from a high of seven).

    We give them a good long life. We are smart, they are dumb- with brainpower comes responsibility: Remember the other half of the deal. We owe them a good quick death.

  12. Eric and Cathy, reproduced in honor of your feline friend:

    Felis Cattus, is your taxonomic nomenclature,
    an endothermic quadruped carnivorous by nature?
    Your visual, olfactory and auditory senses
    contribute to your hunting skills, and natural defenses.

    I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
    a singular development of cat communications
    that obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
    for a rhythmic stroking of your fur, to demonstrate affection.

    A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
    you would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
    And when not being utilized to aide in locomotion,
    it often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.

    O Spot, the complex levels of behaviour you display
    connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
    And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
    I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.

  13. We went through that with our cat Rakshi. In fact, we began anticipating the end long ahead of time. First she was diagnoses with mammary cancer, and we paid for surgery and chemo. Then she began having trouble keeping food down; she was diagnosed with a digestive system cancer and we were told she had six months, and we decided to keep her comfortable with steroids to help her keep food down, but no drastic interventions. Several years later, her kidneys shut down. I believe she was 18. We were told that we could keep her going for a while by hydrating her, but having the vets do it once was enough to convince her that was nothing to inflict on her: She was literally dying of thirst through inability to retain fluid. So we took her in and sat with her in her last minutes. Fortunately we have very good, understanding vets.

    I’m convinced that part of the dharma of owning a cat is that you have to know when you’re no longer keeping them alive for their sake, but because you’re afraid to face their mortality—and find the courage to have mercy on them. It sounds as if you get that too. I empathize with you in advance. And thanks for writing about this situation so well.

  14. Tom, my old orange tabby, is about the same age and has been in that process of decline. I have a sense of impending grief similar to yours, I think.

    In late November, after some time seeking treatment for his weight loss from hyperthyroidism, I was told by the vet that the thyroid couldn’t be treated because it would exacerbate kidney failure. He sounded very much like he was writing Tom off, and his life expectancy was a matter of weeks.

    Well, among other things I started breaking open a 200mg gelcap of Coenzyme Q-10 and mixing it into his wet food. His increase in vitality over the next couple weeks seemed miraculous. He got more alert and cheerful, and started climbing up on furniture again that he hadn’t attempted for more than a year. It’s now four months gone by, and he’s doing very well. Still climbing and getting into everything. He’s also on thyroid medicine — a new vet bought out the practice and was both more sympathetic and more open to experimenting with medication.

    If I could recommend one thing, it would be to try the CoQ-10. It costs maybe a dollar a day, half that if you get the twofer special at Walgreens. It might not work for you, but OTOH you might be giving Sugar extra months of high-quality living.

  15. Cats are beautiful creatures. I love cats myself, but never found the courage to own one as a pet as the responsibility is just so much. And of course, losing them would be very emotionally distressing.

    Unlike what people might say, I think cats are equally capable of forming bonds with human beings as dogs.

  16. hari: On Rakshi’s last night, Carol slept out in the chair in the living room to be near her. In the middle of the night, Rakshi came into the bedroom and dragged herself up onto the (high queen size) bed to sleep next to me the rest of the night. Given her physical deterioration I was astonished and touched to the heart. Cats don’t express their emotional bonds the same way, but they seem to have them.

  17. hari:

    you may think that, but I know it beyond a shadow of a doubt based on 40 years of (unscientific) observations.

    I can’t stand having cats. The pain of their leaving is too great, especially when you’ve have an exceptionally strong bond with the little beasties.

    (my 4 are under two years and I am already dreading that unhappy day that inevitably must come)

  18. i am troubled now and then by the nagging knowledge that our robbie, no matter how loving and/or loved, is finite. enjoy the time, esr.

    jessica, thank you; googling the source of that poem produced a pleasant surprise that had been lost in my memory banks.

  19. @William and pdwalker:

    Thanks for the confirmation of my belief.

    There are some stray cats around our house that never come near us, and I tried on a few occasions to get them to come inside and domesticate, but they seem want to spend their relatively short lives out of doors.

    There is also resistance to the idea of owning a pet in my household.

  20. I’m sorry to hear that, Eric. But glad you, Cathy, and Sugar have had the years together.

    “For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
    For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
    For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
    For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
    For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
    For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
    For every house is incompleat without him & a blessing is lacking in the spirit….”

  21. “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?”

    Not really. There is a selfless kind of loving compassion that is without attachment. You can develop that by making good wishes for a person – or an animal.

    Making good wishes generate a kind of warm space in the mind for the person or animal we are making the wish for, it is hard to explain, they generate a certain kind of loving and positive feeling – but also a bit distant and free one.

    1. >Sugar is a good name for a good pet. I wonder how it was chosen.

      Not by us, but as it happens I know how. I once had a phone conversation with the owner/operator of the small-time cattery where Sugar was bred. She was a nice middle-aged lady who told me that she didn’t remember our particular animal, but “I wouldn’t have named her Sugar unless I noticed she was an unusually sweet-natured little kitten.” (Words not necessarily exact but that was the sense.)

  22. Unlike what people might say, I think cats are equally capable of forming bonds with human beings as dogs.

    Agreed, but dogs give you their respect by default; a cat’s respect must be earned. A meaningful bond with a cat is difficult at first, maybe even impossible if you are not willing to earn that respect. But in my humble opinion once you do, it is infinitely more rewarding than with a dog, who likes you and wants to please you simply because you seem more “alpha” than he.

  23. My wife and I have had the pleasure of serving as kitty staff for several of the little guys and gals through the years. The parting is indeed sweet sorrow when it is their time, but it is oh so worth it. The knowing when it is time is the price we pay for the purrs and laughs. Skritch indeed. (Seems dusty in here…)

  24. Eric, you and Cathy have my deepest admiration and sympathy. My wife and I went through this with two cats in as many years; we had to euthanize one in January 2008 and the second in August 2009. It’s hard but I wouldn’t trade the years with those cats for anything.

  25. You left me thinking of our baby girl Star. My ex-wife and I adopted her in 2001, at the age of 9. She passed on in 2008, her life with me having outlasted my marriage by a year.

    Star was mixed white and orange tabby, with a little splotch of color right across her mouth that made her look kind of like she had a mustache. When we were looking for a cat at the Denver Dumb Friends League, we saw one of the aides holding her, who saw us looking and, indicating her, said, “Great cat.” We chose to visit with her as a result, and she won us over. Her name as listed by the DDFL was “Miss Kitty”; we gave her a first name to add to the title and surname, and, as “Miss Star Kitty,” she joined our family.

    (I note that the DDFL is not a no-kill shelter. Had we not adopted her, she very well might have been euthanized to make room for more cats. I look at it as, we gave her seven good years of life she might very well not have had.)

    My ex-wife took our other cat with her when she left for Finland in 2007. Star stayed with me, being her usual loving self and keeping me company at home. By then, she was on prescription medicine for her thyroid; I gave it to her each day, in the form of a topical cream that I applied to her ear. She sometimes accepted this better than other times.

    In 2008, I fell in love again, this time to a lady from Arkansas that I met via Second Life. I took a weeklong trip east to make sure her father was safely with family and bring her back home with me, leaving Star in the care of the Animal Lodge, a superb boarding facility at her vet hospital, Alameda East Veterinary Hospital (the one that was featured on Emergency Vets on Animal Planet). When we got back and picked her up, Star seemed listless, and wasn’t eating; she wouldn’t even touch tuna or strained meat baby food, two of her favorite foods.

    I got an appointment to have her seen at Alameda East the next morning, and loaded her into her kitty carrier to take her in. By the time we got there with her…she was gone.

    Dr. Steen said it was likely complications from the thyroid problem that caused her death. For my part, I look at it as, after my ex-wife left, Star stayed with me until she saw that I was no longer alone…and then she said, “My work here is done.” She even spared me the necessity of having to make the gut-wrenching decision to put her down. Greater love hath no cat for any human.

    I still miss her…but, last year, another cat came into our lives, the golden-eyed, black-and-white Penelope. Penny is not Star, can never be Star, and cannot even be said to “replace” Star…but she has proven herself a worthy successor, a good and loving cat in her own fashion. She was only a year old when we got her; fifteen or so years hence, we may be facing that same wrenching loss we endured with Star, and you shall one day endure with Sugar, but I don’t think I’d trade away a single day of those years. The having of the time with our cats, ultimately, is worth the losing of it.

    My ex-wife would agree; Maui, the cat she took with her, is now around 11 years old, and he has seen her through some very rough times. She will likely be devastated the day he departs for the Eternal Catnip Fields…but, in the meantime, he has enriched our lives.

  26. Salut. I’ve been there. You’ll know.

    Even more so, Sugar will know. Cats appear to have some sort of near-death instinct: an old, sick, or severely wounded animal will start wandering far away, looking for hiding places. Perhaps this is a way of getting the cat away from its colony, so that if a predator finds its corpse its family and friends won’t be jeopardized.

    Nevertheless I saw Ashley do this in the weeks of failing health before my family finally had to put her down, pacing about on her four shaky legs, sticking her head or entire body into nooks and corners. This despite being totally deaf, nearly blind and dementia-riddled, poor thing. A few months ago Linus Torvalds blogged about a cat he had who “ran away and never came back”.

    but dogs give you their respect by default; a cat’s respect must be earned


    That was one of the many lessons Ashley taught me. Earning her respect was a landmark achievement for me.

  27. ‘We are grateful for the time we have been given’.
    Stupid Movie Useful Sentiment

    Also showers are good for crying if your turn being the calm and steady rock is in the offing.
    May the Bona Dea bless and keep you

  28. You’ve surely been blessed with Sugar. This blog is a lovely tribute to her. I’ve always kept cats and know how you feel about her; your blog touched my heart.

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