It happened just under a month ago, in the early hours of December 29th. Lily had been sick for the past few weeks, but was declining the past couple years. Age was taking its toll and there was nothing I could do.
I had taken her to the vet the week before to have her checked out. Her breathing just hadn’t been right lately. She was hanging her mouth open a lot, sleeping all day, and her appetite had pretty much fallen off altogether. The doctor didn’t think a whole lot of it. She’s just old, he said. Besides, her heart and lungs sounded good, her blood work showed no reasons for concern, and it could have just been a secondary infection related to a brief illness she had a month earlier. He recommended I give her some antibiotics and sent us on our way. I had been scared she was dying, so this made me feel a little better. It gave me some hope that the end wasn’t as close as I thought. But deep down I knew. The ones who love you always know.
I gave her the medication regularly for the next week but there was no improvement. She seemed to be getting worse. By Wednesday night I was scared. She would hang her mouth open, her breathing rapid, and cry out for me. I didn’t know what to do. I would pet her and try to figure it out. I’d bring her food and water. I’d carry her to the litter box. No matter what it was, she didn’t want it. But she did want to go outside. She would cry at the door, begging me to let her out. I didn’t want to do it. It was freezing out there. The wind was stinging. Ice clung to the stoop. It wasn’t where an elderly cat should be. She didn’t care. She wanted me to open that door.
Finally, I relented. She walked outside, a little wobbly, and headed down the steps and up the driveway. I couldn’t believe she was doing that. She had lost so much weight over the previous couple years. Under nine pounds, she was barely more than skin and bones. But off she went into the cold, dark night. By the time I turned around to get my slippers on and follow her, she collapsed by the car. I think she had decided to die right then and there, but I wouldn’t let her. I scooped her up and carried her back inside, placing her back in her bed. She fell back to sleep, but it wouldn’t last long. I made the decision that I was going to bring her back to the vet to have her put to sleep. I’d do that the very next day. I never got the chance.
Just a couple hours later, after a fitful rest, she starting crying to me again. I picked her up and carried her to her litter box. She peed a little and crawled back toward her bed. I helped her the rest of the way. As I walked away I heard her moving around again. I doubled back to see where she went but couldn’t find her. I kept walking and, around the corner from the kitchen by a heat vent in the living room, she had collapsed and was laying on her side. I ran over next to her. She was struggling for breath, her body convulsing slightly. This was it. My Lily was dying. All I could do was be with her and try to comfort her. I pet her and stroked her ears. I told her it was okay, and that I loved her. The convulsions slowed until finally she moved no more.
I knew she was gone, but I just stayed there sitting and petting her. A few minutes later, the clock on the wall chimed to let me know it was 4am and that my life had just changed. For the past 18 years, hardly a day had gone by where I didn’t have Lily with me. Now, just like that, I’d never have her again.
I let her lay there a bit longer, both so the other cats could see, and because I was still shaken up. I was sad, yes, but also somewhat relieved. I knew that it had not been a great life for her lately. Though she was dead, I understood that her suffering was over. Ultimately, I wrapped her body in a couple of towels and brought her out into the shed. It was so hard to lock that shed door behind me. It felt like I was leaving her in a morgue. It felt so disrespectful. So final.
I knew that I didn’t want to bury her. The ground was frozen solid anyway, and I hated the idea of just leaving her under a couple feet of dirt. I couldn’t ever enjoy the backyard again knowing Lily was decomposing over by the fencepost. So, after a night of tears and intermittent dreams, a call was placed to the vet to make arrangements for cremation. A few days later, I picked her up in a small tin box. That’s what is left of my baby. That and the memories I keep.
Over the next couple weeks it got a little easier. If I talked about her, I’d try to focus on the fun stuff. If I dwelled on the sad stuff, or if my friends asked how I was holding up, I would cry, and I didn’t want that. So I’d focus on the happier times, and little by little the tears were less frequent. But then I came home from work one night, grabbed the mail, and saw a letter from the veterinarian’s office. It’s normal of them to send a sympathy card, so I pretty much knew what to expect. I opened it up, saw the card, and opened it. Inside the card was a decorative piece of cardboard, and there in the middle was Lily’s paw print in ink, taken just before the cremation. It instantly moved me to tears. I walked into my bedroom to change clothes and cried for 15 minutes. As simple as it was, I was touched. Once my vision was no longer blurry, I measured the paper. 5×7 inches. I went to Amazon and picked out a frame. It arrived a couple days later, and now the framed paw print sits on my living room mantle.
Lily was a unique cat. Very feisty and set in her ways from an early age. She was also, like me, very much a loner. She was never one to want to play with other cats. If they tried to play with her, she’d smack them upside the head and hiss. It’s nice to play back old memories occasionally, and it’s weird the stuff that comes to mind. How she would always run to my bedroom when she was in trouble because she knew I would protect her. How, if I was trying to get her to come inside from a night out, I would have to jingle a particular set of keys. From down the street she would come running all the way to door, then she would sniff the air, twitch her tail, and run off again. It used to piss me off so bad. I remember how high she could once jump. My brother and I would take turns swishing a feather duster above our heads. Lily would stare at it, measure the height, and spring up past our faces to grab that feather duster. And the wrestling matches we would have! Boy, did she love those. She would plop over on her side, I’d grab her belly, and she would latch herself onto my arm, nip at my hand, and kick away with her back legs. All the while her eyes would be looking wild and her ears would be laid back. But she never hurt me. Between the bites, she would lick my fingers, and she always kept her claws in. We could wrestle for five minutes at a time, but she would never leave a scratch. I could pick her up, flip her end over end, lay her back on my shoulder and walk around the house with her. As weird as it was, she loved it. Never once did she think I would hurt her, and of course I never did. She trusted me completely, and I loved her so much in return.
I’m shedding the first tears in a while as I write this, but it feels good in a way. I just miss her so much. That’s why I’ve titled this entry “Letting Go Of Lily.” The part about losing her was tough, but I got through that. 18 years is a good, long life. But the letting go part is hard. She’s on my mind and in my dreams often. I see her everywhere I go. There will never be another like Lily, but I’m glad she was mine.