Opinion

The Empty Nester

The Empty Nester

On what would be our last night together, his breathing seemed labored; so, he and I ventured out into winter, driving the winding dark roads to emergency. He sat on his blanket in the carrier on the front seat next to me. After examining him, the emergency vet said, “this cat has got to go,” her brittle tone not without compassion, “he’s got a mass in his abdomen, and his heart is in arrhythmia.”

Sammy’s grey and white body had lost some weight over the past month, but the primary vet hadn’t articulated cancer. So, on that Tuesday at midnight the specter of euthanasia came as a shock. But when the techs brought Sam from the exam room and placed him on my lap in the euthanasia space with its couches, carpets and boxes of tissues, he wanted to get down and walk around. He sniffed under tables, and explored hidden corners behind chairs. This was a little adventure! “Now that’s not a cat on the way out; I can’t let him go tonight,” I said, despite the vet’s protests that it was time. I knew the torturous decision to end his life was coming very, very soon, but not on this night. And I couldn’t let them send him off in unfamiliar surroundings, especially when he seemed so alert.

As I drove him home at 1 AM, Sammy in his carrier next to me, the lid open so I could stroke him at stop signs, I felt as if the governor had granted both of us a reprieve. Sammy and I had been gifted with moments to cherish. And to celebrate, back at home, he enjoyed a bowl of Fancy Feast, a sizable portion! It would be his last supper, but at least we had this one final night.

The house, though modest, feels vast now, with a new silence, Sammy's nails no longer tap-tapping the wood floor, alerting me of his presence, reminding me they needed a trim. I couldn't hear him on the carpet whenever he approached, so I always walked mindfully in case he might be underfoot. A silent Sam, he rarely meowed. Yet this quiet little kitty permeated my life.

Grief has a way of allowing spirit to enter. I feel his presence. Neighbors and family enrich the place from time to time; they go and they come back. But my feline family is gone forever. Most recently, there had been four: Wild, uncontainable Bluffy with his long dark fur and deep yellow eyes. Baby Arnie, the last to be rescued, though not a baby at 19, who, on his last day, looked deeply into my eyes and meowed a sigh of resignation – or readiness? - as I held him in my arms for a last glimpse out the window, and Jewel, my beloved Siamese queen who stayed active ‘til twenty, and even on her final day, could move about. These cats were Sammy’s family, too; and as a cat who always wanted a partner, he had clung to Jewel.

And he insisted that, once she had gone, I must become the wife. He’d climb in next to me at night; and mornings, he’d sit in the kitchen on his warmed cushion, then follow me everywhere because he didn’t want to be alone. I hated to leave him, so I cut excursions short, and took him with me when I visited my sister overnight. But in the end, it was he who had to leave, and now I come home to the big room with the cathedral ceiling, to the nest once so full, now so empty.

Though some may call me a crazy cat lady, I identify with parents who wave good-bye to the last child leaving home headed for college. And the empty nesters, standing alone in the street, turn around and walk back up the driveway toward the house knowing that their lives will never be the same.

Sammy’s death brings back the love and loss I’ve felt for my feline family, after forty years of rescuing, spaying/neutering, finding homes, fostering, failing at fostering so my cat rescue center grew and grew (it’s why I moved to Brewster to find a condo I could afford, with a basement) for Jewel and Frankie, Betsy, Bluffy, Arnie, Sushi, and all the rest - a lifetime of cats.

My beloved kitties have gone one by one after long, happy years. And the floors, no longer fuzzy with cat hair, need less vacuuming; the kitchen sink isn't filled with empty cat food cans headed to recycling; the guest bathroom no longer hosts the box of kitty litter; unopened Friskies and treats, which I’m not ready to donate, still wait in the pantry. The now untouched crates, carriers, blankets and toys hold the history of the feline lives that blessed mine.

If you have animals in your life, you know how close the relationship becomes; how intertwined you are with these fellow sentient beings who give so much and ask for so little. And their presence brings out the best in us as we not only pamper them, but respond to their needs, their whims; because they make us happy, and often make us laugh; because they teach us what unconditional love is all about. You’ve seen the sticker on people’s cars with the shape of a paw and the message inside that reads, “Who rescued whom?” Animals touch the deep recesses of our humanity and compassion. And when they are gone, we must give ourselves permission to grieve.

Thank God Sammy and I had a good sleep that last night. In the morning it all came back, the labored breathing, and by the afternoon Dr. Dale Krier from Creature Comforts had come to the house. Sammy, lying on his heated cushion near the kitchen, drifted peacefully to sleep as I stroked his face and saw the calm come to his eyes as they became fixed and blank, his life serenely drifting away.    

As time progresses, and the raw grief recedes and then integrates into the patchwork of my daily emotions, this empty nester will cherish memories with joy. And considering there are thousands of kitties out there looking for forever homes, there may yet be two (or maybe three?) who at some point will join me when I’m ready to embark on the next chapter.

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