The Slow Farewell
I have often found comfort in the concept of impermanence. Nothing will stay as it is; this too will pass. I recognize that for many, the impermanence of happy times is a con that outweighs the reverse truth that unhappy times are impermanent too. Somehow, the impermanence of joy is also a comfort for me. Nothing is permanent. I suppose it’s because permanence doesn’t have anything to do with length of time. An impermanent thing can last quite a long while… And so, even as things are impermanent, these things are still capable of lasting long enough - whatever long enough may be.
I have never been good at keeping my room clean. This was a source of constant frustration for my parents. At some point in 2007, Dad told me that if I could keep my room spotless for two weeks, he’d let me get a cat. I succeeded, and he grudgingly said I really could have a cat if I put in the work to find it myself. This was back in MySpace’s heyday, and a friend had posted a bulletin looking for homes for two kitties. I responded and a short while later found myself at a strangers apartment (Haylo) with a mutual friend (Holly), waiting to meet a cat. I sat on their couch and a sleek little black kitty came out from hiding, crawled into my lap, and immediately conked out there. Haylo looked shocked - apparently this kitty did *not* do people time like that.
That is how my 15-year-old self met Bellatrix LeCat.
I have never tired of telling that story. Being chosen by an animal is a unique experience. I have never gotten along with a creature as well as I have with Belly. She has never been “just a cat” for me. And as this story is ending, I’m struggling to see past the ‘end’. The number one thing I can do to process this grief is to celebrate her *whole* life, not just to get caught up in the end… So this blog post is a gratuitous exercise for me, but you’re invited to join me.
After Belly crawled into my lap and napped there for the better part of an hour, I was sold. I was 15 and didn’t have any idea what I needed or how to take care of a creature more demanding than a fish (and I’d killed many a fish already). Haylo kindly gave me a few supplies to take home with me, and Belly rode on my lap the whole way home. As soon as we got inside the house, however, she bolted under my bed and wouldn’t come out for anyone except Holly. I wish I could find the photos I’d taken… Holly would lay on the couch, and then Belly would lay on her back on top of Holly’s arm against the back of the sofa like she was a people too, with her legs all stretched and her arms down by her sides. It was so cute. It took three days before Belly would come near me again.
Dad got jealous of my cat and wound up adopting his own. Eve was a fat, old, smelly, grody kitty who was very grateful to be adopted. She marched around the house the first night she arrived, and her meow sounded like she was saying “Hello!” Then everyone went to bed, and Eve’s meow got very deep and scary. "HELLO >:)" Belly and I hid in my room and were suspicious of Eve for weeks.
Shortly after that, my brother Jacob adopted a homeless kitten he’d found under our neighbor’s shed. We named this sweet, docile little calico Trinity. She suffered intense negative reactions to her first round of vaccinations, including seizures that temporarily required medication to control. After the reactions wore off and Trinity stopped having seizures, Belly became like a mama cat. She was very much the alpha and did her due diligence in protecting Trinity and Eve from any dogs who visited the back door or any strangers who dared to enter the house. This alpha cat tendency made the transition from living with Dad to living with Mom in 2010 very difficult, as Belly refused to back down with my Mom’s two cats. I don’t like to dwell on this, because my sweetie cat was a raging asshole then. It meant she spent a lot of time closed up in my bedroom, and I regret that.
One of Belly’s quirks was a weird love of these stuffed caterpillars we’d won from the fair one year. I came home from school one day to find every caterpillar from the house had been collected and piled on my bed, eyes facing the door. After that, Belly treated these caterpillars as if they were her kittens. She often left them in the food or water bowl, or even in sunny patches by the door. One by one, these caterpillars fell apart - they weren’t very well crafted and hadn’t been designed to stand up to multiple visits to the litterbox (and subsequent laundering). By the time Belly and I were ready to move to Vancouver, there weren’t any caterpillars left.
EXCEPT… I helped my Dad move houses at the same time that I moved North, toward the end of 2010. One of the first loads I took was all of my sister’s stuffed animals, which we just threw in a giant pile on the living room floor. To my surprise, there was ONE caterpillar tucked in her pile. I swiped it and brought it to Belly, who STILL HAS this baby. It’s got a little stuffing coming out the top, but this caterpillar has survived a crazy amount of time. Lately, Belly has been leaving the caterpillar at the door to greet me when I come home. I like to think it’s because she’s been napping a lot, and doesn’t want me to be lonely when I first get in the door if she's busy sleeping.
Jacob was working at Fred Meyer the year I moved in with Aaron. In the toy section, they had a gigantic 8ft caterpillar pillow. Jacob got it for me that year for Christmas. When I brought it home, Belly stood at the top of the stairs and looked at her little caterpillar and back at the big one I held, and then finally looked at me with huge eyes. “You expect me to carry THAT?!” We’ve lovingly named it the Caterpillow, and it often makes an appearance for sleepovers. When I found Belly’s lump, I got out the Caterpillow so I could lay on the ground with her. When we first put the cone on her, she was so confused about how to use the litterbox with the cone on that she peed on Caterpillow instead. It’s currently living in the storage unit, waiting for a Laundromat visit to be revived.
Belly has been my constant movie companion. She doesn’t like to be very affectionate when people can see it, so often we’d get our snuggles in when Aaron had gone to bed. We have watched countless movies together. Our favorite is Amelie - Belly will sit still and actually watch the TV when Amelie is on. They took Amelie off of streaming, so we’ve been without it for a while. One of my favorite memories with Belly was actually us watching RENT together. I got a little wine drunk - okay, fine, a lot wine drunk - and I decided I wanted to scrapbook. Belly decided she wanted to help. Aaron came to check on us and found me sitting wide-legged on the living room floor with Belly stretched out against one leg, her paws on one page of my scrapbook, me gluing things down crooked as fuck on the other page, and loudly singing along to “Today 4 U”.
I’ve survived several traumas, and have developed what my therapist calls a “robust resiliency”. There are apparently ten aspects of resiliency, and I possess 8 of them. (She actually argues that I possess 9, but I don’t see it.) One of the traumas I’ve survived was a year-long abusive relationship. Belly absolutely detested this guy, and took it out on him in the most devilish way possible. She played up being sweet when I was awake and watching her interact with him, but when he would spend the night… This sweetie cat would wait for me to fall asleep, and then wildly attack his toes every time he got close to sleeping. If he woke me up to complain, Belly would be curled against my feet, purring. I actually didn’t believe him until one night, after about a month of him complaining every time he spent the night, I pretended to fall asleep and caught her in the act. After I caught her, she was very aggressive toward him even when I was watching.
I’m happy to report that she has not attacked Aaron’s toes. It took him years of romancing, but she finally came around to him as a suitable source of attention. Now she’ll even choose him over me sometimes! Before Belly got sick, she absolutely loved being squished in a chair next to me or Aaron. She’s already difficult to get photos of because her features disappear into shadow, but multiply that by her tendency to shove herself into the crack between your leg and the side of the armchair… You basically get an invisible cat. Many of my photos of Belly make her look like a black blob of fur. She's also very good at looking angry when she's actually happy.
Belly is wicked smart. I wish I’d known what I was doing when I was younger, because I think Belly could have learned a ton more tricks. My number one focus when she was younger was to teach her not to claw or bite people. I’d wrestle with her until she went to claw or bite my hand, and then I would loudly yell “OW!” and boop her nose. She was quick to learn. She’s only ever bitten me on accident, when trying to get a treat out of my fingers, but she’s never drawn blood. She also used to do these AMAZING flips in mid-air while chasing a feather toy. I could get her to jump five feet in the air and flip, land, turn around, and do it over again. It was fascinating to watch.
Her cutest trick was to “Earn it!” for her treats. I trained her to sit up on her haunches and reach up with her front paws for a treat. She got so conditioned that whenever she wanted any treat or food, she’d do her “earn it” trick unasked. Right after she turned 12, I noticed that she was jumping up on things less and moving a little more slowly. I didn’t want to cause her pain for a treat, so I retrained her to “Sit!” instead. She got so good at sitting on command that she even learned to do it with a silent hand gesture. I also worked on teaching her to spin in a circle, but she was less of a fan of that one and only did it sometimes. Her newest thing is meowing a certain way. I like to sing her songs. Sometimes they’ve got words: “Oh my twitchy kitty girl, I think you are so nice, I give you bowls of butter and I give you bowls of wet… foooood!” and “Oh my Belly, oh my Belly, oh my Belllyyyy kitty girl. You’re my meow-meow, love my meow-meow, oh my darling Belly girl.” The ones that don’t have words are basically just me meowing a familiar tune. One of my favorites is to meow part of Elmo’s World at her. I’ve done it enough that she’s started to meow back at the end in the same pattern. “Meow-meow meow-meow, meow-meow meow-meow, meow meow meow” … and then Belly goes “Meow meow meow!”
One time, when we lived in our apartment in Oregon City, Belly and I were curled on the couch together just sitting and breathing. It was a very, very windy night, and a particularly large gust shook the front door in its frame. It startled Belly, who got a little poofy and wide-eyed, and I pet her and told her it was going to be okay. Except, in the middle of telling her it would be okay, a second large gust of wind shook the door again, and it startled me, so I wound up saying something like, “Oh Belly, it’s okAAAHHH!” Aaron found this incredibly funny and spent a good year telling that story. He loved that we were a pair of scaredy cats.
I’m pretty sure Belly is afraid of the dark, like I am. For years, any time the lights would go off and Aaron and I would go to bed, she would come up to the edge of our door and very loudly cry. “Meowwwwww! Meoowwww! Meooooooowwww!” Our running joke was that she was saying, “Helloooo? It’s daaark! I’m aalooooonneee!” This hasn’t been happening lately, since I’ve been sleeping in the living room the majority of the time or at least leaving on the stove light if I really needed to sleep on the bed. Tana has pretty thoroughly made the bedroom her domain, so Belly doesn’t like to spend time in there. Since I’ve been spending a lot of my time with Belly, it’s meant that I’m not spending much time in the bedroom.
There is always a wide and weird range of emotions that accompany a death experience. I am overwhelmingly sad and tearful, and I am also angry, and there is even going to be some level of relief. From the discovery of the bump to the end will only have been two months, but that’s two months that my schedule has been derailed. Belly’s quality of life has certainly deteriorated in that time. I’m confident that with the pain medication and the care we’ve been providing, Belly is not suffering. But she is not healthy, and that takes a toll. I’m relieved that she will be able to rest.
I also feel horribly guilty that I needed this additional time with her. I know many people who, when they get a diagnosis like Belly’s, will opt to euthanize right away to prevent any suffering, any loss of quality of life. I mean, we even did so with Eve. Eve suddenly went from happy and healthy to a weird puddle cat on the floor with no meow or interest in food. We took her in and found out she was in the later stages of liver failure, which had been asymptomatic and therefore not caught in time. We could pursue some types of treatments in order to extend her life, but we were only given a year and were told Eve would likely be in pain that whole time. We opted to let her go right away. It was so sudden, in fact, that Belly got depressed and mirrored Eve’s symptoms for a few days before finally being cajoled out of her funk.
I couldn’t do a sudden goodbye with Belly. Not when she was still so thoroughly herself. Not when we could take a little time. And she still is herself, but it’s less thoroughly now. Our time has run out. The infection is rampant by this point, and it’s difficult to keep the area clean. I feel guilty about that as well. I’m trying to forgive myself for it, because as gross as the infection is, it’s still not outweighing her zest for life. This slow farewell hurts like a motherfucker, but it’s meant that we’ve gotten to see several more movies together. We’ve gotten to watch a hummingbird visit almost every day. We’ve snuggled and played. I’ve given her scraps of her favorite foods and given her all the wet food her little kitty heart desires. I’ve made an effort to keep plans with friends that get me out of the house, which allows Belly some uninterrupted time to sleep. We haven’t spent every moment together, but we have made the absolute most of the moments we’ve had.
When I was a girl, I lived on a farm. My Dad had remarried and we lived with his wife’s parents and her uncle on a large property with a house, a barn, multiple sheds, and plenty of room for animal pastures and garden plots. Her uncle, Charles, lived in a trailer that was parked under a special overhang that gave him a covered porch. Charles was largely introverted, but he spent a lot of time with his cat, Bo. When Bo died in his sleep, curled in his basket, Charles kept Bo’s body for three days before we could convince him to bury him. Bo was still in his basket when we interred him into our pet cemetery, which was just underneath one particular tree on the property.
I couldn’t fathom why Charles would keep Bo for so long after he was gone. But I get it now. I’m devastated. This is devastating. I’ve had two months of time to say goodbye, and even that does not feel like enough time. My heart will always want more time with Belly. She has been a significant part of my “robust resiliency” and has been my companion for twelve years. In all my anxiety-fueled planning for future scenarios, I’ve even made a plan for what I intend to do if Aaron dies before me. But I made a drastic oversight here - I never planned for what to do after Belly dies.
I had a nightmare shortly after I brought Belly home. In my nightmare, I was living back on the farm, sleeping in a front room that had glass windows on three sides. It was daylight and the sun was streaming through the curtains. An intruder was circling the windows. I could see their shadow, as well as the shadow of a gun. I was terrified and trying to be quiet. Belly stood up in the middle of the room and meowed loudly, and the gun went off, and she went down. I woke up screaming, drenched in sweat. It brings back a tangible sense of fear whenever I recall the dream.
I feel like I’m in that dream, more and more. Cancer is an intruder, circling our little sunlit life. Cancer carries a gun. Cancer has taken their shot. And I am in the brief moment that it takes for my brain to realize what’s happened, and any moment, I am going to wake up screaming. The biggest difference is that when I do wake up screaming, I won’t wake up to Belly bolting into the room and meowing very loudly in my face until I pull her close and cry in her fur. And I have not prepared myself for it. I don’t even know if I can.
I’m so fucking sad about the end of our story, but there’s twelve years of story to remember. There have been twelve years of us sitting together and watching a movie. We also often just sat and did nothing but breathe. We have planted gardens - Belly has eaten many plants - and we have cooked a lot of food - Belly has eaten a lot of food - and we have loved each other. Tirelessly, endlessly, every single day, 100% committed love. Belly has lived through two of my graduations, me getting my driver license, me getting married. Belly has been through the evolution of multiple friendships, many through both the beginning and the end. Belly has lived through five of my moves, has been a part of five of my homes. Belly was here for the solar eclipse and three presidential elections. Belly has sat with me while I painted things that eventually made it into art shows. We’ve taken a ridiculous number of naps together. She’s tolerated Tana and respectfully not attempted to eat the rats. She’s broken into the butter dish more than 5-year-old me did. She has been my best friend. And it’s okay that I am so, so sad to say goodbye.
I made a list of steps to help myself get through this grief process. Death is an ultimate mystery - despite my multiple experiences with death and grief, it’s never exactly the same. Knowing this, I made a small guideline for myself. Celebrating Belly’s whole, happy life was number one. I’ve been reaching out to people who either understand the kind of bond I have with Belly or who understand the depth of my emotional intensity; this has allowed me to process my feelings out loud or with company, which is valuable to me. One of my favorite images of grief is to imagine it as an ocean. Honor how immense, how powerful this body of grief is. It has a tide and it will bring in waves of variable size, at variable times, in variable places. All you can do is breathe. Eventually the ocean does calm.
Many people have reached out to check on me, Aaron, Belly, and Tana the last few months. It’s so, so, so appreciated. Even when words fail me and I can’t muster the energy to respond, being able to read something from someone who loves us is helpful. One of my best friends told me she didn’t know what to do, because telling me she’s sorry was useless. Grief is one of those weird things in our society because there’s nothing to DO. There’s no activity that can be done that will alleviate the grief. Our society is uncomfortable with the Big Dark Sad that is grief because there’s no tidy way to disperse it.
So, what can you do for a friend who is grieving? Listen. It never feels like enough, but trust me, it really is. Listening to your friend without offering an opinion on how things should have gone or could have been is one of the greatest gifts you can give, and it’s entirely free. The other thing you can do is check in. Life moves on at its normal pace, but your friend can still be hurting and raw from their grief.
Thank you for listening. Thank you for checking in.
The closest approximation to a plan for Saturday is this: Spend every moment with Belly that I can. Sleep if I need to, if I’m able to. When the technician comes, don’t be embarrassed to cry. Hold my kitty as much as I can. Tell her how much I love her and give her lots of pets and kisses. Hold Aaron’s hand, really really really hard. Cry a lot. Say goodbye. Thank the technician and watch them leave. Go hide in bed with Tana and Aaron. Cry some more. Just breathe. Know that nothing is permanent. This will hurt, but this brief devastation will fade, and eventually, all that will remain is those twelve years of happy. And that will have to have been long enough.