Loving God, our beloved pet and companion, China, is on her final journey. We will miss China dearly because of the joy and affection she has given us. Bless China and give her peace. May your care for her never die. We think you for the gift that she has been to us. Give us hope that in your great kindness you may restore China in your heavenly kingdom, according to your wisdom, which goes beyond our human understanding. Amen.
— Adapted from a prayer in Will I See My Dog in Heaven? by Jack Wintz
N.B. This is the third of a series of posts about the illness and death of my feline friend China. To read the posts in order, begin with The Lion in Winter and move on to The Die is Cast. The series concludes with Flawed Love.
I had scheduled to be off work on February 3 in order to finish the copy editing for my forthcoming book, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. Now it turns out that I’ll have to rearrange my schedule for this coming weekend, to complete the editing I had hoped to do yesterday. As it turned out, February 3 was my day for saying goodbye to an old friend.
As I wrote yesterday, I began the day by taking China to the vet to get her fluids, which the vet had suggested I do while preparing to say goodbye to her. As I wrote the day before, there was a part of me that was ready to help her make her final journey, and another part of me that just wanted to hold on a little longer. But by Wednesday morning, I began to fear that the extra fluids going into her aged and dehydrated body were not making her feel better so much as merely prolonging her suffering, which could only end in her death anyway.
So I came home from the vet and Fran and I talked and we decided it was best to move ahead with China being put to sleep. We set the appointment for the end of the day, both so that Fran could be there and also so that the vet wouldn’t be rushed. This had the added advantage of giving me a final few hours with the old girl.
So instead of working on the book, I spoke with a few friends, kept up with all the wonderful comments posted here on my blog and at my Facebook page, but most of all, I doted on China. In the morning, she came to me — the third time in five days, remarkable given how much pain she clearly was in just to walk — and crawled/clawed up into my lap. This time she sat there for almost two hours. Several people got messages from me in which I wrote, “I’m typing this on my laptop perched precariously on the armrest of my chair; China is in my lap.” At least one person told me to put away the laptop, so I finally did, and just sat there, gently petting her. When finally she did hobble away, I grabbed lunch and then went to hang out in the bedroom, where China had been spending the vast majority of her time since she stopped eating. I sat on the bed next to her, initially thinking I would read while I kept her company. But I couldn’t really concentrate on reading, so I ended up just petting her and resting.
From spending so much time with her, it became even more obvious to me just how uncomfortable she was. It was hard for her simply to re-position her body while reclining on the bed. She smelled awful (the vet assumes she was suffering from renal failure, but I don’t know enough about kitty-cat physiology to even hazard a guess). Although a couple of well-meaning friends wrote or called me to say “Are you sure you want to go through with this?” as the day wore on I became increasingly sure that I had made the right choice. So by the act of my will, China’s life was shortened by, what: a few days? A few weeks, at most. But those days or weeks would have been shaped by increasing pain on her part, likely increasing dementia and confusion as well, and no comfort for her human companions either. By taking the time to say good-bye to her and to reflect on the sleek and graceful cat she once had been, I found my own peace in understanding that escorting her to a gentle and unlabored death was, truly, my final act of love for her.
Eventually Rhiannon and Fran came home, and we all gathered in the bedroom, with China snuggled up against me and Clarissa, one of our two younger cats, perched vigilantly in my lap. China perked up a bit with Fran’s arrival and tried to use the litter box (I don’t think she had any luck). Fran petted her and whispered love-words to her, and I prayed the prayer that began this post over her. Then we put her in her travel case for her final trip out. In the old days, China would fight so aggressively against being put in the travel case that it often took both me and Fran to get her in there (and even then, it was basically an even-match, two humans vs. one cat). But now, emaciated and docile, she put up no resistance as I guided her into the case.
Fran drove the three and a half miles to the vet, while I sat with the travel case clumsily perched on my lap, my eyes fixed on my old girl, greedily taking in every last second of our time together. Inside the vet’s office, I signed the paperwork and we were ushered back into the room where we liberated China from her travel case and momentarily surrendered her to the vet and the technician while they administered a sedative to her. Then I petted her and gazed into her eyes as she drifted off into her final earthly twilight. When the eyes become unfocussed and blank, I allowed my hand to rest on her side, feeling her steady heartbeat; my eyes still fixed on her own sleepy orbs. The vet patiently waited until I said I was ready, and then she gave her the barbituates. After a few moments had passed with no change to her heart’s rhythm, I asked how long this would take. “Just a matter of seconds,” the vet replied; and almost as if on cue, as she said those words I felt the heartbeat slow down. And it just became slower, and slower, until it stopped.
And China was gone.
I still gazed into her lovely eyes, the eyes that for twenty years would follow me as I walked around the room, that would blink again and again when I petted her or whispered my affection to her, that would blaze with anger whenever she got some fleas and I would go after her with a comb. Finally, with the vet saying what I already knew, I gently closed each eyelid. Fran kissed the head of the now lifeless body, and I did the same; and then the vet carefully wrapped the body in plastic so that it would remain secure until later this morning, when I will take it to the local pet crematorium. Then on Friday I’ll pick up the ashes, which will eventually be housed in a hand-carved sleeping cat figurine that I’ve ordered from England.
Between acknowledging just how sick China had become, and allowing myself time to cry and to grieve and to say goodbye, after she passed I felt an odd but comforting sense of serenity. Fran and I picked up some carry out and returned home and sat with Rhiannon and ate and watched the latest Star Trek movie. And Clarissa came and sat next to me on the loveseat, the same loveseat where just two nights ago Fran and I petted China and listened to her raspy, labored purring — purring that dropped to a whisper on Tuesday, and that was absent by Wednesday morning. China had always purred with gusto; so the loss of her purr really signaled, to our minds, her readiness to move on.
Going to bed was hard. Except for those few nights recently when she would wander the house and cry until Fran or I came to get her, she was always on the bed waiting for me when I would come to sleep. For years she slept next to my pillow, but that stopped after one too many times I pushed her away because she would get in the way of my reading light, purring loudly, begging for attention, while I was trying to read. But even after she gave up on sleeping right next to my face, she would curl up next to my body, or by my feet, or, more recently when she was sick, perched on Fran’s legs. No matter where on the bed, she was always there. So I drifted off to sleep last night with echoes of that line by the Police: “The bed’s too big without you,” reverberating through my grieving mind.
And as for pushing her away: maybe it’s just that grief is causing me to be hard on myself, but I’m remembering how I did that a lot, too much it seems. Even in her dotage, China remained something of a little rescued stray kitten, endlessly hungry for affection, which usually meant my affection. And too often she had to put up with me ignoring her in favor of a computer or a book. Sigh. As we waited for our food last night, I said to Fran, “If I learned one thing from China’s passing, it is how much more I need to appreciate those who love me. I think I tend not to do that very well.” In a moment of rare vulnerability, Fran said, “If China helped you see that, then everything I ever did for her is worth it.”
Yesterday I explained to Rhiannon, who is moderately intellectually disabled, that “the vet will give China some medicine to help her go to heaven.” I shared with Rhiannon the legend of the rainbow bridge, and we cried. Sure, it’s schmaltzy and overly saccharine, but in its sweetness it carries a comfort for days like yesterday. I’m not ashamed of the fact that I enjoy chick flicks, so I’m willing to admit that I like the legend of the rainbow bridge, too!
And if there’s anything to that legend — or to the beliefs of those of us who would rather have Francis of Assisi than Thomas Aquinas define our hope regarding animals in heaven — then China has now reunited with our dear Julian, and Fran’s wonderful cat Senada, who disappeared in 1992; and is probably hanging out with Kato and Jo Merchant and Sam and Esmerelda and Huxley and Meatloaf and Caesar and all the other fine cats who have blessed us and our family and close friends. And someday Clarissa and Furbie and Skoshi and Piglet and Lenny and Charlotte and E.B. Orange and other kittens we haven’t even met yet will join them, too. And when the day will come, I’ll laugh with throaty joy to be reunited with all these marvelous beasts. But always, always, my heart will be for China.
Rest in peace, sweet friend. I’ll miss you until I die.