The Lion in Winter

China and Carl, October 1990. She’s 17 months; I’m 29; which means that developmentally, we were both brash young adults.

China and Carl, February 2010. She’s a few months shy of 21, while I’m 49. My midlife, and her old age. Despite her failing health and loss of weight she still looks great; whereas I am clearly road-worn. But at least I’ve learned how to hold a cat.

My eldest cat, China, is well over 20 years old. She was a rescue kitty — she came to me when I managed the bookstore in Sewanee, and a fraternity boy at the college found her, a stray kitten, and took her to the local vet; the same vet who on the very next day I asked “Do you have any kittens up for adoption?” He brought China out to me, and it was love at first sight. The frat boy, who was a true animal lover, came and talked to me to make sure I would be a good “daddy” for the kitten; I must have passed muster, for he gave his blessing to the vet and China got to come home with me. This was in July 1989. I had an older cat, Julian, whom I loved but with whom I never truly bonded — not like I bonded with China. Whether it was just a matter of disposition, or truly a miracle of human-animal relations, China and I became heart to heart buddies. For years she slept next to my pillow; and whereas Julian was not much of a lap cat, China claimed my lap as her own natural habitat. When Fran and I got married in 1993, I swear China was jealous (she got over it, eventually). Up until the last few years when she has obviously become hard of hearing, she would even come to me when I would call or beckon her (please don’t spread this too widely, for I’m sure most cats would be mortified to learn that one of their own engaged in such dog-like behavior).

With her naturally outgoing personality, China quickly would win over the hearts of pretty much anyone who came calling. She was a graceful jumper — my house in Tennessee was passive solar, with windows twelve feet high from the floor, and probably a good six feet from the nearest rail; China and Julian both would jump from the rail to the windows to bask in the sun, nearly giving me a coronary every time they did it. Even as a middle-aged cat when we first moved into our current home, China would climb onto the dresser and leap over to the bed, falling square onto my chest with terrifying force.

Like the Grateful Dead song for which she was named, China was a true hippie, with a fondness for catnip and good company. But she was also a scrappy little street cat, and always maintained a contentious relationship with the other cats in our home; the introspective Julian, whom she quickly dominated; the much younger and amazingly good-tempered Clarissa, with whom she competed for years (and who now seems to have forgiven her for that long rivalry), and then our neurotic long-hair Furbie, who adopted us one chilly Halloween. China would hiss at one of the other cats just for walking near her.

When I adopted China, she had an apparent infection in one eye, and it was slightly swollen and bloodshot and she would keep it half closed for the longest time. It healed eventually, although the eyelid remained slightly droopy ever since. But overall, she settled into a life of tremendous good health. She did get sick and lose weight in 2005, and a vet told me she was dying; but a friend suggested I change her diet and she promptly bounced back (I changed vets after that). Although she’s been an indoor-only cat here in Atlanta, in Tennessee she had the run of my two wooded acres, where she would routinely bring me “presents” — usually moles or mice, but one time she proudly brought a bird that she, the great huntress, had felled.

When the younger cats arrived, in 1999 and 2002, China settled into the comforts of the second half of life; feisty and irascible with her feline housemates, but still loving to me and friendly to everyone. When Julian passed away in late 2007, she accepted the role of dowager gracefully. Julian had been troubled by arthritis and had not groomed herself for the last year or so before she died, apparently of a stroke just a few months after turning 20. China’s entry into her 20th year has been marked by different problems: in addition to being hard of hearing and increasingly incapable of jumping (with many heart breaking failures, saddest — and most painful — of all being when she couldn’t even make it to my lap without clawing her way up), she appeared to suffer from a bit of kitty-cat dementia, getting confused and lost in the house at night and crying piteously until one of us would get up, go find her, and bring her to bed with us, which would always immediately calm her down.

China in healthier days; May 2004.

She grew thinner as she aged, as had Julian before her, so we thought nothing of it, especially since up until very recently she has always been the most assertive of the three cats in reminding us when it was mealtime. Furbie whines when she is hungry and Clarissa always seems to just politely wait by the food bowl, but China would complain, loudly and insistently, that it was time to get fed.

But recently, that stopped. Fran and I were trying to remember just when China stopped begging for food — two weeks ago? A month? Between the hurly-burly of the Christmas season and my efforts to finish my book, we’re not sure exactly when China gave up on eating. But give up she has. Oh, she’ll still lick at food, especially if it’s rich with gravy; and Fran has bought her some baby-food that, again, she’ll lick at. But it’s clear that, as of this winter, our old lion has crossed a new, and final threshold.

On Saturday China crawled up into my lap while I was reading, and stayed for almost an hour, purring. So many times over the last year or so, when I was writing, I would push China away when she would clumsily, claws extended, try to get into my lap where my MacBook was perched. Now I could kill myself for having done so. But at least on Saturday I had enough presence of mind to let the computer be, and just sit there, petting her as she purred raspily, until she decided she had had enough and let herself down.

Yesterday morning I took her to the vet, fearing what I would learn. Weighing in at a mere four and a half pounds, her body temperature was a seriously low 96 degrees. The vet said that we could do bloodwork and figure out what is wrong, but at her age, even with aggressive treatment, the likelihood of recovery is pretty slim. Fran asked me not to put her to sleep yesterday, and I didn’t, even though the vet suggested that it would be a kindness to do so. I stammered that I needed time to say goodbye. So the vet gave her some liquids and kindly offered to keep doing so, every day until we were ready.

So I can’t decide what to do. Part of me thinks there’s no point in extending her suffering, and that the kind, humane, caring thing to do would be to set up an appointment and give her back to God tomorrow. But another, smaller, part of me thinks that I won’t do that, just yet. Like Bilbo with his ring, I say it’s time to give it up, but then when I think no one’s looking I try to slip it back into my pocket. Worst of all, the grieving part of me is afraid I’ll never forgive myself for willfully and knowingly taking her to her death. How could I take her, the little warrior who always hated vets so magnificently, to that stark flourescent-lit chamber where two final needles will do their irreversible work? After such a long friendship, it feels like the most horrible of betrayals. And telling myself that it would be a far graver cruelty to let her starve to death makes sense only in terms of my Spock-like capacity to think logically, and does nothing to assuage my breaking heart.

I knew this day would come, and I knew it would come soon. But I tried to push it away with fond hopes that China, always such a wonderful, amazing, beautiful cat, would prove to be as remarkable in her old age as she was as a kitten, and would make it to 22 or so. Or so I wished. But now cruel fate has dashed those hopes to shards, and I know that if, like Frodo at the last of it, I grasp her instead of letting her go, the Gollum of her suffering will just come and snatch her away regardless, and I’ll still be left only with my grief.

Last night when I got home from work, Fran was sitting on the loveseat with China, petting her. Her eyes are still bright and aside from how thin she has become, and how unsteady on her feet, she still seems to have plenty of life left in her. I sat on the floor next to her, and began petting her along with Fran. Immediately, she started purring, her raspy old lady purr. Fran smiled. “She wasn’t purring for me,” she observed, matter-of-factly. “But then again, she always was your cat.”

True enough. But underneath the signs of life is a body that is failing. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. So when I take a deep breath, and think about it, and manage to think clearly, I think that I’ll give her (I mean, myself) just a few more days. I want to buy her some fresh catnip and give her one last romp to the tunes of the band that gave her her name. Fran has already given her blessing to opening several cans of cat food every day in the hopes that something will taste good to her geriatric tongue. I’ll take her to the vet and get some fluids over the next few days and maybe on the final day it will feel routine to her. I’ll cry with her and I’ll pet her and I’ll hang on desperately to these last raspy purrs. I’ll tell her over and over again how much I love her and how spending twenty years with her has been such an unspeakably beautiful gift. And then, we’ll say goodbye.

Hamming it up, May 2008

N.B. This is the first of four posts on the illness and death of China, and my grief over her passing. The next entry is The Die is Cast.

Seven Lessons I'm Learning on the Grief Journey
Concerning Sheep, Goats, and the Unconditional Love of God
Completing the Hospice Journey
Living with Hospice
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Amy

    Carl: Having my own cat that I rescued from the leaves, (it had been abandoned by its mother at approx. 4 wks.) who has been the love of my life these past 11 years, I totally empathize with you and what you must be going through at this time… I have no advice to give, as I can only feel for you…so I give you my whole-hearted sympathy.

  • Ellen

    My cat Patricia, who is about eighteen years old, is also very thin, unsteady on her feet, and just about ready to go. As usual, your posts speak to my life and to my heart. Thank you.

  • Jodi Hill

    Oh Carl, what a lovely tribute to China. You obviously love her well and she you. Grateful you have time to say ‘goodbye’…I’m sure she knows the final goodbye is near…

    Our old basset died in December, the week of Christmas. We had time to say goodbye. We too watched him lose weight, weaken, refuse food and water. Seems he knew how to die, maybe we all know how to die…

    Peacefully and without complaint he passed one night in my daughter’s bedroom (his very best friend, she was). His final gift was mustering all his energy to sit up, turn his head and look into the sleeping eyes of our daughter. Shortly thereafter we found him like this…gone, but with a parting message of love. I doubt I’ll ever forget his final act of devotion.

    May you know a measure of peace and comfort as you grieve, for “blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted”.

    With a prayer for all of you, Jodi

  • Laura

    Carl – love and thoughts and prayer to you and your family and especially China. I’ve told you before, she has always been my favorite of your cats. That is probably because she is so awesome. You know that my own cat, Piglet, is the dearest thing in the world to both Matt and me and I know how hard this must be. Know that 20 years old *is* remarkable and she has had a good life and was very loved.

  • TLH

    Carl: I recently lost my kitty Bean to cancer, and she had similar symptoms as what China seems to be showing. If you can find the strength to do it, let her go in dignity and comfort. Don’t ask her to suffer even half a day if it can be avoided. Love her, love her, love her and know that as long as you remember her and can look at wonderful pics of her like this, she’ll *always* be in your heart, forever and ever.

    Good luck, Carl. God’s peace with you, as you walk this difficult road right now.

  • Green Monk

    No fair making us cry. I am sorry that such a time like this has come. Pets are a part of a family, and one approaching death is so hard. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  • Shadwynn


    Your sharing brought back a lot of memories of kitties I once loved and cherished, taken (always too soon) in death. I haven’t had a pet in years now, but I do remember the heart-wrenching process of parting and loss. My prayers are with you and China…

  • George

    Dear Carl,

    Thank you for your moving tribute to your beloved China. We have a beloved dog Roxy who is getting older, your words have made me more appreciative and grateful for her and the time we have left.

  • barbara kelley

    My heart goes out to you.

  • kristinrosemoon

    We have four animals in our household. 2 cats and 2 dogs. The cats are brother and sister ages 7, born at the same time as my son in 2002. The dogs are 11.5 years and 9 1/2 months. I know I have many years ahead with my cats and my youngest dog (God/dess willing!), but I know the day is soon coming when we lose our beloved 11 year shepherd mix Candy. She has arthritis in all four legs and is moving slower every day, but still has that sparkle in her eye. She was my husband’s and my first child, rescued from the pound just 1 year after we married. I dread the day you are currently facing Carl, I’ve never had to say good-bye to a pet before and I know that time will hit me as hard as losing a family member. My heart, sympathies and prayers go out to you as you let go of your beloved kitty. May you find some peace as your darling cat makes her way to that fabled “Rainbow Bridge”.

  • Peter Amsel

    You have written such a moving tribute to China that, as I write this, it is difficult to hold back the tears of sympathy that I feel for both you and your wife (and for your precious cat). It makes me feel guilty that just this past Friday I took my pride and joy – Dr Seuss – to the vet for his yearly exam and was told, in a word, that ‘he’s perfect’ – and that he should live to be 25 if all goes well (he is now just over three).

    Your description of China makes me think a great deal of my Seussie – he was also a rescue cat – I found him when I went back to get a different kitten that was gone (only an hour later) – he was thin and scared, and as soon as I held him he clutched at me: it was love at first sight.

    I’ve had many cats in my life but none as ‘special’ as Seuss. I’m so sorry that you have to go through what you are experiencing with China, but I’m glad that you had an opportunity to know such love from such an extraordinary creature. If you want to honor China’s memory perhaps you can find it in your heart to take in another stray; not to replace China, that cannot happen, just to keep the fur-balls rolling.

    God Bless you and all that reside in your house;

  • Joe Rawls

    Shadrach, our black lab-ridgeback mix, started to slow down a few months after his 12th birthday. The vet diagnosed kidney failure and said he would start having convulsions eventually. So we decided to have him euthanized to spare him any more suffering. The vet who administered the procedure was extremely compassionate and shad’s transition was very peaceful. I say “transition” because I’m willing to bet that all living things will be resurrected along with us.

  • Suzanna McMahan

    My family has only had one cat and because my dad and I happened to not to be allergic to him. Until he came into our lives, we always had 1 dog and 1 dog at a time.

    He escaped from a house where apparently an old woman had died next door and we fed him and then basically claimed him as ours when we got him his shots and neutered him/made sure he was neutered. We called him KC, short for Kitty Cat. I know, how redundant, right? Well he had been and indoor and outdoor cat until he got hit by a vehicle and came into the house, hopped into mom’s lap when she was reading in bed that night and wouldn’t look up at her. He was bleeding from his jaw which had been broken, so he was taken to the vet and afterwards deemed and indoor cat only.

    He tolerated the first small dog my parents got – a Maltese/Chihuahua mix that would follow him everywhere and antagonize him, but in a very funny “bosom buddies” way. Bitsy, our Fox Terrier then died at 19 when we decided it was time to put her to sleep because her quality of life plummeted to a level that we thought she wouldn’t want to be in. We had 2 dogs before her.

    When it was KCs turn, his appetite wasn’t as large as it used to be and he also got thinner. We knew it was time, but just couldn’t bear watching him die. Cortisone was a temporary fix and after it wore off, he went back to being thin and not eating again. We took him to the vet to make sure he wasn’t in pain. He wasn’t they assured us – just very weak. After we decided to put him to sleep, it didn’t take very long for him to pass on.

    We have 2 crosses in our large backyard that my carpenter brother made. One says Bitsy and the other says KC. My mother wept when I read about the Rainbow Bridge where we will all meet our pets in Heaven. “God Bless You KC. We Love You.” was said as we were burying him.

    We get the best God-like love from our pets and since dogs give the love & cats teach you about responsibility and respect, I highly suggest everyone have at least one dog and one cat in their lives indirectly if not directly (in case of allergies). Volunteer for a shelter, please!