How to Save a Life, or How I Got Over Myself and Became an Adult.

“Growing up is at heart, the process of learning to take responsibility for whatever happens in your life.” bell hooks

Today it’s been 3 weeks since I put my cat, Jade, to sleep.

I don’t remember when I first wanted a cat. It might’ve been when I was young, but my first cat memory is from college, when I spent Wednesday nights having dinner and watching West Wing at my friend’s mom’s house. They had several cats and at one point, I cat sat while the mom went out to New Mexico to visit her daughter.

I might’ve decided while I was nannying (the family had a labradoodle and a cat). I knew for sure that I didn’t want a dog, after living with theirs. Dogs were too much work. And needy. Growing up I’d taken care of my siblings in a lot of different ways; in college I’d been an RA; and then I became a nanny. I was over taking care of people. I wanted something low maintenance. So I decided on a cat.

My new landlords didn’t initially agree to a pet— however after finding 4 mice in traps, the wife conceded that perhaps a cat would be a wise choice.

A *framily member offered to give me a cat as an early Christmas gift; she called me one day, saying that she’d found the perfect cat: she was 5 years old, and a foster. The foster mom and the rep from the organization brought the cat to my house and we spent some time together that night. Kimmy (the cat) was a black and white who’d been staying in a foster home where she was so terrorized by the male cats (there were 20 cats being fostered in the house— EW!) that she’d started living on a shelf and wouldn’t leave to use the litter box or to eat.

I renamed her Jade Emily** and she spent the first month living underneath my bed. She wasn’t a people cat, but she was a me cat. Instead of the independent, self-sustaining pet I’d anticipated, Jade required my constant attention, once she got over her fear of the new person (me).

Those first years, she totally earned her keep by mousing proactively. The first time I watched her trap one, I understood what it meant when people spoke of cats toying with their prey. She batted that poor little mouse back and forth between her paws, and I’m pretty sure it eventually died of fright.


In my next home, Jade became an indoor/outdoor cat. I’d promised to keep her inside when I adopted her, but she so deeply wanted to be outside that I couldn’t deny her any longer. That was the first time I bought Greenies cat treats; I would only give them to her when she’d been outside. Jade quickly learned that when I shook the bag at the door and called her name, it meant there were yummy foods awaiting her.  She’d come galloping, without fail. I never thought it possible to train a cat, but I’d done it.

Over the course of nine years, Jade lived with me in seven different houses, some of which were homes and some which stayed houses.

One of those seven houses was with a woman who didn’t like pets, but decided she’d give it a try because she wanted to live with me. That lasted, oh, about a hot minute. Jade knew that this person didn’t like her and so she stopped using her litter box and only peed or pooped in front of my roommate’s closed bedroom door. Lesson learned: only live with people who like cats.

Two of the houses we lived in were homes to other cats before we moved in; one had three cats, another had one. Through it all, Jade was a trooper. She was happiest when she was alone. Kinda like me.

Jade was with me through the infamous spring of 2007 when three family members died within less than a month and I was crushed into a tiny pulp.

Jade was with me when I didn’t get my Master’s degree on time and failed at my first academic thing EVER. Which was devastating, but I lived through it and the world didn’t catch on fire or end.

Jade was with me when I experienced the deepest loss— the death of my grandfather in 2009. My grandfather and I spoke almost daily and he was the first adult male where I knew I was unconditionally loved— deeply and truly, even despite our ideological differences.

Jade was with me when I quit my youth ministry job, started my job-juggling of many part time jobs and mostly-full-time employment with Franciscan Action Network, and when I quit that job to work full time for myself. She was still with me as I went through several iterations of self-employment (chauffeuring/nannying, network marketing, writing, editing, social media marketing, tutoring) and its varying challenges of fluctuating income, unstructured time, and over-committed scheduling.

Jade was with me through the two serious relationships of my twenties and the less-serious-more-fun flings (which aren’t nearly as interesting as they sound).

She took me from my post-college-saving-the-world twenties into my more-settled-but-still-dreaming thirties. Through it all, she was my companion.

And in her dying, Jade gave me the biggest gift. During the final months of our walking together, she taught me how to live in the moment and how to really put someone else before you. I thought I’d been putting others before me for all those years (with my siblings, with my family, with my friends, with my schoolwork, with my teens, my clients, blah blah blah), but I hadn’t really. Not in the same way that I did with her.

And living in the moment? Ha. While some people might tell you that I live spontaneously and flexibly, I really spend a vast amount of time in my head, delineating the options in the future, the maybes, the what-comes-nexts.

When you’re dealing with death though, the practice was, for me at least, about not getting caught up in the dying that’s on the horizon and rather staying in the experience of what’s occurring at that very moment.

M Scott Peck writes, “It is far easier to talk about loss than it is to talk about love. It is easier to articulate the pain of love’s absence than to describe its presence and meaning in our lives.” I’ve been writing this, by which I mean, it’s been sitting, untouched in a document, for 2 1/2 weeks, because I wanted to be able to articulate the presence of Jade’s love and what that meant in my life. And for a while, grief was too present to pay attention to what Jade’s love meant for me.

Last October, I’d cleared a whole day’s schedule for business development with a cool dude, but Jade was acting funny. She was hiding and lying down and her temperament was different than normal. He graciously agreed to reschedule, and on a day he doesn’t normally work with people. And so my day, and then my week, were filled with vet visits and tests.

This was to be the pattern for the next seven months of my life. (I write about her diagnosis, etc, here

My whole schedule changed.

I still worked with my clients, but if I needed to take Jade to the vet, I rearranged working with them.

I didn’t go on any overnights or trips (which had been frequent before) and I planned my time with friends around when I needed to be home to give Jade her medicine.

Christmas Day, my sister-in-law and I went back to my house to give Jade her medicine during the middle of the day. We left the family event because I needed to take care of her and make sure she wasn’t puking.

Friends became accustomed to my, “I can’t stay, I have to go home and give Jade her medicine now.”

My college client and I started working at my house instead of hers. Partly because she loved my house, partly because she loved my cat, and partly because I needed to be able to watch Jade.

The vets, every time I took her, were amazed at her resilience and persistence. We weren’t treating the cancer to cure her, and I’d opted not to do surgery. Instead we were giving her palliative care. I’d seen a dog die in the Fall, and his owners had chosen to put him to sleep a little later than I would’ve. The dog had been miserable and unhappy the final night I saw him and I knew that I didn’t want that for Jade.

I’ve never spent so much sustained time and energy attending to another creature’s needs. Sure, I’d watched my siblings and helped raise them. But I was still a child then. And I didn’t have the only responsibility.

I’ve never minded doing this life solo, until this time. And then, I missed having someone to share the decision-making process. I grappled with knowing “when” it was time to let her go. I wrestled with choosing her medicines and her treatment.

One friend (from my writing group) is a vet and she became my let-me-just-run-it-by-someone go-to person. I’d text her and then figure if I needed to follow up with my vet or not.

Jade and I went to the beach in March. My friend loaned me her condo for a few days: the time away was priceless. 

I needed a break, but I couldn’t go alone. The water refilled my empty spirit. It was hella cold, but I braved the winds (below freezing!) for at least 30 min a day. The rest of the time, Jade and I hung out at the condo. I read. Or drew. She sat on a bed and basked in the sun.

Exploring the stairs at the condo

Exploring the stairs at the condo

For years, I’ve hidden from the crazy cat lady stereotype. I haven’t understood why people mourned the loss of their pets. Now? Now, I get it. And I’d take the label of the stereotype (and I can’t stand labels) if it meant one more day with Jade.

Whether it’s a person or an animal, when you’ve lived with someone for nine years, you become accustomed to their presence.

Things that are missing from my day now:

  • Meowing from the window because I’m standing out front chatting with the neighbor
  • The pills, oh the pills. The pill-cutting, the pill-popping, driving to get the pills.  
  • Preparing her food. Now, it’s only my food that I have to worry about.
  • The silent staring outside the bathroom door, just like I imagine little kids do when their mom goes to the bathroom, waiting until I come back out.
  • Hearing Jade gallop down the stairs to greet me when I’ve come home for work.
  • Litter box cleaning (okay, I really don’t miss this one, but it was part of my routine, and that structure is now gone)
  • Jade sleeping next to my bed, but within a hand’s reach, or, Jade sleeping next to me, curled up against my arm, my side, my head.
  • Jade tromping across my laptop or lap while I type, work, read, basically anything that isn’t paying attention to her.
     

    see: sleeping in bed with me

    (see: sleeping in bed with me)

    (see: tromping across laptop while working) 

Life was in such hyper-attention mode with her illness, that it’s strange now to revert to nothing. I imagine that the process is the same for anyone who’s lived with someone who was dying.

Three weeks ago Sunday, I knew that the time had come. I didn’t know what day it would be, but Jade’s diarrhea had returned (and she was on a medicine that was supposed to prevent diarrhea from occurring), she felt like she was running a fever, and her behavior was off again.

I called my friend Ron and told him that it was going to be this week. He was sick (ghastly ill), but it helped just to speak it aloud.

I cried that night. A lot.

I didn’t know when it would be, but my client and I had finished her finals work three days early, and so I had a much more open schedule, and much less pressing needs from outside.

I called my vet and made an appointment to bring Jade in so that they could check her out; I thought we’d go and decide on a date later that week.

I’d had many offers to go with me to the vet, but I wanted to go alone. The time, the moment, seemed sacred and profound and private. I’d been with a person when they died before, and there were several of us there, but we all had connection to her.

Jade and I had a connection. Nobody else had that with her and I didn’t want to sully her last moments with having a stranger (to her) there.

The long and short of those last moments, though, are that I brought her in, thankfully unaware that it was the day.

When the vet entered the room, she thought from Jade’s head-turning that she had gone blind (brain tumors will do that if they hit the optic nerve), and so she set up an obstacle course between herself and me and took Jade. Jade made it from the doctor directly back to me without any hesitation. She wasn’t blind, she just was kinda not-there. Something wasn’t firing right in the synapses.

They took her temperature: 103.5. It’d been hanging at 102.2, which was at the top end of the “safe” range.


Although Jade had been eating less, she had gained more weight (over the seven months, Jade went from 7 lbs to just over 11 lbs) and her stomach/abdominal area was swollen and hard.

The vet looked at the vet tech and said to her, “You can go now.”

To me, once we were alone, she said, “You know, when we were looking over cases this morning in staff meeting, I saw Jade’s folder and said I hoped it wasn’t today. Everyone agreed that she’s such a sweet cat. If you’re ready though, we should do it today. If you’re not, we can pump her with fluids, try some more meds and send you home for a day or two.”

So that was it.

I’m not going to go through all the details, but what’s most important about it, was that I was terrified that the dose wouldn’t be right and she’d start screaming or howling and that I’d be traumatized and her last moments would be traumatic for her too. I shared this with the vet and she offered to give her a sedative first.

Once given the sedative, I needed to hold her, as her limbs would stop moving. They would leave and return later to see if it had taken effect.  And so that’s what I did.

I held Jade and petted her. I talked with her. She put her paw on my arm and then leaned her head over my wrist in what was one of her most common poses. Through it all she wagged her tail. Occasionally she’d go to stand up, and I’d gently hold her paw and stop her. Her third eyelids came up.

And then it was time.

The vet asked if I wanted to talk to her— I didn’t. But the vet did. She told her to go and rest. That she’d been strong and now it was time to go and sleep.

Jade went within seconds and the vet told me that when it was that fast, they were ready. She leaked tears. She told me that Jade had stayed alive because I took such good care of her and that she wished she had been able to know her before she got sick— that Jade had hung in and stuck it out for me because of my love for her and hers for me.  And then she left me with her.

During the time before I left the room, time broke open and stopped.

When I left, what almost cracked my heart into a million pieces was carrying out her empty crate. Such a disconnect to walk out holding an empty crate. I was grateful that I hadn’t known it would be the day. Because who is able to choose to drive to that alone?

Miraculously, I wasn’t working that evening at all, so I spent the rest of the day quietly, and then spent the evening, noisily, with a dear friend who brought over movies, sushi, and a big ass bottle of wine (which she left with me).

That night, sleeping broke me. Well, not sleeping, but rather, getting into my bed. The emptiness of it racked me and drove home my loss. Another friend, from Canada, called me when I texted her— reaching out across the void, and helping me calm myself.

And yet, the moment we were off the phone, I couldn’t breathe again.

I hopped into the shower and contemplated sleeping in the bathtub (as I hadn’t ever slept in the bathtub, it wasn’t chock full with memories of sleeping with Jade).

Finally, a hot shower and several sleeping pills later, I drifted into dreamless sleep.

bell hooks writes, “Growing up is at heart, the process of learning to take responsibility for whatever happens in your life.”  Caring for Jade, designing my life around Jade, for those seven months, choosing how I approached her illness, was all about taking responsibility for whatever was happening in my life. Choosing it. Embracing it. Walking with the messy and the ugly and the good and the delicious. Luxuriating in the silly and dancing in the tears.

There’s a second part to this story— about the after and all. But that’s not about Jade, it’s about me. And, this post is already about 3000 words, so I’m going to wind it up now. ‘Til tomorrow. Or later this week.

** Thanks for reading **

I have to add a note about my veterinarian’s office. They were spectacular this whole time. The desk staff was gracious and kind and accommodating in fitting me into the schedule when things popped up with Jade, and the main vet that I worked with was direct and clear with me throughout the whole process, from the first moment I brought her in in October, until the final moment I brought her in on Cinco de Mayo.

*framily members are friend family folks. People who you’d choose as family. Or people who’ve been in your life so long and so deeply that they are family.

** There’s a long story to this name of hers, that I’ll save for another day.

And here are some extra pics:

Taken toward the end by my client. That's how Jade would hang her head over my wrist.

Taken toward the end by my client. That’s how Jade would hang her head over my wrist.

Doing some heavy reading

Doing some heavy reading

Also taken by my client. Jade loved Doritos

Also taken by my client. Jade loved Doritos

Hanging out over my feet

Hanging out over my feet

Made with love by Lisa McLoughlin, artist extraordinaire.

Made with love by Lisa McLoughlin, artist extraordinaire.

The last picture I have of Jade, from the night before I took her in. She wasn't eating much, but she'd sometimes still get excited about Doritos.

The last picture I have of Jade, from the night before I took her in. She wasn’t eating much, but she’d sometimes still get excited about Doritos.

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