We have a saying in my family. Well, maybe it’s just in my family, or maybe it’s a Southernism, I’m not sure. But when someone is especially old and ornery and not doing well, we’d say “the devil won’t take her/him.” It means that the person in question is so mean-spirited and bossy, that the devil’s afraid to let them into hell because they’ll take over and start running the place. It’s meant to provide some reassurance that the person you love will be with you a bit longer, so don’t you worry. And, it provides a little chuckle, an inside joke about that ornery, old person.
I used to think that about Petunia. She’s going to be here a long time. She’s too mean to die. The devil won’t take her.
Two weeks ago, we made the brutally difficult decision to have our ornery, old cat put down.
And, I’m crying (again) even as I type this. Because my heart….my heart is broken.
Petunia was in my life for 15 years, 8 months and 6 days. She was, for all intents and purposes, my baby. My heart. The only living thing I’ve ever nurtured and loved pretty much from the beginning of her existence.
I found her when she was around 6 weeks old, hidden up in the undercarriage of a car in my apartment parking lot, mewing for her mom. I have no idea how she got there or where she came from. I wasn’t even sure it was a kitten crying. I had convinced myself that it was a baby bird in some tree. After a day or two of trying to pinpoint the sound and finally realizing that it was a lost kitten, I laid on my stomach on the hot parking lot asphalt for hours trying to lure her out, with tears running down my face, same as right this minute, only back then, on that warm May evening, it was out of frustration that I couldn’t convince her to let me save her.
I never intended to keep her. I was a broke ass college student who already had one cat. So I took her to the vet to get her ready for adoption. Even the vet knew I probably was going to keep her.
The bond I built with her was the best part of me. With Petunia, especially over the last two years as her health declined, I displayed a patience and nurturing that I didn’t know I had and that I don’t really display in other relationships or other parts of my life.
It killed me to see her struggling, health-wise. Two-and-a-half years ago, she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. We tried medication, first a gel that was supposed to be rubbed into her ears. That didn’t go well. (Her history with meds is well documented). Then with a pill ground up and hidden in her food. She suspiciously ate it, and for a week or so, things appeared to be looking up. But late one night while my significant other, XFE was out of town, she had a horrible reaction. It scared me to death. So we sent her off for radio-iodine therapy—a tortuous 4 days of quarantine. But it worked and her thyroid levels improved.
However, some of the behaviors that had caused us to become concerned in the first place didn’t go away. Petunia never regained the weight she lost, even though she had a good appetite. She still paced in circles all hours of the night. She often seemed confused and unfocused, meowing at walls until I’d come and scoop her up. She still had tremors in her front paws. She had arthritis and difficulty finding a comfortable cat loafing position. Her balance and mobility were pretty poor. Her eyes dilated completely and stayed that way, no matter the lighting conditions.
The vet said it might be neurological, maybe dementia, maybe cognitive disorder. Just part of getting old. It was the first time we discussed quality of life.
We promised Petunia there would be no more vet visits (she absolutely hated going to the vet and had to be drugged just to get her in her carrier). We promised her we’d just make her comfortable and let her live out her days in peace.
She stopped coming downstairs as much, spending most of her time on our bed hiding under her favorite sweater, or in a makeshift bed we set up in the floor of my closet, or in her special scratching box/cat cubby that XFE had bought for her. But she was still eating well, drinking lots of water, using her litter box properly, grooming herself. She’d sleep with us occasionally, a tight kitten roll between my legs. I would stay still all night, not daring to move an inch, even if it meant I didn’t get much sleep.
If Petunia didn’t sleep with us, she’d pace – down the hall, up the hall, up on my side of the bed, over to the nightstand, jump down, down the hall, up the hall, up on my side of the bed….Sometimes she’d just stop in my bathroom and cry. I’d get up, no matter the hour, and go scoop her up and hold her until she calmed down. Sometimes we’d have to do this several times a night/early morning. It reminded me of those first tiny meows, and crouching on a hot asphalt parking lot, trying to convince a traumatized kitten that I was the best thing that would ever happen to her.
We had another ritual these last two years or so. While I was in the shower every morning, Petunia would come in the bathroom and jump up on the toilet seat lid. I’d come out of the shower and wrap myself in a towel and sit on the edge of the tub. She’d climb over into my lap and head butt my chin while I’d pet her (gingerly, to avoid her arthritic areas). She’d rub her face against me, re-marking me as “her person.” She’d lean into my chest while I held her as tight as I dared and whispered in her ear.
Sometimes, she’d eventually scoot down and try to find a comfortable position to take a short nap. The whole ritual could go on for 10-30 minutes, depending on her mood. But I didn’t mind. Even as my hair got dry and frizzy and my towel stayed damp and the bathroom got too warm or cold. I’d stay and hold her as long as she’d let me. XFE called it our “HR meetings.”
When Petunia stopped coming in for HR meetings, we knew it was a bad sign. She withdrew even further, showing no interest in anything other than her meals, and even then, just barely. She stopped sleeping on the bed, stopped sleeping with me at night, no matter how still I’d lie. She just stayed in her scratching box/kitty cubby, coming out only to eat.
We knew it was time, but still, I wanted her to stay. I saw and heard about so many other cats who lived 17 years, 20 years, 22 years. Why wouldn’t our cat?
But she couldn’t and she didn’t. We had to be the ones to make the decision, for her sake. Before it got even worse and more difficult for her. We could have gone on worrying about and fretting over her forever, but we knew that she was done with living and I was just keeping her alive for my own selfish needs.
So, we let her go. And I’ve cried just about every day since because my heart still hurts, even though it’s half missing and has got this Petunia shaped-hole in it. Or, more likely, because it now has that hole. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe that when you die, you just die and you only live on as a collection of memories in the heart of those who loved you. But if there is something else, I hope Petunia is being her old, ornery self and giving the devil a hell of a time.