Steve thought she was just sleeping until he saw her face. Eyes in a dead stare. Jaw slack.
Tori had died in her favorite place atop the picnic table moments before I got home from work on Friday. My husband had an odd look on his face when he came to tell me.
“Tori’s no longer with us,” he said. I followed him outside, observed her where she often lay, and couldn’t quite wrap my mind around his words.
Our beloved cat was still warm to the touch, and her tabby stripes viewed through my tear-filled eyes created the illusion that she was breathing.
She was not. She is not.
Time to say goodbye
The night before, Adam — her real owner who’d allowed us to keep her when he’d abandoned our nest — had come for dinner and spent time petting her. She was as demanding as ever for his attention.
As we’d gathered to say goodbye to Adam after dinner, Tori had — as usual — insisted on being in the middle of us. Commanding our “pets,” what we called our petting and stroking of this beloved animal.
As we tended to her, however, Tori’s legs spastically jerked — almost as if she’d walked through some water and needed to shake off the wetness. Except her movements weren’t purposeful.
The spasticity was new. She’d been declining physically for months — demonstrating stiffness, the inability to retract her claws, and, most recently, crouching on her back legs like a rabbit instead of extending them.
“You should put her down,” Adam had said, as we talked about her likely pending death. Her spasticity had lasted only a moment, but it made an impression.
“She still has quality of life — doesn’t seem to be in pain,” my dear husband had responded. “She’s still eating — a lot.”
Ready but not ready
While we anticipated her death — eventually — its suddenness surprised us.
It seems death surprised her, too.
She’d eaten as normal Friday and parked herself in a sunny spot on the T-shirt we’d reserved for her on the picnic table. The table that served as Steve’s workbench was her most-recent happy place.
Tori was 96 in cat years and had lived a good life — mostly indoors.
A year and a half ago, I’d written a eulogy for her — because we were certain she wasn’t long for the world.
At that time, she’d wasted away before our eyes. I could feel the bumps in her spine and she felt feather light in my arms.
When she begged to go outside then, Steve opened the door and gave this house-bound cat her wish.
“She’s only got weeks to live,” he said. “Let’s let her live a little.”
Living her best life
So, our indoor cat spent her “last” days outside.
She explored and wandered and returned to sleep under our roof each night.
And instead of wandering somewhere to die, she thrived. Gained weight. Became healthy and strong, as if she’d found her own Secret Garden in our backyard.
We’d become her doorkeepers, opening the door to let her out or in for food and water. In the evenings, we called her to come inside, much as our parents had called us in for baths and bedtime.
Her gracious exit began
Each morning, she’d hear me go into the den for my quiet time, and she’d join me right on schedule. I kept a thick blanket on my footstool to thrust on my lap to protect me from her claws — which she kept extended even when she wasn’t kneading my legs.
In August, she stopped meeting me there.
In September, she stopped coming into the house at night to sleep.
“She’s an outdoor cat now,” my dear husband said. It was what she wanted.
We had expected her to bolt inside like a fair-weather fan when the first frost threatened, and we’d left everything — her bed, feeding station, her litter box — inside as she left it.
Earlier in October, she came inside a few hours when it was cold but chose the coffee table rather than my lap to sleep. When she looked at me, her eyes suggested she didn’t know this inside space. She didn’t belong here now.
The luxurious social life
Steve had gotten into the habit of burning wood in our fire pit as the nights cooled; Tori welcomed his presence and the heat.
“No wonder she doesn’t come inside to sleep anymore,” Adam exclaimed when he observed this one evening after joining us for dinner. “You’ve given her a personal fireplace!”
Earlier last week, Steve prepared the wood for the fire pit but didn’t light it. I asked him why not.
“My buddy went to bed early,” he said, waving his hand toward the porch. “What’s the point?”
Indeed, Tori was nestled in the fleece-lined box we’d made for her, dead to the world. Asleep.
Living with loss
But Friday night, Steve lighted a fire — even though his buddy would never join him again. We reflected on her life and death, thankful she’d died in peace with apparent ease and no suffering.
But Tori’s spot on the wooden table — absent of her and her comfort T-shirt, which we buried with her — seemed luminescent. As if it wanted to emphasize the stark, bare wood now absent of her presence.
My dear husband will miss her most. The picnic table was (and is) his domain — his workbench by day and his reflection space by night. Tori would follow his busyness, moving toward him to poke her head into his hand, insisting on his pets when he was reaching for a screwdriver or other implement.
When she became an outside cat, she became his constant companion in the space he occupies most in his “retired” life working the yard or playing Mr. Fixit.
I worry about him for this loss.
Cleaning away her presence
Selfishly, I am thankful Tori weaned me off her presence these past months. As I had jotted notes for her eulogy those many months ago, I had reflected that I’d never had a house pet die — and I wasn’t sure how I would handle it.
I had tried to focus, then, of the practical benefit of no longer hosting a cat inside.
I anticipated cleaning out the cat hair and toys and scratching pads — and contemplating new furniture as I removed the anti-scratch sticky tape applied (too late) to Tori’s favorite (or all) chairs and couches.
Relationships are messy, aren’t they? Even pets. It’s a wonder we want children and family and insist on animals, too.
Sunday after her death, I did some of those practical tasks. I shook out her blankets and bedding and then laundered them.
A little while later, I heard my husband inspecting the dryer vent outside — frantic because he’d find huge globs of lint exiting it and worried more was clogged inside, a fire risk. He brushed from the outside in. I brushed from the inside out.
And then realized those clumps of “lint” were likely a result of Tori’s hair combined with wool from the blankets I’d washed.
Yes, relationships are quite messy. Even risky. But worth the trouble.
Two nights before her death, I’d led major events at work that went late into the evening. I’d arrived home, exhausted, to find my dear husband and our Tori, both nestled near the fire.
“Pet her,” my husband had told me. “She needs her mama.”
So, I neared the picnic table, and Tori thrust her face into my hand to demand my pets. I complied.
“Look at how young she looks,” I told Steve, cupping her chin with my hand. “She’s so cute, so kitten-like, so full of life.”
That’s the face I want to remember.
If Tori — or my heavenly Father who knows me so well — could have planned her death, this was as close to an easy exit as possible for a social cat always in our business. But as Jefferson Starship so aptly said in the hit “Sara,” “No time is a good time for goodbye.”
Now as I close the door to the now-clean utility room that had housed her litter box, I want to shut the door to my soul that had welcomed this feline into the inner recesses of my heart.
But, though practical, that is the illusion right now as I type through tears.
Missing her just hurts.