She was the smallest kitten in her litter, a grey mackerel tabby Maine Coon with striking jade green eyes. Her father weighed 19 pounds–not unusual for a breed crossed with wild cats. My then-husband and I drove out to pick her up barely a week after finding my previous cat–a long-haired black and white tuxedo cat named Amadeus, who I suspect of having been part Maine Coon himself–dead on the kitchen floor, probably a victim of heart attack brought on by the pain of kidney stones. He was fifteen, and had been with me since my early teens, shortly after the death of my father. I needed another cat; I simply hadn’t been without one for more than a year or two in my entire life. So I searched the paper, made some phone calls, and we drove out to a suburb of Philadelphia to pick up a new kitten. It was early summer. I named her Sassafras, Sassy for short.
It was the weekend, and I didn’t want to wait until the following week to take her to our regular vet for a checkup and her first vaccines, so I made an appointment with a new vet, someone with Sunday hours. That was a mistake. She took ill shortly after being vaccinated, developed a low grade fever, and refused to eat. I suspect she got a bad batch of vaccine, or the needle was unsterilized; I’ll never know for sure. We were certain she would die, kittens being not very hardy at the best of times, but we took her to our regular vet, gave her antibiotics, and I force-fed her water and food with my finger and an eye dropper. It was close, but she lived. Because of this early ordeal, though, she never reached her promised Maine Coon size; for most of her life she hovered around seven or eight pounds, reaching her maximum of nine or ten pounds only much later in life. And her health was never very good–but her spirit was another matter entirely.
Sassy helped me raise my daughter, who was six at the time we brought her home, and she was with me through the most traumatic years, and the most sweeping changes, of my life. When we brought a Keeshond puppy, Orion, into the house a year or two after she joined us, she helped raise him as well, staying with him throughout the night to comfort him and teaching him the rules of the house. She was never a cuddly lap cat and didn’t enjoy being picked up and snuggled, but she would follow you around the house wherever you went, her gorgeous green eyes gazing adoringly upwards, answer in her trilling meow when spoken to, and sit next to you contentedly for hours to be stroked and adored. We called her Nurse Sassy because she would come running whenever anyone was hurt or upset–even if she then decided you were carrying on over nothing (as she did once when my daughter was little and was whining over a toy) and that discipline, in the form of a smack with retracted claws, was in order. She would lick the water off your legs and feet when you came out of the shower, and would lick your hand when being petted, although sometimes she would then grab your hand with both paws as her licks turned into little nips. Her nips and swats never really hurt, though; they were simply part of her way of communicating, like the ringing meows and rolling chirps. She was a proud huntress, and would sometimes leave us gifts of partially eviscerated mice, and once or twice only the mouse’s tail, the rest of the rodent having been consumed.
Sassy embraced Jolene’s presence in our lives enthusiastically when she first moved in with us, and for more about that, and more reminiscences of Sassy in general, go and read her post. There are too many memories for me to be able to recount them all in detail, because for years and years and years, Sassy was quite simply always there and always part of our lives.
She almost died once more back in Philly, of pyometria at the age of eight or nine, but was saved by an emergency hysterectomy, and afterwards her health actually improved and she reached her top weight of nine or ten pounds. She tolerated–with protests at first, but in the end graciously–the addition of other cats to our household, and made the move out to Oregon with us three years ago. She loved our first rented home here, especially the wraparound kitchen counter with its huge windows. She would spend hours contentedly basking in the sun, watching birds and the occasional marauding raccoon and sometimes disciplining the younger cats. By the time we moved to our second Eugene residence last March, she was slowing down a bit. She had lost one of her incisors a year or two before, and was beginning to lose a bit of weight, but still seemed well enough. Her hunting days well over, she spent her time cuddling with the younger cats or being adored by us.
And then, at some point, it began. It shames me that I can’t quite pinpoint the start of it; I suspect the very beginning was sometime during the summer, when we were preoccupied with Corbie J.’s long period of recuperation from a slipped disk, though the situation didn‘t become serious until the past few weeks. While I wasn’t paying attention, seemingly overnight although it must have been fairly gradual, Sassy somehow lost a great deal of weight in a fairly short period of time, and went from doing mostly okay to being almost at the point of death. I wish I could put my finger on the precise moment when the situation became dire, but cats are notoriously very good at disguising such things. We didn’t become aware that she was in danger until it was already too late. Suddenly her sleek body was emaciated, her every rib visible through her fur, her every vertebra showing sharply through her skin. She weighed virtually nothing. The contours of her face changed, her cheeks swollen, her eyes watering uncontrollably. Her trilling meow gone, her voice diminished to a sad little murmur. She began sleeping in the bathroom pretty constantly, sometimes curled up with one of the other cats for warmth. She peed a lot, drank a lot of water, and ate very little, sometimes examining her food with interest before turning from it with what we now know was nausea. In her last week, she began to retch periodically, though she was not consuming enough of anything to actually vomit. We gave her cat food with gravy because she would sometimes lick up the gravy, baby food, broth–whatever she would take, although how much she could bear to eat varied from day to day. I hesitated to call the vet because, honestly, I was in denial about her condition; for all that I knew she was old and likely to die soon, I didn’t believe it, not really. How could she possibly die? This was Sassy, after all. She had been with me for so very long, and through so many things. I was also painfully aware that, at her age and in her condition, any treatment would probably involve her being hospitalized and put on intravenous feedings. Yet she was already in such poor shape that there was a very good chance she would die away from home, and–not understanding the need for treatment–would die thinking I had rejected her and sent her away.
Meanwhile, her condition and level of activity fluctuated daily according to how much she managed to eat, but except for her face gaining or losing fluid (which helped it look more or less normal) her painfully emaciated condition didn’t change. She could no longer jump, and if she caught her claw in your clothing while tapping at you for attention she no longer had the strength to free herself. And yet, stubbornly, she held on. We suspected she was trying to wait, either for Samhain or for December, when my daughter is due to visit. I told her she could go if she needed to, that I understood, that I wanted her to do what was best for her and not stick around for my sake. But I told her with tears in my eyes, and I know she didn’t believe me, never having been a stupid cat.
In the end, though, she couldn’t wait. When I got home from work last Tuesday evening, the first night of our weeklong vacation, Sassy approached me and for the first time I heard real misery in her voice. Her green eyes stared up at me imploringly, and for the first time they said clearly: “I can’t do this anymore. Make it stop.”
We waited another day, plying her with baby food, hoping against hope. She ate a little, but it didn’t do her any good. Every movement and every sound she made spoke exhaustion and discomfort. On Wednesday night, we called our vet, who makes house calls, and on Thursday morning she came out.
We spent the morning fawning over Sassy, scratching her under her chin, and of course crying. I asked her what she thought, if she was sure she was ready, and she reached up to me, tapping at me, her gaze pleading with me not to chicken out. She spent the last of her energy being adored, then went to crash in a chair until the vet arrived with her assistant, when she roused herself to go and greet them. They examined her, and the vet–upon feeling for her kidneys–pronounced them tiny, virtually nonexistent. We told her about the incessant thirst, the rejection of food, and the most recent symptom, that her fur had begun to smell like urine. She pronounced the diagnosis: kidney failure, a common killer of elderly cats. Even if we had caught it earlier, at her age there would have been nothing we could do other than put her on subcutaneous fluids, which would have kept her better hydrated but would not have saved or prolonged her life. At this point I began to plead that she had been eating that day, that perhaps if we gave her time she would gain weight. I asked again if the fluids would give her a chance, any chance at all. But the answer was no; there was no chance. There was almost nothing left of her, and in her condition she wasn’t likely to last even a week. And the memory of Jolene’s dog Angel dying after a horrible night of vomiting blood and pacing restlessly several years before was still so fresh in my mind. She didn’t deserve that; I didn’t want that for her. The last thing I could do for her in life, this devoted friend who had been with me a third of my life, was to grant her a dignified death. She died on my bed, in my arms, while I stroked her. She was sixteen–not a bad life span for a cat, perhaps, but of course not nearly long enough. When you lose someone you love, it is never long enough.
That was only Thursday, and today is Monday, Samhain, a mere four days later. Today is the day many pagans set aside for honoring the dead, when many people believe the dead walk amongst the living. But in our household–being Odin’s–the entire period from late September to past Yule is the season of the dead. We work with the spirits throughout the rest of the year too, of course, but during this period we feel them especially close, as the nights grow longer and the Wild Hunt holds sway. In recent years, the animals in our family seem to have chosen this time of year to die: the first was Angel, at the end of September four years ago, followed by Orion the following year (with a difference of two days), then a break of two years, thankfully, and now Sassy. Each death is devastating, of course; each time, our hearts are torn apart anew. And yet, belonging to a god of death as we do, and living a life dedicated to our gods and spirits, we know that–however searing the loss and grief–death is not the end but a transition, a new stage of being. The challenge is to move past–or more accurately, through–the grief somehow and find a way to continue the relationship. The fact that it hurts to do this, the fact that it’s almost unbearably hard and that it costs us pieces of our hearts, doesn’t matter; we owe it to our loved ones (whether animals or humans). They expect it of us, especially given who we are and the knowledge we have, and they deserve it. Sassy was utterly exhausted when she died, and for the first couple of days afterwards she was too weak to assert her continuing presence much. Yet even that same night I saw her in one of the litter boxes. When I looked again, of course, she was no longer visible, and the vision could have been explained away as a trick of the light. But over the next couple of days, we had an occasional glimpse of her out of the corner of our eyes, an occasional glimmer of presence. And then yesterday, that glimmer became an overwhelming and sustained glow, and we could clearly see her–though not with our physical eyes–moving about the house, her body sleek and young again, her eyes sparkling, her voice trilling. This afternoon, Jolene heard–with her physical ears–a rustling on the window sill behind her that proved to be due to none of our physical cats. Her presence in the house is palpable, almost tangible, so much so that at times it is difficult to reconcile with the still-fresh and raw grief. Her body is gone, yet she is still very much here.
As people very much used to living and interacting with discarnate beings on a daily basis, really the only wonder is that this surprises us. It always does, though at this point it shouldn’t. And the sad thing is that, no matter how many times we go through this, each time there is a fresh struggle to reach this realization, to internalize it again, to grasp it through the layers of grief. But each time, there it is, the essence of everything: the dead are still very much with us, always, their presence as strong as that of the living if we allow it to be. This is the essence of who are and the work we do.