I have been mentally writing this letter since we left you on Saturday. I’m not sure why I need (or want) to write you a letter. You are a cat, after all; you can’t read. You were smart and almost human but you had better things to do with your time other than read. You liked to eat, that’s for sure. And you lived for attention. That’s why your final few weeks were so difficult for us. And I’m so sorry for that. I’m so sorry this thing called cancer took you away from us and so quickly as well. I’m so sorry that during the last couple of weeks we weren’t able to give you the two things you loved the most: food and love strong enough to comfort you. We kept thinking you might get better, we listened to the doctors tell us that there might be a chance but those chances were always followed by “ifs”. And those ifs were always followed by words like “feeding tube” and “chemotherapy” as well as “terminal” and “starvation”. Tobyjoe told the doctors that not once had you brought us pain. We simply could not knowingly commit an hour worth of it on you.
But on Friday, the day after your operation, you ate! After a week of growing increasingly more disgusted by food, you ate off Tobyjoe’s finger. And Tobyjoe came upstairs from the ICU beaming. The look on his face made my rigid body go limp with relief. He said you were out of it and that they had you on all sorts of pain medication, but that you remembered him and you moved your ears around when he said your name. This brought me great comfort. Apparently all the doctors in the ICU were filled with joy and amazement over your having eaten. The news spread across the floor like it was the greatest news anyone had ever heard. And for us, it was. Seeing you eat meant no feeding tube and I had already made up my mind that that was where the cut off had to be. You loved eating far too much to have me force-feed you through a hole in your neck.
Remember the time Gina made mini poppy seed muffins? We lived in State College at the time. I was still in college. Her boyfriend was visiting from Connecticut and she was so excited that she baked him his favorite muffins. She left the muffins out to cool on the stove while she did a few other things around the house. When her shrieks came, I had no idea what had happened so I bolted downstairs to make sure she was OK. That’s when I saw the carnage. You always did have a thing for muffin products. I’m not sure what came over you, but you chewed on almost every muffin top like their lids were raw flesh. It’s a good thing Gina liked you so much. Much later, after she agreed to watch you while I spent a few months in England, she signed her postcards with a paw print and the both of your names; I knew she liked you. You picked the best part of the muffin anyway. How could we be mad? We now call that “The Great Mini Muffin Disaster”.
You loved chicken, fish, muffins, pancakes, potato chips, banana bread, and cat food – all kinds of cat food except for the healthy stuff. There were times we were told you had to go on a diet, but seeing you hungry broke my heart. So I never could really cut out everything.
You knew the words “Treat” and “Schmitty”. You knew the word treat so well I had to spell it out when we were discussing any future distributions. And I don’t think a day ever passed where you didn’t come when one of us called your name. Although, toward the end of your life, it took an awful lot of energy for you to walk over to me. Yet, you still did it. If I had known how sick you were, I would have come to you. I’m so sorry, Big Guy. All you ever did was practice kindness and not once did you cause a person (or another animal) pain. Even when Tucker would tackle you or pick on you, you just stood there and took it. And you never once, not in all your 14 and a half years, scratched me or bit me. You never bit anyone. A Buddhist would have called you an “Old Soul.”
The last time we saw you and you weren’t on the drugs was Wednesday night. You were still you. I kept telling you that I loved you and that we needed you and that we were doing what we were doing because we wanted to make you better. You put your head down against our really stinky bath mat and waited for Tobyjoe to lay his head against your belly. You two had the greatest relationship. If either of us had known how badly the cancer was eating away at your insides, we never, ever would have put you through that operation. I do hope you understand why we did what we did. And I will spend my lifetime hoping that you weren’t in any pain after you awoke from your surgery. I’m so sorry, my friend.
Do you remember the time I rushed you to the hospital because your own urine was poisoning you? You were four. I was out shopping. I will forever remember your voice when I walked in the door and it kills me to wonder how long you were in pain before you began to yell so loudly. You were on your side and you looked at me, eyes filled with hurt and told me you were sick, really sick and that I needed to do something immediately. We rushed you to the hospital – my mother and I – and the doctor gave me a choice, “you can have him put down, or we can heal him for a thousand dollars.” Of course I told the doctor to do whatever it took to save you. And thankfully you ended up OK. I am still haunted by the look you gave me. But I was given another ten years with you; ten years filled with a lot more looks, and happier ones. Ten years that my mother (a big fan of yours), called “Borrowed Time”. Ten years of borrowed time wasn’t so bad, was it?
All of your life I made decisions for you based on your eyes and how you meowed. You had several different meows. There was one for joy, pain, confusion, attention, and “Hello”. There was a meow for “I am talking to late night Ghosts”. And one for “Help me, Tucker has me in a headlock.” To which I always intervened. There were so many. You had a voice for everything and I grew to understand and interpret each of them. We were a team, you and I. But our team wasn’t complete until Tobyjoe came along. That’s when you fully relaxed. That’s when you entered old age and stopped having to look out for me all the time. Before I introduced you to Tobyjoe I have some regrets about how I treated you, or didn’t.
I made some not so great decisions based on your voices. For starters, I shouldn’t have moved you around so much but I couldn’t part with you. I just couldn’t. And I hate that you had to live in a basement for a few months while I got settled in Washington, DC only to find out that I hated it there. And so you must have thought I was crazy when we moved back there a year later. I am sorry I was so irrational before I met Tobyjoe, so flighty and confused. I did hold onto you, however, which is why it has been so hard for me to face the fact that you’re no longer with me. You were my one constant, Schmitty. You were the one being in life who never held anything against me even when you should have. It pains me to know that in the time that you spent with me, you lived in 13 different places. That’s almost one place per every year of your life. I always pictured you spending the evening of your days in a sun porch, away from pain and suffering, watching the birds pass you by. I’m so sorry you never got to see that.
On Saturday, when we went to the hospital to feed you again, Tobyjoe came up from the ICU and I knew by the look on his face that things weren’t good. You hadn’t eaten. He sat with you for over an hour singing all the songs we wrote for you over the years, saying all of your nicknames. He even told you that we were going to tell our son about you one day. He asked you what you wanted him to do, if you wanted a feeding tube and to come home with us, or if you wanted us to let you go. You wanted nothing to do with the food and you were too weak to say much. And when your surgeon came back to the room and told Tobyjoe that it was time for the feeding tube, that you were starving, Tobyjoe told him that I wouldn’t agree to that. A feeding tube would have been too devastating for you. You were too proud.
We sat upstairs and talked for another hour, trying to figure out if we should take you home and see if you’d eat there or let you go. Toby didn’t want to put you through the 30-minute car ride home. And I knew you wouldn’t eat once we got there and we’d have to bring you back again especially since your cancer had spread so much. I kept saying, “I think it’s time. It’s time. It’s time.” That’s all I could get out of my mouth before breaking down again. And we sat there in the waiting room waiting for someone, anyone, to help us decide; what should we do?
I watched other people in the waiting room reunite with their cats and dogs, and if they hadn’t been animals, I would have been filled with jealousy and anger. But all animals are good. You taught me that. Sitting among all that joy made me realize that you probably wouldn’t be coming home again. You were too sick. Tobyjoe reminded me of the fact that, at one time, I had been those people. I had been reunited with a healthy you while someone else was receiving terrible news about his or her pet. He was right, of course. I got to spend a lot of time with you. In fact, up until Sunday morning, I had spent almost every single morning waking up next to you for the last 15 years. And my stomach is eating my heart as I write this. Sunday morning bored a hole through my chest.
Tobyjoe and I sat in the waiting room for a minute in silence. He had been asking me to go down and talk to the doctor, ask any questions I might still have, and then decide. He said he didn’t want there to be anything left unsaid or unanswered. It must have been hard for him to suddenly become your sole decision maker, but I am an emotional and hormonal wreck right now and I was concerned I might not make the best decision for you. That’s when your surgeon came upstairs and walked over to me. He was a kind man. You were in good hands, that’s one very solid piece of ground I have to stand on now that you’re gone. I’m regretful about a lot of the decisions I made for you during the last couple of weeks, but putting you in his hands is not one of them. Your doctor sat down next to me and waited for me to speak.
“Doctor,” I said. “What is the best case scenario here? Does he have a chance?”
The doctor shook his head no. And then I fell apart.
He told me what he told Tobyjoe, that it’s entirely different per patient, but that the cancer inside of you was growing so rapidly and so viscously, you probably didn’t have much time left and the time you did have left would be time filled with pain. I hate your cancer. In no time at all it had moved across your entire abdomen and was looking for an organ or a set of organs to latch onto all the while destroying your drive for food. I couldn’t take it away from you. I hate that. I feel like this inability to accept a lack of control is going to turn me into a terrible mother. I wish you could have enjoyed one more giant meal before you went to sleep for the last time: chicken (cooked to perfection by Toby) and a slice of banana bread (baked by me).
Do you remember the time you stole Tobyjoe’s banana bread from the bedside table? I think that was your way of telling us we shouldn’t have been eating in bed especially in a place like the Dorchester where the roaches outnumbered humans. He had just gotten into bed, set the banana bread down on the table next to him, went to grab a book from the foot of the bed, and in that time you snuck over and took the entire slice. Just like that. Gone. We laughed really hard as you nibbled away at its spongy crust. He got another slice and eventually I took the stolen one from you. I liked you fat and happy but I wanted to keep you around forever and cats aren’t meant to eat large quantities of banana bread. Or pancakes.
The doctor gave us another option, although he prefaced it with, “I am not trying to convince you to do this but…” and then he told us that if we wanted to we could take you home for a few hours, to the place where you once felt most comfortable, and try and feed you there. And I have to admit, the thought of having you at home again brought me joy, but we knew you had no interest in food. And the needless trips back and forth in the car seemed cruel.
I was able to say a few words to him like “prolong the inevitable?” and “without the pain killers?” and “you don’t know Tucker.” The doctor answered all of my questions. At one point I said, “I wish I weren’t pregnant.” And then I realized that came out wrong. I corrected myself and said, “No, I wish he weren’t dying. Not now.” And the doctor and Tobyjoe nodded their heads. I told him I didn’t want a feeding tube and that taking you home would just mean that every passing second was another second you would spend starving.
I looked at Toby and said, “It’s time to let him go.” And then I couldn’t speak anymore. And neither could he.
That’s when the doctor said something to me that I will never, ever forget. He put his hand on my hand and said, “You’re making a very rational decision. I want you to know that. You’re decision is not wrong.” Schmitty, that’s all I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear it from you, but you couldn’t say it because you were too sick. Tobyjoe didn’t know what to do either; we were both so emotional. But hearing your surgeon – the man who had been face-to-face with your cancer two days earlier – say that we were making a rational decision made me realize that I wasn’t giving up on you. I will never forget what he said to me nor how he said it. All I wanted was for someone to say that it was OK to let you go. That we were making the right decision.
Somehow I managed to make it downstairs again to say goodbye to you one last time. The surgeon brought us into a room where we waited for him to bring you to us. The room had a smorgasbord of open cans on its table, cans of cat food, each accompanied by a wooden stick. I imagined Tobyjoe holding each one an hour earlier begging you to eat from his fingertip. The wooden sticks lined up like soldiers, untouched gobs of food still stuck to each one. And I couldn’t help but think that there were so many varieties of food on that table, had you entered this room as healthy Schmitty, you would have thought you were in heaven.
I used to tell Tobyjoe that I needed to have a baby before you died. That living in a world without you meant I needed to become a mother. We would chuckle about this, but you were my firstborn. You were like a baby to me, one that never grew up or learned how to talk or walk on two legs. People say that I won’t know a real love until our baby is born. And I believe there’s probably some truth to that. But why compare love? What good does it do a person to put a quantitative value on love? I’m not going to assign meaningless, human levels to something so wonderful. The love I have for you is not something that will go away. No matter how amazing our son is, you will never be replaced or compared to him. I need you to know that. I didn’t belittle your existence when you were alive. I won’t do it with the memory of you either.
You died six months into my pregnancy. And we’ve guessed that you started to get sick when I reached my second trimester, the trimester that ensured me that everything was probably going to be ok with our son. How did you know that? Did you know that? Tobyjoe and I have discussed this over the past couple of days. The both of us cry every time we discuss your timing.
When the doctor brought you into the room you immediately ran to my chest and pushed your head into my breasts. I began sobbing. Tears fell onto your coat and I couldn’t breath so I opened my mouth and my saliva fell onto you as well. I said I was sorry, so sorry. I told you it would all be over soon, that we were letting you go, that we would miss you and love you forever. I said I was sorry again. And I kissed you all over your head and I kissed your face and your eyes and your pink nose. Oh Schmitty, I am so sorry. I’m sorry that cancer took you away from us. I’m sorry for being pregnant and not paying as much attention to you as I used to. I’m sorry for moving you around so much. I’m sorry for the operation, San Francisco, not feeding you more banana bread. I’m sorry for not being strong enough to watch your doctor put you to sleep. I’m so, so very sorry.
Tobyjoe misses your snugs each and every night, and the way you demanded rides from him when he got home from work. I miss the way you used to scare the shit out of me when I sat at the computer by standing up on your hind legs and tapping me on the shoulder. And since you were so big, you were able to reach all the way up to my shoulder. Time and time again, I thought someone had snuck up behind me and then I would look at you, startled at first, and you would speak and I would pat your head and that was enough for you for a little while. I would give anything to have you do that again.
I know I never much believed in God or an afterlife but I’m starting to realize why people do; it makes losing someone so much easier to face. I want to believe that you’re with Katrina (who loved cats), or my grandmother, (who had the same skin as me and might bring you comfort). I want to believe that you’re making another couple happy, bringing them together with fits of laugher, doing “The Horse” for them, accepting rides, and pooping anywhere you want whenever you want. Try and stay away from orange cats, though. They like to put you in headlocks even when you don’t feel like playing.
Oh, Schmitt, I want to feel OK again. This is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I want to stop crying so much and I want to start laughing about all the wonderful things you did for us. But it hurts so badly right now, my heart, my head; even my face is chapped from all the crying. We love you. We miss you, you great big old soul, you wonderful little creature.
Goodbye, my Big Guy.
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