Thursday was my last night with black kitty. Friday, the last full day. On May 1, I realized it would be the first month without black kitty. In the midst of recent grief, where days and hours were numbered, every moment gets classified into a grim timeline of before and after. For 15 years after I adopted her from an animal shelter, my cat Sula lived with me. There is no major event of my adult life that is not connected to her with some memory. And now, she is dead.
People keep telling me that I gave her a good life. I believe that is true, and its truth provides some comfort. I know another truth, too: that she gave me a good life simply by virtue of being in it. We made a good life together. I don’t know what an ideal life might have looked like. For Sula, there were too many long car rides, too many trips to the vet (whom she always resisted), too many months of screaming infants. For me, there are always too many expectations. I feel like I am always falling short of ideals that were never reasonable in the first place. It was not the perfection of our friendship but the goodness of it that felt so much like true love; at least with my cat, I did not have to fear my own insufficiency. Perhaps loving an animal is a glimpse of being loved by God, just as we are.
We met in graduate school, where I found some of the greatest friendships of my life, feline included. It was also a period of intense emotions. Words like betrayal and soul-crushing come to mind and do not feel hyperbolic. That’s where our pets can model unconditional love for us. Committee problems? Strained relationships? No matter—kibbles and cuddles were sufficient for Sula, who reminded me how everyday acts of care can keep us going. What are cats for? To be loved, to be admired, undoubtedly. To love and be loved. To express the essential feline hauteur of requiring care but believing themselves to be independent; it sounds a lot like humanity to me.And so, added to the responsibility for giving my beloved cat a good death was the lesson for my children about how we love and how we grieve.
When I moved into my first solo apartment, with little furniture beyond my bed, black kitty was there, curled against me in a space that felt frighteningly open and empty. Her slight weight, her warmth, served as the ballast in a space and time where I felt awfully alone. On the last night in that same apartment, when all the furniture was gone once more, packed into a moving van to take on new adventures with my new husband, I slept in a sleeping bag on the living room floor. Sula curled up next to me again, a habit of years and friendship and keeping each other warm.
Fast forward a couple of more years, a couple of apartments later. What a challenge for her to be exiled from my room upon the birth of my first child. My husband and I still joke that the first night at home with our firstborn daughter meant me in the bedroom consoling a crying baby and him, on the other side of the door, comforting a crying cat. Me and Sula, we each had to move over as our family expanded. It took years for the children to leave my room so that she could return. Wisely, she bided her time, skirting around toddlers’ sticky fingers to wait for older children who would pet her and comb her and feed her and love her in ways befitting her royal personage. It worked.
Sula never stopped being my cat, but we grew up together and into a family that was ours. My children never knew a home without her. She was there before them, before I even met my husband. She was a true and faithful friend. We gave each other a good life.
Her decline started over a year ago, with a diagnosis of progressive renal failure. Somewhere, it seemed an existential clock started ticking, timing the mortality. Sula lost her vision and most of her hearing. She required a special diet. OK, my husband and I said. We’ll see how this goes. We used phrases like “quality of life” and “dignity of death.” I’ve known, in my family, grandparents who could exercise some control in the manner of their deaths. I’ve known, too, grandparents who got no say. There is a difference, and the responsibility of making that decision on behalf of black kitty weighed upon me, counterbalanced by the fear that I might not get a choice.
It was remarkable the way Sula got around, using the stairs and finding her way around the home she’d known for nearly eight years. She howled when she got disoriented in the house, and our family rallied around her, petting her, picking her up, and reassuring her of our presence. That tick-tock of mortality slowed or quieted, but it never ceased. It never does.
And then, last week, I knew that time was running out on us. That existential dread became the lump in my throat. It is there still, even now, when it’s all over. But it’s never really over, is it?
On Thursday night, my husband placed Sula on the bed and she curled up against my legs. Her weight, her warmth—so familiar and so small. Already, she was slipping away from me. I tried to cherish every moment with her, knowing we were counting down the moments left together. I slept fitfully, waking up to stroke her fur in all its silky black glory. On Friday, I went to work, distracted while I taught my classes and feeling a rush of sadness sweep over me as soon as my mind wandered. When I got home, I curled around black kitty, stroking her gently and whispering into her deaf ears that she was loved. I said thank you.
The time came to drive to the vet’s. All four of us humans packed Sula into her carrier, giving her gentle caresses and soft words. Thank you. We love you. It’s OK.
It never really feels OK, though. It didn’t then. My husband and I have grieved before, but always, the children were smaller and the relationships to them were more distant. They did not really know my grandparents or my father-in-law. That distance is its own sadness, but it is a different sadness, one that is easier for children to ignore. There was no ignoring my trembling hands or my weeping as we prepared to say goodbye to Sula. I could not use euphemisms or platitudes with my children because I wanted them to understand that this kind of goodbye is different.
Both of my girls wanted to come with us. My husband and I explained what would happen and why. We tried to reinforce that veterinarians do other things for animals too. We tried to remind them that Sula was elderly, that not all sicknesses lead to death and that not all shots kill. We wanted them to understand, to contextualize. They still wanted to come, and my mother expressed her concern. Won’t it be hard for them, especially the littler one who cries about everything? Yes. It will be hard for them. It won’t get easier. There is no life that is never marked by loss. The longer we live, the more losses we accrue. It doesn’t get easier.
And so, added to the responsibility for giving my beloved cat a good death was the lesson for my children about how we love and how we grieve. How do I show them that I’m both OK and not OK? How do I show them that I grieve, but not as someone who has no hope? How do I demonstrate that she will always be irreplaceable, but that having been loved by her taught me how to love more, to love better? I loved my friend Sula. I helped her to die well. I love her still.
What can I say? The doctor and the staff were kind. I shook and I wept. My family said our goodbyes and we sang “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” I held her until the bitter end, and for that I am thankful. I did my best to give her a good life. I did my best to give her a good death.
Now I walk around the house and see her everywhere. Her favorite sunbeam. A pair of sweatpants on the bed that I mistake for her. I look back on the last 15 years and she’s always been there. I look around my home now and it feels like she still should be. I’m trying to teach my children that we can remember and we can cry and it’s OK to feel sad. There is no ideal life. There is a season for grieving. How do I teach them that losing someone feels so heavy? How do I teach them that the weight needn’t crush us?
One of my favorite poems, Martha Collins’s “The Story We Know,” ends with the lines “Hello,/Good-bye is the only story. We know, we know.” The enjambment, or spillover, in the last two lines is significant. Hello always runs into good-bye. It’s the story of life. The repetition and assertion of knowing at the end reminds me of both love and loss. I can almost see the speaker of the poem nodding her head, whispering those lines and recounting the series of hellos and good-byes in her life. The middle of the poem is filled with the ordinary and the extraordinary moments that we find within it. But the end is always the same.
Even the hyphenation of “good-bye” seems important. So many of our words for parting emphasize the positive. A blessing in farewell. A promise of see you later. No matter what the story of a good life is, there’s only one ending. I have to hope that it’s a good bye. That’s the story I know of my friendship with Sula.
Maybe it’s me, because of the story I know, that I see a larger, overarching story in the Martha Collins poem and my life with Sula. There’s nothing explicitly religious in the poem, yet that intermingling of hello and good-bye as always intertwined in the ways we story our lives speaks to the story of my faith. Even a good life ends.
At church this Sunday—the first Sunday since Sula died—I was reminded that Easter is not a day. It’s a season. More than that, it’s a worldview. For those who profess faith in Christ, every Sunday is Easter Sunday. We are a resurrection people. This good life ends, but in an Easter worldview, a good death ends too and good-bye always runs into hello.