Belly up. She went belly up. I sat on the staircase sobbing, with my son at my side. We watched through the stair railings as she twitched and yowled her last breaths. Our neighbor had come to sit with us. My husband was entertaining our daughter in the backyard. At three and a half, my daughter couldn’t have cared less. She appeared at the door everynow and then, looked at our tear-stained faces, and declared “I not sad!” with an emphasis on the ‘I,’ before skipping (her answer to my request that she not run) back outside.
Zoe was an amazing cat. Enormous lettuce green eyes. Plushy velour fur. Gray with creamy peach smears. Six Toes. This dying of hers had lasted about a day. She and I knew she was going to die the morning before. When my feet felt fur under the covers as I woke up on the springiest day of the year I had a hunch it meant something. Her tickling whiskers were our alarm clock; we were never awake before she was. Besides, she didn’t burrow under the covers unless it was the dead of winter. She shouldn’t have still been under there while the Wiggles were singing ‘yummy yummy’ on tv on a sunny Friday morning in April.
I checked on her several times that day. Still way down under the covers. I’d put my hand on the comforter gently feeling for breathing and her body would press back faintly. During a dinner with friends in a different part of town I forgot about my fading pet. Upon returning home I had a dramatic moment of remembering. I told my family about my concerns as I raced upstairs to check on her--yep, still there. I pulled back the covers to find she’d wet the bed. I stroked her gently and whispered to her in a voice that told her I knew she was dying, and she picked her head up and bobbed it around a bit, squinting in my direction.
I’m curious now to know what I was thinking when I left her there--uncovered on the bed--to go to the computer to find an emergency late night vet. Was I really thinking I’d whisk this fifteen year old cat-at-peace to some traumatic middle-of-the-night waiting room somewhere? This cat, who hated nothing more than change--who turned so vicious when taken in a car and put on a steel table and poked at by a stranger that her last vet had a reminder in his notes to don elbow length leather gloves when handling her? I’m not sure what I was thinking. I’m glad now that the only option available was a ridiculous one--an all-night animal hospital (meaning dogs? maybe ferrets? in the waiting room) serving all five boroughs forty minutes away. I remember plotting out the trip in detail one second, then abandoning the plan the next.
I went back to the bed and she was gone.
“Look” my husband called out, “she’s going downstairs.” I ran to the head of the stairs and watched her pause, gallumph down a few steps, mew (she never mewed), gallumph down a few more, until she got to the bottom.
I helped the kids brush their teeth and turned them over to my husband for their bedtime stories before going downstairs to be with Zoe. A flashlight helped me find her half an hour later. She had settled on the bottom shelf of an inaccessible bookcase in the hallway, behind a scooter, a folding chair, a box of sporting equipment. I couldn’t reach her. This was heartbreaking.
I called my cat-loving parents and they reminded me about hospice. Their reminder to accept this as ‘nature’s way’ and to make her as comfortable as possible gave me something to do. I set a towel near her. I brought her water, I brought her food. I decided that she was where she wanted to be, and went to bed.
When we woke up the next morning we checked on her. She had moved herself onto the towel which made me feel useful helpful meaningful wonderful. She hadn’t touched the water or the food. She was still breathing. I crawled up on my side in the narrow space so I could reach her and stroked her fur, told her she was my sweet girl, and cried a bit.
I visited her throughout the morning. I went back and forth from my children’s breakfast needs, to my cat’s dying ones. French toast with confectioners sugar sprinkled on top. You’re my best girl, stroke stroke, my best girl. Cheese omelette. My best girl, sob sob, my sweet cat. A pancake rolled burrito-like around chocolate chips. You’re such a sweet cat, shh shh, my sweet girl.
At about 11:30 she went belly up. I watched as she twisted her body around, arching her back to expose her under-chin and creamy belly. Her famous front paw (her sixth toe looked like an opposable thumb and sometimes acted like one) hung up in the air. It twitched a bit. It was hard to watch but fascinating too. I kept thinking of a cartoon donkey on its back with legs twitching. Or of some children’s theater production where the kid playing the dying guy kicks his feet up a few times to prolong the humor of his pretend death--trying to suppress a smile the whole time--while the other kid-actors try to play the scene out gravely.
While I watched, she cocked her head forward, her large green eyes open but unblinking, unseeing. She was still breathing.
I called my neighbor to come and be with us. He fed our cats whenever we left town (we had another cat--a small easy calico who quarantined herself upstairs knowingly while her sister died). He knew how amazing Zoe was. I asked him what he thought we should do, even though I knew I wasn’t going to ravage the last few hours of Zoe’s life by taking her anywhere. He dragged her towel out a bit so she wouldn’t be so out-of-reach. When he began to talk about her suffering and how it could go on for awhile and how it might be cruel to let her continue like this my eyes glazed over and I hid my face in more tissues. I let my crying change the subject. I wasn’t ready for my resolve to keep my cat home to be challenged. I don’t know why I asked.
About this time I told my kids that Zoe was definitely dying. My son wanted to come sit with us.
Things got sort of weird at this point. She twisted a bit more and her tongue stuck way out. She made some guttural noises, and involuntary growls. There was some violent twitching and jerking. We watched. I sobbed. And then she was still. Nothing.
We stared at her side for a full minute and agreed she’d stopped breathing. Our neighbor said
he’d leave us alone with her and disappeared into the backyard. My son and I sat and watched her for awhile.
An hour later the five of us (including our baby girl who would have no memories of this cat) drove Zoe’s body to the cat clinic--they’d forward her body to the crematorium and then return her ashes to us. She was wrapped in her death-towel in a spring-green laundry basket. Each of us had stroked her fur for the last time. My husband even did that thing where he used his fingers to close her eyelids. It didn’t work as quickly as it does in the movies. Maybe it’s just not as easy to do with cats’ eyes.
My son and I took her body in. He sat on the bench next to me in the waiting room while I held the empty laundry basket and sobbed out our details. A woman coming from an exam room with a healthy cat watched from a respectable distance. She’d be telling her family about us at dinner.
My cat-loving parents cried over the phone with me. I’m from the kind of family who pays close attention to the hows of a death--we know it’s inevitable and search for the parts to be happy about each time. The circumstances of Zoe’s death made my mother very happy and she kept telling me that. I’m so happy she died in her home,. I’m so happy she died with you by her side. I’m so happy she went so quickly. I’m so happy you didn’t have to make any big decisions. I’m so happy she had such a happy life. I’m so happy you gave her fresh water every day. There were many things to be happy about.
Later that day I took the kids to the playground. I told everyone I saw that our cat just died. I was surprised at the deep levels of sympathy we received. I was also interested to learn that what we did--attending her in her natural death--was a rare thing in this day and age of in-office euthanasia.
My son asked me how to spell Zoe’s name. I told him and he started writing ‘Z-O-E’ all over the playground with a borrowed stub of chalk. On the walls, on the picnic tables, on the rubber mats. His Z’s were backwards. It was a beautiful day.
7 years ago