It’s been a difficult time. Those of you who follow me on social media will know that our beloved puss has been ill for a long while. On Wednesday 23rd Feb, my wife gently suggested that I spend a bit of quiet time with Lucy while I still could. We snuggled up together on a comfy chair for an hour or so, and then she passed away in my arms. I’ve been shaken by death before, but this was the first time I had the pain and the privilege to witness the process. It was both entirely expected and utterly devastating.
I’m still very much processing the whole thing, so before I talk about the impact, my thoughts and disparate feelings, I’d like to tell you about Lucy in life, as an act of remembrance.
She came to us through Cat’s Protection, a small black queen, last of a dozen left homeless when their owner died. Though still young, Lucy had already given birth to her own litter of kittens, and lost them to various families. She had since begun mothering a feral tom called (Shock-headed) Peter. We’d only intended to adopt one cat, but couldn’t bear to part them. They soon settled in, and Lucy established herself as the ruler of our home.
It was she who taught the humans which brands of food were acceptable and which were not; she who led the early expeditions into neighbouring gardens, annoying owners and dogs; she who fought the world’s biggest wood pigeon—wrestling it up the fire escape, dragging it through the cat-flap and filling the apartment with a riot of feathers. (Little sod.) She was not a loud cat, but she didn’t need to be. She just got Pete to yowl until we woke up, or yowl until we fed them, or yowl until we let them into (or out of) the room.
I don’t mean to give you the impression she was a manipulative cat, it’s supposed to be perfectly clear—with bold font and a couple of heavy underscores. She was a benevolent dictator and a mistress of insistence. The force of her glare was almost physical, and her presence was so pervasive that no chore could be completed, no programme could be watched, no work could be focused on until her needs had first been met. It was deeply infuriating at times, but incredibly funny to watch.
As Pete grew up, he began to take over by the pure virtue of size. He went from scrawny youth to giant, muscular house panther (then on to utter chonk, but don’t tell him I said so), and Lucy seemed to dwindle by comparison. She never lost her grip on us *saps but her adopted son was more than happy to bugger off on his own, earning his knighthood by decimating the local rat population. Lucy stayed closer to home, content with her palatial temple and daily worship. She had her comforts, she had her routines, and she had her servants. But she also started to develop some health problems: a peculiar sensitivity in her mouth. We didn’t realise this at first; we just thought she was becoming a fussy madam.
On a routine visit to the vet, we were told that her body was having an excessive reaction against plaque on her teeth, and was essentially attacking itself. For several years we went through a cycle of steroids and pain-killers until the balance shifted. The potential damage from long-term steroid use was becoming a concern, so the vet made a referral to have her teeth removed. (Most of them, anyway.) By this time, the Covid pandemic had hit and Clover and I were working from home. Lucy’s presence became magnified in that environment – neurotic, almost – but my wife had a wonderful way of calming her. I kind of envied their **relationship, but I was also glad to leave them to it.
Things changed when Lucy had her fall. (Well, what we thought must have been a fall.) She had stayed out all night, which was highly unusual, and we eventually found her underneath the fire-escape, unable to do much more than drag herself along on her belly. The vet found some minor evidence of a physical injury – though no puncture to indicate an animal attack – gave us some advice and made out their prescription. I kept Lucy in the home office where I could monitor her recovery while I worked, but she hated it. She started scratching at her neck in protest, an endless ***petition for freedom.
It was horrible to see but we felt helpless to prevent this behaviour. Later, when she recovered a semblance of mobility, we vacillated about letting her out of the apartment again. It was scary. What if she had another fall? The fire escape was her only way in or out, and her balance wasn’t great anymore. Over the next few weeks she had a couple of relapses and we started to suspect the ‘fall’ may have actually been a stroke, or some other neurological event. However, the damage she was causing herself became so upsetting, we eventually relented. She could go out during the day, but we would bring her in again each night. It was a compromise.
If only we could have explained it to her. After several anxious nights of having to go hunt for her with torches, she decided to go dark. (Pretty easy for a black cat.) She became so secretive we could no longer find her. It was freezing cold and raining, and by the time she dragged herself back, she could barely breathe with pneumonia. That was it—no more going out! Antibiotics knocked the respiratory problems on the head, but she continued to lose weight. ‘Trapped’ once more, she scratched herself ever-more scabby and, however much love and attention we gave her, she started to slip away.
Over the last fortnight she found some acceptance and contentment. She scratched herself less and less. She found more comfortable spots to sit in and seemed like a queen once more, albeit a sickly one asleep on her throne. I even managed to get some quality lap time with her for a few days, snuggling up after dinner each night. Her rattling purr was a gift, though I could have done without the pee. The stroke, or the tumour – or whatever combination of internal health problems – finally took her from us on Wednesday, ending the ordeal.
We were alone at the time and, though I sensed it was coming, I was not prepared for the reality of her death. My past pets all died in my absence, friends and family members too. I’ve seen bodies before, but never the transition between life and death. Even now, my mind struggles to parse the moment. I relive it daily, am kept awake by it at night – an intrusive image that simultaneously comforts and torments me. I am glad I was with her at the end, glad that she did not die alone or unloved. I am also glad that we did not have her euthanised, though we worried at the topic, thinking about her quality of life.
But death is natural. Its seed is planted the moment we are born, and all too often we are robbed of the sight of its bloom. Our elderly are shipped off to die in hospitals or nursing homes, cared for by strangers, often passing without us being there. I don’t want that for myself, and I don’t want that for my loved ones. It was an awful, horrible experience to have Lucy die in my arms, but it also felt right. We were looking into each other’s eyes. She knew I was with her, caring for her, crying for her at the end as she slid into darkness. That is important, I think: the pain and the love. The shared experience.
There is a sense of relief, of released tension in the carer at the point of death, and an immediate shame in recognising that. Nursing Lucy through her illness was hard, psychologically. There is no way to truly help; the body is doing all it can. All you can do is show care and try to preserve their dignity and autonomy. Ugly feelings and intrusive thoughts roil away beneath the surface because it’s all just so horrible and unfair and cruel and disgusting, and there is nothing to be done – not really – and no end in sight until suddenly there is, and it’s far too close and—it’s over. All of it. Just… stopped.
You’re shaken to the core. What do you do now? How do you not do what you’ve been doing? Do you even remember life before the illness? You can’t move on—how could anybody move on? But there are practical things to consider. Start there. There’s mess to clear up. Arrangements to make. Equipment no longer needed. Airing out. Bit by bit, the hole left by your loved one is… not gone, but rendered less visible.
There is an after.
I am not a religious man, I don’t believe that consciousness survives the death of the body, but that doesn’t diminish the meaning or the value of the time spent with our loved ones. On the contrary, it makes it more precious. Those last seconds with Lucy, painful as they are to recall, impacted and changed me in ways I’ve barely begun to process. They connected me to all those people for whom this transition, this pain, this loss is all too familiar. There is comfort to be found there. A sense of belonging. Of understanding. Of camaraderie.
Our world is changed by death. It is emptier, but no less full of memory. We can embrace one another, cry together, honour our dead and go on – living our own lives in the best way we know. And if we do a good job, if we make our sacrifice count when it’s needed, there’s a strong chance somebody else will do the same for us when our time comes.
It’s not much, maybe, but that’s all I’ve got for now.
I’m sitting here now on Saturday, looking at the world aghast. Since I began writing this post, Putin invaded Ukraine. The images and the stories coming out on the social feeds are far sharper, cut much deeper in human truth and tragedy than Lucy’s little death and my own bewildered response to it. I’ve been so caught up in my personal problems, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the news. It’s all too big. Too awful.
I’m half-minded to delete this damned post – the epitome of ‘first world problems’ by comparison – but to do so feels like a betrayal. It was written as a marker of Lucy’s life and, whilst it may get lost in a sea of crosses in the weeks and month and years to come, she deserves to have that. Still… seems like it’s time to pick myself up and look outwards again.
My thoughts go out to the people of Ukraine fighting for freedom, and to the Ukrainian diaspora watching helplessly from afar – fearing for their country and their loved ones. I can’t begin to imagine what any of you are going through at this moment, but I will read your words, I will look at your images, and I will do what I can to act in solidarity with you. I’ve wallowed enough. The end has come. What happens next is up to us.
* Homo Sapiens.
** Pete was always more my cat, but – bless the little doofus – he’s got just a tenth of her personality. He’s basically a big, brawny, beautiful idiot. A dribbling himbo who doesn’t understand anything much beyond what feels nice (food and scritches) and what feels nasty (car journeys, strangers, and anything that catches him by surprise).
*** This was an old trick from the early days. We’d used a collar with a bell on both cats in an effort to protect the local birds. Lucy had quickly discovered she could ring this bell by scratching at her neck, and she proceeded to do so outside our bedroom door every morning to summon us for breakfast. (Her breakfast, of course; she never bloody made it for us.) In the end, she scratched at it so much the collar snapped. We never replaced it.
You may like to read It ain’t what you say, for more on grief and relationships with those who are passing.
If you have concerns about growing global tensions but find yourselves exhausted, you may find some heart in my final free performed reading: Stewart Hotston’s story, Killing Hitler is Easy.