Ours is an animal-crazy household. We’re currently housing four dogs, one fish and an unauthorized duckling named Daisy. And, until very recently, one pissy, neurotic Siamese cat named Juliet.
Juliet has long delighted in tormenting me. I’m allergic to cats. She spreads dander with gleeful abandon. I’m a light sleeper. She taunts the tomcat outside our window. I like to leave the side door open while I shuttle armloads of groceries into the house. She streaks out the door and pretends she’s the neighborhood bad ass from the safety of our driveway.
Juju appointed herself keeper of the house calendar. She learned that swim practice for our daughters meant a five a.m. wake-up, and she didn’t much care if they had the day off. If we were late to feed her and her lesser canine brethren, she scolded us like a fishwife. Nobody kept a clock on the arrival home of Eric and the kids like Juliet.
All beds in the house belong to Juju. Many mornings the kids would complain about her walking across their faces, but more often one would admit they’d received her snuggles all night long. One time my mother-in-law visited and was determined to keep Juliet out of her room at night. She tried shutting her door, but it made her room too hot. She piled cushions in the open doorway, but Juliet climbed them. Finally, she convinced us to lock Juju up in the downstairs bathroom.
Have you ever heard of a shit storm? Because that’s what hit our bathroom that night. Eric wouldn’t even let me out of our bedroom until he’d cleaned it three times. When he opened the side door to take out his dirty cleaning materials, Juliet bolted and only came back two weeks later, gaunt and hollow-eyed. Her neuroses flared in the wake of that urban trauma, but she got over it eventually.
She loves a clean litter box. I’m with her on that one, but I’m sure as heck not gonna be the one to do it. Those times I couldn’t get one of the kids to take care of it, she just twizzled on the floor around the box until they got the message that her need for cleanliness wasn’t to be trifled with.
Yet she hated to be cleaned, at least by anyone other than herself. Only Eric was able to bathe her, because to bathe her was to endure her peeing on you and leaving deep scratches down the arms, chest, neck and sometimes face.
Juju was our family cat, but even more, she was Susanne’s. When all the rest of us would complain about her, Suz would scoop her up and coo in her ear. Nine times out of ten, it was Susanne’s bed Juliet slept on. It was always that way, from the first time my mother found the tiny stray kitten beside their cistern cover at their house on St. Croix. Susanne was only a little thing back then too, and she loved Juliet with a great ferocity that belied the size of either.
So it came to pass that Susanne recently had a terrible, scary week. She had another attack of anaphylaxis (which I promise I will write about soon), much worse than last time. She finally had to accept that her problem wasn’t A FOOD, it was HOW SHE ATE. I kept her home from school for a week without letting her out of my sight. And partway through that week, she brought Juju to me.
“Mom, I think Juju is really sick.”
She was. The normally well-groomed cat had tufted fur and had lost a noticeable amount of weight. I don’t pay much attention to her, usually, since she’s not allowed in my room or office because of my allergies. Besides, she’s Susanne’s baby.
We took her to the vet and they ran tests. She had lost 30% of her body weight since her last visit six months before. They called us with the bad news later that day. Juliet was in complete, late-stage kidney failure. She had no chance of survival, and very little time left.
“It’s not unusual for a cat to remain mostly asymptomatic until they’re at 75% or greater kidney failure,” the vet consoled me. “Your choice now is whether to let her die of natural causes, or bring her in.”
We let Susanne make the call.
“I can’t let her suffer. Let me give her one last day with me, sitting in the sunshine and looking out the window, then let’s take her in.” My strong young lady didn’t have a need for her cat to suffer for her sake, and we were so proud of her.
So that is what we did. Late the next afternoon, we loaded the ten-year old kitty into my Malibu and together we drove her to our vet’s clinic. Susanne held Juliet to her face. Tears dampened the cat’s once plush fur.
“Do you want to be with her?” I asked when we arrived.
“I can’t,” Suz snuffled.
The staff ushered us quickly into an exam room so Susanne could say her goodbyes privately. Then she left, her red face awash in tears. My throat seized up. I was the grown-up, the mom. I owed my daughter giving this my best, in her place.
I put my hands on either side of the thin face I’d rarely touched and leaned my nose down to Juliet’s. I scratched her gently behind the ears.
The vet explained, “We’ll give her the shot, and then she will close her eyes. She’ll slip away in a minute or less.”
I started to answer, but I couldn’t. My eyes burned. I nodded my head and swallowed. Then, as they slipped the needle under her skin, I told this cat what she needed to hear.
“Susanne loved you more than anything in the world. You were such a good kitty to her. And you had a wonderful life. Remember when you lived on St. Croix, first at Whispering Palms, then up at Annaly? Remember your boyfriend Romeo? How about your time in DeLeon? I don’t think you liked that much. You were so glad to be back with Suz in Houston, and you ruled our house. Thank you for always keeping us on schedule, and for being so generous with your snuggles. Everyone loved you, and I’m so sorry you got sick and don’t get to be with Susanne anymore. She is going to miss you so much.”
The vet tech squeezed my arm. “She’s gone now.”
Out of habit, I turned to wash my hands, knowing if I touched my face after handling Juliet that I would fight hives and puffy eyes for hours. I couldn’t see to turn on the faucet. Damn cat. My eyes were already tearing up. But it wasn’t my allergies.
The vet tech turned on the water for me and held out a paper towel. I confessed to her on a sob, “This cat has been the bane of my existence for ten years. Why am I the one with her? Why am I crying now?” I took the towel and swiped my face. “I guess I always loved her after all.”
And I had, but I was crying about more than that, really. I was crying about loss itself, about my carefully guarded fear of losing not Juliet, but Susanne. It was tears for my memory of Susanne’s blue face and inert body five days before. Of our panic when we couldn’t read the instructions on her epi-pen and neither Eric nor I had our glasses. Of Eric carrying her limp body to the car and literally folding her into the back seat. Of that moment I was about to start CPR when she said, “Mama, the top of my head really hurts,” opened her eyes, and sat up. Of my collapse four hours later into Eric’s arms, as I wailed, “She’s going to die and I can’t stop it, Eric, I can’t keep her from dying, I’m going to lose her,” and he shushed me and promised me everything would be all right, as if he knew, as if anyone could possibly know that.
The vet tech patted my shoulder and slipped out.
I gathered up the towel we’d wrapped Juliet in for her last car ride. I drew a breath from that strong place tucked just beyond the scared one deep inside, and I walked back into the waiting room and put my arms around my very-much-alive teenage daughter.