She was very weak now, her condition irreversible. It was no wonder: She hadn’t eaten for seven days and had always been petite. Within one day’s span, she had declined so much that her legs could barely hold her. Her delicate walk became a drunken swagger. Her body was shutting down.
Earlier in the day, during our third phone call that week, the vet had advised, “I know there’s a snowstorm, but try to make it uptown with her.” She was explaining that I could take my companion of sixteen years to Animal Care & Control when I voiced that the $315 for euthanization and group cremation at our regular clinic was cost prohibitive for me. At the shelter, unlike at the vet, an animal control officer would take the animal away from its owner, so I wouldn’t be able to be with her. As the afternoon progressed, both the weather and Suki deteriorated. I could not envision putting her into the carrier she hated, taking her out into the cold, and braving a walk and a bus ride to Harlem in a snowstorm—only to have her pulled away from me, the person she loved most on earth, and live her last moments in unnecessary fear and terror. I decided we’d stay at home, and I’d help her through it.
From its beginning, our relationship was auspicious—she adopted me. As a youthful (I like to think—er, don’t we all?), but aging, baby boomer, I’ve always had that spiritual thing going and considered the way Suki entered my life as part of the picture. I was ready to have a cat again. We’d had several when my kids were growing up, but it had been a while. Due to our moving a few times, we’d never had one for longer than a few years. My three kitty requirements were: female, spayed, and trained. Then like the granting of a wish, she began coming around at the end of summer 1995.
My North Berkeley, CA, redwood-fenced yard abutted those of my neighbors, and our lushly gardened neighborhood seemed to be on the circuit for a host of local four-legged critters, including squirrels, raccoons, possums, deer, and cats. I started noticing her when I was working in the garden. She’d stand with her front paws braced on the French doors that opened to my garden, peering in to my bedroom. Her head would bob back and forth like an Indian dancer as she tried to see what or who was inside. A few times I caught her racing in and out of my room, when I’d left the door ajar, as if checking for cats in-residence.
Adopted by a Cat
She seemed to intuitively appear on the concrete patio when I did. Rolling over on her back in submissive pose, her paws in that “aww, isn’t she sweet” begging mudra, she’d meow for me to pet her. She didn’t appear to be hungry when at night she’d relentlessly scratch on the glass panes for entry. Obviously, she was endearing, but I let her in reluctantly not knowing if she belonged to someone, was a stray, or had fleas. She’d hop up on my bed, finding her place right away, curl up, and spend the night.
After several days of that, I bought her a flea collar and wrote my phone number on it. A house sitter called to say the family was away, and the cat was definitely theirs. I was disappointed, as she was a beautiful, very friendly kitty who seemed to want to live with me.
The owners called when they returned. Yes, Lulu was theirs. They were teachers who had moved to Cali from New York (where I was born) and brought her along with another kitty. But, they’d just had a baby, and Lulu was being particularly annoying, always wanting to be on or near the baby’s head, so they were ready to give her up. We met, and I formally adopted Lulu. She was four and a-half-years-old, and somehow she knew that I was an empty nester who would give her the attention she wanted.
I almost named her Silky because of her shiny, medium-haired coat, and she reminded me of my other black cat Couscous (Cou-ssie). So I called her Suki, a jumbled combination of both names, and sometimes Suki Lulu. She loved doing all the typical kitty things, like giving herself a bath in a sun-filled spot, chasing the feather on a stick, and keeping watch of the redwood tree-lined front yard from her perch atop the back of the living room couch.
She acted a bit like a dog; she’d run to greet me at the front door and loved to hang out with friends and clients who came to my place. She had lots of opinions, voicing them as if she was part of the conversation. She’d talk to whomever she deemed a worthy friend, purr, and insist on being petted. A Suki head-butt was the ultimate love expression. She was agile—her regular way of entering and exiting the house was all feline, as she easily scaled up and down the second-story redwood deck and back gate.
Suki the Healing Cat
Soon Suki showed that she had more than feline and canine qualities: She was a healing cat, a garden cat, and an ardent, intuitive communicator. When my bodywork and coaching clients came to my studio for sessions, she seemed to spot the ones who were having a difficult time and would insist on taking part. I’d always ask the client if it was okay, and it always was excepting clients who were allergic to cats. She’d sit by us attentively to lend her healing presence. At times when I wasn’t feeling well, she’d lie nearby to comfort me or would know to lie down on the part of my body that needed help. Sometimes her insistence was annoying, but like a healer, she always seemed to know what to do.
Suki liked to guard the garden, like a dog guarding sheep or chickens. She loved lying in the dirt of the beds watching the birds, bees, squirrels, and bugs, and munching on grasses. She’d seriously scold me if I’d stayed inside writing for days or weeks, braying at me near the door to go outside, enjoy the sunshine, and tend the garden. Her vociferous lecture would finally stop when I submitted and went outside. She was possessive and thought she owned me exclusively. Unlike the neighborhood’s multi-cat families, whose cats would hang out on their sidewalks and befriend me on my walks, Suki did not like having any other cats around, nor being courted by them. In a standoff, she and a would-be interloper sat on the backyard fence for an entire afternoon. Suki didn’t move, flinch, or blink.
In 2004, I went to New York for Thanksgiving and stayed much longer due to a family medical emergency. I began exploring living in New York City to be near my daughters and traveled there several times. The following summer, for the first time, she didn’t meet me at the front door or bound up the stairs to greet me upon my return. Where was she, I wondered? “Suuu-keeeee–I’m home. Where are you?” She still didn’t come.
I found her downstairs lying down on my bed, lethargic and detached as compared to her usual frisky self. Was she giving me the cold shoulder for being away? (Have you ever experienced that?) It was abnormal for her, so I took her to the vet. Just like that, her kidneys were failing. I learned how to give her lactated ringers, an electrolyte solution, to see if her kidney function would return. Unlike the feisty girl she usually was, Suki sat on my lap and let me put the needle into the thick scruff of her neck, as the drip brought her back to life. When she began to recover, she struggled so strongly that I couldn’t hold her still, so I figured she felt well enough to discontinue the drip.
In September 2005, we moved to New York City. Although I knew that Suki loved Berkeley and nature, I knew better than to leave her behind. My two previous kitties had met their demise after I left them with friends who had promised to care for them…. I knew that she was very attached to me and I couldn’t bear to leave her, so she became an NYC indoor cat, which I hated to do to her.
At first, I thought she would be her friendly, old self and that I might be able to train her to a harness and leash, but she wasn’t having it. In trial runs, up and down my fourth-floor hall, she’d fearfully slink past each tenant’s door. I got it. Each one was a separate household and territory, with its own odors and vibes. I brought her in her carrier to the neighborhood park several times, thinking she’d remember and love the stimulation of bird, bug, and squirrel-watching and kids playing, but she wasn’t that interested and soon grew disinterested in her favorite feather toy. Following a couple of times when I was out of town, her kidney function deteriorated further, and the vet put her on daily thyroid medication as a way to balance her chronic kidney disease and her heart.
In her old age, she became increasingly vocal and sometimes sounded like a complaining biddy. She brayed at me a lot. I’ll admit, in my small studio apartment, sometimes it was annoying. But at heart, she was such a sweetie. She had her own language with me. She had a “hey” sound, as in “hey, how’s it going.” She had a “humph, you finally got it,” a “wraaa wr-ooowwww” when she wanted something, and such a sweet, loving look. This next will put me in the crazy cat lady category: Her favorite exercise in New York was dancing, and she loved music. When a danceable song came on TV, I’d hold her up from underneath her “arms,” and jump her around on her back feet to the rhythm of the music, sometimes legs aloft swaying her spine and whole body side to side. She’d purr so very loudly, loving every minute of her dance.
When I went to California to visit my new grand baby, and my dear friend kindly offered to Suki sit, I cautioned that she never ate more than a few bites at a time and never if it was dried out or old. My friend could visit once daily, and Suki needed thyroid medicine twice, so my friend devised a way to bury both doses in a small can’s worth of cat food. To my surprise, my friend reported that Suki ate it all. But when I returned, her eating pattern reversed, plus she insisted on peeing on my Persian rugs. I wondered if she knew better but was mad at me for leaving? Unlike her healthy appetite when I was away, she refused to eat her food and medication.
It took me a couple of days to catch on: She’d held off dying until I came home from California. At first, knowing that she’d eaten one can a day for my friend and used the litter box, I thought she was on a power trip, but I was wrong. She was getting me to feed her four times a day, and peeing by the front door. It was the beginning of her dying process.
Concerned that she’d worsen, I tried putting the pill down her throat, holding her mouth closed while stroking her neck, but it didn’t work. I’d later find it on the floor. The vet said to stop the meds and hydrate her, so I went to her office, got the set up, and gave her three treatments over the next three days. She had only had a few bites of food in the four days since I’d returned, and now she’d stopped eating altogether.
It would be her final week. Her breath smelled increasingly strong of creatinine. When I called again, the vet said my sweet cat had an acute condition on top of a chronic one and that it was irreversible. I felt somewhat relieved when she said, “Suki could just die at home.”
Her ribs and abdomen looked gaunt. She was too weak to groom herself, and I combed her gently one last time. On Wednesday, I awoke to a wet puddle at my feet — the foot of my bed and my covers were soaked — so I guessed the fluids made her kidneys finally flush, but she was losing function. That evening I stayed up with her most of the night and felt relieved when my client canceled her session due to the impending storm. At times, she would plaintively meow or need help getting to her water. I dozed off then awoke, and she had uncharacteristically settled herself on the cool, tiled bathroom floor and then somehow made her way into the bathtub, where her breathing grew very labored.
It was early Thursday afternoon when I spoke with the vet again, and she said that although there was an approaching record-breaking snowstorm, I should try to get Suki to Animal Care and Control to put her to sleep because this stage could go on for a while.
I could tell that her systems were shutting down. Her feet were cold and she grew stiff and still, mostly lying on her side, occasionally lifting her head to meow weakly to me. I had placed a folded sheet underneath her body and used it like a sling to move her around my apartment, as she had begun to stagger and then lose function. Her nails made an unusually loud, scratchy sound because she could barely lift her legs as she walked. Yet, her spirit was so determined to move. As the week and this day progressed, her feet began to drag even more, and the sound of her nails click, click, clicked on the hardwood floor.
During a Blizzard
The news reported that cars and buses were sliding all over the city streets. The wet, heavy snow had felled a huge tree branch which killed a pedestrian just outside of Central Park less than a mile away. I decided that I didn’t want to bring my dear companion all the way to Harlem on a bus in a snowstorm after dark only to have her last moments on earth be in the company of an unknown stranger who would give her a shot to die. Suki was far too extraordinary for that type of ending.
I stayed with her at home as she began to stagger and then become increasingly immobilized. She no longer could work her way out of the blanket I’d swaddled her in to keep her from falling off the couch. She meowed softly or sometimes would cry out if she wanted me near her. I laid down and placed this now fragile papoose on my belly, sang lullabies to her, and played Andrea Bocelli singing “Ave Maria.” I told her the story of her life again and again: how we met; and all the wonderful healing, communicative, and intuitive things she did during her lifetime. I appreciated her out loud, telling her what a sweet, wonderful, and caring kitty she had been; how many people she had helped; and how we’d moved together to New York, where she became an indoor cat. I gently rocked her and sang more lullabies. She could no longer purr, but knew I was with her. I laid next to her, so we could once more look into each others’ eyes as we’d done for almost fifteen years. I cried a lot as I recounted her life and named my friends who loved her. She seemed to like and understand the stories.
Thursday evening she could barely walk as she staggered to her usual spots next to the radiator, under my bed, on the bathroom rug. She even tried to be especially good and use her cat box instead of the various plastic sheets I’d placed in her usual “accident” spots. I kept finding her in different places, although she seemed incapable of moving. I doubted that she would make it through the night, but I was exhausted from staying up the night before and from the intensity of the day. I slept soundly.
Midwifing Through Death
In the morning, I was surprised to hear a faint whimper under the bed. This time I knew she had waited for me to awake in order to help her cross over. I laid down and put her on my belly to pet her lightly and sing to her so she could relax. I felt her bladder release. I knew she was near death and reaffirmed my decision to midwife her into death instead of braving the storm to euthanize her.
I placed her in her sling sheet on my couch, using a piece of plastic to protect the couch from secretions, not knowing what to expect. I sensed I shouldn’t cry, or she would still try to hang on. She loved me so much and wouldn’t want to make me sad. The day before, I had been gently suggesting that she needed to just let it go as I cried and cried, but now I knew that I had to tell her to do it.
Suki always had the sweetest face. I now understood that it was her social face and that animals have them, just like people. As she lay dying, I saw a change. Her lips began to curl back, showing her teeth even more, and her appearance became similar to that of a taxidermy animal. I could tell her spirit and soul had left. As her breath became more and more shallow, she spit up some bile that had the same strong ketonic odor as her breath.
Then she turned into a wild animal, thrashing around, and threw up again. This wildness arose through a different part of her nature, strong and determined, but I was able to contain her body, holding it steady on the couch. Her eyes glazed over and looked blank. I worried that I should have listened to the vet and taken her to be euthanized the day before. I grew a bit frightened about what was happening or about to happen.
In that moment, I remembered an energy healing technique and began to snap my fingers lightly around her body to break up the field and release her energy, lifting it up and away from her body to clear it. It seemed to help. As her lips pulled back further, exposing her teeth even more, she threw her head back, opened her mouth wide and took a series of deep inhalations, spaced far apart with no exhalations between. It seemed like a reflex. Then all stopped. Even the shallow breathing of her belly was still.
Letting Her Go
I let her be for a few moments as I prepared something to place her in. Snow was falling hard, and I didn’t know when I’d get up to Animal Control for her cremation. I placed her in double plastic bags, cleaned and cleared all her stuff from my apartment, and went out to look for a box. The Post Office had closed at 2:00 pm due to the storm, and eight nearby stores were devoid of boxes due to no deliveries in the storm, so I walked to my friend’s apartment to get one.
I carefully placed Suki in the box that I’d meticulously taped and reinforced. I placed her box in a bag and fashioned it with a handle. The streets and sidewalks of the city were piled high with snow, the corner crossings with icy puddles, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t drop her or fall along the way. I didn’t want the death smell of her body, which had already begun to emit various odors through the plastic bags, to permeate the bus I’d be riding on. It was an odd idea, boxing up my dearly beloved to transport her on a bus to be cremated. I’d never thought about it before.
After I got to 110th Street and saw the scene at the shelter, I was so relieved that I’d followed my intuition in caring for her through death. A young woman was barely able to hold on to an agressive pit bull on a short, thick leash as he lunged and barked for a half-hour, while she waited at the counter. “I found him,” she said. A gangster-like guy, his girlfriend standing to the side chewing gum loudly, was leaning heavily on the all-female, uniformed staff behind the counter to let him adopt a dog without his ID. As they declined each time, he pressed them over and over and over again for a half hour as their eyes glazed over. As if they knew that being too definitive with him could cost them their lives, they acted powerless to stop him as the line piled up in back of me. I was so glad I kept my sweet girl with me. What a scary, unconscious place this was.
My turn at the counter sent me to another counter where the officer input my info into the computer. Then she had to open the box to make sure it contained what I’d described. I knew her body was there, but she was gone. I was quiet and within myself.
You packed her up so nicely.
What, really? How do most people bring in their pets?
In a bag.
Oh. That didn’t occur to me. I wanted to protect her.
I later realized that even in her last, fragile moments, her sweet heart, devotion, and intelligence shone through. As an indoor cat, when she felt the kitty heaves coming on, she’d howl a particular and distinctive “owww, owwww,” and I’d gingerly carry her into the bathtub to barf, so I didn’t have to clean up the floor. When she was dying, she uncharacteristically spent some of her last days hanging out in the bathtub. I was surprised and thought she merely wanted a cool, smooth place to lie in, but later found out she was likely feeling nauseated because her kidneys were failing. She was so smart to go to the place I’d bring her to barf.
I hadn’t noticed the little ways I’d curbed my behaviors over the years, until after she was gone. I’d catch myself walking or stepping in patterns in my apartment as if she was still there. I’d feel the impulse to pick up clothing or paperwork off the floor to make sure she didn’t pee on it. For fifteen years, Suki slept near my head or at my feet. More than I’d realized, living with Suki was like living with another person – not in her activities, but in her presence.
Dear, sweet Suki was a joy and gift to anyone who ever knew her. We were together longer than my marriage. She was a special communicator and human wanna be, a loving pet who stayed sweet, loyal, and caring until the end. In looking at her records, I found what I’d forgotten: She died at nineteen years of age, on a day when the moon was waxing full. It was 10:15 a.m. in 2010 on the same day she was born, February 26.