What I Learned from My Senior Cat in His Final Months
The hardest part of life with our beloved cats is that we will have to let them go. Inevitably, we (usually) outlive our companion animals. Nothing about this process gets easier -- I've been through it many times and each time has been different, heartbreaking, and significant. Why significant? Because sometimes it seems as if I come out of the experience with a gift.
In one case, I learned to be more flexible. Our cats are always teaching us, and in this case, my cat Jamie had a lot of lessons for me to learn. Jamie was an amazing teacher -- could I be the student that he deserved?
In 21-year-old Jamie's case, we had some warning that we were nearing the end of his life. We had discovered a mass under his tongue that made it impossible for him to eat. Yet Jamie showed no signs of being ready to die. An incredibly willful cat since kittenhood, Jamie showed us that he was still interested in eating, drinking, or living. Whether he was purring, headbutting, riding our shoulders (which he loved), getting special privileges on the bed (which he also loved), playing with a toy on the floor, or chasing a chipmunk, Jamie was not acting like a cat who was ready to go over the rainbow bridge. So, we honored his wishes.
What we did can probably only be compared to hospice care. We fed and hydrated Jamie, and noticed an instant perking up on his end. This required timing and planning. Food had to be mixed up specially. Lactated Ringer's could not be missed. We kept a journal of Jamie's days, everything we did, and any notable behavior. Fortunately, I work at home. But if I had to be gone, my husband shifted his schedule and took time so feeding or fluids didn't get missed.
What did Jamie teach me?
Jamie taught me to let go of my stubborn beliefs and habits.
I've always kept my cats inside. I fear losing them to predators, as we live in the woods and an eagle, fox, wolf, or more could easily snap up and kill a cat. (Even if I lived in the city, I would keep my cats inside, for fear of them getting hit by a car.) I went above and beyond to make sure a cat in my house never accidentally escaped to the outside.
But Jamie wanted to go outside. In the summer (a treasured time in northern Minnesota), Jamie sat inside the full screen door that opened up to the deck. He raised his nose to the wind, and his eyes slitted softly shut. I couldn't deny him anything now. I realized I would do the best to make sure his time -- whatever remained -- was as wonderful as possible.
We began first to let him out on the deck. He was quite content to lay on the picnic table as we ate meals outside. Some of my nicest memories now are of Jamie posed on the picnic table, treasuring his time with us. A bonus during all of this for Jamie -- he got to be the "only cat." Jamie never really cared to share the household with other felines, so he really relished the individualized attention he got during the last months of his life.
Eventually, I let Jamie stroll in the yard. I would stay nearby and he didn't go far. I began to realize just how beautiful a cat looked outside, in the grass with the wind softly riffing his medium length orange fur. An added and unexpected benefit was that Jamie seemed to improve when he got to go outside. Times outside seemed to help him be more interested in life, and less lethargic. He stalked and chased a chipmunk; he played with a leaf. Again, we rearranged our schedules so that Jamie could have whatever he wanted. I was learning to be a good nurse -- something I don't do too well with humans, but will turn myself inside out for when it comes to my cats.
Jamie taught me to stay in the moment.
I know this sounds like a cliche, and I know we've all heard it before. But cliches are really statements of truth. And over and over again, I learned about living in the moment. The rest of life fell to the wayside as I honed my focus on Jamie. Did Jamie want to be held? I was there. Did Jamie need lactated Ringer's? I got over my squeamishness, put my head down, and did it. Did Jamie want to go outside on a beautiful day? I dropped what I was doing to be with him and sit with him outside. In the end, I got the beautiful gift of memories, and of knowing that I was a better person than I thought possible. I wouldn't change a thing about Jamie's last two months.
Jamie had the best two months we could give him before he passed on. We can't be sure, but I suspect kidney failure ultimately took his life. (We had been managing his early onset kidney disease since he was 10.) When I think of Jamie, I thank him for what he taught me about being a better person and learning to serve. What do your cats teach you? What lessons have you received?
All photos copyright Deborah Sussex Photography.
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