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Untarnished Memories of a Sterling Friendship: The Final Gift of a Beloved Pet

Sterling the tabby catI wanted a tiny, little kitten. She, of course, had other ideas. As I would learn, she often did. And she often won. Of our two strong-willed Aries personalities, hers was just a tiny bit stronger.

I entered the Santa Clara, CA pound looking for a kitten. Having relocated from across the country months earlier, I was starting to put down roots. With a relatively stable paycheck in my future and a new apartment, I was ready for the commitment of a pet. Plus as a shy, young twenty-something in Silicon Valley, I was lonely and needed some form of companionship to come home to. Oh sure, the Valley was full of men. Engineer types. Who either didn’t notice the curvaceous blonde in front of them or found what was on their computer screens far more interesting.

Yes, I needed someone to come home to.

On my first trip to the pound, there were no kittens. But a silver tabby with gorgeous green eyes who was several months old reached out through the bars of her cage to bat at me. She meowed loudly, more like a Siamese than an average street cat, beckoning me to pay attention to her.

“Yes, you are a gorgeous kitty!” I murmured to her. “You have beautiful green eyes, just like my Shadow cat.” Shadow was one of my favorite cats growing up — a beautiful Russian Blue who would snuggle up next to me each night.

“Mee-rooowr,” she replied.

Guilt settled in. Growing up, we always had several cats. We seemed to have a beacon over our home that only stray animals could see. Cats and dogs of all shapes and ages would find us, somehow knowing this was the home where animals would be taken care of. Though I had taken in older cats before, I was really hoping to get a tiny kitten.

“You are obviously a sweet kitty. Someone will be here for your soon, I am sure. I’m sorry, but I am looking for a kitten.”

She batted at me again, and looked into my eyes. I scratched under her chin, and walked down the aisle of cages, looking for my future pet.

Though I am grateful for the services they provide, I hate going to shelters. I can’t stand the thought of the stories behind all the animals who end up there. I walked by and looked at all the cats — no kittens today. An employee told me that the kittens are usually snapped up pretty quickly. As I walked back down the long row, the gleaming silver tabby meowed and reached out to me again.

“Goodbye darling. I am sure you will have a home soon,” I said as soothingly as I could.

I don’t even remember the circumstances that brought me back — whether the shelter called me to say kittens had come in or I just went to check, but what I do remember is that I thought about that tabby a lot. I grew up with several tabbies, but I had never seen one who was truly silver rather than gray. Her coat was soft and glossy like a rabbit’s. Her tummy was white with black spots. Eyes of emerald green and instead of the expected gray or black nose, an adorable cinnamon-colored nose. I often associate “tabby” with “common” yet everything about her brought to mind a certain regalness and she certainly let you know she expected to be treated like royalty!

During the adoption process, several things about her paperwork made me laugh. Her original name was CJ, so close to my own, J.J. She, like me, had an April birthday. The reason given for adoption was “one too many kittens.” And when asked what her favorite toy was, her previous owners had written, “Anything not nailed down!!!” (Underlined three times.)

Yes, clearly, this cat and I were made for each other.

I quickly changed her name to Sterling — both for the color of her coat and her fine qualities. I had no idea how fitting that would be, right to the end.

I had been in a car accident just before I adopted Sterling (or shall we just admit, she chose me?) and shortly afterward, I had knee surgery. In addition to keeping me company in my bed and cuddling with me during my painful recovery, she delighted me with her bedeviling activities, one of which included retrieving bloody gauze bandages from garbage cans and running through the apartment with them at lightning speed. My father, who was visiting and taking care of me, did not find this so delightful. But I loved her pure sense of play — exactly why I had originally wanted a kitten — and enjoyed her utter zest for life. Everything was a game to her and when she exhausted herself, she would come back to me and go completely limp and purr loudly.

When I recovered, I ended up moving to Southern California for a while — telecommuting for work — and Sterling took to antics such as pulling off the pins off my bulletin board and sticking her head into my printer and shredding papers as they printed, decidedly not helping with my work-at-home productivity. This was slightly less delightful behavior, and I decided that Sterling need a companion, and thus, a second cat came into our lives. Once again I went in to get a kitten and instead, came home with a cat of a different age — in fact this one was 3 years old. A tortie-tabby, I ended up naming her Patina (get it?), Tina for short. And thus, Sterling ended up becoming Alpha Cat of what I didn’t know was ultimately going to become the growing JavaFamily “herd.” Down the line there would be “hers,” “his” and “ours” cats — growing to a maximum of 8 cats (currently at 5). But Sterling was always the top cat.

Of all the cats, she never, ever got a flea. She never had an injury. And she never got sick. She was a lean cat and when she started to get alarmingly thin and act peculiar, such as only wanting to eat in my office and insisting on only drinking water from red, plastic Solo cups (don’t ask how I figured that out) — I rushed her to the vet in tears. Hundreds of dollars later, even the vet was shaking her head and said, “I was prepared for us to have a diagnosis for you of anything from thyroid to leukemia but I have to tell you, this is the healthiest cat I’ve seen all week. I think she’s just being a stubborn old cat!” So from that point forward, I started to simply adjust to her idiosyncracies, and assumed as long as she was eating and playful, she was fine. She finally decided that she would eat downstairs again, but I added a daily personal dish of canned food to the communal dry food that was available. She gave up on the red, plastic cups, but did seem to prefer having a separate small bowl in addition to using the larger cat water bowl. In other words, I figured she was an old lady, I’d indulge her. She still liked to sit on books as we tried to read them, bat around paper balls, and sit on top of us at the most inconvenient moments. She was Sterling. Just thinner.

I prepared for her death for 18 months, certain that after 16+ years, it was imminent. Every time we needed a pet sitter, I would warn them that if Sterling suddenly passed away, not to get upset, it was just meant to be.

And yet, though we can prepare our minds, we really can’t prepare our hearts, can we?

It was a Sunday morning when I realized Sterling wasn’t eating anything. Because she was thin, she like to sit on warm things like our laptops, so I had prepared a warm spot for her a few weeks earlier on her favorite ottoman, covering a heating pad with fluffy towels so it would be warm and soft, but not get too hot. It was in the family room, one of her favorite places to be as it is the center of activity in our house. Her routine of late had become fairly simple — meow at us to prepare her a breakfast of canned food with her special dish of water in the kitchen, clean herself in the family room, then hop onto her “bed” on the ottoman. If one of us chose to sit on the sofa, then she would come to us instead of the heating pad. But Sunday, she had no interest in breakfast. Not even when I carried her over to it to show it to her. She simply went back to her perch on the ottoman instead. No one else in the family seemed to, but I swore she took on a smell that I called the smell of death.

At that very moment, my heart started breaking.

We had been scrambling to get out the door to go to church.  The children were performing. I sat there, somewhat numb. Praying to God.

“Please God, please don’t make me do this. Don’t make me choose. Please, please God, this is too much. If she needs to go, please take her from us quickly in her sleep.”

I felt horrible guilt. I had known, of course, that it was possible when she started to get thinner that she might have had diabetes or a thyroid condition, but I had also decided that if she did, I was not going to go down the road of forcing pills or shots on her. She was 18 years old. She was happy and active and as long as she was, I was going to let her be.

But suddenly I wondered if I had done her a terrible wrong. Should I have handled things differently? The guilt, the doubt, the pain roiled inside of me, an emotional typhoon I was trying to keep anyone from seeing. After church I had us run a few errands, I am sure in part to delay facing things when I got home.

Sterling was obviously on the decline — not interested in food. Still wanting to be held and loved, but not playful, not interested in anything else.

It is probably important to point out here something I have not yet shared with you. At this point JavaDad and I had been nearly two months into our trial separation — after ten years of marriage we were living under separate roofs, figuring out where to go from here.

JavaDad swung into action — feeding everyone dinner, taking care of the kids’ bath and bedtime routine, and then dealing with me.

We knew it was time. That the next day we would be calling the vet to have Sterling put down. It was what good pet owners do. But it hurt like hell. I went into the “bargaining” part of the Seven Stages of Grief — “But what if there are heroic measures we can take?” And he counseled me, “Is that fair to her, at her age? And for what? Another month of life? What kind of quality of life?”

I cried, like a wounded animal. Gutteral, awful sounds coming from me. And then came the triple-play that happens when my emotions are more than my body can handle. The simultaneous laughing-crying-asthma-attack. I’ve never seen myself in a mirror when it happens, but I am sure it is a frightening sight with the tears streaming, snot flying, loud laughter and wheezing all at the same time. It is not one of my finer qualities as a woman. And yet, it is something  JavaDad has come to understand about me (I won’t say appreciate, I’m not sure he appreciates it — but at least he doesn’t run away.)

Because I wasn’t sure what time we’d see the vet, in the morning I had to explain this to the children. As this was the first pet they remember losing, it was frankly, one of the worst conversations to have with them. (This, however, was a week before the Sandy Hook shootings, which turned out to be THE worst conversation.) My kids aren’t the kind of kids you can “gloss over” anything with. Especially JavaGirl. Her ability to grill someone should put her high on the CIA’s watch list for future recruits. With her unique blend of intense belief in Christianity and need for very factual explanations for everything, she wanted me to explain in great detail what would happen both to Sterling’s soul and body during the euthanasia process and afterward when she was cremated. Trying to keep myself together while being the mother I needed to be for them during this time was excruciating.

I called the vet’s office. I had steeled myself to be calm and factual. I was for the first four words. Fortunately they are pros, and they found a time slot for me with our preferred vet late that afternoon.

The children came home and sat with Sterling, taking pictures of her with their Nintendo 3DSes, which I found to be an interesting coping technique.

It was a gorgeous day and I took Sterling outside to feel the warm sunshine, but she made it clear that she did not want to be on the front step or anywhere outside. Though that morning she started to lose the use of one of her hind legs, she started to run inside. It made it clear to me that this was the end.

I held her for those final hours. She purred and nuzzled me, and I petted her and told her how much I loved her. I reminded her of how she had chosen me, and that we had been through a lot in 18 years, and I loved her through every bit of it.

JavaDad came home early from work to go to the vet with me — he didn’t think I’d manage to make it home on my own. Given where we were relationship-wise, the gesture was gigantic on his part.

After the vet’s office, the grief was unbearable. I couldn’t look at the dishes used to feed her. I couldn’t even look at the kitchen counter where I had prepared her food. JavaDad came over that day and the next to prepare lunches and dinners for the kids. He did something he hadn’t done in a long time — he hugged me. Later that night we flipped through photos and laughed about things Sterling (and the other cats) had done over the years. Laughing together was also something we hadn’t done much of lately.

In a short time things we had been working on for a long time were being worked out. At the risk of sounding (more) like a crazy cat lady, it was as if Sterling’s very last act of devotion — after her passing — was to push JavaDad and I together and force us to set things aside and reform into a family again. The grief of losing a beloved pet transformed into the joy of reconciling a marriage I wasn’t sure was going to make it. The same day I picked up Sterling’s ashes from the vet is the same day JavaDad moved back home.

I am so glad Sterling got her way.

Heaven

I’m trying (emphasis on trying) to be one of those matter-of-fact parents when it comes to the tough issues.  It’s a technique that works well with JavaBoy, the jury is still out on which parenting technique (if any) works well for JavaGirl.

So when one of our older cats was not looking well last week and I was concerned this may be the end of the road for her, I decided to prepare the kids for the possible conclusion the night before the vet visit.  Because I was going to have to take them with me and I didn’t want to have to handle making a tough decision and breaking the news to them and handling hysterical kids and my own emotions all at the same time.

“Kids, JavaCat is a very old cat and she’s sick, so we’re going to take her to the doctor.  Now, they are going to run some tests, and she may be so sick that she may not come home with us, she may go to heaven.” 

JavaBoy at first took the news extremely well, and then said, “For a little while, and then she’ll come back, right?”

Oh, no, this is not going as I planned.  “Um, no honey, once you go to heaven, you stay in heaven.  She would go to heaven and stay.  Like JavaDog went to heaven.”

And cue tears.  “But I don’t want her to go to heaven!”

“Yes, I know, honey, but eventually all of us will die and go to heaven.”

He thinks about this, “And what about the other kitties?  Will our other kitties go to heaven?”

“Well, eventually, but probably not all at the same time.”

“And when all the other kitties go to heaven, will we get the same number of new kitties?”

I then explained that we do not have a one-for-one exchange program with heaven, but that we will probably always have two or three cats and a dog.

The day of the visit, JavaBoy seemed pretty prepared.  JavaGirl mostly talked about “kitty not feeling well” and “kitty has to go to doctor” so I wasn’t sure if she grasped the heaven part.  But, as it turned out, JavaCat isn’t going to heaven — not yet.  She’s perfectly fine.  Her dehydration was due to being stubborn — she’s decided she only wants to drink water upstairs now, not downstairs and because she’s 15 years old, apparently she can pull these kinds of shenanigans.  She doesn’t have feline AIDs or a thyroid condition or any of the other things I had feared (even the vet had feared).  I just have an extra water dish to fill.  Whew. 

So I was pretty sure I had was done discussing heaven with the kids for awhile.  But no, I had to go find a bird.  Some people joke they have gay-dar, I have stray-dar.  If there is a lost or injured animal within 10 miles, I’m sure to find it.  And so it was that I saw the little injured bird outside Wal-Mart last night half-hopping, half-flying but then falling and flipping upside down in the mulch.  It was clear his leg was broken.  My first instinct was to bring it home and try to give it a safe place to heal, but I knew this wouldn’t make JavaDad happy, so I tried to stifle that instinct, and even left the shopping center to run other errands.  But then it started to rain, and I could not bear the thought of that poor little bird suffering in the rain.  So there I was, in the rain, emptying my children’s swim gear out of a mesh bag so I could go capture the bird.

I brought him home and remembered we actually had a birdcage — from our wedding (people slipped wedding cards into it)!  And so I made him a place to rest for the evening until I could call the wildlife hotline when they opened in the morning.  Once I touched base with a volunteer, she gave me the name of the rehabilitator, and I waited anxiously to hear back from the rehabilitator so I could take the bird over.

JavaGirl was thrilled with what she called her “new parrot.”  I explained that this was a bird who was hurt and we were taking him to a bird helper.  I also explained that this bird may not live, so we had to try not to be sad if he didn’t, but that we could at least try.

Per the instructions, I kept the cage covered with a towel, and kept the radio off and the kids even did a good job of being quiet to minimize the stress of the car ride for the bird.  I knew his chances were slim, he wasn’t looking super lively this morning, but I was feeling more hopeful the closer we got to our destination.  While at a red light, I lifted up the towel to take a look at our little charge.  He seemed way too still.  He had fooled me before, but this time it seemed real.  I opened the cage and reached over to feel him, and although still warm, his head lolled lifelessly.  He was gone, we’d lost the patient.

I had a quick internal debate.  We were five miles from the bird rehabilitator.  Do I continue driving, foist the lifeless bird on her with a knowing nod, and put on a show for the kids?  Or do I just tell them the truth?

I pulled the car over into a parking lot.  I triple checked the bird and broke the bad news.  “Kids, I’m sorry, the bird has died.  We’re not going to take him to the bird helper.  He’s gone to heaven now.”  Because we had a long car ride to our next destination, I decided to dispose of the body where we were, so I took it out, and let each child see it and say goodbye.  I went out of their eyesight and got rid of it.  When I came back to the car, JavaGirl asked, “Where is Birdie?”  Her eyes started to well up with tears.

Oh no, I thought she understood. 

“Honey, he died.  He’s gone.”

With her eyes still glistening, she said, “He’s flying.  He’s flying up high to heaven now.”  And she looked out her window, skyward, with a broad grin on her face.

Maybe she does understand this heaven stuff after all.