On Knowing When It’s Time
Warning: This piece takes you through the last weeks of a cat with cancer, and contains pictures from those weeks. If animal suffering, cancer, death or grief are triggering for you, you should avoid reading this. If you have a sick pet, you should avoid reading this. I sobbed when I wrote it, and my editor sobbed when she edited it. Read at your own risk.
I met Bandit on Oct. 31, 2001. I was leaving my apartment to go to a Halloween party I had no interest in. It was dark, just after sunset, and I was rolling through the parking lot when my headlights picked up something very tiny sitting on the pavement in my path.
I slowed down. The very tiny thing didn’t move.
“That looks like a kitten,” I thought.
It continued to not move.
“That can’t be a kitten,” I thought. But I stopped anyway, a foot away from it.
It was a kitten, all of six weeks old, sitting primly in front of my car. His whiskers had been chopped off. He was (and still is) the cutest kitten I have ever seen.
He sat still as I came around the car and scooped him up, was calm as I took him home and tucked him into my bathroom with some food and water. I left him to meet my then-boyfriend at the party.
“Absolutely not,” the man who is now my husband said as soon as I told him I’d found a kitten. “We do not need another cat.”
I begged and pleaded for the rest of the night. He was unmoved: We did not need another cat.
When we got home I brought the tiny little kitten out of the bathroom. He sat, adorably, on the palm of one hand when I presented him to my partner.
The man visibly melted. “Oh,” he said. “OK.”
It wasn’t long before we discovered that Bandit’s initial calm had been an act. He dealt well with the other cats, and eventually the dog, but he wasn’t fond of strangers, and he was absolutely terrified of children.
Ten years later, Bandit was less cute (honestly, he grew into kind of a raggedy adult), but he was My Cat and I was His Person. He spent every moment at my side. If I was on my laptop, his head was resting on the keyboard. If I was playing video games, he was laying between my legs. If I was sitting on my exercise ball at my computer, he was sitting on the ball behind me or balancing in my lap.
He was an escape artist; he loved being outside, and he excelled at waiting until just the right moment to slip out the door and into the wash behind our house. He’d run from anyone else, but if I went outside and called him, he’d come to me. If I went outside without him, he’d sit at the door and meow until I came in.
He was my cat. I was his person.
And he was sick.
And I couldn’t see it.
I couldn’t see it when he started twitching and jumping and biting at himself. I thought he had fleas, even though no evidence of fleas could be found. I couldn’t see it when he started to lose weight or when he stopped spending every second by my side.
I knew something was wrong the day he climbed in my lap and released a biblical flood’s worth of urine onto my lap, but I figured he had a urinary tract infection or was just really pissed (heh) at me for something.
I took him to the vet.
He had cancer. He had cancer everywhere.
The vet told me that the years I’d expected to spend with him had turned into weeks, that it was too far advanced to make it worth treating, that I needed to be prepared to let him go.
And that I would know when it was time.
Everyone kept telling me that. I would know, they said. I would know when it was time to let him go. “How?” I asked. “You just will,” they said.
They were wrong. I didn’t know. It’s one of the greatest regrets of my life.
He lived for six weeks, I think, after the vet found the cancer. Six weeks of utter hell, for him and for me.
He started hiding in my daughter’s bedroom. I had to move the litter box into her room, because otherwise he’d just go on her carpet. I had to put it on the floor, because he was too weak to jump onto anything. After awhile, he just started skipping the litterbox entirely and, instead, used the furniture he was sleeping on.
And I thought, “It’s not time yet, because if it was time, I’d know.”
Our days started and ended with me shoving medications down his throat. I had to give him a shower every day, because feces would get matted in his fur if I didn’t. He didn’t mind the showers so much, I think; I don’t know if the warm water helped with the pain or if he was just too weak to fight them.
And still I held on, because I was waiting to know. And I didn’t. I knew that he was hurting. I knew that I was hurting. I knew that I needed him. I was waiting for a miracle.
His weight dropped from 12 pounds to 6 pounds. The vet expressed concern but didn’t push. I wish he’d pushed, at least a little.
My dad saw a picture of him and replied with, “Honey. He’s not going to get better.”
My husband looked down at us one day, when I was sitting next to him while he ate, and said, “Baby, You have to let him go. You have to.”
“But he’s eating,” I said. “I’ll know when it’s time. It’s not time. I’ll know when it’s time.”
“I’m telling you,” he said gently. “It’s time. I’m sorry.”
I made the appointment.
I spent the next few days trying to make him as happy as I could. I took him outside and let him walk in the grass for as long as he wanted to. I waited until he came and crawled into my lap, and I sat there and tried to burn that moment into my memory.
The next morning, for the first time since his diagnosis, he laid down on my chest and he purred. It was a weak purr, but it was content, and it broke my heart and filled it at the same time.
And the morning after that, we took him to the vet to let him go.
I won’t recount that experience here, because it was horrible for everyone. All I will say is that, if I could do it again, I’d have found someone to come to our home. I wouldn’t take him to a vet. I especially wouldn’t have taken him to that vet.
But if I could do it again, and I again made the mistake of not letting him go earlier, I wouldn’t do it at all. When we took him to the vet for that final visit he only had days left. His pain had abated enough that he was moving around the house again, using the litter box, eating, socializing. He was saying goodbye, I think.
I wish I hadn’t done it.
I knew it wasn’t time.