One of the more thought-provoking lines in my favorite book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, reads, “I envy those who are dead and gone; they are better off than those who are still alive.”
This rarely feels more true than when your loved one is suffering and you know it’s better for them to exit this mortal coil ... as you, the living, must carry on feeling their absence. Especially if it’s you that has to make the decision about whether it’s their time to go or not.
This week, I said goodbye to my cat, Mozzie. And although her fate was ultimately out of my hands, I found myself still making the difficult decision to put her to rest.
For me, Mozzie was more than just a pet; she was a true companion, and a source of emotional stability. I live alone, and let me tell you, it sucks. When you’re young and out all the time, it’s not so bad; at a certain point of life, it becomes important to have someone to come home to at the end of the work day. Someone to provide a caring presence in your personal space. Someone to depend on you.
Mozzie was the neediest cat I’ve ever seen — forget any notion of the aloof feline; Mozzie would be waiting at the door whenever I arrived home, peeking through the blinds to make sure it was me — but that’s exactly the kind of cat I needed. She showed me a lot of love, and asked for nothing in return but love and a good home (and food. Lots and lots of food). God definitely gave me the right furry roommate.
I found her on Valentine’s Day several years ago. It was a bitter cold night, and was about to snow. I heard her crying outside my window and realized I couldn’t let this poor thing stay out in the bad weather (where I lived at the time, it was not unusual for cat owners to abandon the pets outside when told they couldn’t keep them). So I let her in, and she curled up on my bed, and never left. I never saw any signs posted for a missing cat of her description, so I kept her. She had a flea collar on at the time and was solid white in color; since I liked the character played by Willie Garson on the TV show “White Collar” (get it?), I named her Mozzie.
She was the most oral cat -- either eating or “talking” or licking. Licking herself, licking me, licking her toy banana. Anything I was eating, she had to have some of it. Didn’t matter what it was. She’d lick the moisture off of a plastic salad container lid just to get a taste. She was also my furry alarm clock; when she was ready to eat, she would come pester me to get up. But she was always good about giving me privacy when needed -- though if I did have a friend over, she’d have to come and check them out and make sure they were good people. She warmed to new people very quickly.
A few weeks ago, she suddenly got very sick. I still don’t really know what happened. But she got very lethargic and stopped eating, with extremely labored breathing. We took her to the vet, and the good folks at Midway Veterinary Hospital did what they could. They gave her some medicine and oxygen, and for a time, she got better. But her lungs were still a mess and her breathing still heavy. There were a couple possibilities; the worst-case scenario was lung cancer. But as the tests were being run, she continued to deteriorate.
By the time they decided the worst-case scenario was the most likely one, it had already become apparent to me. This once bright-eyed, lively, athletic cat was weak and frail. She had such a hard time breathing that she couldn’t sleep. She hid in the back room in the dark, and would only stumble out to eat or go to the bathroom. Soon, she stopped doing that. It made you cry to watch her. She looked like she was just miserable.
If there was a positive in any of this, it’s that I felt prepared emotionally to deal with this kind of situation. When I was very young, my Grandpa Meriel suddenly came down with a lung disease. He had to stay hooked up to an oxygen tank, confined to his bed. He was my favorite person in the world, and helped me become a writer; I’d get in bed with him and we’d make up stories together and write them down. But I knew he was suffering. He passed when I was 9. And even at that early age, I knew it was for the best. I missed him, but I wasn’t devastated. I was glad. I knew he was in a better place, and his physical misery was over now.
About 20 years later, my Papaw Carl on my mom’s side also passed in a way that was a relief to me. He had always been such a sharp-minded, active person, a bricklayer who loved to build things, solve puzzles, and play Scrabble with his grandson. But after a couple of strokes, he was a shell of that person, stuck in a Hospice bed, basically a prisoner of his own body and fading mind. That was no way for someone like that to exist. He passed around Christmas. It feels like that should have ruined my holiday, but it didn’t. Again, I loved him, I missed him, but I was glad he was no longer suffering.
These experiences have shaped my perspective on existence in general. I am a big believer that quality of life is more important than life itself. If you’re miserable, it’s better to go and not be miserable anymore. It’s better just to be at rest. Ideally, you may even be somewhere wonderful in the afterlife.
So when the vet said that Mozzie probably had 3-6 months left to live, I knew there was no way that could happen. Even if she did make it that long, she’d just feel worse and worse and worse. I knew it was time to say goodbye.
I’d prepared for this emotionally with my grandfathers, the concept of losing my loved ones being the necessary thing. But it had never been in my hands. Here, I had to make the difficult decision to put her to sleep soon.
There was no choice, really. It had to be done. If I loved her, I couldn’t let her be in pain just for my sake. I had to let her go. And so, we made the appointment for this past Tuesday.
I worked Monday evening, designing the front section of the Commonwealth Journal, and went over to my folks’ house to eat dinner. I tried to hurry back so I could spend Mozzie’s final night with her, sitting with her and petting her and comforting her. I was too late. I came home to find that she had already passed.
I felt bad that she was alone, that I was probably at work and wasn’t there for her, but a friend noted to me that animals often try to go away and die in privacy. That helped. I suspect that’s why Mozzie was spending so much time in the back room in dark, away from where I spent most of my time at home; she knew death was imminent and was distancing herself. At least, that’s what I’m going to choose to believe.
Sometimes it feels like life is little more than a succession of deaths, literal or figurative — losing what you love. The people you love, the pets, the relationships, the things and familiarities and traditions and creature comforts. These things go away, and leave you to suffer in the wake. The dead have no more worries; they’re gone. They’re untouchable at that point. Lucky them. It’s the living who carry the pain of death. Lucky us. And eventually, at some point, that dead loved one will be us — it’s unavoidable, it happens to everyone sooner or later — and we will get our turn to be at rest while someone else is pained by our absence.
So do I envy Moz a little bit right now? Yeah, I do. She has no more worries, ever. No stresses, no pain, no hunger. I, meanwhile, am adapting to coming back to an empty house. To starting to call her name or go to feed her, and remembering there’s no point to it. To going to bed and feeling alone in the darkness.
And I know this will likely not be the last such loss I have to endure, and I dread the ones to come even more. I won’t even get into that. I know I can’t run from it or prevent it; I have to just mentally prepare for it, as must we all.
But more than anything, I’m grateful for Mozzie. I’m grateful for the time I got to spend with her. I’m grateful that I got to rescue her from the cold, to give her a good life, and to experience all the magic she provided to the person she loved. And I’m grateful I got to love her back.
Ecclesiastes also inspired the famous phrase, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.” How and when we go, few of us ever know. We scramble to prevent it, to push death as far away as possible, but at some point, all of those efforts come to futility. But we do well to make the most of the time we have, enjoying the things we love.
As I go to pick up her food dish and water bowl and put them away, I know that my dear Mozzie did eat, drink, and enjoyed plenty of merry times with me. And there’s no reason for me to envy that, because I enjoyed all of those times right along with her.
Love you, girl.
CHRISTOPHER HARRIS is a reporter for the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at email@example.com