4/1/2002 – 9/1/2023
I’m a dog person, always have been. It’s never prevented me from having cats, but for whatever reason, I prefer canines. But yesterday we said goodbye to Gilbert, our cat, and a member of our family for over 21 years. It seems he’s been with us forever, and it hurts that he’s gone. I’m surprised how much it hurts, so much so, that I am moved to write this. There is a palpable void much larger than the space he occupied.
We have a video of bringing Gilbert home for the first time. Our eldest daughter was four at the time, she’s 25 now. After Gilbert grew out of his “cute, playful kitten” phase, he seemed indifferent to our presence. In fact, it seemed that he barely tolerated us living in his castle. In our previous homes we had cat doors so he could come and go as he pleased. He was a natural born killer. In a home where we lived for but one year, he murdered more than 36 mice. We know this because he brought them home to us. Who knows how many more carcasses he left behind out in the open field.
He demanded little and was a furry friend to our daughters from childhood to young adulthood. He gravitated to them and my wife. I was rarely needed. Perhaps he knew I was of the canine persuasion. Yet, he tolerated us bringing a puppy into our home that we named Romeo. He quickly informed Romeo who was in charge. After a few hisses, spits, and a claw to the face the pecking order had been set. From then on, there were no problems between them. In fact, they looked out for each other. If you stepped on Gilbert’s tail as he patrolled the kitchen under your feet, Romeo was there in an instant to make sure he was okay. If Romeo was at the door, Gilbert would alert you that the dog wanted in. They were buddies.
Gilbert seemed fearless, until we moved into new homes. He would spend more than a week under the blankets of our daughter’s bed. He would not emerge from his spot under her feet until well after everyone went to sleep and the house was quiet. I’d find him patrolling in the dark in the middle of the night as he surveyed the new unknown territory. Then suddenly after days of being absent, he’d emerge again, back in charge as if he never left.
When we said goodbye to Romeo after 13 years, Gilbert did too. Gilbert usually made himself scarce when we had company, but when the vet showed up for Romeo’s sendoff, Gilbert curled up next to Romeo on his pillow despite the stranger’s presence.
Gilbert’s health had been in decline for some time as he was diagnosed with renal issues. Our daughter got a water fountain for him which I am sure added years to his life because he used it many times each day. He successfully made the transition from a capable outdoor predator to an indoor lounger. His outdoor exploring in our countryish home became limited to an occasional patrol around the perimeter of the house. His days of mice hunting became hours of bird watching from a favorite elevated spot in our garden not far from our kitchen porch from where he could survey his kingdom.
He became more vocal in these last few years and spent most of his time indoors. We have no cat door here, but he’d let you know when he wanted to go out. He met me every morning in the kitchen while I made the coffee. He would sit by the cabinet door where his treats were kept and let me know that I wasn’t getting to them fast enough. At bedtime he’d sit on our bed waiting for us while we brushed teeth in the adjoining bathroom. He’d let us know that we were taking too long. I usually got to bed first. He’d lean over his shallow cat bed that sat between us and touched his nose to my nose to remind me that he wanted to be petted. I’d do that until my wife came to bed. At that point, I once again became a second-class citizen as his attention turned to her. In the middle of the night, I would usually find him hovering over her like Snoopy imitating a vulture from the top of his doghouse.
Gilbert increasingly relied on us these last few years and we accommodated him in every way. I called him King Gilbert because we effectively had become his servants. He’d became cranky and demanding. If we stayed up later than usual watching television, he’d come into the TV room and let us know. He required more grooming because he became too frail and stiff to do it himself. His hearing and sight worsened as time went on. In recent days we had to lift him in and out of bed though he’d occasionally attempt it himself. Joining me at the coffee pot in the morning was no longer a daily occurrence.
Then the other night, when we were headed to the bedroom, I found him laid out on the floor by our bedroom door. He’d let out a cry, not one of pain but rather one of frustration. “This is getting too hard,” was my interpretation. He didn’t appear to be in pain but I’m certain he didn’t have the energy to make it to the TV room and so he had decided to wait for us there. We had decided it was time to call the vet.
We notified our daughter a half hour away. She wanted to be here to say “goodbye,” so she came over the night before with her boyfriend and they stayed the night. The day before the vet came, I took Gilbert out to his favorite spot in the garden. He stiffly explored the fauna in a small radius around his spot and soon curled up there. I don’t know what he could see, what he could smell, what he could hear, but I know he knew where he was. It was a familiar comfy place. He put his head down as if to nap. I decided to leave him there while I swept up nearby. A few minutes later I came back to check on him and he was gone. I found him not far away under some thick brush. He had gone exploring but he seemed to be befuddled about getting out from where he was. I lifted the brush out of his way with the end of the broom handle and he made his way quickly back to the garden stairs. He stiffly stumbled down the steps like an arthritic drunk to make his way back to the house. I’d picked him up at this point to relieve him of the effort.
We were glad the doctor was coming the next morning because Gilbert had stopped eating completely. He’d drink water, but not much. It was obvious to see that he took much comfort in being held, so we did that. He slept between us for the last time that evening, it seemed surreal. In the middle of the night, I felt him leaving the bed and then heard him stumble down the stairs we’d set up for him at the foot of the bed. I had soon fallen back to sleep, but he awoke me with a cry sometime later. I found him next to me by the bed as I was closest to the door. I lifted him back into his bed and he fell soundly asleep.
It was 7:15 the next morning and the vet called to tell us he was on the way. We brought Gilbert still in his bed out to the living room, the same spot we had said goodbye to Romeo 4 years earlier. We gave him many pets and kisses. The weight of 21 years and 5 months of memories was unmistakably present. Gilbert let out a cry, as if he could read our collective thoughts. Again, not a cry of pain, but one I would interpret as him realizing the reason for all of us being there together with him. The doctor gave him a sedative, Gilbert did not react. A few seconds later, another cry. Was he sensing a slipping away? Was he saying goodbye? I don’t know, but it pains me still thinking about it. A second injection put him gracefully to sleep.
A few hours later we gathered outside where I had dug a grave for Gilbert. We still had Romeo’s ashes in a box, so we laid them to rest together in the shade of a living Christmas tree that we had replanted. My wife read a beautiful poem. I placed two rocks over the site, a large one for Romeo a smaller one for Gilbert.
Last evening, I went to pick us up dinner that we had pre-ordered. We were too emotionally drained for either of us to cook. Out on the front walkway I had stopped to looked back towards the rocks near the spruce tree. There were two birds there pecking around them. I grabbed my iPhone to take a pic. On the zoom I saw that they were doves. I had missed the shot. They flew up over my head toward the driveway and perched on a telephone wire overhead. I didn’t miss the next two shots.
I don’t believe this to be coincidence, but I do believe in miracles, as small as they may be. There have been many miracles in my life. The largest are undeniable, my sobriety, my wife, our daughters, and our families and friends at large. The smaller miracles are the ones that are with us every day. They are the quiet ones. The innocent ones that we take for granted when we are not paying attention.
If I put this out there, and you have stuck with me this far, you must know that this is cathartic and more obviously more selfishly for me than it is for you. Perhaps it’s that I’ve become increasingly aware that our time here is fleeting and there is no time like the present to look around, to take stock, and to be grateful for what we have.
I’ve come to think that the larger miracles in life are more likely if we take the time to have gratitude and appreciation for the smaller ones. I think what this little cat taught me, is that if a human can be compassionate and caring for another species, we can certainly be that for each other. It is in that, that I have hope.
"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard." – Winnie The Pooh