It’s a pretty average Saturday morning. I’m home for the weekend, standing in the kitchen and drinking down the somewhat bitter coffee in my hands. The rest of my family is either downstairs or elsewhere, and I’m all alone, not thinking, not doing anything. Just standing there.
My eyes fall somewhat naturally upon the front of my fridge, as the most interesting thing for me to look at it, with its collections of photographs and drawing from when my sister and I were younger. There’s one photograph in particular, however, that draws my attention: the somewhat blown-out image of a cat. Curled around herself like she’s sleeping, though her bright, golden eyes remain ever open. She’s a white cat with black splotches, earning her the name of Coco. “It’s like someone dropped a whole vat of cocoa over her back,” the woman at the SPCA said when we got her – or so I heard. I, myself, was about three years old at the time. Truth be told, she’s a somewhat plain-looking cat, despite the intensity and pride in her eyes that always made her so endearing to me. She’s also been dead for about a year now.
She was my first close encounter with death, really – which, at twenty-one, is a very fortunate thing for me to be able to say. I’ve known people who have died before, of course, and I’ve even had pets who had died before, but Coco was different. Coco was the first one that I was really close to.
There was something about Coco that was different from other cats from day one. I always attributed it to her life before our house – she was a year old when we got her, and already, she had mothered a litter of kittens. My own mother always talked about how Coco was too young to have given birth, but I always figured that her doing so gave her a very maternal instinct. From the moment my parents brought her home, she seemed to look at me and think, “that’s a child. I’m a mother. I’m going to protect that child.” And so she did. Whenever I was sick, she never drew too far. When my sister had her arm pulled from the socket and my mother ran to help her, Coco jumped on her back, knowing only that my sister was in pain and that the best way to protect her was to keep people from her. She was so protective of us children, that she came to be referred to as our “kitty-mama”. And, oddly enough, that’s somehow the way that we came to think of her: like a second mother, a caregiver in a tiny, furry body.
But cats and people both grow older, and before long, my sister and I were both young adults, and Coco was ancient. She shrunk in on herself, became so skinny that her bones jutted out from beneath her fur and we became concerned (we also taunted her with endless affectionate nicknames, might I add – “Cryptkeeper-cat”, “Yzma”, ect.). She couldn’t eat solid food as well as she used to, so we started buying her soft food, and because we didn’t want the dog to get into it, or the other cats to steal it from her, I would hold the can while she ate from it. I still remember the sounds: the soft lapping of her wet tongue, the low rumble of a happy purr. It was a job that required a lot of patience, so few people wanted to take it (even I complained at the time), but I’m glad that I did it now. I’m glad that we had that bonding experience.
Shortly after I started feeding her, she took on this habit of perching atop my legs whenever I sat down, staying there and growling whenever any of the other pets would approach me – particularly my dog, who also tries to spend a lot of time with me. I had visions of a dog and cat fight breaking out on top of me when she did it, but I usually let her get away with it. After all, she was Queen of this house, and I accepted my role as her throne.
And then, about a year ago while I was at school, I received a text from my mother, suggesting that I better come home because Coco wasn’t doing very well. I was initially hesitant to do so because I had class that day, but I went home anyway – and from the moment I walked through that door, I was glad I did so.
I don’t know why sickness has a smell, but it does. It infected the whole house that day, sour and off-putting, like a hospital instead of a home. And as I climbed the stairs, toward the closed bathroom door where my kitty-mama had been locked away from the other pets, it only got worse.
She lay motionless on the floor, even skinnier than I remembered. She couldn’t walk, and for some reason, I remember having the intense feeling that she must have been cold. I wrapped her up in my sweater and carried her downstairs, where we sat together while my family tried to decide what to do with her. We could take her to the vet, of course, but we all figured that she wouldn’t be coming back if we did.
I remember hoping that she died naturally at home, while I was holding her even. I figured that she deserved that – to pass away peacefully in the place where she had reigned, surrounded by the family that she had treasured so highly. I didn’t want to take her out from this house, out into the world where she would be seen as just another old, sick, plain cat.
But that day, we brought her to the vet. She had been an indoor kitty all her life, and she fought like hell every time we tried to remove her from the house, but she didn’t that day. She let me carry her to the car, still wrapped in my sweater, and though she had barely seemed aware of her surroundings before that moment, the minute I sat down, she laid her chin against my shoulder and she started to purr. “It’s alright,” she seemed to be promising me. “You have nothing to feel guilty about.”
The vet recommended euthanasia, as we had expected she might, and I made the decision to be there in the room while they did it. If she was going to die, then she wasn’t going to die alone. I would make sure of that. I sat beside her, petting and kissing her as they injected her with their needles, and as her pupils grew large and her eyes became empty, her fur was wet with my tears. I wanted to do that for her. She had spent all her life protecting me – the least I could do was be there for her as it ended.
It’s been a year since then. It was my first time experiencing a death like that – a death that came for someone I was so close to, and I death that I so vividly witnessed. But it would have happened eventually, and I don’t regret any of it. I’m happy that she got to lead a long, full, happy life surrounded by family, and I’m happy to know that she got precisely the ending that she deserved. Too often, we tend to see death as something grotesque, as something unmentionable, but it really isn’t. It’s nothing more than a part of life, and it doesn’t take anything away from the joy that preceded it.
Although I don’t have it yet, I intend to get a tattoo to remember Coco by – an Egyptian cat, which I think suits her best. After all, what better way to remember a kitty Queen than with the image of a cat as a god?