The first. The final.
The rhythm of life has resumed its customary pulse, seemingly strong, steady, but always, always, somewhere it fails. The many roads twine together to the horizon, and we cannot see when they will separate, though signs warn me of what approaches. Sometimes I may take an exit ramp to a new route. Other times, I pause at a rest stop. The inevitable is delayed, if only for a short time.
I like to fancy I am the driver, but in truth I am merely behind the wheel, unseen forces powering the machine. But sometimes others ride with me. They are subject to the same unseen forces, but which path they ultimately take is in my hands.
Of all the things I value, I cherish the illusion of agency most. It is privilege to be able to believe one chooses one’s path freely, but how can one be free without understanding?
I have seen what it is to lack agency. To have no choice, and no understanding of this. To have a life held in the hands of another. Will it be thus at the end for me, or will my illusions persist until that clock ceases ticking?
I held her in my hands once, tiny, a helpless ball of grey and black fluff, sharp needle talons perforating my shirt as I fed her what her absent mother could not. We had swooped in, benevolently but not unselfishly, to take on this role, inventing drama into the story. I learned first-hand how tenuous, how faint the path can seem when one first finds it, struggling with mysteries known to others but not to me. Maps were found, guidebooks into the ways of young kittens, and soon the way was located. Eleanor grew strong alongside her sister Victoria, trading places along the way on the weight charts until pulling forward as they entered adulthood. She was the lighter-coloured one, the more social one, tail high, eyes trusting and seeking, back foot kicking as she rubbed along a corner wall.
She was strong and healthy until the day when she began throwing up. Her weight dropped. Concerned, we took her to the vet, who found a strange shadow in her stomach—perhaps a staple? But we hadn’t used staples in years. It wasn’t until I caught her in the act of chewing on the plastic-coated wire antenna on the back of the radio in the office that I understood—and knew now why that wire had almost vanished. She developed feline Irritable Bowl Syndrome after that, and was on steroidal medication for years—medication administered in liquid form, as she was exceedingly clever at seeming to swallow a pill, only to spit it out later. The steroids restored her lost weight and more. On the feline Chonk Chart, she was a Heckin’ Chonker. And that was not the least of it. She also suffered from absorbtive lesions on her teeth, meaning that after a series of dental operations, she retained only her tiny front teeth and her canines. But the missing teeth certainly did not lessen her appetite—particularly if there were Swiss Chalet chicken in the house.
Eleanor was an insistent cat. Touch her, and she expected—demanded—attention. She’d give a grunting meow (as if to say “What?!”), and then the purr would switch on, and she stare at you, look of bliss on her face, until you complied. She was also the social committee, especially after we lost Eowyn—the one cat of our clowder who would greet guests, although she was sometimes moody about being touched by them. That (somewhat charming) grumpy streak was a particular part of her personality in the last few years.
Towards the latter part of last year, she developed a swelling on her cheek. The vet found that the remaining back teeth on her left side had mostly disintegrated and likely abscessed, so we had them removed. The swelling went down for awhile, but came back, so she was treated for infection. Again, the swelling went down, only to return. That’s when further examinations were done. And that’s when we learned that time was ticking down for Eleanor. How long? We did not know. But her life was in our hands, and although we did not know when, we knew that the twisting strand of her life would reach its end, in all likelihood on a day we would be forced to choose.
Agency over the life of another is the kind of power no one should desire to possess, but yet for pets we must. Cats cannot tell us they are in pain; in fact, they will do all they can to hide it. They may be tiny murderballs but they are also prey themselves, and as such they react to pain subtly at first, but as it increases they are wont to hide. But a cat can’t tell you directly what the pain is like. And most significantly, a cat can’t tell you when it’s too much.
Last week, after months of slow decline, the swelling ballooned. Eleanor had taken to spending most of her time sleeping on top of the cat tree or under the bed. Feeding time, when she received her medication, had turned into a game of hide and seek. She lost weight, her hip bones becoming more prominent, her fur dulled. She had sneezing fits, and her left eye and nose would fill with discharge, increasingly brownish red in colour. There was an odour.
We made the appointment. We knew what that meant.
I don’t know what she felt. Pain? Relief? Would she have liked to fight to the very end? What choice would she have made had she been able to?
I felt like a traitor as I lured her out of her hiding place on Monday. She was still Eleanor—still the grunt when she was disturbed, still the clicking back claws. Still the look of bliss as she began to purr. Still the tail high, but always, always—the tip twitching. I took her onto my lap, let her stay as long as she wanted.
At the vet, growling and hisses, until I once again pulled her onto my lap, where she finally settled, a faint purr beginning to sound, until it faded for the last time out into eternity.
I know we did the hard thing, the right thing, the kind thing. Not just at the end, but in the beginning, and throughout her life—a small price to pay for the over 14 years when her path entwined with mine. This was a choice I made, knowing what the end result inevitably is for such choices; the unknown and the joy is what lies between. The thread of her being is woven now in the tapestry of my memories, a route highlighted in the well-worn map of life.
And so, for one last time I hold her close, at the end of life, as at the beginning.