It shouldn't have been a surprise, but it seems that death so often catches us somewhat by surprise.
Gus had been frail this past year, losing weight and strength. His weight loss accelerated by April and I began to worry about leaving him for a long-planned trip to Hawaii to visit my dear friend Jeanne who has been ill. A vet at a nearby clinic was reassuring. "His lab work is fine," she said. "His kidneys are in great shape. He doesn't have diabetes. He's just old. Oh, it's possible that he could have intestinal cancer, but it's very costly to diagnose and would be hard to treat successfully at his age. Try some of this special food and see how he does. I'm sure it will be fine to leave him."
So we left, with our neighbor Kelly, who has a small pet-sitting business, minding our cats. Her emails were upbeat, but concerned: Gus was eating enthusiastically, but was still losing weight. I asked her about gastrointestinal problems. Yes. But manageable. She fought hard to keep him healthy, to keep him alive, while we were gone -- with massages and hand feeding and cuddling and daily encouragement. And we were thrilled when he met us at the door when we returned late last Wednesday.
But his appearance was a shock: his weight loss had gone into overdrive and his fur hung like an oversized coat on a body defined by prominent bones. He was ravenously hungry but his system could no longer process food. He had projectile diarrhea. As the week went on, he stopped grooming himself and, quite uncharacteristically, was smelly and unkempt. A lifelong model of calm with an even temper and loving nature, he was suddenly cranky and whined constantly. His weight had plummeted from 18 pounds last year to a fraction over five pounds.
But he still purred whenever I touched him, still melted into my arms when I picked him up, still took my hand in his paws and rubbed it all over his face -- things he has done since we adopted him and his brother Timmy as seven week old kittens back in 1998.
He was still in so many ways himself. When would we know to let go?
But at 2 a.m., I was suddenly awakened by the sound of very loud purring beside me. I could hear it through sleep and the ear plugs I often wear if Bob is snoring. I was astonished to see Gus standing beside me, purring and rubbing his face against mine. Then he settled on my chest, still purring, his paws embracing me. Every time I would drift off to sleep, he would rub or touch my face, seeming to beg "Stay with me." I had a sense that he was saying a very personal, very loving "Goodbye" with the last of his strength. As the night went on, there was another round of dashes to the cat box with explosive diarrhea, crying, wincing with pain when I touched his stomach. Whimpering, he cuddled close and I knew it was time.
Bob called the veterinary clinic before dawn and we set off with Gus several hours later, choking back the pain behind our ordinary conversation, reassuring Gus who lay moaning in his carrier. I longed for our former vet in California from whom we had adopted Gus and Timmy, someone who knew him and would understand the magnitude of this loss that loomed before us.
But at this seemingly impersonal clinic, they did understand, creating a peaceful, supportive, caring environment, letting us have time to express our love to Gus before and after his sedation and the ultimate heart-stopping injection and to linger afterwards to caress him and to cry over this wonderful animal companion who had meant so much to us over the years. He was the only cat we had who had known every one of our other cats in our 32 year adventure in sharing our lives with a series of unique and loving cats. Gus also truly raised our current generation -- Maggie, 7, Sweet Pea,4, and Hammie, 2 -- from kittenhood. He was the cat who always purred, loved to be held and was invariably sweet and caring in the worst of times.
As we stood there today, stroking and holding Gus as his life ebbed away, we talked wistfully of the possibility of an afterlife, of a rainbow bridge where we might -- despite all of our religious doubts -- meet again with our beloved Gus, with Timmy and Freddie and Marina. We imagined how happy he would be to see his littermate Timmy, dead seven years and one month to the day. We hoped. We dreamed. And we said "Goodbye": Godspeed, sweet Gus. May you discard your elderly, ill body like an old coat and soar into a new life of unending love and adventure.
"I hope," Bob said, stroking his still warm body. "I hope if there is such a thing as reincarnation, that Gus will have another life as the highest order being possible."
He paused and thought about it.
"Maybe this was the highest order," he said. "Maybe cats and dogs are closer to perfection than we are."
I can't help but think that may be so -- at least in Gus' case. He was perfect: perfectly loving, perfectly wonderful, perfectly Gus. We'll love and miss him forever.