What My Dead Cat Taught Me About Love

“On Valentine’s Day when I was five years old, my family went to the pet store to pick out a cat. They didn’t have any very young kittens; only a six-month-old cat whose family had to give her up because she didn’t get along with their dogs. The room we met her in had carpeted walls that she climbed because she was nervous, looking like a crazy kitty version of Spiderman. My parents asked me if I wanted to get this cat or to wait for a “real” kitten. I said I wanted this cat. Her name was Cleo.

That was twelve and a half years ago. The other day Cleo came and laid on top of my legs while I was in bed. I took a photo (bottom left) because it was unusual for her and I thought it was cute. Now I think maybe it was her saying goodbye. She was always such a tough, scrappy little thing and we all thought she was going to live to be thirty, just so she could keep climbing onto our laps at inconvenient times and escaping into the backyard, but she only made it to thirteen. I love you, Cleo. Rest in peace.”

These were the words I posted, captioning a collage of pictures of my late cat, Cleo.

My last photo of Cleo, laying on top of my legs in bed.

This morning, my mother and I took Cleo to the vet because she had a mass in her mouth. She reeked; she wasn’t eating or drinking. They weighed her, finding that she had lost two pounds in as many weeks–which, when a creature only weighs nine pounds to begin with, is a lot. The vet looked at the abscess under Cleo’s tongue and told us that, if it were him, he would put her down.

So we did.

The first injection knocked her out, and she fell asleep in my arms wrapped in a towel. It was the stillest she has ever been in my arms; she was never a good cuddle-cat. When she was fast asleep, the vet gave her a second injection. He checked her pulse thirty seconds later and she was gone.

I cried a lot. (I’m crying now.) Cleo became part of our world in my arms; she left it in my arms, too. It seemed appropriate. When the vet got a better look at the abscess under her tongue after she passed, he said that he knew for sure it was cancerous. We made the right decision; Cleo could not eat or drink, and probably would have starved slowly and painfully if we hadn’t put her down. But it didn’t change the way her death tore me apart.

Cleo in a rare cuddly moment.

It was not, necessarily, that she was gone–although she is, and it’s heartbreaking, and I will miss her endearing, ill-timed headbutts of affection for a long time. It was not that it felt like a betrayal, although it did: she went to the vet in our care that morning with no idea that she wouldn’t be coming back. It was more that I felt I didn’t love her well enough.

I know, in some reasonable part of my brain, that that’s not true. I loved her. She didn’t die wishing that I had spent more time petting her or paying attention to her, wishing that I had cleaned her litterbox more frequently or bought her extra cat toys. But I still felt like I hadn’t done her justice. Cleo was one of four house pets: we have one other cat and two dogs. She was the least social of them all, the least cuddly, and naturally we all paid her less attention because she was more of a lone creature.

Cleo, putting up with my silly photo ops.
Cleo, putting up with my silly photo ops.

She liked it that way. She preferred to spend her days out in the backyard, chasing bugs and mice, instead of indoors being hugged and kissed. That doesn’t stop me from thinking about how much time I have spent holding and petting and kissing and cooing over our other cat, Tiger, which I never spent with her. It doesn’t halt the sudden painful regret that twists at my insides when I think of the times she meowed at me and headbutted my hands in one of her rare calls for attention, only to have me pat her on the head and send her on her way. I know she never felt disappointed by my “rejections,” that in all likelihood she did not care. She did not give a rat’s ass that I have dozens of photos of my other pets and much fewer of her, but I still feel irrationally guilty about that. She had no clue whatsoever that I cooed “I love you” to the other animals much more often than I did to her, but tell that to my heart.

Cleo “helping” me work on a sewing project.

Tonight I stood in my shower and considered all this and thought, If I feel this bad about the ridiculous, nonexistent ways I “failed” my cat, how is it going to feel some day when I think of all the things I never did for a human I care about?

I think about my parents: about how I always let my mom clean the house by herself. How I always let my father wash the cars and change the oil. These are small things, I know: but it’s the small things that pile up. I think of all the people in my life whom I never tell often enough how much they mean to me, how much I love them. Cleo would not have understood me, had I ever had any long talks with her about those things. But people can understand.

This is what you have to ask: if a person in your life whom you love dies tomorrow, will they know that you love them?

Have you told them? Have you shown them?

We are all imperfect creatures. We forget to show and tell. And it is unrealistic to expect us to spend every minute of every day thinking of ways to show our loved ones how important they are to us. But there are small moments in time when your heart stalls a little, when you weigh the benefits of showing your love against the costs. Moments in which you have to decide whether you’re going to help do this or listen to that. Moments in which most of us, much of the time, choose not to, because it requires energy or thought or time we would rather spend on ourselves.

Today, my dead cat taught me that spending it on yourself does not pay off.

Cleo taught me that love is what pays off.

Cleo--showing her love for my brother & I.
Cleo–showing her love for my brother & I.

To the friends and family who might read this: I love you more than I can say, more than I will ever remember to say. I can only hope that you always know that, no matter how busy or distant or ungrateful I may be.


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