Molly’s Last Day

The first photo of Molly I ever took.

The first photo of Molly I ever took.

My cat Molly died on June 8, 2018.

She had been suffering from some minor health issues for several months, but two weeks before she died things got a bit worse, and then dramatically so. On June 6th we thought we had a handle on things; we knew she was diabetic and that she would need special care going forward, but she also hadn’t been eating or drinking very much and was losing weight. I asked the vet to monitor her blood glucose for the first day of her treatment so that we would be guaranteed to get her requirements right. The insulin worked, but the vet was concerned that Molly didn’t appear to be doing well otherwise, and asked to keep her overnight. On the morning of June 7th I got called to the vet’s office. Around noon we were told that Molly’s condition had worsened significantly despite her responding well to insulin treatments. Her heart was failing, there was fluid in her chest, her kidneys were likely also failing, and she now had to be force-fed with a syringe. There were a few tests left that might have given us a firm diagnosis, but the prognosis for all the potential diagnoses was a painful death from heart failure sometime in the next few days or weeks. We took Molly home. About twenty-four hours later the vet came to our apartment, and Molly passed away peacefully in my arms. She was, we think, fifteen years old.

Molly in my mother's backyard.

Molly in my mother’s backyard.

To say that Molly was an important part of my life would be a gross understatement. I’d had pets before, and loved them, but the way Molly fit into my life was different. On July 23, 2004, I didn’t own a phone, and so I was using the pay phone outside my apartment in Sudbury when a brown tabby with big, goofy eyes crossed Kathleen Street—which despite the lateness of the hour and the roughness of the neighbourhood was actually experiencing heavy traffic—and came into the phone booth with me. She was chatty, and wanted to rub against my legs. I’d watched her cross the street, heart in my throat the entire time, absolutely certain I was about to witness this idiot cat get run over by somebody’s pickup truck. I decided that one miracle of survival was unlikely enough, this cat should not attempt to undertake a second. I finished my call early, picked her up—which she was not especially keen about—and took her inside. I did not anticipate keeping her.

That night I fed her chicken, which she refused to eat, and made a makeshift litter box from a Rubbermaid bin I emptied out and some shredded newspaper, which she refused to use (though she didn’t use anything else, either). From the condition of her fur and so on I guessed that she had belonged to someone, but that she’d been out of doors for a while. She looked in decent health, but was dirtier than well-cared-for outdoor cats generally are. Later, a vet would tell me that she was at least a year old when I found her, but could have been as old as three. Abandoned and abused cats were not a rare find in the neighbourhood at the time, so when the stores opened the next day I bought cat food and a proper litter box. I also took some photos of the cat and put up posters around the neighbourhood, on telephone poles, on the community bulletin boards at the convenience stores, that sort of thing. Two people came to look, but both said she wasn’t their cat.

After a while I realized that nobody was going to claim this cat, and my options were turn her over to a shelter or keep her myself. Julianne, my girlfriend at the time, worked for a farm where the excess cats from the local shelter were kept, and I was not impressed. The care they received was mostly a form of benign neglect, and they were sometimes picked off by coyotes or trampled by livestock. And I’d heard stories of other things that, while not actually harming the cats, were not things I thought were acceptable. Julianne did what she could to make it a better place for the animals, but one person with no real authority can only do so much. I decided to keep the cat.

I wasn’t the one to name Molly. I remember there being conversations around naming her, but I don’t remember any of the other names that were proposed, only that Julianne was the one to suggest “Molly,” and that it seemed right. My memory of those days is fuzzy; not only was it a long time ago, I was living in extreme poverty—these were the days when my grocery budget was roughly twenty dollars a month—and my health was deteriorating pretty rapidly. I know that it took Molly a long time to be comfortable with me picking her up, but that she was otherwise extremely affectionate and chatty. She liked to spend time in window sills, and my landlord, who lived above me, said that she would sit in the window and cry for a good half an hour after I left the apartment.

Molly amongst her toys.

Molly amongst her toys.

March of 2005 was a tough month for me. Julianne and I split up after seven years in circumstances that at the time seemed very dire, I dropped out of graduate school, and was so poor that I was going to lose my apartment and would have to move back in with my mother in Waterloo. I was in counselling for stress and severe depression. On top of that I got very, very sick with a respiratory illness of some kind (probably not SARS, but it was the right time and place, and the symptoms were very similar; I was just too stupid to see a doctor) and lost something like fifteen pounds over the course of a weekend. All of these events happened in the span of about ten days. There are people who would and did suggest that I shouldn’t have been allowed to have a pet at all under those conditions. While I understand where that argument comes from, my response to those people today is identical to my response then: go fuck yourself.

Molly and me.

Molly and me.

Because here’s the thing: on April 15, 2005, I tried to kill myself. I recognize now that it had been building up for weeks, though I didn’t know it then. I apologized to people I thought I’d treated poorly: told my father I was sorry I’d been a shitty son, wrote a letter to an old friend I hadn’t supported enough, wrote a letter to my ex, and did some similar things I don’t remember now. And then I made a plan. I was terrified of the pain. Not that I thought death itself would hurt, but I didn’t have access to the kind of medications that you can overdose on and just go to sleep, there were no tall buildings I could get up on, and most importantly, I didn’t have access to a gun. What I did have was a bathtub and a hunting knife, and that blade terrified me. I put the knife on the edge of the bathtub and filled the tub with water. I sent an email saying goodbye to my ex. I sat down on the edge of the tub, and picked up the knife, and realized that the cat would probably be in my apartment with a corpse for several days, if not weeks. What would she eat and drink? Would she get sick? Who would take care of her when they found me? I didn’t have good answers to these questions, but I discovered that they were very important questions to me. I can’t tell you how much pain I was in, that night. I could use all the best words I know in an effort to make you understand, but you would not. It’s not possible to build a bridge across that gap. You have been to that place, or you have not. There is no way to know it from afar, no guide book that can tell you what it’s like. I sat there, on the edge of the bathtub, and tried to answer those questions. I tried to find a way to leave instructions for someone to care for Molly so that they would get to her in time to save her, but not in time to save me. And all of the people I trusted to take care of her were either too far away to get to Sudbury in time, or too close to give me the time I needed. I couldn’t solve the problem: I couldn’t kill myself and see that Molly was taken care of by someone I trusted enough to give her a good home. By that point it was nearly three in the morning. I put the knife away, drained the bathtub, and then burned my inner arms with a lighter. I couldn’t end my life, but I needed to feel something different, even if it was just another kind of pain. Then I went out to the pay phones and called my sister, who calmed me down enough so that I could sleep.

Molly in the grass.

Molly in the grass.

Molly saved my life. It wasn’t that she meowed at the right moment, or rubbed against me and knocked the knife away or anything dramatic like that. She was my companion, and just as importantly, maybe more importantly, she was my responsibility. I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate how much Molly as a responsibility was important to my survival. I knew there were people who loved me, though it was good for me to hear it when I called my sister. But what I needed most was to know that I was needed in a literal way. I had friends, and I knew they would mourn. But Molly, who was just a stray cat I’d had for less than eight months, who was a life so small she wouldn’t matter at all to some people, might not survive without me. And that was enough. It was more than enough. Molly saved my life just by being in it.

Molly in her bed.

Molly in her bed.

That night was the lowest point in my life, but it wasn’t the only low point. Most of the next eight years would be a series of low points strung together. I got jobs, but they weren’t good enough to haul me out of poverty. I moved to Toronto, fell in love again, and then lost it all. I got sick, very sick, and permanently, though it would be years before I’d have a proper diagnosis and treatment. One of the symptoms is extreme, borderline-suicidal depression. There were entire years where I went to bed every night thinking that if I died in my sleep it might be for the best. And there were so many nights, more than I’d like to say, where I sat on the floor of my kitchen crying, the fat, gentle cat nudging my arm and chirping in my ear the only thing keeping me going. I got treatment just in time to find myself unemployed for over a year, and I moved back to my mother’s place in Waterloo when I couldn’t pay my rent anymore. In retrospect those fifteen months of unemployment would be the best time I had with Molly. We spent most of every day together.

I went to northern Saskatchewan for three and a half years to build power lines while Molly lived with my mother. I saw her only a few days a month in that time, and the guilt was intense. The job was stressful, but it allowed me to pay down my debts and save some money. Last August, Molly and I moved back to Toronto, and my girlfriend Jess moved in with us in October. My health still isn’t good, but my chronic issues are under control. I have a more or less stable job at a reasonable wage, and some money in savings. I love and am loved, and my home is filled with books and art and other things I enjoy. I wanted very much to make this place a good home for Molly, to repay her for all those years we lived in poverty, and for all those years I left her alone while I worked in the north. She lived here for less than a year before she died, and many of the plans I had for making this space better for her were left unfinished.

When we brought Molly home from the vet we decided to fill her final day with all the things she loved. She was better at home than at the vet’s office, but it was clear that she didn’t have much time left. She was weak, and had trouble walking and keeping warm. Molly was always a decorous cat, who showed shame when she wasn’t clean, and it was hard to see her unable or unwilling to groom herself, and unable to make it to the litter box without help.

Molly and I watching bird videos.

Molly and I watching bird videos.

We thought she might be able to eat some of her favourite snacks. She tried, but just couldn’t, and eventually I couldn’t watch anymore. I took her outside to the balcony and brushed her until the sun got to be too much and she had to go in. She napped in all her favourite places, on the couch with us, in her new cat bed, and on the blanket she liked to lay next to me on when I would stretch out on the couch. Every few minutes Jess or I would touch Molly, or look at her, and we would cry. I helped her get onto her stool so she could look out the window, and I carried her around the house letting her sniff things beyond her usual reach, something I used to do for her a couple of times a month. In the evening I put videos of birds up on the big screen TV for her, and the three of us watched them together. Molly had always enjoyed watching birds out the window, and in the last few months Jess had discovered that she liked watching them on laptop and phone screens, too. She slept on the bed with us one last time. It was a terrible night; Jess didn’t sleep at all, and I was up at least once an hour to make sure Molly was still there. She used to sleep between my knees at night, and I found the weight comforting. It was as if, so long as I could feel the weight of the cat there, everything was okay. There is no cat on the bed anymore, and everything is not okay. I seldom sleep very well since Molly died, and I often find myself missing her the most sharply when I should be sleeping. I find myself going to bed and remembering her, telling myself little stories about her, about things she used to do, and sometimes reliving her last day. A few times I’ve had to get up and read or watch television in order to get out of my head enough to sleep.

Molly on the bed her last night.

Molly on the bed her last night.

Jess gets up earlier than I do most mornings, and she used to eat breakfast downstairs while I slept, with Molly beside her in her old cat bed, the one I got from the futon store many years ago with a tax refund. The bed sits on an old leather and steel office chair next to my desk; Molly wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t in the chair. On her last morning I let Molly and Jess have that time together without me.

I took Molly outside again, to the front yard this time, and she ate some blades of grass, the first thing she’d eaten voluntarily in days. She seemed, briefly, happy. We pet her, and brushed her, and let her lay in the sun.

A few hours later the vet and her assistant came. I don’t want to relive the whole thing here, although right now I’m seeing it over and over again in my head. I held Molly in my arms from the time they arrived until they left with her body. Jess was braver than I was, and dealt with the vet for me. She asked the questions, and worked out the logistics, and did all the things I couldn’t. I didn’t want to let go of Molly. I told her over and over again that I loved her. I told her that she saved me. I thanked her for all she had done from me, and I told her I was sorry I wasn’t able to do more for her. About two in the afternoon, Molly died in my arms.

Molly on the front lawn.

Molly on the front lawn.

I have never done anything so hard in my entire life. The feelings I’ve been having over the last month were all there on that first day, and I find myself having to cover the same ground over and over again. Beyond the expected grief, which was staggering, the first thing I felt was a kind of relief, which I know is normal but which also felt like a kind of betrayal. I spent much of the next few days swinging back and forth between grief and a kind of coldness, like I was so overwhelmed that for certain periods each day I would only be capable of a great emptiness, a kind of un-feeling. The guilt I felt—and still feel—is enormous. I know, in my head, that I made the right choice in putting her to sleep. Her deterioration was rapid, irrevocable, and would have ended painfully, likely without the people she loved around her, and she deserved better than that. A good, painless death was the only thing left in my power to give her. But still: she was my companion, and my responsibility. It was my job to protect her, and I was the one who asked the vet to end her life. No matter what I know to be true, it still feels like I betrayed her, like I failed to do for her what she did for me.

It was more than a week before I could take her water dish from its spot. I even found myself refilling it. There were times over the last fourteen years when I was so poor that I had to make a choice as to whether I would eat, or the cat would. The cat always ate. And no matter how poor I was, no matter how bad things got, the rule remained: the water bowl must always be full. It is so hard to let go of these ways of being. I’ve found myself halfway out of my seat to look for Molly more times than I can count. I had to move things around the apartment because out of the corner of my eye, if the light was right, they looked like her. We bought houseplants. I didn’t think I was the sort of person who would want to have a pet’s ashes, but we have Molly’s in a little cedar box with her name engraved on it, and I derive enormous comfort from that little box. I find myself touching it several times a day, and just as hugging the cat was the first thing I used to do when I got home from work, now I feel compelled to place my hand on the box. I long to hear the chirping noise she would make at least one more time, but I never thought to get it on video. I thought I would have more time. There have been so many moments when her absence has hit me like it’s just happened, and it’s a feeling of loss so profound I will sometimes mistake it for panic. People will sometimes say that pets are part of the family, and I truly believe that: they are not children, or siblings, or parents; they have their own, unique place in the family unit, and the way they are bound to us and we to them is also unique. Molly was, in that sense, my family. My story for the fourteen years she was in my life is also her story, and hers is mine.

There is so much more I could tell you: about how much she loved to eat fish, about how she hated other animals, about the time she fell out of a window and landed on my face. About how she loved to have her front legs scratched, and how for years she always wanted to sit in my lap, and then for years she didn’t. I could tell her story for thousands of more words and still not be finished. She was my family, and there will always be more to say.

The last photo of Molly ever taken.

The last photo of Molly ever taken.

It’s getting easier, though I think it’s good that it’s been so hard. I already struggle with guilt; I don’t know what kind of person I’d see in the mirror if this had in any way been easy. It’s been more than a month since Molly died, and I’m not crying every day anymore, though I am crying as I write this. I don’t know how I could have managed without Jess. She only knew Molly for a brief time, but she loved her, and cared for her, and cared for me as I unravelled. She should figure more heavily in the story above than she does, but she’s a private person and I’ve tried to respect that in the way I’ve told it, though I couldn’t imagine leaving her out. As should also be clear from the story above, in the past a loss like this would have undone me. I am, historically, the sort of person who is crushed by the weight of this kind of loss, who, in fact, loses himself in it. But I don’t think that will happen this time. Not because Molly, as a cat, doesn’t deserve that scale of grief, but rather because I believe her life had meaning, and part of that meaning was showing me that I do not need to be destroyed by my grief, that there is a way through. That I can survive to love and be loved again. That I might still be needed.

Molly's ashes in the little cedar box.

Molly’s ashes in the little cedar box.

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

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