Death & Dying

Into the Light

I’ve been begging for weeks, months even, “Give me a sign. Please. Tell me it’s time.” I’ve responded to Smudge’s wailing, loss of appetite, weight loss, excess shedding, dehydration, long naps and inactivity by giving her more or less insulin. “What the hell kind of sign do you want?” she asks.

I want more clarity, that’s what I want; something I can’t fix with an injection a couple times a day. I don’t want to feel like I KILLED her because I was tired of cleaning up vomit and stepping on kitty litter, vacuuming cat hair and interrupted nights. But I don’t get to choose the easy way out. She needs me to be in charge because she can’t be.

“I wanna go out” in Raleigh.
“I wanna come in” in Raleigh.

When I moved to the country five years ago, I stopped letting her outside where the coyotes and hawks roam. I took away her ability to choose her time, or have it chosen for her by a creature whose only mission is its own survival, who doesn’t feel remorse like humans do. Like I will. The day I shut that door to her, I gave up my right to a clear conscience.

Two weeks ago I was nearly ready to “Say Goodbye.” Then she had a sugar crash: too much insulin. I fed her corn syrup, held her, and reduced the dosage. Of course that stretched the bit of insulin in the bottom of the vial I didn’t want to refill, bought me time to change my mind, for her to give me a clearer sign one way or another.

Moving together across the country.

Last week was a better week than she’s had in a long time. She didn’t vomit, or walk wonky; though she was still constipated from dehydration, she “kept it in the litter box”; she joined me in the living room to sleep in my lap in the evenings and entreated me for scratch time in bed again. This summer, in my mother’s absence, I put a gate on the stairs from the deck so she could be outside. As the weather cooled, and especially last week, she’s gone out often, exploring and enjoying the air like she used to. She’s better! I thought. She’s telling me she wants to stay.

But is she really? I’ve heard of humans at life’s end seeming to rally then suddenly plummeting into death. Is that what she was doing? I had to decide, now: make the appointment to help her go or buy another $180 bottle of insulin and keep propping her up as she yo-yo’s her way to the inevitable last breath.


In the late day setting sun on Monday, I noticed the maple tree at the corner of the house—the Memorial Maple that replaced the diseased big leaf maple icon that my father climbed when he was looking for a property to build our new home on, and saw Mt. St. Helens on a lucky clear day—was suddenly bare. One day it was brilliant red, the next day the leaves were all on the ground, blanketing the spot where Smudge will be buried.

That night, Smudge started her mournful crying again in the middle of the night, begging for a drip in the bathtub, the only place she will drink from the past few months. Except she kept crying even after I turned it on; it wasn’t enough to satisfy her thirst, but she won’t drink from her bowl. Neither of us slept for hours.

She was restless, on and off the bed. My monkey mind turned over and over when I could take her to vet and that my sister was available to go with me. There was only one option before I run out of insulin: Friday morning. Why did I need multiple options? Maybe I wanted a back door, could I make the insulin last until next Tuesday? By then would it be clear? Or should I just order more and give her time to…what? Please God, if it be your will, take this from me. My mind wouldn’t shut off.

The owl hooted, nearer by than usual, just a single haunting call through the fog beyond the open window. Smudge lay down on my legs, finally silent. My mind quieted then, and I fell into a brief sleep at 5am and dreamed of Smudge catching mice in the phlox.


When the vet’s office opened, I called and made an appointment for Friday morning. And then I sobbed. I wept in relief for the decision, in grief for the loss, in gratitude for 17 years with this companion, longer than any cat I’ve had—and just a year short of the longest live-in human relationship I’ve had. On Tuesday, before the rains came, I dug a hole under the bare maple.

I don’t think I will grieve her loss as long as I have her predecessor Maggie. I don’t know if I will feel the loss of my mother as deeply as I do my father. I think some of those who walk with us for a time take up a bigger space in our hearts than others do. And though we love some no more nor less than others, some holes heal and some we merely learn to live with. This I know, those we have loved and been loved by are always and forever a part of us.

Saying goodbye to me this week, while I decorated her burial box.
In the sunlight this week.

Smudge will be buried Friday under the Memorial Maple, where life will go on above her. Each spring buds will burst with new life; in summer green leaves will be the playground for birds and squirrels; autumn will bring dazzling crimson, a last hurrah before rain and snow batter and bend the bare branches through the long winter sleep. And then spring will return in the endless cycle.

Thank you to my many friends in Raleigh, my neighbor in Centralia, and my mother, my daughter, daughter-in-love, and sisters—especially Rebecca, who had no choice really—who cared for my aloof Smudge over the years so I could get away. You kept her healthy through 10-1/2 years of a chronic illness and I love you so.

The price of the capacity to love is grief; the gift and the curse of being human. Namaste my feline friend; I bow to the light in you.



26 thoughts on “Into the Light”

  1. This reminds me of the last days of my cat, Muji, who taught me that trouble was no trouble. After the vet confirmed that she had a common cat cancer with no recourse, I would find her making stealth rounds through the garden. I never saw her move, but I’d see her sitting in a different spot, marking her turf. I buried her on the highest spot in the garden, a spot I visit nearly every day during my own rounds, and where I’d seen her sit in kitty zazen so many times before. Still and present.


  2. Sweet Smudge has been a true and faithful companion, who has trusted you implicitly through some tough times. She still does. You are sending her off in a blanket of love and gratitude. And she goes gently and at peace.


    1. It is done, and the vet did a lovely job. We were both well cared for; Rebecca was with me. I feel a little lost now, but at peace. Thank you so very much for your support and help, Anna. I am grateful.


  3. Sending love, support, compassion and empathy….I have shared this sacred journey with four furry friends….thank you for your sweet heart and wisdom….love never dies🔔❤️


  4. I will be thinking of you tomorrow, Gretchen. I know how hard this is for you. You were a wonderfully loving “mom” to Smudge and still are.


  5. It is time and I love your the price of loving is grief which also brings it’s blessings of not taking this time with love for granted. Be peaceful with her as she passes.


  6. Thank you for sharing so beautifully this moment of surrender. I know how big these losses are. I will be thinking of you both with love as you offer her a peaceful rest. Goodnight, Smudge ♡


  7. My 12 year old started going down. So I took her to the vet and found she had a mass in her chest, but we decided just to watch her. Also found another pellet wound that happened before I picked her up from the feral colony (she was a lost pet). So I kept watching her and feeding her special food. Finally one Thursday, I knew I couldn’t keep dragging this out, she was declining. I found her the next morning stretched out in my bathroom and wrapped her in a towel. She died in my arms on the way to the back. Called the Vet and cancelled the appointment. I dug a hole behind the Banana plants, composing a poem the whole time. This house is built on old Rice fields with gumbo soil. And it had been a long time since rain had soften the ground. I got out a lot of frustration and sorrow trying to dig in that soil. And then it rained that afternoon.

    Liked by 1 person

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