Today is the first day in the last 20 years that I am waking up without my Niles. The house is quiet. I was not woken by his meow or his demands for food. I just woke up, in silence, and then I lay there knowing that when I opened the door, his spot would be empty. And it was.
Niles touched four decades – 1999 through 2020. He was there with me during college and for my graduation photos. He lived in every one of my adult apartments, saw me through my marriage and divorce, and the entirety of my adult life. And today is the very first day of my last twenty years where, instead of living in my home, he lives only in my heart.
To say Niles was a good cat would be an understatement. He was the kind of cat who was told “get off the counter” and he would say “Yes, ma’am,” and never surf again. He didn’t like to be picked up but he loved to snuggle. He only got sick just once (not including a cold or that time he somehow contracted earmites as an indoor-only cat) when he was a year old and one of the lobes of his lungs got an infection that would not be vanquished by antibiotics and had to come out. I was in college, the surgery would cost $700. My mother sent me a check and said,” you have to save Niles. He’s important.” How right she was. He looked like a purse for a few weeks, with staples running all the way up his side but with his happy attitude back in place. He never got sick again, until his last days.
Niles loved all people and never met a lap that wouldn’t do. He was always fastidiously clean and I loved every night that we would fall asleep together, nose to nose, holding hands. But that hasn’t happened in a long time, because though they say it heals all wounds, time also destroys, and it wasn’t kind to Niles. He lived to be 20 and a half years old, but his last eighteen months were the most challenging and passed the slowest.
We had to stop sleeping together because he began waking up confused in the middle of the night somewhere in his 19th year. He’d wake me every hour, so he had to start sleeping in his own bed,. Then he started peeing outside the litter box. I later realized this was because his hips hurt, and I still feel guilt that I didn’t notice or correct the problem sooner. Slowly, he stopped washing himself and I had to take over. Eventually even the other cats, who used to lie on top of him and keep him warm, stopped visiting.
Two months ago, he had a stroke. I took very few photos of him in his last days, but the one I took in November showed a completely different cat than he was in the end. It took a photo for me to notice because living through the gradual changes, I just didn’t see how much he had declined. But even with his stroke, he still wanted to play. And man, he really wanted to eat.
Loving a cat who lives a long time is wonderful but it’s hard. Niles became my oldest friend, but I had to watch him decline knowing there was nothing more I could do because I was already doing my best. And then came the day where I had to choose what was more important: keeping him near me because I wanted just a few more days, or letting him go with dignity and love. I chose the latter, and it came with a sense of hurt, fear, and guilt, guilt because with those other emotions also came relief. But I don’t think the relief was all mine. I think it was his, too.
Afterwards, my friend DQ said to me, “you gave him a gift among a lifetime a gifts.” Letting your cat go before it gets too hard for him is a gift many of us might wish for ourselves. Niles was tired, he wasn’t himself, and he was acutely sick. And when I asked him if it was what he wanted, he relaxed into my hands, looked into my eyes, and I knew he was saying yes. He snuggled me when the doctor came in, and then he just checked out, as if he was already gone. And I had the honor of holding him, loving him, and kissing him goodbye.
That was yesterday.
Today, my life will be easier – no more mess cleaning, special litter boxes, constant washing, bathing, brushing, feeding – but there’s a conspicuous absence. For the last many months, I knew that one day, I would miss his meow and that was what I told myself every time I felt frustration, sadness, or anger at watching my once mighty cat diminish in size and ability. One day, I knew, he would just be a memory and I would wish to brush his soft, black fur just one more time.
Today is that day. How quickly it came.
Give all your kitties a hug for me. Give them an extra one from you, too.
PS to Niles:
I love you, Niles. I will miss you every day and know that I’ll see you again. No one’s head will ever smell as good as yours and no one’s teddies will ever be as soft. And no one will ever be such a good, good boy.
See you later, my friend. I love you.