The First Day in 20 Years Without My Cat

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 the black cat
Niles in his 18th year

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.

cat lying on womans lap with rat
Alana, Niles, and Rapunzel the rat in 2002, two years after his surgery.

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.

Love,

Alana.

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.

21 Comments

  • This is such a great tribute and a needed reminder to cherish each day with our senior pets. Thank you!

  • Niles; Godspeed your journey to heaven our friend, please say HI to Rocky ~~~~ we send hugs and loves to you, mom fod and the family you leave behind ~~ ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

  • Aww… such a handsome kitty. We are sorry for your loss.

    Purrs,
    Mosby, Angel Mia, Angel Cosmo and Angel CJ

  • Oh, Alana, I’m so very sorry. I too have experienced the decline of a beloved cat and made the same heartbreaking, loving, and humane decision. Much love to you, and if you ever need to talk to someone who understands, I’m just an email or Facebook message away. ❤

  • Our hearts are breaking for you, Alana. Thank you for loving Niles so much, and so well. Gentle purrs and prayers, and much love to you.

  • We are heartbroken for you. My human has been in FB jail, and now she’s sick on top of it, so she couldn’t comment on your post there. But know that we are sending lots of love your way.

  • Alana I am sitting here with tears rolling down my cheeks. I know the pain you are describing and I know the sorrow and my heart breaks for you. Your friend is right … the greatest gift of love we can give our furry family is to let our hearts be broken to save them any more suffering. You did that for Niles and that IS the greatest gift you could have given him. The bond you shared cannot be broken and I am sure you will feel him around you always. (((hugs)))

  • Love & prayers to you! I am so very sorry you & Niles had to say goodbye! Please know he awaits you on the other side of that magnificent rainbow bridge. They all give sooo very much & ask us only to love & care for them while they are here if only that brief blink of an eye that is our life with them! We are kindred spirits I believe, I too have had to say farewell to many beautiful kitty souls! Each one unique & so beautiful & I was sooo lucky to have each one, no matter the time frame they were allowed to be mine & me theirs! So very BLESSED!!!

  • We are so sorry about Niles. Even though he lived a long loved life, it’s still not easy saying goodbye. Sending you comforting purrs and gentle headbutts.

  • Oh Alana, having gone thru this I know hard much it hurts, the loss is like a physical weight on your heart. And I understand the sense of relief. You will “see” him from time to time and hear his purr and meow and that’s his way of letting you know he’s in Heaven waiting for you and he’s still around just in a different way. I am so very truly sorry for your loss.

  • I absolutely know how you feel. When they are your heart cat it’s so hard to say goodbye, but you loved him totally and he loved you the same. You don’t have to feel guilty at all. You know he was ready. But probably you weren’t ready. He had a great life with you and I can tell he appreciated you and your family. Celebrate the good parts of your life together and give him a good “Celebration of Life” party to see him on his way to his next of his 9 lives. He lives on in your heart and that is what’s important.

  • Everything you said really touched me. This is exactly what I’m going through with Bear. He saved my life (NOT an exaggeration – he really did) and he’s been the source of life and laughter in my life since the day we met. I can’t imagine that I’ll be able to live without him but I know that sooner than later, I will have to. He used to be so full of life – and he’s a shadow of his former self. That hurts in an entirely different way. He’s already gone in so many respects. And the moments we snuggle and share seem so much more important now. Like you, the changes were so slow – they never really stood out. One day it just hit me that he wasn’t eating the wet food treat he used to move heaven and hell (and several items on our kitchen counter) to get. Turns out, he’d probably been sick with pancreatitis (IBD related) for a while. It kills me. I just got used to him not wanting belly rubs anymore. How could I have been so stupid? I’ve been so lost in what he’s no longer that I forgot what he still is. You reminded me that there’s a day I’d give anything for the hard days – if only to have days with him. Thank you. I wish there was something I could do to ease your pain – even just a little bit. I know we don’t know each other all that well – but sometimes you meet people and you just know that they are special – different. I’m here any time you want to talk and I promise I won’t pronounce your name wrong this time and fall all over you like a CATastrophes super-extra fan. Err … mostly.

  • We are so very sorry. Let them go can be the worst and best thing but never easy. Safe Journey Niles. Be kind to yourself Alana.

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