On June 10, 2011 I put my beautiful cat “down.” I have spent the week reflecting on this experience, revisiting my grief, marking the year and its tumult. I associate her with a part of my life that is now gone; she is the bearer of much meaning, and she is so much more than just that.
If I cordon off all that she represents in the narrative of my life, our shared history, which I couldn’t possibly do, and if I focus only on our relationship in its purest simplicity, I see a different picture. I am reminded of Haraway’s When Species Meet. I wonder what PachDu’ met when she met me and what our being companion species to each other means with all its ethical and emotional entailments.
In her last days, when I thought she simply had kidney stones, but when her body was riddled with cancer, we had a nightly ritual. She would stay with me in bed until I fell asleep and then she would crawl under the bed for the rest of the night. I told my husband what she was doing and he scoffed until he observed it for himself. I got to the point where I didn’t want to sleep because I didn’t want her to leave. I was selfish in my regard for her. Regard, in Haraway’s terms, is heeding and taking care of another, it includes an “oxymoronic” “autonomy in relation.” At one point, when I woke up because I felt her leave, she looked at me with a weary and resigned expression on her face and came back to her usual spot beside me. That is when I began the process of letting go. I knew I had to. I knew she was staying, staying alive, because of her regard for me. Mutual regard, looking and looking back, is the essence of respect between companions for Haraway. It was hard to let go. It was respectful to let go.
When I “put her down,” I had it done in my home. In the first step in the process, the vet gives a sedative. At that point, she resisted. The vet said that given her condition, she was surprisingly strong. Indeed, my cat was a fierce and willful cat. She was named “claws” in Klingon for a reason, after all. After the sedative, it took two doses of drugs to euthanize her. Like I said, fierce. I held her in my arms and watched her face as she “passed.” I watched her face return to its pain-free, kitten-like state. Sweet and soft. I believe she wanted to die but she did not want to leave me, just as at night in the bed.
How much of this is my projection and how much of this is my regard for her and her genuine regard for me? When Haraway talks about companion species and living ethically with animals and the relationships we engage with them, she talks about face and all that that entails. How much of PachDu’s sweet face and the emotions she wore were readable, interpretable, and how much was simply what I wanted it to be? A point I like to make with my students is that relationality is complex, communication is complicated, you can never be inside someone’s head, it’s all projection and negotiation, and all you can do is check your perceptions and make messy meaning with the other person. When it’s “just a cat,” the burden of all that work is overwhelming. Maybe it’s easier to keep it simple and recognize that I’ve anthropomorphized her, to accept that I cannot cordon off the part of my life that she’s entangled with, and to accept that that is actually what I’m grieving. But when I look at her sweet face, I know that what I’m missing is her every chirp and trill as much as the moments she represents. When your companion is an animal, you can make up all sorts of things about it, you can be emotionally parasitical about it, and justify it by thinking yourself a “good parent” who gave your pet a “good home.” Those are the platitudes people give you when your animal companion passes. Not to dismiss platitudes either, because they do serve an important function.
But the shared lives we live with the animals around us require more complicated thinking, and my cat was not “just a cat.”