For the first time in more than 30 years, I have no cats. On Wednesday night, we had to take Tinkerbell to the vet for the final time, and now the house feels empty and wrong.
I grew up with a cat in the house. Uncharacteristically for a Siamese, he was a placid old gent who according to family legend appointed himself my guardian by lying down beside my carry-cot the day I came home from the hospital as a newborn. I have been a cat person ever since.
When I had grown up and moved out into a house of my own, within a month I had rescued two little kittens from a sad hutch facing a wall in the local pet shop. I named them Felix and Cleo and I was smitten.
Six months later, two little ginger girls followed from the RSPCA. Though only vaguely related (they were from the same feral colony) they bonded like siblings. Pepper was a medical basket case from the get-go, but ten tons of personality packed into five pounds of cat. Her sort-of sister Sophie was pale, elegant, utterly gorgeous and destined always to push on doors marked ‘Pull’. *
In time, I met Rob and we moved in together, adding his cat Barney to the clowder. Barnes was a reserved sort, affectionate only on his own terms, and possessed of the loudest snore I’ve ever heard in a cat.
As the years passed, we had to say goodbye to all of them. Cleo was the last of the original crew to go, and it was tough on both of us. I’d had a particularly close bond with her; she always came to find me if I was sad, as I often was in the early stages of my illness, and she made sure to tell us to go to bed if we stayed up past 10pm.
After she was gone, we weren’t going to have any more pets. Dealing with Cleo’s tumour, two surgeries and ultimately kidney failure was so emotionally draining, we didn’t think we had it in us to do that again. I was sick, book two was running behind, and Rob had just lost his mum. It was not a good time.
But I was selfish. I was writing full-time by then, having given up my job earlier that year. I struggled to adjust to the new routine. The house felt cold and the days long; I was lonely, and probably more than a little depressed. Something was missing, and I decided what was missing was a cat.
Of course, after a visit to the shelter, that turned into two. Tigger and Tinkerbell, a seven-year-old brother and sister who’d been surrendered by their owner. Rob was dubious; I begged, and so home with us they came. The house felt complete again.
Fast forward. My two editorial assistants helped me shepherd three books into the world. They listened to me ramble, drove me to distraction and loved me when I couldn’t love myself. They asked for nothing but a warm lap, and I gave them my whole heart.
We lost Tigger to kidney disease two years ago, at the ripe old age of 18. Soon after, we learned that Tinkerbell too was showing early signs of kidney disease, and moved heaven and earth to get her on a supportive diet, ameliorate her arthritis, treat her hyperthyroidism. But this last month an aggressive bout of cystitis led to the words no-one wants to hear from the vet: “I can feel something in her abdomen.”
So here we are, at the end. Saying goodbye never gets any easier. Grief is the price we pay for the good times, for the funny photos, the littery footprints in the shower tray, the soft nudge of head against hand. Pets might only be with us for a short while, but for them it’s their whole lives. That’s a sacred trust, so while both Rob and I are broken-hearted right now, we know we did our damnedest to ensure all those lives were well lived, until they couldn’t be. And then we did right by them.
Knowing that doesn’t stop it hurting like hell, of course.
So I woke up yesterday morning to a new normal. It doesn’t fit, and everything is weird and uncomfortable, like wearing clothes in the wrong size. There’s a furry patch on the rug under my chair in the kitchen where Tinkerbell liked to sit, but no-one sitting in it. Her food is still in the cupboard, her blanket on the bed, but she’s not coming home. Although I’ve washed her bowls and put them away, I’m not ready to let go entirely just yet.
When I do, will I get another cat? I’ve said no, because it’s not fair on Rob, who feels these losses deeply. If the days get long and the house feels cold again, I will just have to find a way to deal with that. In the meantime, I have lots of memories to keep me warm.
* Seriously, she never got the hang of doors that opened towards her