Last weekend we had to put down one of our cats. With apologies to our other kitties (who thankfully can’t read), Inka was our favorite, and it was an emotional blow. It was most painful for our daughter Risa, who considered Inka a sibling. In some ways, Inka was more dog than cat: she came when called, allowed Risa to dress her through the years in party hats, streamers and tutus (keeping claws retracted); and tolerated years of Risa’s friends getting way too close to her face. However, she was pure feline in how she’d jump onto puzzles we were in the middle of piecing together; walk through a board game you’d just set up perfectly; and step onto keyboards, sending out emails that were only half-way done. What made it comical was the innocent expression she wore on her face ("Oh, hello, what is everyone doing here?"). She was a girl who made her presence known.
We were lucky that we had a chance to say goodbye after Inka was diagnosed with Cancer last month. She was on steroids for several weeks post-diagnosis, and my husband Ezra and I decided this was the last measure we’d take (no chemo, no surgery; she was 13 and lived a life of adoration); we’d shower her with attention until we saw suffering on her part and then “pull the plug.” Even with our total agreement, it was gut-wrenching watching for heavy breathing and signs of discomfort. We hated playing God, and there was relief when Inka’s breathing was so ragged one morning that we just knew.
As Ezra got ready to take her to the vet for the final time, I told Risa that it was time to say goodbye. We circled Inka, telling her “I love you,” doling out last pets and kisses before she left. Even in that moment, with tears pouring down our faces, I was able to recognize the gift of having a chance to say goodbye. When my father died in a car accident many years ago, it was sudden and traumatic, and I went through the whole experience in shock. Inka’s ending had grace and dignity; it was even calm. She actually walked right into her cage for that last trip; I believe she knew it was time.
This experience has been an opportunity to share with our daughter complicated issues around love and loss. We talked about our responsibility as pet owners to set aside our desire to keep our animals alive when we see they are suffering. I was able to teach Risa that it is okay, even normal, to have mixed feelings while grieving – heartache for losing her friend; happiness at going on an adventure with her grandma that same weekend; doubt about the existence of heaven; relief in sharing the news with close friends. Risa learned she could experience conflicting feelings without dishonoring Inka’s memory in any way.
Here’s something we did wrong: We did not explain to Risa how exactly the vet would put down Inka that morning. We forgot that an eight year old has no idea. One night last week, Risa told me with tears streaming down her face that she had a terrible nightmare about the vet shooting Inka with a giant gun. I felt awful, and told her right then that Inka was given medicine that made her sleepy before she died. I added that Inka experienced no pain, had no fear, and was being pet by the vet at the time she died. I may be off on one or two details but saw immediately how relieved Risa was. It was an important reminder that when we don’t give our kids the information, they fill in the blanks for themselves and imagine the situation 100 times worse.
We are all still dealing with Inka’s death, and it’s hardest when she isn’t sitting with us on a kitchen stool at breakfast, or we see a dark-colored pillow and believe for one moment that it is her. I think of Inka each time I open the door to the hallway and expect her to come tearing around the corner to sneak out. She didn’t want to go outside, I learned over the years; she just loved the thrill of a well-executed escape. She kept that same innocent expression as I carried her back to the house. We will continue to miss her, and I hope that wherever our old cat is, there are endless thousand-piece puzzles to be jumped upon and ruined.
I am a journalist, filmmaker, author, wife, and mom to an 8-year-old daughter. My most recent project is I Love Mondays: And other confessions from devoted working moms. Other projects explore raising only children, happily ever after, raising strong girls, and hot topics for Jewish women.
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