The phone call we had been dreading came one morning last June. An MRI scan and biopsy had confirmed that our cat, Kevin, had inoperable throat cancer. I thanked the vet for the care she had lavished on him, and booked his death for 2pm the same day.
I hung up the phone. I stood in the garden, dazed. Then I started to howl. I howled in grief, I howled in anger, I howled at the injustice of it all.
I didn’t need to tell my wife. She had heard the howling. We held each other, tears rolling on to each other’s shoulders, as I recalled the nights that Kevin and I had spent together while she was in hospital undergoing chemo and a bone marrow transplant to treat her lymphoma. Kevin was my confidant. When you worry that your other half isn’t coming home again, the last person you can share that with is your other half. Kevin was there whenever I had needed a big ginger shoulder to lean on.
MRI scans and biopsies have loomed larger than we ever imagined when Kevin walked into our lives in 2017, a stray from the local railway line.
I wrote about him then, but he was still camera shy and we didn’t have many pictures to illustrate the article. It took us months to decide whether he was actually “ours”, and by the time we had him chipped and sterilised, he had sown a final round of wild oats that produced four adorable ginger kittens, two of which died young. We adopted the two survivors, though their mother – a long-haired wild cat of the old school – declined to join them. We still feed her, and have had her sterilised, too.
The truth with Kevin was that we always felt that he adopted us, not the other way round. We both felt honoured and enriched by his presence, though he never shook off the distrust of strangers that had kept him alive for the year or so we think he spent in the wild. He loved the comforts of home, and on a soft cushion, a shabby old sofa or a warm spot by the fire all his standoffishness would vanish as he fully appreciated the moment.
I have never known a cat with so many facial expressions, and when he wanted to, he could appear leading-man handsome, despite his torn left ear. Over the years he was with us, we certainly made up for that early lack of photos. It was a joy to see a cat that had snarled and growled at us so viciously go soft around the edges.
I dug a grave for him that June morning, under a willow tree in the garden, next to one of his kittens that died. Whenever the spade hit a stone, I’d scrabble it out of the hole with my bare hands, venting a grief I hadn’t felt since my father died suddenly when I was a teenager.
We drove to the vets for Kevin’s death. I wanted to be there: I once read an article in which a vet claimed that 70% of pet owners can’t face being with their animals when they die. This means that most of our beloved pets die scared, surrounded by strangers. Kevin deserved better.
He was in a cage when we arrived, conscious, but with hydration tubes coming out of him. We stroked him. He purred. We touched our heads to his and said thank you. The vet gave us a final 10 minutes with him, then put him to sleep before administering the lethal injection. He breathed in once more, and was gone.
I doubt my own end will be as dignified.
Thank you, Kevin. We’ll take good care of the kids.