Growing up, I always had family pets, but Jack is the first pet that is really all mine. He has been one of my best friends for the better part of 10 years.
We met at a rest stop on Interstate 95 over a snowy Thanksgiving weekend. On my way home on a very cold evening, my sister, brother-in-law and I stopped to use the restroom. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a cat that had run into the bushes. Upon following her, I saw two small kittens curled up, surrounded by snow.
There was no way I could leave them. We spent the next two hours trying to lure them with BK broilers and french fries, only to fail. Finally, admitting defeat, we hopped in our car and left.
The next day, while I should have been celebrating being with my family, all I could focus on was the well-being of the two kittens I knew would be freezing (and who I was convinced I could save). The following day, my father and I drove over 1.5 hours to try to catch the kittens. Within an hour, we had caught Jack. Clearly, he was hungry, so all it took was some french fries and tuna to lure him into a cage.
His sister was not as easy. After several hours, we still couldn't catch her. We left her, promising to return, and we drove directly from the rest stop to a vet where we were told Jack was feral, too wild to keep and would make for a very bad pet. It was too late for him. The vet also said he was probably sick, and I shouldn't touch him.
I did what I usually do when I think someone is wrong: I ignored him, did what I wanted and proved him wrong. I spent that whole first night with Jack. He stayed in his cage while I sat on my bed, talking to him and feeding him turkey through the bars. I put on gloves and attempted to pet him -- and of course did the opposite of what my dad told me to do, which was to keep him in the cage. I let him wander a bit, then put him back in his cage, continuing to woo him with turkey. The next morning, we took him to a new vet. She opened the cage and out came this little cat, wanting to be petted and purring loudly. It was obvious what an untamable wild creature this little two-pound animal was. I knew he was coming home with me.
Meanwhile, we continued to try and catch his sister. My father finally caught her on Christmas Eve. She died about 18 months later. I counted myself as even more fortunate that I still had Jack.
Little did I know, when I made the decision to save and keep this little guy, that he would have a slew of health issues. It took the better part of three years and thousands of dollars to get him a clean bill of health. He had more worm treatments than I care to remember, including the time I had to pull one that was dangling out of his butt! He had an infection in his eye that became so severe, we didn't know whether he would lose it. And, he had a bladder issue such that whenever he got stressed, he would get a UTI and urinate blood. Looking back, while all of that was stressful and expensive for me, caring for him made me love him even more.
After his first year with me, he seemed lonely. So I got another cat to keep him company. She really helped with some of his anxiety and stress. She also taught him how to be a cat and play.
Like most pets, Jack is always there to wake me up in the morning with kisses (and to let me know it's breakfast time). When I dry my hair, he insists on having his hair brushed, as well. He likes to head-butt me at least once before I leave for work (he started this tradition), and he greets me at the door when I come home from work. He always has a knack for knowing when I'm going through something tough and seems to snuggle with me extra, even if he's not in the mood. He has been with me through several breakups and through many of my successes. Whenever I felt sad about not having a human partner to celebrate with, I would take a moment to celebrate with him with a congratulatory head-butt.
Jack is friendly, but he's a curmudgeon. If he doesn't like you, don't try to win him over... unless you bring some Doritos, pizza or french fries. If you don't feed him fast enough, don't be surprised if he goes ahead and helps himself. Even then, your friendship may only be as long as the food you are sharing lasts. I have to be honest and say that I like that he doesn't take to everyone. I feel like I (and those he loves), am chosen. We are part of the "in-crowd" with him.
I guess I've been in denial for all of these years, thinking that he'd never pass away. Anytime I knew of someone else's pet dying, I always came home and made the request of him that he not die. Corny, I know, but this was enough to keep that conversation far from my mind.
However, three weeks ago I brought Jack in for what I thought was a mere infection or abscess. They found one tumor and diagnosed him with Fibrosarcoma, a type of cancer cats get, traceable to receiving the Rabies vaccine. About one in 10,000 cats contract it, and it's an aggressive form of cancer that is very hard to treat. The life expectancy is anywhere from a few months to one year.
When I heard the diagnosis, I tried my best to hide my devastation from the vet. While she mentioned that some people do treat their pets, I knew in my heart I would not be doing that. How can I explain to Jack why he would be taking medications that would make him feel worse or cut him open, leaving him in pain while healing? From experience, I know how much he loathes taking medication. Plus, most times, with this form of cancer, the tumors come back within months and more aggressively than the original onset. It just didn't feel right to me to do anything but manage his pain when necessary, and clear up any infections that may occur around the tumors.
I know from research that Jack won't feel any pain until the day he finally goes. I also know that animals have a very different relationship to dying than people do. They are not attached to hanging on. When it's their time, they usually go off to die alone or let their owners know it's time to let go. I brought Jack in for a follow-up the next week after the diagnosis, and when they found more tumors near the first one, they told me they agreed with my choice to not treat with chemotherapy or medication.
Since then, I've spent every day crying at least once, mourning what my life will be like without Jack. I will miss his morning head-butt on the way out of the door and him greeting me when I come home every day. However, I'm also enjoying every little moment I have with him as well as having him enjoy the time he has left.
I've added in a few holistic treatments to keep him as healthy as I can -- such as adding aloe vera juice and Sun Chlorella to his meals. I massage him every day to get his lymphatic system working and rid his body of any unnecessary toxins. He loves the massages. If I stop, he lets me know he's irritated and that I should keep going. He also had a Qigong session to clean any negative energy. The funny thing was right after that session he played for an hour with me, and he hasn't done that in two weeks.
There is not a hair-drying moment that I do not make sure he gets his hair brushed. I've been taking a few extra baths, just so he can play the shower curtain game he loves so much. I make sure to snuggle extra with him when I watch TV, and I make a spot for him on the bed right next to me when it's time to sleep. It was always hit or miss whether he'd sleep with me in the bed, but since he was diagnosed, there hasn't been a night he hasn't slept right next to me. Sometimes he looks content; other times he gives me a look of irritation, like, "How dare you scoop me up off of my comfortable blanket on the sofa, only to plop me down next to you?" I'm not sure whether he's doing it for him, for me or for both of us. In all honesty, I selfishly don't care and am just happy he has given in on this one.
My plan for the rest of his time is to enjoy it. Be as present with him as I can, whether we're playing, snuggling or I'm taking care of him. I plan on letting him eat whatever he wants and as much as he wants. I watch what I eat, but why should he suffer? Doritos and fries have made their way back into my home. Catnip? The more, the better. Who cares if I have to clean up the mess? Tuna party? Why not? Since I live in a one-bedroom condo on the seventh floor, we will be taking numerous field trips to a house with a fenced-in yard so he can roll in the dirt, eat grass and watch birds and squirrels. He was once an outdoor cat and loves being outside; why not take him back to the things he loves, while he can still do them and enjoy them? I guess I'm looking at it like kitty hospice. These are the things he'd be doing if he had a bucket list.
In the beginning, I fought hard to get him and keep him healthy so that he could have a long and quality life. That is something for me to be proud of, because I succeeded. Now, it's time for me to let go of the fighting and accept what is so. Now, it's time to relax and enjoy the life we have together, while we still have it.
Let us both be at peace. I trust that when it is time, his instincts will kick in and he will let me know. I trust in myself that while it will be the hardest thing I've ever done, I will do the right thing and let him go. While I thought that getting him healthy in the beginning of his life was the biggest gift I could ever give him, I now believe letting him go when he says it is time will be even bigger.
As hard as it will be, letting him go -- pain-free and with dignity -- will be the best gift I could ever give him. Well, that and one final head-butt before he closes his eyes for the last time.