A Sunbeam for Mia

We lost Mia today. I’ve always read posts like this with some amount of indifference because in the back of my head I am thinking “this is just an animal” and “this is not a person”. And so I forgive you for feeling the same way. I understand that response.

This stream of thoughts is really for me, and it is also for my wife and kids and anyone else who feels the loss of our “just a cat” as acutely as I am feeling it right now. But maybe you’ve been here, too, with your pets, at the end of a chapter in your own life. Here is a rememberance for us.

Mia and her sister Pia came into our lives on March 15th, 2002. I remember this day well because it was the Ides of March and by an ironic coincidence, I spent that day at the enlistment center in Boston, signing up to join the Army National Guard. The cats were originally found in a cardboard box by a dumpster, and their age at the time that they came home to us was estimated to be eight months.

We had no children yet, we were both working, and I was going to be disappearing for two and a half months to go to basic training. My wife wanted (and still wants) a dog, but I knew our lifestyle couldn’t work with dogs. Mia and Pia were the compromise.

Despite being part of the same litter, Mia and Pia couldn’t have been less alike. Pia was a long haired cat, mostly gray with dark streaks. Mia was the classic black and white tabby cat. Pia was a normal-sized, aggressive, dominating cat. Mia never grew past the size of a kitten, and spent her youth quietly in her sister’s shadow.

The cats were raised to be indoor-outdoor cats and spent many a night out and about in our neighborhood. The extent of their range was not obvious to us until, a few years later, Pia had gone missing for a few days. A neighbor, some streets away from us, put up a poster about the dead cat they had found meeting Pia’s description.

I went to discover that Pia had been hit by a car and died instantly. The posters that our distant neighbor had put up were a great kindness; otherwise we may never have known her fate.

Pia was like the wild rocker of the pair; she lived hard and died young. We were sad then, but we were young and busy raising the first of our children as well. We had much to distract us from the loss. Our house was also in a densely populated residential area, so rather than burying her in our tiny yard, we opted to have Pia cremated. We had no specific plans about where or when to bury, and so she has resided in an urn on our bookcase ever since.

In Pia’s absence, Mia came into her own as the quiet, methodical hunter that I will fondly remember. Her small size was no shortcoming in the business of mousing, but she was equally as gentle and loving with her humans. She lived out her best years in and around the house, occasionally tying up with other cats or critters in the neighborhood, but mostly just lording over the creatures in our own yard.

For each of our children, during their infancy Mia showed incredible patience and tolerance with their poking and prodding. Her reactions were always tempered to a level that was appropriate to the age of the kids. At night, she could often be found curled up beside one of them. She would follow them up to the house of our friends and neighbors and wait for the kids outside (or even inside, on occasion).

A few years ago we got the first indication that her kidneys were failing. We were able to manage this with special food and for her own part, Mia was still herself. Around a year ago, we had a much bigger scare when I found a large, open abscess on her abdomen. Our best guess is that this was the result of a scrape with one of the other animals in the neighborhood.

The timing of her abdominal injury was tough; it came right in the midst of our house move and so we were making vet visits with her one hour and frantically packing the next. But eventually, everything settled out. Mia’s wound was treated and healing, and we were in the new house. Our vet, who had cared for both cats from the beginning, left us with stern instructions that Mia could no longer be an outdoor cat at the new place.

At first, Mia didn’t take kindly to being sequestered, but she was slowing down and ultimately seemed to accept the indoor lifestyle. Part of me wonders now if she might have preferred to be outdoors at the end, but the lack of closure for our kids would have been pretty hard. It will be hard enough as it is.

Over this past summer, my wife brought a new cat into the family. Mia and Pia were already around eight months old when they came to us, but this new cat was very much a young kitten. With Gus, as we’ve come to call him, Mia made it clear from the start that she would not suffer to live again in another cat’s shadow. Even when the kitten had grown to twice her size in six months, she held her ground against his frequent ambushes and games.

The squabbling was tiresome for Mia, but she had another big health problem brewing. By January, Mia was showing some occasional shortness of breath. By late February, breathing was starting to become a real effort for her.

This past Wednesday, Mia’s new vet confirmed that her chest cavity was filled with fluid. The two likely causes were cancer, or congestive heart failure. In a cat that is already dealing with full blown kidney disease, both of these possibilities are pretty bad. We’d never had to face this part of pet ownership before, but now we had to ask ourselves how far we were willing to go to treat this.

With cancer it would have only been a matter of time, and a pretty miserable time at that. With heart failure alone we might have managed it, but the heart failure combined with kidney failure is a difficult balancing act. I don’t believe that we could have stayed on top of the fine tuning that lies between the opposing treatment plans. Either way would have been a really miserable way to go.

They gave Mia a diuretic on Wednesday to see if it would reduce the fluid in her chest cavity. I spent a half hour Wednesday night just laying the bed with Mia laying on my chest, as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Yesterday there was no obvious change in her condition, and so we set up the appointment for her to be put to sleep today. My wife let the kids know what was going to happen, and that it was time to start saying our goodbyes. That went about as well as you could expect.

We skipped the kidney-friendly food. Mia had a can of tuna for dinner last night, and she spent her last night curled up on the couch with my wife. This morning she got another can of tuna for breakfast. She ate both with gusto.

But this morning was tough; I don’t think the kids completely grasped that they would leave for school and Mia would be gone when they got home. After they left, I took my breakfast with Mia on my lap, my wife sitting nearby. When it was time go, she held Mia while I got the cat carrier together, and then we sat for a long, tearful moment before I set Mia in her crate.

I will not lie or play down the fact that I was, and still am, a complete wreck. I lost it when I sat down in the car, but I pulled it together for our ten minute drive. As we rode, I told Mia that it was beautiful day, and that we were family, and that we’d had fourteen wonderful years. I told Mia that there was a sunbeam waiting for her past the mounting discomfort of this illness. And I lost it again for a bit, but pulled myself together for the vet’s office.

We went straight in to the exam room. I took Mia out of the crate and into my lap so we could sit there together. Not long afterward, a tech came in with a form for me to sign and to give me information about the cremation service we would be using. A moment later, the doctor was with us, and she explained the process we were about to undertake.

The first shot that they give is a heavy anesthetic. For a cat like Mia it takes about three minutes to set in, and when it has taken effect, the cat is in a deep sleep and totally unconscious. The second shot they give, intravenously, is essentially an overdose of anesthetic that is powerful enough to stop the cat’s heart.

After they gave Mia the first shot, they left us alone while the medicine set in. I wanted this cat to feel loved and comfortable on her way out, and so I just held her and stroked her fur, and started telling telling her about that sunbeam that she would find.

“You are a sweet little cat. Any time that sun hits my face, we’ll be sitting in it together. I’ll find you in a sunbeam…”

And then I just started to acknowledge this deep gratitude that I felt for her:

“Thank you for being there for each of my kids, laying with them as they slept, watching them grow up. Thank you for being there for my wife when I went off to boot camp and she was alone. Thank you for being a part of my life… Thank you, thank you. Thank you.”

Mia had been purring as I stroked her and talked to her, but eventually the purring slowed and then stopped, her body slackened, and I could feel that she was in a deep, relaxed sleep.

When the doctor and the tech returned, I layed her on the examination table so that they could run a line for her second shot. Laying there, I could see that she was barely bigger than the first time I saw her fourteen years ago. As the medicine went in, her lungs rattled a bit from the effort of breathing, and then Mia was gone.

They left me again to say my last goodbyes, and the moment they were out the door I well and truly lost it. I had the foresight to bring along a tea towel and I was using it to cover my ragged breaths as the tears streamed down my face. Eventually I collected myself and stood there for a while, stroking Mia’s fur until I was reasonably confident that I could walk to the car without losing it again.

My last glimpse of Mia was of the tech coming in to take care of her. She was speaking kind words to Mia and I appreciated the care and respect that she and the vet had exhbited through the whole business.

My father, who has owned and had to say goodbye to a few pets over the years, observed to me once that the span of a pet’s life is like a chapter in our own lives. Mia’s chapter was the beginning of our time as adults with a home and a family – first with cats, and then with children of our own. Mia’s chapter closed in a new house, with our first child on the verge of being a teenager.

Back at the old house, we never had a plan for burying Pia. Maybe, without really knowing it, we were waiting to bury Mia and Pia together. Now we’ve got enough land to make a proper memorial garden for both of the sisters. When Mia’s ashes come home, we’ll find a nice spot and we’ll make sure that it’s a spot that gets plenty of sun. I think that the combination of being outdoors and laying in a sunbeam is as close to Nirvana as Pia and Mia could get.%