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    “That’s it. I’m putting him down.” My husband would say this after Shadow did something punkish. He didn’t mean it, of course. It probably just felt good to air the frustration that comes when a cat pisses on a suit that you’ve laid out for an important business trip. Or when a cat pisses in a suitcase. Or on new running shoes. Shadow just did it as an eff-you. Oh, you’re gonna leave me? Like hell you will. 

    Jeff got “stuck” with Shadow after an ex-girlfriend exited the scene. When I met Shadow he was a spry, 11-year-old fart. He’d scratch me as I walked past him, drawing blood from my feet and ankles, sometimes getting his claws caught on my pant leg. I’d often get stuck in one room trying to get to another just because he was sitting in the hall with a menacing smirk. Having company was always stressful. People didn’t understand when we would say, “No, he’s in the bedroom because he’s not very social.” They’d charge in there, curiosity killing the best of intentions, and say, “Oh, hi kitty!” and try to pet him, only to get greeted with a hiss and throat-curdling growl.

    But Shadow adored Jeff. He’d lie in a sunny spot on Jeff’s desk and let out a purr when Jeff would scratch the top of his bony, furry head. In his more playful days, I could get Shadow to chase a string or laser around the room. Sometimes I’d look in his huge green eyes — a cat’s slit-shaped pupils, and by extension their souls, being so foreign to me compared to a dog — and I’d ask him, “What’s your deal? Can’t we be cool?” It probably didn’t help my case when I brought a puppy into the 600-square-foot apartment. Shadow and Otis interacting meant bark/hiss duels. Shadow secluded himself in the bedroom away from his canine nemesis.

    He’s already 14, I told myself three years in. No way he can live that much longer, right? I half believed Shadow would live until 20 like so many other cats I’d heard about. I imagined life after the end, when I no longer had to be scared of walking around my own house barefoot. When my allergies would dissipate. When there’d be no more litter box. 

    Shadow seemed to find solace in his later years when we moved to a house with more room for him to roam around and avoid Otis. He had been an indoor cat, but we started letting him out in the yard. He took to a spot on the side of the house. He could have been at the beach the way he stared at a bush out there. Something about the new house made him a new cat. His anxieties and anger dissolved, and he and I developed a tolerable relationship.

    What I knew would come but was not prepared for was the almost-end. In the months of Shadow’s decline, we would ask ourselves: When do you put down your cat? Is it when he stops eating his food and becomes alarmingly thin? He still walked around and begged for food, mewing every morning when I’d get up to feed the dog, indicating a clear desire to keep living. Who were we to end his life? Goat cheese became a favorite of his. As did Wendy’s fries — we’d make trips just to get those things. But then he’d pick at them and turn away. When do you put down your cat? When you go to the vet for $400 worth of blood tests and exams and get told that, while everything looks OK, a $400 ultrasound will really reveal what’s going on? Do you stop then, knowing that whatever does show up on the ultrasound can’t be good, especially for a 16-year-old cat? No. You take him to get the damn ultrasound because what if it’s something simple? Treatable? Manageable?

    But it wasn’t. It was likely lymphoma, though confirmation would require another test and more money, not to mention thousands of dollars to treat — for maybe a year more of an already old and fragile life. By then he had completely eschewed the goat cheese but had discovered wild-caught Alaskan salmon, cooked in butter no less. He fattened up some. Seemed a bit starry-eyed, a little demented, not the same. Either he got too weak to fight off Otis or he didn’t even realize the dog was next to him.

    Maybe we waited too long. It got to the point that Shadow became unable to move. We told the vet we were on our way but we stalled. Jeff wrapped Shadow in a pink towel and held him the same way he always did: up on his shoulder like an infant. It felt wrong to bring a shoebox with us, like somehow Shadow would know. The usually cheery vet whisked us over to a dim exam room. A pink bed and blanket awaited Shadow, which I knew Jeff took as a good sign. We just stared at Shadow, sniffling, grabbing tissues. He did all he could do: stare back at us, his body deteriorated but his mind still full of love. At least it felt that way. He was probably too sick to know what was happening but I felt guilty — for both giving up on him and letting it go on this long. My tears came not from a feeling that’d I’d miss him once he was gone, but from a realization that his life was ending. Of this being that I’d cared for, particularly in the end, suddenly not being. I wasn’t around when any of my grandparents took their final breaths, and while they obviously meant more to me than Shadow, this intimate experience was new to me. Here was this little brain working, begging us day after day for more salmon, and now it was all ending.

    The doctor came in and explained what was in each of the several syringes. I had pictured a dramatic exhale, eyelids closing, some clear line between his looking up at us alive and then his passing. That didn’t happen. His eyes didn't close. He didn’t move. He was just gone. They bagged his body and put him in a box, his pink blanket and bed in there with him. 

    That afternoon Jeff went in search of modeling clay to get Shadow’s paw print before he buried him. He dug and dug in the August heat, and by the time I came home from work there was a little dirt patch on the side of the house, flowers arranged in a circle on top of it.

    This originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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