Paw Prints on My Heart
"Until one has loved an animal, a part of one´s soul remains unawakened." -Anatole France
“We’ll call them Brandy and Bailey,” I said. They weren’t even born yet, but our kittens already had names. Since neither of us wanted children, this would be the closest we would ever come to “expecting.” We had just started our life together, a brand new diamond ring on my finger and freshly minted Master’s degrees in frames. It was time to find our first pets.
When we told our new boss, Sarah, we were looking for kittens, she begged us to take two of hers. “I paid to have my cat spayed,” she said. “And guess who’s pregnant?” From the very beginning, our kittens were special.
Weeks passed. Finally we got news. “I know the two you’ll want,” Sarah said one morning. “There are two girls who look exactly the same.” Sure enough, there were two silver tabbies, one with a white peak on her forehead, and one with a white racing stripe on her hip. Otherwise they were identical. And perfect.
“Which one is which?” my fiancé Chris asked. He would spend the first few months of their lives trying to keep them straight. I looked at each one closely. “This one is Bailey,” I said, pointing to the racing stripe. “And she,” I said, scooping up the other one, “is Brandy.” I could feel her little heart rapidly beating inside her. Her needlelike claws dug into my neck as she purred. I was in love.
Although I had a dog and cat growing up, this was my first experience with kittens. Everything was new to them! We spent weeks growing them indoor grass, but they were afraid of it. At Halloween, their eyes grew wide and tails puffed at the sight of pumpkins. Instead of climbing the 8-foot Christmas tree, they ran from it, terrified.
We bought them every toy in the cat aisle. We laughed as they chased each other – and their own tails. We marveled at Brandy’s ability to jump on top of an open door and perch there for hours. They curled up together and slept in one giant kitten ball. We spent a small fortune developing film of nothing but cute cat photographs.
They gave us quite a few scares too. Like the time Bailey ate a piece of embroidery thread – with a needle attached! The vet said to keep an eye on her, but she likely ate the thread first, which meant the needle was traveling through her system backwards. After two days of round-the-clock vigilance, it appeared. Somewhere there is a snapshot of me, yellow gloves on my hands leaning over the litter box, posing with what resembled a nasty string of pearls.
Brandy developed a recurring skin rash that was likely a food allergy, but no matter what we tried, we could not identify the source. Instead, she got regular cortisone injections, and a daily steroid. Concerned about long term side effects, we would back off on the pills when she looked better, only to have her break out again a few days later.
The Ladies, as we called them, were with us for every milestone. We were married when they were a year old. They were two when we abruptly resigned from our first jobs and spent a summer unemployed. They moved with us from a suburb of New York City to northeastern Ohio when I accepted a new position. Miles from friends and family, we didn’t know a soul. The Ladies became our touchstone. As we struggled to find our place in unfamiliar surroundings, they waited for us at home, greeting us at the door and meowing every time we opened a can in hopes it was their dinner.
Over the years, we each developed a special bond with one of them. Brandy was my soul mate. She loved to snuggle her nose into my neck and knead on my shoulder. She slept on my pillow every night, lulling me to sleep with her purrs. Bailey’s personality was more suited to Chris. She was a lot like him, introspective and serious.
One day around Thanksgiving, when they were ten years old, we noticed Brandy was looking a little thin. She had always been a World Champion Napper, but she seemed to be sleeping more than usual. Convinced it was nothing serious, I took her to the vet alone. Dr. Klein knew her well, since we regularly refilled her medication. “Is she drinking a lot of water?” he asked. “No!” I said, a little too enthusiastically, remembering diabetes was a possible side effect of her meds. “She’s not drinking anything at all!” He had barely started to examine her when he said, “She has a huge mass in her abdomen.”
I was shocked. A mass? That couldn’t be it. I had skipped over every single reference to growths of any kind in my internet research. The last time I had heard those words, I was growing an 11 ½ pound fibroid tumor on a flap of membrane on my uterus. It had been major surgery, but I was fine now. “You can remove it, right?”
Dr. Klein took a deep breath. He leaned against the wall and looked me squarely in the eye. “I would like to do an x-ray to be sure, but it feels very large.” He picked her up, and suddenly I was alone. I ran outside to call my husband, unable to stop the tears. He arrived just as Dr. Klein came in with the films. We could see the spots without being told what they were. “It’s probably cancer,” he said.
My heart pounded. My stomach churned. “What would you do if she was your cat?” my husband asked. “I would put her to sleep,” he said softly. Did he say my beloved Brandy, who followed me around the house and talked back when I spoke to her, was dying? I could barely see the road through my tears. I let her out of the carrier and sat down on the stairs. The pain in my chest was unbearable. I sobbed. I screamed. I gasped for breath. I picked her up and held her, tears flowing down my cheeks.
For three days I fed her baby food and tuna fish soaked in water, rejoicing when she took a few tiny sips. I waited for a sign. Her eyes were so sad. She winced when I stroked her fur. She let me hold her for a few seconds before wiggling out of my arms. When she started having dry heaves and could barely get off the couch, I knew it was time.
My husband warmed a towel in the dryer to protect her against the December wind. I carried her in my arms through a special door in the back of the vet’s office. I held her as they gave her a shot to calm her. As I kissed her head again and again, the life left her tiny body. I loved her enough to let her go and end her suffering, even though mine was just beginning.
I felt her loss in a million ways, every day. I saw her out of the corner of my eye, in the shadows and in plain sight. I waited for her to come up to bed. I looked for her in the dark. When I thought there were no more tears to cry, I started sobbing again. I spent money I didn’t have on a sterling silver charm in the shape of a paw that I filled with some of her ashes.
Months passed. My heart hurt a little less. I was able to muster a tiny smile when photos of her appeared on my digital picture frame. I clung to her sister, lavishing Bailey with attention. She had spent her life in Brandy’s shadow, content to quietly nap alone on the guest room bed. She became a source of strength.
One afternoon while petting her, I felt a small lump on Bailey’s neck. My heart leapt into my throat. By then she had turned 11, but she was still young in my eyes. Tests showed hundreds of tiny tumors in her lungs. She began to wheeze. How could it possibly be that just eight months after losing Brandy, I found myself again at the same crossroads? The last thing she saw was my face close to hers, whispering how much I loved her.
We have two new kittens now, KitKat and Snickers. We love them as fiercely as we loved Brandy and Bailey. But unexpectedly, usually at night when I’m trying to fall asleep, a sense of love and loss washes over me, and I begin to cry. I know someday I will find myself in that terrible position again. But I also know there is enough love in my heart to set them free when the time comes. In the years between, I will cherish every moment.