If you could choose the day you die, opting for the last sequential date of the century is a pretty rad choice. That’s what our beloved kitty, Buster, did. After eight-and-a-half years gracing the world with his larger-than-life presence, he crossed the Rainbow Bridge on 12/13/14. And while it wasn’t entirely a choice, the awesomeness of that doesn’t surprise us – it’s exactly the one-of-a-kind cat he was.
Both Chris and I always thought of ourselves as dog people – we grew up with dogs, we get dogs, we DIG dogs. So it surprises both of us that we’ve also become cat people, falling so deeply in love with Buster and his older “brother,” Brutus. The truth is that when you’re two child-free humans in a one-bedroom apartment in the often-tundra-like city of Montreal, you spend a shit-ton of time with your indoor cats. They wormed their way into our lives, our laps, our bed, our wallets, and yes – our hearts.
During rough periods in our life (and there have been many over our three years together), Buster was a constant source of joy, entertainment, and love. He was never “just a cat” – he was a dog, a monkey, a person. His name suited him, as he often “busted” onto the scene (garnering many comparisons to Kramer), with expressions, “talking,” and mannerisms that made him seem more human and less cat. He was nearly 20 pounds and a tall drink o’ water – picking him up for a squeeze was often accompanied by a lot of grunting and scrambling to tuck in all his limbs. He was dextrous as all get-out, opening cabinet doors, closet doors, and hiding in drawers or kitchen cabinets (often pushing the bag of dry cat food off the shelf in hope of a second helping). During meals, he balanced on his hind legs while using his front paws to try to rip food from your hand. He snoozed in trumpet cases, backpacks, shoes, clean clothes, and dirty clothes – frequently posed like a fat old man, with legs splayed and one “arm” thrown over his eyes. He shit like an old man too – giant turds that he never covered. He was fearless, ungraceful, and often missed when he tried to jump from one thing to the next. He routinely woke us up at 5-fricking-a.m. by planting his entire hefty self on our chests. He was a devoted head-butter (or “bunter,” as my animal ecologist friend Katie described). It was his way of giving kisses and showing love. He was into laying on top of the refrigerator while we cooked or washed dishes – and would often “make biscuits” with his paws on our heads or shoulders while he was up there. If you gave into this call for attention by turning toward him, he’d give you a big, sweet ol’ bunt for good measure. Recently, he’d taken to raking his teeth through my hair during these kitchen moments, as well as when he’d sit alongside me at the desk during the workday. It was bizarre, but sweet and hilarious. But then, that was Buster: a gentle jester to the very end.
Sadly, that very end came much sooner than expected. Buster had spent nearly two years battling a sore on his paw that just wouldn’t heal. Most of the last year of his life was lived in a cone or a bandage; we watched him closely for signs of suffering, but he was always eager to eat, eager to play, eager to love. After surgery to remove the infected tissue in September, it was determined that the infection had turned into soft tissue sarcoma, i.e., cancer, and had spread to one of his lymph nodes. We were given the option to amputate his leg and remove the lymph node, and were reassured that cats do just fine on three legs. We didn’t disagree, but this wasn’t an injury. This wasn’t “Well, he got hit by a car so we’ll remove his leg and he’ll live happily ever after.” This was cancer. It was in a lymph node. It was a gray area. And amputation seemed a lot to ask from a cat who’d been through so much already and whose prognosis was unclear. After much agonizing, many discussions, and a fair share of tears, we decided to focus on healing his paw and letting him enjoy his life – on all fours – as long as he was happy and himself.
That was November 23rd. Two weeks later, Chris’s parents visited Montreal and Buster put on the show of a lifetime. His foot was healing and we were optimistic that he’d be with us for some time – maybe a year or two or even four. But on December 11th, Chris’s parents headed back to Michigan and Buster seemed out of sorts. He was no longer jumping onto (and missing) his favorite spots and just wanted to be alone on the bed. He was still interested in food, but sleeping more than usual. One afternoon, while napping with Buster, Chris noticed he was shaking and suggested we change his bandage to see what was up.
That was the last time we would ever do that. As I unwrapped the bandage, our beloved catman – who had always been a sweet and cooperative patient – screamed at the top of his lungs. Primal screaming. Pain screaming. Hissing. Clawing. I sobbed as Chris yelled for me to “Just pull the whole thing off!” Once the bandage was removed, we saw that his paw had burst into sores again and that another had appeared on the front of his leg. And that was it. We couldn’t put him through this anymore. We couldn’t go through this anymore. The time had come.
The next day – Friday, December 12th – we spoiled Buster with extra food, roast chicken, and early Christmas toys. He gave us everything he had: a final hop onto the fridge, a romp with all of his toys, a Jedi Kitty session with Brutus, and lots of snuggles. Our deeply caring and compassionate vet, Dr. Zollo and her tech, Veronica – both of whom cared for Buster throughout this ordeal – agreed to put Buster to sleep at our home the following day at 4:00. We spent his last 24 hours crying, cuddling, and saying our goodbyes. We told him it was OK to go, that we would be fine, that Brutus would be fine. That we loved him and that he would soon no longer be in pain. No more cones, no more bandages, no more vets. Just food and fun and frolicking – all of his favorite things that we could no longer give him in his earthly life.
By the time the vet arrived on Saturday, December 13th, Buster was a shell of himself. He was refusing food. At 2:00, he collapsed onto his favorite ball on my side of the bed and never left. It was as if our little warrior kitty had been fighting as long as he could – but now that he knew we were aware of his pain, he was ready to let go. I laid next to him and held him to my chest, tears dropping onto his head and into his ears. When he looked up at me for the last time, it was as if he was telling me not to cry, that he was going to be just fine on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge. Chris took a few photos of him, but soon stopped as his eyes were pleading in a way that broke our hearts. It’s still painful for us to look at those pictures, and probably always will be.
At 4:15, Dr. Zollo and Veronica sat with us on the bed as Buster took his final breaths. He was surrounded on all sides by people who loved him – and we all stroked him and whispered to him and cried. It didn’t take long – in fact, it seemed he was so close to death by 4:00, that it didn’t even take much. We believe he actually passed after he was given the sedative, as Dr. Zollo wasn’t able to finish administering the medication to stop his heart. His veins collapsed after only 2 cc’s. It was peaceful, it was quick, it was like having your heart ripped out and thrown into the street. The saddest words I’ve ever heard were those Dr. Zollo uttered after a long listen with her stethoscope: “His heart has stopped beating. He’s gone.”
We watched them gently wrap Buster in a blanket, place our soft kitty in a soft kitty carrier, and quietly head into the cold, snowy night. We lit candles. We held each other. We cried. Eight days later, it’s still hard to believe that our gentle warrior – who warmed our feet at night and our hearts always, who’d traveled with Chris on multiple cross-country trips, who’d lived in five cities and two countries – is gone. But, little by little, there are more laughs and less tears. His ordinarily cranky and aloof brother has taken on many of his soft qualities and is showering us with snuggles, bunts, and purrs. We don’t know if this will last, but it makes it a little easier to move through the grief.
Two nights ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and wondered where Buster was. I got out of bed and wandered into the living room to look for him. Then I realized a) I’m in Seattle, not Montreal, and b) Buster is gone. That’s what palpable loss is like – you can’t imagine life without this presence, this great love. Because great loves walk all over your heart and turn it into a misshapen mess. When they leave, you feel their absence like a weight has been lifted, but in a way that leaves you feeling empty. Then, after a while, your heart inflates with the love they gave, the love they left. And that makes it all worthwhile. Our little warrior – our Busta Rhymes, our Sweet Guy, our Catman – was worth every second of his short time on earth. We miss you, Baby Cat. But we’re filled with love because of you.