It’s been almost a week since my wife and I lost a family member, and I’m not okay.
Last Thursday, our cat Bastion passed away. He’d been struggling with a renal insufficiency (a problem with blood-flow through the kidneys) for a while, and had taken a downturn a couple of weeks ago. He’d lost weight and wasn’t eating much. Try as we might to get him to eat, we just couldn’t get him to take in enough sustenance. The day he passed away, I had made a vet appointment for him for the following morning to try to get him back on track. A few hours later, he was gone.
My wife and I were married in 1998, and Bastion had been a part of our family for almost that entire time. Early in our marriage, we’d take a trip up to Victoria, British Columbia for our anniversary each year (it’s also where we had our honeymoon). On our way to our first anniversary in 1999, we missed the morning ferry from Port Angeles, and needed to waste some time. So, on a whim, we stopped into a local pet shop.
We didn’t really have any expectations at the time. We were just browsing. When we rounded the corner in the store to see two tiny, weeks-old kittens behind the glass of a play-area, we instantly fell in love. We asked to see them, and the moment we held them in our arms, we knew we were taking them home. Each of us picked one up, and we knew from the start that the one I held was “mine” and the one Christina held was “hers”. That little guy was Bastion, and I held his brother, Gremlin.
We bought them on the spot, but told the store that we would have to pick them up when we were on our way home from Victoria. We left them there, then headed out for our vacation. And we couldn’t stop thinking about them. We talked and talked about taking them home, about what we’d need to get and how we’d potty train them and how things around the apartment were going to change and on and on.
Although I already knew I was going to name “my” kitten something like Goblin or Gremlin (I even considered Kobold), Christina had no idea. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, while wandering through Victoria, that we came upon a beautiful little public market space called Bastion Square, and something just clicked with her. She’d picked her name. I settled in on Gremlin, and the vacation was instantly doomed. Now that we had names picked out, we couldn’t stand to wait the extra three or four days we had left in Victoria, so we cut our trip short and headed back to Port Angeles to pick up our kitties.
They were both freaked out by the drive, but Bastion was the loudest. He didn’t stop screaming for a single moment that the car was in motion (which ended up being his M.O. any time we put him in a car from that point forward). The closest to quiet he got was when we were on the ferry. Christina and I stayed with the car, and let them out of their little crate to explore. They wandered around the inside of the car and crawled all over our laps, Bastion still meowing his displeasure with the scary situation. We got them home, and our lives were forever changed.
Bastion’s boisterous vocal nature was part of him his whole life, and an indication of his clinginess. He was, without a doubt, the neediest cat I’d ever encountered, but that also meant that he was by far the most affectionate. Most people talk about cats being independent and aloof, and Bastion was the opposite. He always made you feel like you were the most important person ever, like he was giving you attention, not the reverse.
Whenever you entered a room with him, he’d stop whatever he was doing – even sleeping – to come to you. When you carried him on your shoulder (my wife’s right shoulder was one of his favorite places in the world), he’d nuzzle his head into the side of yours and be content to sit there for as long as you’d hold him. He spent most of his life upside-down, flipping onto his back in that goofball, uniquely kitty-cat head-turn flip maneuver that meant “Pet my belly!”. He wasn’t so much our cat as we were his humans, and he loved us unconditionally.
Which is why losing him is one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with. I’ve had a lot of pets over the course of my life. My childhood was always filled with cats and dogs. But they were never, really, mine. When you have pets as a child, there’s a sort of mild separation or distance that, I think, is bred by the fact that you’re not wholly responsible for their welfare. I’m not trying to diminish any of my pets’ role in my life – I loved them all – but losing a pet that your parents are responsible for and losing one under your own care are wildly different experiences.
Neither of us expected this to be so difficult. The toughest loss I’d ever dealt with before this (aside from my parents) was my childhood dog Smokey. We picked up Smokey when I was in sixth grade, and he passed away when he was 12 years old. At that point I’d been away from home several years, and although I still thought of Smokey as “my” dog, that separation blunted the blow of his loss. I cried for a day, grieved for a while after, and then my life shifted back to normal.
Bastion, on the other hand, was a constant presence in my everyday life in a way that Smokey hadn’t been at the time he passed. Every morning, I’d wake up with Bastion curled up next to my pillow. All day, I’d take moments to give him and his siblings little scritches and love, especially for the last three years that I’ve been working from home. Every evening, he’d wander around our bedroom vocally declaring his displeasure with our attention being focused on books or sleep until we’d call him over and give him some cuddle time.
It’s been tough to roll across little comments and in-jokes that Christina and I would have about our group of cats as a whole, now that Bastion’s missing from that group. We used to make jokes about “being surrounded by 3 Billion Kitties!”, where Midnight was half-a-billion, Bastion was one billion, and Gremlin was one-and-a-half billion (because of their relative sizes). We used to refer to the three of them as “Wee, Not-So-Wee, and FRICKIN’ HUGE!”, from an old Saturday Night Live skit with Mike Meyers and Patrick Stewart. We’d make comments about having “three kitties but only two hands” when they were all begging for attention at once.
I hadn’t really realized how much emotional support I got from Bastion until he was gone. That feeling of love I talked about earlier was an amazing force for self-esteem. It was almost impossible to feel down or angry or frustrated when Bastion was head-butting us in the face, or lying on his back stretching out his paws to us for a hug. If there were ever a moment when I was having a tough time and needed a buoy, he’d be there for me.
Our other animals have always served other roles in the family. Gremlin has always been the stalwart – yes, he loves attention and loves us back, but he’s got his own things to do. Midnight has always been the adorable little girl, and she definitely loves attention – but only on her own terms. Colt has always been the most empathetic of the lot, but that also means his emotions kind of mirror ours: if we’re happy he’s upbeat; if we’re sad, he’s sad too. Bastion was the light. He was always in a good mood, and always did his best to make sure you were, too. His loss leaves a hole in my life that will never be filled, and will take a long time to pave over.
This is why it’s so hard for me to understand anyone who utters the phrase “just a cat”. For us, pets are family. As much family as any other member. We allow ourselves an attachment, a love and deep connection, to our animals that makes them a part of our hearts. To not do so would seem pointless, and do both them and us a disservice. If not for that connection, then why have animals in your life? That connection makes for a terrible sense of loss when they leave us, and sometimes we feel like others look at us askance for grieving so hard. To those people, I say: You can fuck right off. But I digress.
For both Christina and I, Bastion is the first pet we’ve ever lost who we were solely responsible for. For me, that means I’ve spent every moment since he died feeling like I let him down. What if I’d been more diligent? Would he still be with us if I’d taken him to the vet fifteen minutes, or two hours, or two days, or a week earlier? Are all of these warning signs that I’m seeing in hindsight things I should’ve caught in the moment? How could I not have seen? Why wasn’t I paranoid enough?
That feeling of responsibility – and, frankly, guilt – indescribably magnifies the grief I feel at his loss. I’ve cried every single day since we lost him. I knew Bastion was getting old, and I didn’t expect him to live forever… but I did expect more time than we got. People can talk about his “long life” until they’re blue in the face, but it will never assuage that horrible feeling that we still could’ve (maybe?) had just a little more time with him. If only I hadn’t failed in my duty as his caretaker.
The only small solace we have is that we were with Bastion when he died. We’d just given him his nightly dose of medicine for his renal condition. He was weak, and we both laid down on the bed with him to give him our attention. We laid there petting him, hoping that he’d feel a little better. I worried about him, trying to decide whether he needed to go to the vet right then, happy that I’d made an appointment for him for the next day. Thinking I’d made the right decision.
I honestly believe that our presence – surrounding him with love – helped him decide it was time to let go. We rushed him to the emergency vet, but somehow I knew we weren’t getting him back. Before he finally passed away, we both had the chance to lean down with a hand on his side, pet him one last time, and tell him goodbye right in his ear. To tell him that we will always love him.
I have absolutely no insight on grief. I have no way to know how long I’m supposed to feel this way, or how to move past it, or if I’m over-reacting to his passing. I have questions that will never be answered, and all I can hope is that he enjoyed his time on Earth. That he wasn’t angry at (or worse, scared of) us for the times we scolded him or yelled at him or shushed him or swatted him. Whether or not the love we felt for him was conveyed, and made up for the times when we were impatient or frustrated with him. No one but him can tell us whether we gave him a good life.
But now, he’s gone. And we have to try and figure out how our life will balance out without him here. Colt is worried about us – you can see it in his eyes, in how he approaches us, in his posture. Midnight is still kind of aloof, but is looking for more attention than she ever has before, needing some sort of connection. Gremlin misses his brother. He’ll stand in the middle of the bedroom – their domain – and cry, just meowing and meowing until I come in and spend a little time to calm him down. He never used to do that.
And I’m stuck in a sort of constant state of mild panic about them. Gremlin’s diabetic, and Midnight has a cardiac consult next week for a heart murmur in addition to a milder form of the same renal issues that Bastion suffered from. Colt’s a little overweight, but in pretty good shape. But the suddenness of Bastion’s passing shot a spike of fear through my heart that leaves me manic, a knot of worry settling into my gut that won’t loosen. I question every little movement, every moment, wondering if it’s out of the ordinary or just another day. Wondering if I’m doing enough. Wondering if I’ll be able to take care of them.
I’m not sure if writing this will be damaging or cathartic. I know I wanted to write it, but I have no idea whether it will help. At this moment in time, I don’t think much of anything will. All that’s left to do now is to say: