Sebastian died last night. He was 14, an old man in cat years but still horribly too young.
When I first met Sebastian and his brother, they were some of the biggest cats I’d ever seen. Everything about them, from their gigantic tails to their magnificent ruffs, was at a scale that you don’t normally see in domestic cats. Their fur was majestically thick and brown-black, although only Sebastian had a white tuft on his chest that stood out like a lightning bolt. He meowed like a banshee, always willing to share his opinion. He was strong, thick-pawed, occasionally a bit of an idiot but unfailingly patient and tolerant. Sebastian lacked grace, it’s true, and ‘dignified’ probably isn’t a word that’d ever be used to describe him. He was a sprawlingly large cat; a long haired, thick-maned beast that’d stretch his way across a bed or couch so that others would struggle to find room. Except that he’d always make room for you, really; he’d love to be picked up and plonked back down again, rearranged to allow others in or to be squeezed tight. He never took offence at that. He loved nothing more than being held close, his nose buried in my wife’s long hair. He’d purr himself to sleep, blissed out until he drooled a little. He was the most accomodating cat I’ve ever met – I swear he was part rag doll, for the way he could be bundled up and shunted around. He was less a cat than a soft toy at times, and there was something almost unfeline about the quality of his loyalty and friendship.
He had been thin for a little while, then had gone downhill fairly sharply over the past few months. Looking back at pictures, he hadn’t really looked himself since January. There was something Not Right that was slowly shrinking him. He’d been a big lad for many years, but had been overtaken by his tank of a diabetic brother. It seems they shared a collective weight between them – as his brother grew increasingly large, Sebastian started to disappear, little by little. Over the past month or two, prescription medicines were tried then changed in quick succession to narrow down what it was, and what could be treated – or, if it could be treated at all. His white patch got trimmed off during one of his many blood tests – with that defining little skunk-stripe gone, he seemed, subtly, a different cat. He sometimes seemed to ache when he walked, and more recently, he lost bowel control. It wasn’t like he’d ever been the best at personal hygiene, but this was a sign that things were going downhill faster than we realised. He got locked up in the laundry more often to stop him accidentally shitting on things, and we gave him time outside to lay in sunbeams, watch some birds and feel the breeze on his fur. We hoped that he was happy; he purred when we patted him, but we did that more rarely as it became harder to find a spot that hadn’t become too bony. From hovering around 6-7kg for much of his life – big for a cat – he was now approaching 3kg, then even below that. We stopped holding him for too long. He was a bundle of sticks that we were afraid to break.
We made the decision to put him down. The box was chosen, the Conversation had with our daughter. She was accepting rather than sad – even at four years of age, she knew he couldn’t last like this. She learned about the two injections – one to sleep, another to die – and words like ‘cremation’ entered her vocabulary.
Saturday morning, it had been set for. It felt like a blessing for him, and yet also a betrayal. We had originally made the date for a week earlier, but hadn’t been brave enough to follow through. We brought him in for cuddles on the bed, for one last time. He purred, he stretched, he was delighted. For maybe twenty minutes he was the same cat that he remembered. Then, with purpose and intent, he leapt off the bed and strode to the back door, to be let out into the Autumn night. He never came back.
I found him the next morning, not far from home. He had walked a couple of houses away, laid down in a quiet spot, and chosen the moment for himself. I reached out and stroked his fur, wet from the night’s rain. He was still and cold but for a moment I weirdly hoped that, just maybe, some spark remained. That everything would be as it was again. I wished he had instead died surrounded by those who had loved him; simultaneously, I was oddly proud that he’d chosen his own terms. Perhaps he had worried that we may delay again, that our courage would falter. Perhaps he’d seized the moment and been braver than us. Perhaps that one last moment on the bed had been all he needed, and he was saying goodbye to us rather than the other way around. Perhaps none of those things. Perhaps it doesn’t truly matter.
If a pet isn’t yours, it’s easy to think of it as merely an animal. That’s lazy thinking, and ignores the specific, personal bonds that we as humans have with our furrier family members. I’m writing this on a bed with rasping feline snores coming from under the mattress, and a calico by my elbow. We have two other cats – fine, wonderful cats who will be grieved in turn when their day comes – but Ferris and Amelia are not Sebastian, just as he was not them. He was truly one of a kind, just as they are.
Earlier this year, one of my Facebook friends went through something similar to this. He put up ‘The House Dog’s Grave’, a poem written by Robinson Jeffers for his departed bulldog, which I saved; it resonated then, and I knew I’d read it again soon with different eyes. It closes, “You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend. I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures to the end and far past the end. If this is my end, I am not lonely, I am not afraid. I am still yours.”
Farewell Sebastian, Sebastiano, Mister, Mr Meowy, Stinky-Butt, Basty. You’ll always be our friend, to the end and past the end.