Family Pets: They Always End Up Breaking Your Heartby Ellie Thompson
“Reggie’s in heaven!” Maddie suddenly shouts, enlightened, out of the blue.
“Yes, that’s right, Reggie IS in heaven.” I reply.
“Up in the sky?”
“Yes, up in the sky, looking over us.”
“I can’t see him?!” she exclaims.
“I know, that’s the thing. You can’t see anybody in heaven, it’s a magical place that – “
“I wanna watch Teen Titaaaaans…” she pleads, interrupting me.
“Okay Maddie, let’s get home first…” I smile.
Kids and pets: A wonderful combination once they reach a certain age. And before that, well, disastrous, really. Billy spends his life waiting for the cat bowl to be replenished and placed on the floor in the kitchen. It’s not that he watches out for it – oh no, he can be as far away as the living room with his nose always eagerly primed for the ripe smell of wet food to escape from an open sachet. His ears finely tuned in to the sound the bowl as it’s (gently) placed on the floor behind the kitchen counter. He can’t actually see it from across almost three rooms worth of space, but he has an acute cat food radar that always seems to know the EXACT moment it’s available for the picking.
He’ll crawl over, quick as you like on those chubby little knees of his, into the kitchen, in attempt to demand what he sees as his fair square share of Royal Canin’s finest.
Ah, the curse of an open-plan house.
I mean, the number of times on a daily basis we have to rescue cat food from the inside of his mouth and prise the bowl away from his greedy little clutches. What IS it about cat food? Is this a comment on Jamie’s cooking, I wonder?!
Maddie’s really good with the cats. Well, NOW, I mean. She threw a toy brick at one of them once. And missed, luckily!
We have two. Delilah and a new addition as of late January, our ginger rescue cat Ralph. We lost Delilah’s brother Reggie last summer; I was devastated. I still am to be honest. He died of cancer; it just crept up and took him away. The hole he left in my life was enormous.
When Billy got sick with his UTI and we landed up in hospital during May, I had a sickening feeling about Reggie, despite recent blood tests coming back clear. I was stuck in the hospital with Billy for around 10 days straight before I could get home and take Reggie to the vets before going back to Epsom to be by Billy’s side. It was a horrible juggle. The worst.
The results of Reggie’s subsequent ultrasound were not good. He was riddled with ‘something’ cancerous, with his best-case scenario being another two happy years, but the worst? Well - you can guess.
A long and painful week passed for all of us while we were waiting on the results of his biopsy but in the end they were immaterial. On the morning of 1st June, Maddie’s 2nd birthday, I woke up early and went downstairs to see how he was, and I realised he was dying.
He stayed in the living room where he was comfortable as we all watched Maddie open her presents on what should have been the happiest day.
I tried hard to disguise my almost uncontrollable sobbing as Maddie hooted with laughter at her new bike, but my eyes poured with tears I just couldn’t turn off.
Luckily she was still at the age where she didn’t have a clue. Although my grief was completely obvious to anybody else on the planet, apparently to a toddler, it was no great shakes.
I was broken. I called my sister and my best friend who came straight round to take care of the party we had planned for the afternoon and to look after Maddie while we did the unthinkable.
It was bright and sunny that morning as we slid Reggie carefully into his basket and took him on his last trip to the vets. On the drive there I kept saying his name over and over. It was as if I wanted to use his name up or make the most of saying it. I don’t really know. I kept telling him I loved him, I loved him, I loved him, over and over, filling every second of that car journey, as he lay on my lap.
Poor Jamie tried to keep it together behind the wheel.
I doubled over in tears as the vet confirmed what I already knew. Part of me had hoped they’d have good news. They’d give him another injection that would bring his appetite back. Give him a boost to help him turn the corner. Give us more time. Give me my Reggie back, to take home with me. But no. There was only one more thing I could do for him now, and it was hands down the hardest thing I have ever done.
I said goodbye. My heart wrenched and broke into a million pieces as I held him. And then he left. He left me. He was gone.
The Google earth van was filming the streets outside the vets as Jamie and I stood by the car with our empty cat basket sobbing in each other’s arms. I haven’t checked, but I sometimes wonder if that footage is visible. Etched on that street, that one moment in time - the very worst moment of my life for the world to see. Seems fitting in a weird way.
It was a hot day. We got back home to a house and a garden full of people and a bouncy castle whirring in the back garden. I limply carried myself, and Reggie’s basket back into the house. I put on my best face, and with the help of my friends and my family who said nothing but offered me their arms, we got through the afternoon. We carried it off. Such a beautiful birthday party spent feeling the saddest I’d ever been before in my life.
Saying goodbye to Reggie was hands down the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Reggie was so special. He was the love of my life. He was there when I struck out in life on my own and bought my own flat; he followed me everywhere. He sat with Maddie as she screamed in pain as a tiny baby from reflux and gut pain. He was nearby for all those early night feeds, and he was on hand for every lonely moment as a single thirty-something. I miss him. I MISS HIM.
I sobbed for days. And then at least once or twice a day for 53 days straight. I felt so empty. I keep his picture on the fridge, on my desk, on my screensaver and next to my bed. It took the best part of six months until I could manage a day without fighting back the tears doing the washing up, brushing my teeth, or getting into bed.
A lot of you will be scoffing over this, I’m sure. “He’s a cat! Not a child!” I can hear you cry… Well, to me, he was my first child. He was there through the years I thought I wouldn’t be able to have children. He was my first baby.
As skins go, mine is paper-thin. I have always desperately struggled with the concept of losing loved ones, and being anxiously morbid to boot does me no favours.
Something I’ve thought about a lot over the past few months is the old cliché ‘time’s a healer’… It’s a cliché because it’s true, but do you know why?
Why things get that little bit easier as time inevitably moves on? I think it’s because as time passes, your memories ever so slowly get chipped away at. They gradually start to fade.
Ahh, you won’t even notice it at first. It’s the day you go without crying until lunchtime. And then the day you go without crying until the evening. That’s when it starts.
The smallest nuances you probably haven’t even consciously registered are missing. The minute details begin to fray a bit around the edges.
It’s those teeny tiny fractions of memory so small they’re impossible to define individually, because they’re part of a much bigger picture. But the picture - your memory - gets a little less pixelated as time goes by, and the pictures start to reduce in resolution, so it’s just less… graphic.
I hate it.
I’m no expert but I’m guessing that nobody can stay in a state of grief forever without dedicating an entire life to it. Your brain HAS to start to prioritise its content to allow you to move on – even when you don’t want to. At then at some point, even after what seems like the longest time, you’re back in the room, you’re present. And at first, you might feel guilty for it.
It’s sad to think that Maddie grew up for two whole years alongside both Reggie and Delilah, but she was really only aware of one cat. Both black, and brother and sister they looked very similar. Lilah always preferred to take a back seat upstairs away from the crazy children (she still does, who can blame her?) so Maddie very rarely saw them together. Now though, Maddie asks about him when she sees his photo. I wish he’d lived longer for her to remember him first hand.
As cats go, he was a legend.
Snapping back to the present day, Maddie adores Delilah and Ralphie. When she wakes from a bad dream in the middle of the night, it’s ‘Lilah’ she asks for. She’s kind and gentle to both of them.
Living with cats has taught Maddie to be respectful of animals and other living things. Billy’s still learning, of course, Ralph’s bopped him a couple of times (something Reggie nor Lilah would NEVER do!) but bless him, Billy never seems to learn, and Ralphie’s quick to tell him.
Animals will always break your heart, and one day, the hearts of your children when they’re old enough. But the love and the life lessons they can teach all of us, and the companionship they give can you through the bad times and the good is beyond anything else imaginable.
Cuddle them tight.
Dedicated to Reggie, 2008 – 2019.