When the vet told us Smokey was going to die, we couldn’t believe it. The little gray kitten was one of two cats we’d given our daughter for her 8th birthday only months earlier. How could this be? We were told he was likely already infected with the virus when we adopted him.
We were only planning on one kitten, but the Humane Society talked fancy to us, and we ended up with a matched set. Our two elderly cats died earlier in the year, one after the other, and my husband and I decided that a birthday kitten would not only be a wonderful surprise for Samantha, but it would help to ease the sadness. When we got to the shelter, there were little furry fluff-balls everywhere with big, soulful eyes, and the earnest volunteers said something about how the adjustment would be easier if there were two kittens because they would have each other. Next thing you know, we’re signing papers.
Samantha is the sort of bouncy, radiant, effusive child who explodes with joy if I give her a new pen. She’s the kind of kid you like doing things for, because you almost get high off of all those second hand endorphins. When she saw her kittens? It was like fireworks at Disneyland. “I love these kittens SO much,” she exclaimed. “The happy feeling is so big, I feel like I might cry every time I think about it.” She named the muted calico girl Sugar and the dusty gray boy Smokey.
They did this thing where they’d curl up together in one tiny catball and fall asleep, and then at the slightest noise, both their heads would pop up in unison and it made us fall crazy in love. Even our teenage son, Matthew, who is not an animal person, found it ridiculously adorable. “I think the cuteness factor increases exponentially when they both do something at the same time,” he said.
Then, over the holidays and into January, we noticed that Smokey seemed listless. He wasn’t eating very much. His eyes were dull. He would stay in one spot, all day long, sleeping. We took him in to see the vet.
Here’s my Facebook post from that day:
January 28: Sammy’s kitten Smokey is dying. He is 8 months old, and is having a massive immune response to coronavirus. My Sammy’s heart is breaking. As some of you may know, he was one of two kittens she got for her birthday, after the loss of our two older kitties last year. She has been an amazing cat mama. She feeds her kittens, sings to them, and makes them special toys. They are so loved. It looks like Smokey’s only going to be here for a short time, but we’re so grateful we got to love him. We’re all sad, of course, but I would give anything – anything – to take this pain from her. And I can’t. We’re going to love Smokey until the end – at this point it’ll be days or even hours – and we’ll do our best to love Sammy through this.
Later that evening:
January 28: Update: Smokey is home. Operation Kitten Hospice has begun. He accepts cuddles and food if spoon-fed. I’ve been taught to do IV fluids. Sugar is happy to see her brother.
Our thought was that having a pet would teach our daughter responsibility and compassion. You don’t think – at least we didn’t – about the possible bigger lessons: life, death, and the arbitrary cruelty of illness.
January 28: Today’s been a sad mixed with weirdly ordinary day. There’s been crying and vet consultations and cat IVs (unsuccessful, and I chose not to hurt the poor little guy). A preemptive discussion of a possible kitten burial ceremony but also the wild hope that he’ll miraculously recover (unlikely).
Sammy, sobbing: “I’m sorry I’m making such a big deal of this.”
Me: “Don’t ever apologize for your feelings, baby. Ever. Ok? Promise me. Even when you’re a grown up. You get to have your feelings, even the yucky ones.”
Me: “You’re very brave. I know this is hard, but we’re going to be strong for Smokey and surround him with love.”
Sammy: “How am I brave if I’m crying?”
Me: “Because here you are, loving him anyway. Even though this hurts.”
Sammy: “I’m glad we got to have each other, at least for a little while, Smokey. I love you.”
The little cat is weak and growing weaker, but clearly happy to be home from the vet. In between homework and meals and regular stuff, we take turns sitting vigil with him, stroking him and giving him soft kisses as he lies curled up in his favorite spot on Sammy’s beanbag chair. Even with his eyes closed, he can feel us next to him, I tell Sammy. This is solemn, sweet work – helping this tiny creature transition out of this world.
It’s hard enough to have the Big Death Talk with your kid without having a time constraint. As far as we knew, Smokey was minute to minute.
January 29: Though still weak, Smokey will eat special high calorie wet food provided by the vet. He purrs softly when cuddled. Sammy is trying to make peace with this. Before she leaves the house or goes to sleep, she tells him she loves him and what a good cat he is and says goodbye, just in case. She’s been amazed at all the virtual hugs and love and the stories from people who’ve been through similar losses. She wants to know how long this part lasts. The part where it hurts so much you don’t think you’ll make it. In the grand scheme of things, I know one kitten isn’t much. But in her world, and consequently ours, this is huge. Seismic. I am so touched by all the people who have their own much bigger troubles who offer a kind word. It tells me that compassion is not limited by circumstances and that pain is not lessened but is made bearable when shared. I don’t know how long this part will last for Sammy, but she’s learning that the way you get through it is to reach out and then grab on to those who reach back.
Why was I writing about all of this on social media? The big reason was that many of the people I love and consider tribe members are scattered across the globe. It is our custom to share the small but important minutiae of our lives through the miracle of the Internet. The other reason was this: some things, you have to breathe out in words. Otherwise, the grief chokes you. I knew there was something terrible and absurd about all of this, but so many people – my beloveds and even people I didn’t know, had become invested. They offered kind words and prayers or vibes or whatever they believed in. They shared their own stories of loss. They sent virtual hugs to Sammy. If I went for too long without a report, I got messages from near and far asking how Smokey was doing. We used the #TeamSmokey hashtag for updates.
January 30: Sammy and Smokey are making the most of every moment they have together. This is such a beautiful, bittersweet journey.
January 31: For those who are on Smokey Watch, he has been eating and drinking. He will use the litter box if I carry him to it. This means we could have a little more time – still no more than weeks at best, but we’ll take it. Caring for a terminal animal is messy and bothersome and heartbreaking, but also very beautiful. I can’t tell you how many moments we’ve spent just sitting and breathing with him, because every breath is a triumph these days. It’s feline za-zen. Matthew said, “Mommy, I’m impressed with how Sammy is handling this. The way she talks to Smokey and the things she tells him. I don’t think I could have done that at her age.” He doesn’t attach to animals the way Sammy does, but his own grief is for his sister. Watching her with Smokey that first night after she learned his diagnosis, he told me, “That is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. I cried.” (He NEVER cries.) Don’t get me wrong – Sammy is still her sunshiny, irrepressible self. She still laughs and jokes and tells us stories and jump ropes all over the house. She’s able to go in and out of the sadness with ease. I think that’s what these extra days are buying us. An acclimation to inevitable loss. It won’t hurt any less when it comes, but she will be able to resurface.
February 1: Every so many hours, I must pounce upon Smokey and force a syringe of antibiotics down his throat. After, Sammy and Sugar comfort him. He is mostly a good sport about it all, even though it is very undignified.
February 2: Smokey is still running a low-grade fever. Trying not to let my hopes run away with me. But maybe, just maybe, the combo of love, prayers, healing vibes, antibiotics, and IV liquids are helping? All I know is, when we first brought him in, we were given hours. They thought we’d be back to have him put down. But Sammy’s been loving him up – we all have – nonstop. And now he’s managing to eat and drink. Today he went to the litter box without being carried. Despite the diagnosis, there might be a chance. I believe it. Smokey’s a fighter.
February 3: Holding steady. The vet saw him today and was happy about his improvement, but his prognosis remains the same. She said everyone there is really pulling for Smokey (they’ve fallen for the little guy). There is still the tiny chance this is a viral infection that will respond to the meds, but his up and down fevers make that unlikely. We continue to love and hope. Sammy is accepting of whatever may come. #TeamSmokey
February 5: Smokey the kitten is the epitome of forgive and forget. Or in his case, forget and forgive. Twice a day I wrestle him to the floor and force meds down his throat, but seconds later, he lets me cuddle and comfort him. I hope someday to be as forgetful of indignities.
February 6: No change in the up and down fevers, unfortunately. However, Bob and I are now experts at administering kitty IVs. I had to make sure Sammy understood today that while we hope for the best, his diagnosis is still terminal. “Yes, I know. I’m just loving him while I can.” That’s all any of us can do. #TeamSmokey
February 9: Sammy and Smokey snuggle and watch the Olympics together. #TeamSmokey
February 9: Smokey played for the first time in weeks just now. Played like the kitten he is. He wrestled Sugar and then chased a laser dot, just for a little while. This maybe doesn’t mean anything, but it was so sweet to see. I wish Sammy had been awake for it. #TeamSmokey
February 12: Smokey’s feeling well enough today to venture to the other side of the house and jump up on our bed. One of the gifts of this experience is that an ordinary thing like having your little cat next to you on the bed is an unexpected delight. #TeamSmokey
February 13: At this point, the vet says we can let Smokey eat whatever he wants, as long as it isn’t too fatty. I figure, why not let the little guy enjoy himself, right? *I* won’t be dieting in my final days, I hope. So I let him drink the remains of the milk from my bowl of Coco Krispies (don’t judge). He greatly enjoyed it. And then, he looked up at me with his little bleary eyes and let loose an ENORMOUS wet sneeze. It was like standing next to a puddle while a semi plows through it. I am splattered with cat snot. Off now to shower. #TeamSmokey
February 16: The vet wants him to see an internal specialist, not, as we explained to Sammy, because they can fix him, but because by studying him, they might learn something that can help other cats. He has come to our bedroom for cuddles. #TeamSmokey
Medication and treatment for our furry friends is NOT cheap, folks. Pet owners know what I mean. But we’d committed to this little cat when we brought him into our family. You take care of family. The veterinarians were always very cautious in their wording with us, but they always seemed relieved and happy when we agreed to the next course of treatment. Perhaps they were afraid we’d look at a bill and go, “Nope. That’s too much. We might have to let him go.” I bet that’s what happens sometimes. I’m sure it’s a heartrending choice. Our feeling was that if there was a chance and we could afford it, we were going to do everything possible to help Smokey make it.
February 20: Sammy: “Is that Smokey snoring?”
Me: “Yes, because he has trouble breathing now.”
Sammy: “I know it’s not a good thing that he does that, but it’s kind of precious. Everything he does is special now.”
Me: “It’s a good lesson, isn’t it? That we should appreciate the ones we love like this all the time?”
Sammy: “YES! Like Sugar. And me! You should totally appreciate me.” *jumps up and wiggles butt*
Me: “Oh, I do, my precious love. I really do.”
February 21: Here is an honest question: With regard to Smokey, how will I know when it’s time? We never expected him to make it this long, but we’re thankful he has. Now his breaths gurgle in his chest because it’s slowly filling with liquid, as they told us it would. He still eats, cuddles, and moves from room to room. But he’s laboring. Sammy and I had a talk about whether he’d die at home or at the vet. Ideally, it would be here, with us, in an environment where he feels safe and loved. I don’t want him to suffer, though. I don’t want his last days to be pain-soaked and miserable. I can’t tell. Every night, he climbs up on our bed and sleeps next to my pillow. I wake up during the night to check his breathing, the way I did when my children were young and slept with me so I could nurse them. I just don’t know. We want to get this right. We want it to be as loving an experience as possible. #TeamSmokey
February 26: The little guy is wheezy and now incontinent, but he loves to sleep in the bed, so I cuddle him up in towels, just in case. Thought I was done changing babies, but what are you gonna do? As Sammy says, every cuddle is precious these days. #TeamSmokey
February 28: Smokey is hanging in, but will be going on steroids this week. Bob says this means he’ll probably start hitting more homeruns. Also, he might win the Tour De France under suspicious circumstances. #TeamSmokey
March 5: He continues to fight. We’ve discontinued meds for now, as they seem to be doing more harm than good. #TeamSmokey
March 16: Smokey update, ’cause it’s been a while: He moves like a little old man cat now, which is a stark contrast to Sugar, who is sleek and pouncy and bright eyed. But he still eats and drinks (when he stops, the vet says that’s how we’ll know), he goes to the litter box, and he can make it up onto the bed for cuddles. #TeamSmokey #onedayatatime
March 23: There’s something about the way his eyes look and the way he’s been moving. It could be another false alarm, because goodness knows the little guy has defied the odds so far, but I don’t know how to explain it. I think we all feel it. Each of us, even Matthew, spent a significant amount of time cuddling him today. We’ve told him what a good boy he is and how he’s done his cat job very well. He was part of Sammy’s birthday gift and he’s brought her so much joy. Sammy told him it was okay to go, if that’s what’s happening. “I don’t want you to die, Smokey, but I know you have to.” We’ve made an agreement that if the vet says it’s time and it is at all possible, I will come and get her from school so she can be with him. Is that morbid? I feel like it will help her to say goodbye. I asked her if this was really what she wanted and if she thought she’d be strong enough. “Yes, I think so. But nothing will stop me from crying. Do strong people cry?” I told her yes. All the time. This all sounds pretty depressing, but it’s been quite beautiful. #TeamSmokey
March 24: Back from the vet with Smokey. We should change his name to Champ because he just won’t quit fighting. We fully expected that we might be putting him down today, but instead the vet informed us that she’d been consulting with a specialist and that they really wanted to try a cutting edge new medicine that, while unable to cure him, would improve his quality of life. Everyone at the clinic is totally #TeamSmokey and they have been doing everything they can think of. This new med may boost his T-cells and help him fight infection and his upper respiratory stuff. When he was being examined, he began wheezing quite loudly from the stress (I don’t blame him). Sammy started petting him and talking to him and the vet said, “Aw, look at that. As soon as he heard your voice, he started purring.” Sammy: “Really? He doesn’t purr. Our other cats are super loud, but Smokey never purrs.” Vet: “Well, I can hear him because I have this stethoscope and when you pet him and talk to him, he purrs. He’s thanking you for comforting him.” Sammy: “Wow!” It was a very sweet moment. And can I just say how brave this kid is? She came along knowing this might be the end, but she didn’t flinch. She said, “Well, he is my cat.”
March 31: I had to bathe Smokey tonight. He’s too weak to groom himself, so I do it for him. It’s weirdly soothing, sitting there combing his fur and wiping him down. I can see why cats spend so much time doing this.
April 5: Sammy came to me this morning and told me Smokey can no longer stand and doesn’t want to eat. She thought it was time. We’ve spoken to the vet, who confirms that this is now the best choice for him. He’s fought the good fight, and we’ve had extra weeks to love him, but now we need to let him go. Please keep him and Sammy in your hearts today. Thank you for all the love. #TeamSmokey
April 5: Sammy holding Smokey in her arms and kissing his head as he took his last breath is the most loving, brave thing I’ve ever seen. #TeamSmokey
April 5: Thank you, everyone, for your kindness. Facebook has apparently blocked me from liking comments as there were so many and I was going too fast. Sammy is doing fine. She is mostly her bubbly, happy self, but suddenly the grief will hit her like a wave and she’ll be in tears. I explained to her that that’s what it’s like and it might last for a while. Matthew thinks today was less sad than the day we found out Smokey’s diagnosis and thought we had only hours to say goodbye. For him, that was the saddest day – watching his sister go through that. Today was hard, but we’ve all had time to come to terms with it. Including, I think, Smokey. Here’s something – he wasn’t a big purrer. You know how some cats just aren’t? Not that he wasn’t content or happy, he just wasn’t a loud, purring guy. But all day today, whenever we touched or held him, which was as much as possible, he purred like a lawnmower. He couldn’t see or smell very well, but he could feel us holding him and when he did, he purred. My mom thinks he was saying goodbye. Letting us know that he was ready. Sammy was amazingly strong. This is a little girl who is the baby of our family and is much more used to being cared for than being the caregiver. I’ve seen her stand imperiously in the doorway with a foot stuck out, waiting for her brother to tie her shoe even though she is perfectly capable. (He does, with the exasperated chagrin of a beloved servant.) But with Smokey? She’s helped clean up pee when he became incontinent toward the end. She’s held him while I squirted meds down his throat and while nurses inserted IVs in him. She’s had serious, detailed conversations with the veterinarian about changes in his diet, his gums, his breathing. I’ve watched her kiss him and say goodbye every night before bed and every day before school, just in case. And today she was a rock. She insisted on holding him while the shots that put him to sleep and then stopped his heart were administered. She kissed him through her tears and told him she loved him. It was the most loving passing a little cat could have. Smokey never made it to his first birthday, but in his short time here, he made such an impact. Our hearts are achy and sore tonight, but somehow, a little bigger.
Smokey gave us an opportunity to grow in ways we could not have anticipated. Sharing his story allowed us to connect with people all over the country – all over the world, in fact – in wonderful and profound ways. The tale of Smokey touched the heart of a woman who runs an animal shelter in South Carolina, and a few months later, Sammy and I ended up traveling across the country to meet Samantha Joedicke and the handsome young rescue cat she just knew belonged with us.
UPDATE: Sammy and Clooney, 2017. They are the best of friends.