“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
– Anatole France
We all know the day will come when we must face the loss of an animal, or we find ourselves forced to make the choice that will end their life. We all understand the immense heartache this brings, acknowledge the gaping hole that will soon be punched clear through the vessel that beats with the love we hold inside for them. Unconditional love. And on this day, all of our fears drain out to dampen our soul, like the endless tears that fall silent upon our shirt.
They say right before you die, that your life flashes before your eyes. I don’t know if that’s true, but my life with Hawkeye flashed before mine as I hung up the phone with his doctor, my boss for the last 7 years, and part of my second family. I heard it in his voice before he said it. I already knew what he was about to say. Confirmed: Adenocarcinoma. Lung cancer. Hawkeye is dying. And there is nothing I can do to save him.
Flashes of him in the shelter, his first day home, him snuggling under the blankets with me, messing up my grad school homework and eating the edges of my research papers, lightly squeezing my nose with his paw, rolling over and over on the living room floor in excitement every day when walk through the door, him paw-punching Sun Chips out of my hand, trying to steal meatballs off my plate at dinner time, all the little moments in between our first day until now… they play like a home video in my mind.
I now know it is only a matter of time. Time… what he has so little left of. Is it a month, just weeks, or only days? I can’t find a way to wrap my head around that, no less my heart. I am forced to make the choice to end his life when I see it fit. Selfishly, I would hold on to him for as long as I could. But I know I can’t. I can’t do that to him. I am no longer just his mom, I have become his timekeeper, waiting to pick the day in which I have to agree to end his life. I will try to savor every moment I have to spend with him from now until that day, but I can’t stop the ticking inside my head. It’s like the beating of the Tell-Tale Heart.. tick, tick, tick, tick. A clock only I can hear, slowly winding down until it stops. And with it, stops the heart of my best friend.
Strange, I always felt Hawkeye chose me and not the other way around. I could have taken any cat in the shelter, a little fluffy kitten perhaps, a few months old, but no. I worked at Griffin Pond Animal Shelter part-time back then. I saw countless cats and kittens come in, most of them never making their way back out again. My areas to clean were the cat sections: incoming, quarantine, and adoptable. Each day, I passed Hawk’s cage in the adoptable section to move on and clean the next. And each day I passed, there his paw would be, outstretched and reaching when I started to get too far away.
He took up residence in the first cage to the right with a black cat named Sally. She was the only one out of the lot who didn’t pick on him. No cat was awarded solo cage privileges, there was never enough room to accommodate such a luxury, even if he/she got his furry ass kicked by other cats on the daily. He and Sally slept close together, both reserved, not really drawing attention to themselves. Not so smart when you’re competing against countless others for the opportunity to find a home before meeting an untimely death due to overpopulation. Hawkeye had already been there close to a year, his information card read birth date unknown, estimated about a year old, incoming history blank.
One day, I had to stop at his cage for longer than usual because his claw got stuck in my shirt when he tried to paw me into a visit with him. I had already cleaned their cage and was about to move on.
“He’s on the euthanasia list,” the technician on-site said to me as she walked in, stopping to talk as I tried to free my shirt. “I’ve been putting it off, waiting for someone to take him, but they say he’s not adoptable. Poor guy. I hear people passing through say he’s ugly. Ugly doesn’t get you adopted around here. And being a black or mostly black cat makes it even worse. It’s a shame, really. He’s the sweetest thing. But they won’t let me skip past him anymore. He’s been here longer than usual, about a year in this place. Rare for a cat.”
I peered into the cage at him, his big oval eyes focusing on my face.
“They call him the alien cat because his eyes are set far apart, you see? That’s why one of the girls named him Hawkeye, at least I think that’s why, as a joke. People want calico patterns and tiger stripes, Garfield-orange, multi-colored eyes, most of all – they want cute.”
“I think he’s cute,” I replied.
“Good. Then please take him home if you like him. He seems to like you. He won’t be here the next time you’re in. I don’t have a choice anymore.”
So Hawkeye left with me that day without a second thought in my mind. The shelter gave him to me for free, no adoption fee, since I spared his life on the day he was scheduled to die. I wasn’t prepared for this alien-eyed tuxedo feline with too much hair missing on the sides of his head, those prominent bald spots and big eyes that stuck out all of his life. He was a compact little thing, shy as hell, scared of anything and everything. But he was mine. After spending his entire life up until that point in the shelter, he finally had a warm and quiet place to call home.
For the last 7.5 years, Hawkeye casually makes his way to wherever I happen to be in the house, never in the way, but always there by my side. He would sit with me during long homework sessions, curling up around the laptop to steal the heat. He sleeps underneath the covers in the winter time curled up like a ball in the crook of my stomach, lightly punching me in the back if I am sleeping so that I wake up and lift the covers for him.
He knows every time I have a bad day, making sure to cuddle extra close, looking at me like a concerned friend. One day, about two years ago, it was a terribly shitty day, and I was crying on the couch with him next to me. All of a sudden, I felt his paws shoot out and whack my hand. He did this over and over until I finally paid attention to him. He did it one last time, grabbing a hold of my hand gently with both paws, one on each side, and he held it, like a human would, and looked up at me. He didn’t let go until I smiled and burst out laughing. I can’t explain that or how it made me feel that day. But I was, and still am, grateful.
When I get ready for work, he scuttles into the bathroom to give a low, almost inaudible mew to say good morning. You see, something else unique about Hawkeye is that his ‘meow box’ is ‘broken’ or so we like to say. He was born that way, unable to meow, mew, or yowl like your average cat. It’s this strange sound that mimics all of those things but falls short. As if someone took a sledgehammer to a jukebox and the music still plays but it comes out all muffled from the speakers. Or as if he has a mouth full of marbles. Everyone that hears it laughs out loud. It’s a sound I love. It’s a sound I will miss. It’s just another thing that makes him different. Special.
Before finishing graduate school, I was a Veterinary Technician by trade. I have seen all kinds of humans with all kinds of bonds with their animals. And though it is sad, euthanasia was a large part of my job. Those moments are the most emotionally raw of any situation working there. It’s never easy to let go, even when it’s time, and even when it isn’t your animal. I’ve cried at almost every one.
Sometimes, there are people who have no problem with the decision. I never knew if it was because they didn’t care or it was because of indifference or a form of grief, or what. It isn’t professional to ask questions like that. I tried hard not to judge but I won’t ever understand. It’s like some people have the ability to separate themselves from their animals. As if human and animal reside together, the animal is cared for, but that’s where it ends.
But then, there are the humans like me, like a lot of us, most of us, who are scared, heartbroken, and torn in two. Their sorrow and grief blanket the room like a heavy smog, making it hard to breathe, even for the professionals in the room who see it on a weekly basis. There is this physical energy between human and animal, and we witness the exact moment when their connection together in this world is lost. You can feel the physical break of it and it crushes me. Every single time.
This is how I know furry soul mates exist and that I am not alone in feeling that Hawkeye is mine. I have friends who feel the same way, you can see it in their interactions with their animals and the way their face lights up when they talk about them or show you pictures. And I felt it in the room with certain clients. You just know.
And when it is time, the animal always seems to be at ease, even in their last moments, as if they are trying to comfort their human, letting them know it’s alright to let them go. Their existence, to the very end, centers around the love they have for their human(s), even if they are in pain, even if they are suffering. I imagine it will be the same when it comes to Hawkeye.
We are not crazy cat people or obsessed dog lovers.
We are humans and they are animals and we choose each other.
They get a piece of our lives to share with all of theirs.
These furry souls teach us things. They show us unconditional love. We learn to appreciate the little things, like how something as simple as the toss of a ball or the unraveling of a string can bring the greatest joy to our lives. We learn that we are never truly alone, even if we feel like we are, not with them there by our side. They fill the spaces between the lonely. And they love you still, even on your darkest days. They are always there.
You can talk their ears off and they’ll listen. They do not judge you. They forgive and they aim to please. They only want the best for you, never putting themselves first. They can’t wait for you to come home and they never tire of you no matter how long you’re together. Their love only grows with each passing day.
Each day for them is a day to cherish your existence.
They love you even when you don’t love yourself.
And they will hold out and hold on even when they hurt, because they know you don’t want them to go. Their bodies will give out long before their love does. This is why I believe some animals lives are so short. Because they are born into this world knowing how to love unconditionally. And so they can leave, even when we feel it is way before their time. They already know all the things it takes us humans decades to discover. They are here so that we can believe in all of it, even when our doubt settles in. They are our constant reminder. They are here to show us how to love, how to care, how to laugh, how to find joy in simplicity, and how to be truly happy.
Hawkeye was with me through some of the worst times of my life. And even when I was alone, with him there, I never felt like I was truly was. He is always waiting for me when I walk through that door. Always.
I know I saved his life that day. And I’ve kept him alive all these years even with the severest form of asthma a cat can have, and I knew one day, it would take his life. I just didn’t expect it to be this soon. I find myself wishing I did more, wishing I could do more. I feel like I could never repay him for all the love he has given me. And a part of me knows, he’s holding on, even now, because of this love and because he knows how much I love him.
Time is slipping away, and the timekeeper is left scrambling to fill every moment left with all the love she won’t be able to give after a certain day not yet decided.
You never know how long you have, with any human or animal in your life. Spend more time appreciating them and loving them and showing them how much they mean to you before your time together runs out. If you think animals don’t realize it, they do. More so maybe than most humans ever will.
To some people, he might just be a cat. But to me, Hawkeye is a living, breathing piece of my heart. I don’t have any children so that is what he is to me, my child. And all the years in my life that I have yet to live wouldn’t be enough time to spend with him.
I love you Hawkeye.