Rest in Peace, Bellatrix

A Photograph of Bellatrix, a cat
Photo courtesy Steve Huff

On Thursday, June 30, 2022, my husband Steve and I took Bellatrix to the vet for the last time. She had rapidly declined in the weeks preceding her death. I suspect she may only have lived a few more days, but she was clearly suffering. We consulted with the vet to be sure that we were doing the right thing, and the vet agreed that it would be kinder to her to put her to sleep. She had trouble getting around and confined herself to the kitchen, bathroom, and our daughter Maggie’s room. I’m glad she spent so many of her final days with Maggie. We often joked that Maggie was her nemesis because Maggie doted on her so fiercely, and sometimes Bella just didn’t want that attention. She was not the kind of cat who wanted to be in your lap. She didn’t like being held. She loved being petted and sitting close to you, but not too close.

We didn’t notice any signs of trouble until April, and the vet couldn’t really find anything wrong, but she didn’t improve, so we took her again in May, and this time, the vet found a mass in her abdomen. She recommended a trip to an emergency vet. We couldn’t get her to one for about a week, but the ER vet confirmed our worst fears. Bella didn’t have long to live. She said we could try cancer treatment, but the absolute best-case scenario, and not a very likely one, is that we’d buy her a year. We couldn’t do it to her, knowing how much she hated getting in the car and going to the vet. It would have been a horrible final year, and it didn’t seem like a kindness.

In spite of so many people telling us we were doing the right thing, it was very hard. Selfishly, I wanted her to live forever. I loved her so very much. Taking care of her in the final six weeks of her life was so hard. She declined so rapidly. She was a beautiful cat. She was a fierce mouser. She was independent and intelligent. I am just heartbroken over this loss, and I thought I was more ready. I expected my daughter and husband to have a harder time with their emotions, but actually, I’m the one who has been crying for days. Today is actually the first day I can think about her at all without immediately tearing up, though I’ve still cried twice (and it’s not noon).

Bella was 13, and we’ve had her since she was a 12-week-old kitten. She was a member of the family. As much as I say that and believe it, part of me still feels like it’s wrong to be as upset as I am, especially given the state of the world. I know on an intellectual level that I should feel whatever I feel and not worry about the other stuff, but it’s hard. It feels like lacking perspective. I know that’s not true, but it’s something I’m wrestling with.

The first thing I did was toss out all of her things: her cat box, her brush mitt, her cat food… I washed out her bowls really well and put her cat carrier in the back of the car so I can take it to our storage locker. I scrubbed the areas where her box and food were. There’s no trace she was there. Yet I find myself looking in those areas. I cried yesterday because I stepped on something tiny and hard in the kitchen, and it wasn’t a stray piece of her kibble. Naturally, I would have cried if it had been her kibble, too. I thought getting her things out of the house would make it easier, but it’s depressing how quickly I was able to excise her presence from my view. I keep thinking I see her out of the corner of my eye. Yesterday at dinner, I thought I felt her nuzzling my legs. She used to do that a lot when we ate dinner: she didn’t want handouts—she wanted pets.

I held her paw the whole time, and it struck me that if she had been conscious or feeling like herself, she never would have allowed that. Bella did not like it when you touched her paws. The vet asked us about how we got her, and it’s a fun story. My ex-husband has this thing about naming all his cats Dexter, regardless of gender. He and I had the first Dexter together, and our daughter Sarah had picked the name. One of his subsequent Dexters had kittens, and we wanted a cat. We asked Sarah to pick one for us, and she picked Bellatrix.

Her death was peaceful, and I’m grateful for that because I could not have borne it if she had died in pain. I know I took good care of her and that she had a good life. Yet, I find myself wishing there was more I could have done. I don’t know what it would have been. I just wish she had not had to have cancer. I am so sorry it happened to her. My friends and family have been so wonderful and kind as I grieve my beautiful cat. She was truly one of a kind. I cannot bear the thought that I will never see her again.

Rest in peace, Bellatrix. 9/4/2008-6/30/2022.


Bellatrix the Cat
Bellatrix, photo by Steve Huff

The Huff family includes a 13-year-old black cat named Bellatrix after the Death Eater in the Harry Potter series. She’s a wonderful cat. She is incredibly independent. She has never liked sitting on laps. On the few occasions when she has sat on a lap, she sits stiffly like she’s not sure what she should be doing. But she will sit near you to be petted. She joins me in the bathroom most mornings so she can be petted. She will tolerate being held for a few seconds only. She’s wicked smart. She’s an excellent mouser. In many ways, the household sort of revolves around her.

This week we received the horrible news that she doesn’t have long to live. She has cancer, and it’s fairly aggressive. We knew she was sick, but we had hope that she might be able to be cured and be with us for a few more years. Sadly, the best-case scenario, even if everything worked perfectly, would be about a year, and it would be a horrible year of chemotherapy and vet visits. She hates vet visits. She is incredibly anxious in the car and at the vet. We didn’t want to spoil her last days like that. We are making her as comfortable as we can until we have to say goodbye. We’re talking about things like internment at a pet cemetery where maybe she can have a real headstone. She has been loved fiercely.

We took her to the vet last week, and our vet told us that she really needed to go to the vet ER. Unfortunately, we had trouble getting her to the ER. I’m not sure it would have made a difference. We likely would have received the bad news a little sooner is all. But I have to shout out Angell Animal Medical Center for their compassionate care. We arrived at the hospital about 9:30 Wednesday night after our vet called and said they would see Bella. Other animal hospitals are diverting patients. There is apparently a shortage crisis in veterinary care right now.

I do not think I will ever forget the scene. The lights were too bright. A triage nurse took Bella’s vitals and said they looked good. That made me feel hopeful. A man with a cat named Brownie had been told her temperature was too low. At least Bella’s temperature was normal. A man walked out from the back, wailing and being comforted by a woman. I looked at my husband. Of course, he must have just lost a beloved pet. I was hoping we would not be leaving the same way. We waited. And waited. I was shaking with anxiety.

Once we were called in to see the vet after waiting perhaps two hours, I could just tell. I could tell as the vet examined her that she was trying to figure out how to tell us. She was incredible. She looked at Bella’s bloodwork and X-ray’s on my phone. She leveled with us, but… I know I keep saying this, but it was in the most compassionate way. She took Bella to do an ultrasound on her mass, and we broke down sobbing, knowing that we would be saying goodbye to Bella soon. We talked things through with the vet when she came back, and she said, and I’ll never forget it because I needed to hear it, “Do not feel that you are giving up on her.”

We waited in the lobby for Bella’s medicine for a good while. A little dog with a cough trotted after his owner. Another dog had eaten a pen. I went to the restroom and passed by a woman with a cat in a carrier. A vet had a stethoscope pressed to the cat. She said, “I’m sorry, her heart has stopped.” The woman burst into tears. This place was too much.

We got home after 2:00 A.M., exhausted, deflated, utterly devastated. Then we had to tell our daughter, who had stayed up waiting for news and having a dreadful feeling that the news was bad or we’d have just texted her. My husband and daughter sobbed together on the couch while I felt useless. I went to bed and barely slept two hours before going to work. I cried all day at work. I was completely useless.

It’s now Sunday, and we have been living with the news of Bella’s imminent loss for a few days. I’m just trying to take the best care of her that I can. We are trying to pet her and show her our affection as much as we can to make her last days happy and filled with love. But we are all just gutted. She is just the best cat, and we love her so much.

Interesting Times

A curse, falsely attributed to a Chinese imprecation, goes like this: “May you live in interesting times.” After the last two years, I feel I understand why this is a curse. I don’t recommend living through interesting times.

Just now, I was scanning the online edition of The Irish Times, a paper I had never read before. I was curious about a story they had about the bungalows built all over Ireland in the 1970s, as I’m reading a book that mentioned the phenomenon. A headline grabbed my attention. Apparently, COVID hospitalizations are up in Ireland. I immediately checked the Boston COVID wastewater website to see if we had a spike in MA, and apparently, we don’t. Yet. It’s that “yet.” I’m so tired of the pandemic at this stage. I want it to end. I am tired of wearing masks, but I’m afraid not to. I’m appalled by the people who refused, even at the height of the pandemic. This attitude showed up even in my own family, and I am now permanently estranged from the person who exhibited it.

That’s another issue with this pandemic. What it’s doing to our relationships as people’s true lack of empathy and caring is revealed in all its ugliness. I noticed it in the run-up to the former President’s election. I couldn’t believe he won, and frankly, he didn’t really. We just have this antiquated system known as the Electoral College that has stolen elections from Democratic candidates who won the popular vote. Meanwhile, gerrymandering and voting restrictions have consequences. Across the country, there is a movement to silence and marginalize teachers. We will have a crisis in education as we cannot fill empty teaching positions. I have never been this worried about public education in this country. Who knows how things might have turned out if not for the continued existence of the Electoral College? Would as many people have died? I always thought voting mattered, but the last seven years have taught me exactly how much.

My first reaction to thinking of another COVID surge was despair. Realistically, I understand that pandemics must have a shelf-life. It’s not in a virus’s interest to kill the hosts. It’s much better for a virus’s longevity to create a mild illness that is easy to pass along. I know that the worst pandemics and epidemics in history eventually reached some sort of endemic equilibrium. I just want this whole thing to be over. I wanted to travel. I still want to travel. I am trying to hold out hope that things will improve, but it is harder and harder to stay optimistic.

Plague Journal: Day One

Photo by Andrew Small on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Small on Unsplash

It’s been suggested that our journals will be primary sources for those studying this time period later on. I should probably be writing down my thoughts, then, because who knows what happens to websites like this one—in 100 years no one will be maintaining it. Where will it go? I don’t know, but I decided to try to document some of what is happening in the world, and perhaps I can figure out a way to preserve it some time down the road.

The last day of classes before spring break was March 6. Our head of school said to tell students to take anything they might need in order to study home with them in the event that they couldn’t return. Last weekend, the school decided to send our international students home, knowing they likely cannot return to the U. S., even if Covid-19 tapers off more quickly than experts think it will, and we are somehow able to return to school. The school also decided to conduct classes online. I don’t think we will be returning to school.

I have been trying to limit going anywhere. The last place I went besides the store was the dentist. That was only this Monday, but it feels like it was a lot longer ago. That morning, the dentist made the decision to close his office for the time being. I was lucky, I guess, to be able to get in and get my crown done before all of this because who knows how long I would need to wait otherwise. I had my annual physical last Friday. The doctor’s office seemed relatively calm. Not many people were in the waiting room, and I sat far away from everyone else.

Some things have been hard to get at the store: toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bleach. So far, soap seems to be available. I went to the store this morning to buy meals for a few days, and there was no chicken, ground beef, or eggs at the first place I went, so I went to another, and I found what I needed. I think it might be like that for a couple of weeks until people calm down. I am hoping our toilet paper will last until then, but I am not sure it’s an emergency. I felt lucky to be able to find paper towels today, and they were even my preferred brand. I am trying to look for cooking ideas that don’t involve using meat since it is apparently going to be harder to find in the short-term. I made French onion soup and served it with a crusty loaf of sourdough bread I made yesterday. Tonight is Detroit-style homemade pizza. I will need to look for some other ideas for things my family will not turn up their nose at.

It’s surreal. Two weeks ago, everything felt more or less normal, even though there was a sense of unease as we left for break. One week ago, I feel like my life changed. I can even trace the exact moment. I went to the drop-in center for an organization where I volunteer, and I halfway wondered if I should go, but I decided it was okay. At the end of the evening, the director said she had a text that indicated someone in another organization housed in the same building might have been exposed to Covid-19, and therefore, we might have been exposed. While I think the chances are very, very small that any of us were exposed, especially because the individual was not present, there was a palpable sense of fear. Even from the moment I came in that evening, the kids were walking up to me and saying they felt scared and had heard there would be no school the next day. So, quite literally, by about 10:00 P.M. Thursday, March 12, everything had turned upside-down.

Next week, we are going to be figuring out how to teach our classes online. I feel okay about this change for my own classes, but I am worried about the steep learning curve ahead for some of my colleagues. I would love to be able to be in the same space with my students, but I feel confident in my ability to engage with my students and do some quality work online. We are living in interesting times, and I can’t help but feel like this is the stillness before the storm.