It was 2006. I was 21-years-old, a senior at Keene State College, and my sister was in town visiting from where she resided in Burlington, Vermont. We were engaging in one of our favorite pastimes: a nice casual visit to the Humane Society in Swanzey, New Hampshire. I put an emphasis on the word casual, because there is really nothing nonchalant about two 20-somethings with a Bloody Mary buzz and an affinity for cats visiting a place full of fluffy things that need homes. Surprisingly we mainly kept our visits to overstaying our welcome in cat rooms, sticking our fingers in cages when it specifically said not to, and somehow not leaving with any extra family members.
I was mainlining it toward a basket of kittens when we passed by a long-haired wizard of a cat, who meowed desperately at me through the interior of the cage, cooing. I glanced at her paperwork, “Hi Penny!” She pressed her jowls against the cage as I reached out to her, melting at the sheer satisfaction of human touch. Penny was in a two-tiered cage, and so elated as I pet her that she kept rolling off from the second story and falling into her litter box below. Undefeated, each time she would shake herself off and find her perch again, starting up that motorboat of a purr and demanding more attention. She proceeded to soak up every second and simple glance her way before we eventually said our goodbyes and left the shelter.
Much like an enthralling first date when you really make a connection with someone, in the following days after the visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about Penny. At the time, I lived with my girlfriend Katie and our friend Michelle. Several months prior, Katie and I had adopted a gray Chartreux kitten we named Tucker, who was in the mix with a polydactyl tuxedo cat named Biggins, and a high-energy Brittany Spaniel named Simon. We needed plenty of things in life at that time, but one thing we definitely didn’t need was another animal. I begged and pleaded and probably resorted to some fake tears to really bring home how much I needed this cat before Katie amorously agreed if it meant that much to me, of course we would adopt her. Thus began the greatest love affair I would be privileged to have part in for the next 12 years of my life.
I’m sure everyone says this about their pet, but Penny was special. I knew it from the moment I met her, and she spent her whole life proving I was right in making that assumption. If you weren’t a cat person, she would make you one. In the years I had her she saw me through too many moves to count, including two cross country ones. On our first run across the United States, my friend Sarah flew out to drive back with me to my humble abode of Connecticut. “Do you have a carrier for her or anything?” she asked prior to our departure. “No,” I replied, “She’s more of a free range pussy.” She spent the better part of four days coolly crawling around the car and getting snuck into hotels – having no interest or necessity to know where we were going, as long as we were going together. She had many roommates, dog-mates, cat friends, and the like. I was jealous of how quickly and effortlessly she adapted to any situation, and I think it was because it was just always our home if we had each other. She was vivacious, go with the flow, adventurous AF, affectionate to all ends, and ever the comedian. She was so strong and resilient, that she showed absolutely not so much as a symptom until her literal dying days.
Disclaimer: Now that I’ve set up her how she came into my life, and the subsequent impact she had on it – I am going to talk about how she left me. If you want, you can stop reading here and take the alternate ending where she floated away to a cloud as white and fluffy as her and is currently eating Fancy Feast off of a silver platter. When my phone rang at 9:58 AM on Monday, my gut instinctively dropped. “I don’t like the way Penny is breathing,” my girlfriend said. I didn’t ask how she was breathing or why Bridie didn’t like it, I simply told her to phone the vet and tell me when I could meet her there.
Penny’s breathing was extremely labored and her normally effervescent energy had been replaced with lethargy. There was a piece of me that knew this was it, I can’t explain how, but in some form or another whether it was that day or the next – this was her curtain call. They did an onslaught of tests, determining that she showed severe lung inflammation, and her abdomen was distended. She was in such bad shape they feared doing anything more would stress her body into the point of shock or release. That’s not how I wanted her to go, on a cold table surrounded by people she didn’t know. I took her home where she slept in my bed for what would unknowingly be the last time. Before I went to work that morning, I leaned down and kissed her spotted little head goodbye. I’ll never forget the feeling of wondering if it would be for the last time. “You are so loved,” I said.
I made it through a few hours at work before I divulged to my boss what was going on. “Do you need to go check on her?” he asked. I hesitated because even though I did, there was a selfish part of me that really didn’t want to because of what I might find. Reluctantly and with his support, I went home. Penny cooed at me gently, the way she always did to acknowledge my presence, but I noticed she hadn’t moved from where I’d left her six hours before. I lifted her body gently, it was so light, and loaded her into my car.
I called Bridie and sobbed against the ring of her phone until she answered. I tried to say: “It’s time” but it came out more like some unintelligible strand of letters in the English language she was left to decipher.
As I waited for her arrival and held Penny – I began to notice something. When I was stroking her fur and she could feel me, she would continue to try and breathe. However, when I pulled back and removed my hands the rise and fall of her stomach grew shallow and deflated. I realized at this moment that it was just as about me as it was about her, she wasn’t going to leave easily or by herself – I had to let her go and tell her it was okay. That I would be okay.
My mind went back to a portion of a text I’d received from my girlfriend’s Mother earlier that day. I should mention for the purposes of this story that Bridie’s Mom is a spiritual badass who communicates across multiple realms and she’d unbeknownst to me offered to try and sit with Penny in the morning after Bridie had told her of the situation.
“Penny is clear she wants to go BUT she is enjoying all the love she is receiving and she isn’t in horrible pain. She is just kind of leaving. She is surrounded with entities. I am so sorry – there was nothing Tanya could have done to change this. It’s part of the birthing into a new time. Penny wants Tanya to know that letting go is her biggest lesson. In her life, as far as great lessons go. Penny realllllly knows she is loved.”
I texted my friend and told her I’d be coming home but without Penny in tow. I asked her if she had anything she wanted me to say to her and she simply responded: “Tell her she is so loved.” Bridie showed up and proceeded to kiss away every tear on my face, “I’m here.” She then crouched down and greeted Penny the same way: “Sweet girl,” she said, “You are so loved.” You guys think lesbians’ getting a u-haul on their second date is expediting the relationship process? Try putting down your cat with your girlfriend of three months. Find you a girl that can hold you through that with ease and don’t let them out of your fucking sight.
Penny passed peacefully in my arms – not cold, not alone, not with strangers. The last thing I ever said to her was “You can let go now, you are SO loved.”
Their life spans are not our life spans. In my ideal world every animal I ever owned would live the same amount of time on this earth as me and then we could all die together covered in each other’s hair for all eternity. “She was so loved,” was the perfect sentiment to Penny’s life. When I posted a picture shortly after her passing I was amazed with how many people chimed in with stories, memories, and were also heartbroken for her loss. She didn’t just touch my life, but anyone who walked into ours.
Over the last week I’ve grieved like any normal person and even thought: Would it be better if I had just never found her that day and I didn’t have to feel this? Then I remember the joy she brought to this world for the time she did and I know that’s not something I would ever wish for. I’d cry one-thousand tears to even have half the time I got with her. Rest in peace Penny, I know I’ve always said turtles were my spirit animal but I guess now you can be mine too.