A Good Day with Arnie

The truth is… it wasn’t love at first sight with Arnie.

When I got to the shelter, this is how the vet introduced me to Arnie:

He’s been here for two months – the runt of the litter – and we’ve been getting him back into great health. He has the mellowest temper… the best personality. I’d take him home myself if I didn’t already have three cats at home. I haven’t let anyone adopt him because no one seemed just right. I couldn’t let just anyone take him. But now, I think you are the right home. Let me get him.

In a flash, she’s back. As she kisses his nose, she says, “He gets the most adorable boogers!”

She holds out her palm (because he’s palm-sized) and declares, “THIS is Arnie.”

I take Arnie’s 2-pound body into my hand.

“His whiskers,” the vet continues, “were chewed off by his mean older brother. That’s why he wobbles when he walks… because it affects his balance. He still has his baby teeth. He’s half Siamese, so he’s very chatty.”

He’s dusty-orange with a white chest and white around his nose. He reminds me of the cat on the Fresh Step Litter commercials. He does, indeed, have nose boogers (which I wouldn’t call “cute”). His paws looked oversized for his small frame. His pipe-cleaner tail has white rings around it.

When the vet left us alone, I looked down at him, searched his eyes, and petted him, repeating his name: “Arnie, Arnie, Arnie…”

But I didn’t feel anything. Whatever sparkling personality everyone at this shelter was talking about, I just didn’t see it. He’s kind of a blob: a cute blob, but a blob. I liked his eyes – mustard with variegated emerald.

But I’m here. I need a cat. He’s here. He needs a home. Why not?

It turns out that everyone was right about Arnie.

… all the way down to the cute nose boogers.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, I brought him home.

Arnie grew into his paws. His eyebrows and whiskers sprouted large and majestic – like Sir Didymus from Labyrinth.

He could be both statue-still and acrobatic. He chirps back and forth in conversation with the intensity of a girlfriend at a lazy Sunday brunch.

Arnie’s a unique cat. My friends call him “cat-dog” because he greets me at the door with yowls and a goofy grin. He yearns for interaction, so I train him to “sit,” “shake,” and complete obstacle courses.

He curls in the crook of my right arm every night. My massage therapist coined the condition “Arnie Arm” because sleeping this way, although it maximizes cuddles, isn’t natural for the joints.

And he’s steadfast. I tumble through tremendous personal turmoil: cross-country moves, heartbreaks, professional lows, and many medical calamities. Arnie is the perfect nurse. In one horrible five-month siege, I’m forced to lie on a couch with no pillow while my retina keeps detaching. Forbidden: reading, writing, or television. Arnie glues himself onto the couch with me.

And when things were bad to the point of being blind for 48 hours, Arnie bounded to my feet every time I got up. He leads me around as I shuffle around my small apartment. A true guide cat, he then shepherds me back to the couch.

Arnie’s a part of my world at every moment. No one else in my life ever made that a priority.

Los Angeles’ light-wrapped palm trees festively dazzle…

But I stand outside the oncologist’s office, in tears, and glare at each bulb’s gleam.

It’s December 22, 2017.

My cat, best friend, and soulmate… my Arnie… has mast-cell cancer. It’s spread. It’s a long shot that he’ll survive.

This can’t be Christmas. A world where Arnie is not alive is not a place I want to be.

Coupled with shock and sorrow…

I’m angry.

Angry that Arnie will leave and that my less-favorite cat can’t trade places with him…

Angry he’s so young…

Angry that I suffered so much chaos and loss only to have my favorite spirit in the world ripped away.

And I’m also afraid.

I fear I’ll be unprotected and exposed to terrible fates without Arnie alive to guard me.

I worry I will never find a way to unwind and calm down without his purr.

I anguish that I’ll never know another soul who understands my wavelength. I’m certain no one will ever love me like Arnie, and I’m equally certain I will never love anyone the way I love him.

I resolve to beat his cancer.

I decide to fight for his presence in my life, even though the odds are bad.

Our oncologist suggests that we might have a 50% chance of remission with chemo. It’s low-maintenance for Arnie (a once-a-month pill and monitoring) and relatively inexpensive. Of course, I go for it.

During this time, I’m distracted by uncertainty, and I can barely keep up with my work. I snap at my friends and family when they try to say something nice. I burst into tears at inopportune moments. I don’t want to leave the house because every second matters with Arnie.

I needed professional help.

I met the pet-loss grief counselor who transformed my life.

She helped me transition my mindset from one centered on my tragedy to one focused on honoring Arnie’s gifts to me.

At our first meeting, she tells me not to cry in front of Arnie. I thought this was ridiculous. OF COURSE, I’m going to cry! But even as I was defending my need to cry, I sensed the problem: I was too focused on my own pain and was not thinking of Arnie. What about his pain? His loss? His fear?

I learned that what Arnie needed was for me to show up for him in every way and enhance our remaining time together. I couldn’t “check out.” I had to be there for him.

I’ll be honest: She wasn’t easy on me.

She gave me assignments I wasn’t excited about, including spending 15 uninterrupted minutes per day with my other cat, Zelda – just to connect with her. I didn’t want to do it, but I did.

With each of these assignments, I could see that we were laying a foundation for what would eventually support me after Arnie died – one that would shield me from guilt, regret, and remorse after it happened.

I also learned to ask Arnie questions about things I wanted to know… and to hear his answers:

How have the medical treatments been for you?

Do you have any fears?

How do you feel about dying someday?

What can I do to best support you?

Will you forgive me for when I wasn’t my best?

Do you know how much I love you?

Will you return to me someday?

I asked. I listened. I received. In our quiet moments, I was in awe of how I connected to his spirit and soul. And, of course, I allowed him to connect to mine.

And even though it wasn’t easy, I appreciated having someone talk me through end-of-life preparations. We were able to explore many things I had never even thought about when considering Arnie’s death.

One week, my pet loss counselor asked, “Why does Arnie love you?” I stared at the question at the top of the page for weeks. Through our working together, though, I could finally answer that question and understand that the strengths Arnie gave to me were mine… forever.

I learned that our connection was even bigger than Arnie – that it transcended time, space, and death.

I wanted Arnie to die at home…

… in a familiar place with his favorite catnip fish, fleece blanket, and cat-sister, Zelda. But Arnie’s health was so fragile that transporting him wasn’t in his best interest.

And because of my anticipatory grief counseling, I knew that my preference had to take a back seat to what Arnie needed. I knew what I had to do.

It wasn’t easy. I kept trudging to the bathroom every half hour to cry and moan and whimper to myself. I stared in the mirror at my tear-soaked face and sobbed, “I can’t do this… I can’t.”

I breathe. Then I wrapped my arms around my body in a hug and answer back, “You can, and you will. Arnie needs you. Show up for Arnie. He’s always shown up for you.”

I quickly returned to him, knowing what he needed.

He needed me to make an end-of-life decision that wasn’t based on my need to hang on because I couldn’t live without him. I had to give him a final gift of love, and that was to give him a beautiful death experience.

He needed me to be calm, comforting, and upbeat. He didn’t need hysterics or rage or tears.

He needed me to tell him what a good boy he had been and that it was okay to say goodbye.

He needed to know that I would be okay. And I needed to know that so that he could believe me.

When it came time to say “goodbye” to Arnie…

There we were, cuddled together on the cold tile floor. I had turned down the fluorescent lights to make it feel like a normal night together.

I didn’t want him to be afraid, so we talked about our favorite memories. With the practice of courage, I comforted him, praised him, sang to him, and cradled him as the drugs flowed into his beautiful, perfect, orange-and-white body.

After his last breath, I saw a strange blizzard of white, shining, sparkling light billowing toward the ceiling. I sensed something powerful. Was that his spirit leaving his body? “The angels are here,” I gasped.

My final loving act for Arnie was to give him the kind of death I would want for myself.

I am proud to have known him, treasured him, and guided him into death.

I realized something shocking: It felt good to let him go, because I didn’t wait too long to prepare for it.

So, when the time came to make the right decision for Arnie, I was able to do it, despite my fears. I realized that Arnie had spent years infusing me with the strength I needed for this moment.

It’s not that simple, of course. I grieved. I mourned. I stumbled. I hurt.Despite my preparations, I was overwhelmed with anger, sorrow, disorientation, and pais.

But I recognize many aspects of my grief simply for what they were. Anticipatory counseling definitely let me move through that grief much more quickly than I would have otherwise.

I had very little guilt to process because I had already started living in a way that reduced guilt. And I had prepared in advance for what type of support I needed, what kind of memorializing would feel good, and what rituals I could create to cope with the loss.

As I grieve, I yearn to celebrate Arnie…

… and his profound impact on my life by sharing glimpses of some of those 4,475 good days on social media. I want my community to know how unique, loving, and important Arnie is to me. So, I share my Good Days with Arnie – the big ones, the small ones, the silly ones, the somber ones – each of them Good because we spent it together.

I make posts about Arnie on Facebook and Instagram with a photo or video that tells a story about our relationship. At the end of each post, I write: February 8, 2007 (or, whatever date it is), was A Good Day With Arnie.

Celebrating my life with Arnie, which was mainly behind closed doors, helps. I receive support, love, and validation. I’m surprised people look forward to the posts, and I’m inspired to keep them going.

Even though years have passed, I am still an active participant in my own Arnie grief recovery. There are things about the experience that were challenging and still trouble me. I still attend occasional pet loss support groups, wear my Arnie jewelry and temporary tattoos, take moments for communication and reflection with him, and keep his memory alive in our family.

Our bond continues. I will never stop respecting my grief about Arnie and allowing it to move through me when it hits.

As with our beloved humans…

The only thing we want with our animals is more time: one more hour, one more day. There’s never enough time. But the time we had together – almost 12 years – was the most cherished, enriching, and gratitude-filled time that any two souls have shared.

Thank you, Arnie, for our life together. Thank you for every good day. Thank you for all the ways you loved me, changed me, and inspired me.

And thank you for leading me here, to this reader, who I hope will find recognition, peace, and comfort in our story.