Nilah Ate the Blog

Illustration, books, and baking… probably

No One Ever Said It Would Be This Hard

I’m writing this post because I feel like I should, but now that I’m here, I don’t know what I want to say.

This week, I say goodbye to Coal.

I guess it feels strange, because I’ve been waiting for this moment. She got her kidney disease diagnosed in early January 2020. She was stage three. I moved cross-country, and a few months later, a veterinary team on a completely different coast confirmed the diagnosis. The odds were bleak. It didn’t sound like she’d make it through the year.

But she did. And she made it through the next. The vet was confounded because she just looked so… healthy. Not like a cat with advanced kidney disease. Her fur was soft and sleek, she was spry and alert and feisty. She had a very simple treatment plan, a pill a day, and it was working beautifully. I wanted to know how long she had, but she’d already beat the odds and she had no glaring symptoms to address. The only thing left to do was see how she progressed, treat new symptoms as they arose, and try to keep her comfortable and happy.

She declined so fast. Two weeks ago I bought her a new scratch pad lounge since the current one was torn to ribbons. Last week I was thinking: time to refill her prescription. Yesterday I clipped her nails. 

She let me clip the front paws and the back paws without so much as a peep. I knew it, then. I knew this was our last weekend together.

Maybe it feels different this time because I’m older. Because it’s been fourteen years since I said goodbye to Mydnight, and I’ve had all that time to reflect on the choices I made, then. 

Maybe it’s because I never wanted Coal at all.

She just showed up in the yard one day, a small, scrawny thing, screaming in the dark. I fed her a bit of kibble and went to work, and expected her to be gone when I came home. I pulled into the driveway, and she popped out of some hiding place on the carport, screaming at me.

I wasn’t looking for a new cat, especially not a presumptuous, obnoxious kitten. I was still mourning Mydnight. She’d died while I was in college, waiting just long enough for me to get home for winter break and be with her, and to mourn alone, regaining my composure before returning to school and pretending I was fine. I was still seeing Mydnight in every black sweater tucked into a chair, every patch of shadow in a corner of the room. I was not ready to think about another cat. I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to mourn a cat ever again.

But we kept Coal – named her and spayed her and all that – because it was the responsible thing. A cat shouldn’t be outdoors.

For the first two years I had her, I’d look down at her sometimes as she threw a tantrum or looked up at me wide-eyed and clueless, and I’d say: “I’m not sold on you, yet.”

When she was a year old, I took her with me on my move to Los Angeles. To pursue my dream of working in animation. My turtle that I bought when I was twelve and my kitten in the backseat of my sedan, along with some clothes, sketchbooks, and a few other necessities. Just the things my car could carry. I drove 2700 miles through the better part of a week, across plains and deserts. 

Coal stayed in a carrier and cried the whole way. She’d scream for two hours, wear herself out, fall asleep for two hours, wake up and scream some more. It was this the entire trip. We’d stop at night at a friend’s, or a relative’s, or a hotel, and in a day or three we’d be back on the road again, and more screaming.

I’d been to Los Angeles before, as an intern. I knew how lonely a place it could be. My roommate, who was renting a room to me, was out of town my first week. Those first few weeks as I struggled to get my bearings, Coal was my partner. We were both acclimating together. And yeah the turtle was there too. They were both troopers. But when I think of my loneliness those first few weeks, it was Coal who softened the edges of it. 

She was a brat. Her escapades live on in infamy. That time she got her head stuck in the window. That time with the air vent. That time I came home to find her splashed with lavender from sneaking around as my roommate painted the bathroom. This time and that other time she really tried to die. 

She was so sensitive. When I was sick–really sick–I’d wake sometimes to find her lying on top of me, purring furiously. At first I was indignant. She was twelve pounds at her heaviest and her weight when I was already laboring to breathe felt like unnecessary cruelty. But then I remembered a study I’d read once, about how cats healed by purring. Years later my mom would tell me how on one of her visits to me during the winter, she was lying in my bed cold and miserable–this was always the case when she visited me–and Coal laid on top of her feet, warming them. She always knew when you needed comfort. 

Somewhere along the way I was no longer keeping a stray cat out of responsibility. We were cuddling together in bed, and I was carrying her around calling her “baby cat” even though she was entering her senior years, and I was planning my every life decision with her in mind.

Oh, and the turtle. I’ll be honest with you, sometimes I’d forget about the turtle.

They were with me when I drove cross-country once again, this time leaving Los Angeles and returning home. They both got to come back to the place we all started.

The turtle died this past Spring. He was twenty-seven years old.

Coal had been doing strangely well up until the last few weeks. It started with her sudden insistence that she be allowed outside. She hasn’t been an outdoor cat since she was that tiny stray kitten. I assumed, now that she was losing weight, that she was probably losing her ability to regulate her body temperature, too. So I let her outside to lie in the sun. Her days hunting birds and lizards are over. Last week a Goldfinch bounced right in front of her, just a few feet from her face. She barely flicked her tail. The past few days she’s been saving her energy for drinking water, attempting to get to the litter box (she’s not always successful), going outside, and screaming at me when I pick her up to go back in. 

Maybe it feels different because it’s not real, yet. It’s an eventuality, but not yet an actuality. It doesn’t break my heart like Mydnight did. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Mydnight. She’d been my cat for sixteen years, a kitten that was similarly unwanted and alone and just happened to fall into my lap when I wasn’t even looking for a pet. I was a kid, then. We’d grown up together.

But from the beginning, I was aware of my responsibility to Coal. From the beginning I knew: I was going to take care of her till the end. I’d see her through life and into death.

She’s had so many good days. Everyday has been a good day. 

Someone I don’t know once said that pets come in and go from our lives in such a short amount of time… but for them, it is a lifetime. From four months old, Coal has never known life without me, and she’ll never have to. Protected and loved from start to finish. I’m happy with that.

I’m hard on Coal, but she’s always been a sweet, gentle soul. She’s never scratched or bitten anyone. She’s been aunt and sister and grandmother to two cats, two kittens, a nervous Beagle mix, an even more nervous Lab mix, and several foster puppies. Oh yeah, and one turtle.

I always forget the turtle…


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I’m going to miss her after all, the plucky little stray I didn’t want, my constant companion of twelve years. This goodbye will be a soft, gentle, happy one, and I’m glad for that. We don’t always get to choose how we part ways with our loved ones.

So, I guess there were some things to say.


Nilah is an author and illustrator from the United States.


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