The last day
My cat son, Charlemagne passed away peacefully at home around 2 pm on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. He was 16 years old. Though he was diagnosed with kidney disease about 1.5 years ago, he remained happy and energetic up until his final few days, when his kidney disease finally advanced to late stage kidney failure, megacolon, and early signs of carcinoma.
We had an at-home euthanasia, and Charlemagne was in my lap on his favorite kitty blanket, with my husband, Christopher, giving him ear scritches until the end.
We had a long goodbye leading up to and following euthanasia, after which I carried him one last time to the vet’s car outside.
For Charlemagne’s final day, we did our best to follow his perfect routine. At dawn, my early bird husband and early bird (?) cat cuddled on the couch while Christopher gave him ear scritches. This has been our routine for years, until Charlemagne decided it was time for me to be awake.
Most mornings, it has been a race between me making the bed and Charlemagne bounding onto the sheets to demand butt smacks. On this final day, for the first time since his sharp decline a few days prior, Charlemagne jumped onto the bed. I had to be considerably gentler with him than typically–even in his elder years, Charlemagne liked his butt smacks HARD. Still, his behavior this final morning both delighted me and made my heart clench. His brief “bounce back” was enough to make me doubt whether we were ready to say goodbye, for me to almost forget that he hadn’t had a bowel movement in a week or more than a scoop of food in multiple days. We spent the next several hours snuggling on the couch, while I quietly hoped the veterinarian would be late.
The vet wasn’t late. As my phone rang and I walked outside to greet him, the rain clouds rolled in and stole away the light.
The sun didn’t return until we walked out again with Charlemagne’s body in my arms, the rain stopping just in time for us to have a slow goodbye and clouds parting just enough to reveal the sky again.
Two days later, one year before
The first morning without him was simultaneously hollow and heavy, like something big was carved out of our routine. Left in its place was a reservoir of immovable grief. A grief that matched the size of the love.
The timing of it all was almost cliche. Two days after Charlemagne died, I left for Kansas City to attend a family wedding. Celebration and loss are often so close together.
I stayed with my mother in rural Kansas. Kansas is a complicated place for me. It’s home to people I love. It also holds a lot of residual grief, which I spent weeks emotionally preparing myself for, only to be broken open in the days prior.
Maybe this is the continuation of the role Charlemagne has played in my life. He came to me 15 years ago, mere months before my dad’s death. Even before my dad’s cancer, I was never convinced my dad would make it to my college graduation. Then death made his absence a certainty.
But whereas I had long learned to cope with absence, Charlemagne became a constant presence in my young adulthood. With Charlemagne, I learned how to create a safe, stable household and family.
In 2022, less than halfway through my graduate program, Charlemagne got severely sick when his kidney disease triggered pancreatitis. I begged him not to die while I was in a new city, and while my husband still lived over 2,000 miles away.
Incredibly, Charlemagne recovered. He gave me a whole extra year and more, shining brightly until the end. He stayed through the second university graduation of mine that he’s lived through. So while I have wanted to be greedy, I am reminding myself that he already gave me the time I asked for and more. When he left, it was when I had been doing my utmost to be emotionally impervious. He made it impossible to be anything more than myself.
Perhaps this is what I carry forward with me–this wisdom from our small, non-human teachers, who are here for so much less time than us, yet are so good at clarifying what we’re doing while we are here.
15 years and 5 cities ago
I adopted Charlemagne when I was 20 from an overcrowded shelter where I volunteered. Charlemagne was in a row of cages facing over 100 dog kennels. He was regal even then, immaculate in his too-small cage and unbothered by the din of baying dogs. A king despite his circumstance. We belonged to each other instantly.
I named Charlemagne after the real life king of the Franks. In my search for a name that matched this orange giant’s regality, I came across a description of the former King Charlemagne: He was tall in stature. He had a very round face, with a cheerful and intelligent disposition. He had red hair and whiskers–and a prominent belly.
I was a poor college student, but felt determined to give this cat the happiest life. I didn’t know what healthy parenting looked like, but I wanted to figure it out.
Less than a month after I adopted Char, I got a call from my mom about my dad’s failing health and later, his pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Within a few months, tragedies and injustices compounded in immeasurable losses. Through everything, loving Charlemagne has been a lifelong process of becoming a good adult despite all the reasons a person can grow embittered. In all the ways I’ve learned to be tough, with Charlemagne I have been able to create a life where both of us can be soft.
He has been through every life milestone with me since. He’s lived through two college graduations. He has lived with me in five cities and two countries, and road tripped to many more places.
When my husband, Christopher, joined our family, he faced Char’s discernment. Undaunted, Christopher put in the effort tenfold to earn Char’s love and trust, and truly became the best cat dad.
And–it’s funny–while I didn’t consider myself a leader or community organizer at age 20, it occurs to me in retrospect that among the volunteer troupe that I coordinated, we collectively adopted five cats. Charlemagne was the first to be homed, but he wasn’t the last (I was a persuasive and willing cat-sitter). What a role model Char was for a bunch of 20 year olds that we could take care of someone else.
The Cat Who Knew His Quality
My Charlemagne. 💗👑 How many times in the last 15 years have I beamed proudly when a total stranger greeted you by saying, “So handsome! Gorgeous! Regal!”? I love how readily other people have recognized your worth.
Absurdly smart, coupled with excellent sense. I have known few people–human and otherwise–who are simultaneously so quick to exercise their opinion, yet also so assured about which fights are actually worth picking.
Talkative, a skilled communicator with a very expressive vocabulary. Did I say opinionated? There are a lot of dogs living in our building, but I rarely hear them bark. But I could always hear you yowling–no, bellowing–when I left home, all the way down the hallway as I waited for the elevator. You were always skilled at testing spatial acoustics for the greatest dramatic effect, sometimes to express your emotional anguish, and also sometimes because you were kind of a dick. I will never forget that one late night, when you already had me as a cuddle buddy, yet you left my side to happily trot to the bedroom door, poke your head through the opening, and HOLLER directly at Christopher while he was soundly asleep.
A mostly good listener. You came when you were called and you listened to your mama when you wandered too far outside our home. You never made me chase you down (except in play). Given the choice, you would always choose to return of your own accord with your dignity intact rather than be scooped and carried like a fool.
Unflappable. You’ve met many other cats and dogs, even dogs several times your size, and stayed unphased. You’ve been at most curious and at worst apathetic when meeting your kingdom’s subjects. You were annoyed, but mostly bored, at the vet, and shots never bothered you. Your only real fear was the vacuum cleaner and even then, you never expended your energy unwisely to get to safer ground.
A cat with fine tastes. Even when we offered you human food, you only ate food delivered in pellet size. You preferred wool blankets over inferior textiles. You enjoyed catnip in all its forms. You were a big fan of the gold furniture, especially your personal throne.
An occasional lap cat, dedicated side and shoulder cuddler, and a superb little spoon. Lover of belly rubs, cheek rubs, ear scritches, and “the cat drums.” Tolerant of head kisses.
Thank you, Char, for choosing me as your mom. 💗
Goodbye letters to Charlemagne, from the community
I asked friends and community members to share their goodbyes with the king of orange tabbies. Here are the letters I was permitted to share publicly.
If you still wish to write Charlemagne a letter, you may access the form here. We are pretty sure there’s WiFi in the kitty afterlife, and Charlemagne always had an astute mind and vocabulary.
I was lucky enough to live with Char for a couple weeks and got to know, first hand, how special he is. Char is very special.
Although I never got to meet you in real life, you have enriched my life in ways I can’t possibly thank you for. Getting to watch IG stories about you to distract myself from hard days was the best last semester.
And thank you for being such a good companion to your people for so long. You helped them get through grad school, and you are the greatest cheerleader.
Sending you and your people endless amounts of love,
Charlemagne, your human Mom and I share a love of art, cats and a fair society. As I look at my rescue Orange Tabbys, I think of the years you and Jenie have been a family and my heart hurts as it is coming to a close, but is filled with joy for the years you’ve shared. Go to your rest, dear one, knowing how much you loved and have been loved.
Betty Harris Custer
When I was first getting to know Jenie, I might have been a little intimidated by such a brilliant, driven, accomplished new friend and neighbor—you and I both know she’s a pretty extraordinary person. However, the way she lit up with warmth and humor when she talked about you gave me a different window into who she was, and eventually who you were, too.
You are a truly exceptional cat, Charlemagne. You have been such a sweet, steady part of so many of my memories gathered on Dayton St in Madison and beyond. Getting to experience your charm, your curiosity, your discerning glances, and your middle-age fitness journey firsthand has been such a delight. You have been a constant for Jenie and for Christopher through so much change and growth (and some truly impressive road trips). You’ve made this little pocket of the world a more gentle, silly, and loving place. Thank you 🐈 💕
Your friend, admirer, and former neighborhood petsitter,
Charlemagne—I only met you once or twice but I adored you. Your personality is so bright and your sweet face is a joy. Most of all I appreciate the love and companionship you’ve given to Jenie. This will comfort her for years to come, though it will pain her, too, because you are irreplaceable. I know this will be a hard day for all of you. Feel loved and go into rest.
Hi Char you handsome devil. We were supposed to meet this summer but you know what now we have eternity. I’ll come find you and say hi once my body leaves this place too. Thanks for keeping your mom happy all these years (you probably single handedly kept her sane haha). She could not stop talking about you over bubble tea! I could tell you were loved and that they too were loved. Thanks for being in our lives you are so special and we love you forever♥️
Dear Charlemagne, you are everything and more. Your presence will be missed and your memory will live on. I hope you’re at peace and enjoying a feast of all your favorite foods.
Thank you for your company to Jenie, please take comfort knowing she will still be loved and cared when you depart. Farewell to you, the handsome, wise, very collected Char.
You were absolutely the coolest cat I’ve ever met (& likely will ever know). And I feel quite honored to have heard you yowl properly in person when I was visiting in Vancouver. Rest well.
To a handsome boy who loves his palace. May the snuggles for you be abundant and the butt smacks be satisfying, golden fur glowing. Bursting with gratitude for your sweetness to your human clan, forever you remain champion Charlemagne <3
oh char. meow. meowmeow. i like to think that we shared some actual conversations of meows over the years. i don’t really consider myself a cat person but you stood out and i enjoyed seeing you and your adorable big eyes. i’ve sent my mom and sister a couple pictures of you (my sister has an affinity for orange tabbies). when your mom made you a crown out of your own shed hair, that was one of the funniest things i’ve seen. i’ve enjoyed seeing updates about you in vancouver and i’m sad that your days are coming to an end. thank you for brightening our lives during your time here.
It was an honor to have served you.
Regal and austere, you were a transcendent soul
In the know, you knew your role
Keenly observing, all things known
Perched above, in your throne
Your memory immortal, this chant we sing
Love you Char, Long Live The King!
Hospice Care Photos
The following are photos of Charlemagne’s final few days of hospice care and of his body after passing.
Back in undergrad, I forgot to bring my camera home during my last visit to see my dad. This was before the proliferation of smart phones, so we missed our chance to take our final photographs together.
Over the years, in part due to my art practice, I have learned to exercise documentation as an act of care. It can be hard in the moment to stop and take a photo. I feel fortunate that I have spoken with many friends about grief over the years (with special thanks to Jennifer Bastian, who shared her goodbye process with her previous kitties as I planned Char’s hospice), so I knew that others were grateful to have some final photographs with their animal companions. Those conversations were enough for Christopher and me in our emotionality to take time to record our experiences. The following photos bring me grief, but they also bring me comfort. Perhaps they can help someone else plan their own grief care work as well.