‘I thought he had a cold. His eyes were watery. That Sunday when I got home, he was sicker than ever. It was time, we both knew.’: Woman adopts injured cat after losing childhood pet, ‘I learned how to open my heart’

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“At the ripe old age of 19, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I surprised everyone around me by taking a job at a girl scout camp. I had never been an outdoorsy person, but I had always wanted to work at the camp I attended as a kid. Being a counselor ended up being one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Throughout the summer, I learned to love canoeing, hiking, and most of all, singing. At our camp, we sang all the time. We sang before dinner, we sang while hiking, and we even serenaded our girls before bed. Of course, I liked some of the songs better than the others, but one of my favorites we sang the girls before began with the line:

‘Love is something if you give it away,

Give it away,

Give it away,

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.’

I thought I understood that line back then, but I realize now it’s taken me years to fully understand what it means. I am now 25, and I still don’t think I can wholly comprehend what this line means, but I think I’ve gotten a little closer in the past few months.

I became a mom twice this year to two wonderful yet drastically different cats, and it has been the most fulfilling, challenging, and grounding experience of my life, even more so than working at a camp. My cats have shown me unconditional love and how it can triumph in the darkest of times. Before this year, I was frustrated I couldn’t find an exciting love story like all of my friends had, but I now realize I was going through something else just as meaningful. My cat of 17 years died on Valentine’s Day of this year, a few short months after I officially adopted him and then, during the pandemic, I opened my heart to a new cat. It’s been a wild, bumpy ride, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

Courtesy Ally Bair

Before the pandemic, I lived a fulfilling, happy life in the city of Pittsburgh. I moved here from Florida two years ago, in 2018, and have been determined to build a good life for myself ever since. I work for a few of our local radio stations, I used to participate in writing classes until my work schedule took over, and I have a group of friends completely unrelated to anything else that I used to go out to the bars with. I also live close to my family and try to work out as much as I can. I was doing everything I could to feel whole, but I still felt like something was missing.

Nearly everyone I know is in a relationship, and I used to go back and forth about wanting one for myself. I was never sure if I actually wanted one, or if I only wanted one so I’d have someone to talk to my friends about. When I first moved to Pittsburgh, I thought, after all the exploring I had done, it was time to settle down with a partner. Before I moved to Pittsburgh, I had been wandering the United States with various jobs for over five years. I got close to finding a partner here in Pittsburgh a few times, but nothing worked out. I figured I was fine on my own, just as I had always been. I didn’t know how wrong I was until I moved in with Ginger.

Two years ago, I moved in with my mom, her husband, and our family cat, Ginger. My mom and I had Ginger since I was in third grade, when I caught him with my bare hands in a barn. When I asked my mom if we could keep him, she said yes but only if he sat in her lap for 30 seconds. He did, and nobody was more surprised than her. She later told me she only said yes because she thought he’d never actually do it.

Ginger and I didn’t necessarily get along at first, but over time, we built a special bond. In his younger years, Ginger was a terror. He ate my homework multiple times and spent all hours of the night sprinting around our house. Our relationship changed when he began to take care of me as much, we took care of him. As a result of food intolerance, I got a lot of bad stomach aches as a kid, and he curled up next to me as I laid in bed often. A few years later, when my parents got divorced and my mom and I moved across the country, he rode in the moving van sandwiched between us. When I suffered from severe depression in high school a few years after that, he always knew when to rub up against me and purr. He was the closest thing I ever had to a sibling, and when I felt like I had no one else, I knew I could always count on him.

When I went off to college in Chicago, worlds away from our home in the Pittsburgh area, Ginger developed kidney and thyroid disease. The vets always told my mom this was his last year, but each year, he seemed to pull through. He still suffered, though. I realized Ginger was worse off than I thought shortly after I moved home. He puked nearly every night, and it wasn’t long until I was the one cleaning it up and giving him his pill every morning. After all the years he had taken care of me, I figured it was the least I could do for him.

After living with my parents for a year, I decided to get my own place. I found a roommate and moved into a small apartment downtown. My room was barely big enough for me, but I loved it. Shortly after I moved, my mom took me out to dinner and asked me how I would feel about taking Ginger full-time. Because of her husband’s job, she divided her time between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles and could no longer give him the love and care that he needed. I was skeptical at first because my roommate and I hadn’t talked about it and I really wanted things to work out with her, but I eventually came around to the idea. With his declining health, I knew I was the one who would be able to take care of him the best.

I had never considered myself a mom, or even a maternal person. When I was a kid, I never wanted to play with baby dolls. Their bald heads crept me out. Also, the thought of ever being pregnant had always made me sick to my stomach, but there I was, standing in my apartment and watching as Ginger poked at my bed after my mom brought him over. I was a cat mom, and I rose to the challenge surprisingly quickly. When he curled up to me on the couch on his first night at his new apartment, I knew I had made the right choice by taking him in.

My love for Ginger grew in a different way than I had ever experienced in the few short months he lived with me. He was my son, although I could never bring myself to admit it. My friends all said I was his mom, but I kept telling him I wasn’t. I was only eight years older than him. He was my little buddy, my partner. Whenever I was at home, he was by my side, and when I wasn’t at home with him, I wanted to be. During the months I spent with him, I discovered a capacity for love within myself I didn’t know I had. Taking care of him was the most rewarding thing I had ever done. I even thought I was doing such a good job that all the vets were wrong, and he was never going to die.

Courtesy Ally Bair

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Ginger’s decline was quick but painful. I had to go away the weekend before he died, and I didn’t feel right about it. He hadn’t been feeling well, but I convinced myself it was okay to go because he would bounce back when I returned like he always did.

That Sunday, when I got home, he was sicker than ever.

For the next few days, I thought he had a cold. His eyes were watery, which had happened before, but then I realized he was having trouble jumping up on my bed. I called my mom to ask her what to do, and she instructed me to put a tray of food on the bed until she could get there in the morning to take him to the vet. I suspected something was seriously wrong as I watched him hobble towards the tray and prayed he would make it through the night. He did, but when my mom came to pick him up the next day, she immediately burst into tears upon seeing him.

It was time, we both knew.

My mom took Ginger to her house, and after I finished work that day, I spent the night with him. That night was one of the hardest of my life. I didn’t stop crying for hours. He was so sick, he wouldn’t even look up at me. The night before he died, my mom and I slept in her bed with him lying on a sheet between us. We thought he would stay in the same spot he had been all evening, but as soon as we turned the lights off, he curled into my stomach just like he had for years. Neither Ginger nor I moved for the entire night.

My mom originally scheduled his vet appointment for noon the next day, but we ended up taking him shortly after we woke up. In the middle of the night, my mom told me, his breathing became so shallow and ragged, she wasn’t sure if he was still alive. We swaddled him in a blanket, and I held him until the vet tech took him away from me to run some tests about a half-hour later. When the vet came to talk to us in her office, she mentioned the ‘E’ word. Euthanization.

Prior to that day, I had always thought if Ginger died, I wanted to be the one who called the shots. I would’ve rather made the decision to put him to sleep instead of coming home to him dead on my bed, but, as I sat in the vet’s office, I felt like I was in Sophie’s Choice. I didn’t make the decision to put him down until the vet said it would be the right thing to do. I didn’t want to give in, but, deep down, I knew she was right. I needed to put my little boy to sleep once and for all.

My mom and I got to say good-bye to Ginger before they put him down. The vet tech brought him to us swaddled in the same blanket we brought him in and asked us to press a button on the wall when we were ready for the procedure. As soon as the vet tech left us alone with him, I let my mom hold him first while I cried. When she gave Ginger to me a few moments later, we shared a moment I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. He hadn’t been feeling well enough to look up for me, but, as he laid into my arms, he looked up at me like he was truly seeing me for the first time. Tears flowed freely down my face, and I apologized for every time I had yelled at him to get off the counter, and every time I had felt too tired to give him enough attention, but especially for never calling myself his mom. Through his eyes, he seemed to forgive me for all of it, even for moving on with another cat in the future. With my approval, my mom eventually pressed the button and I held him when they administered the shot.

I had been adamant up to that point I wasn’t Ginger’s mom, that we were just buddies, but I realized I was wrong. The first time I considered myself a mom was the moment I saw Ginger’s lifeless eyes peek out from the blanket as the vet carried him away after she gave him the shot. On Valentine’s Day 2020, I lost my son. The days that followed involved a lot of random outbursts of emotion. I refused to sleep in my bed, our bed, for the first few nights. It didn’t feel right without him. The weeks that followed weren’t much easier, and, about a month after he passed, the pandemic hit.

The first few weeks of the pandemic were filled with relentless grief over Ginger. I constantly wished Ginger would’ve held on a little longer so he could be there to comfort me like he always had. I felt so alone without him.

A few weeks into quarantine, I found myself researching foster agencies online. My friend, a vet-in-training, told me that due to the pandemic, a lot of cats needed homes. I thought it’d be too early to adopt another cat, but I could probably handle giving one a home for a few weeks until the pandemic ended. I found a cat I wanted, but, when a woman from one of the organizations I was looking at emailed me after I applied, she said she already had a cat she thought would be perfect for me. His name was Sammy, she said, and he was a two-year-old black tabby who had recently gotten hit by a car. He seemed like a survivor, and I immediately leaped at the chance to take care of another disabled cat. Kim, my foster liaison, said she would bring him to me in about a week after he got his stitches out.

Courtesy Ally Bair

The week that followed seemed to crawl by. I rearranged my room so I would have more space for Sammy to roam around than Ginger had. I thought I did a good job with Ginger, but I also knew I made some mistakes I could learn from. When I finished rearranging my room, I plopped down on my bed and let out a huge sigh of relief. My room no longer felt like the one I saw Ginger dying in. I could finally breathe again.

Kim brought Sammy to me the Saturday after I arranged my room, and I immediately fell in love with his cute little face. He looked a little rough around the edges with his scarred leg and clipped ear, but Barb assured me he would heal. We let him out of his carrier, and after he surveyed my place, he rubbed up against my face as if to say, ‘I’m home.’ And he was home. I knew it then, and I knew it when I caved and adopted him about a week later.

I’ve been Sammy’s mom for a few weeks now and it has been, by far, the best thing about quarantine. I thought it’d be excruciatingly painful to open my heart to another cat after what I had with Ginger, but Sammy has made it the easiest thing in the world. Sammy, as I realized literally hours after I met him, is my absolute hero. Despite all he’s been through, he is the most loving, playful boy in the world. He and Ginger have completely different personalities and stories, which makes me happy. I will never have with another cat what I had with Ginger, and I did not have with Ginger what I currently have with Sammy. They are two different dynamics, and they are both wonderful. I consider them brothers, and it breaks my heart that Sammy will never get to meet his big brother.

Courtesy Ally Bair

This pandemic has taught me life is hard, but, man, is it beautiful. I learned how to open my heart after enduring the worst kind of grief I’ve ever felt. I could’ve easily kept my heart locked tight, but I chose not to. Whenever I look at Sammy, I think of that song I sang at camp so long ago, the one that goes, ‘love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.’ I have so much love in my life, and I have both Ginger and Sammy to thank for that. There would be no Sammy without Ginny, and there would be no me without either of them. I love those beautiful boys endlessly. I know, somewhere, Ginny is smiling down on Sammy and me always.”

Courtesy Ally Bair

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ally Bair. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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