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Tilly the Two-Legged Cat

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I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like a made the right decision, like I did right by Tilly and made the choices that would make her better. From where I am now, buried under the weight of grief I have truly never known, it’s mostly doubt and regret and it just really hurts. At the same time, I suppose if I had elected not to go forward with her surgery and she died, I would feel the same way, like I didn’t exhaust every last option to help her. The choices I was presented, I felt, were not choices at all, each one appearing to lead to the same heart-wrenching outcome.

I scheduled the surgery and then canceled it and then scheduled it again. The doubt and regret that consumed me after canceling it the first time was all consuming. Was I withholding the treatment that would save her life for fear that it could also end it? I decided to go forward with it when I realized I’d come to peace with the fact that Tilly was dying in the bed next to me or she was dying on the operating table, and putting her on the operating table presented at least the slim chance that she would maybe pull through and maybe live on and maybe even feel better than ever.

Maybes are good bets when they don’t involve life: maybe you’ll lose money, maybe you’ll lose friends, maybe you’ll lose your mind. I’ll take all those bets because risk is exhilarating and rewarding. But when it comes to “maybe you’ll lose a life that isn’t yours based on a decision that you and only you can make”, I am less inclined to roll the dice. That’s a decision I don’t want to make again.

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I had to make lots of horrible decisions for Tilly from 4 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday into the early hours of the morning Thursday. Phone calls from the surgeon dropped like bombs. Yes, please do everything you can. Yes, please keep her heart beating, Yes, please put her on the ventilator. But after her second (third?) heart attack, the weight got heavier. No, please don’t ask her little body to do any more. No, please don’t ask me to make that decision. Yes, please let her go. Yes, I’ll say it again to a second witness: please let her go.

I asked them to let me talk to her and they stretched the operating room phone cord to its limit to get it to her little head and I told her we love her so much and she is such a good cat and she did a really good job.

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Throughout all of this I was alone in a weird little euro-mod hotel room in New York City just drowning in agony. I don’t know if being home would have been any different or easier, but I do know that not being home was torturous. I latched onto social outlets like a lifeline, and the steady flow of support from Tilly’s fans and my friends was like a morphine drip numbing the ache. I think I reached for my phone 10,000 times in the last 24 hours to read notes from people all over the world who were impacted by Tilly. That little cat resonated with so many people and I hope the spirit of the character I built for her online (based on who I believe she really is) lingers for a long time.

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All I ever wanted to do was help Tilly. In some ways she needed it and in others she never did. When I first got her I hovered over her like a helicopter, picking her up and moving her where I thought she needed to be, overcompensating for a lack of limbs she had already learned to compensate for over a lifetime without them. Tilly didn’t need help with that and I quickly learned to let her live within her own very capable limits without my constant concern and intervention. She was a curious and communicative and clingy little cat. Just not at first.

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When I first adopted Tilly two years ago I was overwhelmed by the burden of convincing a very distressed and defensive little animal that not everyone wanted to hurt her and that not everyone had given up on her. Tilly was surrendered by her previous owner for aggression, and I learned quickly that this was an understatement. She attacked my then boyfriend, she attacked me and then she attacked a new owner I tried to pawn her off on. (I will always hate myself a little bit for that.) After the third attack I was advised to put Tilly down because she would never accept the level of human companionship I was trying to force. I remember sitting in my car with her wailing in her crate and me wailing over whether or not Tilly truly was a lost cause. Against all sane logic I decided that I would stand up for Tilly and teach her what love is and against all odds that little beast accepted it.

I don’t know how it happened or why. The easiest answer is just that she needed time and space. So Tilly got her own room and two years to decide if she wanted to maybe give us a chance. And she did.

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Tilly acclimated slowly at first—letting me pet her, letting me pick her up, letting me feed her without attacking my feet—and then dramatically flipped a switch almost overnight. Every day whether we made progress or not I would scratch under that little chin and say, “You’re doing a good job, Tilly.” Because she was. It was just slow. Then suddenly one day I woke up and just had this completely different cat I’d never met—this cat that would stretch out to have her belly rubbed, place her little nubbin in my hand, jump in my lap when the vacuum reared its ugly head, slowly work her away across the apartment from her bed to mine every single night.

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For a while I held Tilly’s early challenges as a dirty little secret. I didn’t want people to judge her or me for the decisions I made, and I wanted everyone to see what a good cat she had become. But the truth is, Tilly had always been a good cat. She just needed someone to give her a chance. That’s the help Tilly really needed and I know I at least gave her that. So in the face of unshakeable doubt right now, I am positive that when it came to showing Tilly true patience and trust and love, I know I did a good job.

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I flew back first thing this morning and trudged to the emergency vet to sign a cremation release instead of to pick up my little cat. I was handed an empty crate and her beloved mousie and have never felt so cheated in all my life. I know her doctors worked really hard, and I know they wanted her to make it too.

A tremendous relief in addition to words of encouragement was the overwhelming outpouring of financial support from friends and total strangers who wanted to see Tilly pull through. I am shocked and grateful beyond words, really, that so many people could be so generous. In a reassuring twist of fate, Tilly’s online fundraiser brought in almost to the dollar exactly how much her surgery cost. I can’t believe it. I really can’t. So thank you for that. It lifts the weight of a tremendous financial burden off of an already heavy situation. You have no idea how much that helps.

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I hope you enjoyed getting to know Tilly. I certainly did. One of the best parts about Tilly’s time with us is that I think she proved that special needs pets are capable not only of living life but of giving it too. The old adage “Who rescued whom?” could not be more true. Tilly lit up not only my life but left a lasting impression on a whole lot of perfect strangers too. And the coolest part is that Tilly isn’t alone. There are lots of “unadoptable” pets out there just like Tilly that need someone to stand up for them and take a chance.

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The “least adoptable” animals in shelters are senior dogs, pitbull mixes, special needs pets of all kinds and adult cats. I have had all of these unadoptables in my life and can assure you they are 100% adoptable. If Tilly can leave a legacy encouraging us to take a chance on someone who seems impossible, her short time here will have been very well spent.

Thank you for rooting her on. Thank you for supporting her surgery. Thank you for being her friends. Long live Tilly the two-legged cat.

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58 Comments

  1. Marie Marie

    So devastated for you. You did wonderfully, and I’m so glad Tilly got to have you as her momma. You saved her over and over.

  2. Margie Margie

    Please know that even under the clearest circumstances we all second-guess these decisions. To an outside observer it is clear that you loved Tilly to the moon and back, and that you were prepared to do—and did—everything you could for her. There is no regret. Only love.

  3. Taylor Tyler Taylor Tyler

    This was a beautiful tribute. I just started following you and Tilly, and I am so sorry for your loss. I know it will take awhile for you to truly believe this, but you did what was best for your kitty. You and Tilly were very lucky to have found one another, and I thank you for sharing your beautiful journey with others. It is has been inspiring, to say the least. The message you and Tilly spread about “unadoptable” pets is commendable, and I intend to adopt an “unadoptable” when I am able! Tilly’s memory will live on! Thank you for sharing her with us.

  4. caireth Johnston caireth Johnston

    She was so beautiful and you were so lucky to find eachother. I’m so sorry for your loss, I know how heartbreaking this is xxx

  5. i can’t even read this whole thing because i cannot even imagine this, and your pain. i’m so sorry. i hope it gets easier.

  6. KMM KMM

    I started to read this post so many times, but had to stop because of the tears. I lost my own special needs kitty, Shiner, in November, and it has been incredibly hard. Tilly always reminded me of my cat; they had very similar coloring, both had their issues, and both ended up being incredibly loving after some unfortunate circumstances in their early lives. I hope that with time the sadness turns to happy memories.

  7. Elizabeth Elizabeth

    I found this because we have the shared experiences of 1. Finding Gretchen Rubin initially unlikable, then realizing we’re exactly alike and 2. [recently] trying to do everything for a particularly beloved cat and ending up losing her in the end anyway and still feeling like you didn’t do enough. I just wanted to say that Tilly was beautiful and adorable and there is nothing like the agony of losing an especially special pet, even more so when it feels like you were robbed of them far too soon. It sounds like you put some much thought and effort to trying to help her and she was lucky to have you. I hope you have found some peace with this in the months that followed. Thanks for sharing Tilly with the world 🙂

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