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At 4 a.m. I went into the sunroom as I had many times the previous afternoon, evening and night. There wasn't much to see. A small head, half-covered by a quilt: body vaguely shaped in the cane basket. If you ignored the wildly unnatural stare, it was as though he rested.

I touched his fur. The wrapped body remained warm. Now the short, grey hair seemed to gently rise and fall with breathing: the fur stirred by a faint breeze. Sonia even thought she heard him purring several times; that rare, soft noise at the edge of hearing.

During the night, a pink balloon of blood and mucus formed beneath Jex's nostrils. It saddened me, but it made it easier to let him go. I knew now he should be given privacy. He would have hated to be seen that way. So I lifted the edge of the quilt to cover his dear face and whispered goodbye.

The day before after the vet shaved Jex's right paw and injected his death needle, our friend struggled briefly, then slumped asleep on the warm flagstones in the dappled shade of our arbor by the front gate.

'After the injection, he'll fall asleep and his heart will stop,' the vet assured me. 'He'll just drift away into death. There is no pain.'

Day after day Jex sniffed at his food, perhaps took a small mouthful before wandering away. Once a voracious eater, he was starving to death. For 17 years a sleek and muscular Burmese male, within weeks he had wasted into slack skin, hollows and bones. Clear yellow eyes were now flecked with brown. We thought at first he had simply aged, but the vet found what he feared was a tumor above the lungs.

'I can't see what it is,' he told us, pointing at the grey, shifting image on his scanning machine. 'The only way to tell is if I put him on a dripfeed and carry out exploratory surgery.' It was a horrible thought. Another of our beloved cats, Tigur had died some years before, cancer spreading through her jaw, eroding her face after a tooth had been extracted. Then, a novice vet, after 10 minutes of fumbling with the terrified animal, managed to find her heart into which she plunged the needle. Jex became stressed for even short periods in the cat box being transported to the vet or boarding kennels, panting and salivating. We hated to think of him far from home: in a strange cold place, trembling at the cries of frightened pets, the air heavy with fecal stench and disinfectant. It would feel like torture.

This is one of the hardest things any of us must do. Pets only have us to make their tough decisions. It tears you up but arranging the swift death of a suffering friend is the kindest act of all. On the night before, we sensed his time was near. We couldn't let Jex suffer under surgery. I rang the vet who agreed it was the best decision. He agreed to come to our home and put Jex down the following day. It was horrible waking that morning and thinking, This is the day that Jex will die. We brought our friend inside the house, devastated by feelings of treachery and sorrow. He began to vomit, then slept for some hours as we waited long hours for the vet who had been called out on emergency. When the vet finally arrived, Jex woke and tottered weakly into the arbor as though to greet the visitor.

When it was done, the vet left and Sonia and I sat on the flagstones beside Jex crying.

I was so pleased Sonia left me cradle him for the last time in my arms. Burmese always attach to one owner and Jex was always her cat, from the instant he appeared as a tiny kitten far across the paddock and saw her on our verandah. Ignoring the frantic, jealous barking of our fox terrier and the angry hissing of another cat, he rushed to her, rubbing himself against her legs. Though famished, he kept breaking off eating to curl himself against her in thanks.

I picked him up, his life already fled. Flopping legs, lolling head; that dear soft-smooth, grey sock body warm in my arms. We had lined his cane basket with a quilt, wanting him to feel comforted.

The next morning toward dawn, I placed the covered basket outside, but soon realised blowflies were burrowing under the fabric. It was time to bury Jex. The evening before I had struggled to dig a hole in the garden: the clay soil, baked hard in the Sun, strewn with rocks and infested with tree roots. Lifting Jex still wrapped in the quilt, I carefully laid him into the hole, making sure he was lying easily in the space. Looking once more briefly into his face, I covered him for the last time, whispered goodbye and shoveled the dirt down onto the little heap at the bottom of the grave. An hour later, Sonia and I placed a large, flat stone on the flattened soil, not only to mark the place, but ensure a fox or wild dog couldn't dig up his body. And that's where he lies today, beneath the shade of an old, gnarled woodbine tree, close to our front verandah.

Has he gone? I doubt it. Our house is filled with ghosts. George Greene, a mining engineer, lived in a tent with his wife and five children as he built 'Rose Villa', completing the work in 1862. Our old house, in which Sonia and I have now lived at peace for over 20 years, has witnessed both joyful and sad times: marriages, births and deaths. And as one descendant assured me when he saw Jex, 'There were always cats.'

Sometimes at night, Jex would wake from his stretched-out sleep on Sonia's lap and stare hard into some shadowed area of the room, usually about human height. Now, we sense him part of that swirl of ghosts. Several times since his death, we've heard him call, once the same sound that he made when he jumped heavily from the window sill in the main bedroom onto the wooden floorboards and a faint but unmistakable scratching from behind the door of the second bedroom where he spent his last hours. He so loved his life here, following us around the large garden, hunting rabbits on moonlit nights by the dry creek in the paddocks behind the house, sleeping on Sonia's lap for hours that we know he would never willingly leave. Death, I want to believe, is just a different dimension.

How strange we must seem to cats! We are there when they are born and still they're on the last day of their lives. Perhaps we seem immortal. But humans pay a heavy price. Living so much longer than our pets, we grieve at many losses. And it never gets easier.

This essay has been hard to complete. I wrote of Jex the day I buried him: the words remaining untyped for over two months. I wondered when I began typing if I could finish this and then whether I could publish this very pain. Yet, here we are. It's helped to share this with you, my invisible interlocutor. If you are as I imagine, you'll also have cherished the trustingly innocent, uncritical and undemanding company and love of an animal - one of the greatest privileges any person may enjoy.

And so another page of life is turned.

Stephen Collicoat

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The following comments are for "The Passing of a Friend"
by Stephen Collicoat

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