News & Politics

What It’s Like to Miss Final Goodbyes

Facing the loss of two loved ones while on a year-long escape in Costa Rica.

Photograph by Dornveek Markkstyrn/Getty Images

There’s never a good time to leave. Twice while waiting for a promotion that remained just out of reach, I had delayed plans to travel for a year. It seemed foolish to leave when I had momentum and managerial support, but the stress of striving for that validation eventually tipped the scales. I had money saved, no husband or kids, and parents in good health, so in December 2013 I flew to Central America to recharge.

I knew I would miss parties, engagements, and a year out of the life of little ones I loved. The opposite was also true: Two deaths in particular might occur while I was away.

The first was my grandmother’s. She had dementia, and every time I saw her I told myself it might be the last. At her 90th-birthday party in June 2013, that turned out to be true. Hugging me goodbye, she no longer remembered my name.

I was in Costa Rica when I heard about her single-car accident. My grandfather’s response was heartbreaking—he felt compelled to tell the restaurants they had frequented that he wouldn’t be coming by anymore. His wife of 65 years had died and he was moving in with his daughter.

My grandmother, a Navy nurse, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in October 2014. To surprise everyone at the funeral, I kept my flight home a secret.

The second possible death was that of my 13-year-old rescue cat, whom my parents were caring for in my absence. Two weeks before the end of my travels, Little Cat stopped eating. I was shocked that the vet didn’t think she would survive until my return—my cat had seemed fine five weeks earlier when I was home for my grandmother’s funeral. I was also frustrated the doctor wasn’t inclined to treat Little Cat’s Stage 3 chronic kidney disease. Reluctantly, the vet gave her subcutaneous fluids to flush her system while I booked a flight.

I arrived at my parents’ house to find my cat’s eyes flat and unfocused. She had lost a third of her weight, her name no longer a joke. As she slept, I camped out on my bed, binged on House of Cards, and whispered to her that I loved her.

The next morning, Little Cat walked downstairs for food and rubbed against my legs. She drank water. Maybe she felt better because of the antibiotics, the extra fluids, or my visit. I dragged a tattered ribbon across the bed, and she gave it a half-hearted thump with her paw.

Is it better to die feeling content or craving release?

Before my arrival, Little Cat had been staggering from a buildup of toxins. Her creatinine level was now 17; under 1.6 is considered normal. My mom had arranged for the fluid treatment so I would have a good visit, which made it harder to remember Little Cat was dying.

My flight back to the Caribbean was in a few hours. It felt wrong to euthanize my pet because it was convenient for my schedule. When my mom said we could cancel the vet appointment, that she and my dad would continue to care for Little Cat, I was relieved to have that option.

I didn’t know if she would live until I was home for good. And I wanted to be there at the end. That might not have meant something to her, but it did to me. I still have doubts about my decision to keep the appointment after all. Little Cat, originally named Hope, had been a gift from my ex-husband to celebrate five years together. There’s never a good time to leave.

This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.