Caitlin UltimoPet Parenting / Pet Stories

People and Cats: Coping After a Marriage Ends

A friend of mine recently said, “It’s funny how you think you know how life’s gonna work out one way, and then suddenly everything changes.” I can say, based on the last year of my life, that’s the truth. I’d been married nearly 25 years, and my husband and I helped two human children move into adulthood. We’d also parented five cats, with three still part of our family. He and I had been through a lot, good and bad, and things were about to get really funky. I won’t go into details, but last fall my husband and I decided to end our time as a couple and separate. Emotions were high and I felt a little paralyzed. I’d never lived on my own. Serious self-doubt and fear crept in, but I knew change was inevitable, so I jumped on the wave and started riding.

I planned to move from the house we’d shared for 15 years to a one-bedroom loft. I’d lived in apartments much of my life, so I remember the sounds that come along with it—the upstairs neighbors walking across the floor in click-clacky heels, the chatting and laughing of people walking past the door, and the woosh of the toilet flushing next door. Then there are mystery sounds. The loft is in a historic building, so there would be interesting creaks, too. I crossed my fingers I wouldn’t see any ghost-types floating around my bedroom in the middle of the night.

Prior to my move, we’d gone through our belongings and decided what I’d bring with me. Then there was the matter of our three cats.

We agreed Cosmo, my tuxedo, would go with me. He’s my 14-year-old boy, and neither of us could fathom living apart. Saffy, our 15-year-old gray girl was attached to my husband, so she’d stay with him. No question. Phoebe, the 11-year-old calico tabby and my son were bonded, so there was no way I could separate them. He’d leave for college in the fall, and then Phoebe would join us in the loft. We had a plan. Still, it wasn’t easy to leave my two girls. I write about cats for a living, and had been publicly sharing stories about all three since 2009. I not only felt personally conflicted and heartbroken, I had no idea how my work would be affected. Would I only write about Cosmo?

We moved into our new pad on January 1 of this year. It was a fresh start for both of us. Cosmo’d never lived outside our house, and is naturally skittish, so he jumped at every foreign sound. I did my best to comfort him while I comforted myself. The space was incredibly quiet at times. I was used to a houseful of active cats and people. I slept with the TV on for a while. The laugh tracks of the old sitcoms covered up any possible creaks or, you know—ghost noises. Cosmo never left my side. His howling went on for about a week, and then subsided. He was still excessively clingy, though. I understood. I felt alone too. I often clung to him. He sensed when I needed him for emotional support and appeared by my side during tearful times. He spooned with me when I needed his medicinal purrs. By the end of the first month, things were getting better for both of us.

Angie with cat and ukelele

I didn’t share any of my personal information with readers. I found myself almost exclusively writing about Cosmo, adding a few old pics and funny anecdotes from the girls. After a few months, readers began asking about Saffy and Phoebe and I offered a vague explanation about my husband and I separating, and the cats living in separate residences. I worried at least one of them would judge me for not taking the girls. No one did.

In June my husband moved and, for a time, couldn’t have the girls. He asked me to take them for a while and I happily agreed. It felt like old times with three cats under one roof.  Of course, Phoebe, the loudmouth alpha, adjusted within hours of arriving. Almost right away, though, Saffy hid and would only emerge to eat or drink a little. She was an anxious cat and had experienced health problems throughout her life. We moved her to my in-laws’ house where she could be alone and away from the other two cats, who’ve never been especially friendly to her.

Then I went out of town and my son stayed with Phoebe and Cosmo, who were getting along famously. Saffy, however, had stopped eating and drinking altogether and my husband quickly transported her to the clinic. When my flight landed back home five days later, I had one message: Saffy’s kidneys had failed and she’d passed away that day. I felt like someone had sucked the air out of my lungs and the pit in my stomach turned to nausea. We all grieved Saffy’s death, but no one more than my husband, who’d lost his best friend in the world. We were living apart and had to grieve separately, which felt sad to me, but was our new reality.

Right now Phoebe and Cosmo live with me, and I write about both of them. I no longer have to sleep with the TV on, and Cosmo doesn’t jump when he hears the click-clack of heels. I honestly thought I’d be married forever and everything would cruise along its merry way. What I’ve learned is that we can be resilient beings. Cats and humans can adjust, over time, to new situations – even if it’s incredibly scary at first. Life moves on, hearts heal, and there are both happy and somber moments. I never thought, however, that seven months later I’d feel so strong and confident. And even though growth and change are painful and even heartbreaking, I’m incredibly grateful for its gifts.

Angie Bailey