Kristen joined the RI Army National Guard at 17 years old. Her military service of 8 years ended with achieving a rank of Staff Sergeant. During those years she was a Military Police Officer, a Human Resource Specialist and the Retirement Benefits Counselor for the RI National Guard. Her time also included a deployment to Iraq and a deployment to Afghanistan.
Kristen’s short story is not about a military experience yet a deeply personal one. Identifying and sharing the feelings associated with this experience has been a critical step toward healing.
Kristen has always enjoyed writing as an outlet for mental and emotional health. The skills she learned in this class enabled her to organize and present her thoughts and feelings to an audience of peers.
“Being able to connect with other Veterans and realize that connection feels like home is a priceless gift that I was blessed with during this class.”
Written by Kristen Piatt during the PCVI Summer Writing Seminar ’20
So much can happen in 13 years. Careers change. Scenery changes. Relationships come and go. A lifetime can be lived. For 13 years I watched her grow. You can even say for 13 years I watched her slowly die. That’s what it means to live anyway right? From the moment we are born we are one moment closer to death. Every breath is a breath closer to the last time your lungs will expand. Every step is a step closer to your journey to the grave. But we don’t live our lives with those thoughts in our heads. We forget that we have an expiration date. We forget that we don’t go on forever. We live in the moment. We smile as if life will never end. Until the day it does.
13 years ago I came home from my first deployment. Iraq was an experience like I have never had before. To say my deployment was like a never-ending basic training would be an understatement. People are around you at all times from dawn to dusk. From roommates, battle buddies, co-workers to other Soldiers on the base. Alone time was something that faded to nothing more than a vague memory. Rules and regulations. Specific times for everything. Eat here, work there, sleep now, don’t forget to exercise. After being surrounded by so many people at such a constant pace, coming home presented itself with a loneliness I didn’t know existed.
I changed during my deployment. I grew up. I wasn’t the same dependent, shy naive girl that left her hometown. I was an independent woman. I was a Soldier. I knew who I was and what I was capable of. And I was no longer capable of living at home with my mom. I found a perfect little condo just big enough for me. Small enough to be manageable to keep tidy, yet large enough to feel pride at the first place I would truly call mine. The first few weeks were wonderful. I was dependent on no one but myself. But OMG was it lonely. That’s when she came into my life. The smallest ball of fluff you could imagine. Black and white with piercing hazel eyes. She fit in the palm of my hand. I named her Bailee and our journey together began.
From the beginning Bailee had an attitude. She was shockingly mean to anyone I introduced to her. She had a way of creeping up to a stranger like a lion stalking prey. Head low, back crouched, walking in slow motion, eyes intense and focused, tail whipping from side to side. Then right as the person extended their hand to pet her, BAM she hissed and ran away. No one ever saw it coming. She was too cute to be so mean. She was too small to have such a big hiss. But that was my girl. My beautiful little black and white fluff ball bitch. Everything was her way or the highway and boy did I love her for it.
The best part of her attitude was how it petrified the various men in my life. She never liked a single one and the feeling was always mutual. She bullied them off of couches, beds, even out of rooms. When Bailee didn’t want you around, you moved. If I insisted someone stay over, she would allow me that grace, but she made sure everyone involved knew it was her decision and she could revoke it at any time.
The past 13 years was a period of growth in my life. I went from that first little condo to a house, to two more apartments still. She came to them all. She hated the house and made it abundantly clear. Walking from the second floor bedroom to the first floor couch to sit with me and watch TV took a solid month for her to try. She would just stand at the top of the stairs staring like a creeper. She was a one floor, minimum effort kinda girl.
The first apartment after the house was better, once she found her “safe space” in the closet. That’s when I started leaving my closet door open a crack so she could sneak in whenever she felt scared. She had a cozy spot on a blanket in the corner with a never changing imprint of her little body. But the last apartment was definitely her favorite. She found a new safe space under my bed. This time enjoying the lush carpet, no blanket needed. She would sit in the window and bird watch for hours. She would sunbathe in front of the sliding glass door and smile up at me. She was like my little dog, she was always near my side. She growled whenever someone knocked on the door. She greeted me everyday when I came home from work. And would “speak” for her cookies.
And then one day everything changed. It was May 7, 2020 at around 6 pm. I was working on a colonial village jigsaw puzzle I had on my kitchen table when I heard a noise. The sound of Bailee rolling around playing with a toy. But then the ringing of the bell on her collar went on a bit too long. I looked to my right and saw her flopping around until she fell off the couch. There was no toy. It was just her. “Bailee are you okay?” was all I could manage as I ran to get close to her. She got up and stumbled down the hallway hugging the wall, unable to walk straight until she was underneath my bed. I panicked. My heart felt like it hit my feet. I felt the blood drain out of my face and I was instantly petrified. What just happened? Was she okay? A million thoughts raced through my head in a minute that felt like an hour. I followed her to the bedroom where I found her in her safe space, as far from me as she could get. “Are you okay? Bailee are you okay? What can I do? What’s wrong?” was all I could say, over and over while she growled at me, not coming near me. I was heartbroken, I was panicked, I was petrified. I phoned a friend.
I met Christine in 2004 when I went outside for a smoke break. I had just started my first big corporate job and I was crazy nervous. At the back of the building with a cigarette in my hand was where I found comfort, quiet and I didn’t know at the time, a lifelong friend. She was immaculately put together. From her 5 inch pumps to her custom tailored blazer, she was what I always envisioned a stylish, hip business woman to look like. She was amazing. She had a no nonsense, take her or leave her attitude with a resting bitch face. She knew her job like no one else ever could. We hit it off immediately. Over the years she became one of my best friends. A woman I looked up to. Her life experience and kindness helped me through some crazy times.
“Chris, I don’t know what to do, I think Bailee just had a seizure.”
“Okay, what is she doing now? Where is she? Where are you?”
With a quivering voice I explained what I had seen and how I was crouched on my hands and knees looking at Bailee under the bed. The comfort of knowing Christine was there to help slowly stilled my shaking hands..
“Okay, you have a few options. 1. Call an emergency vet. They can tell you whether or not you should bring her in immediately. 2. You can wait and call your vet in the morning, considering she seems okay now.” Bailee still wasn’t speaking to me, just looking and growling. I decided not to chance it and took option 1. They told me I could bring her in, or wait for the next day and call my vet. I was there in 30 minutes.
Covid-19 has made the year 2020 into an experience like no other. Because of the virus, protocols have changed. I wasn’t allowed inside the vet with my baby. A tall, young vet tech with a mask and gloves came out to the car. He crouched down a safe distance away to look in my window and I explained what happened with tears in my eyes. “We will take her in to see the vet. After the vet has evaluated her, they will call you” he said in a monotone emotionless voice. The next thing I knew, he whisked her carrier out of my hands and took her into a building I had never stepped a foot in. I had to wait in my car for the phone call with a diagnosis. For over an hour I waited and I cried. I looked around at all the other cars and started wondering why they were there. What had happened to their precious loved one? I was overcome with a sense of awe at how many people were so compassionate that they were there, waiting, with me at the emergency room for their pet. A group of humans, strangers, who now shared an experience of terror and patience while we sat alone in our cars and waited.
Finally I got the call. They ran some blood work and Bailee’s thyroid levels were high. It looked to them like she developed feline hyperthyroidism, a disease fairly common in cats 13 years and older. Her thyroid was over-producing hormones which increased her blood pressure which led to the seizure. It was, as they called it, a “manageable prognosis.” They started her on blood pressure pills to bring her BP down and on thyroid pills. She spent the night for observation and came home the next day. I had never been so confused in my life. I was given so much information and so many options on something I just didn’t understand. They gave me pills and liquid medication in case I couldn’t give her the pills. They told me about a transdermal medicine that I could just rub on her ear if I couldn’t get her to take the pill or the liquid. I was overwhelmed and confused.
Bailee was never a lap cat. Not even with me. She had her side of the couch, her side of the bed, her side of everything. She came to you when she wanted to, never when you called her (unless there were cookies involved). She needed space. And I needed space. But every night when I went to sleep, she would jump on the bed, wait for me to settle in and curl up against my back. Each morning I woke up to her beautiful face in mine purring for breakfast. That’s how I knew, no matter how many hisses, she loved me. No matter how many fights we got into, she forgave me every night and we started every day anew.
We made it through almost a week after her first seizure. I was like a helicopter mom afraid to leave her alone. When she wasn’t in the same room as me I must’ve checked on her a million times. I was so afraid. I felt helpless. I knew she wasn’t feeling good. She wasn’t the same cat. She barely ate. She puked all the time. She slept all day and night. Then she had another seizure. She was on the top of the couch just hanging out when I heard her nails scratching the fabric as if she was trying to hold on. She fell down the couch onto the floor and into the slider. It was a repeat of the first time. She immediately got up and low crawled like a drunk to her safe space.
I took her into my regular vet that day. Her BP was still really high. When you ask the doctor, “What should I do when she has a seizure?” and they respond with, “Steer clear of her,” your heart hurts. When cats have seizures they are not fully aware of what’s going on. It’s like they black out. They don’t feel pain, unless they hit things or fall off of things. The seizure may or may not cause brain damage. They can get a temporary blindness afterward which hinders their ability of recognizing their owners causing them to lash out aggressively. Therefore the best thing to do is stay back and let the seizure end on its own. I was told there were options and that it was common and treatable. We just had to find the right combination of treatments for Bailee.
I learned a lot about Bailee over the next few months. I learned a lot about me. I know she loved me. In all honesty, I don’t think I realized how much I needed her in my life until there was a potential for her to not be anymore. She had been with me for so long I took our relationship for granted. I forgot about the sweet moments we shared. How in our first apartment I would come home and find the kitchen drawer open because she liked to sleep on my towels while I was away. How after I had surgery she refused to leave my side for two weeks. I forgot how I couldn’t sleep without her when I went on vacation. I forgot how we had been together through 4 living spaces, 1 deployment, and several boyfriends. 13 years is a long time to remember.
Three challenging months passed. Christine and I had daily update text messages on medicine, food, puke and poop. Bailee and I tried pills twice a day. Which led to puke 12 times a day. We tried transdermal medicine which made her lethargic and uninterested in life. Her BP remained higher than normal but the BP meds kept the seizures at bay. We tried a medicinal food that gave us fluorescent orange puke and zero poop. We tried every option we had. In the end I made a choice. The hardest decision of my life. I chose to end hers. I never wanted her to suffer. I couldn’t bare the thought of not knowing what the next day would bring us. I could not let my baby live another day in that kind of world.
I thought making the decision was going to be the hardest part. It wasn’t.. July 8, 2020 was a good morning. We woke up. We had breakfast. She watched the birds and then we went for a ride. I Knew she wouldn’t be coming back. This type of situation was the only one where the vet allowed you to come into the office during the pandemic. I was thankful. I couldn’t let her go through this alone. I told myself I wasn’t going to cry. I told myself I could do this and be strong. I told myself a lot of lies as I walked through that door. I was the only customer there. I heard voices as phones were answered and appointments were made but I didn’t look to see who was making the sounds. The vet tech led me down a hall to the last door on the left. The room was small, cold and sterile. A red blanket laid on the table where I placed Bailee.
They said the first injection would put her to sleep. That she would relax to a point she just drifted off. The second injection would stop her heart. The vet and vet tech gave her the first injection and told me to take all the time I needed with her as she drifted to sleep. She was on a blanket on top of a stainless steel table. She was laying down looking at me. I slowly ran my fingers along her body petting in the ways I know she liked. Her eyes flashed from me to the cat carrier and back to me. She knew something was up and wanted to escape. I whispered to her, “It’s going to be okay, I love you so much, you can go to sleep, I will be here.” Over and over I kept saying those words as her body settled down and her tail stopped moving. But her eyes. Her eyes never closed. She just looked at me and I stared back crying like a fool. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I couldn’t stop sniffling. She watched. I knew in my heart she was incapacitated and scared. It was emotionally crippling. The vet and tech came back in and asked if I was ready. I nodded. They shaved a little section of her leg and put the needle to her skin. I looked up at them and asked, “how long does this take?” and before they could say “it is instant,” she was gone. I lost it. I sobbed. I wailed. I fell to the ground. I could not hold my pain in. They slowly backed out of the room and left me to grieve.
For 13 years a section of my heart was nurtured and loved by Bailee. For 13 years I had a partner. Someone to come home to every day. Someone who loved me unconditionally. Someone who comforted me when I was down and made me laugh everyday. On July 8, 2020 my heart was torn out. My body ached. It was an emotional pain that was so strong it became physical. All I could acknowledge was the emptiness, the loss. All I could feel was pain and guilt.
Grief is a strange thing. Some say there are stages. Some say everyone grieves in their own way. My grief started with pain, loneliness and sadness. My life was completely different now. My days were never going to be the same. I was no longer responsible for a tiny, fluffy, black and white creature that was always happy to see me. I was no longer needed to feed her, take care of her, play with her, love her. I was alone. Completely alone. That was a hard pill to swallow. The change in my daily routine was a curveball I didn’t see coming. I used to wake up to her face silently telling me it was time for breakfast. Now I woke up alone.
Then came the guilt. Did I make the right decision? Should I have tried harder? Should I have tried longer? Did she know I did what I felt was right? Did she forgive me? Does she know I loved her?
It’s been a few weeks and I am adjusting to my new life. I have found that the best way for me to cope with my grief is to cover my home with pictures of her. She is literally in every room. I see her when I wake up, when I brush my teeth, make my coffee, go to work and head to sleep. I talk to her everyday. I have asked her for forgiveness. I have asked her to understand. I have asked her if she is okay. I cried and yelled at her. But in my soul I know I did the right thing for her. She only suffered a minimal amount. She didn’t spend years on medicine, unhappy and not knowing if it would be a good day or a bad day. She lived 13 years with all the love I could give her. She was and always will be my one and only baby. The only life besides my own I was ever responsible for. She is irreplaceable. She is Bailee.
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