Six years ago, I looked out the sliding door to the deck, and there was a little black kitten there, looking forlorn and hungry. I gave it milk. That was the start of a strange relationship.
The little black cat started showing up regularly for food, but it was terrified of humans. I was concerned about making more cats - the neighborhood's already got plenty - so I got a trap from the feral cat society, and after a couple of misses, managed to capture it. Down to the society's surgery event it went, and I picked it up a day later. Following instructions, I kept him - now I knew it was "him", not "it" - in the trap for a day, and then turned him loose. Never saw a cat run so fast. Didn't see him again for a week. But eventually he started showing up from time to time for food and water.
A few weeks later, another kitty showed up with him for dinner. This one was a little gray kitty. They were obviously buds; they were constantly butting heads and playing with each other and always showed up together. After a month or so, I got another trap, and took gray kitty to the vet for a modification. Gray kitty was a "her".
Gray kitty was a whiner, and we started calling her "Meow Meow". And the black kitty was afraid of everyone and everything, and we started calling him "Scaredy Cat". I put a cat door by the back deck, so they could come inside for food and water, rather than leaving food on the deck.
As the years went by, Meow Meow gradually got tamer, until she was spending most of her time indoors, sleeping on the couch, rubbing against ankles, and begging for a bit of ice cream in the evening. Even a purr once in a while. Scaredy Cat never changed much. He would show up for dinner regularly. He would occasionally come into the house and look around a bit, but would never let anyone get too close. He often slept on the covered deck during the winter. Meow Meow got real excited when Scaredy Cat showed up.
Scaredy Cat went through a rough life. He showed up one time with his face all cut up and a big open wound. Either got hit by a car or a raccoon, probably. I thought he was done for, and I didn't see him for a few days. But then he came back, looked better, and gradually healed up.
Then I notice a month or so ago that he seemed to be losing weight. He was never very stout, unlike Meow Meow whose nightly ice cream has turned her into a fat cat. Scaredy Cat was always lean. About that time I realized he was deaf. I don't know if he was always deaf, but now he had no reaction to noises around him. Maybe that's why he was always afraid.
Then about 10 days ago, he came into the house and slept on a heater vent. His fur was looking sparse and tangled and his body thin and weak. I realized he wasn't eating. I tried giving him canned food. I put out a little milk. He ignored the food but sipped at the milk and then went into a bedroom and slept on the bed, something he hadn't done before.
At this point, something went horribly wrong with me. I decided he was in the last stages of an incurable disease, and nothing could be done. Let nature take its course, and all. It was so clinical, and so uninformed. I do not understand why suddenly I lost my compassion. I do not understand my utter failure to help this helpless cat.
Scaredy Cat got thinner, weaker and sicker, and started spending nights in the house, although he was always gone in the morning and during the day. One evening he was lying on my bed and I reached over toward him he raised up and hissed at me and then ran off. One night he came into the kitchen and cried in his weak little single-pitch meow - more of a plaintive "meee" than a "meow". I gave him milk, but he wouldn't take any. The next night he was out in the yard, crying, and in the morning I found him dead by the deck. He probably died trying to get back into the house.
I am just devastated, going over and over the things I could have done, should have done. But it's too late now. I didn't help him. Scaredy Cat's gone; no-one ever petted him. Even though he was feral to the end, I miss him horribly. I knew he was dying, but I did nothing to rescue him. I caught him once, when he was a kitten; I could have caught him again, when he was weak and dying. I honestly don't know what happened to me. I've never been like that before. It's like I had a mental block, and didn't come out of it until he was gone. Can't stop thinking about it. Can't sleep. I'm in tears right now. I've done something horrible and a helpless animal had to die because of it. I feel awful.
I had to tell this story. I do not want sympathy or understanding, and I do not want to be forgiven. A good whipping would be right. I would give anything for a do-over. I am so sorry, Scaredy Cat.
I am so grateful to all the people who have commented here and helped me see this from a different perspective. You guys are wonderful. At a commenter's suggestion, I have changed the title. (From "I killed my cat", if you didn't see it earlier). This has been a tremendous catharsis. I really felt like I didn't deserve to live yesterday. And Meow Meow is now in sleeping on my bed.