I see I left the cat topic hanging. This will be part update, part "Here's what it's like to return a cat to a shelter, in case you have such a thing in your own future," and part "work-arounds for neuroses."
I kept trying to just call the shelter and initiate the process, but my throat would lock up when I picked up the phone. Finally I emailed, even though that wasn't one of the options, and in my opening paragraph I was semi-frank about the situation (so that they wouldn't email back "Sure! Just give us a call to set up an appointment!"): I wrote that I kept trying to call but choked up every time and had trouble organizing my thoughts because of being so self-conscious about the crying, so I hoped it would be okay to at least start the process on email. Recently I've been thinking there are times when I have to just find a way AROUND the phone, even if it's a bulky/awkward way or seems weird/inefficient to other people; even if it DOES seem weird to them, it probably doesn't linger in their minds for long.
Anyway, email WAS fine, and I'd gone into probably far too much detail about the situation in the email so she didn't need to ask any further questions before agreeing that it sounded like returning the cat was the best thing to do. She gave me an appointment: I was lucky they had room so I could have an appointment just a couple of days later (it's a no-kill shelter, so sometimes there's a waiting list or even a long waiting list). She also had me print some forms to fill out about the cat's behavior, habits, litter/food, personality, etc. I filled out the forms right away, and I was glad because then over the next couple of days I kept thinking of things I wanted to add/modify.
She also asked me to bring in a copy of the medical history from the vet, which meant another call. I really agitated about that one (how to open that conversation? how to keep from choking up?), until I thought of the way to say/ask: I called and said that the cat would be going to another home, and so we'd like to send her records with her. That solved two things: (1) my reluctance to say "going back to the shelter" and (2) the difficulty of needing to inform the vet that they no longer needed to send appointment reminders. I think they could have rushed the forms if I'd needed them right away, but again I was glad I didn't wait until the last second: it was a Wednesday, and I said I needed them by Friday afternoon, and she said I could pick them up Thursday morning.
On Friday afternoon I left Henry with my mom. I wasn't sure if it might help to have a child along for company/distraction, or if it would be better not to have to deal with it. I think it would have gone okay either way, as long as I'd prepared him that I was likely to cry. But as it was, it was just me and the cat.
The shelter has a special entrance for drop-offs, and I got confused and went to the wrong one. Which was completely fine: someone just walked me through some interesting back hallways until I was at the right place. Then she asked if I'd already talked to someone, and I said who I'd talked to, and she paged that person---which was very nice, because then I didn't have to tell the story over again and she already knew what the scoop was.
When she arrived, she looked over the paperwork I'd filled out and asked a couple of questions, and then looked over the vet paperwork and asked when the last flea/tick treatment had been (I was glad I'd thought to check so I could answer, but I don't think it would have been a huge deal to have to call her later that afternoon with the information).
I had to sign a form giving up responsibility/rights to the cat. The fee for relinquishing the cat was $45, and there was a little sign suggesting that increasing this amount would help them with their costs. We periodically give donations to this shelter anyway, and the little sign helped with my anxiety that donating more would look like Guilt Money, so I went with $100. (Particularly easy since the last time I'd looked into this, many years ago when a stray found us, the fee for relinquishing was just over $100---so that's what I'd been expecting.)
The shelter worker was very positive and kind and matter-of-fact (non-disapproving) throughout: she said they had had a surprisingly active adoption month in January, but that the kittens wouldn't be cropping up until spring, so their cat area was quite depleted and she thought a nice cat like this one might get snapped right up. In fact she said she was eager to get her "out on the floor" (the cat could go right out because she was up to date on vaccinations and so forth; otherwise they can spend a month or more in quarantine), because the weekends were busy times for people coming to look at animals. She also said it was nice how the cat was purring and chin-rubbing inside the box, obviously unbothered by all the shelter smells and sounds.
She asked if I needed some time to say good-bye to the cat, and that's when I crumpled/choked (while shaking my head no: I made sure to do the final snuggle at home, based on good advice from the comments section on that first post). It was the right time for the tears, though: I hadn't wanted to be sobbing and speechless throughout, but if you imagine this event as taking place in a movie, we would EXPECT the actress to show some emotion at that point, so I wasn't too embarrassed, and in fact I hoped it helped accurately communicate that this wasn't some casual thing to us.
I'd brought her in the same cardboard carrier they gave us when we adopted her, so that was handy too: I could just leave the whole thing behind, and didn't have to remove her in order to get my carrier back.
The shelter worker let me dab my eyes for a minute, and then she said, "Okay, well then I'll get her settled in..." and I knew the official part was over and I could go. I had to walk weepily past several shelter employees outside, but again I wasn't much embarrassed: I'm sure they understand it when the person is leaving through the "Animal Intake" door.
When I got home, I checked the shelter's website, and they already had the cat's profile up. I posted the picture/link on my local Facebook account, hoping a friend or acquaintance would adopt her. The next morning, someone commented that the link didn't work---and I checked and the cat was already gone! I checked several times over the next few days, wondering if maybe they just took the profile down to edit it (they'd put back up the same one she had when we adopted her), but it stayed down.
So it looks like she only spent one night at the shelter, maybe not even one night! I like imagining her in her new house now, luxuriating in how there is no one leaping out to scare her, no one bothering her, no one policing the litter box, maybe several people who like to sit still and pet cats. Assuming she really DID go to a good new home (I have lingering anxiety about her going to another house where things aren't good for her, but that's out of my control so I try to suppress), this really was the right decision. It was a very hard and stressful decision, and the day I had to drop her off was pretty grim, and there were several episodes of last-second panicking, and there was some crying in the car on the way home---but after it was done (and especially after she was re-adopted so quickly), I felt much better, and also felt gladness for her that she wouldn't be suffering at our house anymore, and gladness for our other cats that they could settle down (they've been way happier), and relief that the decision and resulting actions were done with.
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