Trying To Outlive Our Felines

We all lose cats, but that shouldn’t stop us from loving more of them

Cousin Zinn, Prince of All He Surveys. Photo credit: Matrika, our daughter and his mother

We are going to lose our wonderful little tuxedo twins soon. Sad? Not too much. They’re not dying — they’re just going to move away with our adult son.

It’s a personal dilemma. I’ve fallen in love with Bella, and Mal wants to cuddle with my spouse on the couch all the time. But our son needs to go. He is almost 35, and our apartment isn’t really big enough for all of us.

The felines’ inevitable departure has brought back grief for our past pets. From 1990 to as recently as three years ago, we’ve suffered the loss of some very beloved cats.

There are those who would say: “They’re just cats.” Um, no because they all were a part of my heart. Death being what it is, I was bound to grieve. The shorter lives of felines has meant that I’ve easily outlived them all.

Meanwhile, the feline rescue application warned us to have someone promise to adopt our kittens in the case of our leaving them orphans. Geez.

Our October surprise

Our very first was a barn cat from rural Sheboygan, Wis. She was gray and white, not orange, but we named her Pumpkin because we found her in the noted season of such gourds.

I held her in my arms, as I did almost every night, when, some 17 years later, the vet administered the drugs to end her breathing and heartbeat.

The decision to euthanize her was made to save her from any more suffering from tongue cancer. We had tried surgery, even without much hope, because I wasn’t ready to let go. A few months later, the cancerous tumor reappeared, which began the breaking of my heart. She would beg for me, with plaintive mews, to feed her wet food, only to be unable to eat it.

So, following the wisdom of animal lovers from time immemorial, we gave her release. I cried as I held her and now 30 years later, her loss still brings tears to my eyes.

The girl who was a boy

One cat seemed to be enough when we moved to Indianapolis a few years later. But then we got a big house in a working-class neighborhood where mice and feline predators abound. And one morning, as we headed to our garage, we found an adult, black-and-white cat who greeted us by begging for food in a loud voice. Being the fool I am, of course, I fed the busker.

I lacked the skill for feline gender identification, but instead asked “What’s the story, Morning Glory?” any time she appeared at our back steps. The only thing is, when we finally decided to formally “adopt” at the first vet visit, we were told this cat wasn’t female but a neutered male. And we had nonchalantly given him a feminine-sounding name. To save him from any further embarrassment, we immediately renamed him M.G.

He came with us when we moved that year to New Hampshire where, because ours remained indoor/outdoor cats, he wandered at will. He had woods in the back and a fairly safe street in front to cross as he wished.

The last time I saw M.G., he was sitting on our front walkway in the warm sun grooming himself. Up until that point he had never been absent for more than a few hours. So when he didn’t show back up by nightfall, I began to worry.

We did the ‘Lost Cat’ posts and flyers. We canvassed the neighborhood. I trudged back and forth in the woods. He was simply gone, probably prey to some bigger, more aggressive predator.

I cried at his loss. From then on, we had only indoor cats.

The sneaky little hider

Having not yet realized what it would mean to have a group of indoor cats, my spouse and I decided to give our young daughter and son a kitten for Christmas one year.

We bought a male from a true cat-lady a block or so away who had a bunch of black kittens running around. Trying to keep the gift a surprise, on Christmas Eve we asked our dear friend, Dudley Weider, to keep the kitten in his kitchen overnight.

On Christmas morning, when we arrived to pick up the little ball of black fur, our friend breathed a huge sigh of relief. The night before, even with the kitchen closed off, our new troublemaker disappeared. Dud looked everywhere and no kitten. He finally pulled all the boots and shoes from the mudroom closet to discover, hidden there, our Christmas gift curled up in a back corner.

Coal — this time we tried a more logical name — won the kids’ hearts immediately and became one of us.

So it will come as no surprise that when Coaly died without warning one night in our bedroom, I was devastated. I was in my 70s already, but reacted like an elementary kid. I wanted to bury him next to Pumpkin that very night.

Heartbroken as my spouse was, she nonetheless understood my “losing it.” She got a towel to wrap him in, found the shovel from the garage, knelt with me next to Pumpkin’s grave, and helped me dig. I was blinded by emotions out there in the dark and actually kept holding him to make sure he was dead.

My extreme meltdown may have been because he was the only cat to die in our home. Or his death may have been layered with past grief. All I really know is that it was a truly horrible experience.

The feline that came to be called “Sorske”

Our final (so far, I say with tongue in cheek) was a great striped tabby named Eeyore. Hardly any cat is called by its given name — something you who entertain felines will already know. So, by an odd, circuitous route, Eeyore’s most common moniker became “Sorske.”

Sorske lived a great life, loved by the four of us with abandon. We fed him too much, which, along with his breed’s DNA, made him fat.

He also seemed to have financial partnerships with various vets over the years. A quick estimate is about $5,000 at our New Hampshire vet alone. We always took our cats in for checkups and vaccines, but Eeyore demanded more.

Early on we found tiny, benign but replicating skin tags inside his ears. Diagnosis called for biopsies and blood tests. Treatment meant expensive salves for us to Q-Tip in every day and constant follow-up exams. They finally went away, and we settled into a false sense of relief.

Then came the tumors on his thyroid gland. Untreated, they were life-threatening. There was a treatment, but the cost was a staggering $2,000.

It required him to be an in-patient at a special clinic an hour away. There he was caged for a week-long visit. His “cell” did have an online webcam for us to see him still alive, but the thrill of that quickly diminished overnight when all we saw was Sorske sitting alone, watching the techs walk around.

The treatment consisted of daily injections with a radioactive substance invented to go straight to the thyroid. It was designed to kill the tumors but not damage the gland or surrounding tissue. It worked, but we were given a warning list for home care. Written to scare us into compliance, we even had to worry about radioactive feces.

In his last months, Eeyore moved with us from New Hampshire to Minnesota. In the Twin Cities, he lived out his days in happiness and peace. We cried when he was put to sleep. We knew it was merciful because he was limping and unable to jump, and his breathing was getting more difficult by the day. But it still broke off another piece of our hearts

Age is just a number? Phooey!

Mal and Bella (The Girls, as we call them) are young and spry so I hardly ever ponder their demise. But they have a 14-year-old cousin in DC named after the well-known teacher, author, and activist Howard Zinn. Our daughter lives alone with him, and he wanders about their apartment from one favorite spot to another all day.

“Zinnster,” my chosen nickname for him, often puts a paw on his human’s leg as if to say “Hey, I’m down here. Pick me up.” And as endearing as that might be, when unexpected at that moment, it makes his mother jump.

The worrier that I am, I keep thinking of his advancing years. I seem to remember 12 each time, and our daughter reminds me it’s 14. He goes to the vet regularly and comes out with a perfect report, so it is absurd to have any sense of doom. But worry is hardly ever logical.

Why do cats have to die?

Our family loves cats. The ones that live with us get the royal treatment. We envelop their spirits into ours. Thus our very hearts are a little more broken each time one dies. We may be anthropomorphizing way too much, but so be it.

It is said about the great cat-man artist, Louis Wain, that he cried for a whole year when his dearest feline companion, Peter, died. For us, that doesn’t seem the least bit far-fetched. In fact, we can identify.

When we philosophize about death or simply note the ages in obituaries, it is once again clear that all creatures, great and small, die. It should be, let it be, a push for us to consciously live now, in love with each other every day we are given.

Grieving for ourselves

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

The first time I had general anesthesia for surgery, I was sure I was going to die. I looked for my life insurance information, began to compose in my head final letters to my family, dug around in my clutter to discard embarrassing items(!), and gave last cuddles to our cats.

OK, so I didn’t die, then. I am now eighty years old and have elected to have another serious surgery. An excellent doctor assures me that it will seriously improve my quality of life. So in my quest to live until my spouse’s student loans are paid off (That long? Why yes), I am going to put my life into the hands of another anesthesiologist.

I have no desire, right now, to go through all that end-of-life rigmarole that I did the first time. It does, however, cause me to ponder how many of us face the ultimate event.

Jeopardy host, Alex Trebek, is dealing with pancreatic cancer. In a personal comment recently, he talked about it in this way:

Hey guys. I’m 79-years-old. I’ve had one hell of a good life. And I’ve enjoyed it … the thought of passing on doesn’t frighten me, it doesn’t. Other things do, the affect it will have on my loved ones … it makes me sad. But the thought of myself moving on, hey folks, it comes with the territory.”

Trebek expresses the same sentiment that my father did decades ago and an approach that resonates with my experience as well. Dying itself, unimaginable, at any rate, isn’t nearly as concerning as how my death will affect my loved ones.

Ira Byock, M.D., in his book, The Four Things That Matter Most, gives us some simple, but profound suggestions about how to prepare. Be ready to talk with those closest to you, whether expressing or listening, and use these four basic statements to shape the conversation:

“Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”

I call this “grieving for ourselves.” I don’t know if that is how you perceive it but, for me, it makes all this less frightening. It also helps me with my determination to let anxiety go, at every step of the way.

%d bloggers like this: