Tribute to a Tabby

“Would you like a free sample of kitten food?” the receptionist asked.
“Nah, I don’t have any kittens.”
“Would you like one?”

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So, that day, having gone to the veterinarian with one cat, I ended up going home with two. The newcomer was a sweet little “dilute orange” (i.e., blonde) tabby I named Bender. No, not for the robot character in “Futurama.” My guy was born with a bent tail – its last inch folded in on itself twice, almost like a curly-cue. As a result his tail was stiff, not graceful and fluid. When he got mad – which wasn’t often – and flapped his tail, it was like getting hit with a fuzzy mace. Whap, whap.

He was a bit awkward as a kitten with his long legs, but he grew into them, and into the most calm, mellow cat I’ve ever shared a home with. We did hit a rough patch a couple years later when I introduced Paco to the household. (Another day that I went to the vet with one cat and came home with two.) For the first three days I thought Bender was going to kill the 9 week old kitten – the way he stalked and hunted him while Paco explored his new home. But suddenly Bender turned into “Mr. Mom” and took over raising the newcomer the way that Annie had raised him. (Annie was still with us at the time, but was elderly and not up to her usual role as matriarch.)

Even after Paco grew twice his size (and took over as “alpha kitty”), Bender remained his sweet self, with an inquisitive “mmmrrrmmph” noise that he made – he never really meowed. He followed me around the house, especially on weekends, wanting to be near me. He loved to sleep on my legs, using my feet as a pillow. And he always responded when I talked to him, whether I was calling him “Boo” “Boo-Boo” “Boo-meister” or “Bender.” Most often it was “Boo” (not an uncommon nickname for cats, right? How many of you call your cats “Boo?”) I’m not sure if my friends know the exact origins of his nickname: Legally Blonde. Yes, that Reese Witherspoon movie. The asshole boyfriend called Elle Woods “Poo-Bear.” I thought it was cute, so I started calling Bender “Poo-Bear”, but after a bit, because his name began with a “B” it seemed more fitting to change it to Boo-Bear. Toward the end, I mostly called him “my sweet little old man.”

He had medical issues which required daily medication; he even had his own asthma inhaler, complete with an infant mask to fit over his nose and mouth. Scarier were the seizures he began suffering when he was about 8. (The vets could find no physical reason for them so classified it as “epilepsy” – an exclusionary diagnosis.) I’ll never forget the first one I witnessed: one second he was standing next to me, the next he was on his back, all four legs in the air, flailing about, twisting, whipping back and forth, as if his body didn’t know which was up and which was down. Even after he managed to get on his feet, the back half of his body continued to dance around for several more seconds. He watched it quizzically, until it stopped, then ran and hid for an hour.

That meant a quarter pill of phenobarbital twice a day for the rest of his life. Sometimes the money got to be a bit much (ever buy an asthma inhaler that’s not covered by your medical insurance?), but I didn’t mind. Those were our special moments each day as I took him aside to administer his meds.

As he got older, he developed arthritis (like a lot of us!) Boy, did he walk really slowly. For the past year or so instead of waiting for him to respond to mealtime, I had been carrying him into the kitchen. Inconvenient? Yeah, sure. But I enjoyed it. The last couple of months I had even begun talking to him en route, telling him what a pleasure it was to carry him to his food dish, and how glad I would be to do it as long as he needed me to.

I wish I was still doing it. Like I wish he was still sitting on the back of the chair behind me, with his feet touching me. (When he wanted attention, he would tap me on the shoulder.) Paco sits there now, lonely, and sad that he has become an only cat.

As scary as his seizures were, they didn’t quite prepare me for Sunday, January 12th. He was sleeping on the ottoman while I was taking care of the laundry. I’m not sure what made me turn around (maybe he made a noise), but he was crouching, leaning to the right, his mouth opening and closing several times. My first thought was “oh, god, is this it?” (Somehow I recognized it as the event that would end his life.) But then, it was over, he vomited a little, and then just lay there looking exhausted and drained. It was mid-afternoon, too late to take him to the regular vet. And I didn’t want to take him to an emergency vet. Not that they wouldn’t have done their best, but I’ve already had one cat (Marian) die in a strange, unknown, vet clinic, tended by veterinarians she’d never seen before. I thought, that if this was the end, I’d rather he go quietly at home with me.

For the rest of the day he slept. Paco cuddled with him for most of the time. (As two old men cats, they’d made their peace – mostly – and become cuddle buddies.) At night, I carried him to bed, and managed to stay awake off and on, checking on him periodically. I don’t think he moved the whole night. I was pleased to see him looking a little brighter the next day, seeming to bounce back a bit, but he wanted no food and or medicine. He’d wobble his way to the litter box every now and then, but mostly slept. I still expected that he might pass some time that day, but he hung on.

I wasn’t too successful at staying awake Monday night and so was dismayed to not find him still sleeping next to me when I woke up Tuesday morning. He’d somehow made his way to the bathroom and was hiding behind the toilet. (The only time he got cranky with me, and growled, was when I pulled him out.) I certainly didn’t want him to die in such an undignified place. It was clear to me that Monday’s “bounce” was a false hope. I knew Tuesday the 14th would be his last day.

Gradually he lost his ability to walk more than a few steps before his legs locked up, causing him to fall over. But he stopped even trying by lunch time. So I wrapped him in a towel, and held him. We sat that way for a few hours, his warmth against my chest comforting me. Even though I was sad, contemplating that this would probably be the last time I held him, all I felt was love. If we could’ve stayed that way forever, I would’ve been happy. I did not want to get up from that chair.

But as the afternoon waned, I began to worry. Worry that I couldn’t stay awake and that he would die while I was sleeping. I couldn’t stand the thought of him dying alone. Broadway Pet Hospital, our vet clinic – with staff who had cared for him his whole life – would be closing in only 3 hours. I knew I that I had to make that call, and let him go with as much dignity as possible. I put on my shoes, told Paco to say goodbye to his brother, and took him away for the last time.

The veterinarian agreed that he was ready. She was very kind, very professional, informing me of each step. (They always administered a sedative to calm the animal before the final injection.) They gave me some time before and after, of course. What I will always remember is how he purred from the moment I took him out of the carrier to hold him until the sedative was given. I know it’s common for sick cats to purr – it’s self-soothing for them in times of stress – but he looked up at me the whole time, and four or five times, he reached up with one paw to touch my face. He was saying goodbye.

Of all my cats, Bender’s death was the most peaceful (the “best” if it’s not too odd to use that term for a loved one dying). I miss those special moments that were his. I miss his little non-meow. But it was the right time for him, and I’ve come to accept it more quickly than the others. Like the others, he is still nearby – his ashes in a small wooden box that sits next to those holding his sisters’ ashes. I still feel his love.

Friendship, fear, death…and confessions

What do you say to a friend who is afraid to die? Even now, six months later, I still don’t know what to say.

VirgHer name was Virginia. She was 92. And she died this spring, a frail, withered shell of the woman she used to be. Her hearing was almost gone, and her memory was failing her. She could not walk without assistance and she had great difficulty swallowing (common in the elderly, I’m told). And even though her eyes were pale and rheumy, the fear was plain in them when she asked, “What’s going to happen to me?”

Other than some platitude about what good care the staff showed in their care of her (at her nursing home), I had nothing to offer. I don’t know the answer.

Her life was good, but not perfect. It was stereotypical in some ways in that her husband had passed away years before her, yet they had had a daughter who would continue their family line with her own son. But in other ways, Virginia took stereotypes and stomped them in the ground. Prior to World War II, she boarded a bus – alone – in her native Minnesota in order to join her older sister in California. She would live in various places, and she would serve as a Navy WAVE during the war and, later, as a Grey Lady at Letterman Hospital during the Korean War. She did not marry until the age of 31 – rare for women of her time and, not to mention, having a child at that age. Through it all, she worked at various jobs until I met her in the 1990s when we were both secretaries.

She taught me how to do cross-stitch. I took her to a Billy Joel concert for her…78th (I think) birthday. And…she entrusted me with her beloved tabby, Fluffy, when she felt she could no longer adequately care for the cat. To this day, I am undecided whether or not I betrayed that trust by lying to Virginia. For this is my confession: Fluffy died on December 17, 2004, not in December 2005. Some friends already know this and they tell me I did the right thing because, in December of 2004, Virginia was recovering from a hip replacement and subsequent pneumonia. She was in terrible shape, physically, emotionally, mentally. I could not tell her that Fluffy had cancer and was going to die soon. Fortunately, I had several pictures of the cat – so I could continue the lie – and gently worked my way up to Fluffy passing away the following December (I kept it the week before Christmas so I could keep the lie straight).

Fluffy

I took this picture of Fluffy with me to Virginia’s memorial service. I hope that Fluffy is with her now, and I hope Virginia forgives me. Most of all, I hope she is no longer afraid.

But instead of crying, I try to remember the laughter that Virginia could elicit with her sharp wit, even when it was aimed at me. She turned 80 just a few months after I turned 40. So when I called her to wish her happy birthday, I said “Hey, I’m half your age now!” Without missing a beat, she replied, “Well, thank God for that, I thought you’d never make it this far!”