Saturday, July 30, 2016

Waiting for the cat to die

When I was a kid, swinging as high as I could go on my rope swing attached to the tree in the back yard, I would pump and pump until I could go no higher.  Then I would stop pumping and let the swing go back and forth, back and forth, in ever decreasing arcs, until it ever so slowly came to a stop.  We called this waiting for the cat to die*.

I had not thought of this phrase for many years until the last few days, nursing my old cat Dermot through his final days.  In May of 2015 the vet had diagnosed a hard cancerous tumor growing on his jaw.  The tumor was too invasive for any surgery; it would just grow back.  So we watched and waited, making sure he was not suffering.  The tumor began the size of a pea, progressed to the size of a peanut, then a walnut, then a lemon – it was unstoppable – but so was Dermot.

His behavior never changed.  He ate and slept and lounged out on the catio watching the birds in the sunlight and moths in the moonlight.  He had always been the cat who walked by himself, barely paying attention to any feline housemates.  He enjoyed a simple life – he came to me once in a while for scritches and showed up for every meal on time.  Sometimes in the morning I’d find him sleeping next to me.

Dermot (long-haired gray and white tuxedo) and his sister Siobhan (black and white short-haired cow cat) were born in a little farm house out in South Wales, across from my friends’ magical farm called Rivendell.  Their mother was also a long-haired tuxedo, as was their suspected father.  The farm house was full of cats and huge enthusiastic dogs with chickens pecking and clucking out on the lawn and a phalanx of militant geese guarding the perimeter.
The kittens sang the song of their people in the car all the way home, won over the border guards with their infinite cuteness, and settled into their new digs nicely.  Dermot was instantly friendly to me while Siobhan acted like I was torturing her every time I tried to pet her.  It took her almost three years before she transformed overnight into a complete cuddlebug.  They played together as kittens and then completely ignored each other as they grew older.

Dermot acquired many nicknames in his lifetime – Dermie Diamond Nose, Mister D, Big D, Big Fuzzy D, Dermie Doodle, Doodlebug, and my favorite – Fuzzy Butt.  His coat was magnificent, his toehawks were adorable, his tail was glorious (well, except for the time he got an abscess on the base of it and lost about two inches of fur so it ended up looking like a bottle brush - but I promised him I would not post any embarrassing photos on the Internet).  He groomed himself religiously.  He also left a trail of fine gray hairs wherever he went.  I expect I will be finding fluffy traces of him for many years to come.

My house is filled with kitty houses and cat beds and Dermot loved them all.  But his favorite places to sleep were inside cupboards – stashing away  laundry was always a trial because he would leap onto a pile of clean jeans or towels.  He even figured out how to get into the cupboard under the kitchen sink to lounge amongst the paper towels, sponges and candles.  I finally had to install a baby lock to keep him out.  One day I discovered a sweatshirt on the closet floor - he had pulled it down off the hanger and made himself a cozy bed.  Talk about a hair shirt!

The Hair Shirt
In his prime he weighed over twelve pounds; on the day he was diagnosed he had dropped down to ten pounds.  We knew he would eventually have difficulty eating and this is exactly what happened.  We switched from kibble to canned paté and when he finally had trouble with the paté, in the last month or so, paté and water were blended into a soupy slurry. Chicken and beef baby food, as well as a liquid supplement, were added to his menu.  Every time I came up with a new meal he could more easily consume he expressed great delight.  He never failed to show up on the bathroom counter for his meals.  But his fur was becoming matted and dry, and his weight continued to drop.  His once-magnificent ruff became scraggly and nearly disappeared.  He was practically a short-haired cat by the end.  And, as he had done for nearly fifteen years, he steadfastly refused to allow any attempts at grooming.

Until his last few days his behavior was completely normal.  One of his cutest tricks was to come to me and “sharpen” his claws on my pants leg – but he never unsheathed his claws while doing this – just huge soft paws going through the motions.  A truly gentle soul. He slept a lot, usually sprawled on the cool tile floor in the kitchen doorway and I had to be ever vigilant not to step on him or trip over him.  I still find myself watching out for him in that spot. It seems so odd that he is not there anymore.

The cool tile floor
It got to the point where I found myself expecting to find him dead on the floor in the mornings when I woke up or in the evenings when I returned from the shop.  I so hoped he could just slip away painlessly.  It was taking him longer and longer to consume lesser and lesser amounts of any kind of food.

Wednesday the 27th of July was a bad day for Facebook cats.  In one of my many cat groups a woman posted about the unexpected passing of her kitty Sweep and another member of the group responded by posting a poem for her, to cushion her sorrow.  I was at the shop, worrying about Dermot and looking for signs when I read this poem, called "May I Go Now?" by Susan A. Jackson.   Tears filled my eyes as I read this – it seemed to be Dermot speaking directly to me.  It was a sign. I phoned my vet, made that awful final appointment for my Doodlebug, and prepared to close up early.  Then another lady posted about the loss of her kitty Odessa.  Another sign.  I rushed home.

Dermot did not sing the song of his people during the short trip to the vet’s office, but he did murmur a few soft notes.  The exam room was ready with a soft fleece blanket on the stainless steel table and a tech gave him an injection of a sleeping potion.  He did not protest, just kind of sighed and curled into a ball.  I kept crooning to him, kissing him on his head, stroking his still-soft fur and offering reassurances. By the time the vet came in, he agreed that Dermot’s time had indeed come to leave our world.  My once-magnificent boy was gone to the Rainbow Bridge before the needle was removed from his leg.  He was at peace.

Dermot swung through his life in high arcs until one day he lost his momentum and finally began to slow at first imperceptibly and then more visibly.  He lived his life as he always had, enjoying the little things that a cat enjoys – sunlight and moonlight, soft beds and cool floors, a new cardboard box and plenty of food.  Rest in peace, dear lad.

Nothing beats a nice new box!
* The poem, Waitin' Fer The Cat to Die, was written by Hoosier poet James Whitcome  Riley, an old family favorite for his book "Rhymes of Childhood", which included one of his most famous poems Little Orfant Annie.