Friday, May 31, 2013

Goodbye, little friend

Allie Cat
(This blog temporarily coming out of retirement because I wanted to write about this.)

Even though our ancient cat, Allie, had been in declining health for more than a year, I was shockingly unprepared for the moment I found her sprawled unnaturally on the bathroom rug -- weak, head-bobbing and meekly meowing. This fierce little cat seemed suddenly broken and fragile.

I pretty much went into a state of barely directed panic. Dashing up and down the hallway, trying to reach my wife, Karen, on the phone, searching for the spare car keys, practically re-learning the Google search function to find the number of the vet and then calling their voicemail three times so I could accurately record the number of the pet ER they recommended.

I collected up her numerous medications, got her into her carrier and tore off into the night, not even sure she would make it the mile to the hospital.


I came into Allie's life almost four years ago, when Karen and I began dating. I'll never forget the impression I had in those early days coming over to the house. Karen would be scrunched up on a two-cushion love seat while the cat enjoyed the full-sized couch all to herself. It was her favorite spot. Back to the wall, facing the door, right-hand cushion. King of the Castle.

Defending her territory.

She was not what you'd call a gregarious cat, if there is such a thing. Far from it. She was hostile to everyone but her owner. Her disposition was attributed either to the fact that she was born feral or to an indeterminate illness in her kittenhood.

Either way, she was one hard cat. Nobody cracked her. Not Karen's parents, her cat-owning sister, not even a longtime roommate. So I took this on as a special challenge. I was determined to win this cat over.

I started right away on my goodwill tour. Every time I saw her I tried to pet her. And every time she reacted the same way, as she did for everyone but Karen: with a furious hiss, followed quickly (if I persisted) with swatting, scratching, then biting.

After a while, I switched tactics. I decided to give her the cold shoulder. My elusiveness would render me irresistible. But her withering stare was unchanged, and I eventually broke down and reached out to her, only to get the same response I got before.

The withering stare.

Then, without a particular strategy in mind, I just started playing with her. She would hide out under an upholstered chair and I would wave this wand with a bell or catnip toy at the end back and forth across the carpet and her little cotton-white paws would shoot out and bat it, grab it, pull it in. We'd carry on like that for 20 or 30 minutes until she got tired. I'm proud to say that she was usually the one who got bored first -- I'd play as long as she was up for it.

Eventually that became our thing. As soon as I walked in the door, she'd run straight under the chair, waiting for me to start the game. That went on for quite some time. Karen would also let me feed Allie her favorite treat -- baby food (yup, human baby food) -- off a spoon or even the end of my finger.

The cat was no purist when it came to principle. She hated me, but she'd deign to take baby food from me.

Over time it got to where I could actually get several pets in before she struck out. Progress!


The real change came when I moved in. Which was also -- wholly coincidentally, I'm sure -- about the time she started to get sick. First it was liver cancer, which was actually fairly easily managed with a host of meds, and later on, kidney disease, which turned out to be more serious.

But either way I was clearly there to stay. I began sharing in the feeding duties and even helped administer her medications. I'll never know whether her increasing tolerance of me was related to her flagging energy levels or my stepped-up role in her life (I even scooped her litterbox), but the fact remains that over time we became closer.

She let me sit on the same couch, she let me pet her, and finally, finally, it got to where I could pick her up and hold her, carrying her around the house over my shoulder, giving her a tour of the high places she could no longer reach. When Karen's family came to visit they were floored by the breakthrough.


The cat became my reluctant companion. We were both around the house during the day, so we had plenty of time to develop our own routine. When I came out into the living room each morning, she'd get up from her spot on the couch to go wait by her bowl and I'd sit in the warm spot she left. Then I'd surrender it back to her at breakfast.

Sometimes she'd sit in the window next to my workspace, or call out to me over her shoulder as she trotted down the hall to the back of the house -- this was her signal to be let outside on the deck to loll in the sun and munch on the grass that Karen grew for her.

I want to be left alone.
She had a pretty accurate internal clock and would perk up whenever it was feeding or treat time. And by the end as she got sicker, we spoiled her rotten, giving her table scraps and any human food she would eat. At this point it was not about long-term nutrition but short-term calories to keep her going.

Allie never seemed to be in pain. She just slowed down. Her jumping ability was affected. She didn't play very much. And Karen definitely noticed a difference -- the cat just wasn't as affectionate.


Last good photo.
The morning we left for a short four-day vacation, Allie seemed a little more "off" than usual. I said that she knew we were going away. Karen noticed she was clingier that morning, following her around from room to room like in the old days. The picture above was the last photo I snapped of her healthy, just a few minutes before we left the house. On Facebook I captioned it, "How can I leave this behind? So sad to leave the cat when she's illing."

Whenever we went out of town we had a decision to make. Do we board her at the vet's where she's sure to get all her medications and any emergency care necessary? Or do we save her the stress of being in a cage away from home, and take our chances with the sitter? It's a dilemma we always fretted over.


I came home alone that Sunday night (Karen moved on from our vacation to a business trip) and I knew something was wrong the moment I got in the door. Allie wasn't in her usual spot on the couch or in her secondary location, the kitchen.

When I found her on the rug, she was barely the cat I knew. She seemed so fragile. Her head was bobbing and she couldn't seem to focus her eyes. While I was on the phone with the ER, she tried to get to her feet and fell over and I cried out in shock and they told me to bring her in right away.

The ER vet said he wanted to run some tests and give her fluids to stabilize her. He gave me the option of taking her home or leaving her there overnight. I didn't know what to do -- I still couldn't reach Karen -- and he said if it were his cat he'd want her there where she could be monitored and I immediately agreed.

They got her in a cage and put a tube in her to give her fluids and I went in to say goodnight and pet her, wondering if she'd make it to the morning.


On a prior trip to the vet.
When I got home I finally reached Karen and I had to tell her what was going on. We sat on the phone and Facetime for nearly an hour, freaked out and sad together.

We determined that Karen would call Allie's regular vet in the morning and I would transport her up there. Karen arranged to cut short her business trip and come home a day early, the next night around 11. Which she felt silly for doing, but everyone understood. She'd had this cat for 17 years, after all. We just needed her to hang on for another 24 hours.

Neither of us got much sleep that night.


In the morning when I sprung Allie, she looked more stable, but was still exhibiting the unsettling symptoms from the night before. I got her up to her regular vet and we got Karen on the phone and the doctor told us the story: that Allie had probably had a stroke, her kidney numbers were sky high, and she could go anytime. And as she broached the subject of letting her go, the doctor actually choked up, which really hit me.

This is the vet you call when your pet is in advanced stages of sickness. She was responsible for extending Allie's life a full year, and not with any crazy heroic measures -- just medication, without which Allie would have been gone within six weeks of her diagnosis.

In any case, this vet, who has surely seen it all, couldn't help becoming emotional in that moment and we'd like to think that Allie's very distinct "personality" maybe touched her in some way.

So our best hope was for Allie to hold on, resting comfortably until Karen and I could get there in the middle of the night to say goodbye.

I went home to try to get some work done and it occurred to me that Allie was up there in Skokie in a little cage, away from home and the people she knows and I realized I should have brought something familiar for her -- a towel or a toy. So I grabbed a couple of her favorite things -- a catnip banana and a little fabric Spiderman -- and went back up to Skokie.

Arriving at the front desk I could barely get the words out and they let me go back and see Allie. She looked comfortable in her little cage, with a heated blanket and towels. I petted her again and gave her her toys. I had no idea where her senses were at that point, but I thought maybe a familiar smell or feel might give her some comfort. And then I went back home to wait for Karen's flight to come in.


Her plane was a little delayed, so we arrived at the vet after midnight to do the terrible deed. One of the techs came out and showed me a couple of pictures she'd taken of Allie resting her head on her Spiderman toy, which right then I felt was the greatest humanitarian gesture since Oskar Schindler's list. I was so grateful.

Her last day.

We spent almost an hour with the cat, petting her and talking to her. The vet who was working that night was incredibly compassionate and explained everything that would happen. Karen held the cat and I held Karen and then it was over.

We made the drive home to our empty house and got to sleep sometime after 2.


The hardest part of dealing with a pet's illness or death is not being able to understand what they're going through and not being able to communicate to them what's going on. That's a lot of not knowing. And a lot of guilt comes with that.

But I'm comforted by two things. That morning at the vet with Karen on the line, I explained to the doctor our dilemma -- whether to board the cat or keep her in her familiar surroundings with a sitter -- and I tried to ask whether that had anything to do with this, her not having proper medical care when it counted. I choked on the words but she understood immediately and assured us that that had nothing to do with it. It was just one of those things.

The other assurance came when I picked Allie up from the ER. I was much calmer than the night before and I felt compelled to explain to the young woman at the desk that I was kind of a mess because it was my wife's cat, and we just got married, and she wasn't there. And the girl said that I did everything right, and that I was a good husband.

And that, I guess, is all you can expect in the end. It's selfish but it's human -- you want to know you did the right thing, that you did your best for this little helpless being whose life you literally hold in your hands. And that in her last moments, maybe she understood she was loved.


She liked sitting on luggage.
It's been a few weeks now but the house still seems awfully quiet without Allie. I keep catching glances of her out of the corner of my eye, realizing it's just a pillow or blanket. Whenever I go into the kitchen I unconsciously expect her to follow me in as she always did, waiting for a handout.

The little spaces where her bowls and her litterbox used to be seem cavernously empty. This weekend Karen pulled out the couches to do a big cleaning and found a long-lost catnip mouse and two of her favorite toys -- a plastic milk ring and a twist tie from a loaf of bread.

And fur. Lots and lots of fur. We elected not to keep her remains, and kind of regretted it. But now we have this bit of her fur and when we get a new house we're going to plant a tree in the back yard and bury some of it there. It sounds silly, but it's what I feel. What we feel.

And no doubt what I feel is a fraction of what Karen's going through, losing her devoted friend of 17 years.

Allie was stingy with her love, but every bit she had to give she gave to Karen. I was just lucky enough to collect the runoff.

Goodbye, little meatball.

Catching rays.


Lena H. said...

i couldn't help but burst into tears while reading about your wonderful cat, Allie. My cat who only just turned one is ill and the thought of not having him with me anymore is unbearable, I'm sorry you had to go through this loss, the lady at the desk was right. You did all the right things.

Rob Biesenbach said...

Thank you so much, Lena! It's a reminder to us all to treasure every moment. I hope your cat gets better!

Miranda Hoefer said...

This story is amazing. I cried a lot just reading this. The picture of your cat is almost identical to mine at home. His name is Boo, he just turned 8 this March. I can't imagine the feelings you guys experience though this moment in your lives. I know it was over a year ago, but I'm sorry for your loss.

Rob Biesenbach said...

Thank you, Miranda. Yes, we just observed the one-year anniversary. Eight years -- sounds like you have lots of time left. Treasure it!