Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Good-Bye, Kitty

I've heard it said,“A grief shared is divided.” I have found that is not always the case.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been partial to Siamese cats. So when my friend, Cheri Balgaard told me that theirs had had kittens, and they wanted me to choose one, I was thrilled. These were not purebred cats with papers. They were pets—the mother a modest homebody who gave birth to her litter in the garage and the father, a carefree vagabond with who-knows-how-many illegitimate offspring populating the county. The kittens were mostly white, as all Siamese babies are, with the hint of colored points to come and brilliant sky-blue eyes.

These were growing years for our family when a pet was just expected to fit in without a lot of fanfare. Our two oldest were perched on the edge of adolescence, and only mildly interested in the new kitten. Our 7 year-old son was preoccupied with our two rambunctious German shepherd puppies who matched his own exuberance for life. But our youngest, just five, was completely smitten with the new docile infant. Stephanie toted Abbie around for hours like a living baby doll, dressing her in bonnets and bibs and cramming her into doll strollers and high chairs. I have never seen such a compliant cat, which not only submitted willingly, but actually sought out the doll crib for naps.

Abbie made several moves with us from the family farmhouse to the big city of Philadelphia and back again to the shores of Clear Lake in Minnesota. She took infrequent forays into the great outdoors, preferring the indoor climate, lying on the back of the couch, looking out the window. At night, she slept at the foot of our beds. She hardly ever talked except the one-syllable question, “Prrrrow?” when we would come upon her napping. But she communicated volumes with her eyes—quiet composure and dignity were her hallmarks.

When Abbie was four years old, we added a new member to our human family. Victoria learned to walk chasing after Abbie. One of her first words was “kitty.” Just at the time when Stephanie was getting busier with her life outside the family, Victoria was prepared to play all the same games with a cat that her sister was outgrowing. Out came the doll bonnets and newborn sleepers, and the dreaded doll stroller for another round of Playing House. She would carry Abbie around on her hip and Abbie would ride like a toddler, with her “arms” hanging onto this skinny little “mommy.” On several occasions, she was very nearly loved to death. Why this cat was so trusting was beyond me! My husband Ron often said, “If ever there was a cat worth it’s weight in gold, it’s Abbie.”

One day, when Victoria was about three I heard a crash and looked up from my computer to see my disheveled daughter run up the stairs yelling, “Did anyone see a wet cat run by here?” We found Abbie hiding under a bed, completely drenched in Soft Soap. That day, she got cleaned inside and out.

Abbie’s favorite treat was to lick the leftover milk at the bottom of cereal bowls. She always used her litter box, never climbed on the counters when anyone was looking, and felt embarrassed whenever she’d hock up the occasional hairball. She was affectionate without being demanding. She stared into space a lot, thinking deep thoughts, I’m sure. Even the arrival of a grandson three years ago did not ruffle her composure. A few times, Cohen dragged her off the couch by her tail, but she would always climb back up and rub her head against his chin in a loving and forgiving way. She didn’t run and hide, but seemed to welcome his attention, even when he got rough.

When Abbie started drinking a lot of water last summer, we brought her in for an exam. A simple blood test showed that Abbie had only 25% of her kidney function left—not uncommon for a cat of nearly 16 years. There is no treatment or cure for feline kidney disease. The vet told us what symptoms to watch for and gave us a prescription diet to feed our cat. We hoped for the best.

In September, we gave Victoria a new kitten for her 11th birthday. It was a Ragdoll she named Mimzy. The newcomer seemed to perk Abbie up a bit—if for no other reason than Abbie’s own self-preservation. Mimzy would attack Abbie’s tail, eat food that didn’t belong to her, stalk Abbie endlessly as the older cat tried to ignore her. But moments later we would see them snuggling together, cleaning each others' faces, both in full purr. It was a good decision.

Stephanie left for college in the fall but would come home weekends and look for her cat right away. Victoria burst in the door every afternoon from school and scooped Abbie up for a mutual hug. I, myself, was sick with a serious virus through much of the winter. I spent weeks at home, feverish on the couch, with Abbie for company. I noticed she slept a lot, sometimes in my lap, sometimes a companionable distance away on the back of the couch. Though she never got gray, she was looking old and moving slower.

Recently, Abbie began throwing up. She lost weight and seemed listless. I brought her in to the vet twice last week for IV treatments to regenerate the fluids she was losing through her poorly functioning kidneys. One night Ron saw her fall trying to jump to her place at the foot of our bed. He bent down and lifted her up himself. Yesterday, she fell trying to get into the litter box and I knew it was time. She was almost too weak to stand and had stopped eating.

I pulled Victoria out of school yesterday afternoon. She and I spent a couple of hours sitting on the couch, petting Abbie, talking and crying. Ron left work early and I picked out a soft fleece baby blanket to wrap Abbie in for her last car ride. She was quiet in the car, cradled in Victoria’s arms as the tears streamed down Victoria’s face on to her soft, dark head.

“Can cats cry?” Victoria asked me, her voice catching in her throat.

“I don’t think so, honey,” I replied. Then, tentatively, “Why?”

I turned and looked and it sure seemed as though a long wet tear was running down Abbie’s furry cheek. I took a Kleenex and wiped her face. We waited in the car while Ron went in to take care of the business side of our trip. He came to get us when the vet was ready. I carried the nearly weightless bundle in to the office, my throat all but closed with emotion. Victoria was openly weeping as the vet explained what she would do and asked if Victoria preferred to stay or go.

“I’ll go,” Victoria decided. She reached her arms out for Abbie and I gently transferred the cat to her. As I did, Abbie stretched out her “arms” and put one on either side of Victoria’s neck—the same way they’d hugged for years. Abbie looked right into Victoria’s eyes and rubbed her head against Victoria’s chin.

“Look how she loves you,” the vet said softly. Victoria showered Abbie with more kisses and tears before she handed her back to me and left the room with her Dad.

The kind veterinarian’s eyes were brimming with tears and her voice faltered as she spoke. “I know how hard this is for you. You don’t have just your own grief to deal with but your daughter’s too. I’m so sorry. Abbie’s had a long life—a good life. I can see how much she was loved.”

She helped me spread out Abbie’s blanket on the exam table and lay Abbie on her left side. Abbie was too weak to stand or even protest. The vet instructed me how to hold her and told me what she and her assistant would be doing and what to expect. I put my face right against Abbie’s, one hand wrapped in the plush fur along her neck, the other stroking her thin side. I didn’t watch as they inserted the needle into the vein. I talked to our kitty as soothingly as I could, adding my tears to Victoria’s on the already damp fur. In seconds, I felt Abbie totally relax. The vet took out her stethoscope and listened for a few moments. She looked at me and nodded. That’s when I fell apart. One moment, something is alive and breathing. The next—still and lifeless. I will never get over the sensation I feel when faced with that kind of finality. It is so other-worldly, so beyond my understanding.

Ron brought Victoria back in and the vet and her assistant left us to have a few moments with our friend. Abbie's body was warm and soft—so much like her still. I stroked her tiny ears and her tail that she no longer twitched away from me. We lifted her limp body up and swaddled it one last time in the baby blanket. Victoria and I kissed her soft head and we left. When the ground thaws, Ron will build a box and we’ll return for her body so we can bury her in the backyard by her favorite bush.

Grieving is such a personal experience. All of us feel and express sadness differently. Even though I felt much sadder because of my daughter’s grief yesterday, I am glad we shared it together. We spent a lot of time talking about life and death, about appreciating what we have in our lives while we have it and not taking anything for granted. I told Victoria I was proud of her for being willing to face her own sadness to bring comfort to her kitty. It is a lesson adults struggle with; not being too proud to cry, not being too afraid of emotion to express it. Victoria did the hard thing. She did the brave thing.
How we do our children a disservice to shelter them from the harsh realities of life! Our culture protects people—especially children—from suffering and death and then we somehow expect them to grow into empathetic, compassionate adults. It’s great if you want to get your child that new kitten or puppy! But let pet ownership be a lesson about life: Life is a package of happy and sad, pleasure and responsibility, laughter and tears. Life is not all about the Fun Hellos. It is also about the Sad Good-byes. And you can begin to learn this from something as simple as a cat.



    Oh, she really was an angel-kitty, wasn't she? Remember how she spent all her early kitten days being carried around in Jake's big German Shepherd mouth?

    Oh, what a sad thing, to lose a dear pet. You will miss her around the house on a daily basis. I'm sad that I won't get to see her anymore... or pet her satiny little ears... She had such tiny ears!

    But isn't it so true that life is a mixed-bag? The only way to never experience loss or heartache is to never love anyone or anything. So, here's to joy... with the inevitable sadness.

  2. This brings back memories of my kitty, Shalheh, that I had for almost 19 years. She's been gone for 6 years now and I still miss her even though we now have TWO cats and a dog. All three could never replace her. It's hard to say goodbye to a pet. They are always there to give comfort, only asking for some dry cat food in return. I know you miss Abby. She was a very good little bitty cat. I've been thinking of you guys.

  3. Oooh Abby.... :*( I'm sad I wasn't there to sniff her soft, soft head one last time. What a PERFECT cat. She was the best kitty. Everyone liked her. Even people who didn't like cats. Just our little tea cup kitty.

  4. I smelled her head for you...and rubbed her itty bitty ears, too. You were always her favorite.

  5. Dawn---I don't even like cats (I know, I'm a terrible person) and this post made me cry.
    You are a gifted writer.
    Praying for sunnier days ahead for you...

  6. you were right dawn, i coudn't get through this one without a tissue.

    wonderfully written as always...i walked down memory lane with you in every word. dear abby deserved a family as great as yours to be a favorite part of.

    what a special pet and how her memory will be with you forever even though she is indeed gone. loving, but eventually needing to say goodbye, is much better than never having the privilege of knowing at all.

    may you, the lunch lady, keep ruminating forever!!