If you’re not interested in cats, or at least in pets, I suggest you stop reading now.
As some of you know, I’m a cat person. In my entire life, I think I’ve been sans feline company for a total of about three months. I’m the kind of person that while I’m walking along the street, cats will trot out to greet me. On occasion, they’ve sought me out when in need and I’ve rescued a few from short brutish feral lives.
I’ve also suffered some feline losses the last few years, as age or illness has taken its toll. Moon passed away in my arms at twenty-one-and-a-half. Charlie died rather unexpectedly of cancer when he was only ten. That’s left me with Skye, the last of my Peterborough brood, who for a couple of years was a single cat. He’s now twenty, blind and requires additional nursing, but he’s a happy boy, full of purrs and cuddles and with a hearty appetite that rarely fails him.
About a year ago, with the aid of my friend Lorena (a very serious and talented cat person), we rescued a cat who, through an unfortunate series of circumstances, had been left alone in the apartment across the hall from me. Dashiell, as she came to be known, was a lovely little cat, who was unfortunately easily frightened and consequently sometimes responded aggressively. (And yes, she was named for Dashiell Hammett, who’d also seen some of the darker side of humanity, but successfully turned it into something creative.) Things between Dash and Skye never really settled down. She teased him and he got upset. Over time, her behaviour was starting to tell on him, wearing him down. I thought Skye was on his way out. I had friends stopping by to check on him whenever I had to be away for a whole day. Then my household underwent an unexpected tragedy that has bloomed into a very positive outcome.
About a month and a half ago, I came home late one afternoon. Dashiell hesitated, but she did come and greet me, jumping onto the piano to say hello. I still didn’t have my jacket off, when she let out two very loud, pained screams, swooned, lost her balance and fell to the floor, where she continued to cry out, writhing in pain. I was shocked. I didn’t know what was happening, what to do. Then she stopped. There were a few twitches of whiskers. Then stillness. I felt, I listened. There was no heartbeat, no breathing. It seemed utterly impossible. This was an active seven year old cat, who’d been fine only a few seconds earlier and now she was dead.
Rarely have I felt at such a loss. I didn’t understand what had just happened and didn’t know what to do. I was conscious that I was in a state of shock and needed to do something. Reality check. I phoned two friends, left two messages. Sat with Dashiell’s body, waited for the phone to ring. Lorena called back first. In recollection, the message I left her was essentially a demand to tell me what the hell had just happened. Fortunately, she recognized that shock makes people say odd things, or perhaps reveals more primal traits. I needed an intellectual understanding of the event and she was able to supply that. She checked a few details and then told me it sounded like a heart attack. Apparently some cats have congenital heart problems and tend to die early from them… kind of like some people. Somehow having a rational explanation helped. My other friend, also a cat person, called back and explained he’d had a couple of cats go the same way. The sense that I was in The Twilight Zone was fading through a combination of rational understanding and caring conversation.
Although I’ve experienced a few sudden human and feline deaths, because they’re so out of the blue, there’s no expectation, no mental preparedness. There are substantial heapings of shock, anger and guilt to be gotten through before one can even begin to approach grief. When I can see death approaching, somehow it feels more natural, it’s easier to slide into grief. But as Neil Gaimen so aptly stated in the character of Death from The Sandman comics, “You get what everyone gets. You get a lifetime.” And that might be a second or it might be a century. Then you’re off to wherever… Heaven, the ether, Summerland. Somewhere light and safe and loving.
As with her namesake, Dashiell died during late middle age. Although I miss Dash and am sorry that her life was so short, there was an odd sort of completion to her death. She died the day the apartment across the hall was finally reoccupied.
The unexpected upside of Dashiell’s demise has been twofold. Firstly, Skye rallied. He’s rallied like I didn’t think possible! He’s more active, eating voraciously, has gained back the weight he’d lost and his fur’s looking better again. In short, he’s a happier guy because he’s not being harassed.
The second unexpected event took place about a week and a half ago. I got an e-mail from Lorena describing the circumstances of a cat she’d rescued. This cat had obviously been well loved until recently, when his owner was taken to hospital by ambulance, seemingly never to return. The landlord had emptied the apartment of everything including the cat, who’d been out on the street for three weeks and was having a rough go of it. Some of the neighbours were feeding him, but having not been raised feral, he was used to a much easier, less competitive lifestyle. Lorena had taken him home, where he was settling in, but was a little uneasy with her clowder of cats.
Without much coaxing, I adopted him, with the proviso that Skye would also have to approve. I didn’t want to subject him to any further torments. By the time I had this new cat in my building, I knew his name: Monte. And once you know a cat’s name, he’s yours. Although Monte’s only about two, he’s very laid back and non-confrontational. He’s curious about Skye, but doesn’t want to get into anything with him. Essentially they avoid each other, although even that’s beginning to break down. Skye sleeps at the head of my bed, Monte at the foot. Skye’s still purring, his appetite’s good and he’s become even more active and interested in exploring. Monte does his best to stay out of the way, although Skye, being blind, occasionally stumbles into him. They’re curious about each other, but it’s a very peaceable household.
As is written on a little framed picture my brother once gave me, “Home is where the cat is.” For me that’s certainly true. My home would feel very empty without a feline presence. I’m hoping to get them up to the cottage for a little change of scene and scent for a while this summer. (Not to mention that having a little eau de chat around the place helps keep the mice at bay.) I don’t know how much longer Skye will hang on—after all, he is twenty—but I’m glad Monte’s here now. He’s a wonderful addition to my little family and with his relaxed persona, I’m sure he’ll be around for a long time to come.
P.S. If you’re interested in adopting a feline, I urge you to select a shelter with a no-kill policy. Information on Toronto Cat Rescue and the Lakefield Animal Welfare Society can be found on my links page.
© Catherine Jenkins, 2004