"We have a pure white cat, would you like to see her?"
The shelter manager didn't even have to ask. December 2000 had been a horrible month. I started a new job. Our cat Oliver, who had been battling cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure for a year, had gone into kidney failure and we'd said goodbye to him on the 10th. On the 14th I had gone to Maine for what turned out to be my last visit with my mother's husband, who had been like a second father to me. Upon my return, I started a new job. Mr. Brilliant got let go from his job at a petroleum brokerage just days after the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush as President. We had adopted Jenny on December 24, but she had taken up residence under a recliner in our home office, and stayed there for three months. Lionel had died on December 30, and our other cat, Wendy, had gone into kidney failure about the same time. On January 2, 2001, Mr. Brilliant had to dig the car out of the snow from the day before to take her to be euthanized. I couldn't go because I was still new on my job.
We'd just come from the no-kill shelter, where we'd both fallen in love with a little bi-color cow-kitty -- a little female -- who had turned out to be on hold for someone else. I will never forget how Mr. B. crumpled into a heap on the floor, sobbing. Wendy had been extremely bonded with him, Jenny was cowered under a chair, he was out of work, and really needed a kitty. He'd wanted to just go home, where I knew he would spend the rest of the day crying and smoking too many cigarettes, so I insisted we go to the county shelter.
She was the most adorable thing we'd ever seen. She was seventeen months old, pure white, and talkative. It took us maybe a minute and a half that we wanted her.
She was also extremely weird. Since she was quarantined in the house with an upper respiratory infection for a week, we would lie on the bed in the afternoon all weekend, just looking at her, lying on her back and kneading the air. "Liquid Alien Space Kitty", we called her. We'd pick her up and she'd go limp. Her eyes were rimmed with pink. She looked vaguely fetal, as if she were a cupcake that had been taken out of the oven too soon. Like most cats, she named herself, and she decided her name was Maggie.
Maggie was the neediest cat I ever had. "Someone's getting petted and it's not Maggie!", we would joke. If Mr. B. and I were hugging, Maggie wanted a piece of the action. We used to do "group hug", with Maggie in the middle. She always wanted a lap to sit on. She clearly had some Siamese in her, because she was quite vociferous about what she wanted. And then there was nighttime, when she insisted that I sleep facing her, so she could rest her head on my neck. "You can be replaced by a good night's sleep!", I would say to her, knowing full well that someday I would regret those words. I got out of bed at 5 AM every single day that I was home, because that's how Maggie wanted it.
Everyone who met Maggie was won over by her. She had a huge personality. She was a true diva, albeit one with a comical streak. She made me laugh, she warmed my heart, she drove me crazy. And I was nuts about her. But poor thing, she spent twelve years wanting Jenny to love her, and Jenny just wouldn't do it. Jenny, a very reserved and ladylike cat, had no patience with this demanding, yowling overgrown kitten, and took it out on her regularly.
After Jenny died, and we brought Eli home, the introduction took only a little over a week, and soon they were best friends.
Maggie became hyperthyroid in April of 2012, and that fall, she stopped eating. She'd nibble a bit, but Maggie had always been a chow hound. She got thinner and thinner while I bought fancy grain-free tuna cat food and made chicken with broth, in a vain attempt to tempt her. I had to go to North Carolina because my mother had gone into the hospital, and when I got back Maggie was so thin she could hardly stand. That night I sat in the basement, wailing my heart out because Maggie was dying and I didn't know why.
After trying every kind of food imaginable, our vet decided she should have an ultrasound, which showed that she either had Inflammatory Bowel Disease or a gastric lymphoma. We decided to do a crapshoot and treat her with prednisolone to bet that it was IBD and hope we were right. We started her on transdermal prednisolone and she didn't get much better. Somehow we got a call from the vet that had done the ultrasound. He had a special interest in IBD and said to hit it hard with the prednisolone for a week -- double the dose, then taper it down.
And lo and behold, Maggie started eating. And "the ultrasound guy" became Amazing Miracle Vet. And Maggie and Mike the Vet Tech fell in love.
On December 16, 2013, I went to work. Maggie had been a bit off her food that morning, but nothing serious. She'd had a few flareups of the IBD over the last year, but three days of double-dose prednisolone usually did the trick. I made a mental note to double her up when I got home.
When I arrived home, she didn't greet me. I went looking for her and found her on the bed, her eyes stuck shut. I rushed her to the emergency vet, who diagnosed an upper respiratory infection, gave her an antibiotic shot, and gave me eye drops to give her. The eye drops helped a bit, but then her eyes got worse. Her sinus congestion became worse. I kept a vaporizer going all day but nothing helped her breathe. I took her back to the emergency vet hospital and they decided she should see the ophthalmologist, who prescribed famciclovir and gave me ointment to put into her eyes. She fought both of these meds mightily. I then took a morning off from work and took her to Amazing Miracle Vet, who gave her fluids, cleaned her eyes, gave her a B12 shot, and sent her home. And for a day she was better.
This went on for a month, as I spent hundreds upon hundreds of dollars trying to find a way to heal her. Amazing Miracle Vet and her regular vet had a falling-out, and her regular vet (who had obviously gone from integrative medicine to 100% alternative), put her on homeopathics to boost her immune system. She was already on L-Lysine, which wasn't doing a thing. From December 16 on, she mostly lived on the bed, rallying only occasionally. I hired Mike the Vet Tech to come in the evening and administer her meds because I couldn't do it myself. She got worse. Her ears became full of crud and she shook rocks of green gunk out of them, crying out as she did. Her eyes were crusty and no matter how many warm compresses I put on them, I couldn't soften what was there. She developed an angry red sore on her right ear that crusted over and then flaked, leaving angry raw skin behind. I noticed how difficult it was for her to walk. I assumed it was because she was old, it was cold out, and she hadn't moved much -- and then I noticed the ulcers on her paws -- all four of them. I decided to get a second opinion. They took blood, They did an ultrasound. They kept her there for an hour and a half. They couldn't make heads or tails of the ears and the skin condition on her paws, but decided she should go back on the antivirals. I had Mike the Vet Tech coming in the evenings, and found another certified tech who could come mornings. I began to have a glimmer of hope for my poor, pain-racked kitty, who slept most of the time now. I'd been bringing her plates of food and feeding her on the bed for a month. I'd held the water bowl so she could drink without having to lower her head. This was my last shot at saving her.
The young vet tech I'd planned to hire for mornings came to meet Maggie, took one look at her, and said "That looks like pemphigus
." I'd heard about this from my sister, whose dog had it at one point. I looked it up on Google Images, and was already certain that's what it was. The tech suggested I bring Maggie to the veterinary office where she works.
I have a photo of Maggie from that time, but I won't post it here because it's too upsetting. She was in so much pain and she was so miserable. One eye was drooping, and she would look at me as if begging me to make it stop. So here I was, not even four months out from having to make the gut-wrenching decision to take Mr. Brilliant off the ventilator, and her was my beloved Maggie, the last real tie to my old life -- and I had to decide what was the right thing to do. And I couldn't do it.
I was exhausted. The numbness of losing Mr. B. had started to wear off. My whole life was consumed with work and caring for a very ill cat. Meanwhile, my other cat, Eli, who we'd adopted after Jenny died, was clearly in distress. I wanted to make Maggie well. I'd have done anything to make her well. I was willing to pay fifty bucks a day to vet techs to administer meds. I was willing to do a medical boarding if it would make her well. I was living the end-of-life nightmare with Maggie that the fates had spared Mr. B. when he had a stroke instead of a long, drawn-out death from bladder cancer. Early on it felt that I was fated to do this kind of care and I saw it as a calling. But now it was turning into a dejà vu
nightmare. I felt as if I was the Angel of Death. I felt like some kind of monster. I had to be sure that whatever I did was for Maggie and not for me. If I kept treating her, it had to be because she could be made well, not because I could not bear to let her go. If I decided to let her go, it had to be because it was the right thing to do FOR HER, not because I was utterly spent. I needed someone to give me guidance; not to tell me what to do, but to help me make the right decision.
Vets will never do this. They know how hard it is to say goodbye, and they would never make that decision for anyone. But this one did. He felt that we were either looking at a very severe autoimmune disease or a very aggressive skin cancer. The only possible treatment was high doses of steroids, but Maggie was already on 7.5mg prednisolone every other day for the IBD -- and she still had these sores that were spreading now to her other ear, her nose, under her eyes, and her anus. The kind of doses that would be required would likely result in diabetes or liver failure. He said that given that she was fifteen years old, and that she was already being treated for two underlying diseases, and with the risks of high steroid doses, that euthanasia would "not be an unreasonable decision."
NOW I knew what I had to do. So once again, here I was, making a life-or-death decision for the SECOND most important being in my household. I took Maggie home and put her to bed. I called the house call vet, who agreed to come out the next day. And on January 29, Maggie left us. She left quietly, peacefully, on a soft furry throw, on the bed where she'd draped her head over my neck and purred on so many nights for thirteen years.
After they took her away, I collapsed on the floor, screaming. This went on for about twenty minutes. I didn't even cry like this when Mr. B. died. It isn't that I loved Maggie more than I did Mr. B., though the love we have for our pets is far less complicated. But when Mr. B. died, there were things that had to be taken care of. When he died I was numb. Now the floodgates opened, and I went into a tailspin -- a tailspin that has been waiting to happen since my mother died in December 2012, and since Mr. B. first went to the urologist on March 6, was diagnosed later that month. It's been waiting to happen through Mr. B's chemotherapy, and Jenny's death and Mr. B's hospitalization in July, through his moyamoya diagnosis and brain surgery and stroke and death in October. Loss upon loss upon loss -- all those losses after which people would ask me, "How are you still standing?" Right now, I don't feel like I'm standing. The floodgates have opened, and all the "strength" people told me I had back in October has left me.
All this grief funnelled into a little white cat seems disproportionate. Yes, I have cried for Maggie every single night since January 29. But it's not just about Maggie. I've cried for the loss of a life that was mine for nearly three decades; for Mr. B. and for Wendy and Oliver and Jenny and Maggie. I've cried for a past that's gone forever, a life that hummed along like a well-made toaster that is now gone forever, replaced with a present that demands these nightly purges of grief and a future that has choices and opportunities but that is also a bit scary because if I should wake up after having had a stroke the way Mr. B. did on September 22, 2013, there'll be no one there to call 911. I've cried for the waste that is the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the loss of Harold Ramis' grin. I've cried for the reality that we never know what could happen to us, especially once we are north of 50 and our famous peers start to drop like flies. I've cried because I simply cannot fathom where the time has gone. I've cried for all the times I yelled at Maggie and felt resentful of Mr. B. in those years when he struggled to find work and hang onto it when he had it. I've cried for years that have disappeared and aren't coming back.
I miss that life. It wasn't always great but I miss it. I've been too busy working to make the kind of new life that I want to. I go out with friends. I've joined a social group for widows and widowers. In this horrible winter I've spent too many evenings at home because of the weather, but I have started to build something new. But I still miss what is no longer here.
I hope that somewhere Maggie is sitting on Mr. B's lap, wrapped up in his blue velour bathrobe. I hope Jenny is right there next to him, purring. But what I know for sure is that I am still here.
And I miss my "family".
Labels: cat blogging, personal musings