Still, Again, and Always

I was always destined to be a cat person.  My mom is a cat person.  My grandmother was a cat person.  My dad has always claimed not to be a cat person, but was have definitely turned him into at least half of one.

I could say I don’t remember a time before having cats in the house, but that isn’t strictly true.  I have a very clear recollection of being a shy little five-year-old, taking a trip to the North Shore Animal League to adopt my lovely boy Solomon, who instantly adopted me back as his Person.

Long before I became a cliché thirty-something utterly lacking in the ability to form romantic attachments, I was whispering my little secrets into flicking, fuzzy ears over the sound of soft purring, confident in the knowledge that my adolescent heartaches would be safe and secure and somehow completely understood.

Cats governed pretty much everything I did as a child.  My sister and I didn’t play house: we played pretend pet grooming shop.  When we didn’t want to do our chores, “I can’t; the cat is sitting on me” became our automatic (if unsuccessful) excuse.

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When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I invariably said a veterinarian…at least until about 7th grade when I realized how much math and science was actually involved.

If I stomped upstairs and slammed my bedroom door in anger, which happened more often than I care to remember during my terrible teenage years, Solomon would paw at the latch until I let him inside to sit next to me.

He would stare at me with his big golden eyes (maybe judging me slightly for being overly dramatic – but hey, he wasn’t wrong), and stay on my lap or curled up between my shoulder blades as I read a book until he was sure everything was all right again.

He was sweet and cuddly, curious and occasionally a little too adventurous, as he was wont to bolt from the front door or bust out of our screened-in deck to eat grass on the lawn and scare the living daylights out of me.

Once when I was still in grade school, he went MIA for several days – sort of a big deal for a cat who had been declawed – and all I remember about his return was that it was the happiest day of my young life.

I still have stress-dreams about losing him.  Even though we sold our house some time ago, I still occasionally get anxious that someone didn’t lock the screen room door.

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We collected several other cats when I was growing up, whom I loved dearly as well, but I was always Solomon’s and he was always mine.

Leaving him to go to college when I was 16 was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I knew he was getting older; that I couldn’t check that the doors were locked from my dorm room in Massachusetts; that I would miss having to squirm into the corner of my bed because he had decided to sprawl across as much of the mattress as he could manage.

I felt a little like I was betraying his steadfast friendship, and that I had somehow wasted our time together by being too young to understand how rare and precious it is to find anyone or anything so capable of unconditional love.

I was nervous, of course, about leaving home for the first time.  I was terrified about failing to succeed in my new environment, especially since I was veering sharply away from the traditional educational path by going to college earlier than my peers.  And I was still reeling from my parents’ unexpected divorce the year prior, which had redefined my world in ways I am still working to understand.

So naturally I projected my anxiety a little bit into the one thing that had always been constant in my life: the unflinching, immutable love of a cat who thought I was the best thing since sliced tuna and always would be.

He died at the ripe old age of about 19, after a long and slow decline that I was too selfish to end mercifully.  I couldn’t let him go – I couldn’t acknowledge the end of all the things I had turned the poor dear thing into.  We had spent three-quarters of my life together, and I couldn’t really understand what it would mean not to have him around for the rest of it.

At the time, I was in the midst of a soul-crushing, demeaning, and nightmarish job that had left me isolated and purposeless. I was living in the middle of nowhere and so far from home, with no friends within a three-hour drive, and no outlet for the despair that was building to the bursting point inside of me.

His passing, though peaceful at the end, was one of several catalysts for eighteen months of profound depression that saw me (thankfully) lose my job, get into therapy, and start a significant reconstruction of who I was and who I wanted to be.

Four years later, I adopted Oliver.

I saw his picture on a pet-finding website sometime before Christmas, and knew instantly that I had to make him part of the new life I was building for myself.  Three months later, I had moved to an apartment that allowed cats and brought him home.

He has been nothing but joy to me ever since.

Yes, he scratched my furniture, and woke me up early on the weekends for his breakfast. There were occasions when he would pounce on my feet as I turned a corner, and I may have a faint scar or two from his habit of affectionately wrestling my arm into submission with all 18 pounds of his fur and muscle.

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Of course he shed like crazy but never let me brush him – woe unto me if I tried to snip a bit of tangled fur from his back end – and if I accidentally approached him in a certain manner, intentionally or not, he would meowl and swat at me, afraid I was trying to hurt him.

Former street cats can be like that sometimes, of course.  They have hidden traumas and bad memories that they can’t share.

Oliver was adopted from a small rescue operation (i.e. the basement of a very nice woman with eight cats too many). While he had very good manners and clean habits, which means he must have been raised in a home at some point, the nicks in his ears and the bottom of one eyelid told plenty about what must have been a troubled youth.

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The worst relic of his transient period was feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV.  Similar to the human version, it can be acquired through fluids or passed on at birth.  There’s no way to tell.

A positive screening usually makes a cat unadoptable.  Their compromised immune systems make them susceptible to gum disease, respiratory infections, and digestive problems – not to mention any other stray bacteria or viruses that happen to wander in.

And the relative ease with which they can pass the virus on to other cats through biting or scratching means they can’t live in a household with unaffected feline companions.

That part wasn’t a problem for me, since my lease stipulates I’m only allowed to have one cat on the premises. Let’s be honest: it’s the only reason I don’t already have two or three.

I was pretty sure that with no other cats, an indoor-only lifestyle, and my familiarity with caring for members of his species, Oliver had a relatively low risk of living a shortened life due to preventable illness.

I may have been right. He made a full recovery from a serious sinus infection during our first year together.  He got regular checkups, vaccines, and lots of exercise.  He ate quality food and gourmet treats, and received personalized drinking service from the bathroom tap every time he pleased.

He had full access to open windows when the weather was nice, and a warm bed next to the radiator when it wasn’t.  Occasionally, he even had the pleasure of a catch-your-own rodent buffet.

Most of the time, I forgot about the FIV all together.  It didn’t seem to matter much to him.  He was just a happy, silly, energetic boy with kittenish behaviors and a penchant for hogging the couch.

I would have spoiled him rotten no matter what was in his bloodstream, and I’m happy to say that’s exactly what I did.  All we can do is give them the best life possible during the time we share, and I am fully confident that I provided a very good home for him.

But not every illness is preventable, and the inevitable caught up with us sooner rather than later.

Kidney trouble is common in all breeds of cats, and renal failure is one of the top causes of mortality.  In FIV cats, the problem often comes in the form of lymphoma.  Most cats last less than a month after diagnosis.  While chemotherapy exists, it is a very expensive and not altogether practical way to gain little more than a few weeks, often with questionable quality of life.

I decided not to go the route that involved biopsies and lab work and half-hour drives to the specialty hospital in Woburn.  Even going a mile up the road to his usual vet was a trauma, and I saw no point in making his last days so stressful when it wouldn’t much improve the outcome or his experience of it.

Instead, we treated him as if he had a bilateral kidney infection, which was also a very real possibility, if a remote one.  A course of antibiotics is neither invasive nor prohibitively costly, and doing something always feels better than sitting back and just waiting.

In the end, it didn’t solve the problem.  But he did have another three weeks of enjoying his favorite things: stalking birds through the window, watching TV with me in the evenings, looking intently at the ceiling even though nothing is there, and following me around to supervise as I went through my morning routine.

He was always a very attentive, human-focused cat. Every time I looked in his direction, he would acknowledge me with a little “prrrrup,” staring straight into my eyes.

When I spoke to him, his tail would start tapping.  When I smiled and blinked at him, or told him I loved him, I thought it would thump its way through the floor.

If I was about to get up from the couch to get a snack or do a chore, he would jump off my lap and wait by the sofa until I came back and he resume his favorite cuddling position again.

If I collapsed into bed after a long day and a longer commute, sad and exhausted, he would do everything he could to get me up again by walking on my sternum, looking plaintive, or calling to me from the living room.

And the funny thing is, I would get up.  Almost immediately.

Unlike during the fallow period following Solomon, where I would sleep for hours after work just to make the day end quicker, I would pull myself together and dry my eyes because I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing Oliver.

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People who are prone to loneliness or depression need that sort of wholehearted, pure belief that they have a place in the world and a role to fulfill, even if that role is to be a human can opener and living hot water bottle.

Well-treated cats (and dogs, too) don’t doubt that you can do what they need you to do.  They don’t doubt that you will.

Their trust is both humbling and uplifting; a pillar and a pedestal; a lifeline to tether drifting souls to the sense that something, anything matters – and that they have a clear and necessary purpose within it.

Cats are unwavering in their conviction that you will rise to this challenge.  The reward for meeting the terms of this simple contract is an unbreakable, unconditional love that can help carry you through darn near any of the petty frustrations and helpless heartbreaks that comprise human existence.

Say what you want about spinsters collecting cats after giving up on finding love with another person or a place in the world, but I don’t think that’s what happens most of the time.

Cats keep your heart warm.  They help you hold the door open to the future instead of shutting down and locking yourself away.  They compel you practice patience and understanding; to maintain your capacity for love.

They show you the epitome of what that can be: selfless, immutable, and blind to all the little faults of fashion or manner or politics or jealousies that can so often split two people apart.

The love of a pet is a direct connection to the best we can be.  A glimpse into the fundamental definition of joy. That’s something I aspire to achieve with other people, not something intended to replace a life of human friendships or relationships.

To love a cat is a privilege.  To be loved in return is an honor. Even through the pain of missing him fiercely and the grief of never seeing him again, I count myself so, so lucky to have been his Person for as long as I could.

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It’s too quiet in my apartment today, and I feel aimless in a way I haven’t felt for years.  He didn’t come to say good morning.  He didn’t ask for his breakfast.  He isn’t stretched out on the floor, tail tapping, watching me write.  He will never do those things again, which hurts more than I can express.

I feel confident that I did the right thing last night.  I knew as soon as I saw him that something bad had happened: his spark was gone, his body was failing him, and he was in pain.  He wouldn’t make eye contact.  He was too weary to move.

I won’t go through the details of saying goodbye to him.  Every pet owner knows exactly how heart wrenching that is.

The vet was very kind, my dad was there to drive me since I couldn’t see through my tears, and it was all over so quickly.  I feel as if the real Oliver had been gone hours before he stopped breathing, and I like to think that what I saw in his final moments was a sense of relief.

Taking a pet into your life is signing a contract with sadness, even if the terms of the agreement are more than fair.

It may be brutally bitter when the lease on happiness is up, but that isn’t going to stop me from adopting another cat some day, and another after that, and after that.

Our feline companions come and go throughout our lives, leaving gaping holes when they’ve gone.  But we have a choice of what to do when that abyss opens up underneath our feet.

We can let that grief defeat us, and shy away from future attachments due to fear of what happens when they end.

Or we can take hold of that lifeline, that thread of joy, light, and laughter they each bring with them, and let it stitch up our broken hearts and bind us together.

Still, again, and always I choose to keep myself open to that love. I will try to seek out joy.  I will aspire to stay worthy of a cat’s trust and affection and freely-given tummy rubs, because I can think of no better way to be.

I will never stop missing Solomon.  I will never stop missing Oliver.  I will never stop missing the other cats who have stayed a while in my life, each bringing something irreplaceable to how I experience the world.

I don’t know what the future holds, or where my life will lead.  But I can tell you this for certain: still, again, and always, there will be cats to walk those roads with me.

***

If you are considering adopting a pet, hopefully a rescue, please don’t discount the ones who appear to have special needs.  They will give you just as much of their love as any other, if not more so for being so often overlooked. 

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2 thoughts on “Still, Again, and Always

  1. What a beautiful post.
    I just lost my FIV girl Lily Belle on NY Eve — she was my 3rd FIV cat.
    As far as FIV+ and – cats living together: per the rescues I’ve talked with and newer information on FIV, positive and negative cats CAN live together just fine …. the primary way an adult cat can get it from another is via deep puncture wounds, normally acquired while living feral.

    I’ve already started looking at FIV girl kitties to adopt as a companion for my FIV boy Georgie, although I will give myself plenty of time to grieve for Lil. ((Hugs)) to you on the loss of your kitty.

    Gwen

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