Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Just a Cat

When my parents married, my father brought a cat into the household. His name was Flint. He was named after the trapeze artist Errol Flynn, due to his affinity for kitty acrobatics, but my father didn't like the way Flynn rolled off the tongue, so the name was adapted thusly. When my mother was pregnant with me Flint he used to lay on her stomach and purr, and she claims this is where my love of cats came from, however I do not have any memory of this cat so I cannot give him credit.

When I was a toddler, Flint left the household. Oddly enough neither of my parents seems to remember what became of him; if they gave him away, if he went missing, or if he passed away. But around Easter time when I was three years old, they decided it was time for another cat.

The mall near my childhood home used to have a pet store in it, and I remember the day we visited to choose our new companion. There was a glass enclosure near the front of the store through which you could see kittens frolicking before you even entered. I knew immediately which one I wanted, the only one in the litter with stripes. Even though I don't actually remember my first cat, I know I chose this kitten because he looked exactly the same, and I even insisted he have the same name. I suppose I did not like change much as a child. This was probably not respectful to the memory of Flint, nor fair to Flint II (henceforth referred to as Flint), but I don't think he minded much.

I remember the day my parents took him to be neutered (and declawed, unfortunately). They explained to me he had to have surgery, but that nothing was wrong, it's just something a pet needs to have done. There might have been more detail, but I don't remember because, well, I was three. While he was at the vet, I colored a picture for him from a coloring book. I was quite pleased with myself for finding such a perfect picture, it was of a cartoonish cat sick in bed with a thermometer sticking out of it's mouth. When we brought him home, I eagerly thrust the picture in the face of a rather nonplussed cat, explaining that I drew it for him and that he should feel better soon. I hung at the bottom of the refrigerator so he could enjoy it at his leisure.

My father tells me I was quite the terror for poor Flint. He once caught me picking him up and slamming him against the floor with all my toddler might. He abruptly put a stop to it, explaining how it hurt him and why it was bad. I have no memory of this.

However, I have memory of a similar incident. Here I will tell you something I've never told anyone my entire life. It is something I am ashamed of, something which makes me cringe to think about to this day.

One time my parents were out of the house and my nonna (grandmother) was watching over me. And I started torturing my dear cat again, still just a few months old. I pinned him against the floor under my feet, and pressed on him until he cried out in pain. I didn't know I was hurting him, I was just amused by the noises he was making. My nonna laughed along with me while I did it, I didn't think I was doing anything wrong. I don't know if this was normal for a three year old or if it was the beginnings of a sociopath, but when my mother got home my nonna told her what I did, and she gave me a spanking that I remember for sure. And I'm glad she did. It nailed that memory into my head. I understood what I'd done, and I think she also made the point I could have killed him. I have been guilty over this ever since. I remember the sounds he made.

Out of this guilt however, I believe my true love for cats (and every other animal) was born. Imagine how your life would change if the first living thing you ever empathized with was not human. Somewhere in my tiny head, I think I made up my mind to spend the rest of my life making it up to this cat.

Despite the treatment I gave him early on, Flint forgave me, and I soon considered him my best friend. He was of supreme interest to me, and as the years passed this interest flourished into a great passion. I loved cats. That was my thing. Every time my father took me to the book store or library, I insisted on getting at least one book about cats. The Encyclopedia of the Cat. 100 Facts About Cats. A Guide to Cats. The Best Cat Stories. Flint became a dear part of my family, who greeted me when I came home every day, sat on my lap whenever possible (and on one of my personal effects when not), and slept on my bed every night, tucked up under my arm. When I had to deal with the social hardships of school (for I was awful at making friends), he was always there for me, never judgmental, he just gave me his pure unconditional love.

Flint was fond of the typical cat things, catnip, string, laser pointers. I have plenty of fond memories of using such items to play with him. On Christmas Eve it was tradition to wrap up a catnip toy for him, then watch the antics ensure as he discovered his gift and opened it early. Personality wise he was an excellent cat, playful, affectionate and friendly. Never showed animosity toward anyone. One day when I was about five he got outside on accident, and came home on his own later that evening. After that, going outside was quite normal for him, he loved it and appeared to be able to handle it very well. Flint was quite the hunter, and brought a live mouse into the house at least once. He was the Clint Eastwood of cats, being a frightening tom well into his old age, scaring neighborhood cats out of his territory just by looking at them (despite being neutered). He was also quite fond of drinking out of the toilet.

When I was small we breifly had another cat named Cha-Cha. He and Flint were great buddies who did all sorts of cute things like groom eachother and sleep together. Cha-Cha was a bit more wild however, not as much of a lap cat, and stayed outside for much longer periods of time than Flint, who always came home at nightfall. On nights when the two were both in the house, they would stage great races, where they would noisily run down the stairs, through the house, and crash into the blinds covering the sliding glass doors. Unfortunately we had to give Cha-Cha away because he misbehaved frequently. Flint seemed to hold a sort of grudge over it, and never again warmed up to another cat.

 I took responsibility for Flint as I got older. I started feeding him more carefully, regularly checked him for ticks, brushed him and the like. When his teeth started to fall out I insisted my dad take him to the vet to make sure he wouldn't develop an infection or abscess. When he really started to age and the weight loss began, I took him to the vet with my own money to make sure there were no serious issues.

When I was in high school my mother's housemate bought a dog, a sweet old rescued German Shepherd named Diamond. For the first time in my life, I had some long term interaction with a companion animal other than Flint. I grew to adore her, and now I can honestly say I love cats and dogs equally, though for different reasons.

After I got my first college apartment, I brought Flint out to live with me, but sorely missed having a dog, and that is when I adopted Fort. Fort learned to leave Flint alone, and this was the extent of them getting along. I am sure Fort was an annoyance though, and always felt a little bad Flint had to deal with him. Flint no longer slept on my bed, because he did not want to share it with Fort.

By now Flint had reached the age of sixteen. He aged gracefully, for the most part, but it was still sad to watch. He started to grow very thin. His mentation dulled. He occasionally appeared to get "lost," walking into corners or closets and forgetting what he was doing there. He began meowing loudly and frequently, especially at night. One morning he got out of the house while I was taking out the trash, and went missing for two days. I threw up signs everywhere and looked for him day and night. I was worried I'd never see him again. Fortunately my roommate, Stephen, found him on the sidewalk about four blocks away. I cried from relief, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

I enjoyed Flint's companionship for another wonderful year and a half without much to note. In late March of this year I took the hot weather as an opportunity to give Flint a shave. I thought it was a good way to take care of his flea problem (from Fort) and matting (from not grooming himself) in one move. Then the weather took a turn for the chilly and I was ashamed at my lack of foresight. Flint kept getting the shivers and I went to great lengths to try and keep him warm and cozy. I gently secured a small shirt of mine around him with hair ties, and left boxes and blanket caves around the house for him to curl up in.

In early April of this year, I noticed a sharp decline in his health. His appetite waned, he seemed less inclined to climb stairs, and he started to have accidents. I got him a second litterbox so he would have easier access. Fort had stopped sleeping in my bed since my boyfriend Daniel had moved in with me, but Flint stared to again. I made him a vet appointment for later in the month, but his health continued to dive. In the days approaching the appointment, he barely left my bed, and he developed an unusual and worrying potbelly.

At the vet hospital on Friday, I told the veterinarian about Flint's symptoms while she gave him an examination. She noted that his liver seemed large, and definitely abnormal. She asked for permission to do a urinalysis and blood test to help determine was wrong, I gave her my permission and went out to the waiting room.

They called me back much sooner than I expected, and took me to a different exam room than they had previously. As soon as I walked in my heart dropped. It was furnished with couches and paintings and dim lighting. I knew why they'd brought me here.

A vet tech and a vet student stood at the back of the room, and the vet placed Flint in my arms and had a seat on the couch adjacent to mine. She gently started explaining to me that their initial test results meant it was something serious, and detailed her diagnosis and potential treatments as best she could, but couldn't offer much help without narrowing it down further. I started to cry. The vet tech started to cry, and something inside me was comforted by that. She ran up and handed me a tissue. I told the vet how much money I had on my emergency credit card, and told her to use it however she thought best. They whisked him away for an ultrasound while I sat alone. I called my parents and sobbed at them in barely discernible words. A counselor came in and gave me some pamphlets and her number.

The vet and student returned once more and placed Flint in my lap. They had aspirated all the free fluid in his abdomen, so he was more comfortable now. Choosing her words very carefully, she slowly explained to me that Flint had liver cancer. I suppose I had been in denial, because I began to realize just a little at a time what this meant. Even with all the money in the world, nothing could be done for it. He had weeks or days at most, and when his liver failed, he'd have just hours. The vet gave me some support medication and suggested I "consider spending this weekend with him."

I spent the next two days in abject misery. It didn't take long for me to decide what to do... I was going to have him euthanized on Monday morning, I didn't want him to suffer when his liver inevitably failed.

I spent the weekend doting on him. I put a blocker in my bedroom door to keep Fort out, but let Flint come and go as he pleased. I moved a litterbox into my room for easy access. I brought his meals to him, lots of delicious fish, canned salmon, fresh tilapia. Filtered water, pungent catnip and kitten milk. I wrapped his medication in cheese and "pill pockets." I panicked when he didn't have an appetite, I was thrilled when he did. I woke up repeatedly during the night and checked to see if he was alright. I helped him to the litterbox or onto the bed whenever I could. He had a hard time getting onto my bed at this point, and jumped onto the lower platform of my nightstand before making the jump to my bed. I pulled him close, under the sheets. I stayed as still as I could. His whiskers tickled my face. He would only lay on his belly, presumably because it was the only way that was comfortable. His neck muscles were weak and his head would droop down until his nose was pressed against the bed.

I wanted desperately to take him outside one more time. He loved going outside so so much. But the days were cold and windy.

Sunday morning he hopped up next to me just as I awoke. He crawled into my arms, and I declined to get out of bed as long as possible. It was the last time I ever heard him purr.

Sunday night I left breifly for a chemistry review session. Flint followed me down the stairs and sat on the landing. "Where are you going?" was all I could think, and it was heartrending. I couldn't concentrate and came home early. He was still sitting on the landing, shivering. I fed him a feast, and talked to my family on webcam so they could say goodbye, then took him upstairs and made him comfortable.

Monday morning I fed him another feast. He only nibbled at it, but I was still happy for that. I cuddled with him while Daniel got ready.
"I don't want to go."

I wrapped him up in one of my shirts and tucked him in my jacket. On the ride to the hospital, he picked up his head in interest, looking intently at the world whizzing by out the window. It made me laugh-sob.

We went to the same room we were in before. They took Flint breifly to put a catheter in his arm. A few doctors ran in and out, asking me things like what I wanted to with him afterward. I decided to donate his liver for cancer research. They were going to continue growing some of his cells in a lab somewhere. I liked that idea.

Daniel stayed with me. He was not terribly comforting. He did not care for Flint like I (then again, no one did), and he wasn't an "animal person," so he couldn't really empathize. I felt like he kind of resented being there. However, I was still thankful for his presence. We talked a little, but for the most part sat in silence and waited. I stroked Flint on my lap, periodically hugging him and scratching him behind the ears. The doctor came in and asked if I was ready. I said yes, but immediately felt otherwise.

I sprayed some catnip extract in the air and did my best to prepare, but as I've now learned, you really can't prepare for these things.

The vet came in all too soon, sat next to me and began showing me different syringes, explaining what each did. The tears began. She talked too fast, I wished the vet from Friday was there. She asked if I was ready and I nodded my head, but immediately regretted it. She started her work. Wait, I don't feel ready. Wait, I have things I need to tell him. Wait, I'm not holding him the way I want to. But I was powerless to speak. I wept uncontrollably. I desperately wished I could hear him purr one last time.

He went limp in my arms. I felt the life leave his body. I know it's cliche, but it really did seem like a flame had been extinguished. The vet checked for a heartbeat and confirmed he was gone, then asked if I wanted a few minutes with him. Again, I nodded and regretted it. The vet hurried out and I bent over him, sobbing, a voice at the back of my mind screaming, he's dead, he's dead and you're holding him, why in god's name are you still holding him? It disturbed me and I felt awful for it. I felt his body start to grow cold.

When they came back for him I was wailing too hard to speak. I handed him over to a technician and she showed me out. I leaned over to kiss his head one more time and hurried out of the building. I could feel stares in the lobby.

Daniel sat with me on a bench while we waited for our ride home. It was cold, but instead of wearing my jacket I clutched it to my chest, as if I were still holding him.

I was never really given the chance to grieve, I had to go to class that same day. It was hard to bear. Many friends, family members, and even strangers offered condolences, which genuinely improved my mood. A shocking number of people suggested I immediately get a new cat, which I found remarkably insensitive, but I suppose they just don't understand. Daniel helped clean Flint's things and took care of me. I wept intermittently for a couple weeks. Going to bed was especially difficult. I took shitty care of myself, ate and bathed inconsistently, slept late and only for a few hours. I scoured websites and chatrooms for comfort or people I could relate to. I found a passage that made me feel much better. It's just some lousy children's prose poem. It's utter nonsense. I don't believe in a heaven, and yet, the comfort it brings me is incredible. It's just so nice to think about.

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.

All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.
The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.

They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together.... 

And then there's this poem, too.

Flint died one month ago today. My great-grandparents aside (when I was very young), it is my first time dealing with the death of a loved one. It still hurts. I still find myself thinking I see him out the corner of my eye. This blog was terribly hard to write, as you might be able to tell from the decline in my quality of writing as it went on.

After the fact, I never expected to feel the massive amount of guilt that I did. Did I pay enough attention to him in his later years? Did I feed him properly? Should I have not shaved him? Should I have taken him to the vet sooner? Should I have waited till he could have one more day outside? Did my distress in his final moments make him unhappy? One of my professors, who is a vet and someone I really look up to, was able to offer me some peace. She said liver cancer attacks hard and fast because the organ metabolizes so fast. She assured me it had developed only in a matter of a couple months, even weeks. She told me it wasn't my fault.

Some part of me has been very angry at myself this past month. Why are you mourning so much? He was just a cat.
Just a cat.

But you know, as I get older and learn more about the world, I see humans as less "special" than other animals. I loved Flint, and I don't use that term loosely. I loved my cat, and there's nothing wrong with that. He gave me and taught me so much. He essentially made me who I am. He gave my life meaning, and in a way I give meaning to his. In the grand scale of life on this planet, he wasn't even a blip on the radar. But by virtue of being important to me, he is important in my reality, and therefore this world. His life continues through his influence on me, and in the cancer research he will be a part of, and in the words on this website.

Here's the video I made about Flint, where I basically say everything I've said here:

Here are more pictures of him than you could ever want:

I plain to draw a picture in his memory, which Daniel has promised to paint for me.

Thank you, Flint. You were a great cat, and a better person than most people I know.

1 comment: