Today I said goodbye to a long-time faithful furry friend, Doña Pilar. She was the sweetest, most polite kitty I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Knowing we didn't allow scratching on the furniture, she would actually go to the back door and cry to be let out so she could sharpen her claws on the wooden back porch. In wintertime when we lived in NJ, we would have to shovel a path for her on the deck, so she could get to prime scratching territory without having to blaze her trail in the snow. But my eulogy is getting ahead of itself.
I picked this cat up as a stray, along with her four kittens in October of 1992. My husband Steve, a Navy man, was out at sea at the time, and I had gone with a friend to watch the parachuters at a nearby rural airfield in Virginia. The owner told us that he and his wife had been feeding a cat and four kittens, but they were afraid the cats would die when he and his wife left town... did we know anyone who could take the cats?
Um... yeah, I'm a bleeding heart...
So I gathered up this Mama Kitty and her four kittens, whom I named Number 1, Number 2, 3 and 4. I knew I'd be giving most of the cats away and didn't want to become too attached. But now that I had this pride of felines in the house, what was I going to tell the husband (who is not a cat person)??
When his ship returned after a month at sea, I picked him up, and broke the news to him like this:
"Um, honey, we have some house guests," I said.
"Really, who?" he said with concern, as he was hoping for some privacy after a month at sea.
"It's an unwed mother and her four children."
"What?!" he asked, incredulous.
"Well, they needed a place to stay and we had the room, so I'm letting them stay in the house..."
"Laura, you can't be serious! We don't have the room for that!!!"
"It's OK," I protested, "they're mostly quiet, and don't eat much... they do run around the living room a lot in the morning and sometimes meow kinda loud, but mostly they're quiet..." I trailed off to see if he caught the word.
"Meow? Laura, what are you telling me?"
"Um, that I picked up a stray cat and her four kittens and they're living in our house."
"OH! Well that's a relief! Wow. Um... OK."
And that is how you break the news to a non-cat man that he suddenly has 5 cats in the house.
Once we gave away all but the Mama Kitty and Number 2, whom we decided to keep, we named them Doña Pilar and Spats. "Doña", because she was such a lady, and "Pilar" because I lived in Spain and loved the name. Spats got his name from the white spats and ascot he seemed to wear over his grey coat.
The cats had been feral and would run from strangers, loud noises, and children. It took Doña over a year before anyone could physically hold her for more than a few seconds, and even then, she would only allow me to do so. I worked with the Doña daily, petting her gently as often as I could, and never holding her against her will. Eventually she and Spats would come when called, sit in your lap while you pet them, and even demand attention. As an in-law of mine puts it, "When you join this family, you become a 'hugger' whether you want to or not." Spats and Doña were no exceptions. They would seek you out in the house, wanting to be in the same room, even if it were just to curl up and go to sleep.
Spats lost a fight to the neighborhood gang of dogs while staying with my parents in May 2000, leaving just the Doña, who moved with us to NJ, and then to CA. We had been in NJ about a year and a half, when one day my husband Steve came home to the house filled with smoke. Finding no fire, he quickly searched the house for the cat, calling her name and looking feverishly. He opened all the windows and went down to the lower level where the laundry room and water heater were. It was there on the floor in a heap, right next to the water heater that he found what appeared to be the charred remains of Doña Pilar. "Oh NO!! What am I going to tell Laura??!!"
From the shape of the crusty blackened heap in front of him, he assumed the the cat had somehow spontaneously combusted, and was simply now no longer recognizable. He agonized for almost an hour about what to do, when he happened to glance up to the steps, and saw the Doña looking back at him.
"What??" He went over the the black lump of what he had assumed was the cat, to discover upon closer inspection that it was actually a small bath towel, tossed aside in a heap that resembled a sleeping cat. He almost cried. "Thank God I don't have to tell Laura that the cat spontaneously combusted!"
For many years, we would occasionally return home to find a small pile of kitty puke on the floor, and surmised that Doña had something of an eating disorder, a "kitty bulimia" if you will, which Steve attributed to bad kitty body image brought on by reading too many issues of "Cat Fancy." I figured it was simply on her "Kitty To-Do List": Nap, Stretch, Eat, Nap, Lick Myself, Eat, Barf, Nap. All in a cat's day's work.
In an effort to keep the hairballs to a minimum, we would occasionally duct tape the kitty during the summer months. This involved giving her a thorough brushing first, then taking strips of duct tape and pulling away the excess fur on her back and belly. She didn't seem to mind much, it kept the shedding to a minimum for a bit, and she had a lot less hairballs.
Doña went deaf about two years ago, and would cry loud enough to wake the dead when she thought she needed attention, but suddenly get all quiet and polite once you turned around and looked at her. Steve said he would come home in the afternoons and the cat would hardly look at him, but once I came through the door, she was crying to be loved and held. Sometimes she slept at the foot of the bed, and on occasion on my pillow, something Steve never understood. I liked hearing her purr beside me.
For the past year she's had little bladder infections that we treated with medicine from the vet. Things would clear up, then re-appear. Her kidneys were simply not working properly. Then last week I noticed that she was having trouble walking. I attributed it to the fact that she is over 15, rather old for a cat. It doesn't occur to me at this time to check her for lethargy, dehydration, decreased appetite, etc. By the time I take her to the vet (yesterday), she is severely dehydrated, and, the vet suspects, in renal failure. The blood work will be back the next day, but either way, I know it is only a matter of time. I try to prepare myself for letting her go.
Last night she napped with me on the couch, then I laid her on the bed to sleep beside me for what I suspected would be the last time. She could barely move under her own power, she was so weak. She awakened several times in the night with a weak cry, and I carried her to the water bowl to see if she would drink. Three times she refused the water, and I felt helpless to give her any relief at all from her suffering.
This morning I got up early and went for a bike ride before the vet's office opened. I hesitated to leave Doña alone, but knew the exercise would do my mind and body good. When I returned, I called the vet, who told me that Doña's numbers in the blood work were off the charts, that she was in acute renal failure, and that she was surprised that Doña was even still alive. Knowing the kitty is suffering, I load her up and take her to the vet to have her put down.
My husband Steve leaves work and meets me at the vet. We enter the vet clinic with Doña wrapped in a towel in my arms, and I am really impressed with how gentle and caring the staff at the clinic are. They ask us if we had made any arrangements for the cat, codewords for whether we want them to take her away for cremation. I tell them we've already made arrangements.
I grew up in a rural area in Texas, and when it came time for any of our cats to go to the Great Catnip Field in the Sky, they would hide and pass away quietly in the pasture, where Mom would find them, and we would all gather together to bury them. I never had to "put an animal down," and am new to the whole procedure. The vet's assistant then starts explaining to me what I can expect and asks me a couple of times if I need some private time alone with Doña before the doctor gives her the injection. I smile, and am moved by her compassion and gentleness, but tell her I'm ready.
We bring Doña into the patient room and I lay her on the table as the vet now turns to me and asks if I need a moment before she administers the injection. "No," I tell her quietly, "we had a good night together last night..." as my voice fades to a whisper. I look at my little kitty lying so still on the table, her breathing hardly perceptible. The technician strokes Doña's cheek and says softly, "Goodnight, little princess." Tears fall from my eyes as I stand in silence. The vet administers the injection, then checks for a pulse, pauses, looks up and tells me gently, "She's gone."
The technician tells me I can take as much time with her as I'd like, and she and the vet leave the room. I take a deep ragged breath. I believe in long hellos and quality time together, and am not one for long goodbyes. Withing minutes, we gather up Doña in the towel and I cradle her in my arms and carry her out. The technician smiles when she sees me, and tells me I'm very brave. I'm struck again by the depth of their compassion, and so glad I came here.
I return to work and my husband goes home to prepare our arrangements for the Doña. When I get home at 8pm, I find that he has made a little wooden casket for her, and dug a deep grave for her, over which, he says, we should plant something really nice, something she would like to lie under on hot summer days, perhaps. "Yes," I whisper.
I place her in the little box, take the scissors and cut my hair, letting the pieces of my hair fall on the cat. A part of me is going with her, so it's only fitting that I do this. Steve then closes and seals the box. As he screws the lid on, I comment that, had I thought of it, I could have included something that is her favorite thing, "You know," I say to Steve, "like things you place in the casket of someone - something that's their favorite thing." He stops and looks at me, then says, "Laura, you were her favorite thing."
Wow. Tears fall again. The casket now sealed, Steve carries it to the grave site and places it gently in the earth, then covers it over with dirt. "See you on the other side, Kitty. Thanks for all the great years and wonderful companionship," I tell her.
To those of you who have lost pets, I hope my eulogy today reminds you of the sweet times you had together, the fun times, and also reminds you that even the painful times are worth the price, because all those good times together ultimately outweigh the painful ones. No matter how long or short a time you knew your pet, you were good to each other, and brought each other joy. It's fitting that we honor those who bring us joy, be they our friends, family, or furry little critters.
I'd like to thank veterinarians Donna Stadtmore and her sister Laura, and all the staff at Colony Veterinary Clinic in La Jolla, for their thoroughness, compassion, and concern.