Sunday, June 13, 2010
Loving and losing my best Pal
Pal Kitty was about 6 months old, but his growth stunted by living on his own when I pulled him from the top of the shrubbery where he was hiding from bigger cats.
I’d seen the little cat the morning before, when I took my dog, Buddy, then a mere 30 pounds on his way to the 120 pounds he became in his 11 years, out for a walk before I drove to work at the Nashville Banner.
I just figured it was a kitten, wandered away from its mama, so I left the little pink animal alone. Besides that, my wife had just a month or two before rescued the dog, we named Buddy, over on Nolensville Road.
Didn’t really need another pet right now. Busy enough trying to make sure the puppy becomes housebroken and quits chewing up the linoleum in the kitchen.
At night, though, there was a horrible howling and growling outside, so I climbed from bed and went to the front of the house where the little pink animal, terrified, clung to the highest, thinnest branches of the evergreen shrub. The bigger cats were after it. But they couldn’t climb that high.
I reached in and grabbed the few ounces of fur and took him inside. First I told my wife I was going to put him in a box in the garage. Which I did. I also said we would try to find the cat a good home.
She laughed at me, because she knew I already had. The next day, after leaving work, I drove the little cat out to the vet. He was the one who told me the animal was probably 6 months old, judging by his adult teeth. He’d be stunted and perhaps unhealthy for life.
That night, the little cat slept on the foot of the bed, with Buddy. As we’d named the dog after a line in “It’s A Wonderful Life” when George Bailey hollers after his “Ol’ Buddy, Ol’ Pal,” it was pretty easy to choose a name for the cat.
We were afraid that the bigger dog would not take to the cat. Instead, they quickly became best of friends. We’d close the cat up in the bedroom during the day at first, thinking this would keep him from pestering the dog. Until I came home one day to find the cat was wrestling with the dog. Seems Pal was small enough to crawl beneath the door. He also could pin the dog to the ground. Good thing Buddy was a nice animal.
No need to separate them again. For the rest of their lives they were best of friends.
Buddy grew to be 120 pounds. He was apparently a mix of German Shepherd and Chocolate Lab and was a handsome fellow and great friend.
When he died six years ago, I didn’t think I’d ever feel that heartache again. But I did. Today. When Pal’s long fight with bone cancer finally ended.
Pal was a small cat, but he did flourish despite the early odds. He grew to what the vet called “a perfect 10-pound cat,” a weight he carried until a couple of years ago.
That 2008 physical showed him down to nine pounds. But he still apparently was healthy.
Last August, during his annual physical, the vet noted that the cat had dropped a couple more pounds.
Without going into detail, it basically was determined that he had bone cancer. Tumors began to grow on his jaw. Then on his chest.
He was 16. Too old for chemo. She said she could put him to sleep, but as long as his quality of life was OK, she’d let us determine that.
So we began a 10-month process of watching the cat lose weight, but still remain happy and loving. Most mornings, if he was hungry – which was frequently until the last couple of days – he’d wake me up with licks in the middle of the night.
He could jump up on the bed OK, but it was more difficult to get down, so I’d grab him and set him on the floor. He’d follow me into the kitchen. Or sometimes Suzanne would tire of listening to the licking and do the feeding duties.
His days were spent doling out love. Before the flood of early May, my office was on the lower level of the house. Pal didn’t much like that. He’d come down and howl at the doorway into my office. I’d grab him and pull him onto my lap. Sometimes he'd climb onto the window ledge to watch the goldfinches just outside. But he quickly jumped down and howled at me some more.
I think he just thought that since his litter box was downstairs – over in the laundry room – a guy shouldn’t come down there unless it was for a bathroom break.
My relative “underemployment” in the last three years allowed me to grow even closer to the cat, if that was even possible. It's not like there ever was much emotional distance between us. When he was younger, and I was still taking naps when the kids were, he’d climb on my stomach and sleep right with me. Buddy would sleep against my legs.
But Pal had grown old and bony. It was tough for him to get on the bed. He’d prefer to remain in his own bed, an upholstered little cube thing with a couple of openings, that was on a blue wingback chair in the living room.
He would visit during the night, drop off a few licks, and then climb back in the box.
Evenings and football Saturdays and Sundays were spent either in my lap, Suzanne’s lap or on the back of the couch. He enjoyed being around his family. He actually seemed to like sports a lot, particularly baseball – when his eyes would follow the ball.
We knew his health was failing, that he was living out cancer's death sentence. And we knew his time was getting short. At Christmas time, he hardly fiddled with the special yarn ornaments that were placed on the lower branches just for him to play with.
He used to run with them all over the house. We knew it was his last Christmas. We knew it was his last New Year. We knew that when he turned 17 a couple of months ago – a rough-guess birth date we figured by the vet’s reckoning – he would have no more birthdays.
Still, he enjoyed his special food, a crunchy kind that is good for urinary health in males. He crunched away with gusto and was especially happy when a new bag was brought in the house. His elimination processes were fine. His breathing good, though on humid nights increasingly shallow. Despite his ailments, he was as happy as he made us.
He enjoyed the small scraps from the table, the ham or turkey, even the piece of cake or chips – tastes he’d probably acquired during his rough, scavenging first six months of life, before we found each other in the front yard shrubbery.
Like us all, his life was altered by the flood.
But in his case, and now in retrospect, ours, it was good. When all of the furniture needed to be moved to make room for my piles of books, music, my computer and the paraphernalia from the office downstairs, Pal’s chair – the blue wingback that held his little cubical bed – was moved into our bedroom. He just had to navigate the footstool to step on the bed and continue to dole out his licks, although they were accompanied by a gruffer purring.
His litter box, which had been downstairs in the laundry, was moved into a corner in our room. We also put his food and water there. He was free to roam the upstairs, but he was happiest in the bedroom. Especially when we were there with him.
The cat himself, who still was loving, dropped to 3 pounds or less and he no longer had to climb downstairs or jump off beds. Since May 2, he had everything – including the two people he loved most – within 10 feet.
And since my office was relocated into the living room, he could come in here, climb on the couch, even climb on the desk and watch my fingers on the keys.
He enjoyed his life. We often thought when he had a bad day that perhaps it was time to call the vet for the lethal dose. But he’d bounce back, be happy. And he continued to eat and drink. And lick. He was slow and ailing, but in the same good spirits that captured my heart when I met him back when I was 41 years old.
Until Friday morning. Suddenly the cancer caught up to him with frightening fury. He fell onto the floor when bound for his litter box. His hindquarters suddenly failed. He had bounced back before, so we fed him and gave him water and hoped for the best. Of course, we knew the worst was more likely.
Saturday morning, he got up, drank and ate. For the last time on his own.
Then he fell down. For the first time, he obviously was uncomfortable. After holding him up while he used the litter box, my wife and I put him back in his bed. I called the vet. It was time.
But the vet didn’t return my call. And now I’m glad.
This morning, Pal’s breathing was strained as he fought for oxygen through his open mouth. Suzanne and I loved him, cleaned him up and gently dried his fur. He had not been able to make it from his bed to the litter box during the night. He'd always taken pride in being well groomed. We weren't going to allow him to leave us in condition that he wouldn't like. We comforted him. I called him "Honey-boy," a term I used for both Buddy and Pal, when they roamed the house on Rochelle Drive like Butch and Sundance.
But this morning, he would neither eat nor drink. He turned his head away from the spoon of soft food that had been his favorite 3 a.m. treat. He wouldn't even allow an eyedropper of water in his mouth.
We put him in his bed, next to ours. And we told him to go to sleep. That we loved him. That it was OK.
He died quietly in his bed. Surrounded by people who only hope we’ve returned the love he gave us.
Some philosopher, maybe it was me, once said that loving animals and watching them die is a gift they give us, that they actually help prepare us for the losses of parents and other human loved ones.
It doesn’t get any easier though.
He was my best Pal.