The backbeat to my days now is the rhythm of my cat’s heavy breathing. I know her days are numbered, but she still loves to be cuddled in the evening and is fighting to stay with me.
When I came home from living abroad, I planned to continue traveling but just taking short trips, in weeks rather than months or years. I’ve had big dogs most of my life and love their exuberance and unwavering slobbery affection, but this seemed like a better time for a cat, who would be more tolerant of my comings and goings. I was ready to share my home with a more independent soul. We could be kindred spirits. Not a kitten, too much work to train and too much energy to contain. I checked the offerings posted online at Charlie’s Place, the local animal shelter, and was drawn to the graceful beauty and painterly colors of an adult calico.
Yuki came from a hoarding house with seventy cats, I was told. A year later, she was one of the only ones left because she would hide when someone came into the cat room. She stood under a chair-height platform watching me. Shy was okay with me; I didn’t want an aggressive pet. I visited with some of the other felines and later she came out to a higher shelf and laid on her side to be stroked. I was falling in love.
The staff coaxed her into a large cage with tuna and she was packed up and ready to come home with me that afternoon. They advised me to release her into an enclosed room with food and litter box for a day or two until she settled down. I opened the cage in my bedroom and closed the door. Later I returned and took the cage away; she was hiding under my bed. I talked to her on and off during that day and she stayed underneath the bed as I slept that night. The next day I opened the door and moved her appurtenances out into the hall. She came and went as a slinking shadow for days until finally we could coexist in the same room.
It was probably two years until she would sit on the sofa or in a chair with me. She still doesn’t like to be picked up. I try to lift her gently once in a while and then sit in a chair to pet her on my lap, so she would know I wouldn’t want to hurt her. Who knows what abuse or neglect she had suffered in the past? I did get her in a smaller cage once to take her to the vet for a checkup and needed shots. The shelter had already had her spayed. She cried all the way there, terrified. The shelter staff had said she was five or six years old; the vet said seven. My best guess is that she’s about thirteen and a half now.
Living alone, I was delighted to have company and someone to talk to. And Yuki responded in kind, quite a verbal kitty! During the day, her favorite spot is under my desk chair as I work or cruise the net, where a heat duct in the floor warms us both. There’s a printer table next to the desk with an empty shelf at the top; both the desk and table sit in a bay window. From that perch, she loves to watch the open space outside the window where wildlife often graze or wander, her view to the world. Once, she slammed into the big window to chase a bird flapping too close, branching cracks spread, and it cost hundreds of dollars to replace. Fazed, she didn’t seem harmed and bounced back pretty quickly, hopefully having learned a lesson.
A little over a month ago, I noticed her snoring. I thought it was funny and just an age complication. But soon she was making congestion noises during the day as humans do when we have a cold. Do cats catch colds? I checked the Internet and found that yes, they might, even an indoor cat if there was a change in their environment, usually seven to ten days duration. Colder seasons were approaching and I keep the heat down in the house; maybe that could explain it, I thought. But it persisted, so I called the vet’s office and made an appointment.
Spoiler alert: this is where the story gets sadder. Stop reading now, if you so choose.
Yuki had only been to the vet twice (once from a hurt paw), and putting tuna in the cage no longer worked; she knew that trick. I positioned the cage on end and covered it with a blanket so she couldn’t see it, a day or two before it was needed. Grabbing her and dropping her into the cage feet first, as recommended by my stepson, I closed and locked the gate, and drove the fifteen minutes to the vet. There were some dental problems and gum swelling; those might be causing discomfort but that was not likely the whole story, he advised. He found no obvious cause and didn’t have the tools to explore up her nose to her sinuses, but could give me a referral to an internal medicine clinic if it came to that.
Having administered a cortisone shot, a nurse handed me some anti-inflammatory liquid I could add to her food until it was finished. The vet suggested humidity: close her up in the bathroom for a few hours after running a hot shower, twice a day. Good luck with that! If I was able to get her in there and close the door, I knew she would avoid me for days afterward. It could only happen once if at all. I bought a humidifier instead and set it up in the corner of the living room where she mostly hangs out. She seemed to be feeling a bit better during that week, but we were just treating symptoms. The problem was still there.
After a tussle when she grabbed the gate of the cage with her claws, I was able to lift her away, turn her and try again to get her lower body in. After some scraping to try to climb out, she slid down. I left her with the vet this time. Under anesthesia, he resolved her dental problems and took an x-ray of her skull. When I picked her up later in the day (driving through a snowstorm!), he gave me a painkiller to take home for her and invited me into the larger back room.
The x-ray hung over a lightbox. There was a growth, he pointed out, in one side of her sinus cavity. It appeared to be growing because it was not as intrusive a month ago. He wasn’t able to get up in there to do a biopsy but took some gum tissue and would send it off to a lab. “It might tell us something.” He could give me a referral to the clinic, if I chose, but it was unlikely they could remove the tumor. They would probably be able to give us some indication of what the problem actually was. “It would put a name on it,” but he wasn’t expecting any kind of cure. The lab results usually took a week; he would call me then and see what I wanted to do. I heard nothing in the way of hope.
Inconclusive, the vet reported about the lab results. It really didn’t matter. I had had a week to think about it, and her condition did seem to be worsening. She choked and gagged when eating or cleaning herself, unable to breathe through her mouth. Eating less, sleeping more, less active, snorting and snuffling. I was afraid that soon she might not be able to breathe. I suggested, through tears, that I bring her in for one last time. I didn’t want to subject her to the difficulties of bringing her to the clinic. I wasn’t hearing any cause for hope. The vet was calm and gentle with me, not encouraging, not discouraging. “It’s a decision only you can make and it’s a hard one.” I set up an appointment. “Just call if you change your mind.”
The night before, she had been breathing more loudly and shaking her head to try to clear her sinuses. She threw up in the morning. It seemed to be a reasonable decision to euthanize, even though I felt terrible doing so. But this time, she fought vehemently against getting into the cage. She kicked the cage over and hung on to my clothes with her claws. She was a wildcat! I bent down and couldn’t reach the cage to right it. Then she scratched a gash in my outstretched hand and it was over. She scrambled down and dived under my bed. Blood was everywhere. I ran into the bathroom and rinsed the cut, pouring hydrogen peroxide over it several times. She just missed the vein. The bleeding gradually slowed. I blotted and bandaged it, and was able to stop shaking after our altercation. I called the vet to cancel.
“I couldn’t get her in the cage. I won’t try it again.” I asked if they ever did house calls. The nurse said they do occasionally for euthanasia visits. “I’ll let you know. We’ll see how it goes.” She usually didn’t respond well to someone coming in and trying to pet her, so she would have to be pretty far gone to be cooperative.
“She was fighting for her life!” my brother cried when we spoke.
“I’m going to respect that,” I concluded.
I could have used a few stitches in my hand, so I called my doctor but they weren’t taking anyone in the office in this time of the pandemic. Needing to get out of the house and calm down, I took a drive but decided not to go to an emergency room. A battle scar would remain, but I could live with that. I pulled over for a while to sob.
I would spend the days ahead, however long (it’s just been a week at this writing), as a caretaker, with moments that take me back to the months of heightened awareness, careful attentiveness, and savoring of those last times together when my husband was dying of cancer. Of course, it’s different because she’s a cat; but the need to be quiet and let her sleep, concern for her comfort, taking time to just be with her because that’s all we can do, isn’t so different.
When I returned home that day, I could hear the heartbreaking sound of Yuki’s labored breathing from the upstairs landing. By evening, she was back with me on the sofa. She decided to trust me, needing comforting murmurings and strokes, taking what solace she can. And I find what consolation I can in my isolation.
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