Thursday, April 20, 2017

Another goodbye

The first time that I met Mitters, she didn't like me. In fact, she wouldn't even let me touch her, hissing and growling when I tried to get close.

Incidentally, the first time that I met Mitters, I didn't even know that her name was Mitters.

Cara had told me that her cat, a rather feisty eight-year-old girl at the time, was named Onyx. Onyx Marie Williams, in full. This wasn't exactly untrue, but it wasn't the whole truth, either.

My first visit to Cara's apartment, and hence my first encounter with Mitters, must have come during Thanksgiving weekend in 2006, as that was the first time I visited Columbus after Cara and I started dating. On that visit and on numerous subsequent visits, Cara called her cat Onyx, and I perceived nothing unusual about this. It wasn't until some time later - how much time, I really don't remember - that Cara confessed that "Onyx" was not what she normally called her lady kitty when I wasn't there, and that it in fact felt strange to her to call the cat by that name.

You see, when Cara adopted her cat, Cara was dating a guy who she ended up not liking very much, and that guy, not Cara, was the one who came up with the Onyx moniker. According to Cara, he was mean to young Onyx, once even throwing her across the room. No surprise, then, that Cara didn't continue seeing him. And no surprise that her poor kitty came to dislike strangers, especially strangers of the male variety.

Cara had a thing for coming up with cute, silly names for her cat. (Other examples I recall from over the years include Tomato and Marby.) One such name was Mitters, and it stuck. So eventually Cara confessed to me that she normally called her cat Mitters, not Onyx, but that she had been too embarrassed at first to admit that she called her cat such a silly name!

It's also worth mentioning a snippet of conversation that happened many months before Cara and I started dating. The first time Cara mentioned having a cat to me (in our AOL Instant Messenger chat), I replied, "That's cool that you have a cat, someday I will get a cat of my own, I love them." I was right, of course, but I absolutely could not have imagined that someday Cara's cat would be my cat as well, and Cara herself would be gone.

Cara had Mitters long before I knew Cara, so I did not know Mitters as a young cat, but as a middle-aged cat Mitters could be quite vicious. Oddly, although she seemed to like Cara (for the most part), she saved her truly vicious attacks for Cara, not me. I recall lying in Cara's bed at her old apartment in Columbus, and Cara returning to the bedroom from the bathroom in a darkened apartment, and then a stream of curses erupting as Mitters suddenly sprang from a hiding spot to grab, bite and claw at Cara's legs - occasionally drawing a significant amount of blood. Mitters never did this to me.

I also have fond memories of Mitters sitting on the edge of Cara's bed as the two of us blissfully cuddled with each other.

When Cara and I moved in with each other in June 2009, the biggest source of stress by far was the difficulty in integrating Mitters and my cat Eponine into a single household. Mitters, having lived her first eleven years as the sole cat in the household, was not at all happy about that no longer being the case. There were numerous fights. The worst were the ones that woke us up in the middle of the night. We bought a baby gate and set it up in between the living room and kitchen of our small Little Italy apartment, hoping it would keep the cats separated. This didn't work, of course, because they had no trouble jumping over the gate. Then we decided to keep Eponine shut in her own room at night, the apartment's second bedroom, a room that we basically only ever used as storage for a bunch of random junk plus as Eponine's bedroom (the me of today would have been absolutely horrified at the messy state of that room). This did not save us from being awoken in the middle of the night, because Mitters would loudly attack the closed door of Eponine's bedroom. Then I discovered that if I shut Eponine in the room and put the baby gate in front of the closed door, Mitters would not attack the door.

Non-cat-owners who are reading this are undoubtedly thinking that it sounds completely crazy!

Back in those days, I told Cara that I thought of eleven-year-old Mitters and two-year-old Eponine as "the old lady and the baby." Cara was a bit miffed that I called Mitters old. I can see what she meant. In one more year, Eponine will be as old as Mitters was when I first called Mitters an old lady, and I still think of Eponine as my baby.

Over the years, Mitters mellowed out a lot, although it was a gradual process. It didn't take too long before she grew to tolerate, and then to like, me. (This had already happened before Cara and I moved in together.) Mitters never came to truly like Eponine, but the fights decreased in frequency. When we moved to our next place of residence, late in the year 2012, we no longer had the ability to shut Eponine in a separate room at night. Fortunately, the cats' relationship had improved enough that this was a tolerable situation, although there were still occasional late night clashes that I had to break up.

At that apartment, a sleeping arrangement evolved that continued on to our next home (Cara's last, and the place where I still reside). Cara usually went to bed before me, and Mitters usually joined her in bed, lying down on Cara's side of the bed. After I went to bed later in the night, Eponine would often join me on my side of the bed. The cats were fine both sleeping in the same bed at the same time - as long as they couldn't see each other. Therefore, we arranged pillows in the middle of the bed to create a barrier between our two fur babies.

Things continued like this until April 2015 when Cara was hospitalized just less than one week before her death. Mitters stopped coming to bed, and while Eponine has continued to join me in bed at night, Mitters never went back to sleeping in the bed after Cara was gone. It was the only major change in Mitters's behavior that I noticed. She would often hang out with me on the sofa in the living room, but not in bed.

In her senior years, Mitters became friendly to most people she met, a striking contrast from her behavior when I first encountered her. She was a very sweet old lady. She also lost a great deal of weight. There was more than one time when we thought she was going to die soon, but then she regained her liveliness. I remember thinking about how incredibly sad Cara would feel when Mitters died. I also remember wondering who, after Cara was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, would be around longer between the two of them. I didn't think it would be Mitters by almost two years.

In February of this year, Mitters turned nineteen years old. Although very skinny, she seemed in great health for such an old lady. Last fall I adopted a kitten, Gavroche, a very rambunctious little guy with a ceaseless desire to play with my two older cats. Neither Mitters nor Eponine had any desire to play with a kitten. Despite being so elderly, it seemed Mitters was better than Eponine at standing up for herself and telling the little guy to back off.

There were signs that Mitters was slowing down. Something she often did over the years was jump up onto the bathroom sink and meow, asking for the faucet to be turned on so she could drink from it. Last year she started to fail on occasion when trying to make the jump, which was very cute but a little sad to see. I kept a box of cat litter next to the counter and she learned that she could climb up onto the box and then jump to the sink from there. Eventually she stopped doing even this. Still, in some way it almost seemed like Mitters would be around forever.

Of course, this was not to be.

In late March, Mitters stopped eating her normal food. This had happened before; usually she would get over it within a few days so I didn't think much of it at first. Eventually I decided to feed her wet food (I normally feed my cats only dry food) and she went crazy for it. A couple of times Mitters and Eponine were eating from the same dish of wet food at the same time, their two little black heads touching, and it was so precious and I wished so badly that Cara could see it, because it had never happened before.

But after a few days, Mitters lost interest in even the wet food.

On the morning of Friday, March 31, I woke up to find Mitters lying on the kitchen floor just looking incredibly weak and tired. Suddenly it was evident to me that she might have very little time left on this Earth. I stayed with her for a little while, afraid she might be gone at any moment, before deciding that her passing wasn't likely to be that imminent and going to the pet store where I bought some liquid cat formula. Mitters did perk up some when presented with this and did lap up some of it, but still not very much. I called the vet and explained what was going on and said I was reluctant to bring her in because she hated going to the vet - on past visits she became so upset that she had to be sedated before the vet could even examine her, and I didn't want to put her through that in her weakened state. The vet's office said that they couldn't give me any recommendation without seeing Mitters in person, and that they wouldn't do sedation, and perhaps would be able to examine her without it because of how weak she was.

This turned out to be true. Mitters was much better behaved than on any previous vet visit. (During my time with her, at least; Cara had told me that Mitters didn't mind going to the vet as a kitten but suddenly came to hate it after being spayed.) The vet told me that Mitters was clearly sick, but exactly what was wrong couldn't be determined without more extensive testing. They gave me three options - Mitters could be hospitalized (which would be very expensive and might not result in any long-term improvement, especially given her advanced age), Mitters could be injected with some pain and nausea medication and sent home where I'd monitor her condition over the weekend (and they warned that Mitters might not make it through the weekend), or Mitters could be euthanized then and there.

I cried there in the vet's office as I explained how Mitters had been my wife's cat before I knew my wife, and my wife had died of lung cancer almost two years ago. I knew that losing Mitters would be like losing a part of Cara. I wasn't ready to say goodbye to her. I also knew that the hospitalization option didn't really make sense. So I decided to take Mitters home.

During that weekend, I found myself nearly unable to leave Mitters's side. On Friday night I got a burger for dinner and, sitting on my sofa, watching basketball with Mitters lying beside me, I presented her a small bite. She gladly accepted it. Mitters was always persistent in her efforts to steal bites of "people food" when Cara and I were eating, and burgers were among her favorites. That bite of hamburger on that Friday night was the last solid food Mitters consumed.

On Saturday and Sunday, Mitters gradually became weaker and weaker. Not knowing how much longer she'd be around, I could hardly bring myself to leave the house. I only did so to get take-out meals from restaurants in my neighborhood and for a very short (15 minutes tops) bike ride on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Although it was very sad to see Mitters in that state, it was also very special to me to get to spend all that time with her.

A realization struck me. When Cara died, it all happened so fast that I wasn't aware of how imminent her death was until the last few hours of her life. As a result, I did not spend as much time with her in those last few days as I could have. She died at 4:15 am on Friday, April 24, 2015. The previous morning, less than 24 hours before her passing, I actually went to work (my job is conveniently located on the same hospital campus at which Cara was hospitalized), although I didn't work the whole day. Although it was something I rarely thought about consciously, I realized that I had regrets about not having spent more time with Cara.

By spending as much time as I could with Mitters, I was actually atoning for that in a way. It was remarkably therapeutic. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, I did not even sleep in my bed so that I could be closer to Mitters. I alternated sleeping on the sofa and on the floor (wrapped up in the comforter that I removed from the bed) depending on Mitters's preferences, so that I could be near her.

There were many times that weekend that I cried, much more than I had in quite some time. Crying itself can be therapeutic.

I honestly didn't expect Mitters to hang around as long as she did. It was like the opposite of Cara, whose final deterioration and passing happened with shocking rapidity. On Sunday night, due to the sorry state of my dear old lady kitty (who was basically just lying down all the time, very rarely moving, and with labored breathing), I decided that if she was still alive the following morning I would call the vet to schedule euthanasia. I did so on Monday morning, making an appointment for late in the afternoon. Secretly I hoped that Mitters would pass at home. And she did, on the dining room floor (where she had collapsed after abruptly jumping down from the sofa and then starting to walk with very shaky legs), at around noon.

I recently read an article about "the widowhood effect" written by someone else who lost a spouse to cancer in her 30s. One passage particularly stuck with me:
A palliative-care doctor once told me that we die cell by cell until enough cells succumb that we cross over a line. But if you are watching the person you love the most die, you track their breaths, not cells. When someone is dying, their breath slows. Ever-widening gaps form between the end of the exhale and the beginning of the next inhale. In that space, you, the watcher, wait to find out if the unimaginable has happened. You don’t know if this breath is the last one, or if there is another to come. You only know it’s the last breath when it’s too late to go back and tell them you love them one final time.
Reading that took me back to being in that hospital room with Cara and watching her breathe her last breaths.

When Mitters passed, it was, again, just like that description.

Another poignant detail I recall from the last minutes of her life: those who have owned cats will undoubtedly be familiar with the kneading motion that cats sometimes make with their forepaws. Many cats will knead soft surfaces such as pillows, or a beloved human's chest. As young kittens, cats knead in order to stimulate production of milk by their mothers. I remember Cara saying that kneading (or "making muffins," as she called it) was a "nostalgia thing" for cats. And as Mitters lay there on the floor, breathing her last breaths, I briefly noticed her graying little forepaws moving in that familiar "muffining" motion.

Because cats and dogs typically live for a number of years approximating the time it takes for a human being to journey from childhood to adulthood, the death of a beloved childhood pet can be a sort of preparation for losing a beloved human relation. It was not so for me, as I had no childhood pets. The first truly major loss I suffered was the hardest one there is, the loss of a beloved spouse. Rather than being preparation for such a loss, the loss of Mitters was a recapitulation of that loss. It was a very painful experience. But it was also a very special experience. I will always cherish getting to spend those last few days with Mitters.

(I will say that losing a pet is not the same thing as losing a person. Sad as I was, it did not take me long to recover to my normal happy self.)

Several hours after she passed away, I took Mitters to the vet for cremation. I plan to scatter her ashes on Cara's grave, something that Cara's mother suggested.

In addition to the name "Mitters," there was something else about Mitters that Cara, for many many years (far more, in fact) felt too self-conscious to reveal to me. Cara told me many times over the years how she had a special song that she had made up and would sing to Mitters. The lyrics of the song were not in English or any other human language, but were nonsense words that Cara had made up. According to Cara, Mitters liked the song and showed signs of recognition when Cara sang it to her. Although Cara told me about this many times, she could never bring herself to actually sing the song in front of me because she felt embarrassed. But finally, just once, in the last few months of Cara's life, she did sing the song in front of me. I wonder if Cara sensed that she might not be around much longer and hoped that, in the event that sad outcome came to be, I could carry on singing the song to Mitters. Sadly, I do not remember the song, and now that Cara and Mitters are both gone, no one on this Earth remembers it.

I'd like to think that, somewhere, Cara is singing that song to Mitters now.


  1. I'm so very sorry for both of your losses.

  2. I love your stories about the Cara I didn't know. -- Aunt Jean