Monday, February 1, 2010

A Cat's Life

Our cat, Fuzz, is dying. Five days ago, he started refusing food, even the enticements of well-mashed tuna and the bowls of milk that he’d nibbled and lapped, listlessly, for a few weeks now.

I took him to the vet last month when his usual voracious appetite, the-appetite-that-compelled-us-to-feed-him-separately-from-his-sister-Raven-because-he-was-such-a-pig, had waned. Blood tests indicated kidney failure, so he was put on a diet of special food and anti-biotics. For a while, he loved his new regimen, but that interest faded too.

He is weak and disoriented. The soft gray-striped fur that once swathed a corpulent body hangs loose from his bony spine and haunches. He staggers to his water bowl, compelled by muscle memory perhaps, and sits and stares, without drinking.

Still, he surprises us. Even though we’ve been carrying him up and down stairs to spare him strain, three days ago I had to fetch him from the top of the water heater – a good six feet high. And more recently, after he’d slept for twelve hours straight and we felt sure the end was near, he jumped on our bed in the middle of the night.

When I hold my old friend, I can feel his heart beating beneath my fingers and I am moved to tears at the mysterious force that compels that rhythm, a force beyond health, beyond sustenance.

Sixteen years ago, Fuzz and Raven were born in our house of a lovely, but promiscuous black cat named Melissa. In her youth, she lived free because her owner was constructing a house across the street and the two camped out regularly in an old red barn on the property. Our daughter, Casey, befriended them both, but we cautioned her against loving a cat who regularly crossed a road. The builder, as it turned out, offered Melissa as a gift, but we were a dog family, and our 100-pound malamute, Kody, was unpredictable when it came to cats. Actually, she was predictable and that was the problem.

But, after a lengthy and cautious period of adjustment, the two animals made their peace and Melissa moved in with us. Soon thereafter, we noticed she’d gained weight. About the same time, we saw a handsome, rakish, lady’s man of a tiger cat hanging around the barn. Now that she was ours, Melissa’s days of outdoor roaming were over, but evidently she and the tiger had shared some good times. Our new cat was pregnant.

We loved to hold her as her belly grew, feeling the flutter-kicks of tiny kittens – new life! - beneath the rapid beat of their mother’s heart.

Our children, Tucker and Casey, were at school when Melissa announced it was Time. She wove about my legs, yowling, until I followed her to the spot she’d chosen on the third floor, a gap between the wall and an unused toilet in an unused bathroom, far from Kody’s keen nose. I gathered a large sturdy box and a wad of towels, fashioned a soft nest, and then dashed to the car to pick up the kids so they could witness the birth.

And so, we were there from the beginning when Fuzz, Raven, and their two siblings joined us in this world. Toby and Cow Pie found homes with my mother-in-law and a friend. Raven – ebony black like her mother, and Fuzz – a miniature of his wandering gray-striped father – stayed with us.

Even as the tiniest kitten, Fuzz established himself as the alpha male. He shoved his litter-mates aside while nursing and grew fat and brassy. There was no question that we would keep this adorable fluffy cat with his long white whiskers. Raven, meanwhile, was the runt; she would have died if we hadn’t held her brothers at bay to give her a chance at the milk. She is sleek, beautiful and elegant now, but as a baby she was scrawny and we suspected she might have brain damage.

Meanwhile, Kody seemed to sense that something new and alluring had taken up residence; she spent a lot of time sniffing at the door to the third floor stairs. But we were careful that the babies remained safe, away from the dog.

At least, most of us were.

It was Dave who introduced Fuzz to Kody. The cat was but a handful, and my husband was cuddling him when our malamute entered the room. Holding the cat cupped close in his hands, Dave allowed the dog a sniff and a peek. That was all it took and Kody grabbed the kitten by the head and tossed him in the air. Dave suspected his own days at the house were numbered as he reached out, terrified, to catch the baby as it fell.

But Fuzz was purring, unharmed.

An odd friendship formed with that first encounter. The two animals would nap snuggled together when not enjoying their favorite game, a re-enactment of their meeting, called “Kill the Cat.” As visitors watched, horrified, Kody would take Fuzz’s head in her mouth and swing him about on the floor… and Fuzz loved it.

As Kody neared her end, at the age of fifteen, the two cats kept her company, curled by her side on a royal blue dog bed. Dave snapped a picture of the three old friends together the day before Kody died, but the camera jammed. We assumed the picture was lost.

Weeks after Kody’s death, we picked up a packet of pictures at the camera store. As she flipped through the shots, Casey gasped and said, “Look Mom, they’re kissing you!” Somehow the lost photograph had survived, superimposed on another picture of me with two friends. Ghostly images of Fuzz and Kody flank me and appear to be kissing my cheeks. A loving good-bye from the Other Side.

While many cats are aloof, Fuzz is companionable and responsive. If a welcoming lap is available, he takes it. If a body is curled, cozy, for a snooze, he snuggles into the crook of an arm or the curve of a knee. If one of us is sick or sad, he can sense it, and arrives to offer warmth and comfort.

Of course, he and his sister leave us presents as well. Recently, I picked up a tuft of shredded beige yarn kneaded by cat claws from my grandmother’s hooked rug. I transferred it to my other hand and reached for another loose cluster on the floor. I was inches from the nondescript scrap of brown when I noticed the eyes. Two eyes staring at me, mid-scrap.

It was a mouse scalp with eyes. This is not the type of gift that I like, beloved cats.

Melissa passed away years ago, hit by a car when she slipped out a basement door mistakenly left ajar during a furnace cleaning. Tucker and Casey have grown up and left home. For awhile now, Fuzz and Raven have been the kids we come home to, but Fuzz is leaving soon.


Meg said...

My own Sammy is nearing the end, he too becoming a bony shadow of what he used to be. Reading your blog made me think that I should be more understanding when he calls out in hunger in the middle of the night waking me from a dead sleep. I have to remember that rambunctious little kitten who stole my heart 16 years ago.

Eliza said...

I don't know about you, but as a Hospice worker I have come to feel so honored to be present at these times. This reminds me of Sally Field in that movie Steel Magnolias- after her daughter has died- saying "I was there for her first breath- and I was there at the very end when she slipped away from us." Even with pets- these are such precious moments. And your writing is as lovely as always.

Casey said...

I miss our Fuzz....