Saturday, April 24, 2010

Things Left Behind

It's been nine days since my beloved Muffin cat died. Because this isn't my first critter loss, the depression I feel is not as intense as it has been in years past. It's there nonetheless, though: a constant undercurrent that weaves itself through my days and dictates how I spend them.

Today, for instance, I chose not to volunteer at the horse rescue facility. Instead, I slept till 11:00, ate Reeses peanut butter cups for breakfast, putzed around on the computer for well over an hour, didn't shower until 1:00, and didn't eat a proper breakfast until 2:00. I'm pretty sure most other people were more productive.

I've spent a good deal of time, these past nine days, keeping myself immersed in busy-work - things designed to keep my hands moving and my brain occupied. The busy-work succeeds in keeping the sadness at bay. For a while. But then comes the time when I must go back into the house and deal with the absences: the absence of Muffin's presence, the absence of her insistent meows for attention. The absence of her requests for snacks. Indeed, there's an entire family room filled with her absences.

No one particularly wants to be in that room anymore, including me. It's where Muffin spent 99% of her time, the last couple of years. We all end up there in the evenings, though - I, watching t.v. while the cats keep me company. It feels awkward to be in that room now. Many nights, Muffin used to join me on the ottoman, or curl up in my lap for a snuggle - which leaves a big void where she used to be. So now my lap is filled with an absence, too.

Curiously, the dynamic among the cats has changed since Muffin's death. Buddy, the loner, has been spending less time sleeping and more time checking up on me. Any number of times throughout the day, now, Buddy approaches me and gives me a good sniff. Maybe he's trying to figure out where Muffin went. It's nice to see him coming out of his shell more, but it's impossible to explain to him why, exactly, Muffin had to leave.

The same is true with Spanky. Immediately after I returned from the vet's, that awful day, I tried to tell Spanky that Muffin had been sickly, so she "had to go." You can read that a couple of different ways, though, and once I realized that, I stopped talking. I don't want any of the cats thinking that if they get sick, they're going to get the boot.

Spanky was the last kitten that Muffin was willing to mother. He was an incredibly needy baby (and, seven years later, still is), making constant demands on Muffin for attention, for cleanings, for her time. She endured the demands surprisingly well, considering that Spanky was not technically hers - until he grew up. Then she made it very clear that she was done.

Spanky spent the rest of Muffin's life ignoring her growls, and occasionally, his perseverence was rewarded with a few licks on the head. Spanky would walk away happy, then, clearly believing that his mommmy-cat still loved him. Spanky now spends a lot of time asking for my attention. It's a cheap substitute for Muffin, but it will have to do.

By the time Junebug came along, Muffin had had enough of kittens, and was so nasty to Junebug that I often had to intervene. Muffin had started out life as an only cat, so I understood her unhappiness at being forced to live with so many others, but I draw the line at bullying. Eventually a certain parity was reached in which I played mommy-cat to Junebug while Muffin found a nice place to nap at the other end of the house. Junebug keeps looking at me now as though she's wondering if I'm o.k. I think she knows that I'm not.

When Gracie was brought into the house, everyone tried in their own way to scare her into submission. Gracie was having none of it, though. She'd survived out on the streets with a permanently gimpy leg; she wasn't about to be bossed around by my lot. So they all retreated to the other end of the house to stew about the latest turn of events, and Gracie used the time to find the right place to sleep. Then she spent an inordinate amount of time doing just that.

Muffin and Gracie never cared for each other, which is probably why Gracie spent so much of the last year sleeping wherever Muffin wasn't. Now, all of a sudden, Gracie is choosing to spend her evenings with me and the other three cats in the family room. It's nice that they're all there with me, but to be honest, I'd just as soon be anywhere else but in that room. There are simply too many reminders of what I lost.

Some time ago, at a yard sale, I came across a stuffed, 3-dimensional Kliban cat. He's a black-and-white tabby who's wearing red sneakers. I positioned him on the floor in front of an ottoman that I don't use. For some reason, Muffin liked snuggling up to that cat. Now, every time my eyes sweep around the family room, they come to rest on that lonely Kliban cat. Another absence.

There's a gaudy yellow blanket on the family room couch. It, too, I found at a yard sale. I liked the color, it was soft and snuggly, and sometimes, a little bit of gaudy is a good thing. I keep it folded at one end of the couch, ready for nap duty. Muff liked to crawl in between the folds, creating a little cat cave for herself. I could always tell by the messy lump where Muffin was sleeping. Now, the blanket lies flat and smooth. Another absence.

In my bathroom stands a set of wicker shelves. On the bottom shelf, I keep two folded beach towels. Every so often, Muffin would go in there, paw the top towel until it had unfolded somewhat, and then she'd lie on it. Given that I've set up special cat-friendly nooks and crannies all over the house, I have no idea why Muffin liked that spot behind the bathroom door, but she surely did. Now, the beach towels are as the gaudy yellow blanket: flat and smooth. Yet another absence.

I'm so incredibly grateful that I had the presence of mind to spend some extra time with Muffin, the few days before her death. Two nights - one of them, her last - I passed the night on the family room couch so that we could snuggle. Muff didn't come into my bedroom anymore, and for several years, I really missed the snuggling we used to do in bed. Those nights on the couch were good medicine for me as well as for her, though not nearly enough of it.

Several times, in the last week of her life, I took Muffin outside for some chaperoned excursions. In years past, on these same sorts of adventures, I would walk a few steps through the grass, in a direction I hoped she'd follow. Muffin would always wait til I got a couple of yards away, then race toward me at speed, stopping before she crashed into my feet. It was an amusing thing she did, one of those things you kick yourself for later because you took it for granted all the years she did it.

Muffin wasn't up to running - or walking much, for that matter - in her last days. She'd take a few steps, then gingerly lower herself onto the grass. It was as though she didn't have the physical energy to keep going any more. So I would sit down beside her, run my hand over her back as I remarked on what a nice day it was, and explained how the breezes would bring the smells right to her nose. They were quiet times, out in the yard. Perhaps, for Muff, they were also a final taking of stock, a last few looks at What Was.

I'm crying as I write this now. If I had known how close Muffin was to the end, I would've taken stock of What Was myself. But that's the problem with love, isn't it? You find yourself in a comfortable rhythm, after years together. You take that rhythm for granted, assuming that it will always be with you - or, at least, that you will have ample warning before the end, and plenty of time to say the things you should've said all along. It rarely works that way, though.

I really hope that Muffin knew how loved she was.

If there are lessons to be learned here, I can't help you with them. I'm much too busy at the moment keeping my hands moving and my brain occupied so that I don't have to think too much. Tears are inevitable, but mostly, I prefer feeling nothing to feeling the searing pain of loss. Life goes on, as it must, but with one notable difference now: there's a vast emptiness where Muffin used to be. It's a void that can never be filled.

Friday, April 16, 2010

In Memory of Muffin

Her name was Heidi. I met her at the local Humane Society. I was grieving the loss of my long-time friend, Kitty, at the time. For some reason, my shrink thought that a recconnoiter at the shelter would make me feel better, so I went. I stood watching in one of the cat rooms, as a couple tried to coax a big grey striped tabby back into its' cage. The cat didn't want to go. She didn't fuss, it was more of a Gandhi-style passive-resistance type of thing, in which she pretended that she didn't understand what the humans were trying to tell her.

"If you're done with her," I said, "I'll play with her for a bit." The couple agreed, and left the room. I picked up the cat, sat on a chair, and plopped her onto my lap. She immediately curled up and began to purr. It was her way of saying, "Take me home, Kelly. I'll go home with you." So I did.

The story I heard was that Heidi had been surrendered because her elderly owner went into a nursing home. She certainly seemed to have been raised by an old woman: I once offered her a plate-ful of tuna fish and she wouldn't eat it. She wouldn't even go near it. Shaking my head in disbelief that any cat existed who didn't like tuna, I transferred the fish from the plate to her food dish. The tabby then gobbled the entire portion.

She wouldn't get up on the furniture, either. That wasn't my rule; it must've been the old lady's. Once I let her know that my furniture was hers, too, Heidi happily availed herself of it for the rest of her life. One of her favorite things to do was snuggle with me while I napped on the couch. I loved it, too: it was our cozy time together. I could often feel her purring against my stomach as I dozed off.

She wasn't really a Heidi. At first I thought she was a Tiger, but when I got her home from the shelter, I concluded that she was really a Muffin. Being three years old at the time, though, it took a while for her to catch on to the name change. Hell, I ended up calling her by so many nicknames, it's a wonder she never had a full-blown identity crisis! With kittens in the house (not hers), she became "Mama." With age and dignity, she became "Lady Cat." Because I heard it on t.v. once, she was also "Mamala." Mostly, because she took good care of me the times I got sick, she was "Mommy-ma."

Muffin saw me through several bad relationships. She went where I went. I never moved anywhere that she couldn't come. She was there when Macavity died. When Winkie died. She was there through every single bout of depression. Quietly, consistently, faithfully, she was there. Many times, I took her for granted. Sometimes, she got lost in the shuffle; while the louder cats demanded my attention, Muffin waited patiently to be noticed.

Her special treat was to be taken outside. Whether at my last home, the chicken coop, or here at the critter shack, she loved to run her paws through the grass, bask in the sun, and sniff the air. "Breezes, Muff," I'd say, "they bring the smells right to your nose!" Together, we'd wander around the yard, me standing by as she investigated the messages left on trees and shrubs by other critters, or gauged her chances with the birds who would land temptingly close but realistically out of reach for the slightly-overweight, middle-aged cat.

I knew something was wrong. Suspected it for a couple weeks. I mentioned to fiance John that she seemed to have gone downhill very quickly, that old age seemed to have come out of nowhere and hit her hard. Her breathing was labored. She stopped eating her favorite snacks. She refused offers of catnip. The last couple of days, she took to lying in odd places in the front living room - a room no one used except to get from one end of the house to another. I called the vet and got an appointment for the next day.

In the meantime, I took her out in the back yard several times. We had some beautifully mild, sunny spring days - the kind of days Muff liked best - and I wanted her to know that she was still my special lady, even if Junebug did hog my attention from time to time. But these treks were far different from years past. For one thing, there was that labored breathing that seemed to slow her down. And she obviously didn't feel up to having any more adventures. Mostly, she just wanted to lie still in the grass. So I'd sit down beside her, pet her, and tell her what a good girl she was.

I was feeling mildly optimistic on the way to the vet's. A couple of times, Thursday morning, Muff had let me know she wanted some wet food. She didn't eat near enough of it, but she was trying. That gave me hope. Then the vet showed me the x-ray, and explained how all that fluid built up around Muffin's lungs was making it hard for her to breathe. "There's nothing you can do to treat that?" I asked. The doctor, a kindly young woman four years out of vet school, remarked that there were a couple of procedures they could try, but the results would be fruitless and we'd be right back where we were now. In her opinion, the kindest thing to do would be to euthanize.

I take these recommendations seriously. Years ago, I had a long-standing association with a different animal hospital, which made me privy to things that many people don't know. One of the most striking lessons I learned from that association was that folks rarely euthanize their pets at a time that's right for the animal. I don't know why. Call them selfish, call them emotionally unprepared, call them whatever you want, but while they're waiting for the "right" time to come along, their pet is suffering. And suffering is something I will not abide. My pet's comfort comes way before mine. Which is why I agreed to put Muffin down then and there. But don't think for a minute that it was an easy decision for me.

Another lesson I learned from that other animal hospital was that many people can't bear to be in the room when their beloved pet is euthanized. I don't understand that, either. This is your final good-bye. It's a stressful time for the animal. Why wouldn't you want to be there to comfort your pal, to say your last words, to have some closure? Being present for those last moments is not an easy thing to do, but it's a necessary thing to do. So I told the doctor that I would, indeed, be staying in the room for the procedure.

I asked for a few minutes alone with Muff, first. The doctor and her assistant kindly withdrew, leaving me holding my faithful companion, tears running down my cheeks as I told her that I'd miss her forever. That I loved her. That she was the best lady cat in the whole world.

They left me alone with Muffin again after the procedure was done. I spent many minutes petting her soft fur, kissing her head the way I'd done for eleven years, wondering how I was supposed to walk out of the room and never see her again. Eventually, the vet tech came to collect the body. Gently, respectfully, she wrapped Muffin's body in a towel, covering everything but her head. She stood with Muff in her arms, waiting in case I wanted to stay a bit longer still. I could've, might've, stayed on, but there's never a good time to leave that room. And therein lies the problem.

I've been present for the final moments of more than one pet - indeed, in the last six months, John and I have euthanized two of his cats. I can handle the needles, the barbiturate overdose, the limp body whose soul is gone forever. But leaving, that's a problem. There's no good time, you see. There's no good time to walk away, knowing that you'll never see your pet again. As long as you stay in that room, time is suspended, and you don't have to look the awful new reality in the eye yet.

So you linger, and you try like hell to memorize the way your pet smelled, how its' fur felt against your cheek. You try, but it's too little, too late. You had your chance. All those years you shared together, but you never bothered to file that information away. You didn't need to, you had years ahead of you. And now, as the assitant wraps your friend in the towel, and prepares to take it away forever, now it's too late to try to memorize those details. And you know that, which makes walking out of that exam room, making your way through the lobby and out to your car, empty carrier in hand, next to impossible.

How did all those years fly by so fast? How did it come to this, without preparation, seemingly without warning? No matter how many times I go through it, it never gets any easier. Each animal has its own unique, magical soul, and each death is a crushing heartbreak all its own.

The house feels empty now. Or at least, empty of Muffin's presence. The silence she leaves behind is deafening. Her favorite places to lie in the family room are all empty. My eyes keep flitting from one spot to the next, knowing full well that I'll never see her here again, but wishing mightily all the same. Last night, I almost called out her name as I walked into the house. This period of adjustment is hard.

Really hard.

My friend Bob Tarte, writing in Fowl Weather about the grief he experienced at the loss of his beloved parrot, famously said, "I'm trying to cry myself to death." So ridiculous. So understandable.

If I could have a funeral service for Muff - a proper service, like humans get - I'd have a Unitarian minister of my acquaintence give the eulogy. He'd say eloquent things about how important it is to live each day to the fullest, to embrace all those people you love - human and otherwise - and love them all fully, fiercely, unashamedly, every single day of your life.

He would talk about Muff's fondness for crunchy tuna-flavored snacks - a fondness that found her chasing the treats across the room with a spunk that I'd thought had left her years ago. He would talk about how reliably she would jump into my lap when I'd sit down to watch the evening news. How happily she would knead bread on my stomach, clawing my belly and ruining shirts in the process. He would talk about her joy in sharing those outdoor adventures with me - times when the demands of even the loudest cat in the house were put on hold so that Muff and I could be alone together for a while. It would be a funeral befitting a Lady Cat, and at the end, we'd all scatter catnip instead of ashes.

"Just let me close my eyes, memorize
the way things are this minute,
so when you're gone, I can go on.
If memory can hold within it what I'm feeling,
should time try fading or stealing something away."
- Ian Thomas, "Hold On"

I'll miss you forever, Muffin.
Miss Muffin.
Pretty old Lady Cat.
My best girl.