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.


grinchie said...

That last visit to the vet's office IS a killer.....
cry myself to death is a goal.....
your muff and my maxie better be waiting for us when we get to wherever we end up.......

Crazy Critter Lady said...

They'll all be waiting for us, Laura. Every cat, dog, duck and horse we ever knew. There's no doubt in my mind about that.

Rita said...

Kelly, what a wonderful tribute to Muffin. I remember having to put down my Maine Coon, Miri. I cried for days. You become so attached to these critters. I was so upset when she died I swore I'd never own another cat. Ten months later I found Sweetpea.