Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Learning to Die — a post for Eileen

Thanks to all who posted comments and thoughts on my blogging paralysis.

Today, I return to the blog with the familiar theme of mortality. We've not seen the little old cat Mima for three days now, and I think she has quietly gone away to die. Over the last week she was looking more and more uncomfortable, whether standing, or crouching. I'd not seen her curled up, or sprawling with ease for a very long time. She had had several more fits, and I believe they were starting to affect her synapses, as she'd stand still for a long time, as if trying to remember how to put one foot in front of another to walk. She was having trouble jumping up on to our knees, but still loved to be held and cuddled as always. She was still grooming herself, but was very thin. She'd walk around and around the room in circles; she'd forget to eat; she'd forget she'd eaten; and generally was not really herself. A few days ago I held her close and told her the day might come soon. She seemed, now I look back, to be fading away from herself.

It was probably kidney failure in the end. Or the simple task of moving her old body through the day just became too much for her. She disappeared on Friday night, but turned up again on Saturday. But Sunday morning she was gone again and there has been no sign of her. I imagine she is deep in the garden somewhere or under the house, just quietly crouching, head sinking down until it does not lift again. There was no point calling her, as she is completely deaf. And in any case, it's so clear to me that she has taken herself away.

I'm sad there is no body to bury. But I still see her nestled in the garden when I walk outside: amongst the gardenias; sipping from the fishpond; walking up and down the paths. And I am overwhelmed by the dignity of her going away to die, especially as this was an extremely domesticated cat.


She came to me when she was a mere 8 weeks old, in 1991. From the day I brought her home she was a cuddly, talkative kind of cat, who loved to be held, and to sit on you. She spent many a happy hour on my desk, and in my house in Brunswick used to play a game of getting around the study without touching the floor: bookshelf to desk to cupboard to mantlepiece, etc. When I returned from the supermarket she'd greet me at the front door then thunder down the corridor to the kitchen. This was in the days before the calesi virus, when rabbit was cheap and plentiful, and rabbit liver a Saturday lunchtime treat. When we moved to the shared house in Fitzroy, she was not made welcome by the resident cat, and kind of lived in the front room for a year, until she became the sole resident cat here.

Mima loved a party. I always expected her to disappear, but she'd sprawl on the floor in the middle of a group and accept adulation.

When she was about a year old, she got into a fight, and had a tiny abscess on one ear. I took her to the vet and it began to heal, but the ear seemed to be turning back on itself as the scar tissue tightened. I took her back to the vet, who kept her overnight while he operated, straightening out the ear and stitching it to a piece of x-ray film. A week later we went back. He removed the stitches, and everything looked well, until she shook her head and the tip of her ear fell off. He was very embarrassed; and it was kind of funny, but left her with a damaged ear that looked far worse than the original injury. I have told that story hundreds of times, now, to nearly everyone who's come to my house over the last eighteen years. I've probably just told it for the last time.
When Joel was born, she was completely unimpressed. I remember sitting up in bed, breastfeeding, while she sat on the extreme corner of the bed with her back to us. But Joel's first word was "dat", and after that they became firm friends. They've watched much television together; and she's often been the image on his phone. He gave her her "cheeseballs", her various medications wrapped up in cheese; and a little taste of "breakfast milk" after finishing his cereal. She was part of so many of our little family routines, and we are all missing her very much.

She was the kind of cat who'd come and sit on your chest, and pat your face with her paws, and nuzzle and kiss you, and purr in your ear, telling you her secrets, as my sister said, or lie in your arms and stretch her paws up to your face. She'd always say hello when entering a room; and if you ran into her on the garden path and put your hand down, she would come up on her back feet so as to receive a pat.

None of these photos captures the beauty of this sweet little cat, or her funny little ways. Perhaps she wasn't the prettiest cat; but she was a cat of great character, and a cat who seemed to want to be closely knit into the fabric of our days. The vet said to me a few months ago — and it was at this moment I began my mourning, I think — "She's been at your side a long time, hasn't she?"

Farewell, little Mima, beloved companion.

13 comments:

Kim Wilkins said...

you made me cry, stephanie. be well.

Nicole said...

commiserations to you all. It's a sad time. Our old dears finally departed a few years ago at 17 and 19. There were cat ghosts out of the corners of our eyes for months afterwards.
love Nici xx

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

You're right, she'll be somewhere close by. xxx

elsewhere said...

Oh dear. I hope you're not right. I keep on thinking that my old cat Jessie has died when she refuses to come to my call but she invariably turns out to be curled up under the bed, sleeping deafly.

Leonard, one of my other cats, took himself off to die when I went off to the US for the first time. When the catsitter couldn't find him, I suggested that she look under the couch upstairs where he used to hide during vaccuuming -- and that's where he'd gone. Maybe Mima had a similar idiosyncratic nook?

My vet said something similar to yours: 'It's a long time to have someone in your life, isn't it?'

Elisabeth said...

There is a dignity in the animal who takes herself off to die, as you say, quietly and alone.

We have watched two of our old cats go this way. It's sad but necessary. The cycle of life.

When our last cat, Pickles,died my husband took him to the vet to have him put down. Pickles was seventeen, his eyes had gone, he could not walk or eat. His body seemed to cave in on itself.

The sadness my husband felt for all living things as much as for our cat, the sadness of aging and of life moving on has stayed with me.

We buried Pickles in our back yard along with all our other deceased pets. They are part of our family story, as is your beloved cat, with ragged ear and gentle disposition.

Dr. Virago said...

What a wonderful cat and beloved companion! My thoughts are with you as you mourn.

Anonymous said...

Stephanie, what a beautiful tribute to your little companion. I was very moved by it. Best wishes, Delia

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Condolences - it makes such a difference to your daily life, doesn't it? suddenly not having that little presence you're always used to having about.

I don't know if I ever mentioned, but my two close friends in Ottawa have a baby, just ten months old, who is amazing and wonderful and rather an important figure in my life now. She's already starting to talk, and her first word? "Ca!" (she learned the 't' two weeks later).

There must be something very thrilling about the household cat when you're that age! Forget 'Mum' - the most important sound to master is the one that says 'Look at that there I want to TOUCH it!'.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

My heart is broken for you and your family ... and what a noble, perfect cat you had in Mima.

As you know we lost our dog Scooby not that long ago. We feel that loss constantly. It takes a long time to heal, I think, when a creature so beloved isn't there any more.

I will be thinking of the three of you.

Mindy said...

Sorry to hear of your loss.

Helen` said...

I'm so sorry to hear of Mima's death. it's terrible to say goodbye to these companions.

Eileen Joy said...

I'm sorry to hear about Mima, and thanks for writing this beautiful post. It's so odd, but I read this just after finishing an essay by Atwul Gawande in the Aug. 2nd "New Yorker" about aggressive medicine vs. hospice care for persons with terminal illnesses--ultimately, it was all about the importance of dying well, whatever that might mean, versus a more tenacious struggle that doesn't always end so well for either the patient or their family and friends. It was a bit difficult to read, actually, and I had to put it down about midway through reading it. I'll finish it later at some point, but thank you for this post.

On a lighter note, a good friend of mine had to cat-sit for a colleague & friend of hers 2 summers ago, and the cat was very old and somewhat infirm. She was terrified the cat would die while her friend was away and that is exactly what happened. Knowing that her friend, who was extremely close to the cat and doted on her constantly, would absolutely have a mini-nervous breakdown on hearing this news, my friend and her husband placed the cat in their freezer before rigor mortis set in. When the friend returned, my friend went to the airport to get her while her husband "dis-interred" that cat from the freezer with enough time for thawing and placing the cat on her bed where it would look as if she had only *just* died in time for the friend's arrival. Somehow, this crazy plan, worthy of an episode of "I Love Lucy," actually worked. I love this story.

Sarah Randles said...

I know only too well how you feel, having a couple of weeks ago taken my ancient Gypsy to the vet for the last time. You have my greatest sympathy.

I found some comfort in reading 'Pangur Bán' again, and knowing that more than twelve centuries ago there was another scholar who understood this kind of relationship. But 'hunting words' without one's familiar companion can be very hard.