It’s been about a week and a half since the passing of my beloved cat, Ripley, and as I look at the calendar, I see that tomorrow marks the seventh anniversary of the passing of her brother, Kilroy. Their respective passages from this life could not have been more different.
(This is a long, sad reminiscence, so I’m putting in a cut to spare the disinterested on my f-list.)
Seven years ago, Kara and I moved into our apartment, our first shared residence, a few months after becoming engaged. I gave up my Manhattan bachelor pad and Kara left behind a basement apartment with a history of flooding during rainy weather.
Roughly a week later, my cat Kilroy—who had by then become our cat—suddenly became listless and lost his appetite. By late that night, it was obvious something was seriously wrong with him, so we called a friend with a car who came over and helped us rush our cat to a 24-hour animal emergency room in Manhattan.
By the next day, the doctors had done enough tests to diagnose my 11-year-old Norwegian Forest Cat with a massive cancerous obstruction of the bowel. He must have been sick for some time, but he had concealed his symptoms in that masterful way only cats can, so his sudden deterioration caught us by surprise. Surgery was a long-shot option, but it would have cost thousands of dollars (which I did not have to spare) and it would have been a high-risk procedure. Worse, the doctors didn’t think Kilroy would make it to that evening. His imminent demise had ambushed me.
I received all this news while I was at work, and it hit me hard. On the verge of tears, I had to leave early with little to no notice so that I could rush over to the animal hospital. Kara left her job early and met me for lunch, which I was unable to eat. The entire situation felt unreal. After lunch we went to the animal hospital, and the docs let us have a short while to sit with Kilroy, who was very weak but still alert. I held my furry little friend in my arms, cradling him like a baby, as the vet shaved the inside of one of Kilroy’s forelegs and inserted the IV needle. I kissed my cat’s head and whispered, “It’s okay, little man. Daddy’s here.” The doc slowly pressed down on the plunger, and my Kilroy slipped away.
Kara held me as I wept over Kilroy.
Ripley’s end was anything but sudden. Our first warning signs of trouble started about four and a half years ago, a few months after we’d adopted a new cat, who we’d named Puck. For some reason, Ripley started urinating outside the litter box, and nothing we did seemed to coax her back inside it to do her business.
Four years ago, her movement had started to become stiff and awkward. One night she took a sudden turn for the worse, and we saw her dragging herself across the kitchen with her forelegs, while her rear legs were limp and splayed behind her. We rushed her to the vet, who feared that Ripley had suffered some kind of embolism that had cut off blood flow to her lower limbs. “There’s nothing I can do,” he said, “except give her some medication to keep her comfortable.” He gave Ripley a shot of depo-medrol, and we took her home, expecting to make arrangements for euthanasia in a few days’ time.
Then the cat recovered. Just as abruptly as she had become an invalid, she resumed her normal range of motion. She hadn’t suffered an embolism, she was suffering from arthritis and hip dysplasia. We canceled the euthanasia appointment and started Ripley on a regimen of prednisone.
The urinary problems persisted, however. And over the next four years, she gradually lost half her sight, most of her hearing, and endured kidney problems, liver problems, constipation, and a host of other irritating problems. She was on so many medications at one point that watching me prepare the cat’s dinner might have evoked images of a medieval apothecary trying to create the philosopher’s stone.
What finally did her in was a fast-spreading oral cancer. I first noticed the lump on the underside of her jaw a few months ago, during her most recent physical exam (at which she had received an otherwise clean bill of health for a beast her age). I asked the doctor about it, and I even suggested that it might be cancer.
The vet considered that notion for a moment and then said there was little to do if that was the case. By that point, Ripley weighed only 7 pounds, and she was still on prednisone; consequently, neither surgery nor radiation/chemo were options. The post-op recovery from surgery would be even more miserable than the disease, and it (as well as radiation/chemo) would have ruined what little quality of life my sweet old girl had left.
At first, Ripley’s daily routine was unaffected. As the tumor grew, however, it first robbed my beautiful cat of her looks, deforming the left side of her mouth. In short order it began to rot away her lower jaw. She lost the ability to eat dry food, so I excised it from the cats’ diet. Shortly after that, she began having trouble keeping food inside her mouth while she chewed. She would bat at her mouth with her paw, trying to keep the food inside. Before long, her weight loss accelerated, and my cat looked like a feline victim of Auschwitz. We helped keep her strength up for a time by feeding her baby food and treating her to small servings of milk.
Another consequence of the tumor’s spread was that she drooled constantly, and the disintegrating parts of her jaw bled constantly. Soon it became infected, and the stench from her mouth was hideous. We took to keeping damp paper towels around to wipe the cat’s mouth, but soon that wasn’t enough. Ripley lost the ability to groom herself, and before long the cat stank horribly, all the time. Near the end, we were forced a few times to bathe the cat, which made her all the more miserable (but at least momentarily more tolerable to our noses).
For me, the worst part of seeing my cat go through this ordeal was that I wanted to pick her up, cradle her, and comfort her as I had always done. I wanted to nuzzle her as I had when she was a young cat, to kiss her face and make her purr … but I couldn’t. She reeked, and her face had become coated with blood and pus and bits of half-eaten food.
Finally, she deteriorated to the point at which she could no longer consume baby food or even milk; she couldn’t drink water from her fountain; she couldn’t groom herself; she was no longer able to use the litter box; she was half-blind and almost entirely deaf. On Friday, September 10, I brought her to the vet’s office to see if there was anything more they could do for her; there wasn’t. We made an appointment for the vet to come by the apartment that evening. I filled out the paperwork and paid the fees before leaving the office, then I took Ripley home for our final hours together.
I used a soft washcloth dampened with warm water to gently clean her, and I smoothed her matted fur with her favorite soft-bristle brush. Some pet-wipes helped get rid of the worst of the odor. Then I brought her to living room and placed her on my lap. Once she got comfortable, I started talking to her; it was a one-sided conversation, of course, recalling all our years together. Kara came home early from work, and we brought Ripley into the bedroom to curl up with us for one last afternoon nap.
The vet came by around 7pm, accompanied by a medical technician. We brought Ripley to the living room. Kara put the cat’s favorite pillow on the coffee table and covered it with the cat’s favorite blue fleece. I laid Ripley down on the blanketed pillow and petted her while whispering to keep her calm. The vet gave her a mild sedative. Kara and I said our good-byes to Ripley, and I faced her toward me while the vet prepared the final injection. Once again, I watched a beloved cat slip away.
I take some solace in knowing that Ripley got to meet her end with dignity, free of pain, and in her home, accompanied by those who loved her. But that small comfort is no salve for the daily realization that my beloved feline friend of 18 years has gone, never to return … and that this is the way of things.