I have decided to sit in every room in which I find my old cat, Sweetie. As so many dying cats do, she has been disappearing in odd and lonely places, corners where I can’t reach her. She wants to be alone: the Greta Garbo stage of a cat’s life, its solitary decline. She has become sick from hyperthyroidism and even sicker from the pills that are supposed to help her. My once bright-eyed baby hangs her head in a stupor. My ailing beauty, existing in a corner.
Sometimes she comes out from hiding and sits on the love seat in the living room. She takes a cat bath. She has shown a pronounced interest in self-grooming, and I think this must be a good sign. I venture onto the Web and read that, strangely enough, the excess grooming may be another sign that she is dying. Sweetie seems distracted and disoriented at regular intervals. The website says such disorientation is another sign of impending death. She is still eating and drinking and finding her litter box. The website tells me not to expect this to last, that eventually, she will stop eating, so consider these her last meals. She will stop moving. Already, she will no longer come upstairs where she spent so much time with me and my mom. The air upstairs is still and quiet.
For the last decade, Sweetie has followed me all over the house, upstairs and down, lying on the rug in the bathroom as I applied my makeup, trotting back to my bedroom where she played with the laces on my sneakers as I tied them. Cat stuff: The stuff that makes them irresistible.
I met Sweetie when I was 38 and she was one. I am now 48 and she is 11. We met at a shelter in Mansfield, Massachusetts, just a few weeks after I’d put my 17 ½ year old black and white tabby to sleep. My mother (then 70, now 80) and I could not accept the emptiness of a cat-less home. We’d heard of a shelter in Mansfield brimming with felines needing families, most of them grown cats, not kittens. We wanted a grown cat and one that did not look at all like the kitty we’d just said goodbye to.
What I say next will sound like a romance novel, but when I walked into the shelter, filled with 100 unwanted cats, I looked up and across the room and Sweetie (then called Beauty by the shelter staff) gazed back at me with her gorgeous green eyes. In the Year 2000, our eyes locked. Love at first sight.
“That one,” I said to my mother as I pointed. Sweetie was a young tan and brown (in every shade imaginable) Maine Coon cat. When the shelter lady opened Sweetie’s cage, the cat purred, her fluffy and warm fur resting against my hand. My mother, too, loved her at first sight. “Did you see how gently she reached out her paw toward the food bowl?” my mother asked. “What a love.”
Sweetie’s morning habit over the past decade has been to wake me between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. by climbing on my legs and setting her once 20-pound body on top of me to purr me awake. (Maine Coons get big.) In spring and summer and fall, I would wake to the stunning green eyes of my cat staring at my face, the sweet rumble of the purr in her belly. In the dark of a winter morning, I could not see her eyes, but her purr was still loud, the fur warm and the belly soft.
She has not come upstairs to purr me awake for two months. This part of her is already lost.
I’ve seen beings die, and so often at this time of year: my stepmother died in December 2005 and my father died in late January of 2006. In 2010, actual death did appear two days before Christmas, but it wasn’t my cat that died. As Sweetie lay ailing in box in my kitchen, Dick, my friend Lee’s father in law, and also someone who had been special in my life, passed away. Dick had beaten prostate cancer in recent years, fought hard to save his life, only to be swept up in a riptide while vacationing in Aruba. He tried to swim to shore and out of the roaring sea, but his heart gave out. Somebody pulled him to the beach, blue and dead, the only sound his pacemaker ticking inside his chest. I saw him at his wake, in his casket, his hair gray and wavy, his skin smooth and preserved, and his lips ready to smile. He and his wife, Judy, used to take me out for pancakes and eggs in a little diner in Kingston, New Hampshire.
As Dick passed, Sweetie continued to hang onto life. I would walk up to her and pat her, run my fingers along the sides of her tummy, raking the soft, long fur and trying to catch her eye. She might let out a quiet purr; other times she barely acknowledged me. Once all I had to do was wiggle my fingers and she would immediately trot toward me in obvious feline delight, the purr on automatic pilot. She would rub her sides into my fingers to say hello. When in a particularly affectionate moment, she would lift her nose to mine and give me a “nose kiss.”
This part of her, too, is already gone.
When the vet first gave me pills for her hyperthyroidism, I tried to shove them in the back of her throat believing I could save her life. But the cat knows the difference between a prescription drug and piece of roast beef. And like a child, she does not want the drug. She ejected the pills from the back of her throat and onto the floor. I’d grab her again and hold her, which made her back away in fear. Cats don’t like to lose control or let go of their freedom. A lady at work with seven cats told me to buy pill pouches, little treats to wrap around the pill. I thought this a good idea since I was scaring the cat, and I was beginning to cry each morning as I held the cat’s mouth closed until she swallowed. She was beginning not to trust me. And she was beginning to die.
And then: a miracle.
Due to the care and concern of many friends, but most specifically, Faye Rapoport Despres, her childhood friend, Peggy Dey, and one of Suzanne’s friends, Kim Medeiros, I received information about an alternative thyroid treatment for cats. The treatment is called the I-131 and is only performed in a few veterinary hospitals in Massachusetts. On January 12, 2011, MSPCA -Angell Medical Center in Boston, injected my cat with radioactive iodine to kill all the tumors surrounding her thyroid and causing the disease. She no longer required the thyroid pills that had turned her into a zombie and contributed to her decline.
I took her home three days later and she was her old Sweetie self. I stood frozen: I don’t believe in miracles. This was the first one I’d ever witnessed. Sweetie, who’d been sitting in corners like a dying animal, came home from the hospital and trotted happily upstairs, climbed onto beds, walked back downstairs to eat, and then upstairs again to visit areas of the house she’d not seen for two months. She purred at the very sight of me and with every touch. Her eyes looked into mine. Her first night back from the hospital, Sweetie climbed on my bed and sat on my lap. She purred like a motorboat engine. She moved to the side to lay her cheek against my hand. Like old times, she clasped her paws around fingers as if holding my hand, an act of affection she’d been incapable of performing for weeks. I couldn’t sleep. I was awestruck by this remarkable resurgence of Sweetie’s life.
I am delighted Sweetie is feeling so much better, but those of you who know me well, know I cannot fathom a happy ending. Joy is not in my genetics and runs through my system like undigested liquid; the Zelmans are filled with darker spirits.
One of the thoughts I’ve been grappling with lately is aging, the movement from youth to middle age to old age to death; the changes in our physical beings. Perhaps this is a function of living with and being caretaker for an 80 year old woman. While Sweetie was in her decline, one of the hardest truths for me, harder even than her potential death, was comprehending that she was no longer a young cat, just as I was no longer a young woman. I kept imagining her in that cage back in 2000, how our eyes locked, hers green, mine brown, she a young cat, and me a younger woman. But that topic, aging, is the stuff of a better essay than this little cat tale.
Sweetie may not be out of the medical woods yet. Although her thyroid is cured, her doctor at Angell says her spleen needs to be surgically removed. It may be cancerous. In any case, it is enlarged and not healthy. So she will have surgery at Angell in a month. I don’t know if the doctor will be able to save Sweetie’s life a second time. I would like to believe in a second miracle.