Sunday, January 16, 2011

The golden gaze: My kitty's final premonition

Catalina, 1994-2013
    (Jan 16, 2013) For nearly 20 years, my cat and I had a complex, rewarding bond. During the first few years, I was puzzled when she persistently refused to have eye contact with me. Then I read that this is an instinctive behavior: Cats avert their eyes to avoid conflict. In the feline world, eye contact indicates aggression.
    But about 10 weeks ago, Catalina began turning her head toward mine -- as she sat on my lap in the evenings -- and looking directly and deeply into my eyes. I held her gaze, like a nursing mother. It was exhilarating. There was a yearning in her amber stare, something profound. I felt as if she were trying to tell me something, or trying to memorize my face.
    "Either my cat is going to die soon, or I am," I told Joe. He has learned to ignore my melodramatic perspective. I have learned not to ignore my cat's mysterious wisdom.

In ancient Egypt, cats were revered as gods.
      I never believed in magic, miracles, ESP or telepathy until I got a cat. Having witnessed her repeated feats of insight and intuition, nothing would surprise me anymore. I no longer scoff at the concepts of other "planes" of existence, or levels of consciousness that we don't understand. My cat "knew" so much that it can't be explained, as far as I know, by conventional scientific methodology. She knew these things in ways and via neurological processes (or something) that elude me.
    I know that cats were worshiped as wondrous, otherworldly beings in ancient cultures, and I realize now that this was not just some primitive superstition. They are awe-inspiring creatures. In medieval times, though, their inscrutable gaze and aloofness inspired fear rather than reverence, and thousands of them were burned, right along with the "witches."

      I never thought I would want or need a cat of my own. When I lived alone in my big old house near Liberty Park, my back yard was the neighborhood cat hangout. I adored all of them, and they were back there every day in their little kitty paradise, ready to be petted, given a snack or simply observed.  Birds tweeted almost constantly, way up in the foliage. It was shady and secluded -- there were blossoming  ground cover, wildflowers, shrubs, big trees and boulders. I think perhaps the ambiance resonated with something in their amygdalas. When they weren't composing themselves into strikingly graceful, devil-may-care positions, they were stealthily creeping through the sweet wodruff and periwinkle as if they were stalking prey.
    One of the regulars, a very sweet homeless red cat who I fed regularly -- and who had always been too skittish to let me hold her -- banged at my back door during a freezing downpour one day. I opened it and, much to my amazement, she dashed inside, soaking wet. She promptly made her way underneath the bench in my kitchen's corner booth, and proceeded to give birth. I felt so honored that I could hardly contain myself. I lay down on the carpet to watch this miracle.
    Having them with me for  the next several weeks was a joy and a privilege, but when it was time for them to leave their mother, I found good families for each of them. At that time, I didn't consider keeping one for myself. I am too fastidious to want to cope with poop, cat hair and -- worst of all -- cat food, which consists of ground up animals and is very repulsive to my vegan sensibilities. I had so many cats in my life already. Besides the backyard crowd, there were lots of them on my jogging route, and they were out there waiting to say "hey" every morning. Each was unique. All were precious to me. 

    Finally, more than 19 years ago, I decided that I really did want a cat of my own. I was in my mid-forties and had never had a pet.
    Joe took me to the animal shelter. The cages were filled with tiny, lovely kittens who appeared to be competing in a cuteness contest, mewing urgently, climbing up the walls, posing in their most irresistible ways, tumbling about like baby pandas, begging to be chosen.
     I wanted all of them, but I didn't want any one of them in particular. None of them stole my heart any more than all the others did. "I'm sorry, I can't do it," I told Joe. As we were leaving the room, he said, "Look at this."
    It was a cage that had seemed to be empty, but way in back, in the dark, was a striking long-haired tabby with a lavish mane around her face, and large, golden eyes. She was huddled behind her big brother, who was standing valiantly and protectively in front of her.
    My heart went out to her.  Joe reached in and took her out and put her in my arms. She was trembling -- terrified and miserable. 

    I had to have her. There was no way I could leave her there. I had to give her a home, and I had to make her feel safe and loved. I was ecstatic that Joe had noticed her. We could so easily have left without knowing that this traumatized creature was there.

   Millions of words have been written about pets  --  often worthy of the label 'literature' for their descriptive quality and emotional impact -- so I won't go into the litany of my darling Catalina's priceless shenanigans. We all think our cat is the very cutest on Earth, and we're all correct.
     When I first got my cat, my mother said, "It will be nice for you to have some companionship."
     Companionship? I was taken aback. By that time, I'd been contentedly living alone for more than 20 years, and I'd never had any companionship. I wasn't sure what it meant, or that I wanted it.
    Before long, I understood. When I was in the kitchen for hours at a time, washing and chopping garden produce or baking bread, my cat would find a cozy spot nearby, and just lie there, looking beautiful, mildly interested and not averse to conversation. 
    When I sat down to read, she jumped into my lap and purred. Her sweet presence made me enjoy literature even more and imbued my afternoons with a feeling of peace. This, I realized, was companionship. Each moment I spent with her was richer than it would have been without her. She was a comfort. She certainly enhanced my mood, no matter what I was doing. The sight of her never ceased to melt my heart.

    After my jogging routine each morning, when I went into the front room to stretch and dance and do a few weights while the sun came up, she always joined me. It was very pleasant. I was able to incorporate a petting aspect into many of my yoga poses, and she then stretched herself in response to the petting. Cats are probably the planet's greatest experts on stretching, so she inspired me to improve upon the ancient wisdom of the yogis, something that might seem creepily presumptuous, but it worked for me. We were totally symbiotic!
    My favorite part of the companionship is that she sleeps with me, something I never dreamed I would tolerate. I didn't want pet hair and dander anywhere near my sheets, pillowcases or bath towels. But when she was badly injured by another cat, just a few months after I got her, I moved her into my bedroom to keep a better eye on her. I laid out a large pillowcase toward the bottom of the bed, and then put a slightly warm heating pad on it, which I cover each day with a clean, flowered paper towel. She has been there ever since. It's hard for me to believe that I once made my sweet baby sleep alone. I cry just thinking about it.
    I have had a significant insomnia problem for much of my adult life. Catalina didn't cure me, but having her there, awake with me, making her little sounds of commiseration, makes those long nights much less lonely.
     She climbs all over me in bed, seeking out yet-undiscovered nooks and crannies in which to repose. When I have my mid-morning lie-down, she positions herself either against my chest, or behind my knees. The weight of her dear body as we settle down for a snooze always makes me smile. It has often occurred to me how lucky I am in that regard.
    I have no idea whether it's normal to feel this way, but I am honored that such a beautiful creature wants to be near me.
    She plays a regular supporting role in my dreams, often serving as a mentor and collaborator. 
    I don't need a clock. She always knows what time it is. It blows my mind.  
She wants to stay right where she is!
    Even so, when she's on my lap and I remind her that it's bedtime, she gives me an irritable sidelong glance and does a "tsk-tsk" thing with her tongue, like Marge Simpson.

    I have always talked a lot to her, and she is very responsive vocally. I feel that we communicate quite a bit out loud, and I know there are many words she understands. We also --  I know this sounds weird -- communicate telepathically. Sometimes when we are in mid-dialogue, I suddenly can't remember  whether we have been talking out loud or just shooting cerebral messages back and forth. 
    When I cry, she murmurs sympathetically and gets a worried look in her eyes. When I was still having menstrual periods, she would back her butt up to my abdomen and settle there, providing a relief from cramps that no drug could possibly achieve.

    Joe always claimed that whenever he sat next to her on the bed to give her some petting, she farted. What? She never once farted when she was with me. 
    But Joe doesn't lie. So I have to assume that my kitty recognized that Joe was the "opposite sex," and she couldn't think of any other way to acknowledge her responsiveness to his attention. She loved those big, manly hands and the suave expertise with which he handled her. 
    With those same hands, he has given the most patient, delicate care to injured birdlings, and he has also aggressively ripped apart wrecked and rusted-out classic cars in order to restore them to "best of show" quality. His warm, brown, Italian hands know what they're doing.  
    So, of course, she was very attracted to him. She didn't need any lessons in gender.
Joe's touch turned my little girl into jelly.
    Come to think of it, he did buy her quite a few gifts. He also installed several cat doors, which gave her great freedom and autonomy. Then came the piece de resistance: He created a large "pooporium" for her, filled with sparkly white sand and ringed with vintage bricks. Who wouldn't love a man for that? She kept it very neat, but he couldn't resist raking it into perfection if it seemed a bit disheveled. 
    Thanks to those cat doors, she enjoyed a rich outdoor life, a life that in a sense established for her a modicum of independence from me. I admired her for being brave and adventurous out there. I have no doubt that she loved nature. She clearly enjoyed the changing sky, rustling trees, floral aromas and sunshine. But as darkness fell, she always led me into the sunroom to be sure that both my door and the cat door were locked, safe and sound, for the night.

    A friend recently referred to the "unconditional love" that makes owning a pet so gratifying. I think that applies to dogs, but I don't know about cats. It became apparent to me that most of my cat's behaviors that seemed like affection were merely instinctive. She would just as soon rub against a cardboard box as to rub against me!
    I don't believe she loved me. I was a big part of her world. She needed me. She liked my company. She appreciated the food and the physical contact.
    The fact that I loved her unconditionally, despite not feeling  loved in return, is part of what made our relationship a growth experience for me.
                                              "Telepathy" by Marsupial Art
      After all these years, Catalina was as beautiful and cuddly as ever. She was still playful, sporadically tearing around  the house like a dervish gone wild, and she continued to establish new routines, in which I was expected to be a reliable participant. She still loved opera -- we had a few tough days when Pavarotti died -- and when a Nature program on birds was aired, she jumped out of my lap and rushed toward the TV, where she stood, riveted.
     But after that two-week interlude of deep, meaningful eye contact that I described at the beginning of this post, she entered a howling phase. I had never heard her vocalize in this tortured, strangled way. I would never have guessed that any cat could cry so loudly. She awakened me several times each night with her outbursts, but during the day she seemed quite normal, lying at the foot of my bed, bright-eyed, swooshing her tail around. I knew that something was wrong, of course, but she has been through so many phases in which her behavior or habits changed that I hoped it would pass.
"Howling Cat" by SingChan
    She did stop howling, but she stopped eating as well. For two days in a row, she didn't even urinate. Her mouth smelled terrible. The veterinarian discovered a large squamous-cell tumor under her tongue, at the base in back, where it attaches to the floor of the mouth. The tumor had grown so large that it pushed her tongue up almost to the roof of her mouth. She could no longer eat or drink. She was having trouble even swallowing her saliva.  I had never heard of this condition, but I have since read that it is not uncommon. If your cat is exposed to cigarette smoke, as mine was for more than 10 years, she is at much greater risk of developing this terrible disease.
Squamous-cell carcinoma under tongue.
    I think the vet wanted to euthanize her on the spot. There was no way I could do that. For the time being, it seemed that she wasn't suffering, although I believe she must have suffered terribly during her howling phase. I wasn't going to give up on her, and even if she had a fatal condition (which maybe it wasn't!) (what do doctors know?), I hoped to care for her at home and let her die naturally.

    The next three weeks were heartbreaking. She tried time after time to eat, but her grossly displaced tongue got in the way. I had three kinds of canned cat food in bowls, and a scoop of dry food, in her feeding area. It was devastating to watch her struggling to get food into her mouth. She physically couldn't do it. 
    Even when she seemed to realize it was hopeless, she kept going in and just sitting there, as if she hoped I could figure something out. We tried liquefying the food and using a syringe to squirt it into the side of her mouth, behind the tongue, but she strangled and choked. 
    I made a mixture of milk, sugar and the brownish, high-density supplement Felovite, but the milk exacerbated the mucus secretion that we assumed was from the tumor.

     Ultimately, she subsisted for the final three weeks on nothing but sugared hibiscus tea. Her mouth oozed blood and pus almost constantly. Her face was acquiring the look of a cat who is already dead. Her eyes and nose clogged repeatedly with fluids and debris. She shriveled down to nothing. Her legs became frozen in a straight position. Her fur was matted and hard, but she had become so fragile that she couldn't tolerate being brushed.
   She lay on her side, exhausted. But whenever I came into my bedroom to check on her or sit down for one of many vigils, she felt obliged -- could it have been etiquette? -- to sit up and treat me as a proper guest.
    One night, I thought I heard her get off the bed, something I didn't realize she could still do. I waited and waited in the dark for her to jump back onto her heating pad. When she didn't, I guessed that she'd decided to sleep in my easy chair, across the hall. 
    When I finallly decided I'd better check on her, I found that -- despite her weakness -- she had gotten up and urinated in the litter box. (She was such a lady. I fully expected her to do it in our bed at this point.) When she came back to the bed, she wasn't able to jump far enough to reach the top. She was hanging helplessly by one claw, her eyes filled with desperation. She had been too weak to cry for help. It was wrenching to imagine her having hung there all night.  

    It has never occurred to me to wish for a miracle before. I have never believed in them -- not even close -- but I was ready to beg. I even fantasized about placing an ad for a faith healer and offering to pay whatever was required if he or she could make the tumor disappear. 

    A large bulge on one side of her neck vanished. Maybe she was getting better! At times, her face looked almost normal. For a couple of days, she regained the ability to drink on her own -- as much as 50 laps in a row. The tumor must be shrinking! 
    Then there was a relapse, and I resumed squirting the tea behind her tongue. She tried to cooperate, but when she swallowed, it caused her to twist her head, grimacing in a tortured fashion, as her throat apparently resisted the flow of fluid. And each time she did accept the feedings, the outflow of blood and pus increased.

    It was terrible to witness. She finally gave up. She refused fluids except when her mouth got so dry that she couldn't stand it anymore. Even then, she would only take one dropper. Her panicked, wrenching efforts to swallow were harrowing.
    I sat next to her, stroking her, saying, "I love you. I'm sorry," over and over again. Her tail fluttered against my arm in response. She purred weakly, but she could no longer vocalize at all. We had eye contact, but it wasn't the "golden gaze" of several weeks ago, which was bright, deep, searching and beautiful. This was a stare of gentle resignation. There was no anger or confusion, no pleas for sympathy. 
   She still wanted to be held, although it was obviously painful for her to be lifted and then positioned in my arms or on my lap. She remained incredibly responsive to companionship, affection and conversation, even as she shriveled nightmarishly.

    Of course, through all of this, Joe and I struggled with the issue of euthanasia. More than once, I said, "This has got to stop. I can't bear to watch her being eaten alive by cancer anymore."  I feared I was being self-indulgent to resist having her "put out of her misery."
   Each time we seriously considered taking her to the vet -- and who can say why or how -- she rallied, as if to say: Not yet.
    But on January 9, I awoke to find that she was not on her heating pad at the foot of the comforter. I got up and discovered that she had crawled under the bed to die. She had often sought refuge there, during thunderstorms and fireworks, and when she was sick or injured.
                                                     "To Cat Heaven" by Tony Hurst
   My cat was the only baby, the only sister, the only pet I have ever had. We had been together, and together alone, for so many years that it almost seemed as if we shared a consciousness. She had made my house a home. After we moved in with Joe, she adjusted to our new "upstairs" life in beautiful accommodations that Joe designed and built for us. She spent hours out on our balcony, happily overlooking the big, tree-filled yard, staring down the magpies, ignoring the squirrels and sizing up any intruder cat who dared set foot into her vast territory.
    I have never before experienced a loss that made me feel lonely, or that left such a hole in my moment-to-moment existence. 
    My little girl. My fluffy baby!
    She's gone. She's gone. She's gone.  
    When the grief subsides, my gratitude and love will be everlasting.
    Catalina, adieu.