Spenser is gone. I held him in my arms yesterday afternoon, while our wonderful vet sent him home, free from the pain that stopped his purr three days earlier.
My wife remarked that the decision seemed awfully fast, but in truth it wasn’t. I’d known for several months that there was something wrong with my little boy, but I couldn’t tell what it was; it had not turned up in office visits. I’d hoped that when he went for his senior checkup something would show up, and I really hoped that it would be treatable. Spenser had been losing weight steadily for nearly a year and that meant his kidneys were not working properly. In a 15-year-old cat who’d been diabetic since age 7, it would’ve been surprising if he had been in perfect shape. And since most cats only live 3-5 years after being diagnosed with diabetes, he had beaten the odds and then some.
The good news…. his diabetes was in remission, so we were freed from the 12-hour cycle of insulin shots – though I still had to do a glucose test once or twice a week.
Some bad news – he had a broken, infected canine tooth and his kidneys were weak, so had needed a week on antibiotics to reduce the surgical risk. But we did the meds and he had the surgery, and he came through well, but I worried when the fur on his leg didn’t grow back where they’d shaved it for the IV. He was having catbox issues, too, but we seemed to have those under control with cat laxative and stool softners.
He had a couple of very good weeks, post-surgery. His appetite came back, he stopped losing weight, he ate like he was in training for Sumo. Lots of requests for pats and attention, afternoons in the sun or curled up with Watson (who is apparently a great space heater) snacks on demand about every 3 hours, day and night… Spenser seemed to be on his way back to health.
And then, collapse. I’m told this happens often with elderly humans who are getting ready to check out – as if the soul decides to divert all energy from life support to communications, to put it in Star Trek terms – so they can enjoy the last few days and say goodbye. I saw that happen just before Christmas, when a neighbor of ours passed away, after months of pain that he avoided taking to the doctor. By the time the cancer was diagnosed, it was untreatable – but I think he preferred it that way, and in his 90th year he certainly earned the right to decide how he was going to go.
That was what Spenser did. From the Wednesday of his postop exam until Friday afternoon, he seemed okay. He didn’t eat much on Friday evening, but he’d been snacking, so that was no big deal … except that he was restless and couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be held or put down, and he wandered around looking puzzled. And he stopped purring – this, from the cat who would purr if you just said hello, who started purring as soon as he got home after surgery and got his face into a dish of chicken liver mashed in warm water.
On Friday he stopped eating. At 4 am Saturday morning, he came to me for a snack as he had been doing for the previous few weeks, but when I woke enough to give him crunchies, he sniffed them and turned away.
Saturday night he climbed laboriously onto the sofa and spent the whole night there. He didn’t come to wake me, but I woke anyway, and went out to see that he hadn’t moved and the food I’d left for him was untouched.
On Sunday, he stopped drinking. He growled at me when I tried to give him water with a baby syringe, but I insisted. He didn’t want to take watered-down food that I spooned into him. The meds were an ordeal; he cried when I picked him up. I stopped forcing the medication on him… I think I knew there was no point to bothering him with it.
On Monday, his back legs would not support him. His face had that distant look I’ve seen a few times before on animals—and humans—who were getting ready to move on, so I called the vet and then a couple of friends who are intuitive about animals. I didn’t want to accept what I knew, but their impression matched my own. The vet scheduled us in for an afternoon appointment. She sometimes makes housecalls for this, but had a conference that evening and couldn’t.
Dr. Mel doesn’t rush goodbyes. She did a quick exam and was appalled at how much ground he’d lost in only 5 days. And she said that if I wanted heroic measures to keep him going she could do them, but she would be reluctant to put him through it for what would probably be a hopeless effort.
That was how I felt, myself. So she took him off to the OR to put in a catheter, and brought him back so my wife and I could sit with him until we felt ready to let go.
I wasn’t, not until I had to. So we sat there as she took care of the last couple of patients in her other exam room, and I thanked Spenser for bringing so much happiness into my life, from the moment I saw him in a picture of an orphaned litter that a friend found in her garage, their mother killed by a passing car. He was the living image of Geronimo, a kitten I’d adopted after babysitting a co-worker’s unexpected litter over a holiday. I lost Geronimo much too early; he was one of those cats who have an unexpected heart defect, and the anaesthesia used for his neuter surgery hit him so hard he never woke up again. I don’t know how people survive the death of a child; it was two years before I could even talk about Geronimo without crying.
Spenser was the image of Geronimo. I suppose to anyone who hasn’t known black cats personally, all short-haired black kittens look much alike, but that’s really not the case. Looking back at pictures of the two, after Spenser was grown, it was impossible to tell them apart unless the eyes were visible. Geronimo’s eyes were golden; Spenser’s were a lovely bright green.
I wanted that kitten.
And he seemed to feel the same way about me. He started purring the minute Brenda handed him to me – he literally fit in one hand – and never stopped until we got home. Raised by Brenda’s German Shepherd, the little guy seemed delighted to learn I had a dog. He was under 6 weeks—just big enough to get along on solid food—but he reared up on his little rump and grabbed Waya’s nose with both paws. She washed him all over and our older cat, Tiger, taught him the basics of cat courtesy. He chased Tiger, he played with Waya, he played fetch and batted back paper balls I tossed to him … he was joy in a little black cat-suit.
As he grew up, Spenser became one of the sweetest cats I’ve ever known. He really did bond to me, more so than most of the other animals I’ve loved. Since I had forgotten a carrier when I went to pick him up, he had ridden home in my bra, his little head poked out of my t-shirt collar. And perching on my chest seemed to be his preferred position, which was a bit uncomfortable when he grew to 18 pounds. I put up with the weight because he had the endearing habit of wrapping his arms around my neck and nuzzling my ear, which convinced me that if animals do come back, Geronimo had, because he’d done the same thing, and he was the only cat I’ve ever known who did.
Spenser was with me through a lot… the uncertainty of going to my own full-time massage practice, a drama-laden break-up with a long-time roommate, falling in love with my wife, moving first to Clintonville and then to Ontario… the untimely loss of our Tigerboy to cancer, and the frightening and tiresome routine of an insulin regimen when Spenser’s pancreas went out of kilter. I hated giving him those shots—though once I accidentally stuck myself and found that the needle really did not hurt much, I calmed down and so did he. And it gave me a sense of redemption: I had not been able to save my beloved Geronimo from the freak reaction that took his life, but I could keep Spenser with me if I paid attention to his behavior and gave him his life-saving medication regularly.
Thinking back, I believe that did more to heal me from that first loss than almost anything else could have.
But apart from the medicine, Spenser was the perfect cat. He was friendly but not pushy with humans, he clawed the cat trees rather than the furniture, and he used the cat box religiously except for a couple of times when he was ill – and even then, he got as close as he could. Never having been an only cat, he never objected to a new member of the family. When we adopted Pippin, he was delighted; he had been devastated when his mentor, Tiger, died. He took over the new kitten’s care as though he had organized Pippin’s rescue, and given the devious ways of cats, I wouldn’t rule it out. We acquired Pippin when someone left him at the library checkout desk; the librarian asked if I could keep him until the no-kill shelter opened… Spenser met him, we never got to the shelter.
When my wife’s adorable grey Pinky died, she was succeeded in the house by Amelia, and Spenser was charmed by the feisty little tabby girl in white bib and boots. It was good that he’d been retired from an active sex life, because those two were romancing each other as soon as Amelia hit puberty. The way they carried on, you’d think they never heard of spay-neuter. He had something going with Pippin, too… Spenser really enjoyed life to the full.
We never had cat fights in the house We never had cat-and-dog fights. It was as if they all realized that there was enough love, enough food and attention, and plenty of comfy sleeping territory for everyone. The cats teased my dog Waya, but they loved her. When her health gave out, after I had made the only decision that remained, Spenser sat on my chest and hugged me while I moaned my grief and soaked his fur with tears.
He was there for me. Now he’s gone.
I don’t know what the house will be like now, without my sweet boy. Quieter, I’m sure. Pippin has always been the more retiring cat; he may grow into the role of Chief Boy Cat. He has already made steps toward that by appointing himself Groomer of Watson’s Head. Watson’s head is almost as big as Pippin himself; Pipps weighs 11 pounds, Watson weighs 95. When Pipps is cleaning one ear, his whole face disappears into it. As Spenser grew older and cataracts blurred his vision, he became less active with the other animals.
But he also became more affectionate with me. As exasperating as it sometimes was to have him rubbing around my desk chair, I usually picked him up because I knew our time together was coming to an end, and I knew I’d never regret the time spent holding him, that I would – and do – regret every minute I missed.
That time alone to say goodbye was a blessing. I told Spenser I loved him but if that body was too worn out I was ready to let him go, and we sat quietly for a while. He grew so still that I wondered if he was going to just stop breathing—and to be honest, I hoped he would.
But he didn’t; he couldn’t stop all on his own. And as hard as it was to admit that the only thing I could do for him was to ease him out of this life, it was all I could do, and I had to, so when Dr Mel returned I just nodded.
I’ve had two veterinarians who would be welcome to one of my kidneys if necessary, and she’s one of them. She’s loved Spenser too, and we were all a bit weepy as he slipped gently out of his body and off to wherever Buddha-cats hang out.
I hope I do well enough in this lifetime to join him when my time comes.