Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Letting go of Lily - The stuffed animal with a heartbeat.










Every night when I go to make dinner, my cat Lily appears out of nowhere to watch me. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember despite the fact she’s never been given scraps or human food. No matter where she is in the house or how inconspicuous the trigger sound is - the slide of a skillet being pulled from a drawer or the soft click of a burner turning on – she materializes out of nowhere. It’s been her ritual for as long as I can remember.

That ritual ended two weeks ago. For the first time in almost 17 years, Lily was no longer there to watch me.

Lily’s health had been in a slow decline for the last couple of years. In the last year alone she’d gone blind from high blood pressure. She’d even had a mysterious episode a month ago where she lost use of one of her back legs and I thought for sure she was a goner. But she pulled through it and weirdly just a few days later had full range of motion in the leg again like it had never happened.

But Monday before last my husband woke up to find her on the kitchen floor lying down. Both her back legs had gone limp and she couldn’t get up. We were rushing to the OBG for my 5 month prenatal checkup so I put water by her and set her on her favorite blanket hoping that like the month before her legs would magically ‘snap to’ by the time we got home.

Two hours later she was in the exact same place. Not good. Even weirder, unlike the last time this had happened when she had yelled and refused to stop trying to move, she just laid there purring like it was the best thing ever. I didn’t bother putting her in a carrier - this was my first baby after all – but instead scooped her up into my arms to go to the vet hoping against hope we’d all three be returning home later.

I got Lily my freshman year at UT – the first week if memory serves. I’d had a thing for furry fluff ball Persians ever since my sister brought an orange Persian home when she was in high school (without permission) and my sweet boyfriend at the time was going to get me one.

We went cat shopping and that experience alone is worth a collection of short stories but to keep this under novel-length I’ll skip it and go straight to Lily. We found Lily at a Himalayan show breeder’s place in Round Rock. The guy had her mom, dad, and brother who he showed us first. Her brother was what they call ‘show quality’ with a dreamy fur coat and the flattest face you’ve ever seen. He was pricey which wasn’t a problem because after holding him for 2 seconds he’d gnawed half way through my thumb. I politely handed him back, hiding my thumb under my palm as for some reason I was embarrassed he had bitten me.

Next he brought out a white fluff ball that could fit in the palm of your hand with the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen. He said she wasn’t ‘show quality’ but you could have fooled me. She looked like a stuffed animal. The breeder explained she was a blue-cream point which meant white with smoky blue ‘points’ (feet, tail, ears, nose) and that she had an imperfection in the coloring on her nose that was half blue gray and half peach. What he called imperfection I called true love.

Lily was in the car on the way back to Austin in 10 minutes. Weeks later she attended her first TX-OU game in Dallas where she stayed in her first hotel (okay motel…but still.) It was a good thing she learned to get comfortable travelling at a young age as it would be a reoccurring theme in her life. In total she would go on to live in five different cities, 13 different houses and stay in at least as many hotels in her lifetime thanks to my career in advertising.

And she was totally down for it – super curious and inquisitive by nature she always loved exploring a new place. One of my favorite memories is from our last night in NYC before moving back to Austin. We were staying at the Maritime Hotel in the Meatpacking District and the cats were enjoying exploring the room as I drank Champagne and watched True Blood (my poor husband was passed out from exhaustion.) I was dying laughing to myself wondering how many cats (if any) had crashed the swanky hotel before.

As it turns out we got her back home to Austin just in time. Our first year back she and her adopted cat sister Madison lived the LIFE in our rental in Westlake Hills. The entire back of this sixties pad was glass so they could look out at squirrels, deer, possums, bunnies, raccoons and even fox.

Then we got our dog (a half Chihuahua half Terrier) from the pound and coincidentally Lily’s health started to slide. She began having seizures triggered by the strangest things. The sound of my flip-flops as I walked across the Spanish tile, the jingle of the dog collar, anything loud and rhythmic.

The first time it happened it scared the living tar out of me. I thought she was done for. But she survived and would survive a few more. It was around this time I noticed she’d also developed a mild head tremor. Neither of our vets had a clue what was going on with her but told me her blood pressure was high so we started her on pills.

Six months later we moved into our new house and she went blind which my vet warned me was a death sentence for cats. Luckily for her it wasn’t. She’d gotten a lay of the land just in time and was doing pretty well all things considered. She kept up her usual routine, laid in the same favorite spots, and of course still came to watch me make dinner every night without fail even though at this point she wasn’t ‘watching’ anything.

Then in December I discovered I was expecting. It was the best news of my life but came with extreme exhaustion and the meanest case of bitch syndrome you’ve ever seen. My husband says this isn’t true but that’s just because a) he loves me b) he’s going to be the father of my child and doesn’t want to admit to impregnating a psychopath and c) I hid a lot of it from him, including the fact that for two weeks straight the thought of having to muster the energy to make dinner conversation with him (or anyone) was enough to send me into the fetal position on the floor. I was just so. Damn. Tired.

Then of course there were the poor animals. At this point Lily was regularly peeing outside of her pee pad (believe it or not the cat used a pee pad after she went blind as she didn’t want to navigate climbing into her litter box anymore.) And between my general state of exhaustion and having to listen to my husband complain about cleaning up the pee (as well as cleaning it up myself) I couldn’t deny it was getting super hard to deal with my old kitty. Not to mention that because of her being blind we had to be super careful walking around the house or we’d accidentally punt her across the room. Sadly this was a major danger to her and myself when I made dinner because she would try and ‘find’ me by sound and inevitably end up under my feet practically killing both of us in the process.

On top of all this, giving the cats their nightly treat (a can of Fancy Feast wet food) had become something I absolutely dreaded. If you judge me for this I understand. But I beg you to give me some credit for pregnancy hormones. They’re evil and they drain your soul. To give me a little more credit (do I sound defensive?) it wasn’t as easy as cracking open a can of Fancy Feast and calling it a day.

Both cats had to be separated from the dog (or else the dog would eat it all) and because Madison eats like a linebacker, Lily had to be separated from her or else she’d literally get nothing. So all in all it was an intricate half hour process not to mention cleaning up.

But believe me, no one is harder on me for complaining about this than myself. In fact I thank my lucky stars that Sunday night, the night before my husband found her on the floor, I did indeed give her her most favorite treat. If I hadn’t I guarantee I’d be in a mental ward somewhere.

So now that we’re nearing the end and there are a few details I have to mention. First of all, if you can measure one’s love for an animal in the number of nicknames given to them, then I loved Lily about a billion percent.

Here are just a few of her nicknames: Lou, Mimi, Leelee, Lou, Monica Lou-ensky, Midgie Cakes, Deejay Midgerton, Deejay Midgiestein, The Miginator, Kate Midgerton (after the duchess), Mar-Jane, Jane-Ann. I could keep going but I’ll spare you.

Another thing. This cat could play fetch. Throw her a little ball or a furry toy and she would get it and bring it back to you. I discovered this when she was a kitten and it was something she would do up until she went blind.

The next thing is my most favorite part about her. Lily had the most amazing smell ever. She literally smelled like a stuffed animal that came from a fancy department store. That’s the best way I can describe it. For example for a brief time when I was little my mom worked nights at Joske’s Department store in Houston and when she came home she smelled like cashmere and Clinique. This is what Lily smelled like.

And finally an important detail that will come back into play in a minute. My husband and I called Lily ‘The Sheriff’ (yet another nickname) because she was so inquisitive. If you dropped a sock from the laundry basket on the way to the washing machine, she would go and sit by it as if pointing out ‘this sock doesn’t belong here.’ She liked order and anything she considered out of order she would ‘flag.’

Even after she went blind, she was always the first one up (before the dog!) when she’d hear us unlocking the door. In fact the very day before I watched her hop up off her little blanket when she heard my feet crunching the gravel on the way to the back door. She was always the first to greet you or notice what was new or amiss even blind and half senile.

And now back to that crappy Monday. What will forever stand out in my mind is how she acted on the way to the vet. Lily is not a ‘down with the vet’ kinda gal. She’s actually notorious at our vet and famously bit one of the vet techs causing her to be quarantined because I hadn’t kept up with her rabies shot (she was an indoor cat her whole life so I never saw the point. Until she bit someone:)

This time though as I held her in the car, she just purred and purred as happy as a lamb. She purred even as we went into the clinic and sat waiting for the vet (we didn’t have an appointment) and then even as he examined her. Or at least until he tapped on her legs to see if they had feeling.

They did and ironically this made the diagnoses really complicated. If it had been a clot – the usual reason for the back legs to become paralyzed – she wouldn’t have had blood flow to them. Or if it had been the other main culprit – a slipped disc – she wouldn’t have had feeling in the legs. She clearly did have feeling in them. She just couldn’t move them.

This meant something deeply complicated. Something that even a visit to the neurology specialist in Round Rock might have not been able to pinpoint. And given the fact it had happened to one of her back legs a month ago and she’d gotten herself up within the hour it looked pretty bad.

My amazingly understanding and sympathetic vet (Dr. Benaryeh at Spicewood Springs Animal Hospital) gave me my options, none of which were great. I could take her to Round Rock where she’d endure a series of complicated tests that might not tell us anything (or even if they did probably not good news) or put her on a steroid and take her home for 24 hours to see if she miraculously regained use of her legs. Or put her to sleep.

Of course a part of me was hoping against hope that another miracle would happen and the 24 hour thing would work. But another part of me felt cruel and selfish doing that. Putting her back on the floor unable to move or get herself to her pee pad, food or water seemed abusive for an animal that prides itself on cleanliness and vanity.

And then there was the damn purring. Something was really, really, REALLY weird that she was so damn relaxed and outright happy at the vet’s office – her own private purgatory!

I took her back to the car where my husband and I debated what to do for two hours, her purring in my arms the whole time and occasionally falling asleep.

‘What’s your gut say?’ he kept asking me. The truth was I had no idea what my gut was saying. Which in itself was pretty telling. Here was a blind, ancient cat whose back legs were paralyzed, who hadn’t shown interest in water in or in trying to move or in anything in almost 6 hours, and I was having a hard time listening to what my gut was telling me. Hmm.

Luckily there was one thing I couldn’t ignore. The fact that she was SO DAMN RELAXED, almost like she was drugged. If I took her home and forced her to lay on the floor for another 24 hours (while soiling herself) and THEN ended up having to drag her back here what were the odds she’d still be that happy and relaxed? Certainly by then she’d be distressed, pissed off, and embarrassed to say the least.

It was the thought of having to bring her back there knowing full well she wouldn’t be happy about it the second time around that gave me my answer. Plus I noticed she kept falling asleep as we talked, her head kept sliding down my arm.

Again this is not the cat that I know. Lily has always been sweet to me and happy to have me hold her but she’s never EVER been a ‘I’m cool hanging in the parking lot of the vet’s office while the dump truck unloads concrete behind the building next door so I’m just going to fall asleep in the meantime’ kind of cat. Not even in her twilight years. ‘The Sheriff’ was no longer on duty.

Something was wrong. I had to believe – to accept – that Lily was telling me she was ready. I’d already been crying all morning but now the floodgates were really open.

Because here’s the thing about putting your pet to sleep – it still feels like murder even when it’s clearly hands down the right thing to do. Truth be told I really wished it had been a clearer cut decision I.E. she’s in the last phases of cancer or her heart had given out. The problem for me was I could still sit there and say to myself ‘but she has okay kidneys! What cat has okay kidneys at 17?’ or ‘but she gets around the house pretty well blind.’ Ridiculously I could still rationalize her health even as I knew full well her back legs didn’t work and more than likely never would again.

This is how much we love our pets. All I could think of were the reasons not to. The reasons why she was still a viably functioning cat – basically because she was still breathing.

But then another thought occurred to me. What did I want? For her to be worse off than this before I had to make the decision? For her to have lost all of her pride and sass (and she still had sass – she snapped out of her purrathon just long enough to go after the vet as he tapped her back legs) and be a total empty shell of herself?

No. That would be awful. Lily was happy at the vet’s office. If there was a sign bigger than that I don’t know what is.

I can barely write about the rest. Honestly. It’s the most gutting, horrific and yet precious thing you can ever go though aside from being there for a human loved one which I literally can’t fathom. For those out there who have gone through that, God love you. You are made of steel and Jesus parts.

But again this is so selfish of me to sit here whining about putting my cat down when truthfully I am so, so lucky. If she had died when I was out of town (and I travel for work a lot) without me or anyone by her side I’d have felt so awful I couldn’t stand it. And here I was able to be with her, to hold her, to tell her what she meant to me until her very last breath.

The bottom line is you will never feel great about putting down a member of your family. It’s human nature to look for the good, the miracle, the reason why not. Lily had been in decline for years and while I thought this would make letting go easier, the end still felt ridiculously sudden and fast. No matter what you’re never ready for it.

But I didn’t write this to make you sad. I wrote this to hopefully help anyone who has gone through this or who will one day know the pain of having to make the most awful decision imaginable. And to suggest that maybe – just maybe - it isn’t the most awful decision ever. Maybe it’s a gift to be there for your friend and to help them let go. To give them that peace.

And for those who don’t have a pet, I sincerely hope that one day you’ll know the love that those of us as pet lovers have known. It truly is the great untold love story.

We buried Lily right outside my kitchen door under a sprawling Live Oak. And every night when I go to pull out a pan or turn on a burner or open my spice drawer, I think about the stuffed animal with a heartbeat who could play fetch and smelled like cashmere and Clinique who was there by my side as I cooked for all those years.

The girl was never late for dinner.

4 comments:

Michelle V said...

Well, holy hell. That was beautiful and wrenching and poetic and funny and so very meaningful and now I have a crying headache and want to eat bad food for comfort yet I feel better knowing people like you exist.
I am glad I am at home right now because my makeup is down my face and I am stalking all of my cats telling them how much I love them and looking at our departed Boo and Buddy’s pictures and bawling all over again.
If we ever cross paths here in Austin, I want to hug you and drink wine with you (and watch the most awesome True Blood) and you I think you are good peeps.

And btw, and Jiminy Crickets I am bawling all over again, when we had to say goodbye to our Chrystal (who I had since my first year at Southwest), I slept with her the night before we said goodbye on the couch when I knew things were bad and she snuggled in my neck and made biscuits and purred all night – as if to say it’s ok - trying to make ME feel better when I know her body was letting go. Just like Lily.


Miss Meat and Potatoes said...

Michelle that is so sweet of you to write - I appreciate it so much. Sorry to make you cry!! As sad as it is I think it's kind of nice to share this stuff with other people who have gone through the same thing because only those of us who have can relate. And I don't doubt for a second your kitty was trying to comfort you which just breaks your heart even more. You were such a great mom to cuddle her all night. Hugs right back to you and please drink wine for me during the True Blood premiere coming up (I'm preggers and on the wagon;) Have a great weekend - take care and dry those eyes and thanks again for the lovely comment.

Natalie said...

When I first read your post, Tice was home sick and sitting on the couch next to me. When he looked over at me confused because I was bawling, I just gave him a hug. I want to protect him from that kind of pain--the pain of knowing loss and hurt, but that would mean protecting him from the joy of loving something or someone. It's so damn hard to let go but so incredible to love something and be loved in return.
Lily was the sweetest thing that could come into a college girl's life. I'll always remember her purring and chasing balls of paper, And shitting in your car! Sorry, just had to throw that in, because we love those creatures even when they're a pain. And they love us when we need it the most.
Love you and hope time is healing some of the hurt.

Susan Armstrong said...

My white cat Socrates with 4 inch hair also smelled exactly like a stuffed animal. Non Persian though.