Flower, a black and white cat with a throaty Siamese voice, was a survivor. We inherited her from an upstairs neighbor. I could also say that she insisted on our adopting us. When an aged, battle-scarred cat I’d also inherited from a friend and brought to my new place in Jamaica Plain, was dying, Flower would position herself on the outside sill of the window of our ground-level apartment, maiowing in entreaty. Finally, we took her in. She had no torn ears, no scarred skin, no lame paws. Apparently she had never been in a fight. She was very laid back but she still knew how to defend herself. Once, as she lay on her back on a chair – the most vulnerable of any feline posture, offering her belly to all comers – a friend’s dog entered the apartment, barked, and approached her menacingly. She gazed at him from her upside-down position and then, with a delicate, forceful swipe of her paw – with its economy of gesture and its deliberation it drew no blood – sent the poor hound whimpering around the room, leaving, a pitiful trickling of urine.
As Flower approached what in any other animal would have been senility she retained her alertness, her agility, and her nonchalance. But in a few years it began to be difficult for her to climb the front steps or up the back steps behind our building to our kitchen window. Jack made ramps to allow her elderly body to climb. But she stayed increasingly in the house. At one point it was evident that she couldn’t jump up on the bed, and was in pain from arthritis. So one day we took her to the vet in Brookline and “put her to sleep.” “It’s OK, Honey,” said the vet as he inserted the needle. “IT’S NOT OK!” I screamed. “YOU’RE KILLING HER!”
The vet to whom we had taken her for her first check-up when we inherited her from an upstairs neighbor, said, “These quarter-Siamese are very long-lived.” After Jack buried her in the garden in a wooden casket he made, our across-the-street neighbors told us they’d first met Flower 23 years earlier when she was a kitten.
We waited a long time to get another cat. Counting Flower, I had had six in my life. Both of us knew we would get two cats. Like us, they need the solace of each other’s company. They need love and show it – those forepaws wrapped around each other, or around your arm or neck. They need companionship. As human companions they are “solitary” if you adopt a single cat, but if you take on two (or more) you’ll see another kind of feline nature in bloom, one that is intensely interactive, playful and loving.
So in 1997, when it was time, we got not just two, but three Siamese kittens. We were in our fifties and very active. We’d had a passionate affair that had blossomed into life together and then, marriage. We were bonded through many things – among them our political outlooks; our senses of humor; our love for animals. At first, when Jack moved up to Boston from New Jersey to live with me, we lived in Jamaica Plain on the street Flower had patrolled for her whole life, cadging cheese from the neighbors, avoiding any interaction with cars, climbing and descending trees, and returning to us at night to sleep. Cats were always the little intermediaries in our life together. If we fought, there was always the cat to wonder about, feed, groom, and take to the vet. There was always the play that we could alert each other to, laughing.
“If we get another cat, I want a Siamese,” said Jack who, years earlier, had had and loved, for years, a male Siamese, Fuji. So in the spring of 1997 we called a number posted in The Boston Globe by a suburban Boston cat breeder. Cat breeders are in general an odd lot, as anyone who has ever been to a cat show can attest. This breeder, or breeder-pair, was “more normal” — a couple with children. A new litter of Siamese kittens was ready for sale. When we phoned we were told there was a brother-sister pair, from the same litter, left.
Two tiny, terrified kittens scuttled away from us along the baseboards of the family’s living room. “You’ll love them!” said Jack with conviction and finality. Just as he’d said this, a tiny, almost pure-white kitten with pale-beige tabby stripes on her upper front legs and back legs bounced along the floor towards me and jumped at my shin. I scooped her up. She was the smallest cat I’d ever held; head, tail, and all fit in the palm of my hand. “Oh, Jack!” I cried. “Not three cats!” replied Jack.
The tiny, pale kitten I fell in love with had already been named: Zoe. After Jack’s admonition I phoned the breeder and told her I was putting money down on Zoe’s purchase. Two weeks later Jack and I brought her to our Jamaica Plain apartment where she hid in a cut-crystal fruit bowl for a day before beginning to attach herself to me and to the other kittens.
We had names prepared for the other two. A couple years earlier, browsing through a Blue Guide to Italy, we had read about a Siennese despot named Pandolfo Petruccio il Magnifico. A perfect name for a cat! We named the male kitten of the pair Petruccio. We called his sister Mistinguette, after a French music hall artiste much written about by the author, Colette.
On the ride back from the breeders’, Petruccio lay in the cat carrier next to Mistinguette with forepaws stretched out in front of him like a diver. It was an endearing pose, one Petruccio assumed when he stretched out to sleep, just as all of us, as children, exhibit postures and gestures that stay with us long into adulthood.
Once home, both kittens retreated under a chest of drawers in our foyer. It took a day or two to coax them out, and then they began to play with each other and with us. I had an editorial job that allowed me much time working at home. I spent much of my days cuddling, kissing and talking to Zoe, Petruccio and Mistinguette. Zoe in particular I carried around in a pouch like a baby, which translated as her tendency to creep under the bedclothes, nestling behind my knees to sleep. For a long time she “nursed” on my forearm, suckling it as if it were a mother cat’s belly; she had apparently been weaned too soon. So I became her human mother.
Mistinguette was a pale gray that darkened into the color that gives “blue-point” Siamese their name. Petruccio slowly developed a lustrous, silky coat with the characteristic black mask , ears, legs and tail that characterize seal point Siamese.
They frolicked around our feet, dashed after one another in the cat tree we bought for them, scampered up and down the sofa cushions and, after we moved into a house in Medford, Massachusetts, up, down and around staircases, a long expanse of living-dining-room space, and throughout the bedroom and our studies. At night they all slept with us and nestled against each other, Petruccio sometimes in his diver’s pose, sometimes cheek to cheek with his sister, sometimes curled next to Zoe. Zoe had an extraordinary personality – cheerful, unflappable, bold, and sweet. “Missy” was perhaps the most affectionate of the three, nestling in my arms, licking my fingertips, and gazing adoringly at me. Petruccio was the shyest and, in this early time in our relationship, second to my love for Zoe, a reality that made her jealous and sometimes miserable and one that she would never forget.
For it turned out that “Petruccio” was indeed a “she,” and “Mistinguette” a he; it’s hard to distinguish the sexes of very young kittens. So we changed their names. Petruccio became “Trooch,” as if in abbreviation of Petruchka. Mistinguette became, simply, Miso, a name I chose because of its resonance, not with any association with soup. From her adorable kittenhood Zoe grew long-limbed, sleek and lean, retaining her huge, tufted, fox-like ears, her stripes darkening against the paleness of her under-fur, her back gradually taking on a darker, “ticked” tinge. Trooch was the silkiest, with a lush, smooth coat that invited stroking. Miso had a broad-browed, broad-muzzled face, his blue eyes peculiarly angled, reminders of his kinship with lions, panthers and other big cats.
One day when they were perhaps a year old, I heard a cat shriek in the living room. We found Trooch running in circles there, a small chunk of her hackles missing, the wound bloody. Miso was upstairs sleeping. From what we could tell, Trooch, who had a barely perceptible but real demanding streak, must have aggressed Zoe and Zoe, otherwise so calm and relaxed, had retaliated. I carried Trooch to the bedroom. There, I made up a song for her:
She’s a Trooch,
She’s a Troochy-Trooch,
She’s a Trooch-Trooch.
She’s a Trooch, she’s a Troochy Trooch,
She’s a Trooch-Trooch.
She’s a very Troochy Troochy Trooch,
She’s a Troochy, Troochy Troochie Trooch.
She’s a Trooch-Trooch,
She’s a Troochy-Trooch,
She’s a very Troochy-Trooch.
Oh she’s a Trooch, a Trooch, a Trooch!
It was like a children’s song. I stayed there on the bed with her long into the evening, singing. From that time on, she never forgot it. Still the timidest of the three cats, she would sometimes hide in the attic, but I could always coax her out by singing her song. From that day, too, I became “her” person. Jack had to convince me that she, of all the cats, loved me the most, and gradually I came to adore her. She remained timid, but she followed me like Zoe. And – a poignant sign of her love – she would try to go under the covers as Zoe did, clearly jealous of her little sister, wanting to sleep, as Zoe did, behind my knees. Since I hadn’t carried her against my body as I had Zoe, she was claustrophobic in the warm darkness and always rocketed out after a matter of seconds.
For reasons no one completely understands, cats are prone to kidney disease. A cat I inherited from a friend when I was 25 got it. My first husband and I had to euthanize her when she was about 14. At that time cat-owners weren’t told that while you can’t give a cat dialysis, you can inject saline solution under their skins to help boost the fluids they lose as the kidney disease worsens. In 2013 our new vet in a clinic near Medford informed us that Zoe had kidney disease. She had been prone to urinary tract infections; I would see her straining to pee in her litter box and would then call the vet, who prescribed various remedies. But he never told us about the possibility of subcutaneous fluids. I will never know why. At Christmas in 2013 she became acutely ill, unable to urinate, and in pain. In panic I took her to the vet. He said she was in terminal kidney failure. “Can’t we do anything?” I implored him. There was an animal hospital with an intensive care unit not too far north of where we lived. We asked if he would take Zoe there if she were his cat. He said he would. And so I made what I now think was the greatest insult to animal health in all my years of having cat companions. We rushed Zoe to the hospital; they admitted her to the tune of $4000. They kept her for days. But they said she wasn’t responding to the treatment. When we brought her home she turned her face to the wall, clearly dying. Distraught, we phoned vets until we found one who came out to euthanize her. That was Christmas Day.
Jack made another little casket out of pine. We put Zoe into it and carried her out into our garden where we buried her. Some years later, I read an essay by the journalist Glenn Greenwald about the dogs he and his partner adopt in Rio de Janeiro where they live. The title of the essay: “The Dogs You Rescue Do More for You Than You Do for Them.” A statement in it has stayed with me: “Every fifteen years you have to bury a child.”
Zoe and Trooch had recovered from their spat of years earlier and slept together in the soft pink “doughnut” bed we kept in the bathroom under which Jack had installed radiant heating. They loved the warmth and they loved each other. When Zoe was dying, both Trooch and Miso backed away from her in animal incomprehension and, I imagine, some fear. When the vet came to euthanize Zoe, we had both cats see her after she was dead. And some time after the vet took her body away, Trooch began howling. It didn’t help that she, too, had developed kidney disease, and that her teeth were rotten. I’d made another huge mistake. I had never gotten the cats accustomed to having their teeth brushed, something that, over the course of a few months, you can train them to undergo. No vet had ever told me, in 50 years, that cats need their teeth brushed just as humans do. They are, after all, mammals. If they don’t live in the wild with bones to gnaw, their teeth can get just as rotten as ours. Miso, too, had teeth so rotten that his breath stank.
We found another vet, one who came to the house. She told us that we could have feline dental surgery performed on Trooch, but not on Miso: his disease was more advanced than hers, and being anesthetized would strain his kidneys so much, he mightn’t survive it. And so began a process of care that bonded Trooch even more strongly to me, and me to her. I took her to a vet who specialized in dental surgery. She extracted not just a few, but all of Trooch’s teeth, saying that they were so full of decay that they should all go. Once home from the surgery, Trooch cried in pain. She had stitches in her gums that hurt horribly, and she refused to eat. I administered a pain medicine once or twice a day, and several times a day rolled soft, wet food into little balls, seasoning it with ground up dried chicken, feeding her by hand. It took several weeks, but she recovered.
Her sister was gone. Next came her brother. Miso didn’t die of his kidney disease; he choked to death on a piece of plastic from a cleaners’ bag the end of which had escaped the confines of the closet, trailing under the door and into my study. I was alerted to Miso’s death by Trooch’s prolonged howling. She stood in the hallway outside our bedroom and next to my study, wailing. When I went into my study Miso was lying on the floor on his flank, dead. “Jack, Miso’s dead!” I cried. We stood weeping over Miso’s body. Jack carried him down to the living room and placed him under the piano bench, and then stretched out beside him, crying. Later in the day, as he had done for Zoe, he built a pine coffin and we buried Miso next to his little half-sister’s grave.
Trooch had always wanted to be first in my heart and now she got her wish. Miso had often displaced her on the bed, chasing her down the stairs to the first floor in frequent displays of male aggressiveness. Zoe had had the treasured under-the-blankets position. Now Trooch could slip under there whenever she wished, which she continued to do almost until the day she died, making the usual exist after half a minute or so.
Cats are very ritualistic animals. Trooch climbed on the bed every morning around 7, gently touching my cheek with her paw. If I pulled the covers over my head she withdrew withdraw for half an hour and then try again. I got up around 7:30 and she followed me to the kitchen. Then, feeding. Afterwards she meowed, walking towards the bedroom and looking over her shoulder at me, indicating that I should follow her there for a morning cuddle.
The subcutaneous fluid treatment became a ritual, a minute or two when I held her, inserted the needle, and then cuddled and sang to her. She didn’t fight this until a couple of weeks before she died. You pinch a section of skin at the scruff of the neck, making a “tent.” You insert a needle just under the surface of that pocket, then you loosen the valve on the line, allowing the fluid to flow. The solution is the same that hospitals use to hydrate human patients. Administering subcutaneous fluid should be painless, though many cats fight it with their claws and teeth. Trooch, an ideal patient, never did. Kidney disease dehydrates the animal, and constipation results, so in addition to administering the fluid I had to give her liquid laxative by syringe every night. This, too, she took bravely, gazing into my eyes, uttering a little choked meow after I’d finished. Then I’d give her a treat. This was our nightly routine for two years or more: laxative, treat with medicines embedded. Subcutaneous fluid; more treats. Then cuddling and playing – she would lead me into the bedroom, climb onto the bed, and we would butt heads and then play fetch with her toy mice..
I sit waiting for the vet to come. I have waited all day in bereaved expectation, sometimes weeping while petting her. She
extends her right paw in what for me has always been her most touching gesture, patting me, showing that she wants me to kiss and cuddle her. Now I stroke her, calming down as I do so.
She has done this nightly for years, patting my cheek. If I persist in reading, there comes another cheek pat until I draw my face to hers, whereupon she butts my head in a cat-kiss, presses her nose to mine, and I run my lips over her head for 30 seconds or so. Then comes another pat. I kiss her head again, repeatedly. Another cheek pat. More kissing. Finally, when she is assured of my love and undivided attention, she moves a little from me on the bed, tucking her front paws in, gazing at me, and finally falling asleep.
Tonight she stared at both Jack and me in a kind of alarm as we sat next to her, sobbing. Was she trying to comfort me as she patted my thigh? Certainly she wanted me to be myself, her human mom, restored to the calm she had always know, comforting and loving her.
For months we had been thinking about when we would have to call the vet to euthanize her. Selfishly I kept wishing I’d wake up and find she had died beside me in her sleep. She had had two very good vets in Boston. In New York when Jack and I moved there with Trooch, I set about finding a new vet on a sort of trial and error basis, searching through Yelp reviews, finding out which house-call vets would come all the way up to 158th and Riverside Drive. At the end of her life I found a vet who specialized in feline medicine. He made house calls only on Thursdays, which presented a problem: what if Trooch began finding life intolerable on a Friday? We would have to wait nearly a week for that vet, a man named Plotnick, to come. So I found another vet who came obligingly to the house whenever I called. On the other hand he hurt Trooch when he drew her blood, and I was afraid that when he administered the sedative now given as a prelude to the lethal dose, he might botch that as well. So I found a third vet, a woman, who seemed to be more available. Plotnick told me that it would be time when Trooch stopped eating, defecating, and urinating. In October, 2016, when we had her blood tested, her kidney scores had scarcely altered from the previous year. “Keep doing what you’ve been doing,” said the bad phlebotomist vet admiringly.
For a long time, sticking with her usual rituals, Trooch fetched me around 9:30 every evening to play. I’d throw a toy mouse and say, “Catch the mouse, Trooch! Catch the mouse!” On hearing the phrase she’d sit tensed, her ears forward, and then would utter a menacing growl nothing like any of her other talk. She would descend to the floor, growling, take one of the toys in her teeth, and then trot back on the bed where she’d deposit it. “Good girl, Trooch! What a good girl!” More gazing into my eyes. A minute or so later we did the same thing. It took more than five rounds of this before she would come up on the bed and settle next to me to engage in what I called “our love-fest,” the one with the cheek-patting and head-butting. Finally she would retreat a foot or so away from me, front paws tucked in prettily, gazing at me while I read or worked.
She stuck to her usual rituals, and was playing with toy mice until perhaps two weeks before a precipitous decline that happened almost from one day to the next. I knew from my experience with Zoe that excessive water-drinking was a sign of kidney failure. Trooch began howling in front of her water bowl and drinking. Afterwards, she would climb up on the bed beside me to be stroked and loved. This went on continuously. I had been giving her liquid laxative by mouth every night, with medicine embedded in treats, before giving her subcutaneous fluids. After the fluids, another couple of treats. Now, it seemed, these things weren’t staving off the kidney failure. Alarmed, I phoned the vet again. The blood work showed that her kidney disease had gotten much worse.
January 23: As I write this, I sit beside Trooch on the sofa in the apartment in New York City where we moved after selling our house in Medford. Lately, over the previous two weeks, Trooch had begun backing up as I held her when I administered the fluid, in order to get the needle to fall out. I think I haven’t said what a smart cat she was, trying to open the closet door, for instance, by taking the knob in both paws and rotating it. Backing up would loosen the needle in the skin flap and stop the fluid from going in. But she never fought me; never extended her claws. I don’t know whether it was because she was so intensely bonded to me that she trusted me no matter what I seemed to do to her, but until almost the very end she submitted like a good little patient.
It was clear by the time we went to the women’s march in Washington January 21 that we would soon have to phone the vet. He is coming, as I write, in two hours.
It has always calmed me to write, and so it does now. I have been reading accounts of grief in people whose cats have died. Like me, they compare their grief to the grief they’ve felt on losing a parent.
I was her mother; she was “my little old baby,” as I called her towards the end.
I expect to see her peacefully curled nose to tail on the bed while I climb onto the other side to avoid disturbing her. I expect to find her sitting watchfully by my head in the morning, gazing at me as I sleep. I expect to hear her feed-me howl, and then the little contented mew she always gave when she’d had enough. I expect to find her walking ahead of me, turning her head back to see if I’m following.In my study, which faces our bedroom, I expect to see her gazing at me from the bed; then she’ll jump down and come over to my chair, asking to be picked up.
Everywhere, I feel her absence.