The Cat Who Came to Dinner
I haven’t mentioned Sidney lately on the blog, or much on Facebook, though if you follow me on twitter you’ve likely heard more than you ever wanted about my terminal cat in the last few days. Our four hour search for him in our huge house to no avail, his wormhole return to the kitchen, the last trip to the vet where we were told to put him down and my anxiety over whether or not this was the right time, as I didn’t see our usual vet. My attempts to feed him tuna, his treats, anything. My eventual acknowledgment that yes, this is the day to say goodbye.
I’m writing this in advance as a part of mourning, but when this posts, he will be gone, and the Cullinans will be doing another round of cat mourning. This is our fourth passing in three years. I’m hoping I don’t have to write a post like this again for double that time, minimum.
Today, though, I’m going to tell you about Sidney.
Sidney appeared in our life via the back door. We’d just finished an incredibly disastrous experiment in having a dog, and young Anna was still upset about the return of her furry friend. This is example one of Sidney’s expert eye for opportunity: it was during this time of toddler angst and my weak will that he began showing up on our back deck. It was early spring, and it was cold. He’d huddle under the snow shovel against the side of the house in full view of Anna at the sliding door opposite. When he came too often, I felt for him, and I gave him some kibble.
He thought that was a pretty good deal, and started coming more often. Then one day he’d decided we’d flirted long enough, and when we opened the back door, he came in and went straight for the food dishes.
“We’ll have to call him Sidney,” Dan said, “because he came to dinner.”
“You just named him,” I replied. “You realize now it’s over.”
It was. Sidney had a name, and he was a Cullinan now.
We kept him isolated until we could get him to the vet, which was when we realized he wasn’t neutered, as he peed all over everything in sight to mark it. He was older, not yet a full tom but carrying enough extra hormones to aggravate the living hell out of Blair, the reluctant, neurotic alpha at the time. From that moment until the day Blair passed, Sidney delighted in sending Blair into a rage. He’d lie in wait and pounce on him, though after a few times all he had to do was look threatening, and Blair would lose his shit so fast it was better than cable. It drove us crazy, as this torment only made Blair’s fragile mental health that much more cracked, often inspiring him to pee on things in protest. We took joy, though, in watching the next black cat, Daisy, a third Blair’s size, joyfully turn the tables and drive Sidney into hiding every chance she got.
Sidney was polydactyl, and he used his thumbs to every advantage he could. He could open cupboard doors with almost no effort at all. They were usually the thing that poked at you first when he was annoyed. But Sidney wasn’t often annoyed. He relied on his cute, sweet face to get what he wanted, and he usually got it. He knew just when to appear at the dryer after a cycle so he could jump in, and he knew too I wouldn’t be likely to kick him out, not until the laundry cooled. But when I got to the folding laundry part, he appeared just as quickly, ready to nest on clean socks and underwear or towels or whatever was at hand. In fact, yesterday, when we knew it was our last evening, Anna and I warmed him some towels specifically and let him make one last snug. He didn’t have his usual relish, but he didn’t pass up the offer.
Though he always wanted to eat, Sidney had a deep yearning to see the outside world once again, and he took every opportunity to slip out of a door a foolish human hadn’t fully closed–the thumbs came in very handy here. A few times he was gone overnight, and the smells he brought back with him always drove the other cats crazy. He personally put several huge holes in the porch screens to abet his escape attempts, ones I admit we have yet to fix, have only sealed shut with glass.
Sidney had a fetish. For reasons we’ll never quite know, he loved, loved to be spanked on his butt while he lay sideways on the floor–spanked hard, and when you were done, he’d scoot himself forward on the carpet, then glance on his shoulder to ask for another go. He loved being petted regular too–if I was handing out pets to anyone, he’d be there in a flash, eager and hopeful I still had a spare hand. If I had a blanket on my lap, he was there in a flash, and in the last six months, he slept on my hip more than he slept anywhere else at night. I bought him a fuzzy blue throw when he was first diagnosed, but he quickly threw that over for Anna’s ultra-plush horse blanket we picked up on the way to Cedar Rapids one day. It’s been in his hospice room with him ever since we knew we were heading to this moment.
He was diagnosed with kidney failure, busted thyroid and enlarged heart this spring, and we got a lot more time than we probably had a right to. He’s subsisted on special kidney food and daily fluids ever since that vet visit, and for a while he almost thrived despite his deplorable blood work. His thyroid made him ravenously hungry, but I’d feed him every time he asked, and he asked a lot. I think he took a joy in knowing he could get food whenever he wanted–and no one else could. He always did like being the special boy.
It wasn’t all easy, though, nursing him through his last months. In June he developed a bladder infection and started peeing anywhere but in the litter box. He rallied after antibiotics, but he really never thought clay was better than towels after that. It would have been maddening, especially when he peed on our brand new basement carpet–except at this point his kidney failure was so bad, his urine so dilute, that it was impossible to tell his pee from plain water.
We worried what would happen when we went on our long-scheduled family vacation in early July–we had to board him at the vet, and we worried acutely he’d die while we were gone. He didn’t die, but the stress of being away from home combined with his already significant health crisis snowballed on Tuesday of this week, when he stopped wanting to eat. On Wednesday he started hiding–once we found him, and the second time we searched for hours, everywhere, in the craziest crannies we could find, but to no avail. When he reappeared in the kitchen, we shut him up in rooms he couldn’t escape from, first my office and then Dan’s. My office opens to Anna’s bedroom, which meant he spent Wednesday night sleeping on her pillow. She wanted to do that again last night, but by that time it was clear he was too sick to haul around, and since we’d forced-fed him, we worried he’d vomit on her during the night…or that he would pass, and she’d find him body only by morning.
He didn’t pass, and today I got to nap with him in Dan’s office, snuggled in the chair under blankets as we’ve done so many times. All day I’ve gone to visit him, second-guessing myself, worrying I should have put him down sooner when he flags, worrying I’m acting too quickly when he has a moment of rally. The fact that last night for the first time ever he didn’t fight his fluids says this is the right call, as is the fact all he’s ingested all week is three bites of tuna and a syringe of watered-down Wellness Core. Even when he’s somewhat lucid, he’s not really there, though. He’s still the cat we know and love, but he’s so clearly not okay. He doesn’t want dinner anymore. He needs to go to bed one last time.
Of course, I still don’t like it. As Anna said, we could have five hundred more years and it wouldn’t be enough. Today is the day everything I see makes me sad–I go into the cramped bathroom where I’ve grumbled about the need for a litter box under the sink, making me step in spilled litter every time I wash my face–now there’s no box, and I weep for what its loss means. As I went to bed last night and no one sat on my hip, I felt empty. As I napped with him this afternoon and could barely feel his starved, ravaged body’s weight on my leg, I wept again.
I feel him a little more acutely than I felt the other cats we’ve lost–it’s not the gut despair of my first cat, Gulliver, whom I lost while pregnant (and who incidentally looks a lot like Sidney), but it’s still a more aching cut than Mia or Blair of Bingley. Bingley I never really mourned as I should–one day six months later I found a wad of his fur and sobbed until I fell to the floor, but that was it. Sometime during all the cat death and my escalating health issues, I walled myself off inside. In therapy last year I remarked how I’ve gotten into a creepy habit of non-reaction–people can tell me sad things, horrible things, and I can sometimes catch myself actively walling off. My therapist told me that’s because there’s been way too much going on, and I’m simply coping. That makes sense, but my lack of feeling bothered me. It didn’t feel like living, not like I wanted. That wall broke a bit when my grandfather passed last year, but I quickly put the familiar bricks back in place once the memorial was past. Still too much going on. Still too weary to feel the way I felt I should.
This week, I can say I have definitely felt. Sidney’s death comes at a moment already fraught with heaviness: while I know my upcoming surgery is routine, not even a little life-threatening, it feels like a mountain I am approaching, and the uncertainty of the valley beyond unnerves me. Weirdly, the worst part is that the valley might be wonderful. On my vacation my father in law explained in a way I hadn’t previously been able to wrap my head around how my hysterectomy and removal of endometrial cysts might reverse some if not all of my autoimmune issues, and I am able now, in a way I haven’t dared to in a long time, imagine a world without pain. Truly without it–no more living at 3 or 4, getting so used to it what would send most people home to bed feeling like a pretty good day. Maybe eating a few things I couldn’t again, or not getting sick from a day of cleaning. Maybe taking a long walk without my legs feeling like they’re breaking in half. Maybe feeling as good as I’ve felt on my intermediary drugs–or better–without any medications at all.
Or it might not be much different. Or only sort of different. Or something else I can’t see.
Control, you see, is the issue–the lack of it, both for Sidney and for me. I cannot stop him passing. I was willing to do everything necessary to help him, but his dueling illnesses made it impossible, left me only with palliative care. I could not leave him at home while we were gone–I could not stop the stress that caused him. Even if I’d stayed home, though, eventually this disease would have caught him anyway. In truth, even without this disease, something else would have taken him eventually.
And so this week has been a crazy flurry of dying cat, a pile of work to turn in before my surgery, and prepping for surgery. Of walking around realizing all the things I won’t be able to do for weeks and weeks post-op, of acknowledging how nuts that will make me. Of knowing I’m signing up for some delightful pain and that weird, not nearly as fun as it should be time-gap that is general anesthesia. I always think maybe I’ll get to see gods or at least talk to Randy Jansen in person for a few minutes, but I don’t ever so much as dream. It’s simply one moment me on the bed with the big light, then me under a different light, my body full of pain and wracked by shakes.
This week has been me trying to finish a partial and find the headspace to read the initial notes from betas, including my now former therapist’s. This week has been me sitting quietly with the fact that our notes over Carry the Ocean will be our last exchange, that because she’s retired and because of the ethics of social worker rules, we won’t ever speak again.
I think only a third of the tears I’ve shed over Sidney in the past twenty-four hours have been for him. Oh, I will miss him, terribly, and that hurts, but more than anything, I think his passing and my upcoming procedure and my therapist’s retirement and so many other million things have snarled into a small, hard pellet which has managed to shatter a huge section of that feeling wall. I can’t control a lot right now. I can’t stop the wheels from turning. I can’t stop change. I can’t stay death, not forever. Not even for that sweet face.
I’m grateful, though, for that feeling, and I totally credit Sidney. He wasn’t exactly a wise soul, but he was a good one, and the life lessons he offered were instructive. Play. Love. Snuggle. Seek heat and pleasure and comfort. Be a little naughty. Fly your freak flag. Never miss a meal. Live hard and long as you can, but when the time comes to say goodbye, go gracefully, easily into the next phase.
Thank you, Sidney, for choosing us to stay with for a while. I hope you found the level of treats and laundry acceptable, though I’m not sorry I never let you go back outside. Enjoy the fresh air now as much as you want. I’ll see you on the other side.