Monday, April 18, 2011

Black cat, nine lives

I'm going to try to write this even though I am completely wiped. Putting it off a day seems wrong. Today was the day that the end came for our cat Blair, the second of our cats to be diagnosed with terminal cancer last year and the second to shuffle off the mortal coil.

This was a lot harder for me on so many more levels than when we had to let Mia go last November. The biggest reason for this is because Blair was really my baby boy cat. From the minute I heard him meowing in a neighbor's flower garden across a busy street in Washington, IA, I knew that he and I were going to have a special relationship. Up until that time, I had not really been a cat person. I became a pseudo-cat person mostly because I realized that if I wanted to spend my life with Heidi, that was going to involve cats. Blair (who was named after The Blair Witch Project, which was a popular movie that summer) really got to me though. He was the first cat of ours that I bonded with as a kitten and in many ways, we tricked him into thinking I was his mother. In the first days that we had him, he would get in bed with me every morning and would always fall for the "moving finger under the blanket" trick. He pounced every time. He would nip at you and bite which led to his early nickname of "Black Bite-y."

He was hell on wheels - I'd never seen a kitten get into so much trouble. He crawled up in the arms of the couch, pulled an entire box of Stove-Top stuffing out of a cupboard and walked around with it in his mouth. He hijacked a package of English muffins and squirreled them away in our bedroom closet, where we uncovered them six months later, moldy and gross. Even though we had two other cats in the house, we knew it was him. No one else would have taken the time or the effort. As he grew, he got into more trouble, jumping from the floor to the top of the refrigerator and even ending up inside the refrigerator once after sneaking in there all stealth-like when we had opened it. Only his meowing led us to find him, sitting on the second shelf as if he belonged there.

He grew quickly - a friend of ours always asked me if we were feeding him Miracle-Gro. He was always a handsome cat and I swear that he had to have had Siamese in him. He grew fond of crawling up on my chest in the morning before I woke up. When you wake up with a 14 pound cat on your chest, it becomes difficult to differentiate between that and "the big one." When he wasn't sitting on my chest, he was crawling under the blanket and laying next to me all stretched out like a human would. None of our cats before or since have done that. He kind of grew out of that for a while, but in the last 6 months, he started doing that again. It was almost as if he knew that his time was limited and wanted to remind me of what it was like before he was sick.

The thing about Blair was that he had neuroses that had neuroses. We first noticed this when we discovered that he was losing all the hair on his legs - a consequence of over-grooming, a nervous habit among cats who are stressed out. We tried to medicate him for this, but it proved nearly impossible without getting an arm taken off. We managed it as best we could, but when we moved and Sidney showed up on our back deck and became the 5th cat in our house (never again), his anxiety went into the stratosphere. He started peeing outside of the litter box - his favorite places being on the front door and on the floor in Heidi's office closet. Because of this, we spent $600 on a full work-up on him to make sure that there wasn't something physically wrong with him that was causing him to pee all over the place or if it truly was just a behavioral problem. As I suspected, there wasn't anything wrong with him physically. The stress brought on by Sidney basically pushed him over the edge.

My dad built a cage for him so that we could isolate him and basically retrain him to use the litter box. It worked for the most part, although he still had his lapses. We started him on Prozac which we would rub on his ear and that also seemed to help some. His peeing continued and we just kept on cleaning it up. I sanded down the wood floors where he had peed and resealed them. There were points during that time that I'm not proud of. I was so tired of cleaning up pee, with him wrecking floors and not knowing what was wrong with him that I seriously entertained the notion of euthanizing him then. After euthanizing him today, I know now that I was all talk. There was no way on God's green earth that I could have killed him for his behavior.

When he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma last fall, he had wasted away and had hardly any fat on him. The vet said that his prognosis was quite poor. He was so sick with a respiratory tract infection last fall when Heidi was gone to Texas to visit her sister that my only goal was to keep him alive until she got back. He rallied like no one's business, kicked his infection and started gaining weight once we put him on steroids and antibiotics. His mouth, which had been full of sores, healed up. He was on the mend and he lulled us into a false sense of security. Maybe the diagnosis had been wrong...maybe he was going to be around for years to come.

The honeymoon was short-lived. He went through countless rounds of antibiotics. He knew the sound of me grinding the tablet in the mortar and pestle I bought so that we could more easily administer it to him - when he heard it, he would hide. Last week, we found a lump on his belly. Thinking it was a sign of his cancer advancing, we took him to the vet. They aspirated it and found it to be only a cyst, but to keep an eye on it. Three days later, he was sneezing and wheezing and not responding to the antibiotic. We switched antibiotics and despite the fact that it should have killed just about everything, he still got no better. Over the weekend, he stopped eating and drinking. The last time we know that he peed was Friday. He was vomiting up snot and phlegm and despite my attempts to keep him clean, the snot crusted on his nose and face. Yesterday, sensing that his end was near, I went up and sat with him in Heidi's office. He laid down next to me and snuggled up to my leg. By the evening hours, he had curled up into a ball under Heidi's desk, and got all quiet and still. I was sure that I would be gone this morning. He was still alive, but miserable.

In many ways, I felt bonded to Blair because of our similar struggles with anxiety. I always felt a little bit like giving up on him was giving up on me. That was why it was so hard to make the call this morning which was his death sentence. I hated the responsibility of saying "you die now." Once we had the appointment set up, I kept thinking "Blair only has x amount of time to live." He was a little more alert at the time than I would have liked, although he was calm because of the sedative we gave him at home. He twitched his tail and growled one last time at the vet while she found the vein. He laid his head down and was twitching his tail. After the injection was about half done, his tail stopped twitching. I like to think that he fell asleep and didn't feel the pain anymore, because not long after, he was gone. It's not cool to say so, but I was heartbroken. My little black cat was no more and I haven't been that sad in a long time.

Cancer won, like it so often does despite our best efforts. But he didn't have to suffer. That's the gift we can give to our pets. As he died, Madonna's "Crazy For You" played on the radio. It seemed appropriate.

But as someone said to me, whenever we lose anyone, it's not the ending but the time before that matters. Sure I'm sad. Sure I'll miss him. I was eating supper tonight and swore that I saw his little black head walk by, only to realize that wasn't possible. But I will remember all the times, good and bad, that we gave him and that he gave us. We gave him a good life. So many people would have given up on Blair but we didn't. And we loved him through it all, even at the worst. Even when I was talking crazy about euthanizing him for peeing, I still loved that cat. In many ways, he was the bitchiest cat that ever lived, but we saw the side of him that so few saw. Whatever the cat version of love is, he had it for us. He snuggled up on my lap almost without fail every time I sat down to watch TV. He hung out with Heidi in her office during the day. He very frequently laid on Anna's bed while she fell asleep. He left pieces of himself around - and not just the bits of hair we shaved from his body today. When Anna was an infant, he inadvertently scratched her head and eyelid, leaving a faint scar that is mostly hidden by her hairline. She said to me last night "Dad, I'm glad Blair scratched me, because now I have a piece of him forever." Way to make lemonade out of lemons, kid.

What a difference a week makes!

He was a good cat, even when he was a shit cat, because he was MY cat. He was my baby boy cat and now he's gone. He's not hurting anymore, but I sure do miss him.

One Christmas, we made CDs for people - one for each of the four cats we had at the time. Blair's contribution was "Blair's Bad-Ass Tunes." And naturally, the last track was Janet Jackson's "Black Cat." If any cat really had nine lives, it was Blair. He lived way past his prognosis, but it still wasn't easy to let him go.

RIP, buddy. This one's for you. If she sings it at the State Fair, you know I'll think of you and smile.


John said...

My best to you and the family. I'll keep a good thought for Blair tonight.

Dwayne said...

Very moving tribute. Godspeed Blair kitty.

Kelly said...

Take comfort in knowing that you loved him, and he knew it.

xolondon said...

What a great cat Blair was (not having met him). I'd never trade the life we lead with pets for not going through the sadness of their deaths. They really do so much for us each day.

Sending you all my thoughts. xo

Anonymous said...

I don't mind admitting that I have moist eyes after reading this. A lovely tribute Dan, just lovely. Hugs to you all.