One Minus Zero Is
It has been a point of amusement in our household for the last fifteen years that we're such geeks, we have binary cats. Uno and Null: one and zero. Uno came first, a preternaturally intelligent brown tabby given to us pre-named in the summer of 1996. When the orange kitten adopted us the next year by means of doggedly climbing up my back whenever I knelt anywhere within range, there was only one possible name for him.
It has been a further point of amusement that Null immediately began living down to his name. He was, it must be said, not very bright. Bright-eyed, yes, curious and responsive and talkative and demanding, but no great shakes in the brains department. Almost no sense of cause and effect, for instance. An un-catlike absence of all sense of dignity. He hadn't the first clue what to do with the mouse that popped out of our radiator that one evening. His hunting instincts, such as they were, were exclusively expressed through various small stuffed animals (most notoriously a Beanie Baby tarantula) which he would carry on multiple trips around the house, howling meditatively as he went.
But he was so sweet. He was our puppy-dog kitten; he'd roll over for belly rubs and he'd lick your face if you let him. He liked to sleep between my ankles all night long, or at least until I finally, reluctantly, dislodged him by rolling over and giving my poor back a break. He had the biggest eyes you ever saw. There was a while when he'd purr at the mere sight of food or loved ones, as though in gratitude that John or I or Uno or, well, food still in fact existed.
Null passed away early Sunday afternoon. His kidneys started to go on him last fall, as cats' kidneys often do. We'd done a faithful job of maintaining him for as long as he'd let us, but this past week he simply fell apart. His lips were suddenly covered in ulcers. He stopped eating. A few days later he stopped drinking.
Saturday night John and I slept with him between us. This time he didn't even try to pull himself over for a cuddle. Sunday morning, he was neither sleeping nor really conscious. All he could do was lie there, flattened out like a deflated balloon on the sofa pillows, only breathing because that's what bodies do absent instructions to the contrary. We picked him up and found that, like a newborn baby, he was incapable of supporting his own head. Around 1:45 PM, he coughed a little. Then he wasn't breathing anymore.
We gave him our last hugs. Then we drove him to the emergency vet, who confirmed that he was really, truly gone, gave us their sincere condolences, and charged us $71 for "communal cremation." That's when the pet family declines to keep the ashes. We also declined to have a clay paw print made to remember him by. I don't really regret that -- we have too many sentimental objects gathering dust about the house already. Still, now I wish I'd brushed him down one last time with the shedding brush before we gave up his body to the veterinary crematorium so that I'd have a handful of his fur to spun into yarn to... I don't know, braid into a ring? Hang from the ceiling? Make into yet another sentimental object to gather dust, I guess. I guess it's just as well I didn't.
Walking back to the car, I couldn't help feeling -- and I know this is irrational -- that we'd abandoned him. Pawned him off onto someone else. Given up, absolved ourselves of responsibility. It wasn't that I felt guilty for having given his body to someone else to dispose of. It was as though he were still alive and I'd abandoned him at the vet. Like I said, totally irrational.
And then there's the usual guilt that accompanies the death of a family member who's been sick in a high-maintenance way. Guilt for feeling relieved. Again, I know I shouldn't feel guilty; I know it's no indication that we did anything wrong. But Null had been requiring extra-special care for the better part of three years now. The paralysis incident in October 2009 left him with weak, stumbly back legs and no control of his bathroom functions. We had to express his bladder several times a day and clean up after him a lot. He was on an anti-seizure medication, so we had to clip pills into eighths and make sure an eighth went down his throat twice a day. When his blood tests began to show evidence of overworked kidneys, we started him on subcutaneous fluids three times a week and the vet visits increased in frequency. In the last month, his already wonky back half let him down entirely, and he often decided it wasn't worth dragging himself to the food or water bowls.
With all the attention he'd required, especially toward the end, it's no wonder John and I both breathed a sigh of relief when he was gone. It makes no real sense to feel guilty about that, but I did feel guilty. Worse, I felt responsible -- I'd known before he died that once he did I'd no longer have to be Super Cat Mom, and now I suspected myself of having been looking forward to his death.
This is all perfectly natural. I know better. But my feelings don't seem to know better at all.
The other weird thing is the habit-forming nature of stress and hyperresponsibility. I've blogged about that before in the context of big scary writing projects with fast approaching deadlines. The day after submitting the manuscript, I'd wake up dreading all the work still ahead of me, only to remember that the work was now behind me. I'd be unable to relax all day, sure that there was something I was desperately supposed to be doing. Just so with Null's absence: I'm constantly realizing it's been hours since he was last expressed and I'd better hop to it before he leaks all over the bed and I should make sure he's lying on an absorbent pad and is today the day he gets fluids and it's probably time I brought him to the water bowl or presented him with a little wet food on my finger or encouraged him to excercise his back legs before they totally atrophy or--
And then I realize, Not anymore, and I start breathing again.
At which point, of course, the guilt starts in once more, because my response to realizing that is thank the Gods.
Today we're both doing better, John and I. We're background-sad instead of foreground heartbroken, if that makes any sense. And though I'm still feeling the guilt, it's receded a bit so that I can enjoying the simplicity of our much-scaled-back daily routine. I had forgotten what it was like to not be giving a cat at-home end-of-life care. It's kind of nice. And now we have room to pay some overdue attention to Uno, who has been feeling terribly confused and neglected of late. We're giving him a lot of attention now.
But I miss Null terribly. When I stop to think about it, it hits me like a ton of bricks. Such was his illness that I can't remember when he last purred. I wish I'd known it would be the last time. I'd have appreciated it more.
Friday night, he was in terrible pain and he didn't want to be conscious, but he squirmed across the bed anyway so he could go to sleep with his head on my ankle. If he'd still been capable of purring, I know he would have.