My cat Blake died Sunday just after noon.
I am probably kidding myself, but I am telling myself he did not suffer too much. He’d gotten thin as he had gotten older, actually quite thin, but I didn’t think there was anything amiss till last May. During a regular exam, the vet didn’t hear any breathing in one lung. She took an Xray. She saw a mass and showed me the film, with its big white angry blob in the middle of a much more subdued grey-black pattern of bones and organs. She said it might be cancer, told me what it would take to firm up the diagnosis, and that he could get chemo. I didn’t think it was right to put a 15 year old cat through that. She said he’d stop eating if it was cancer and that he could go very suddenly.
He came home and continued to show his long-standing keen interest in being fed, so I put it out of my mind. But last Monday when he was napping next to me I could hear his breathing was labored and he didn’t get up to nosh, which he normally does. His breathing improved but he was subdued in a way I hadn’t seen him save a few day spell when he was a kitten, when he’d gotten his ribs badly bruised. He was smart enough that it seemed possible back then that he was having a cat think about his mortality. Last week, he knew he was dying.
I took him to the vet my other cat sees on Wednesday (I’d switched Blake to a different vet when I was considering taking him to Australia, since then only two vets in Manhattan could certify animals for that, but I hadn’t liked the aggressiveness of the upselling when Blake was discovered to be sick). Their reaction was basically, “They found a pulmonary mass last May and he’s still alive?” They gave him an appetite stimulant and a supply to give him at home. I asked about getting palliatives. They needed to do bloodwork. Due to communication delays, he didn’t go back in until Saturday. He got two shots, vitamin B-12 and an opiate.
By late last week, Blake was eating much less than usual and barely leaving my bed. He was so brave about his condition. Just yesterday, he went to the bathroom to get water. He had trained me many years ago to give him water from the tap. First he jumped into bathtub to drink drops from the faucet, then by hopping into the tub and licking the spout he would ask me to turn it on, then by transferring that behavior to the bathroom sink, which has a swan neck faucet. By now, he just had sit on the bathroom counter and look at the faucet to get me to do his bidding.
I turned the spigot on and went into the shower. I also put a small glass of water near the sink, since he also preferred drinking from a glass to drinking from a bowl. He’d always liked just looking at the stream, the way people enjoy watching the play of fountains. But I could see him hesitate with his neck stretched out a long time before drinking, as if he didn’t want to but knew he needed to. Then he’d drink a little bit, first from the sink and then the little glass, with long intervals in between. After I got out of the shower, he walked some difficulty over to the other end of the counter and gazed at the bathtub spout. I opened the sliding door wider to make it easier for him to get in and turned on a thin stream. Later, I saw him lying in the tub, near the spout, watching the water run.
Similarly, over the last few days, I was having to feed him in bed. He’d refuse most food, even treat food like cream and salmon and novelties like kitten milk, but when I’d bring him something he’d want to eat, he would take a few bites, then turn his head away. I kept praising him when he ate and pleaded with him when he stopped. I’d wait a minute or two and put the food again under his nose, and he’d usually eat a bit more. We’d repeat until he’d move away to let me know he really was done. It was pretty clear he was eating more than he wanted to to please me.
That was one of the things that makes it so hard to lose him. He was an exceptionally considerate, if also sometimes willful, cat. When I petted him, he’d always insist on reciprocating by washing my hand or face, usually out of proportion to how much he had been petted. Even last week, when he was failing, he’d often try to get a few swipes in. He’d also head-butt, very hard, in the morning, when he wanted me to pet him. I’d pull the sheets over my head and yell at him but that did not deter him. When I first got him, he’d sleep in the bed but only briefly next to me, usually then under my armpit, and if I moved at all, he’d leave. But over the years he’d sleep more regularly next to me, and would even crawl under the sheets.
Similarly, unlike most cats, he would not stoop to the “insert cat between human and work to get attention” ruse. When I had a black and white NeXT monitor, he’d hang out on top until he got too big to do that, he’d come by and visit and sometimes sit on my lap or next to me in the desk chair. The last time he came into the living room was to lie on my lap.
I got Blake from a recently divorced woman in Staten Island who was breeding Abyssinians on behalf of an established breeder. He was 5 months old and had been kept beyond the usual age for selling kittens because the breeder thought he could be a show cat. Even though he was particularly handsome, he apparently was growing up to look just like his father, so they didn’t need him for breeding purposes. When I came, they also had a new litter of five kittens. The kittens romped and Blake, the lone older cat, sat aside and watched them. Even though he seemed unusually quiet, he was plenty playful when I got to see him by himself and pulled out a dangle toy I’d brought. A friend who had come with me to look at the cats me said he reminded her of one she’d had, a very soulful cat who’d lived to be 18, and urged me to take him home. The woman’s two children had become very attached to him and cried when we drove to the ferry. They had given the cats Disney-type names. His mother was Lady and he was Lover Boy. I had trouble settling on a name for him, particularly since he initially seemed to be very sad for having left his old home. I called him Blake after the poet.
When I got serious about going to Australia, I thought about taking him, but he would have had to fly 22 hours in cargo, in his own urine, and then go into quarantine for 5 weeks. That seemed cruel, even though the alternative of leaving him behind was painful. He had admirers and one took him, but Blake hissed at the roommate after the first week or so, and it was the roommate who held the lease, so Blake was out. He lived for the better part of a year in a large dot-com office where people were there 9 AM till after midnight routinely. He would get out and eventually explored every office of the full-city-block, 3 story high building in the meatpackng district. He was not only a good mouser but a good guard cat. Two men came in from the neighboring office one weekend through a back door that was pretty much never used to borrow some cable. He chased them out.
I didn’t think I’d get him see him again after I came back to the US, but a fellow who worked in that office adopted him, but later got engaged, and as he put it, “My fiance is not a cat person.” So Blake came back, after I’d gotten a new kitten who thought that because he was here first from his perspective, he was the alpha. And even though Blake was the much stronger of the two cats and could easily have beaten up the young cat, he never did. He would usually run rather than fight and defer in most matters, except food, where he’d shoulder the young cat away from his bowl. If I saw the move, the young cat would sometimes give me a “What just happened?” look before going to the other bowl.
I suppose I’m just nattering. I’m recounting stories I’ve regularly told about Blake, so it’s not as if I’ll forget them. But I’m so desperate to hold on to all the little things he’d do that made him special, like the way he’d jump up to high counters, by grabbing with his front paws and using his back legs to push off the flat surface to get the last bit of the way up. That unusual way of jumping allowed him to do some things that would be hard for most cats, like get up to the top of the bottom pane of the large casement windows in the living room and perch there. Another trick was that he’d sometimes hop into far end of the bathtub when I was showering, risking getting sprayed if I turned the wrong way. He seemed to like the steam and getting his feet wet.
I don’t cry easily and I find it very difficult to cry for myself. But I’ve spent most of last week in tears, particularly when I’d come and tell Blake that I loved him and how terribly I was going to miss him and how sorry I was that I couldn’t help him feel better. If I were him, I probably would have thought, “I’m the one who’s dying, what do you have to be upset about?” But one of those times I came to pet him and started sobbing, he purred loudly. I’d like to believe he was saying goodbye in the only way he could.
When I went to the vet yesterday, he made clear what I already knew, that the Blake was a goner, to the point he recommended against wasting money on new Xrays. But he also said, “He’s has a good long life, he’s going on 19.” I told that Blake was only 16. But this was the vet Blake had gone to right after I’d taken him from Staten Island. And there it was, in my own handwriting, that his date of birth was 11/16/97. Because I’d given him away when I went to Oz in 2002, and never thought I’d get him back, I’d somehow gotten it in my head that he was only three years old then, since I would be loath to take an adult cat much older than that. And that said I’d gotten what I had wanted. I had wanted Blake to live to be 18. But I had managed to fool myself that that meant I would have a couple of more years with him.
I also am trying to persuade myself I was not selfish in not putting him down. Most Abys don’t like being handled, and when he saw the vet yesterday, Blake worked up the energy to hiss when he got his shots. I wasn’t reconciled yet to putting him down. I recoiled at the idea of being the one to kill a being I cared so much about.
Since he was still eating although so little that he would clearly eventually starve. I planned to bring him to be euthanized early this week, and I thought it was OK to be keeping him alive since did seem to perk up a bit last night after the last vet visit. He ate some kitten food four times over the evening in tiny bursts of enthusiasm and did purr a little bit when I petted him later that night.
But this morning, I brought him some water. Even with him knowing I wanted him to drink it, he gave only two or three licks, which I knew was a bad sign. About a half hour later, he started gasping for air and then made a loud, heart-wrenching moan. I picked him up and moaned again. I put him down in a panic, ran to the phone to call the vet, and ran back to pick him up again. He’d gone limp. I carried him to the phone. As I sat down, he gasped once more and then he was gone.
I had wanted to brush him today, since that was something he particularly enjoyed. But like so many of the things you wish you could have done for someone at the end, there wasn’t enough time.