Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Passing of a Cat

How much our pets have to teach us ...

I've lost one of the best companions I will ever have. Albert was a cat who I raised from a kitten, and who stuck with me for seventeen years.

Originally he was part a matched set.
 He had a sister who we named Victoria (get it?) and who was, if possible, of an even sweeter disposition than Albert, as placid and affectionate as he was. They were "litter mates" as the vet called them, siblings who were inseparable. They ate and had adventures together, washed each other, fell asleep in each other's arms.

One of the more amazing things they did was when we left them for a couple of weeks with the rest of their brothers and sisters and parents at the house of their former owners. When our vacation trip was over we went to pick them up. Seeing us, Victoria and Albert walked calmly, all by themselves, into the waiting carrier to be driven back home. It was a startling example of their intelligence, to understand that we had come for them and to know where they belonged. And, too, that they had adopted us as we had adopted them.

Alas, Victoria was hit by a car when she was barely a year or two in age (already a young adult by feline standards). We buried her, sentimentally though illegally, in a leafy corner of the back yard. Albert had to learn to be on his own. His reaction was to grow closer to his human companions.

Thinking he could use some company of his own kind, we later adopted two new kittens. Annie and Maggie had been discovered in a dumpster behind the vet's office and given a new chance at life. At first Albert wanted nothing to do with them -- meaning that he would climb up on tall pieces of furniture to get away from them. In time, however, he not only got used to them but adopted them as his own.

For example, I learned from a documentary about cat behavior how domestic cats in the wild teach their offspring how to hunt. They do this by first introducing them to dead prey, such as mice. Then they give them living ones to play with. Even though the live ones get away sometimes, still the kittens learn to chase and catch them, and eventually how to kill and eat them.

Now, keep in mind that Albert was not the parent of our two new kittens. Nevertheless this unrelated male brought them a gift one day: a pair of dead baby birds, just their size, one for each to play with. Apparently he had decided it was up to him to teach them what they had to know when they grew up.

So there's one lesson he taught me -- that much of what we consider "human" is not limited to our own species, but rather shared widely with other animals. How was his parenting different from mine? Only in that he taught kittens how to be cats, while I'm teaching my grandchildren how to be human.

A number of times Albert proved the saying about cats having nine lives. He suffered multiple infections and abscesses resulting from confrontations with other cats. Once he started limping, and would actually gasp in pain when he jumped up into my lap. An x-ray revealed that his hip joint was literally in fragments. We never found out how it happened, but gladly paid for an operation to fix the problem. With cats they don't do a replacement as they do for people, but it is possible to remove the bone fragments and arrange the muscles to form what the vet called a "false joint." Amazingly he made a full recovery and showed no signs of discomfort or loss of agility. After that I started calling him "my thousand dollar cat."

So there's another lesson, the same one we learn with family and friends: when love and health are at stake, dollar amounts look smaller than they usually do.

Another time I almost gave Albert up for lost when I discovered him lying as if dead behind the washing machine. I rushed him to the vet, who made a lucky guess that he'd ingested rat poison and started him immediately on a heavy dose of coagulants. (Some rat poison works by producing internal bleeding.) This reminded me that I had found two dead mice or rats on the doorstep in the preceding days, tokens Albert must have left to show me he was on the job. Unfortunately the vermin must have been poisoned. It was touch and go for several days, and once even the vet almost gave up on him, but Albert pulled through.

One of his biggest adventures came when my back yard neighbor was trying to catch a nasty tom that was beating up all the cats in the neighborhood. Unfortunately he caught Albert by mistake. In the gray light of early dawn he didn't recognize him, and drove him fifteen miles away to release him in a mangrove swamp at the edge of Key Biscayne. He considered this humane because it was a place where people fed other abandoned cats.

Fortunately I went around looking for Albert later that morning and found the neighbor and his trap still in the front yard. When I asked if he'd seen Albert he went all to pieces and kept repeating, "I've done a terrible thing." I was afraid he'd killed him or turned him in to the pound, but as soon as we figured out what had happened he immediately drove me to where he'd let him go so we could try to find him.

Here's why it's important for your cats to have names, and to be trained to come when they're called (usually food is a good incentive). The mangrove swamp was as big as a couple of suburban blocks, but all I had to do was to walk up the inland side calling Albert's name, and in a minute or two I heard an answering meow. Moments later he emerged from the woods with very big eyes, but none the worse for wear.

The lesson this time was the value of loyalty -- meaning my loyalty to him. It was important for me to know that he was important to me, and how much.

Sadly, the final lesson he had to teach was mortality. Like aging humans, he began to slow down and to lose his appetite. He responded once to a treatment of antibiotics and appetite stimulants, and bounced back for a vigorous few months. But his weight loss continued, and we learned from an x-ray that he had developed cancer in a large part of one lung. His decline was rapid after that.

It's true that I will always remember his last moments as he dropped off to a final sleep in my lap at the vet's office. But more than that I will remember his last days of enjoying life in the outdoors through some of the most perfect, sun filled, cool days of the Miami winter. I see him leaving his food dish and walking to the edge of the patio stones where he was accustomed to wash up after eating. And I see how he sat there with his eyes half closed, the sun on his face, gazing out across the patch of lawn where he had spent nearly his entire life, and where in the corner his sister lay buried.

No human gentleman could have met his end with any more grace and peace, nor shown with more clarity the truth that in the end it is not death that we see, but life.

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