“The Cat Who Lived,” part 1 of 3

hermit crat

The cat as a hermit crab for Halloween.

About a month ago, immediately after the final phase of some home repairs, the cat caught a cold. It wasn’t anything major, the occasional raspy breathing spell, a rare, “old man-stylee” wheeze, a cute sneeze here and there.

It seemed to fit him, almost; the cat’s a grizzled beast of a black cat, the kind with golden eyes and ruff around his cheeks (known as the “whiskerman’s chops”), complete with panther-like bald spots < for pity-based treat-predation).

A week later, the cat was on the mend, if a little physically weakened. It was during this time that I noticed, and began to worry, that the cat was behaving more and more as if he couldn’t see or smell. Particularly when it came to his food dish, the very thing he cherishes above all.

I solved some of this problem by carrying him to his food and plopping him down in front of a full plate, where he would promptly eat with that familiar gusto. Still willing to ignore the unusual, I thought the cat, like his owner, just needed to be treated like a pretty, pretty princess. And better, some improvement over the week so that there was a time of no sneezing, wheezes, or rasp.

Yes, in fact, the cat, when held to the ear, purred and breathed and sounded like any normal cat should, if a tad ripe.

There was a nagging thought, though. Keen observation had shown that the cat was having trouble jumping up to his favorite high places. I wondered if this was because he couldn’t see where he wanted to land, or if old age was finally taking its toll on his bones ‘n’ muscles, but it seemed like a such a slight thing in the wake of recovery from his cold.

My grandmother had mentioned her concerns about the cat’s health, but as he seemed to be improving, it was easy enough to just stay vigilant for any sign of relapse. It was Thursday night, February 16th.

Friday, the cat seemed sluggish. I mean, more than usual. He had previously accepted some hegemony in December in the form of a sizable Trader Joe’s paper bag, which became his home-inside-a-home. But, this Friday, he just stared at it.

I lifted the lip of the bag, tried to give him a larger entry way, rustle the bag up some so he could locate it with any/all his senses. When he still seemed mostly uninterested in it, I thought he was snidely expecting a two-storey upgrade.

Until I saw the uninterest in his food dish. Since I can never get a direct answer from the cat, I never figured out if he was uninterested or if he just couldn’t find the dish. By the end of the day, though, the food disappeared and the cat was seen in his bag, so all had to be right in the world.

The week’s tribute arrived as a new scratch-pad for the cat, a risky venture as the cat has a very picky palate for his claws. When he was seen scratching on it Saturday, it was cause for celebration and treats, despite that the cat had been making some worrisome breathing sounds during the day. Troubling, something like snoring (“snorkeling”) even while awake, and panting.

The vet closes at noon on Saturday, which is important because by the time I had decided that the cat might need medical attention, it was already too late for a weekend visit. It was an impatient and stressful wait for Monday afternoon.

Sensing some relief may be on the way, the cat purred, a heart-wrenching, gurgly hum; I thought it must be the cold come back and worsened. His breathing was wet and ragged. He wasn’t eating much, either, and my mother had the idea that it could be his teeth hurt and he didn’t want to crunch down on hard food.

So Sunday I went out and got the cat some wet food, a small variety sampling which went over very well. With the heartiness that the cat ate everything up (except the tuna), there was a little turnaround for all of us! Surely with a diet of this new food, the cat would get stronger and everything would be okay.

Monday, Feb. 20th, finally arrived and the cat only picked at his food in the morning, perhaps sensing the impending vet-trip. He didn’t move very much at all during the day, important because he wouldn’t even get out of the way of the vacuum cleaner. I had heard about this new behavior the week before from Grandma, but I thought maybe the new bag-home of the cat’s was instilling him with courage, or something.

Whimsy, I understand now, because when I saw the cat not even acknowledge that the vacuum was next to him (and it’s a loud thing!), I knew it had to be something else. It was at this moment that I began losing my optimism, an hour to go before the vet-trip.

A little more worried when the cat put up almost no struggle to be corralled, mostly weak meowing, which I have to admit, sounded a lot like his head was stuffed up.

It’s a short car ride to the vet’s. Their new building five minutes away, but every car ride with the cat felt like eternity as he‘s a poor passenger (and poorer driver). Since this was normal, it was a little comforting.

Entry and check-in all happened pretty quickly and routinely. Impatience saw me arrive for the appointment early, and no delay to be seen. All good signs, I thought, the cat’s panting, snorting, hacking, and so on not unlike the distended Dalmatian in the lobby.

I desperately held on to these “good signs” for a few seconds, until the vet’s assistant asked, in a casually horrified way,

“Is that him breathing?”

I tried to agree with equal feeling. The cat was at the vet’s office, it was his own personal Hell, like my trips to the dentist’s. Plus, he’s never been one to perform well under duress.

The cat was whisked away to be weighed, a scanty eleven pounds, nearly three pounds down from his last visit about five months ago. Strange, too; the cat was still wide in the chest and belly, but already skin and bones.

It was agreed he should have an x-ray, whisked away again, but the parting thought to me was that it wouldn’t find anything that could be regarded as good news.

From the waiting area, I heard the cat put up a struggle, the possible “Oh!” of surprise as unlucky skin was hooked by a sharp claw. His pitiful meows of resistance echoed back to me, cat curses of eternal doom and unabating rains of salmon scales.

Thirty minutes passed before they returned and the news wasn’t good, as promised. The cat’s x-ray showed his microchip (the first I’d ever seen it!), some foggy-white blotches that turned out to be weak imprints of his lungs, and then the absence of something very important – his heart.

It was so small his lungs were blocking it from view, which was actually easy to do because the lungs were swollen, fluid building up around them while his heart shrank. The left lung fully collapsed, the right working at limited capacity. His poor, weak heart so small that he was likely to go into cardiac arrest at any time.

They’d also taken some blood, but wouldn’t know the full extent of anything until the next day when the results returned. The vet offered three helpful suggestions as to what it could be: end-stage cancer, late-stage viral infection, or an extremely over-active thyroid.

With only the third option treatable (and there wasn’t really any idea of what any sort of recovery might be or look like), I left the vet’s with a week’s worth of heart meds and diuretics to help pull some of the fluid away from his lungs, a can of “supplemental food,” which was all kinds of meaty-fat, and a large bill with the promise of a follow-up phone call with the blood-test-results.

Needless to say, completely devastating news, though not without Pandora’s stash of hope.

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