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Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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Return to lately 2011.
as if we were timing it like thunder
october 1, 2011
At some point over the course of August, during the daze of living our lives, we came to realize Sheba was dying.
Probably after he found out.
It wasn't a sudden epiphany. It's not like one minute we thought he'll recover, and the next minute realized, No, he won't.
It was a much more gradual realization. And in fact, I don't know if 'realization' is even the right word. It was gradual acceptance of what we both already knew, subconsciously.
He had "cheated" death once before (although of course we never really cheat death, that's just an adult allowing a child to win the first hand of poker), back in 2000 when he was diagnosed with feline lower urinary tract disease. The vet told us at the time his kidney "was the size of a grapefruit." And here Mary and I were, both of us working in the city back then, trying to get through our business day, Sheba never out of our thoughts while we went to meetings, wrote reports, gave speeches, and I remember how happy we were when the vet over the phone said the catheter he had inserted in Sheba had successfully drained his kidneys, and he could come home.
We tried to console ourselves with that, when Sheba died last month. At least we got another eleven years with him.
As I mentioned in a previous Lately, he had been getting frail. You could feel the small bumps of his spine through his orange fur. He wasn't eating. He drank a lot of water. It was harder for him to jump up on furniture.
We first met Sheba in the Summer of 1997.
We worked in our backyard garden back then far more than we do now, and at the end of each hot day would sit under the tall trees at the rear of the property to have a cold beer.
One day while we were out there under the trees, joking around, drinking our Spaten Optimators, an orange cat emerged from the tall green leaves of a stand of cannas near the southeast side of our yard.
His lower jaw kept dropping as he meowed and meowed over and over again, "like a broken record."
He stopped about ten feet away from where we were seated.
He was a beautiful cat. In many ways, the most beautiful of all the cats we've owned (and there have been many.) I described his fur as orange, but really it was lighter and more complex than that. Mary, at the time, called it a combination of gold and champagne. And it was.
I don't think we fed him that first night. I believe we just tried to entice him to come closer, but of course he wouldn't, at that early stage in our courtship.
Soon though we were bringing a bowl of dry cat food out with our beers, placing it a safe ten feet away from our chairs.
The first few nights he'd crunch through the food, every other gulp raising his head, his serious eyes making sure we hadn't tried to get any closer. Which we never did.
After about a week, he would wander cautiously over towards us, posing on his legs five feet away, then then four feet, then three feet.
One night Mary got down on her hands and knees, stretching her small right hand out, to see if he would sniff.
He did, then to both our surprise not only walked closer, but jumped up onto the table of Mary's horizontal back.
Her jaw dropped in delight, lifting her long blonde hair out of her face to grin at me.
He allowed us, that night, to pet him. That's a happy but slightly scary feeling, to pet a stray cat, when you don't know them yet, or how he reacts to having his fur ruffled, or being scratched under his lifted jaw.
One thing we discovered that night is that unlike any other cats we had owned, he loved getting kissed on top of his head. We'd see his gold eyes angle the top of his head around until they were under our lips, then thrust his head up, for a kiss. We caught on pretty soon.
After that evening, he'd emerge from the cannas as soon as we went outside, going through the same meow, meow, meow repetition he always would, trotting happily straight towards us. (And what was most endearing to both of us is that he would spend our whole time outdoors rubbing against us, getting petted by us. He would never head towards his food bowl (although he must have been hungry), until we went back inside. Our love was more important than his food.
As that Summer progressed, as darkness came earlier and earlier, we'd often sit outside even after the sun had gone down, a citronella lamp to ward off mosquitoes our guttering campfire, just for the pleasure of spending time with him. We had never had an outdoor cat before. All our existing cats were strictly indoor cats, so there was that novelty of interacting with a cat who lived in the backyard, who could roll around in the grass, who had to find shelter from the Summer storms, and whose bed was in the center of his beloved canna stand. (We peered once into the canna stand, bending back the tall banana tree-like leaves to see what his home looked like-just a small, cleared area flattened by his sleeping body.)
As Summer turned towards Fall, as the red line of mercury, once so tall, fell, we talked about bringing him inside, permanently. We didn't want to come out one day and find him lying on the ground, frozen.
I had to fly to New Orleans for a couple of days for a conference, the first and only time Mary and I have ever been separated in our thirty plus years together, and while I was gone, missing Mary terribly, Mary told me over the long distance phone in my hotel room that it had rained in Texas, a cold, Fall rain, and Sheba had showed up on our back cement patio, staring miserably at our door. She had opened the door, to see if he might come in, but, she said, he had just given an unhappy "baby hiss."
When we were back together again in Dallas, we decided to bring him in.
We had a fairly large cat carrier we used whenever we had to go to the vet. Our idea was that we'd nonchalantly carry the container outside, and one way or another trick him into the container so we could transport him into our safe, warm, loving home.
Of course, it didn't work out that way.
Even when we put his bowl of food inside the carrier, laying the carrier on one of our garden paths, he wouldn't go inside. He even turned around at one point to look at us, with a distrust that bothered us both.
Realizing that approach wasn't going to work, I petted him with both hands, then put my palms around his ribs on either side and lifted him, the first time I ever had, trying to fly him into the carrier.
He panicked. I still have the white, four-inch scar on my right forearm where his back claw raked me, red blood dripping immediately.
While I tried to stop the bleeding, which was actually rather extensive, Mary calmed him down. As she was still petting him, cooing to him, his head lifting towards her fingertips, I put both hands against his tail, shoved him into the carrier, shut the door.
We carried him inside.
The indoor cats, Elf, Rudo, Chirper, looked up in astonishment from their naps once they heard him meowing.
I carried the carrier upstairs, put him in the bathroom, Mary keeping the other cats out.
We opened the door to the carrier. He immediately popped out, looking around.
But he didn't seem too upset.
While I washed my wound in the bathroom sink, Mary brought up a food bowl and a water bowl. We spent a lot of time with him in that bathroom, petting him, talking to him. Made a bed out of bathroom towels cleaner and warmer than his clearing inside the cannas.
The next morning, we trooped upstairs. All three cats had their nostrils lined up outside the bottom of the shut bathroom door, sniffing.
Later that morning, we took Sheba to the vet, to see if he had any health problems that needed to be treated.
While he was still outdoors, we had looked under his tail a few times, and assumed he was female.
As it turned out, he was a male who had been already neutered. We left him at the vet's overnight, to have his front paws declawed. (So he wouldn't have an unfair advantage over our other cats.)
Once he was home from the vet, we put him back in the upstairs bathroom, so he'd have time to recover from the declawing without being bothered by his new roommates.
That Friday evening, after work, we decided to let him out, so he could start getting to know the others, and vice versa.
We wanted to let him decide when to come downstairs on his own, so we left the upstairs bathroom door open, then went downstairs, to our living room, playing with the Original Three.
After about ten minutes, we heard a thumping on the stairs.
The three cats stopped chasing the brightly-colored felt bird we were swinging on a string back and forth across the living room carpet.
Sheba emerged into view, on the stairs' landing.
He still had his white bandages on from his declawing, so that his front paws looked elongated, white, like some kind of Frankenstein creation.
He kept thumping down the stairs, awkwardly, the eyebrows on our cats' foreheads rising up past their ears.
I don't know how you say it in cat language, but in English it's, What the fuck?
As we soon discovered, Sheba was a confirmed bachelor. He did not like female cats at all. So although he got along okay with our two male cats, Rudo and Chirper, he never warmed to Elf (nor did she ever warm to him.) But even saying that he "got along okay with our two male cats" is a bit misleading, because the truth is, Sheba was a loner. Maybe it was all that time spent by himself in the smells and noises of our backyard, in his canna kingdom. He was extremely friendly towards us, to where we thought he considered us to be the "three humans" in the house, but he never really spent much time with the others.
And he was a sweet cat. Not all cats are, and in fact our experience has been that most cats, although they can be loving, aren't really that sweet. But he was completely trusting of us, and when we talked to him, he listened with those big, serious, golden eyes.
After Elf died, we found a stray outside, Lady, who we brought in. Sheba hated her, because she was female, and attacked her the first night she was in our kitchen, while she was wolfing down food from a bowl to get some weight on her long, skinny body. He seemed desperate to get her to leave.
What we didn't know at the time was that Lady was a Trojan horse. Inside her were five kittens waiting to be born, all but one of them female.
If Sheba hadn't attacked her, maybe things would have turned out differently. But because he did announce himself as such an enemy of Lady, he eventually found himself in a bad position within our home. As Lady's kittens grew, they all developed a hatred for Sheba (no doubt based on what their mom, Lady, told them), attacking him whenever they got a chance. He was really bad at politics. He had never learned that most important of political lessons, pretending to like someone.
Mary and I often had to break up fights, many of them three against one.
But even though there were so many squalls between Sheba and Lady's progeny, one thing they all acknowledged was that only Sheba got the coveted spot of lying between Mary and me in bed. Maybe that's just cat etiquette. I don't know.
Once we got into bed, Sheba would find a way of making it to our mattress past the different sleepy-eyed sentries, then lie down with a sense of safety between my pillows and Mary's pillows. Usually, he'd wiggle his spine under my forearm, back to my chest, letting out occasional contented sighs, while his front gold and champagne paws would reach out to lie against Mary's ribs (he was always Mary's cat-I was the armchair he'd sink into while admiring Mary.)
He'd spend hours in bed with us like that. The little human, resting on the bed between us.
Once we realized he was dying, we had to make a decision about what we were going to do.
Take him to the vet for a needle? Just stay here, at home, and let him die naturally?
With our previous cats, we had brought them into the vet when their time was near, holding them as the vet injected a lethal dose into their veins. But that experience had never been that satisfactory to us. For one thing, you're taking someone you love, who's rarely been out of your home, and subjecting them to what must be, for them, a terrifying car ride, to a place filled with frightening noises and smells.
So we decided to let him die here, in what for most of his life had been his world.
I'm so glad we decided to do that, to let Sheba die at home, in surroundings familiar to him, and us. It was so much more peaceful and intimate. I think it's what we'll probably do with all our cats, from now on. I hope it's what we ourselves do, Mary and I, when our own spines start getting knobby. Medicine is great when you're young. When you're elderly…not so much.
After we made our decision, two more weeks passed while he slowed down. He started spending his time in his hidey hole in the living room, a square of space behind where two of our bookshelves touched perpendicular to each other.
Each day, he'd spend more and more of his time in that hidey hole. When we'd go into the living room to check on him, he'd emerge from the hidey hole to get petted by us, much as years ago he would emerge from the cannas whenever we'd go outside, but he no longer had that repetitive meow. He would stay silent, just looking up at us with his beautiful gold eyes, purring under our touch.
He'd astound us sometimes, in those final days, by showing up in our bedroom, having made that long, brave, painful trek. We'd lift him up onto the bed, hold him between us. (And of course throughout that time we ourselves would gather him up in our arms out in the living room to take him to our bed, but he'd always eventually hop off, or later be lowered by us, to return to his hidey hole.)
Dying can give us some nobility, but can also take away some dignity. More than once, that last week, Mary and I had to clean the shit from the back of his hind legs, and clean the messes he made on the carpet and tiles because he just couldn't be bothered anymore with litter pans. Which was fine with us.
That final morning, Wednesday, he could barely make it out of his hidey-hole to greet us. He lay under one of the living room tables while we pet him. Looking at each other, we realized this was probably going to be his last day.
We picked him up, he weighed so little at this point, carried him to our bed. Put him on a towel between us on the sheets, then wrapped the towel around the lower half of his body, to keep him warm.
The TV was on. We'd watch a minute or two, our hands on him, then go back to talking to him, like drifting in and out of consciousness.
We could see him slowly shutting down. I kept watching the gold and champagne fur over his ribs, to make sure it was still rising and falling with his breaths. Hours passed. Slowly, gradually, the breaths became less frequent. There'd be no rise of fur for a count of ten, then a sudden rise. Then no rise.
We each kissed the top of his head one final time.
It would seem like a full minute would pass between breaths, as if he were already under water.
His front paws shook. We held him tighter, rubbing his sides, the top of his head.
The front paws shook some more, then his entire upper body shook. Mary and I looked at each other, back down at poor Sheba lying between us, in his favorite spot. I can't tell you in words how…intimate this felt.
Again, his body shuddering.
We waited for the next shudder, as if we were timing it like thunder, but it never came. It never came.
I twisted my face down to see his face.
His eyes, empty, were staring straight ahead.
His soul had left.
We petted him a while longer, in case we were wrong about him being dead. But it only took a few strokes of our hands to realize we were no longer petting Sheba, we were petting what he had left behind.
Holding Sheba while he died is a shared experience I'll always remember, just like years ago Mary and I shared the experience of Lady painfully giving birth to her five kittens in our master closet.
One of so many thousands of experiences Mary and I have shared.
It was still extraordinarily hot outside.
We wanted to bury him by his cannas, which was something we had decided on years ago, but the temperatures outside were over a hundred (and had been for more than two solid months.)
So we did what a lot of vets do, which is gently place him in a large plastic bag, then put his body in one of our freezers, out in the garage.
In the days that followed, whenever we went out to the garage, together or separately, we'd open the freezer door, baring poor Sheba inside, amid the rising white vapor, and touch the plastic over his frozen fur.
The following Monday, we got out early, before breakfast. Began digging. Even at that early hour, we had to take several panting breaks, because of the heat.
When the hole was deep enough, and wide enough, we went back inside, opened the freezer door one final time with him inside, and carried him through the kitchen to outdoors, down the green path to the canna stand.
We laid him at the bottom of the brown hole, covered him with jungle green canna leaves we tore off from the plants. At Mary's suggestion, we placed a canna blossom on top of the leaves. Then, with the sides of our hands, started sliding the dirt over the rim of the hole, the dirt falling atop his plastic bag. Soon, the plastic bag was under the dirt. Soon, the hole was filled. We tamped it down with our palms. Put white stones across the top.
When we came back inside, Lady, his arch enemy, was sitting on the window sill overlooking his grave, somewhere she never sat before, looking through the window pane at his grave. She didn't have a look of triumph on her face. Her face had a quiet look. She stayed on that window sill, staring out, a long time. And the next day, and the next. We felt, in her own way, she was trying to help him. To be a companion as he continued to pass. Respecting him on that level, much as she had respected his right to have the sweet spot between Mary and me on the bed.
The night we buried Sheba, I had several vivid dreams about him. He was happy, frolicking about with us, purring as he used to. Just a dream? A visitation? I don't know. But of course the fact that it was a dream could mean it was just a dream.
But the next day I came out of the bathroom, and Mary, standing at the foot of the bed, was crying. She had just seen Sheba lying like he used to at the top of the bed, by our pillows. And then the vision of him had gone away. So he did visit us at least once after his death.
Life in our home went back to normal. I was eating a club sandwich and a front crown fell off. I had to find a local dentist to fashion a new crown. We had someone come out to do a quote on what it would cost to replace our rear privacy fence, which was falling down. We moved our hose, and its attached sprinkler, around our front and back yards, to try to preserve our bushes and trees during the worst drought in Texas history. Because of the drought, the concrete floor of our garage developed large cracks, like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
After Mary and I buried Sheba, we felt good. He wasn't in his hidey hole anymore, or between us on our bed anymore, or anywhere else in our home anymore, but he was also everywhere now.
My story They Hide in Tomatoes is in the latest issue of Midnight Street. You can read the full story by going here.