Today’s Writing 101 assignment is to write about loss, with a “twist” of making it the first of a series of three pieces. The only requirement of the loss is that it was once part of my life but is no longer so. After thinking long and hard on the topic and its possibilities, I’ve decided to let the assignment decide, as I write, whether it will be serial–that is, a continuing story that perhaps deals with a single loss in three different ways or is merely presented in three continuing posts–or a trilogy of three separate losses. What I know at this moment is that all three stories will deal with the loss of a family member. Today’s story will set the stage for touching on one meaning of loss as well as defining one type of family.
Where this story starts is with my most recent loss–two, actually; two that occurred roughly two months apart. There is a similarity in the two losses that make them one, despite the differences surrounding each individual loss. This first Loss revolves around the death of two young cats–only five years old–that had been family members since kittenhood. The younger cat, Shadow, was adopted first, at the age of two months. One month later, the elder cat, Stan Lee, was adopted at age four months. In essence, they spent the majority of their kittenhood together as best buds, but their character differences–and perhaps their genders–took them in somewhat separate directions at about the age of one year. They remained friends to the end, but seemed never as close as they had been while kittens.
Although they were clearly separated in age by only one month, my mind maintained a difference of two months between them. Effectively, although they both were lost to us within two months of each other, in my mind they died at the same age. The mind sometimes refuses to accept the facts laid before it, and the true age difference was one of the very few “realities” from which my mind rebelled. But none of this is important to the story, except that in my mind, they died two months apart at the same age.
Near the end of September, 2014, while I myself was recovering from a severe illness that required the transfusion of 6 units of blood, I realized that Shadow was completely listless, and it was unclear whether she was eating enough, since Stan generally ate his fill first but always left plenty of food for her. All I noticed was that the cat food bowl didn’t seem to require filling as frequently. At the same time, the dog, Rincey (who was adopted a year after Shadow), started to become uncharacteristically protective of her. Two nights after I returned from the second hospital stay in less than two weeks, I became extremely concerned over Shadow’s lethargy. This normally active and rather assertive kitty simply would not move, no matter how much Rincey kept coaxing her to bed. My husband felt there was no difference in her activity level, but I was insistent that we call the emergency veterinarian. At midnight, with me driving despite orders not to do so for at least a week (my husband does not drive), I packed Shadow up in her carrying case and knew for certain something was wrong when she didn’t resist. Joe held the carrier as I drove slowly along the familiar yet very dark and gratefully empty roads to the veterinary office (tourists were either in one of the many night clubs or taking advantage or resort activities). This was not the doctor we normally used, but it was the only one available for 24-hour emergency services. In the dark, and along our crazy island road system, it took me almost half an hour to drive the 5 miles or so. The veterinarian, whom I had woken with my call, immediately saw that there was a problem, ran a few simple tests, and asked that Shadow remain in the clinic for further testing and observation for a few days. Her blood sugar was down, she was dehydrated, and there was every indication that Shadow was suffering from pancreatitis.
I called about Shadow’s condition the next day and was told she was stable, but that they wanted to keep her for a week. I was welcome to come and visit her on Monday (two days hence) during regular operating hours. After I visited, however, Shadow–already traumatized by the barking of the hospitalized or boarding dogs–went into a decline, and it was agreed that I should not visit again until she was ready to come home. In the meanwhile, she would be moved into the doctor’s office in a different part of the building where she would have some respite from the clamor. She was refusing food, but was drinking some water. It was the lack of food intake that bothered the vet. After a few days, the doctor discovered that Shadow would take some food if hand-fed. Shadow remained in the hospital for ten days, and was sent home with a special low-fat diet for diabetic cats. Once home, her appetite and activity level recovered for about three days, and then the lethargy and food refusal started all over again.
Back to the vet clinic for a few days. I dropped her off and continued to my favorite grocery store for some badly needed provisions. When I got home, I unloaded as much as I could carry myself from the car, and left the heavier items for my husband to take care of after work. I’ve had three surgeries on my lower back and, between the recent illness and general effects of the surgeries, heavier items need to be unloaded by my husband. I went to bed earlier and had assumed my husband let Stan in after emptying the car late that night, after walking the dog and before coming to bed.
In the morning, when Stan wasn’t rubbing against my ankles as my coffee was brewing, I got worried and asked Joe if he had seen the cat. Joe thought he let Stan out before taking his shower, so I didn’t worry–until Stan didn’t come in for his afternoon nap. Never before had Stan not come in at night. Even when he was “late,” he yeowled to be let in, waking the neighbors with his racket. When he was on one of his late nights, I generally waited up for him so the neighbors’ sleep was not interrupted. I called Joe at work in the afternoon, and he swore he had let Stan out before I got up. Five minutes later, he called back because he no longer could remember if he meant that morning or the day before.
My husband has trouble seeing–in general, but especially at night. During the dog’s last walk, he always dons one of those head flashlights that spelunkers often use to see where they are going in dark caves. He was still using it when he unpacked the car the night before. Another problem Joe has is poor peripheral vision. As for memory–well, we all get forgetful as we get older. And between my recent health issues and Shadow’s, and his work load being a lot heavier than usual because he was preparing to present a paper at a conference on a neighboring island, he wasn’t paying much attention to anything other than unloading the car. His memory loss included me telling him that Stan had developed a new habit since we began taking Shadow on trips to the vet clinic–he would jump into the car at every chance he got. Luckily, I wasn’t driving much, and I was always aware of Stan’s whereabouts when I was using the car because he always ran out of his daytime hiding places to welcome me home, even if he didn’t come in with me right away. But Joe’s fatigue had gotten the better of him, and he was having trouble remembering what day it was, much less whatever news I had to impart about the pets and household concerns.
Well, we live in the tropics on the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean Sea, and even in the dead of winter, cars get very hot during the day. Everyone keeps their windows shut because of the frequent and unexpected rainfall, and I had no reason to drive the next day. When Stan didn’t come in that night, I thought he had either been badly beaten up by one of the few nasty feral cats in the neighborhood (most are super friendly to both people and other cats). Joe and I had taken turns for several hours searching outdoors and calling his name. The next day, one of Joe’s co-workers told him there had been a cat run over on the road near our complex (we live very close to Joe’s workplace because he doesn’t drive), and we made the assumption that it was Stan, although the remains had been driven over so many times that it was hard to tell if it was even the body of a cat, much less what color it was. Since I had an appointment, I had to use the car. First, I took one final walk around the complex, calling for Stan and receiving no response. Then I opened the car, and the odor of cat really hit me. It was far too strong to have been from Shadow’s fear as we transported her to the clinic. It took a few minutes to realize that Stan had climbed under the front passenger seat in an attempt to avoid the heat of the sun.
I couldn’t blame Joe–Stan was “classified” as his cat while Shadow was “mine.” Joe has enough issues and loved that cat too much for me to be upset with him. He couldn’t blame me, because I had asked him to empty the car while there was still daylight, and I was only using the car for visits to the doctor and the veterinary clinic at that point. It was simply a tragic accident. We mourned Stan’s loss, but it made it even more important to both of us that Shadow got well. Meanwhile, Shadow was still at the clinic, and we had to take a three-day trip to St. Kitt’s for the conference. When we returned, my doctor immediately hospitalized me again. I had barely received the Shadow report from the clinic when I was sitting in front of the doctor’s desk listening to the results of my latest blood count tests as she was also calling for an ambulance to get me to the emergency room yesterday. The doctor had allowed the St. Kitt’s trip because she wasn’t expecting the severe anemia that showed up on the tests. Shadow was showing some progress again, but the vet was willing to keep her until I was home from the hospital. The following week, before I was technically allowed to drive, we brought a reasonably healthy Shadow home again. She immediately noticed Stan’s absence, and her behavior went into an immediate decline. Instead of an active and hungry cat for three days, the lethargy set in almost immediately. We were hand-feeding her, forcing water into her with a medicine syringe, and she began hiding in places that we had a lot of difficulty finding. Meanwhile, I was making plans to fly to the Mayo Clinic in Florida because the news about my health at our local hospital made it clear that I could die at any time if I didn’t have surgery. Our local hospital would (almost) make an African field hospital look like the most modern facility in the world. Shadow was in the clinic, and Rincey was taken to his doggie day care center for boarding. And we flew out from the island for a few weeks.
The news I received at Mayo was great, and has put serious doubts in our minds about hospital medical care providers on the island. They are fine for emergencies, but you wouldn’t want to have much more than the transfusions and minimal testing I underwent there. We came home Christmas Eve and had to wait several days to retrieve the pets. We left Rincey in boarding for a few days longer than necessary so that Shadow could have our undivided attention for a few days. We had her home for just over a week, and I was forced to take her back to the clinic on my birthday in early January. They were trying out different insulin combinations to see which she would best respond to. I didn’t go visit because she had taken such a downturn the first time we took her in, and the vet agreed that we should just stay away until it was time to bring her home. Eight days later, I received a call from the chief veterinarian suggesting that we seriously consider ending her suffering, as she was not responding to any of the insulin combinations they tried. I asked that they do nothing drastic until we could come in and say our good-byes. Joe was clearing his work calendar as much as he could so that we could go as soon as possible. He thought he could be home in three hours. Four hours later, I called to remind him that we had to see Shadow. That’s when he told me that the vet called him two hours earlier to tell him she had passed away on her own. Joe was too broken up to call me with this news, and threw himself into some more work, then lost track of time. I was not shocked by the morning call, and not by Joe’s response. I had been preparing myself for Shadow’s loss long before we lost Stan. She died almost two months to the day of Stan’s horrible accident. I am convinced that this little fighter simply gave up when she couldn’t find her old buddy.
That evening, before the veterinary clinic closed, we drove out to say good-bye to Shadow. It’s really, really hard to drive with tears streaming down one’s face. Shadow had apparently crawled into the lap of one of the doctors who was trying to feed her by hand and fell asleep. After a few minutes, the doctor noticed she wasn’t breathing. She had moved silently and painlessly (we hope) into the next world, in a quite different manner than her best buddy had gone. But we had lost two relatively young cats in a very short span of time, and–although we had made the decision not to replace our pets as they passed because any new ones might outlive us–we asked if they could keep an eye out for any kittens who were brought in for adoption. The vet paused, and told us that she had been euthanizing kittens all afternoon, as the island is really not large enough to sustain too many cats. The catch, neuter, and release program is a big deal on the island, as the feral cats are very friendly and, apparently, hotly passionate. Found kittens are kept for three days; if not adopted, they are put to sleep. But this one kitten…although she would have to be put down as soon as the office closed, there was something about this one that put her at the end of the line. It was her beautiful eyes. Would we care to see her?
We have a new member of the family. Her name is Esme. Within one week, she and Rincey became the best of friends. She is sweet, assertive, fearless to a fault, more adventurous than our last several cats, was clearly raised–at least partially–indoors, but lives for being outside. She is now four and a half months old, and wrestles with Rincey, who is close to 20 pounds and extremely gentle with her and tolerant of her rough play. She runs at him and jumps on him like a lioness attacking a zebra–frontal attack with teeth aimed directly at his neck. Good thing he has a very thick coat, or the claws and teeth would have made them mortal enemies instead of friends. They sleep near each other, wake each other up to play, and peacefully share the communal water bowl. All is well between them unless Esme tries to eat Rincey’s food. Rincey still doesn’t understand about cats, and can’t figure out why she won’t return the balls he rolls to her. Otherwise, they get along splendidly. And we have balance in the family again–two males, two females. We still miss the other two cats, and often call Esme either Stan Lee or Shadow. But…
In my mind, Shadow became the salvation of our new family member, Esme, the kitten with a tear-drop marking at the corner of her left eye. The beautiful eyes…