Many of you who read this post simply won't "get it". That's fine. I understand where you are. Prior to this experience, I don't think I would have really "got it" either.
"It": The profound sense of grief and guilt at having lost my cat - Emmit.
Let's start at the beginning...
My wife and I moved in together back in the summer of 2002. Fairly shortly thereafter, we decided that we wanted to adopt a kitten together and we started looking around at the local Humane Societies and SPCA's. My wife had previously had a male orange tabby cat that she thought was the sweetest thing ever put on the earth, and one day she emailed me a photograph of a kitten at a local shelter. This little orange puff-ball with bright eyes. I think we both left work early that day and rushed over there to fill out the paperwork.
We both fell in love with the little guy that day, at the shelter. The immediate character of him, and the unquenchable purring he displayed was too much to resist. In fact, his purring was so prolific, that at his first veterinary visit, the doctor couldn't use her stethoscope to hear his heart/lungs because he wouldn't stop. Not even when she did all of her temperament tricks to calm him down. We noticed he had a strange little gait, but we opted to adopt him anyway. We named him Emmit. He was the first, and only animal I have ever signed on the dotted line for. Our cat, but I had a large part in him coming into our lives.
I don't recall the precise timing of things, but fairly shortly after we adopted him, that little awkward gait turned into a very serious health situation. We found him lying on the floor in the bathroom, unable to move himself. We were very scared. I had to lift him into the litter box so that he could urinate. He was not eating well. We rushed him to the vet after a very brief deliberation at home. They were very concerned and gave him a fluid bolus and all sorts of medications. I recall how amazing these people were. The doctor who saw him, called us the next morning on her day off, simply to see how he was doing. Bianca Eastep...from then on until our move, we only ever brought our cats to her.
We brought him home from the vet and I vividly recall being brought to the point of tears at the thought of losing him, so soon. I laid in bed, put him on my chest, wrapped in my sweatshirt and listened to him purr, unable to really move. We have a photograph of this little guy, all bundled up in my grey Florida Tech sweatshirt, sick beyond belief but looking right at the camera. It's horrifying and adorable all at once. This was all happening around the Christmas holiday of 2002, and I had to convince my allergic father that it was necessary to bring my cat, who only lived indoors, on the 400 mile journey to upstate NY that year so that we could continue his medication and monitoring. The car trip was fun...my wife needed to let him out of his carrier and he crawled all over the front seats and dash. It was distracting. Thanks, Dad (and Mom), for allowing us to bring Emmit along. Much to our relief, Emmit made a total recovery. He even lost his little strange gait. Importantly, he did NOT lose his purring motor.
He grew quickly. We discovered that he was a long-haired cat. He grew some more. He was tall and looooong. Not an ounce of extra fat on him, and he clocked in at almost 30 pounds. An enormous cat. We found out that he would "talk" to the birds outside our windows. He made this sort of chirping noise as he watched them from behind the screen. We also found out that his greatest joy in life was playing fetch. No kidding. I had an old metal beaded chain from a previous ID badge that he was mesmerized by. I began throwing it down the short hallway in our apartment and he would bound off after it, gather it in his teeth and bring it back to me to throw again.
We looked up his "symptoms"...turns out he was likely a Maine Coon cat...known for being large, bushy, chatterboxes who acted like dogs! We liked his temperament and disposition so much, that when the time came to adopt again, we filled the empty slot with another Coon cat - his younger sister Madison. Aside from the occasional hair ball, and sometimes overzealous eating which led to kitty puke, he was a healthy and clean cat.
In the apartment, we had a long stretch of linoleum that lead up to the front door. We used to go "kitty bowling" on that strip. I'd slide him from one end to the other and he'd run back to be slid again. This cat actually liked to play. Sometimes, we'd even play rough. I could get him riled up by scratching his belly really good and he'd start kicking and biting my hands and arms (playfully, not maliciously). When he got too big, I used to put on that old grey sweatshirt he used as a kitten, so that I had a buffer from his claws and teeth...but we still kept playing rough.
His belly was a pristine meadow of soft white fluff. My wife loved it more than any diamond or other gift she's ever received. I would pick him up in my arms, cradling him like a baby, and stretch his legs out to reveal the belly fur...the wife would nearly smother herself in it, face first. She loved it, he loved it. At some point during his first 2 years, he wound up lacerating himself, mildly, on his back near his shoulders. He never re-grew his hair in that small, dime-sized spot. He had a permanent bald spot, of perfect white skin there. Barely noticeable under all of his long hair, but there nonetheless.
He developed all sorts of nicknames. I can't go into the etymology of each, but the strongest were: B, B-guy, Gooey-Man, Bug and Fluffer-nutter.
You're probably wondering what this entry has to do with parenting. Why I'm choosing to eulogize my sweet boy, Emmit, on this site. It is simple, really, and there are two reasons. (1) Caring for a pet is a stellar primer for the (admittedly much steeper) rigors of parenting a child. There are analogies. I won't list them here. (2) Emmit was my first "child". In hindsight, he was the catalyst which let my subconscious know that I was going to be able to be a Dad. I loved him more than any animal I have ever had or been around. Much more. Even more than his sister Madison. My grief is real.
After we bought our first home, Emmit suddenly had much more space to roam around in (he was an indoor only cat). He used it up! We still played fetch, only now he had a great big sliding glass door to look out of. He still got to talk to his birds, but now he got to talk to the squirrels that ran along the utility lines outside the house as well.
At one point, he got ringworm. A gross thing. I took him to the vet where he got a buzz-cut around the area and some medicated shampoo. I had to bathe a 30 pound monster in the bathtub. He did NOT like it. I remember this long haired cat, soaking wet, looking miserable as I handed him off to my wife to get dried by a big blue towel. Man were we glad when that was done!
By the end of 2006, my wife was pregnant with our first daughter. Emmit was 4 years old and going strong. Other than the initial illness as a kitten (which we never truly understood) and the ringworm, he never showed any other signs of illness or behavioral problems. This trend continued through the birth of our daughter Paige in 2007. We were worried about her safety, as Emmit (and Madison) liked to sleep on our bed, in her bassinet, and on her changing table, and we thought about the risk of unintended smothering by the overzealous cats. Can't blame them...they were cozy spots. But, we had to kick the cats out of our bedroom while Paige was sleeping in there during her first 3-4 months of life. It was difficult for us, as we loved having the cats around at night, and we were worried about their temperament. Once we transitioned Paige to her crib, in her room, the cats were let back in and all was normal! No ill effects. When Paige was older, she would try to play with Emmit, and he'd oblige for a brief period, but usually would walk to the other side of the room and flop over. He was tolerant of her young curiosity.
This continued until early 2009 when my wife was pregnant with our second child. By this time, Emmit was nearly 7 years old, but still very healthy and active. We started noticing a pattern each morning where my wife would walk downstairs after her shower to a lake of cat urine placed precisely at the front door to the house. We initially attributed the foul to Madison, as she was very young when our first child was born, and we thought she might be experiencing trauma at the notion of a second. Quickly, however, we determined that it was Emmit. It continued, daily, despite our thorough cleansing and pheromone treatments. Every so often, we'd encounter a pile as well. We were distraught, as we knew full well that we could not have a house soaked in urine and feces with a toddler milling about and an infant on the way. We made the decision to relegate the cats to the basement level as we had essentially stopped using it after having our first kid anyway.
It didn't really work. He basically stopped using the litter box for urine altogether. We sought behavioral assistance from the vet, but it didn't change anything. We were growing extremely frustrated and upset. We did NOT want to be rid of our beloved Emmit. Since he had been an indoor cat for 7 years, and due to the fact that our back yard was 10 feet from a 6-lane highway, we knew we could not transition him to an outdoor environment. And, having been an integral member of our young family and having shown no behavioral issues prior to this, we decided to try our best to deal with it.
After a little bit, he started the curious practice of urinating in the bathtub of our basement bathroom. This was like a little bit of heaven for us. We placed his litter box in the tub, and he even started using it again. Several times he'd seemingly change his behavior and we'd try to remove the box. He'd start urinating in his old spots again. We even tried stretches of time where he was confined specifically to the bathroom, where he'd show signs of normalcy. Once we let him out, he was back to his old ways. This became a real problem when we had guests, and most especially when we tried to sell the home.
Selling the home was good for all of us. In our new location, the cats had a LARGE (bigger than the whole basement at the old house) unfinished portion of the basement with their own window. There was a carpeted area and nooks and crannies for them to hide in. We bought them a new cat-tower to play/sleep on. We were able to worry less about the mess as the floors were concrete and "exterior" carpet...easily cleaned. We placed the litter boxes in there and put down doggie "piddle pads" in front to help control stray litter. Immediately, Emmit started peeing ONLY on the piddle pads. AWESOME! We can throw these away and have essentially no real mess! Then, almost as rapidly, the piddle pads were no longer being used. We searched everywhere for his new "spot", but couldn't find any. He was using the litter box again. Sort of. Now, he was peeing in the box, but defecating anywhere but. Truthfully, if you have to choose for a cat, this is the way to go. The urine is a beast to defeat, while the feces just scoop up and toss. Not "pleasant" but much easier to deal with physically, emotionally, and nasally.
Around this time, now 2011, Emmit was 9, Madison was 7, Paige was 4 and Taryn was 2. We started noticing that Paige's dog allergy had begun to manifest as a cat allergy as well...something we never saw in her as an infant. Maybe it was the constant presence of the cats which kept the allergy at bay early on? Maybe it was their constant presence that induced it? Immunology is such a wonky science.
My wife and I did not love the idea of keeping the cats confined to their spacious apartment for the entirety of their lives. They did not get as much attention as they used to. Really, not even close. The kids would occasionally follow us into their room and play. And my wife and I would try as best we could to "remember" them and give them some time. Nothing can replace the free love available to your cat when you are sitting on the couch and they just jump into your lap for some scratching and purring. Both parties benefit. We had lost that relationship with our special guy Emmit, and his sister Madison. It is something we are going to forever feel guilty about. The cats were NOT unloved, but they had lost their position within the family dynamic. At this point, mostly because of Paige's allergy, but also because we were just too scared to let Emmit have the new house as a potential litter box. We also decided that we didn't want to transition them to outdoor cats as they had lived their entire lives inside and we didn't feel "right" about it. Too little, too late.
I guess that brings us to Monday, May 27. Memorial Day 2013. Emmit is now nearly 11. He is old in cat years (something like the equivalent of 80 in human aging), but by all accounts is in pretty good health and projects to have another ~5 years of life. He still loves to chase his chain, and always welcomes a good belly rubbing. He has begun to lose his ability to really properly groom himself entirely. But he has ALWAYS loved it when I use the stiff wire brush on his long coat, and still lets me pull the knots out of his fur and generally give him the business. Purring loudly, as ever, as I help him groom. What a motor this cat had.
I'm in the kitchen, probably doing nothing important, and my wife, who has gone downstairs to get her cardio workout in, yells up the stairs for me in a very shaky voice that she needs me because she thinks we may have a problem. I immediately get my dander up, because we've JUST had a plumber in the basement to fix an improbable leak in our copper supply lines, and I'm betting that we have another now.
I round the corner of the stair landing and my wife is crying. This isn't a plumbing problem.
"I don't think Emmit is in good shape. He doesn't seem to be using his hind legs at all, and is dragging himself around the basement with his front feet only." She says this, I hear it, but I can't make it register.
We enter their room and there he is, lying on his side on the carpet, just like always, looking totally normal to my eyes. I go over to him and he starts purring. (Author's note, I'm crying like a baby again right now as I write this). He does not appear to be in ANY sort of pain or discomfort. I try to lift him onto all fours, he slumps back over. I try to make him move towards me, in the way I always have, by holding out my hand at his head's height. He'd ALWAYS jump up and almost run to my hand to be loved.
I'm confused and scared. I am immediately reminded of his illness as a kitten. But, this isn't the same. He is Emmit from his belly up through his furry face. He is paralyzed from the hips down. Since he does not appear to be in ANY amount of pain, we decide to let him be for a little bit. Wait and see. We set him up on some of those old piddle pads, incase he needs to go, and bring his food and water dish over to him.
I immediately start doing some internet-based veterinary science. I come up with 2-3 possible explanations.
1. He is suffering from a fairly common ailment in older cats, called saddle thrombus. A blood clot, typically seen in cats with congestive heart failures, which lodges in the pelvic artery and causes a paralysis of the hind end. It is accompanied by excruciating pain, a "coldness" in the hindlimbs due to low blood supply and is a very obvious emergency situation. One that, unfortunately, most cats do not survive, even with intervention. Emmit does not appear in any pain. His hindlimbs are not appreciably colder than his forelimbs. Though the loss of use does indicate the need for veterinary intervention, this situation does not seem immediately life-threatening. My cat is still purring at full volume...
2. He has some sort of progressive disease which has finally manifested in this paralysis. Cancer or diabetes. While we can not rule out cancer, we know our cat to be of generally good health. There have been no signs of slow, metered deterioration in his mood or behavior. His weight is still 30 pounds. He eats, drinks and uses the litter box regularly. He is not lethargic or wasting. This diagnosis does not make sense.
3. He has suffered an acute injury to his spinal cord, resulting in paralysis. This, I fear, is the logical explanation for his state. Not 12 hours ago, he was Emmit. Now, he is Emmit only from the waist up. I can not explain how this injury could have happened, other than to say that he tried to jump from a height and landed wrong in his older age. There is no evidence of a falling object or other give-away of what may have occurred.
I am now more scared than when I first saw him. My heart is hoping for a miraculous, spontaneous recovery. My head, piloted by my knowledge of biology and frank pragmatism, is telling me my poor precious little guy - my Gooey Man - my B - my Emmit is not going to make it through the day. And, moreover, that it will be because I have to choose it.
We decide to let him be for a little while, I even suggest we let him go through the night and see about him in the morning (a day where I have a LARGE responsibility to report my data to an interdepartmental crowd in a formal, hour-long seminar). We go about our now emotionally charged and morose "holiday". Planning dinner on the grill and doing household things like mowing the grass, trimming the trees and putting up our indoor herb garden.
I get preoccupied. With Emmit. I check on him almost hourly. He has (unseen) dragged himself behind our furnace and is just hanging out back there. Unwanting of being moved, but meowing and purring when he hears his name called. I start crying.
I do some more reading, mostly about the saddle thrombosis, in the hopes that (1) this IS what he has and that he will be one of the very few to make it to the other side of the injury and (2) I haven't missed some obvious diagnosis.
I come to the conclusion that animals are sometimes hard to read, and that I'm not a vet. That Emmit COULD be in pain and that he's hiding it, as animals are wont to do. I rush upstairs and tell my wife that I think we need to get him to the emergency vet NOW. We mobilize, the whole family.
The girls spend a few minutes with him in the basement once I get him out from under the furnace pipes. He seems happy, purring loudly even as they paw at his whole body. They are telling him how much they love him, and he seems to be telling them too. I am crying again.
Emmit has always hated his pet carrier cage. To him, it is the boat across the river into Hades...the vet. The ONLY time he seeks it out is when we are AT the vet, and he wants to hide.
He does not fight me, at all, in getting in his carrier.
The only thing that comes close to his hatred of his carrier, is his hatred of riding in the car. He cries the entire trip, every time. Knowing it ends at the vets (with the exception of our early trip to NY, and the move up to the big house).
He does not cry once in the car.
Something is mortally wrong with my beautiful, loving, amazing cat - Emmit.
We arrive at the hospital, kids in tow, and start the triage process. "He seems stable" the tech says, and we wait to be called. I pet him on his little wet nose through the cage door...he seems "OK"...
We are called into the exam room and they take him for weight/pulse etc...they are gone for a while. The tech comes back with him and a blanket for him to lay on. Says the vet will be with us shortly. Mentions that he does NOT appear to be suffering from a saddle thrombus, which they have assessed by all the measures I already did...but with the addition of checking for a pulse in each leg...which he has.
This is happening so fast.
We wait a few minutes, the girls hugging "B-guy" and him sitting on my wife's lap.
The vet arrives and starts her physical examination. We go over what we know, his history, the sudden onset. She explains that it is NOT saddle thrombosis, that he is experiencing NO pain. She tries to get him to "flip" his hindpaws over when she awkwardly rotates them. He doesn't. She applies pressure to his footpads, even squeezing them with all of her might, trying to elicit a physiologic autonomous response. Nothing. He is feeling NOTHING in his hindlegs and tail. But he is still purring like my amazing, precious Emmit. His eyes LOOK like Emmit.
I am relieved for him, and saddened for us. He has no pain, which is good for him. But, my fears are becoming realized...he has suffered an acute injury to his spine. And, by all available data, has severed his spinal cord. This is not repairable. No neurosurgeon can fix this. No amount of medication can fix this. There is no "wheelchair" to put him in. He can not live like this, even though through all other measures he is still the sweet, loving, purring motor of an Orange Maine Coon named Emmit.
My wife begins to realize the gravity of the situation. She has been holding out hope for a possible fix. There simply are none. She and I talk. And talk. We continue to hold Emmit and give him every ounce of love we have in us.
We tell the doctor that we can not allow him to live like this - and she replies "no, you can't...he can't live in this state". It is a knife through my heart. I know it, but this confirms it. We are about to lose, in the short span of 90 minutes, our treasured boy.
We inform the vet of our decision to have him put to sleep. I am crying like a baby. So is my wife. Paige, sort of gets it and is crying too. Taryn reacts to us and cries, but does not really understand. We take a few minutes with him by ourselves, the 5 of us, allowing the girls to say goodbye. They are escorted from the exam room and put in front of a TV playing cartoons.
I am handed two documents stating our intent for his life, and our wishes for his mortal body. I can't see through the tears to sign my name. I adopted him with my signature, and now, 10.5 years later, I have to sign away his last breath. I will never rid myself of the guilt. It takes me 3 full minutes of crying to finally scrawl my signature twice. We have decided to be present during the procedure, and to have him privately cremated and returned to us so that we can, in turn, bring him home.
He is taken from us to be catheterized, and quickly brought back to my wife and I, wrapped in a blanket and fitted for his final minutes.
I grab at him and hold him as tightly as I did when he was that little sick kitten 10 years ago. I am sobbing. I tell him I love him. My wife does the same. She gives his belly one more nuzzle. We listen to him purring, faintly. I tell him he is the best cat that ever lived, and I mean it. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a cat like our Emmit. Sweetness exemplified. Big and tough, soft and gentle. An amazing animal. A part of my family. My entry into parenthood. This is not hyperbole. This is not cliche. I understand your skepticism, as I was once in your shoes too. This is not the first animal I have seen put to sleep, or lost. This IS the first to hurt me so deeply that I can not sleep or eat well. The first to allow me to see that I could love at a level I didn't comprehend. I will miss him until it is me that is being mourned.
The vet enters after several minutes, and we ask for just a few more. She courteously obliges. But there really is no use in prolonging things. He is already sleepy with a tranquilizer, and we can not possibly cry any harder than we already are. The needles arrive 1-2-3. It is quick. It is painless. So passes the life of a truly noble animal and friend. My Emmit is gone.
Not 15 hours ago, I thought I wouldn't see this day until at least 2018, if not later. Now, in the unbelievable span of 90 minutes, our kitty is lying limp in my arms as I hold him tightly. The vet leaves and my wife and I just cry over him, holding him and each other. The kids sort of understand, and Taryn yells "he's dead?" in the office. We say yes and try to move on.
After a spell, we hand off his 30 pound body to a tech and gather our things and thoughts to leave. Taryn throws a fit at not being able to "finish" her show, but we insist and she finally obliges.
I put the empty carrier into our car, the one with his name on the lid. It still sits in my garage. I can not bring myself to touch it again yet to return it to it's normal place in the basement alongside Madison's.
We are getting the kids in the car when a tech comes running out to us with a little plastic baggy. In it, they have created a paw-print adorned with his name (I'm crying, now, again) for us. A physical representation of the impression that this cat has made on our life. Next tuesday, I will return to the hospital to collect his ashes, and bring him home. We are looking forward to it, as our house somehow feels very empty with him gone, even though he never had the full run of the place.
Yesterday, I was in the kitchen again and slowly realized that I heard the vacuum running. My wife was in the cat's room, vacuuming. I ran to her, just realizing what was going on. I walked in and there was no orange fur anywhere. Not on the carpet or floor or visible on the various things in the room, except for the cat tower and their bed.
There will never be new orange cat hair in my basement. Never an unstoppable engine of a cat. Never a belly nuzzle or game of fetch. We both started crying again. He is really gone.
Emmit: you are and were as loved as a cat can possibly be. More than most I dare say. You were a series of joys and frustrations. That the joy far outweighed the frustration is why we kept you and tried to give you the best situation that your biology and behavior would allow us to. Maybe we should have let you go outside, would that have changed things? I will miss you until I am too senile to remember your name. I am so sorry that you hurt yourself like you did. A cat as amazing as you deserved to live longer and simply die sleeping at the foot of your Mom and Dad's bed one cozy summer night. Sure, that would have been hard for us too, but you would be mourned however this had come to pass. You will not be replaced. We won't even try. I will never have another orange Maine Coon boy, they couldn't possibly live up to the standard you set. My heart is broken with you gone. I love you.