Our kittens, Lily and Lucy, came before the children. Quiet purrers and beautiful blinkers. Velvet furred links to another lifetime. They came before my Bipolar Disorder.
In my chaotic first few months of motherhood, on a visit home from the psychiatric hospital with my baby, the cats were not impressed. The baby startled and squawked in her rocker, and the cats stalked around the noise and movement, with twitching tails and wide suspicious eyes.
Their suspicion was justified about three years later when that baby – now a toddler – ‘posted’ Lucy through my bedroom louvres out into the garden via a drop of several metres. When I found her meowing on the lawn Lucy was unimpressed, but thankfully uninjured. I sat my toddler down for a talk about treating pets kindly and keeping our indoor cats indoors.
The Easter long weekend the year the cats were eight years old I was mid prep for a family lunch when my now seven-year-old daughter called:
‘Mum, there’s vomit in the cat’s room.’
I abandoned the sprawl of recipe books and followed my daughter’s voice to clarify whose vomit it was. There were patches of it dotting the floor, and the smell of partly digested cat biscuits and bile hung in the air. Cat vomit. And Lily looked flat. I lifted her up and palpated her painful, tense abdomen.
A couple of days before, I had caught her chewing something, but she had shot away when I’d approached. By the time I’d caught her, her empty mouth had concerned me, but I decided to wait and see.
I’d waited and now I was seeing.
The time frame and signs were textbook for whatever she had probably swallowed being stuck somewhere in her gut now. She’d need surgery.
I rang around for a nurse who was free to help me, arranged to meet at the veterinary clinic we both worked at, and loaded a very unhappy Lily into the car.
The incision for an exploratory laparotomy is long. From the bottom end of the sternum to the pubic bone. The exploratory part is methodical. You start with the stomach and visually and manually examine your way down the lengths of intestines. As I worked my way down Lily’s normal looking gut I began to doubt my decision to go in without an X-ray.
And then there it was. A lump. I exteriorised it and exhaled, relieved. The affected intestine was inflamed but not perforated and confined to five centimetres. One simple incision to retrieve…a scrunched-up length of metallic gift-wrapping ribbon.
Lily recovered fully from her surgery, but both cats were mostly confined to their room and cat run, if unsupervised, after that. They were both string, hair tie and ribbon obsessed, and I could not guarantee a house free of these items with a seven and a four year old in the house.
My cat ladies grew into elderly and then old ladies. Of the two, Lucy was always more outgoing and friendly. Lily formed relationships on her own terms and was more skittish. But when we lost Lucy last year, Lily became cuddly.
My now fifteen-year-old daughter, grew into one of Lily’s favourite people. She brought her into her bed and hand fed her morsels of chicken, tuna, or steak. In return Lily was a quietly purring source of warmth, love, and comfort.
Two weeks ago Lily declined rapidly, looking all of her seventeen years, within twenty four hours. Suddenly her bones stood out. Her coat morphed from meticulously groomed to dull. She no longer looked like herself.
I took her to one of the large veterinary emergency centres, requested blood and urine tests, and waited with a deep aching knowledge. In the end she made the decision to let her go – not easy – but black and white. Her blood test results were disastrous. Kidney parameters and blood glucose levels through the roof. I’d have thought twice about tackling both of these issues in a cat half her age.
We gathered to stroke her soft head and thank her for being part of our family for so long. And I whispered my love into her beautiful ears as she slipped gently out of my life.
That night I sat next to the empty cat bed and sobbed my way past midnight.
Two weeks later, I still startle sharply when I enter the cats’ room and am met with absence.
And when the grief hits my children in great stormy waves, I remind them that there is only one way to avoid this feeling, and that is never to have the love of a pet in your life.
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