And Then There Were Five

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Last week we took our five No-Longer-Kittens and two No-Longer-Puppies to the vet to be neutered. In shifts. This week we took them back the the scene of the horror to have their stitches removed. In shifts. It’s funny how one teeny-tiny cat can need three gloved adults to hold her still enough, through an eternity of wailing, flailing, scratching, screeching and biting, to get a few stitches out, whereas a chunky-big dog will just let you lift his front legs off the ground, and stand still in a “très gentil” sort of way until the task is completed in a matter of seconds, without so much as a whimper (and then throw up massively in the car on the way home).

But the trials and tribulations associated with this routine surgery (for which the vet did indeed give us a handsome discount for the bulk-buy), hasn’t been the only thing to make this a bad week for cats. Over the course of the last eight days, three of our cats have got sick, two of them have died, and one has disappeared.

First of all, Tom got a bit poorly, the day before he was due to go to the vet for the snip. I found him in the barn, curled in the hay in a sleepy ball of black and white that somewhat surprisingly didn’t move when I started chucking hefty bales down near it from the higher level. On closer examination, it turned out that Tom was not just in a deep and lovely sleep. He was lethargic and a bit floppy. I took him into the house, coaxed him to drink some water and let him fall asleep again, curled up in the fruit basket on the window ledge, where he stayed, virtually unmoving, for twenty four hours. But, apart from his lethargy and loss of appetite (which was notable for such a greedy cat!) he seemed to have no other symptoms. And much to our delight, the next day found him up and about, once again irritating dogs and chasing imaginary mice, and eating like a really-quite-hungry cat.

So we took him to the vet, explaining that he had been unwell, and leaving it to her discretion to decide whether he was well enough for his operation. After examining him, she concluded that he was fine, and proceeded to relieve him of his blossoming manhood.

When the end of the week arrived, and we had succeeded in getting all seven animals neutered and home again without incident, and they had all recovered from the anaesthetic and were up and about, bouncing and eating normally, we breathed a sigh of relief. The vet let us have the male cat neutering and one of the female cat spayings free, so the enormous bill was slightly less enormous than it might have been. She must love us! I’m sure she has bought a new car since we arrived on her client list.

But on Friday morning, when I opened the door to the usual dawn tide of feline incursion, Stripe was nowhere to be seen. She had been fine when she went out the night before, so I assumed she was just off hunting somewhere with the adult cats, who are usually slower to arrive in the morning. But as the morning grew old and slipped into the afternoon, and the other cats came and went and came back again, Stripe continued to be absent from the cat register. And then I found her, huddled in a sunny patch by the front wall, but feeling cold and damp. She let out a cry of pain when I picked her up, and when I put her down in front of the fire inside the house, she didn’t really move. She just huddled, and stared at the wall.

Now having seen Tom be ill, and then make such a quick recovery, we sort of assumed that Stripe must have caught his mystery illness and so would probably be ok after a day or so sleeping inside in the warm and cosy. Eventually she moved slowly to a quiet corner on the bottom of the book shelves, and lay down. She seemed to be sleeping, so we left her undisturbed, and went about our business. But later, when we checked to see how she was doing, she hadn’t moved at all. We tried to get her to drink, but every movement seemed to cause her pain, and her ears and feet felt cold. So Simon sat with her held gently in his arms to keep her comfortable and warm, and we decided that if she was no better in the morning we would take her to the vet. An hour later she was dead.

Simon was very, very upset. Stripe had really been his favourite cat, since she had been the one who most regularly leapt on to his lap to stare adoringly into his eyes, and she fairly often insisted on staying in his arms regardless of what he might be doing. He could frequently be seen typing an email, or making a cup of tea with one hand, whilst the other cradled a purring bundle of soft fur. He stood devastated, weeping like a child, as I arranged her lifeless form in a small box ready for burying the next morning.
“I’m so sad…” he gasped between sobs. I hugged him and tried to comfort him.
“No you’re not… don’t be silly. It’s perfectly understandable…” I replied, trying to be kind and supportive, in the face of his embarrassment at his unmanly show of emotion.
“No… I don’t mean like that”, he responded, with a tiny hint of irritation managing to make itself audible through the snuffling. “I actually just mean that I feel very sad

Deciding that it was probably best for me to keep quiet in the face of Simon’s heartfelt grief, I went about the business of clearing up, keeping my inevitable sense of guilt to myself, and banishing any possible thought of tear-jerking sentiment from my mind, by focussing on the tasks in hand. I wondered briefly whether Simon might be thinking I was a heartless bitch, and considered remonstrating against his unspoken and unjust criticism. But I thought better of it, and instead mused silently, once again, on the inexplicable nature of death, loss, and grief. In my world, things can’t just die. They have to die significantly, in a storm of existential angst.

The next day, Simon dug a deep hole on our remaining bit of rough, unfenced land, and buried Stripe as far from inquisitive dog noses as he could. We busied ourselves with the usual round of daily tasks and tried not to give shape to the unformed thought that some deadly virus might yet sweep through our pack of cats and wipe our feline slate clean.

The following evening I found Little Cat in the barn, sphinx-like and unmoving, with her face up against the wall. Not a good sign. I picked her up and took her indoors, and tried to get her to eat or drink. She was having none of it, and instead crawled on to the sofa were she remained dribbling for the rest of the evening. At cat-chucking-out o’clock, we decided to keep her in and tried to make her cosy on a cushion in front of the heater, with a bowl of water in front of her. Contrary animal that she is, she summoned some remaining shred of energy and leapt on to the top of the wardrobe, where she once again took up her sick sphinx position with her face to the back wall.

The next morning we took her to the vet. We explained about the death of Stripe and our concerns that Little Cat may have the same illness. The vet could not believe that any virus or infection would have killed a cat so quickly, and concluded that Stripe must have instead been hit by a car, and died from internal injuries. She examined Little Cat. She took her temperature (much to Little Cat’s disgust – with a thermometer up her bum), which was normal. She looked in her mouth and found some ulcers, which she said would explain why she wasn’t eating. She found a small wound on her chin that we had not noticed, and concluded she had been fighting with other cats. But in the absence of any other symptoms she could not diagnose anything specific. She gave her an anti-inflammatory injection and prescribed some antibiotics for us to somehow get down her uncooperative throat twice a day.

We took Little Cat home and suddenly she started to behave normally. Either she had been pretending (attention-seeker that she is) or that anti-inflammatory injection was made of fairy dust. She even ate a little bit of soft food, and then demanded to be let out so she could complete her interrupted morning toilet. The trouble with cats being their own person is that it makes it very hard for you to nurse them. When they are used to going outside whenever they want, and when they want to, despite the fact that you would much rather they lay down quietly on your perfectly prepared cat sick-bed and rest, there is not a lot you can do to stop them. To contain a cat against its will feels like inflicting outright torture.

So we let her out and later she came back, and on a couple of occasions over the next couple of days we managed, with a modicum of blood-letting, to force a tablet down her sore throat. But she clearly hadn’t read the instructions on the packet, and didn’t feel the need to return at regular intervals to take her medication at the prescribed times. She continued to dribble, leaving little round stains wherever she lay her sleepy head. She continued to disappear and fail to return just long enough to get us worrying all over again. But, she continued to live.

Perhaps after all things would be ok. Perhaps Stripe was injured rather than sick. Perhaps Little Cat’s sickness was minor, and passing, and non-infectious. Perhaps we would stabilize at seven.

Perhaps our optimism was premature. Four days later, Tom was once again notable by his absence from the cat restaurant when the evening meal was being served. Come to think of it, we hadn’t seen him for a while….. I found him floppy and bedraggled under a hedge at the side of the little overgrown track that leads down the side of our land. He was suddenly in a very-bad-way-indeed. How had that happened? The last time we saw him he had been bouncing and bullying and generally being his usual Jack-the-Lad self. And now here he was, retching and drooling and struggling to breathe. He would not eat, he would not drink. He did not want to stay in the house. He found enough energy to run off when the door was opened and disappeared into the dark.

Simon found him the next morning, cold and wet, in the long grass at the very bottom of the new pig-pen. He brought him back to the house while I was in the shower, and called through the door that he had ‘found Tom’. I could tell by the tone of his voice that things were not good. I emerged to find Simon standing in the kitchen, with a stricken and haunted look on his face, and a very poorly cat in his arms.

Tom’s breathing was very slow and laboured, and inside his open mouth was grey instead of pink. We put him on a cushion in the warm and I tried to get him to swallow some water. It was obvious that he was not long for this world. I suggested that Simon might rather not stick around to watch him die, which I was pretty sure would happen in a very short time. Simon concurred, and went out to continue fixing the barbed wire along the bottom of the fence in the new pig-pen, and left me to make Tom’s last few minutes on the earth as comfortable as possible.

Having over the last year or so watched a llama, a kitten and two cats die at close hand, I am getting to be a bit of an old hand at death. I used to be afraid of dead things – unwilling and unable to bring myself to touch them, or even look at them. But now I see that it really is nothing special. There is a pattern to it, that is like the opposite of birth. There is the sudden cry, and then the twitching, and then the last gasping breath, and then the light goes out. I wonder if playing a video of a birth in reverse would look the same.

The suddenness of it, even when you know it is coming, never ceases to surprise me. One second the animal is there. The next it is not. The body is, but not the animal that you have known, and lived with, and loved. All that is left are those forlorn thoughts of things that now will never be. And those thoughts are nothing at all to do with the thing that had died, but everything to do with the world that you create inside your own head, day in, day out, and that has no more reality than a dream.

We buried Tom next to Stripe, among the roots of a big oak tree. And we keep a close eye on the dogs when they are playing in on that bit of land, to ensure that the undoubtedly interesting scent of dead meat does not inspire a doggy digging frenzy.

And Spring has arrived in a sparkly coach of sunny possibility. It fills the air with promise, and the alluring sounds and smells of little creatures rustling in the hedges, and calls the cats to be the tigers that have been sleeping in their hearts all winter. On the first warm and sunny day, all the adult cats went walkabout, and so far only two of the three have made a fleeting return to their home turf. Big Cat calls by first thing in the morning to say hello, and last thing at night to see if there is any food on offer which is better than she can get herself at the take-away. Little Cat sometimes pops in for a little snooze in the shade, but then disappears again for most of the day. And Mother Cat has Just Gone.

We are of course clinging to the hope that she has Just Gone because it is Spring, and because she can, and because that was just the sort of cat she was before we got her spayed, and made her comfortable and fat and lazy in our warm winter house. We both secretly fear that she too has succumbed to the deadly deathness that overcame her two black and white children, but we prefer not to dwell on it. Whenever and wherever we are outside, we scan the horizon and the hedges for any signs of tabby and white Motherness, but with unspoken, ever-shrinking expectation.

And the house feels bereft. Only the three remaining kitten-cats come inside with any degree of regularity, and now it is depressingly possible to find an empty seat to sit upon. If ever there was an animal created that could embody the spirit of non-attachment, it has to be The Cat. They come easily and they go easily. They stay for a few moments, and one is wise to appreciate them while they are around, for they will almost certainly be gone in the blink of an eye, leaving only a few cat-coloured hairs, clinging to the cushions like sad and stubborn memories of the way things were.

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