Near the end of February, my sweet and terrible Orange Cat died. It was sudden and swift, and utterly unexpected. It is amazing what a huge space that little cat took up in my heart and in my home.
He’s been with me since he was eight weeks old. He and his brother came from the Winnipeg Pet Rescue Shelter, where they were dumped off in a box in the middle of winter along with their mom and another kitten. When my now-ex and I went to the shelter looking for one short-haired kitten, the mom and one sibling had already been adopted. These two remaining kittens were tiny fuzzy balls, one orange face and one grey with a vertical white stripe along his nose. Apart from their color, they were identical in shape and movement: their little tails twitched simultaneously, their sweet heads tilted at the same angle; they moved and reacted in unison. They were adorable!
The shelter worker tried to talk us out of adopting these sweet little brothers. We had gone in for a single short-haired kitten, and she didn’t want us to come back with buyer’s regret after taking home these two medium-haired boys: twice the kitten and about eight times the fluff. But it was too late; the kittens were already in our hearts. We loaded them into the single cat kennel we’d brought along, wrapped the kennel in a massive bath towel to protect them from the cold, and hauled them out into the December night.
The Fluffy Dog found them fascinating, but the Brindle Dog saw them as prey. The Kittenz had to be protected from her for the first months, and it took years before it was safe for them to get close to her face or even make brief eye contact with her.
The Orange Cat quickly earned the nickname “Cracky” because he was so wild. His level of crackiness at any given moment could be measured by the dilation of his pupils and the whip of his tail.
He loved being brushed and would headbutt the brush or comb with joy, his purr revving and his whole body relaxed and limp. But clipping his claws was another story: he was a one-claw-a-day kind of boy, and would often launch himself off my lap before I could get a single claw positioned for clipping.
When he had to take a course of antibiotics, he was rarely fooled by pill pockets, tuna snax, or other clever ways to trick cats into taking meds. I’d have to sit on the floor, clamp him between my thighs, force his mouth open, and throw the pill to the back of his throat, holding his mouth shut until he swallowed. Even then, he’d sometimes cheek his meds and I’d find a bitter blue or white pill half-dissolved on the floor, hours later. But by the third or fourth day, he’d be hanging out in the kitchen with me at pill time, reluctant to take his meds but eager for the treat he’d get afterwards.
I’d always known theoretically that cats were nocturnal, but taking these Kittenz home was the start of six years of crappy sleep. Midnight and four a.m. were their preferred exercise times, and they seldom did it at the same time. One would run around wild and yowling, and when he finally settled, his brother would take over. Sometimes I’d call them Cracky and Methy.
My cracky Orange Cat almost died when he was just wee because he got himself strangled on a little loop inside a parka. I was getting ready to pee (with the door open) when I heard a weird scrabbling noise and looked over into the hall to see his hind paws frantically kicking in the air below the hem of a parka. I ran over and extricated him, and then leaned against the wall with my dear kitten in my arms and my pants still down, weeping with horror at how my whole house was a death trap for these little creatures. Sharp things! Electrical cords! Big scary dogs! Poisons!
Those weren’t the real dangers for the Orange Cat, though. The real danger for him was plastic. He was obsessed with flexible plastic. All plastic shopping bags, ziplock sandwich bags, bread bags, dog food bags, any kind of flexible plastic packaging was absolutely irresistible to him. He ate it as eagerly as he ever ate treats or meals, and he had several vet visits related to potential blockages. All soft plastic in the house had to be kept in the kitchen, whose door can be firmly closed.
Other doors were no match for my little crack-head, though. The two closet doors in my bedroom don’t close perfectly. He figured out how to get both of them open. One is now held shut with a stout wooden wedge. The other has a laundry basket permanently “blocking” access to it—by which I mean that when he tries to shove the basket out of the way, I hear him and hiss his name even before I am fully awake.
The Orange Cat and the Grey Cat played and wrestled together, and sometimes had little short-lived spats. Their favourite way to sleep was curled facing together in a heart shape with their foreheads touching. At bedtime, when I opened the bedroom door and let all the animals in, the cats would often jump straight up onto the bed and begin their evening mutual grooming ritual. It was an astonishing display of flexibility, brotherly love, and lack of boundaries.
The Orange Cat was my little prince. He was so gorgeous, with the flame markings on the top of his head, and his soft fur glowing orange in the sunlight when he sat in the window. He was the cutest sleepyhead: when I woke him from a nap by calling him from another room, he would stumble over with the sweetest blinky eyes, and his ears softly flat, with his fur disheveled and kind of Little Rascalsy.
He and the Fluffy Dog were the best of friends. The Orange Cat would hurry over to greet the Fluffster at the door after a walk with headbutts and loud purring. He liked to groom that big shaggy dog, licking his forepaws and his head and ears. The Fluffy Dog wasn’t always sure what to make of it, but sometimes he licked back. They played a game where the Fluffy Dog would follow the Orange Cat around the house until the cat threw himself down in front of the dog’s face. When the Fluffster would nose or paw him, the Orange Cat would roll fully onto his back, claws out, daring him to keep going. Then the Fluffster would back off and bark happily until the cat would pretend to be scared, scramble to his feet, and race a few steps away, then turn his back on his canine buddy to groom himself elaborately.
Last Wednesday after I got home from work and fed the dogs and checked on the cats (because of [complicated story involving the Grey Cat’s health]), I was sitting at the computer when I noticed the Fluffy Dog following the Orange Cat down the hallway toward me in the preamble to their usual game. The Orange Cat threw himself down at the living room entrance, hitting the open door and making it bang against the wall. I was surprised that he didn’t run away from the noise. The Fluffy Dog made his next move in their familiar game by nuzzling the cat with his massive snout—and the Orange Cat hissed at him. I was startled: He never hisses at the Fluffstter. Never! And he was still on his side instead of rolling onto his back. It was weird; it was wrong. I rushed over while sending the dogs away, and saw the Orange Cat staring at me with huge eyes, still on his side, not moving. As I crouched down, I saw that his wide eyes weren’t moving or blinking, and I smelled poop—and I started wailing No, no, NOOO!!! and calling his name over and over. I picked him up very carefully to take him into the bathroom where the light is better and I could protect him from the dogs—he was limp, so limp, his legs dangling completely loose, his eyes wide—and I knew, I did already know, I’ve been around enough dead animals in my time working in a shelter and then working as a vet tech—but o my little baby boy, I didn’t want to believe it.
I laid him gently on the bathroom floor, and forced myself to hold my breath and stop screaming for long enough to see that he wasn’t visibly breathing, to feel no discernible pulse. His poop was coming out and then his urine released in a long trail across the floor, and then I was crying again, running for my phone, calling my mom who lives in the suite upstairs to take us to the vet (but no answer), calling my brother (no answer), calling my boyfriend who was still at work and when he picked up the phone I was screaming and crying while trying to pull some pants on and still keep touching my little Orange Cat and then I called the vet:
“St. Vital Veterinary Hospital, could you hold please?” And I was sobbing “No, NO, I think my cat just died, can I bring him?” And of course they said yes, come right away, and somehow I was in the car, with my sweet limp dead cat, still warm and soft, tucked into his kennel, the very kennel I had picked him up in with his brother back in December 2010, and I was weeping and talking to him the whole way o my sweetheart, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I should have been a better mama, I should have cut your nails more, I should have brushed you more, I’m sorry I wished you were dead in the middle of the night when you kept me awake I didn’t mean it, o god I didn’t mean it, my baby boy, I should have known something was wrong, I’m sorry, so sorry, sorry sorry sorry hysterical and really, really unsafe to be driving, with one arm on the kennel in the passenger seat, and my bare feel jammed into unzipped boots, and jeans with no belt sliding down my hips, and no coat or gloves or scarf, shivering with cold and grief and screaming to wake the dead.
Except I couldn’t wake the dead. He will never wake again. He will never race through the house like a pony in the middle of the night. He will never climb onto the bedroom door and balance there, clawing at it and looming like a little dragon. He will never jump on my bladder in the middle of the night, or eat half a grocery bag and cost me hundreds of dollars at the vet. He will never chirp at me when I’m at the computer, asking for cuddles, and jump happily up onto my lap, sitting there content and purring for ages. He will never again turn his sweet little face toward me, or lean it into the massive bristly dog brush, or rub it along the Fluffy Dog’s snout. He will never crouch tense and prepared by the back door, ready to escape the minute it opens. He will never sit in the window with his brother, tails twitching and heads turning in unison as they watch squirrels or falling leaves.
The staff at the veterinary clinic were lovely; they always are. They took me straight into a room for privacy. I was choking a bit trying not to cry, wiping my tears and snot on my sleeve, handling the kennel as gently as I could because even though he was dead, o my little prince, my baby kitten, I still didn’t want to hurt him. They checked him right away and confirmed that he was indeed dead, and they invited me to stay with him as long as I wanted. I pulled a chair up to the table, put my arm around him, and rested my head on my arm with my forehead gently against his the way he and his brother have done daily and nightly for their whole lives. I cried, I cried, I cried. I swaddled him in his kennel blankie and cradled him in my arms. And then, as his dear beloved little body cooled, I laid him out, folded the blanket around him gently, caressed his sweet head and ears for the last time, and walked out.
I do not believe in an afterlife or in reincarnation. As far as I am concerned, once we are dead, once the body is cold and the electricity has stopped zipping through us, we are simply meat, and exist only in the memories of those still alive. But every time one of my pets dies, I have a moment where I wonder if they are still out there, cold and afraid, somewhere out of my reach, where I can no longer take care of them, no longer feed or comfort or protect them. I feel helpless, and I feel that I am somehow failing in my desire and responsibility to keep them safe and happy. But that is the grief, and the terrible empty longing to have them back.
It was terrible. It was unexpected. I never thought the Brindle Dog would outlive any of the other animals, with her age and her cancer. But the little Orange Cat is gone, and there is a hole in this pack the size of the sun.
I am so grateful that it was quick. I mean, that’s the way to go, right? No pain, no suffering, probably no fear, no time to worry or panic. Fall down, hiss, and die. Yes, I am very, very grateful that my little prince didn’t suffer, and that the Fluffy Dog was right there with him, and that I was so close.
The house is quieter. The nights are calmer. The plastic bags are intact. But the dogs and the little Grey Cat are still anxious and confused, trying to settle into the new shape of the pack.
The Orange Cat was a lot of work. He was a cracky little terror and his badness has shaped the way I moved through my days and nights for the past six-plus years. But he was a funny and entertaining little guy. I miss him and I love him. I love him.