On Wednesday night, we said goodbye to one of our best friends.
Just two days prior, we had a healthy cat – or at least, that’s the image he conveyed to us. Two days prior he was partaking in his usual activities: camping out under Penelope’s highchair waiting for his partner-in-crime to smuggle him unwanted food, eating like a champ, snuggling with Penelope during the day and me and Greg at night.
But Tuesday morning he didn’t seem like himself, and so I took him to the vet.
We’re going to run some blood tests. We’ll have them back tomorrow morning. You can take him home.
But by the time Wednesday morning came I found myself scrambling to get him to the emergency vet while frantically calling to find out about his test results. Overnight, Bear seemed to become weak and lethargic. I worried how I would get him in the carrier (as anyone with a cat knows, no easy task) while getting Penelope out of the house. But I was even more worried when he didn’t even fight me, or eat the treat I offered him. We got to the emergency vet.
He’s a bit dehydrated, Mrs. Macaluso. We’re going to give him some IV and anti-nausea medicine.
I remember the day we brought Bear home, nervous for how Marcus, our other Maine Coon cat, would react. We set Bear, in a mesh carrier, down in the hallway outside of our apartment. I wish we could have briefed Marcus first, told him that Bear was his dad, that he was cool, and that we saved him from a bad situation. But of course we couldn’t because, you know, he’s a cat. And it had been years since they had seen each other so the scent was long gone (and Jerry Springer wasn’t available that day to provide the proof, so he’d have to take our word for it). Marcus ran out into the hallway to inspect, and upon finding Bear, he promptly LOST HIS SHIT: hissing, meowing, puffing his tail…with the show he put on, I’m surprised he didn’t make himself pass out. We were exhausted just watching him.
And what did Bear do? He looked him right in the eyes, tucked his paws under his chest, and laid down. He wasn’t scared, there was no shaking or quivering or act of submission. He simply was not fazed. Marcus had been with us from when he was a kitten, so he’s had a sheltered life. Bear, on the other hand, had life in a shelter. Spent some time on the inside. He’d seen things. This act of non-amusement toward Marcus was him saying, “Take it easy, buddy, I’m no threat. Just looking for a hot meal and a warm bed.”
You can go home, Mrs. Macaluso. We’re going to keep him overnight and let him rest for now, and take another look in the morning. Sure, you can go on back and see him before you head out.
“Feel better, Mr. Bear Bear,” we said, as we pet him. And so we left, hoping to pick him up yesterday morning. He could handle this, whatever it was. Bear was a TANK. People would come into our home and see Marcus, and say, “Whoa! That’s a huge cat!” and we’d say, “Just wait until you see Bear.” With his brown and black coat, ginormous paws, and thick “lion’s mane”, he was hard to miss when he entered a room. And, as calm as he was, Bear was also the one you called in when you needed to rough shit up. Marcus could run circles trying to catch a laser pointer for hours while Bear sat leaned up against the wall with zero interest. But when a gecko got in our house? When there was a bug to be executed? When there was a real issue? He was a feline ninja.
When the neighbor’s cat would darken our door, locked in a stare-down with Marcus, Bear was the one to chase him away. What did he do? Not much. Just casually walked up to the door and stood there. That was all the other cat needed to see in order to turn the other way and run, because they now knew that we apparently smuggled a lion into our home.
Mrs. Macaluso, we’re calling to let you know that he seemed to be getting weaker, so we did an ultrasound and found a large mass on his colon. We’re looking to see if we can identify what type of cancer we’re dealing with so we can decide how to proceed.
Cancer. Cancer? I really thought Bear would be around until Penelope was at least 4 or 5 years old. I had visions of them snuggled up together, reading books, taking naps. She had just began saying “Bear Bear.” He was always where she was. Even from when I first became pregnant, before my belly even began to show, he would press himself right up against me at night. And when I did start showing, he was always hugging my belly. He knew he had made a friend.
He’s the one who took to Penelope right away; Marcus loves her, but from afar. She’s too skittish for him, but Bear hangs out right there with her and lets her hug him, not minding when she clumsily drops a toy on him or relentlessly tries to get him to play “peek-a-boo”, or dive-bombs onto him for a full body hug. From the first night we took her home Bear has been a staple at her bed time, hanging with us as we bathed her, and always sitting with me as I fed her, him pressed up against her, her pressed up against me.
Mrs. Macaluso, his red cells are dropping. In order to help him we will need to do a blood transfusion. Do we have your permission? Sure, you can come back and visit later tonight. We’ll call you again with an update.
I had to get out of the house so I took Penelope for a walk. Some part of me can’t help but feel like I failed him; had I only caught the signs sooner, maybe I could have bought him some time. He just went to the vet six month ago, and was given a clean bill of health! But Greg reminds me of the funny little personality trait of cats: they usually don’t let you know anything is wrong until it’s too late. I really hoped he’d pull through. I just wish –
I’m sorry to call you back so quickly, but his heartbeat is very faint now and he’s not responding. I know you wanted to be here but I don’t think you’ll have time…he’s very critical. His breathing is slowing down now. I think he…yes, he’s gone. I’m so sorry.
I know there’s a big wide world spinning around us filled with famine and war and suffering and poverty, and real problems. But that didn’t stop me from turning into a living, breathing cliché as I stood there in the middle of our suburban street while out for a walk with my daughter, sobbing uncontrollably because my cat died.
But he we was, of course, more than “just a cat”; to us, he was family. A family member that just passed away, alone on a steel table, with an unfamiliar voice giving the play-by-play of his demise to his real family over the phone. I ended the call and walked back home through my own little personal rainstorm.
Even though he had already left us, we went to the hospital that night and said goodbye to our friend. I held his body, wrapped in a towel, part of me happy we got to say goodbye, and another part angry because I wasn’t really holding him; he had already left us. Penelope smiled, then calmly pet his head. She doesn’t understand, of course. Or of course, maybe she does. I’ve learned that children and animals know way more than we do, especially in situations like this, so I wouldn’t be surprised if her pure little heart told her mouth to smile because she knew her friend wasn’t suffering anymore.
The thing about animals that people who never had one may not understand, is that they are never ‘just a cat,’ or ‘just a dog’, or ‘just a (fill in the blank)’. They are another soul sharing your home alongside yours; a best friend and companion who knows you better than most people and loves you unconditionally. They are, often, the company you’d choose to keep over many humans you know. In the case of a cat, a furry little Buddha reminding you to slow down and be present. A big, beastly teddy bear with a heart of gold that just wants love. That’s just what Bear was to us.
I’ve avoided being home as much as possible these past two days because I keep looking for him around every corner, in every nook. But I can’t escape nap time, when I’m grounded here with a giant to-do list, but the only thing I can do of course is dump out these words. I watch Marcus mope around the house now as we all try to make sense of what happened to our furry family member. I’m also waiting for the cremator who is on his way to bring Bear home to us, not in the form of the beautiful, docile and loving animal he was when he left our house, but in the form of ashes in a tiny wooden box. We’ll let Marcus have a good look at him, because it will be the only time he’ll ever get to feel like he is bigger than Bear, and also because in the rush out the door, I never gave him the chance to say goodbye to his father and friend.
As sucky as all of this is, as much as it makes me want to punch and kick and cry and scream, there’s not one part of me that would trade any of it for the time we spent with Bear. Bringing an animal into your home is a lot of work, sometimes messy, and could lead to a sad ending, but the love, loyalty and joy they will bring to your family is immeasurable. And if you rescue from a shelter, that animal will especially be forever grateful. Had we not adopted Bear, I’m not sure how much longer he’d be in the shelter or if he’d ever make it out. He didn’t look like he does here in these pictures when we adopted him; he was scraggly, skinny, and had lost most of his hair due to stress from the shelter. It wasn’t until over one year and lots of love later that he grew it all back.
Even though our time with him was short, we wouldn’t trade it for a single thing. Our friend, our furry monster, our family member, our big fat cuddly “Mr. Bear Bear”. Goodbye, Bear.