Sunday, October 09, 2005

WOLFGANG 1988-2005

Originally uploaded by Other Lisa.

I had known Wolfgang since he was a kitten, but he didn’t come to live with me until he was around 7. He belonged to my friend Lisa, who was going off to grad school in Hawaii. The quarantine laws there, and the uncertainty of her living situation, made it impossible for Wolfgang to go with her.

She begged me to take him. I really didn’t want another cat. I was living in a cramped Venice apartment, and I had two cats already. “He doesn’t need a lot of room,” Lisa argued. “Besides, all he does is eat and sleep.”

What could I do? I took him in.

Wolfgang was one of the most aggressively friendly cats you will ever meet. He had a bad habit of wanting to sleep on your chest and suck on your ear. This might not have been so bad if he hadn’t been such a fat cat. His nickname was “the Football.” Plus he had tiny little paws. Having him on your lap was sort of like having a really heavy woman in spike heels standing on your thighs.

His affectionate nature sometimes got on my nerves. He had to be on my lap, had to head-butt my laptop screen, had to have my attention when I wasn't always in the mood to give it (especially with those tiny paws indenting my thighs). “Boundaries, Wolfgang,” I would mutter, giving him a little shove. “Just give me a little space, here.”

My rejection never phased him. He loved every person who walked in the room and all other creatures besides. Once he ran out the door of my apartment, into the courtyard, just as one of my neighbors was bringing his Rottweiler down the stairs from the lobby. Wolfgang immediately ran up to the Rottweiler and started head-butting it. On the head. The poor dog was mightily confused. She kept sniffing at Wolfgang, trying to get a good whiff of his butt. You could see what was going on in her little doggie mind: “Smells like cat. Acts like dog. But smells like cat. What to do?!”

The only thing Wolfgang didn’t like was vacuum cleaners. Those were instruments of Satan. They terrified him.

About five years ago, against my better judgment, I took in another cat, a skinny foundling my sister named “Spike,” as an homage to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and also as sort of a joke, as this cat looked about as deadly as a jackrabbit. Shortly after I adopted him, Spike got very sick. The vet never could figure out what it was, some sort of “fever of unknown origin,” possibly feline infectious peritonitis. It seemed likely that Spike would die. I took care of him at home, gave him fluids, force-fed him pills and baby food. Surprisingly, he did get better. As he started to recover, Wolfgang would groom him. It was one of the sweetest things I ever saw. Spike rebounded with a vengeance and proceeded to grow into his name (he weighs about 25 lbs these days). He loved Wolfgang. They frequently groomed each other and curled up on the bed together.

Even Murphy, the queen cat, grew to tolerate Wolfgang as they both got older. Unlike Wolfgang, Murphy has perfected the art of the boneless sprawl and somehow can always find a way to fit onto my lap comfortably. Wolfgang’s traditional position was next to me on the couch, head and front paws on my thigh. Sometimes he and Murphy would use each other as pillows. Murphy, who does not particularly care for other felines, didn’t seem to mind.

As Wolfgang aged, he became frail, no longer the plush football I could roughhouse with. His decline was slow and almost unnoticeable. The 4th cat of my quartet, Mags, was taking up most of my attention with her chronic illness (which was a lot more dramatic, involving as it does lots of barfing and diarrhea). I realized though that Wolfgang didn’t look right. I took him into the vet. His kidneys were starting to fail, and his teeth were in bad shape. I’d need to hydrate him regularly with subcutaneous fluids. That wasn’t a problem for me; I’d done it plenty of times with other sick cats.

The fluids worked. His kidney function went back to normal. I’d have to continue hydrating him, but that wasn’t a big deal. He perked up considerably and put back on some weight.

Then one morning, I heard a thumping noise. It was Wolfgang. He couldn’t put any weight on his hind legs. It didn’t seem to bother him all that much. I however was freaked. I called a house-call vet I’d spoken to before, wondering if he was about to die. Probably not, the vet assured me. That kind of thing isn’t normally connected to kidney failure. I took him into my vet. The disks in his back had collapsed. There was some congestion in his lungs as well. At over 17 years old, his body was simply wearing out.

Predinsone might help him regain some mobility, the vet advised. I tried it. Surprisingly, after a few days, it did. Wolfgang could walk, wobbily, it’s true, seeming to tiptoe on his little paws.

We went on like this for nearly two months, I think. The last couple of weeks, Wolfgang grew weaker. He ate less and less. He still wanted to sit with me on the couch, and by scrambling onto the ottoman, he could get most of the way there without my help.

In the middle of the week, he stopped eating completely. I couldn’t tempt him with anything. I also couldn’t force-feed him. He could clamp his jaw shut with amazing strength, and it was hard enough to get his meds down him. And I thought, what would be the point? He was over 17 years old, and he was getting ready to go.

In spite of this, I felt horribly guilty at times. I should have taken better care of him. I should have gotten his teeth cleaned. I should have loved him more.

By Thursday I was seriously debating what to do. He didn’t seem to be in any pain, but he was increasingly weak and out of it. He would stare off at nothing. He seemed confused, and at times he looked sad. I thought maybe he could die on his own. But how could I be sure that he wasn’t in pain? What if he was sad? I called the house call vet I’d spoken with before, a woman whose compassion and caring over the phone had helped me with this debate earlier. But she was still in New Orleans, volunteering to help animals in the wake of Katrina. I got the name of another vet but didn’t call her. I just couldn’t bring myself to talk to a stranger. I went home.

Wolfgang spent the evening with me on the couch. When it was time for me to sleep, I made a bed for him so he could sleep with me, and if he was incontinent, it wouldn’t make too much of a mess. Some time in the night, he crawled off of that and came to snuggle against my back.

The next morning I decided that it was time to call the vet. There must be something about female house-call vets, because this woman was also compassionate and kind. Her earliest appointment was 4 PM the next day, Saturday. She gave me the number for an animal mortuary service as well, run by a man named Richard, who would come afterwards. Richard explained their services to me. My pet would be individually cremated. His ashes would be returned in a lovely wooden box, and I’d receive a clay impression of his right paw-print and a certificate with the pet’s name and any message I would like. There was something absurd about the whole thing, I thought, but I still cried my eyes out and only barely got through the conversation.

I left work early so I could spend time with Wolfgang. When I got home, he’d somehow gotten himself from the bed I’d made him in the living room the short distance to the front door entry. He often liked to sit by the door, in front of the security screen, maybe because the breeze is nice there. His head rested on a pillow I’d left by the door.

When I came in, he looked up, more alert, happier, it seemed to me, than he’d been yesterday. I talked to him and petted him and scratched behind his ears, and he responded under my hand, nuzzling my palm, nose still cold and a little damp.

I spent the evening with him on the couch. At times he seemed to drift away, barely aware, no longer in control of his limbs. But then, for the longest time, as I scratched and petted him, he responded and nuzzled, arched his back a little, straightened his tail. And started to purr.

He hadn’t been quite able to purr for several weeks, even when he was still pretty mobile and active. It seemed to take too much effort, perhaps because of the lung congestion he had. I wondered now if this was some kind of end of life reflex. I’d heard that before, that cats sometimes purr when they are hurt or dying.

Of course there’s no way to know. But he purred as he exhaled, his breathing even and easy as I scratched his head, and he rested his head in my palm, nuzzling me now and again. We stayed that way for an hour. The pupils in his eyes were huge. What did he see, I wondered? As I scratched and massaged behind his ears, his eyes would close, the way cats do when they are content and basking in your attention.

You project all kinds of things onto your pets, I know. Interpret emotions and feelings that aren’t equivalent to ours. But his face was so relaxed. He seemed so peaceful. He seemed to smile. Cats do smile, you know. Don’t let anyone tell you that they don’t.

“Thank you,” I told him. “Thank you. Thank you for showing me this.”

I made up his bed for him so he could sleep on my bed and not be alone, and I went to sleep.

Sometime around 6 AM I woke up. I knew right away that he was gone. I rested my hand on him. He was still warm.

We do these things for ourselves, I know. Cats aren’t people. I don’t think of my cats as my children. They are cats. Weird little fuzzy companions who join us in our lives for a while and then pass on. Today, after Richard from the Pet Mortuary has come and gone, nothing seems so clear as it did to me last night. Maybe I waited too long. Maybe he was in pain. Maybe there was nothing in his eyes but the emptiness of a life-force that was dwindling away. I don’t know.

I do know one thing. If I didn’t love Wolfgang enough, it didn’t matter to Wolfgang. Wolfgang had more than enough love for me, for anyone who walked in the door of my house, for everyone and everything.

Except vacuum cleaners.

1 comment:

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