Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Death is a Cat

This is a story about death, and cats, and how things go.

Miss Kitty died last week. She was the feral cat whose kittens I rescued, then had spayed, then fed and greeted daily for over 13 years. The story of her death is sad and a little gross and ends up okay at the end. Well, as okay as these sorts of stories go. So don't say you haven't been warned.

I didn't name her Miss Kitty. About five neighbors ago, the very nice man next door  helped me buy a humane cat trap and we trapped and neutered a bunch of stray cats in the area. He's the one who called the skinny black girl cat with a little white on her chest, "Miss Kitty." The name stuck.

Before we could spay her, Miss Kitty had a litter. I nabbed the kittens when they were a few months old and found homes for four of them. I kept the last one, my fluffy black nutball, Lucy.

Here's Lucy on a hot day:

Positively rectangular, isn't she?

I named her after Lucy Pevensie in the Narnia books, of course. My Lucy's not as brave or forgiving as Lucy Pevensie. but we are the best of friends. I adore her. She tolerates and occasionally purrs at me.

But Miss Kitty remained elusive. She would sniff at Lucy (and my sweet cat Max before he died) through the screen door. We saw her every morning and often at night at my back screen door, saying hello in a loud, demanding way until I put down some kibble. But she never let me touch her and would dart away if I approached. She eventually sniffed my hand a few years back, and that was major progress. But she had no idea what petting was, or why it might be useful or pleasant. Not until the week before she died.

She'd been getting skinnier over the years. I was trying to figure out how to get her to a vet for a check up. Then, the week before last she let me pet her.

It was weird. After a few pets, she started purring, and after that I could pretty much pet her at will. Some sort of breakthrough had occurred after thirteen years. Maybe it was because she was sick, or tired, or maybe she finally wanted to acknowledge our friendship somehow before she left.

I lured her into my kitchen using some treats. Oh man, how she loved those treats! The healthy food I gave her, sure, that was fine. But the treats were like kitty crack to her in a way they never could be to the more spoiled Lucy. I petted her a lot, and she demanded more treats, and I gave her some.

Lucy had no problem with her being there, which was nice. And my new kitten, Marlowe (brand new at that point) came up to say hello. Miss Kitty was unfazed. But then Miss Kitty had over the years faced down raccoons, snakes, opossums, skunks, and probably a coyote or two. She'd severed heads (leaving a few on my doorstep) and scooped out kidneys for a snack. She was a stone cold killer. Baby cat Marlowe was an after thought to an adventurer like her.

Here's Marlowe the day I brought him home. Note the half black/half pink nose.

I brought out Marlowe's fake sheepskin bed for Miss Kitty, and she hunched onto it. Her movements were slow, lethargic. But she purred the instant I petted her.

Then she peed all over Marlowe's bed.  Hmm. After a few hours, I put her out for the night and decided to make a vet appointment for her.

The next night she walked right in when I opened the back door, like she was coming home, and demanded treats. I obeyed, petted her, and brought in a litter box. She eventually limped into the living room and deliberately peed on Lucy's puffy bed.

Great. Well. Her vet appointment was in two days. Maybe they could diagnose why she wanted to pee on soft things rather than in the litter box. Maybe she was too old and sick to give a damn. Maybe cats who have been feral all their lives pee any place they like. I threw out poor Lucy's bed and eventually put Miss Kitty out again for the night, this time offering up a big cardboard box with a soft towel inside for her to sleep on. I  went online and ordered a very nice outdoor cat house for her. I figured after the vet visit, I'd keep her outside, but make sure she was safe and warm.

I never saw her again.

She'd disappeared before, but this was different. She'd been so eager to come in that last night. She'd had so little energy... I feared the worst.

Okay, here's the gross part. A week went by, and no sign of Miss Kitty. Then I smelled something unpleasant in certain areas of my apartment. It was sicky sweet, and familiar.

It was the smell of death.

My apartment sits over the basement of the building, and Miss Kitty dwelt mostly down there, in the in-between spaces near the basement ceiling where I could never reach her. But I'd hear her sometimes, yelling at an alien cat to get the hell out of her house.

Miss Kitty had gone home to die. I was smelling the evidence every time I walked from my dining area to the kitchen.

I called the apartment manager. He confirmed it was a "dead animal." and I just hung up and wept. Poor Miss Kitty. I'd put her outside and left her to die alone. If only I'd been more tolerant of her peeing on pillows and rugs and so on, she might have had company in her last hours. Or maybe she wouldn't have liked that. I'll never know. But my friend of 13 years was gone, and I was left with the sicky sweet smell of her death.

The next day, as I walked out to my car, as I sat in my cubicle, as I went for a run after work, I kept detecting that same odor. It would slither out from a pile of leaves in the Wattles Gardens as I ran by, or peek out of a duct in the garage under the building where I worked. I washed out my nose and sprayed some deoderizer, but it made no difference. Now that I'd been attuned to the smell of death, I was sensing it in all kinds of unlikely places.

Death is everywhere, my friends.

Sometimes Death is a she, and she's friendly and cool but inevitable, like Death in Neil Gaiman's Sandman:

Sometimes Death is hysterical and accidentally takes you away even if you didn't have the salmon mousse, like Death in Monty Python's Meaning of Life:

But Grandpa Simpson was right. Death stalks around you from every corner. Things are decaying and dying every damned place you go.

I was feeling kind of crappy at work late last week, and a friend stopped by my cubicle and told me about a fascinating show he'd seen on Animal Planet, where they take the carcass of a dead hippo or elephant (Go here to watch - not for the faint of heart, but very cool) and film it as the scavengers arrive to eat it. Hyenas, crocodiles, vultures, lions all take their share, then the bugs arrive. Eventually there's nothing left of the carcass. The hippo or elephant has fed a bunch of other creatures, and is now being spread around as fertilizer for the plants, which will grow and feed other animals, which will die and feed... You know where I'm going with this. The whole circle of life thing.

To hear my friend talking about all of this, with the smell of Miss Kitty's death still hanging in my nose, made me realize that she was that hippo or elephant now. Or maybe she was Gaiman's cool girl Death now, or maybe she'd turned into  a little kitty reaper. Or maybe she was romping in fields covered in her favorite treats and saying hello to my sweet cat Max.

Or not. I don't know. Most likely she was now feeding the scavengers of Hollywood, California.

But that was okay. That's what has to happen.

In a weird way, the smell of death in my apartment was a weird, yucky gift. I'd become like one of those cadaver dogs, trained to sniff out death wherever it lies. When I saw, or rather, smelled it everywhere, death was demystified. It was downright common, not scary or really even yucky at all. It's just how things go. Eventually.

My favorite Death moment on film, below. In honor of Miss Kitty.

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