Good Grief

I lost my beloved cat, Rita, exactly four months ago. She was a sweet girl, who was rather diminutive and squirrel-like. Her long body and arms were complimented by her flawless, shining, close lying black coat and entrancing golden eyes. To the touch, she was more akin to a mink or fox than anything resembling a domestic shorthair. I placed her breed as a Bombay, as she not only possessed all of the aesthetic characteristics of one, but was also highly talkative and athletic. She was adopted from a shelter, and therefore I could never be completely sure of her lineage, but I feel that there could be no mistake.

Rita was adopted in December of 2002 from the Northeast Animal Shelter. She was to be a companion to Hank, who had taken to licking his fur off as a result of increased time being left alone. It was decided that Hank could use some stimulation and distraction during his days of solitude, and the best place would be the same shelter from which he was adopted four years earlier.

Choosing a shelter animal is hard, because one wants to adopt them all. My inclination has always been to gravitate towards the older cats that have spent their whole life comfortably doted upon by an older woman who unfortunately has now passed and none of her children want the cat. These cats are always so sweet and look quite out of place in a little cage in the back of a shelter. Similar to employment, no one wants to take on your services once you get passed a certain age, and such realities upset me. However, to introduce a new animal into our home, it was considered best to start with a defenseless kitten.

I watched Star for some time (Star was her shelter name) and was not particularly taken by her demeanor. I was immediately arrested by her beauty, but she was not very alert, rather confused and adrift as she sat on her haunches at the back of her cage, head slightly askew. Her enormous eyes seemed to be asking me questions to which I had no answers. My girlfriend, Dawn, insisted that I give Star another shot, so I tried to engage the little thing with a few pokes in the ribs and tickles under the chin. Star was receptive, if not a bit startled and confused by such attention, and ultimately showed the ability to be playful and sweet. Star was adopted and re-christened Rita.

Hank and Rita never quite got along. Hank proved himself to be a bit of a possessive baby and also quite a physically strong man. He was quick to annoyance with Rita’s fidgeting and curiosity and would often exercise the full amount of his strength upon her. Being Rita, which is to say always rather unaware, such outbursts never stopped her from trying to clean Hank’s ears, snuggle up to his warm, fat belly or help herself to his tuna can. Hank merely tolerated Rita for her abbreviated life, and knowing him so well, I know that he got a kick out of her. They very much had a sibling style relationship where the little sister worshipped the older brother. Hank would be annoyed at how Rita cramped his style, but he loved her and loved having her around, and particularly loved the fact that she loved him. Their lives were intertwined by fate and they became an extremely enjoyable odd couple to have around the apartment. Within a few months of her introduction Hank’s fur came back for good.

For the next few years, life moved along with relative ease. I toured the world and was eventually making enough money to spend all of my days at home, when I was not on the road, and our family unit thrived. Yet such things, when not handled properly, can cease, and my music career hit some serious potholes and eventually broke an axel. Depression and unrest began to seep into our apartment, like smoke from under the door, or more like a carbon monoxide build up that you can’t smell until it’s too late. Determined not to wait around for me to figure out how to fix this musical life that I drove into a ditch, Dawn took a job in DC and I was left to stay with the kids back in Boston. By the time Rita was 6, we had broken up and I brought the kids down to live with her, as I could no longer afford our large apartment. By the time she was 7, I had a large enough place again and the kids were back with me and living in Chelsea.

The cats were well-loved, well-fed and seemed to have made the two major moves in the last two years no worse for wear. My new girlfriend, Crystal, immediately fell in love with my brood and they took quite a shine to her, as well. Rita spent her days crawling on the exposed beams some fifteen feet above our heads, while Hank begrudgingly watched her athleticism (when he would lift his head out of the food bowl), also understanding that if she was up above doing her acrobatics, than all laps down below were unoccupied and available. It was not more than three months into this new life when Rita got sick.

With increased regularity, Rita began to jump for a windowsill or chair only to come up short and fall to the ground. She began to hide herself under blankets or behind the couch, vomit much more regularly, and sometimes she would just plain fall over. She was losing weight at an alarming rate, and she had little to spare to begin with, and her once magnificent coat had become patchy and dirty. Always being a bit different, I was not particularly alarmed at first, as throughout her life Rita would occasionally miss a jump or stare at the walls. Now with the frequency of her shortfalls it was undeniable that something was wrong, and after an initial misdiagnosis of a shallow groove for her left patella (causing the kneecap to occasionally slip) and with Crystal’s suggestion, we took Rita to Angell Memorial in Jamaica Plain.

For someone on such a small budget as myself, money became no option. Emergency room visits, blood work, psychological exams, special foods, were done without hesitation, as I feared the potential of losing my little girl. Stopping short of a $3,000 brain scan, which I just couldn’t afford and would only clarify the problem, but not cure it, it was deduced that Rita was either suffering from a brain tumor or a brain condition that she was born with that had now unleashed its full venomous potential. Regardless of the true malady, the symptoms were the same – she was in a constant state of vertigo, which obviously affected her balance, but also left her so nauseous that she could rarely eat and would therefore hide herself from light to try and stop the dizziness. Her ability to chew was compromised and even walking appeared to be an uncomfortable chore. The remedy for either diagnosis was the same, which was a liquid steroid that she was to take every day to relieve the pressure in her brain.

The medicine seemed to work a bit, and curbing the dizziness, Rita was able to eat a bit more (she was down to under seven pounds at this point) and clean her coat. Watching her bathe again, an activity she always enjoyed in her vanity, was truly a joyous moment. Her coat, while not yet restored to its full glory, was again healthy and clean. She was also given a human medication for dizziness that I would have to inject into her skin when she was having a particularly bad episode. The vet (I believe accurately) described her mental state as constantly having “the spins,” which us humans achieve by drinking too much alcohol.

Crystal, who spends her days helping terminally ill children, took to the challenge of caring for Rita in the same fashion. Perhaps subconsciously aware, we began a sort of palliative, end of life care regiment that involved finding whatever Rita would eat and sparing no expense – smoked salmon, chicken and tuna salad from the deli, soft cheeses, anything. When it was deemed safe and possibly beneficial, we even took Rita on a little November getaway weekend to Martha’s Vineyard. My premature grief was almost unbearable, but Rita seemed happy and somewhat restored. She was able to hop up and sleep on the bed, and we had a few precious hours alone together with her on my lap and I stroked her as she slept and gently purred.

It was less than a week later when my roommate called me to say that Rita would not stop crying and was appearing to have trouble walking. I dropped everything and returned home to find exactly what he described, but that she had absolutely no use of her back legs at all. Terrified, I put her in her carrier and rushed to the emergency room. It appeared that the steroids we had to give her to help ease the pressure in her brain had caused her heart to develop a blood clot. The clot had been kicked out and subsequently lodged at the base of the artery along her back that splits to deliver the oxygenated blood to the hind legs. She was immediately given medication to alleviate the pain, which is akin to one’s legs falling asleep for hours and never waking up. It was at that point where measures to break up the clot may prove fatal, but also the fact remained that she still needed these steroids that were in turn producing these clots. I was forced to make the humane, yet nearly impossible decision to let her go.

It has only been four months since that terrible night, and yet I still cycle through all of the stages of grief – denial and isolation, anger, not so much bargaining, depression, and acceptance, often enough to earn them the true distinction of indeed being a cycle. One thinks of these experiences as a five step staircase to entering the next hall of your life, but for me it has been a revolving door who’s dizziness only serves to remind me more of Rita. But these stages of grief have led me to create an addendum to the cycle, transference.

Shortly after Rita’s passing I pared back my life again and now it is just Hank and I. Despite their love-hate relationship, Hank truly misses Rita and lets it be known. He has become extremely vocal and more affectionate than I ever thought possible. We are grieving together and neither of us have any more idea of what truly happened and why such things do. As a result, I find myself transferring my sadness and guilt into near constant attention and affection for Hank. I feel guilty for the sadness I have brought into his life and I feel guilty for not being more available to either one of them. I am scared to death of losing Hank and spend any spare moments caressing him and showing him that he is loved.

The guilt that I hold for not being able to save Rita will always stay with me. She was a sweet, beautiful creature who gave me so much love, laughs, entertainment, inspiration and absurdity, and I am not yet able to be thankful for the 8 years that we had together as opposed to expecting at least twice as many. The fact that Rita may have had a preexisting condition, one that was seen but not understood all throughout her life, is a strange hand to try and read while not feeling upset for not seeing it from the start. From the very first moment I saw her, head cocked to the left, apparently lidless eyes, it was only later explained to possibly be an indication of the condition in her brain. It is hard to say, but it may very well have been this oddness that caused me to become fascinated with such a beautiful, yet flawed creature. Having had to spend her last few months in such pain is a sad joke that I will never be able to understand. All I can hope for at this point is to finally, truly reach the acceptance stage.

So now in the humor of the randomness of life, I find it more intriguing than disturbing that I have catalyzed my love for Hank to the point that suggests that there is another stage of grieving going on here. I have become over protective, but at the same time so acutely concerned with Hank’s well being that at most times I truly feel that he is all that I have. I cannot speak for Hank, but I think that he is a-ok with this new development in our relationship. Although he still misses Rita in his own feline way, he is more than willing to accept my love and attention in exchange. I imagine this transference can be much more negative when dealing with parents and the loss of one of their two children, so here is where the human/feline relationship is alright in its weirdness.

Hank prefers to spend much of his days napping, while I sit in front of the computer or strum a guitar. We are adjusting to our new life without Rita and it is hard. With my days free once again, I deeply wish that I had Rita here to dote upon and shower with all the attention that was compromised with work and travel. Yet I am fully aware that her passing had the positive effect of forcing me to sit myself down and take stock of what is important to me and how to go about and do it. The illumination I gained from losing her enabled me to create the time and life that would have allowed me to be with her more. I am truly happy for this gift and would have never thought that such a sweet little thing and her horrible end would have brought about such a major, positive life change. I love her and I miss her, and I still can’t believe that she is gone, but I will carry on with my buddy Hank and make sure that such mysterious lessons are not in vain.


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