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Loss, Sadness and Grief

cheese

One year ago yesterday, I lost my bestest, longest and smelliest friend.

I often feel like it's important to be upbeat and to do my best to make sure that whatever I'm contributing to the world brings happiness or at least some positivity. In general, I think that's a pretty good philosophy to live by, but it's one that can easily end up being isolating and restricting the forms of expression that are accessible, and that's a recipe for depression, I think.

So, with that in mind, I'm going to write about something that I normally wouldn't write about here - sadness, loss and grief.




I've never considered myself a cat person. Not in the slightest. They don't fit well into the native ecosystems here and cat-owning culture (myself included!) in Australia has no mindshare or respect for that (yet another element in the seemingly endless list of questionable legacies of the colonial era).

In an attempt to "cure" me of my disdain for felines, my mother bought me a cat in the early 90s (I would have been 10 or 11 at the time). I remember having an expectation that it was going to be a ginger cat, but instead, a tiny black ball of fur arrived that could stand in the palm of my hand.

I called him Mr Squishy, and he was my friend. When he wasn't biting or breaking things, he liked to sit on my shoulder and watch the world.

He was always a pretty destructive force, and in his younger days, he wasn't often openly affectionate. When he wasn't aggressively weeing on something, he was usually ripping something to shreds. I once saw him lie in wait for, give chase to and draw blood from someone on a bicycle.

He loved our black labrador Sahu and endlessly tormented my younger sister's half-wild tortoiseshell Crysta. He had a pretty inquisitive nature and often lived up to his name by working himself into tight places and situations. He liked to keep his tail up and was always visible when he ran in the long grass. He hated being showered or bathed, but sometimes he'd hop up onto the edge of the bath and drink the water - he always preferred water from anywhere other than his water bowl. When he was really excited, he'd gallop around the house at break-neck speed.

 

When my parents broke up and I moved out to live with my Dad, it didn't really feel practical to take the Squishmonster with me. My Mum's house in Chudleigh was his home, and Sahu and Crysta were as much his family as I was.

When my Mum and sister took an extended trip around the country, Mr Squishy was given to my Aunty Mary to look after. I remember feeling a bit bummed about that, but by that time, I was living at my step-mother's house, which did not feel like a safe environment for me or anything that belonged to me.

When he came back, he'd mellowed a bit. I suspect that he didn't get as much attention as he was used to on Mary's farm, which made him a bit more appreciative when he came home, but it's also possible that he missed me. From that point forward, he would drool when he was happy. I remember resenting that at first, but unbridled expressions of joy are infectious and it was something I grew to love.

 

Several years passed as I settled into the role of Starving Student, regularly unhomed by rental agreement expires and share house dispersions. The rental situation in Tasmania had grown a culture of creating fees that were later found to be illegal, which created pressures that made it less easy to find affordable rental properties where pets could be kept.

My Mum eventually moved elsewhere and Mr Squishy lived for a while with the person renting our old house. He had a cat named Gargamel, and they really didn't get along well. Eventually things escalated to a point where there it wasn't really practical for him to stay, and he came to live with me in a tiny three room house on my then-partner Sam's parents' hobby farm.

The transition was difficult, but we made it work (a lot of stuff got broken and weed on though!) until Sam needed to move to Launceston to continue her studies.

The 2.5+ hour drive drive to get him to Hobart was pretty hard on him (not only was the heat in my non-air conditioned car not so pleasant, but I think every car experience he'd had up to that point was vet related). Driving him back north to Launceston a few years later in the middle of summer was even worse and I promised him I'd never put him through that again - for better or worse, I made a commitment to stay here for the rest of his life.

By this time, he was already a decade old. He didn't show any signs of slowing down, but some grey had started to appear and I knew that domestic cat lifespans usually didn't exceed 15. I think it was around this time that I became conscious of wanting to enjoy each day and be thankful for whatever time we had left.

 

My old home in Chudleigh was on a two acre property nestled among larger farms, so the Squishmonster had more or less spent his entire life in rural spaces. When I moved back north to Launceston, he got his first taste of suburban life. I was terrified that he'd be hit by a car or something, but he seemed to have decent enough road sense and that was never an issue.

The small unit we'd moved into was in a pretty quiet area, but was fairly populated with other cats, and it turned out that my Little Guy (as I'd come to call him sometimes) was either super territorial or was out for blood. It felt like every evening he'd come home with a new scratch or cut. He got a few abscesses along the way and one was bad enough to open the possibility of him having to lose his tail (which thankfully never happened, but after that he never kept his tail straight up in the air anymore).

I remember cleaning him up one night when he'd come home particularly bloodied and thinking that it was funny that he still maintained that he was super tough when he got beaten up so often. The next morning, I let him outside, and he sat in the middle of the driveway to nonchalantly lick himself in the sun. Two cats across the road spotted him and bolted and I realised I'd never once seen a cat that didn't run away from him. When he'd been in a big fight, he usually had more blood on him than could have come from his own scratches - I'm glad I never got to see the losers (or their owners).

For the first time in a long time, I lived somewhere that had a bath. The bath we had at Chudleigh was a little too high and the rim around its edge a little too narrow for me to previously discover, but it turns out that Mr Squishy would be happy to hop in if he felt like he wasn't being forced into it and had a safe exit (this was a big surprise for Sam the first time he hopped in while she was having a bath).

 

By the time the rent on our unit was raised to a point where we couldn't afford it anymore (rental models here revolve around pushing prices up until tenants move out and then dropping them down to fill the property again - keeping good tenants has never seemed to be a priority here), my Dad had started living onboard his yacht and we moved into his old house.

It was a bigger and in a busier area. The fear of losing the Squishmonster to a car accident resurfaced (which thankfully was never a problem) and the fairly consistent fighting kept up (which turned out to be an issue).

Sam and I parted ways, and for a few years, it was just the two of us. The Little Guy and I keeping each other company and watching each others' back. We did just about everything together. He'd sit on my lap with his paws on my desk and watch my screen when I was playing games. I'd sit on the couch and read when he was napping. We'd go to bed at the same time and sleep back to back (Sam didn't like him coming to bed). Sometimes I'd squirt neighbours cats with water when they came into my yard so that the Squishmonster could pounce on them while they were distracted (maybe that's cruel - I don't know, but he always let them go when they tried to run away).

One time I'd been away for a few of days for a work trip and came home to find that he had an infected wound on his head. My Dad had been meant to be looking after him, but somehow hadn't noticed it. After I'd cleaned him up and taken him to the vet (who as a side note was a complete douche and decided that demonstrating the depth of his head wound by using a metal probe to tap on his skull was somehow appropriate), I decided that the Little Guy needed to be an Indoor Cat moving forward.

The transition was hard for both of us, and was exacerbated by neighbourhood cats near-constantly weeing on my front door and hanging out in the front yard. He didn't really have many ways of expressing his frustration beyond urinating and breaking stuff, and I didn't have any way of coping with that beyond yelling and being angry. He would wait till I was looking to knock important stuff off tables, desks or counters. Sometimes in the morning, he'd stand on the dresser at the end of my bed, wait for me to wake up, and then start weeing.

I'd asked vets and friends for advice, but everything pointed toward medication, which would have significant behavioural side effects and didn't seem like a good choice. Eventually, I got him a second litter tray in the hopes of being able to cover the two least desirable locations for him to do his business (one near the stereo and the other near the fridge), and lo and behold, it turned out that giving him a little bit of choice made all the difference.

Things calmed down pretty quickly after that and we settled into a happier indoor existence (that sometimes involved sneaky outside trips to chase a cat away). I still spent a little bit of time away but thankfully had my Dad and friends like the wonderful Katherine to look after the Little Guy and keep him company when I wasn't there.

Every time I came home after a trip away, I'd get covered in happy drool that made me regret leaving in the first place.

I was a little worried about his activity and health when I was at work and got him a bunch of toys to play with. Typically he loved pipe cleaners, but I worried that the metal in them probably wasn't good for his teeth. I went shopping for toys for him with Katherine and came home with a bunch, but the ones he seemed to care about were couple of mice and a scratching post with some pompoms on elastic hanging from it. He'd carry the little mice around the house and would show some of the silly manic behaviour he had as a kitten when he got carried away on his scratching post thing.

Around this time, he started doing The Tongue Thing, where he'd close his mouth without realising his tongue was partially out (or in some cases, all the way out).

There are lots of memories from when it was the two of us. I had mice that would get into my cupboards (I soon learned to keep everything in jars or thick containers), and sometimes even steal the Little Guy's food. One night I heard him catch one and was noisily playing with it in the hallway. I told him to eat it and go to sleep, and moments later, I heard him deposit something wet and unpleasant in my shoe. What a champ.

On hot days, I'd put a damp hand towel in the fridge and drape it over him when he was uncomfortably warm.

 

Eventually Mim came along. She'd never really owned a cat before and watching her discover the delight of having a little friend was wonderful. It became a a ritual to touch for luck whenever The Tongue Thing happened. Instead of two sleeping back to back, the Squishmonster quickly asserted his dominance as "the middle spoon". We'd all sit in sunbeams together. He and Mim would sit on the window sill waiting for me to come home from work.

I used to use the ambiguity of the term "precious Little time" to highlight how important it was to love these moments as we have them.

At one point he seemed to have a seizure and wet himself, and then had some balance issues. The vets speculated that maybe he'd had a minor stroke. Unfortunately, the Squishmonster only had one speed, and that was full tilt. He rarely showed concern or consideration for injuries and would careen around the house and into things. He didn't seem to have any long term problems arising from any of that, but I put more care into being attentive and ready to help him when he needed it.

One time, he fell off the bench (I think he'd tried jumping up onto the empty dish rack, which tipped under his weight), and from that point onward, he became steadily less interested in jumping. It used to be that he'd leap from the floor onto the bench (once even onto the top of the fridge) without batting an eyelid. From that point forward, instead of making small jumps onto the window sill, he'd prefer to step up onto the coffee table, then onto the couch, then onto the couch arm, etc. instead.

In spite of this, he was still pretty active for a 18 year old cat, and while doing blood tests to better identify what might've happened with his seizure, we discovered that he had a hyperactive thyroid gland, which results in crazy high metabolic rate. He had always been a fussy eater, and I suspect that years of us sharing dinner scraps while eating probably made him less likely to eat his own food than he would have otherwise been.

Of course when it came to eating people food, whatever it was, he was all over it. From time to time, he'd been known to steal/eat potato, onion, pasta, jam sponge roll and mushroom.

Getting him to eat all of his food became increasingly difficult. He wouldn't touch anything that he thought was old. Initially, I'd have to prod his food a bit to get him to eat it more than half an hour after it was served, then I'd have to use a spoon to stir it around a bit and make it seem more fresh. Eventually I started feeding him smaller portions three times a day, which worked for a while.

Vets would often remark on his arthritis, which was pretty pronounced, but he never ever showed any sign (aside from shying away from jumping perhaps) of being troubled by it.

 

I had wanted to avoid another move, but Dad sold the house we were living in, and after a long and arduous process of trying to find somewhere that would let us have pets, we were able to buy the house we live in now. I had expected the Squishmonter to hate the new place and immediately ruin the carpets and built ins, but he seemed comfortable and content here.

We didn't have a bath, but he loved coming in after someone had had a shower to drink the "delicious shower noms". The window sills here are close to the ground, so he could step up onto them to watch outside and soak up the sun without risking a jump. I made a set of small steps from boxes so that he could climb onto the bed more easily.

I knew that he was in his twilight years, but he still played with his toys, still came for hugs, still got excited about his favourite foods, and I figured that so long as there was joy in life for him, then everything was fine.

Compared to Dad's old house, our new place was tiny. We had a big magnetic whiteboard that there was no wall space for that leaned against a window in the bedroom. Whenever the magnets were within paws' reach, we'd be awakened by the Little Guy smacking them around. I'd bought Mim a Lego Darth Vader alarm clock, and any time we were sleeping in longer than he'd like (ie: an hour before he would usually be fed), he'd send Darth flying across the room. These kinds of wakeups were always a part of his behaviour, but I think that his thyroid problem made early morning hunger a bigger deal in these later years.

We still had a lot of adventures. Mim bought him a harness and we'd have little outside walks. He'd sit with me when I was gardening, and sometimes we'd cook sausages and have a BBQ-like dinner outside. Sometimes I would play Yellow Bird on my guitar for him. We bought him new toys, which he liked, but his favourite was an old red pompom that Mim had had since she was in high school.

One night when we came home after a convention that I'd pulled an all nighter in preparation for, I collapsed on the couch which Mr Squishy in my arms. Apparently when Mim tried to wake me to come to bed, I'd said, "No, no. This is where the Little and I go to help."

 

Early in 2016, we came home from a TasLUG meeting to find that he was limping really badly and had trouble standing up on his own. My best guess is that he'd had a fall and come down hard on his hips. He could make his way around, but when his back legs gave out, he'd just continue trying to walk and end up dragging himself along until he was just flopping about on the floor. We had a few vet visits, who after commenting on his arthritis and his thyroid problem, ultimately said there wasn't really much we could do aside from look after him and make sure he was comfortable.

By this time, I was (thankfully) working at home and was able to give him 24 hour care and attention. For the most part, I let him walk on his own, but kept him stabilised. If it looked like he was having a lot of trouble, I'd just carry him to where-ever he wanted to go. I was worried by how little he was eating. We did a lot of things to try to get him eating more, such as buying a roast chicken (one of his favourites) every second night, cooking him special meals and feeding him small portions of his canned cat food whenever he said he was hungry (anybody who's owned a pet will know that they're fully capable of communicating when they're hungry!).

I started sleeping on the floor because he wouldn't stop trying to climb onto the bed (he fell down while trying to get up once and I didn't want to risk it again). It was pretty painful for my arms, but I figured that some discomfort for me (even if it was lasting) was worth making sure that my Little Guy was doing as well as he could be.

All of this was difficult for Mim, who I think didn't really grasp what it all meant or what it would mean in the future. She was worried that I wouldn't be able to identify when it was time to let him go and was increasingly upset by what she saw to be indications of what life would be like moving forward.

My mentality at the time was to love every second of every day. If he weed on the carpet, that seemed like a small price to pay for another day with a Little. If he needed help climbing onto the couch, then that's something I was happy to do just for the sake of his company. I felt pretty confident that I would know when he was ready to go, and that stressing about that would only make it harder to appreciate what time was left.

My food strategies seemed to work, and the Little Guy's general balance seemed to get better. As the days passed, he was walking more and more on his own, and I started to feel a bit of relief. We had another vet visit (before each one, I felt I had to steel myself for the eventuality that he might not come home, so they were super stressful), and I remember that as we were leaving the vet said to me that she thought he had at least a couple more years left in him.

 

One morning while I was getting his cat food down, he eagerly grabbed at some while I was still serving it (he was more likely to eat if he could see it up close coming out of the can) and bit down on the spoon.

From then on, he started eating less and less. He had less energy, lost the stability he'd gained over the previous week or so and seemed less happy. I knew what was coming, but wanted to give him every opportunity to keep going if he wanted to. Living with difficult decisions is hard, but living with premature decisions is tortuous.

I put a call out on Facebook and asked friends to share warm thoughts with him (some assumed that this meant he'd already passed away, but how can someone appreciate warm thoughts when they're already gone? Gotta solicit the love when it's needed, not when it's too late).

I fed him cut up chicken, tiny bits of cheese, ham, whatever he showed interest in enough to eat. I let him drink as much milk as he wanted, and offered him as much egg as he wanted (then I'd cook that up into an omelette with whatever was left of the cheese and ham and serve that back to him). He seemed to like this stuff, but wasn't really taking in enough to keep going and so I booked in one last vet visit.

That morning was tough. I gave him some chicken soup and an egg for breakfast and let him eat as much as he wanted, still leaving the door open for an unexpected turnaround. I read him out comments that friends had left for him. He'd been effectively deaf for years, but I like to think that it still made him happy when I talked to him.

I told him that if he still wanted to be my little egg, that he could be. He was tired though, and this was the end.

We put a small tub of finely chopped chicken in the car and drove out to the vet. He still didn't like being in cars, but didn't stress out so much when he was in a harness and on my lap instead of in a cat cage. He watched out the window for a little while and eventually nestled into the crook of my arm for the rest of the short, but also long drive.

When we got there, instead of going straight in, I sat in the boot of the car with him and fed him a couple of pieces of chicken while Mim went inside to let them know we were ready for our appointment. I talked to him about our lives together and told him that I felt very lucky that he was a part of my life.

I'd brought several towels from home that we'd been sleeping on, and laid them on the vet's table so that things would smell more familiar (his eyesight and hearing might have faded, but his nose was always good). I laid him down with his head on my hand and put his red pompom under his paw. He struggled a little when he felt the needle, which broke my heart. He maintained eye contact with me as he faded away. The vets excused themselves and I stayed with him for nearly an hour until Mim told me it was time to go home.

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In the foyer, we talked with the receptionist about disposal options and opted to have him cremated. I later found out that the place that did it had an option for allowing owners to be present. I was a bit disappointed to not have been told that, but I guess that I appeared distraught enough that they felt that extra decisions were worth avoiding.

At home, I slept on the floor and then the couch for the rest of the week. I knew it would be hard to sleep without him and that it would be better to force my mind into a state of newness/change than to expect to comfortably slip back into normal life.

Conventions have been particularly hard, and this is one reason why we're not doing AICon this year. Even though he couldn't come with us to cons, the Squishmonster was still very present - anybody who has one of our cat cushions or prints has a piece of him (and probably some of his hair). I ended up crying at a bunch of customers at both AICon and MAICon, and that's not really a good fit for Two Lof Bees.

It was about 3 months before I was able to sleep a full night without waking to check on him, and even now, I still find myself unconsciously stepping around where I expect him to be or reaching down to pat him. It's not really an emptiness so much as an acute awareness of of his absence through the expectation of his presence.

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It's been a long year, and things still feel difficult sometimes. I've learned to feel that this is a reflection of something positive. If he had meant nothing to me, if his life hadn't been a source of happiness and worthwhile experiences, then it'd be easy. It's hard because he mattered. It's difficult because he significantly and positively contributed to who I am.

The times that I've caught myself talking to him have been reminders of pleasant times that otherwise might have been lost. Once, I turned around to ask him if he wanted to go outside and watch the rain, and until then had forgotten that that was something we used to do. I find myself thankful for the memories that come unbidden and thankful for the tears they bring.

Sometimes I find myself wondering whether there was more I could have done to make him eat, or whether I could have avoided him biting on the spoon, or whether if I had've just stayed home instead of going to TasLUG that time, maybe he'd still be around. I also wish that I'd yelled at him less when he'd done something wrong, or that I'd brought him to live with me sooner, or that I'd made him an indoor cat sooner.

I feel like all those sorts of feelings are natural, but they're also roads that lead to unhealthy guilt. I think there's value in learning from them and using them to help inform future choices, but beyond that, the past can't be changed. Regardless, in spite of every less-than-ideal decision I'd made, he still had a rich and happy life, and even though I might not always feel comfortable taking credit for that, it has to balance things out a little.


A lot of people have asked me when I'll get another pet, and right now, I'm not certain. I only know that it's still a bit too soon, and that it'd probably not healthy to dive in and find a "replacement". For me, it's better to work through everything and to make sure that everything within my life is there because I appreciate it, not because it's filling a gap for something else.

I had wanted to carve something to keep his ashes in from a small piece of Huon pine that I'd kept around for many years, but it turns out that it'd gotten lost during our last move. This is pretty disappointing, but I'm sure I'll think of something else that's equally fitting.

Fewer and fewer days are full of memories and tears. In the same way that he became a part of my life happened over time, him not being around has become a part of my life as well. His loss has become a tiny part of my identity, and I think that all things considered, maybe that's a source for happiness.



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Posted By:
 cheese
Date Posted:
 13th February 2017
Loved:
 4 times
Tags:
 Cat(5), Death(1), Life(13), Loss(1), Love(2), Mr Squishy(2)
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