|My Zooey, 1993 - 2014|
In the early 2000s, my ex-husband and I lived for a year in a fairly laid back and hippie type of Seattle neighbourhood. On the day we moved in, lots of people gawked, only the lady next door said a word to us, and a long-haired calico cat hung around the back yard keeping an eye on things. And that was how it stayed for the next several months.
In a misguided attempt to be domestic, I’d go out every morning to fill the bird and squirrel feeders, always with a little black, orange, and white fluff ball at my feet. If I tried to pet her, or even looked down, she’d step back and pretend it was all a coincidence that she was nearby. Not realizing that her colouring indicated female genes, I started calling her Wally and keeping a closer eye on her.
Over time I started to notice that Wally never seemed to leave the back yard. I hadn’t seen her anywhere else for a couple of months, and she was looking worse for wear. Next Door Lady said to leave her be, she’s a neighbourhood cat, she could take care of herself. But I didn’t buy it. Wally was skinny, had badly matted fur and fleas, and slept every night huddled against our kitchen window for warmth. She also seemed to be living on only what she caught in my back yard, the remains of which she left on my doorstep. We’d had enough. I took her to the clinic, got her cleaned up and healthy, found out her real gender, and introduced her to the household as Zooey – named after JD Salinger’s famous title character, but pronounced in a female way.
The woman next door wasn’t thrilled with our kidnapping of the neighbourhood cat, and when I said that all I did was rescue an animal who was clearly in need, she grumpily told Zooey’s supposed owner to come get her. When he appeared, Zo had been happily in my house for 2-3 months, and his first words were, “I think you have my cat. I haven’t seen her in about 3 weeks.” Which only convinced me more that I’d done the right thing.
He explained that he’d had Zooey (fittingly named Perdida, which is Spanish for lost) since the fall of 1993 when he’d taken her home from a Free Kittens box outside a grocery store. Since that time she’d wandered the neighbourhood, rarely going “home” to see him (since he was often out of town anyway), and mostly living off the kindness of the street’s residents. He claimed that Zooey was just annoyed with him for getting another cat and would much rather go back to her old life. When I let him in to see her, though, she ran and hid, making it clear that she had no intentions of leaving with him. He gave in and left, saying sadly, “I’ve had her for 10 years. It’s like losing a kid.”
When my brother heard the story, he looked around, confused: “Wait... Didn’t I have a kid around here somewhere?”
Despite the guy’s poor cat parenting, I do understand the feeling. I lived with Zooey for 10 years – closer to 11, really – and it is like losing a kid.
For the past decade+, Zooey was the healthiest and most active of my three cats, despite being the oldest. So when she started acting like she felt unwell last month, I didn’t expect to take her to the clinic and see an x-ray of lungs covered in lines, spots, and shadows. I lay awake that night, listening to the small raspy sound in Zo’s breathing as she slept on my feet, wondering how long she’d been having respiratory problems without my noticing. It seems that her relatively good health otherwise (blood work still showed the rest of her organs being in great shape while her lungs deteriorated), and her always cheerful personality had allowed her to hide that she’d been struggling for a while.
The radiologist determined that it was almost certainly lung cancer, but she probably wouldn’t have survived the biopsy to find out for sure. Even if she did, I couldn’t put her through harsh treatments for the off chance of adding a few days or weeks to her life. Nervous system damage is also common for cats with lung problems, so her ailments included a bad eye and occasional difficulty with her coordination. At some point she also put so much effort into trying to catch her breath that she cracked her ribs.
So I worked with the doctors to get her on medication to keep her feeling good and not gasping for breath too often. I spent all my time and energy caring for her. I postponed travel plans, worked from home, and skipped every social event, because she seemed to feel her worst when she went without me for a few hours. And she continued to get sicker.
At her checkup last week, the doctor said she was so frail that she could go at any time, and I may want to consider euthanasia before she got really bad. But Zooey was feeling okay, getting stronger… wasn’t she? She was so happy to see me all the time. She’d have a rough day or two and I’d think maybe it was time to stop her suffering, then she’d purr and look up at me lovingly with her sweet little face, and I couldn’t do it.
But then I realised that maybe she wasn’t actually improving or happy, she was just doing her best to hang on for me. And that maybe I was dwelling on the few positives over all the negatives, because I didn’t want to let go. So after taking some time to look realistically at the situation, it became clear that euthanasia was the best I could do for Zooey. I gave myself a literal deadline of my flight to the UK this afternoon, even while having constant urges to change or cancel my trip to keep her a bit longer.
Despite all my plans, though, I moved my flight to tomorrow and spent one last day with Zooey. And today, instead of heading to the airport, I stood with the phone in my hand, watching her struggle for air, for 20 minutes before I finally willed myself to press the call button and make an appointment. She took her last breath, peacefully and without having to fight for it, around 4:30 this afternoon.
So tomorrow I fly off to cry on Jody, but tonight I’m going to celebrate Zooey's long, happy, and very loving life, at home with my two cats. We'll miss her.