Eliot was my first warm-blooded pet (I'm not counting the lizards and frog that went before) and so, the first I have truly mourned. He's named after T.S. because of my special affection for The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock and well, the original Eliot wrote the poem that inspired Cats! Unlike his gifted yet misogynistic and racist namesake, my Eliot was a lover, not a fighter. His attachment to me was pure, unadulterated and intense. When he would knead his paws against me and purr like a motor his eyes would glaze over and he would drool, so intent was his focus. He was a gentle soul and tolerated the other cats and dog, let my husband and guests pet him but his heart was reserved for me. He taught me the meaning of unconditional love over the course of nearly 15 years of my life; he has been present for every moment that makes up the patchwork of my time in NYC. I don't know how to deal with this loss except to write out what he has meant to me, what he will always mean to me.
Growing up, I was allergic to cats, but when I moved out post-college, my roommate had a beautiful female named Ursa, and I soon realized my blood chemistry had changed and I didn't react anymore. Pam encouraged me to adopt a kitten and it was one of my first acts of independence. We went around to different shelters and found a darling pair of grey & white tiger kittens at the Newark Humane Society. I held Eliot and his brother, but Eliot was mewing and crying and so I chose him. The first day he came home with me, he scuttled about crying and crying, but after a bath, swaddled in a towel on the bed with me, a loud raspy purr emerged. I couldn't believe how much noise a tiny being could make, I called him my love bug and that was it, we were both smitten.
The first trauma of his young life was at the hands of the resident vet at Newark Humane Society, who somehow butchered the very simple procedure of getting him fixed. Instead of coming home with me after the procedure, Eliot was at the clinic for 3 days. Thankfully he recovered fully but I still blame that incompetent vet on his chronic kidney problems.
Trauma #2 happened when Pam moved to California - she and Dustin loaded up their moving truck while I was at work. When I came home, Eliot wasn't at the door waiting, in fact, he was nowhere to be found. I called Pam, frantic and asked her to check the truck. She didn't really believe he wasn't in the apartment but dutifully looked in the back and there was Eliot, hidden inside their sleepaway sofa. Trauma #3 happened because he was inconsolate after Pam and Ursa moved away, and I was advised to adopt another to keep him company. I stupidly chose a cat a colleague was getting rid of without asking "why exactly are you getting rid of her" and soon found she was not the type who shared attention well. Eliot was terrified of her, so thankfully I found her a loving forever home with a friend.
I finally adopted another kitten, Varo, and Eliot tolerated her, was gentle despite her shenanigans and found comfort in her constant attempts to make him love her. Most of my photos of Eliot involve the two of them snuggling because it was so goddamn adorable, but his heart-light still only ever came on for me.
When my future husband came into my life, Eliot had to share me with yet another. Then came Arturo, the most adorable bundle of canine energy and need. Then came the move to a shared apartment and 2 additional cats. Let's just say that adjustment was a long and somewhat painful process involving lots of hiding and inappropriate urination. But Eliot eventually overcame his fears and found his place next to me again. I would awake to the familiar sound of chewing on my hair, letting me know he was ready for breakfast, just waiting for me to open my eyes so that he could head-butt me until I got out of bed.
And so we were all one big dysfunctional but very happy family/menagerie from that point on. Eliot had always been a good eater, and at one point topped out at 19 pounds, but about a year ago he started to lose weight. At first I thought it was a good thing, due to my efforts monitoring his attempts to eat the other cats' food. But his belly went from touching the floor to being non-existent in a matter of months. I selfishly delayed bringing him to the vet as long as I could, worried what the diagnosis could be. But in February I screwed up my courage and we brought him in for blood tests and urinalysis. The vet told me, as all of the vets have told me, what a special cat he was and that there wasn't anything out of the ordinary, his levels were good and just to let him eat as much as he liked. Outside of regular meal-times, Eliot always had a dish of dry cat food and developed an appetite for anything we were eating, especially ice cream, crackers, cheese and anything with butter. His meows were loud, insistent and always rewarded with something to eat; I was spoiling him silly and didn't care.
It seemed like he would be fine, after a few weeks he gained a few pounds and didn't feel so wispy when I picked him up to cuddle (unfortunately all the other cats benefitted from Eliot's always-available buffet and packed on the pounds, so in comparison he was still skinny!) His energy was good, he was his super lovey-dovey self and he even managed to catch an unfortunate stray mouse in the kitchen while the rest of the animals looked on.
Then, about 2 weeks ago, things started to change. My husband went to Italy and I stayed behind, noticing that Eliot was choosing to sleep on the floor under the table instead of his usual preferred spots, chair-level. He didn't wake me up crying for food in the morning and there was some inappropriate urination. I thought maybe he was affected by my husband's absence - cats don't like change in routine. But since he was still eating and drinking and seeking me out for drooling love-fests I didn't think much of it, preoccupied with missing Gigi.
On Friday, all of a sudden it seemed like Eliot had shrunk. I could feel his bones since he lost all the weight, but now I could see every vertebra. His eyes, always big and luminous, were suddenly enormous, dominating his tiny face. Movement changed from being fluid to rickety in a matter of hours, and he seemed to have a fever. When he tried to jump up on my desk and fell, I called the vet office - the tech told me the doctor would call me back. When he did and I explained the symptoms, he told me to wait it out and come in when I was ready. But that night Eliot got worse and worse, he struggled to lift himself and barely ate a thing. Even his favorite treat, vanilla Haagen Dazs, solicited only a little interest and a few licks before he turned away. I couldn't sleep, afraid he would slip away in the night. Every few hours I checked on him, caressing him, telling him the story I'm writing out now. When he heard my voice he purred louder, but still so faintly compared to his usual roar. He would lift his head but couldn't really pull himself up without falling. It was heartbreaking. He made it through the night and seemed to rally a bit, but by Sunday morning he collapsed trying to get to the food bowl, and made a painful attempt for the bedroom before I scooped him up, agonizing over the idea he was heading under the bed to die. His nose was scabbed, his mouth was stained yellow and smelled of infection. It was time to go to the animal hospital, as our regular vet wasn't available (another disappointment!)
In the taxi, Eliot was stretched across my lap, making the most plaintive of noises. We thought it was a good sign that he was talking and just didn't want to leave home. But when we arrived at the emergency care facility, the way the staff activated to get him downstairs to the ICU, giving him top priority in the waiting room - well, clearly, in retrospect, the cries came from a painful place. After they stabilized him the vet on call met with us, told us that it was good we brought him when we did, that when she got to him he was "practically moribund." Heart. Breaking. Normal glucose levels are 70-110, his were at 20. His red blood cells were self-destructing. Why? What does this all mean???
What came next was a series of estimates, little meetings with the vet that left us more confused than before. All that I could understand was that there were so many things wrong with my cat that it was currently impossible to diagnose what was causing all of these system breakdowns. And that it would take about $7,000 and 5 days in the ICU/Internal Medicine in order to get the results to determine a diagnosis. Please note, that does not include a cure, it would only tell us what was wrong.
How do you determine what a life is worth? How much is too much to spend to save a being that lives to love you? How much time left would rationalize the cost - if they could give him a year, 5 years, a month? What if we spend the money on the tests only to find there is nothing that can be done to save him? These are the questions that hurt your heart, a cruel version of "Would you rather..." We compromised by asking to run the tests one at a time while keeping him stable on the IV. After the chest x-rays came back negative, we waited for ultrasound results. Gigi was forcing me to confront the possibilities, "What do you want to do? What do you want to tell them if there is nothing to be determined by the next round of tests, should we commit to all of them, to this unholy amount of money?" It was my decision but I wouldn't make it, I wouldn't discuss. I refused to say to Gigi what was in my heart of hearts, what I had known intuitively since Friday. I didn't want to jinx, I didn't want to make it real by uttering the words. I had been saying goodbye to my most beloved of cats each time I sat with him over the weekend, stroking him and whispering to him how much he was loved, how special he was.
And then the moment came, when I had to face reality. The vet brought us into the room one more time, showed us the ultrasound. Cancer everywhere, in the intestines, abdomen, lymph nodes and approaching the kidneys. Apparently it had been there, caused the weight loss, but his body and his strong little heart overcame as long as it could. Then in a matter of days, he was past the point of no return.
It all happened so quickly, I didn't understand at first that this meant we had to end his suffering, it was time. I think if Gigi weren't there I would have had a total breakdown. We were escorted downstairs to a room, the vet tech lowered the lights and brought my Eliot in on a soft, furry pillow. We were told to take as much time as we needed. More emotional conundrums - how much is enough time to say goodbye? How do you have the courage to say, "Ok, now?" With his glucose levels stabilized he was more alert, he purred hearing my voice and rested his head on my hand as I tried to be reassuring, holding back my sobs as best I could. I could have chosen not to be there when they administered the dose, Gigi would have stayed there for me, but I couldn't bear not to be there for him in his last moments, it was even worse than the alternative. Eliot still cried painfully, struggled to get up, his genes telling him it was time to slink away to a corner I'm sure. The vet was patient, gentle, explaining everything but I still wasn't prepared for how fast he went from purring under my hand to gone from this world.
When we got home I was numb, in shock, I think I still am. I tried Xanax for the first time and I understand its allure - it somehow blocks you, keeps you from accessing things that will upset you, I guess? It helped me sleep but I didn't really like it, I want to think about him, see him. It will take awhile for me to not get upset preparing one less bowl of food, wondering why I don't hear his morning meowing. But I think he deserves to be remembered right now, he was a beautiful soul who gave me so much comfort.
As I write I know I can't actually describe my feelings; whatever I write sounds cliched. I go back to Alfred J. Prufrock, my favorite line of the poem, the refrain that I've used to title this piece of writing.
I don't mean to make light of the many tragedies one can go through, losing a human loved one is certainly the ultimate loss, especially when it happens in an inhumane way. I was lucky to have Eliot in my life, lucky that he only had a few days of suffering during a lifetime of being cherished. I was also fortunate that I had several days to think about saying goodbye, and that I could be there comforting him in his last moments. I am nearly 38 years old, but I just grew up a little bit more, this experience has changed me. I still have 3 cats, a dog and the most amazing husband and they all give me so much love, each in their own way. But there is a little piece of my heart that will always be reserved for my sweet Eliot, and I'm quite sure I'll never love another cat the same way.