Thursday, March 29, 2012

For Absent Friends, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

By the next morning the storm passed and the cleanup began. Over the next few days however, I noticed a dramatic change in Pumpkin. Since the marital unit was stranded on the West Coast, morning food duties fell on me. Pumpkin, much to my surprise, was not running away but instead waited to be picked up and placed in front of the food. During the evening, she would come up to me and allow me to pet her and pick her up. Clearly, this was a changed cat. I was shocked and pleased at the same time. Perhaps our surviving the hurricane formed a trust bond that I had waited years for. It was truly like night and day after the storm. Gone was the cat who would run away at the first sight of me. Here was a cat who suddenly wanted a heck of a lot of attention. Stunning me even further was the fact that she would let me hold her for a longer period of time. This was unheard of! Even allowing me to hold her for a whole minute without being scratched up was a completely different behavior for her. But I was happy. I was careful not to push things. I would leave her alone for awhile and see if this sudden bonding would continue.

A week later the marital unit finally returned home. The first thing she noticed, after being gone 3 weeks, was that Pumpkin looked thinner. Now, we are talking about a 12 pound cat; a loss of 1 or 2 pounds may not be as noticeable as it would be on a bigger animal. Also, her appetite was no different than before. She ate her food and would welcome the occasional treat here and there. Her behavioral change towards me was noticeable, but we both assumed that this was because I was here during the hurricane and kept everyone calm.

As we entered the middle of October, an event one evening clearly told us that something was very wrong. I was getting ready for bed and as I went to lie down, up came Pumpkin onto the bed. Now this usually happened when my wife was there and she would stay next to her and avoid me. But this time I was there alone. Pumpkin proceeded to climb on top of my chest and sat down. Just sat and purred. She had the sound of a car motor when she purred and she simply sat there. I called to my wife to come into the room.

"Look at this...something is wrong here. She NEVER does this" I said.

"I will make an appointment with the vet” my wife replied. “Let's find out what’s up”.

Clearly this cat, who as I said, understood English, knew the word "vet". She immediately jumped off and darted downstairs. "Well, so much for bonding", I exclaimed.

The initial trip to the vet yielded some terrible news. Pumpkin had dropped nearly 5 pounds. Her thyroid was not balanced, something that does occur with cats 10 years and older (she was 12). An immediate change in her diet was prescribed, as well as the administering of medication either in liquid or pill forms. Neither option was pleasing to us...or to her. The new food was not palatable; the medication, which was a compound solution, even less. She avoided it at all costs. The other option, a pill, would have to be forced down her throat. Now, unlike the dogs, who welcome food of any kind - pills...bread...popcorn...protein powder (don't ask), pantyhose (please don't ask),fire extinguisher (no, really, do not ask!) cats are less likely to ingest a pill on cue. Pumpkin was no different. The pill giving turned into a fiasco. First, we had to capture her. By the second time, all the "good will" I had accumulated was gone. Then, we had to wrap her in a towel like a burrito so that she would not scratch us when we gave her the pill. Then, we had to take a pill shooter, which looked like a miniature AK-47, and put it into her mouth, shoot the pill and hope she did not spit it out. Plus we had to do this right before bed and first thing in the morning. Sometimes we got lucky, as we managed to wrap her in the towel and get the pill into her. Other times, she ran for it and hid under the bed. When we did get her, this non vocal cat began to let out loud screaming meows. I am glad the ASPCA was not around; from the sound of it, you would think we were torturing her. In her mind, we probably were. In our mind, she had to do this because she had to get better. There was no choice. She had to. She was in charge.

After nearly three weeks of towels and pills, Pumpkin reached her breaking point. She hid the minute either one of us came around. Believe me; this cat had some amazing hiding places. Eventually, she barricaded herself inside a cardboard box. We finally were able to crush the pill and mix it into her regular food (the special diet was not a success). She ate in her box and stayed there, coming out only when we had left the room. She also looked as if she was still losing weight.

Another vet visit yielded more bad news. While the thyroid had stabilized, her red blood cell count was dropping, and it was starting to affect her kidneys. With both of us not around, it was decided to hospitalize her for a week. There, she would get round the clock care, along with the meds she needed. Her food would be changed again; this time she would need to eat it either voluntarily or through a syringe. A new set of pills would be required and with her weight dropping, she would need to be hydrated on a daily basis. With both of us working 14-16 hour days, we asked the vet if one of the techs could come and assist us. Wrapping Pumpkin in a burrito was bad enough. Sticking a needle in her would really be totally unbearable and really make her hide from us.

As the days went by, Pumpkin began to come out more often (by now, the towel and AK-47 were long gone) and stay upstairs with us. What was a once-in-a-lifetime moment became a nightly occurrence, as she would come up on the bed and sit with both of us, or even just me. I would lie on my back and she would come and sit on my chest for a good 15-30 minutes. The closeness and bonding that I had wished would happen for many years was finally happening...except that it was happening for some very different reasons. Pumpkin was sick. She knew it. We knew it. She didn’t want to be alone.

Thanksgiving led into the Christmas holiday. My wife had planned to go to Florida and I stayed up North to work and care for Pumpkin, who by now was upstairs 24/7. I had set up a kitty cat medical center; IV hooks on the door, a recirculating water bowl, additional litter boxes, blankets and towels, food bowls, water in every room. We had even found that the pet stores sold "CatSure", a type of Ensure, but for felines. We gave her that hoping that it would help put weight on her until these meds began to work. Every night Pumpkin would be on the bed or close by and would let me pick her up and hold her. This cat, who 4 months earlier would not give me the time of day, now made it a point every night of coming over to me and waiting to sit on my chest. I probably inside knew what was happening; I just did not want to admit it. As tired as I was, I sat with her every night until she decided it was time to jump down and go sleep on her blanket or drink some water. The one thing I had waited for - wanted for so long - to bond with Pumpkin - came with the heaviest of hearts and inner grief. I cried us both to sleep most nights. When I didn’t cry, I spoke to her. On the night after Christmas I thanked her for sharing this time with me, for trusting me to keep her safe, and I told her that I would do all that I could to make her well. But if she was not going to get well, that she would be going to a better place and that she would be re-united with her brother (Sergeant, her other pal, had passed in 2004; she was very close to him too). I also told her a story about 3 young children who did not have a good Christmas (they had perished in a house fire Christmas morning in Connecticut) but in Heaven would probably love to take care of Pumpkin, and she in turn would give them the joy they sadly missed out on. I know she understood. She listened to me and sat and purred. I so did not want to let go of her. I asked her... "Who would run things if you're gone?"

We were all home when 2011 became 2012. Pumpkin stayed upstairs (her brothers and sister went up to visit her) and we had a vet appointment scheduled for Monday the 2nd of January. We were going to ask the vet about the possibility of a blood transfusion to see if that as a last ditch effort could maybe turn things around. The problem was that we still did not know what the underlying cause of her illness was; the red blood cell count drop was brought on by the thyroid issue which was brought on by who-knows-what. Until the main cause is treated, the complications were going to continue. We cancelled our yearly trip to Atlantic City and stayed with Pumpkin, who by now was barely eating. She had energy, as she continued to walk around and jump up on the bed. But most of that was probably done for our benefit. It seemed that she was now simply living for us.

The next morning (after she once again climbed on my chest and sat there for much of the morning) we took Pumpkin to the vet. The news was not good. Her weight was down to a dangerous level, her blood levels low. She was not eating, and did not have any energy to even run away from the vet (as she normally did). As expected, the transfusion was not an option that would do anything more than buy us an additional week at most. Despite all our efforts the decision was clear. We had to let her go.

I held her in my arms one last time, and whispered in her ear to remember what I told her and not to be scared. I told her that mom and I loved her very much and that we were lucky to have her be a part of our lives for the last 12 years. How helpless I felt. All I could do was try to comfort her and let her know that her last moments on earth were spent surrounded by those who loved her more than anything. I thought of how close we had become, and how much I blessed I was to have experienced that closeness.

I stroked her head and told her to just relax. "Close your eyes and go to sleep. Just sleep".

The vet answered "I think she already is". In less than a minute it was over. She was at peace.

When we came home that morning I immediately dismantled the makeshift medical center. The IV bags and pills were returned to the vet. The bowls and dishes were thrown away; the unused food and Temptations were returned to the store, along with the unopened cans of CatSure and the drinking fountain. We posited that Pumpkin would be pleased to know she was saving us $177 but all the stuff had to be taken down immediately. That's how I am. I did not want to have it staring me in the face every time I came upstairs. The emptiness in the house was enough. The visual reminders would be too much to bear.

About 2 months have since passed. My heart still hurts and there is an emptiness at home that cannot be explained or properly put into words. I still work about 14-16 hours a day so sometimes I do not think about it. But in the morning when I come downstairs I still catch myself looking for her. Her brothers have by now figured out that she isn't coming back home. Her sister has become a lot more vocal (she always did have a big meow but now she is almost as loud as an alarm clock!) which I think is her way of grieving. Remy looks around for her even 2 months later. But the one I worry for the most is Major. He really has slowed down a lot and just sits around. I know he misses her terribly. I try to cheer him up as much as I can but sometimes I can see the sadness in his eyes. I challenge anyone who says that animals have no soul or no feelings. These three unique personalities have and still mourn their missing sister. As do I.

I sometimes think back and wonder if we could have done anything differently. Did we take her to the vet early enough? Did we give her enough of the right food? Did we make things worse by forcing the pills on her? I ask so many questions and I do not have any of the answers. I do know that my heart still hurts, but I am able to take comfort that for those few months, that Pumpkin and I were able to forge a very close bond, and that it was me she chose to come to when she was not feeling well. I can only hope that somehow I was able to make her feel a little better. I will treasure those times that we spent, the joys she brought to all our lives, the happiness that she gave just by walking into a room. We will laugh at the time she tried to jump on the kitchen table and missed; the look on her face when she knew she was going to fall back down was totally priceless. We will smile when we think how she tried to escape on the deck and (being an indoor cat) got so disoriented that her brother had to go out on the deck and direct her back inside. We will remember how she loved to eat olives, how she hid under the bed for 2 weeks when we first got Remy, how she would try to chase the laser pointer on the wall, How she would sit in front of the TV and watch the Tampa Bay Rays baseball games, how she had no interest for artificial or real mice, and how she managed to make us smile when we needed it most. I consider myself lucky to have been able to share her life.

She will not be forgotten. "Our leader is gone, but our mission lives on" is listed as the caption on the top of this page. And so our mission will go on. Neither the twitter name nor the blog will have a name change. It will now be there to honor her and to remember the blessing that she was. And who knows...I may still write those children’s books after all!

Friday, March 23, 2012

For Absent Friends, Part 1

I looked around the room. Someone had to be put in charge.

It was another typical mid summer afternoon, and as I stared at the four non-working breathing bodies in my kitchen, I realized that one of them needed to be put in charge of the others. Two dogs and two cats - all getting along harmoniously but clearly meandering without direction. But who to put in charge? I looked at my options... Myself and the marital unit worked long hours every day so clearly we could not be counted on to be in charge throughout the day.

There was Major, the black labrador, who was already the self-professed "head of security" of the house. He, as he had claimed “canine seniority” could be in charge, but he was already starting to slow down a bit. He was turning 7, getting a bit grey in the fur, and starting to develop cataracts. Plus since he was my best buddy, I did not want any issues of favoritism.

Then there was Remy, the newest member of the household. A yellow labrador, he was energetic (a year younger than Major). But he had his own issues. He was completely ADD, found it hard to focus and was distracted easily. Plus he had just recovered from ACL surgery, and really was teased by his brother and sisters, who constantly called him "Cone Head" and "Lamp Shade Head" when he was wearing his protective collar to keep him from opening his stitches. So not a good fit there.

Next there was Miko, the somewhat chubby (3rd largest cat in NJ) calico cat, with the big mouth and even bigger appetite. Talk about favoritism! Miko would let me pick her up on her hind legs, and dance to "Hey Baby" by No Doubt (before there was the song, she clearly had the moves like Jagger...or maybe it was Kate Smith...anyway I digress), allow me to pick her up (two handed) over my head as if she were a groundhog declaring six more weeks of winter, and basically twist her into rather uncomfy dance positions. Never did I ever get scratched by her, which was quite a miracle. In addition, she did have a bit of a catnip addiction, enough that I was tempted to put her into rehab. Clearly, she was not an option. In fact, I was running out of options.

At this point, making her grand entrance into the kitchen, in walked Pumpkin. She was Miko's sister, although not nearly as plump and definitely not as loud. She wasn’t very vocal at all. Barely a sound would come out of her mouth when she opened it. What she lacked in vocal ability, she made up in presence. She observed everything when she walked into a room, giving a quick stare at you if it seemed something incorrect was going on. She was rather close with the “head of security”, often spending leisurely Sunday afternoons stretched out on the bed with him in the sunlight snoozing away, or giving him a late evening massage (well, he was getting old and achy), but there's was a special close bond. Rarely do cat and dog agree on anything, let alone become close pals. These two were joined at the hip. Many a morning I would find ol' Pumpkin curled up right next to Major, snoozing away. I sometimes felt bad that I had to disturb them to feed them. Oh, they were close, and maybe it would lead to Remy and Miko questioning the choice, but clearly, I found who was going to take charge of this motley crew.

"Pumpkin, you're in charge" I told her.

She acted non-plussed.

"You will be responsible for resolving all disputes, settling issues, liasioning between the canine and feline community in this house. You will report to the human community any issues and your resolution to them."

As expected, no comment from Pumpkin. In fact, she proceeded to walk away and use the litter box. As if to comment to me on what she thought of my decision to put her in charge. Clearly I was not getting through.

"What do you want? You're not getting paid for this there something you want? "

Dead silence. At least she washed her paws after using the litter box, a habit her sister had seemed to forget these past few weeks.

"What do you want? You are already treated like a queen here, you're "dating" the head of security, you get futomaki (long, thick rolls of sushi covered in seaweed and rice) every other month or so. What else do you want? Do you want a title?"

Finally, a barely audible meow. I had clearly hit on something.

"Fine, a title you shall get. You know what? In fact, I will take it a step further. I will give you your own organizational title. I have no idea what you are going to do with it, but it’s all yours. You will be in charge of this group of non-working breathing bodies...that's it - the Pumpkin Group...there is your title. Happy?"

A more audible meow. By audible, you could hear it if the TV was off and there was no traffic outside. But it did sound like a peep of affirmation.

"Fine. There you go. The Pumpkin Group. Now go do your job."

She proceeded to leave the room and go to sleep in the foyer. Great. Some leader. But at least I had put someone in charge and could report back to the marital unit that chaos would no longer reign, that order was restored, and that harmony would prevail.

I was satisfied with the choice I made. Another reason I was satisfied was because there could be no call of favoritism. Because Pumpkin did not like me.

Okay, maybe that is a bit harsh. It's not like she hated me, or organized some group resistance plan. Pumpkin simply stayed away from me. She would not let me pick her up (not even to feed her). Catching her in order to take her to the vet was often a Cecile B. DeMille production. The only time where I was able to pick her up was when she was with Major in his cage or in the living room. At least then I could pick her up...not that I could hold her very long...within seconds she was squirming and doing her best (including scratching) to be put down. My better half had better luck (after all Pumpkin was her cat, and lived with her for years before I showed up) with Pumpkin jumping on her desk or during dinner, but to me, I was clearly persona non grata. It was a rare...and I do mean rare occasion when she did not run away from me at top speed if I made a move to try and even pet her.

That didn’t mean she was shy. Photos are abound of Pumpkin watching television, trying to use the computer, hanging with her buddy (Major), or lounging on the cat tree. But I was never able to make that close connection like I did with the other members of the ensemble. Clearly, "Miss Independent" was the perfect choice for the new “kitty-in-charge”. The Pumpkin Group was born. Normalcy would be restored.

With a new set of responsibilities and a corresponding company title, Pumpkin (who I clearly believe understood English) warmed up to her role rather quickly. If Remy went out of line, she smacked him across the snout (which is quite funny when you think about it; a 12 pound cat smacking a 75 pound dog in the face!) and put him in his place. She kept Miko from eating too much by shoving (more or less) her away from the food bowl (she was less lucky with the catnip problem, since she too was a user, but more of a 'recreational' user!), and even making sure Major was not shirking his security responsibilities (although her methods with him were much more affectionate than with anyone else – no big surprise there!). Things were working well. I also did my best to make sure that she got some name recognition. I mean, the name did sound rather official. I remember sending away for some catalogs and when it asked for the company name, I simply put down "The Pumpkin Group". Next thing I know, a few sample pens arrived in my mailbox.

"How cute...Pumpkin, look...we got some company we can spread the word...we can invite others to become charter members of 'TPG' (as I sometimes called it)...we are going to go global!”

Pumpkin looked at the pen. Clearly, it was not something she could find a use for. It was not the game changing moment I hoped for. We were really no closer.

Over the months, I tried to find unique ways to use "The Pumpkin Group". Many times I would tell the story of how the name came to be to some of my co-workers, along with some of the cuter pictures of her that I was able to get. Despite running away from me, she never ran away from a camera, and was a very photogenic cat. It was about 2009 that I decided to give her a more media friendly nickname. Figuring that the singer "P Diddy" was changing his name again for about the 300th time, and seeing as he had no problem borrowing other people's music for his own use, I decided to borrow his with a small twist:

"Hey, P-Kitty!" I exclaimed one morning.

"Eehhha" was the reply. It was audible. I assumed that this was a meow of agreement. After that, we used "Pumpkin" and P-Kitty" interchangeably. I thought of letting P Diddy know about it, but figured he would not be interested. Or he'd sue me for the cat, one or the other. I also decided that multimedia was the way to go, and so "The Pumpkin Group" got expanded into cyberspace. I purchased the domain name, and decided on using the name (and corresponding photo) for my twitter handle. Why not? It sounded good, and allowed some of the cuter photos to get posted on the web and to go viral. I also figured that if Pumpkin wasn’t happy with all this attention, she simply could delete the account, since she knew how to "use" the computer, mouse and all. I did not hear of any objection, and so on the World Wide Web we went. I figured this would lead to another idea I had...a children’s book about two cats who get into some extraordinary cat, the slightly rotund slow one who gets into trouble, and the other one, the 'brains' of the outfit, who manages to always get the pair out of trouble, resulting in a truly fun adventure! I'd send them to Paris, to Las Vegas, to a haunted castle. It was an idea I really wanted to try to expand on.

Summers turned into winters, which turned back into spring. Remy was back at 100 percent as his leg healed well and he seemed to put his "skunking" incident of the prior fall behind him. Major, now approaching 10 years old, which is a pretty old for a purebred with medical issues, was slowing down a lot. His title of “chief of security” seemed to be more ceremonial in nature. Pumpkin spent a lot more time with him as he spent most of his days snoozing in the sun. Miko was still festively plump, and everything seemed well. Major managed to get through the harsh winter of 2010/2011 which left over 4 feet of snow in the yard at one point despite getting stuck in the snowdrifts a couple of times. The marital unit and I were both working long long days through the spring and summer, often 6 days a week. Many nights I would come home at midnight and pet the wife and kiss the dog (or was it the other way around; sometimes I was so tired I am not sure I got it right!). I figured all was well, Pumpkin had things under control, no one was complaining, no one was on strike, and things were fine. A totally innocuous comment in the late summer by the marital unit barely registered a pause on my part:

"Pumpkin looks like she dropped a pound or two...she looks a bit thinner".

I took a quick look at her as she was munching on some Temptations. "She looks the same to me". I barely saw her or the others for a few minutes a night. When you are around someone constantly, it is much harder to notice changes in weight. The only time we had ever noticed a weight change was 6 years earlier, when Major dropped 40 pounds from 115 to 75 pounds over the summer. That was noticeable but we (and our vet) quickly attributed it to the arrival of his athletic younger brother Remy (who we got as a rescue dog that June). I noticed no difference. My attention was on the television, as a hurricane over the gulf waters was gaining strength and forecasters were projecting its course to make some sort of landfall with the North East coastline. Ironically, the hurricane had the same name as the marital unit, who was heading out of town to see her mom and celebrate her birthday in the Northwest US. I would be here with a possible weekend storm headed our way. She was due to return the Monday after, but I had a feeling that would not be the case.

As Irene (the marital unit) left for the safety and tranquility of the West Coast, Irene (the hurricane) was on a path directly for New York and New Jersey. The area had already been inundated with water from the winter and spring rains, plus a series of thunderstorms the previous weekend left 5 inches of rain in its path. The grounds were saturated and the storm was headed right for us. Expecting 10-15 inches of rain and a loss of power, I spent the day before the storm placing everything in the basement on high ground, moving outdoor furniture and plants indoors, and making sure that all the flashlights had batteries and an escape route (if evacuation was needed) was planned and mapped out. Chief among my concern would be having to catch Pumpkin, she a member of the "I can hide under the bed and you can't” club, which I feared would prove nearly impossible. However, I knew I would not leave unless I had her (along with everyone else) safe and sound. As the storm approached and the torrential rains came down, the lights flickered, but never gave. I figured the safest place was in the main bedroom upstairs. I figured the dogs would stay up there with me. They did, although only Remy would spend the entire night pressed up right against me on the bed. What surprised me was who else spent the night upstairs. Yes, it was Pumpkin who alternated between the floor and the other side of the bed. We have had storms before but this one was relentless lasting for nearly 15 hours. Still, we toughed it out and Pumpkin not only stayed on the bed, but actually allowed me to stroke her and rub the top of her head. This was a rare event. Naturally I attributed it to the fear factor of the rain and wind. Thinking back now, perhaps that wasn’t the case.

(Part 2 to follow)