#441 To be loved from a distance

“Is it that he’s molting making all the fur stand up, or are his hips a bit more prominent than usual?” my husband asked me a few weeks ago, when looking at our cat with his tail up and nose down in his food bowl.

I didn’t know it then, but that turned out to be the beginning of the end.

Darcy had been looking a bit more… unkempt than usual. But he was not a super affectionate cat. He didn’t seek laps or bump your leg for scritches (only for food) and he always had a thick glossy coat on his large frame, so it was easy not to notice that he was losing weight. In fact, I didn’t take him to the vet because I thought he had lost an alarming amount of weight. I took him because I had discovered that he recently lost two canines and seemed to be having some trouble eating. I thought the two things were related so I wanted the vet to check his teeth and get some tips for getting him to eat now that chewing was a bit harder.

Turns out those two things weren’t related at all, but I didn’t know it yet either.

The vet pronounced his remaining teeth to be fine, but was unhappy at this weight. It turned out that he only weighed five kilos!

“Hahahahaha,” you might think. “Five kilos is fairly large cat still!” But Darcy was not a normal sized cat. I have no idea what feline genes he might have had in his mixed up background, but he was large. He made other normal cats look tiny in comparison. He ended up needing a medium size dog crate instead of the usual tiny cat carriers, and after the first few months I had to go shopping for a bigger litter box. His healthy weight was determined to be around seven kilos. When I first got him I couldn’t even figure out how much to feed him because cat food labels only go up to five kilo cat portions. It turns out that food portions do not scale in a linear fashion, I learned after he became two kilos overweight in his first year of living with me. Soon enough though I learned how to feed him correctly and the vet was impressed to see him clocking in at a steady seven kilos for years afterward given the prevalence of obesity in indoor-only pets.

And he was an indoor-only cat for much of his life. We were living in a rented apartment when we got him. There was a local feral cat colony that would have terrified him no doubt, and a busy street with fast traffic. I first had to convince The Mister to let me get a cat, and then I had to convince the landlord to allow it. The Mister never grew up with pets in the house and didn’t quite understand the compulsion. He likes animals well enough, but not, I think, necessarily the desire to share your life with one constantly. Whereas I grew up with the soft weight of paws making their way over my feet and legs before coming up to rest beside me on the bed. In the end we agreed on a compromise that I could get a cat but it would be my cat. My cat. my mess, my responsibility. I was ok with that. And I guess that’s what made Mr. Darcy so special to me. He was MY first cat.

My family had cats when we lived in the Soviet Union, but it’s not quite the same thing when you’re a child. I have only a vague recollection of the first one in my living memory – I called her Alice (or Алиса, to be more precise) because when I was five or six I went through a phase where I called everything I had Alice. My strongest memory of her is that she loved to sit on top the warm radiator in the kitchen corner, which just so happened to be right behind my usual chair, and preside over the proceedings at the dinner table. If I happened to move in such a way as to block her line of sight, she would let me know by gently putting her paw on my shoulder until I moved to the side to let her see the table once more. This became so normal to us that we occasionally forgot to remind unsuspecting guests about it until they had the misfortune to sit down in that corner seat and, half way through dinner, feel that soft weight of something on their shoulder when there should be nobody behind them.

Unfortunately, Alice was an all-black cat which was, of course, considered bad luck. Now, my mother was already a highly qualified PhD chemist by this time, well familiar with the scientific method, but even a scientist can be comforted by falling back on a old superstition when your black cat eventually runs away leaving your child heartbroken and then your handbag gets stolen right off your shoulder with your child’s black cat toy plushie inside it (also incidentally named Alice). So that was it, no more black cats for our family.

Our next cat was a calico kitten with the most adorable little black nose and a small patch of black fur right above that made the whole thing look like a drop of black ink had fallen onto the tip of her nose, turning it into the shape of a perfect black diamond. Thoroughly tired of my naming preference by this point, my parents insisted on the honour of christening her “Клякса”, or “Inkblot”, in honour of her funny nose. So Inkblot she became, delighting us with her kitten antics, sleeping with me under my covers, and generally being a very warm and loving kitty.

Sadly my relationship with Inkblot was not to be a long one either. Calico cats in Russia are considered to be the opposite of black cats – they bring good luck. And six months after Inkblot showed up in our lives she brought us the best sort of luck we could have asked for at the time – approval for an exit visa out of the Soviet Union after five years of being refuseniks. Unfortunately, Inkblot was not able to come with us, but the Soviet Union was more tolerant of cats than of Jews and she found a good home with family friends and lived a long and happy life there.

I had three dreams about growing up when I left Russia. I wanted to become an archaeologist. I wanted to learn to ride horses. And I wanted to have another cat. Unfortunately, what followed in America was a series of rental accommodation which did not permit pets, and by the time my parents finally bought their first home, I was off in college and travelling around and being generally absent from home and mum was not going to let me get a cat that would end up by default her responsibility. She had purchased her first brand new couch that she was proud of, and there was no way way she would allow it to be turned into a scratching post. Neither did the opportunity to learn how to ride a horse ever present itself, either from lack of funds or from a lack of nearby stables. And as for archaeology, I had chosen yet another course of study in college which was just as unprofitable for an easy income as archaeology.

So by the time I finished my studies and was living in Ireland, I had accomplished none of my childhood goals. I no longer had the pressing desire to dig up ancient civilisations, I still couldn’t afford to indulge in regular riding lessons and still had no nearby stables, but at some point, I realised that we had settled down in one place long enough that I began to wonder why I couldn’t attempt at having my own cat. So 24 years after leaving the Soviet Union, I finally took the step of getting my own furry feline. We joked at the time – maybe if we can adult well enough keep the cat alive, after a few years we can try for a baby?

Now, Mr Darcy was probably not the cat I would have chosen if we were living in the house we have now. Like most people who come to a cat shelter, I probably would have found myself an adorable kitten. Maybe I would have held out for a calico one even. But I had just invested a good deal of thought and effort into persuading our landlord that it was possible for us to have a cat without endangering the landlord’s furniture, and a part of my bargain had been the promise to avoid young and boisterous kittens that might take it into their tiny excitable heads to climb curtains. I had asked the shelter to show me a cat that they considered to be calm and relatively even tempered.

And so I was led to Mr. Darcy’s crate. Well….. he had another name given to him by the shelter that I no longer recall (The Mister tells me it was Hercules, for his size). He was already two years old, large, and had been found wandering in someone’s garden. Three months later, he was still in the animal shelter because he just wasn’t as cute as all the young cats around him and even though he wasn’t quite what I pictured having for my own cat, he seemed gentle, and calm and no one else seemed interested in giving him a home so we took him. He looked proud and majestic with his tuxedo colouring, and I had been going through a very strong Pride and Prejudice binge at the time, from the novel to the movies, which is how he ended up being named Mr. Darcy.

Turns out he wasn’t so much proud and dignified (exhibit 1 below) as scared of everything and supremely lazy (exhibit 2 below).

He was not the alpha cat that his size would have led one to believe. I did try taking him outside a few times, but he was terrified of the neighbour’s chihuahua which was about a quarter of his size. He occasionally liked to chase his own tail but would frighten himself into a cross-apartment sprint whenever he would catch and bite it. He was bulky enough to have no problem pushing open doors, but was not bright enough to figure it out, instead trying to hook his paw under a door to pull it which, inevitably, meant that he would always close it on himself. In fact, he only learned how to push doors open several years after we got him by following Hawkeye’s example when the enthusiastic toddler had learned to crawl around. As soon as Hawkeye started walking and discovered door handles, Darcy quickly forgot again and I frequently found him staring at a door, meowing plaintively, when all he had to do is push his big furry face against it. Mostly, he liked to lie on the couch, or on a chair pushed under the table where he would fall asleep and, occasionally, slide off.

One thing Darcy didn’t do though, is be very affectionate. Unlike Inkblot, he had no interest in crawling under the covers with me or sitting on my lap. In the ten years he lived with us, I can count on two hands the amount of times he voluntarily crawled into my lap of his own initiative. He hated being picked up. He hated having his paws touched. He hated even having his fur groomed. I tried in the first couple of years to get him to come onto my lap, to cuddle with him, and sometimes he would indulge me very briefly before taking the first opportunity to escape.

He did, however, begin to orbit around me. It was mum who noticed it one of her visits. He followed me from room to room. He would settle down on the couch about a foot away when I sat down. He liked to sleep on my pillow during the day. So the new joke became “he loves you from a distance”.

And that’s what he did for ten years, four months, and eleven days. He didn’t let me come very close to him, but he hung around me, hid in our laundry, and when we had been living in our own house for a year and decided to allow him to explore the back yard, he would often come when I called him if he was within hearing distance. Even when demonstrating his displeasure, he was incredibly gentle for all his size. Over the years I have had to hold him down to trim his claws, give him medicine, brush loose cat hair from him, get him into his crate for vet trips, even bathe him on two memorable occasions. He struggled and twisted this way and that and occasionally his paws might have scratched at me with extended claws, but never with the intent to actually attack me, only by accident in his struggle to escape. When he truly wanted to express his displeasure calmly, he would bat at us with his claws retracted. He nipped me dozens of times with his teeth but never once drew blood. His instinct was always to retreat and to run, never to fight against us, though I did once see him viciously chase a stray cat that had the temerity to stroll into our garden.

When the vet sent me home a couple of weeks ago, having put me on notice about his alarming weight loss, we decided to start from the least invasive option to figure out the problem and work our way from there. I chucked out all my rules about his diet and and gave him anything and everything he showed interest in. Slices of ham, small bits of raw pork, tinned tuna, wet cat food, dry food crushed and mixed with water and other minced cat food. It didn’t take us long to realise that his teeth (or lack of some of them) weren’t the problem. He was clearly hungry, sitting in front of his bowl forlornly, but not eating much of what was in there. Anything I could get him interested in only held his interest briefly. I joked that it reminded me of the early days of my pregnancy but internally I was panicking.

We went back to the vets for the next step which was blood tests. The results were a mix of good and bad news. The good news was that everything looked normal. The bad news? It was all normal. Whatever the problem was, the vet suspected now, was likely chronic. Yes, she said, there’s a small chance that maybe it’s something with a surgical solution, like an obstruction, but her professional instincts were saying otherwise and the next day he was back for an ultrasound scan.

There was no good news after that.

The words were said with sympathy and regret but they were incontrovertible:

Thickening of the stomach wall.

Likely tumour.

No space for food.

Worst case the vet technician has ever seen.

It was confirmation of my fears that had been steadily growing as I watched the already-aloof cat I knew retreat further into himself. He stopped going upstairs and hanging out on our bed. He hid under the kitchen table, behind the laundry rack, or in the entry way. And no matter how much he stared at his food bowl in hope, no matter what I put in it, how often I refilled it or refreshed it, he would never manage to eat more than a little bit at a time, looking nothing like his sleek former self by the time the vet confirmed that he was down to 4.5 kilos and there was nothing that could be done to treat it.

Ten years, four months, and eleven days he orbited around me and loved me from a distance. And for ten years, four months, and eleven days I tried to love him from close up as much as he let me, but even in his last days he resisted. He still enjoyed being petted and scratched but refused to stay on couches and beds or any other place where we would have normally indulged in such comforts. Selfishly, I could not bring myself to spend his last days sitting with him on the cold floor under the kitchen table, so I risked his displeasure enough to cat-handle him up to our bedroom where we found a compromise. He squeezed himself into a narrow dark crevice between the bed frame and the bedside locker – a space he would probably not fit into at his full weight. Even now, looking nothing more than a furry sack full of bones, he had to work to turn around in there after wedging himself head first. I spread myself out on the bed and hung my head and arms off the side, scratching him under the chin, and behind the ears and the top of his head – his favourite places. And despite all his efforts to resist getting up there, once settled in he leaned his head into my hand as he always did and quietly purred away, napping occasionally in between small snacks of tuna that I set out on the floor in front of him.

He resisted being handled all the way to the end. Even in the vet’s office, I could hear him yowling his displeasure at being sedated. And ever after heavy sedation, his eyes blown wide from the effects of the drugs and not feeling much of anything (I was assured), he yowled his displeasure at having his paws touched so that the vet could insert the IV line. But he stilled as soon as I got my hands back on him, scratching his ears and under his chin as he got his final injection.

I thanked the vet for for all their care of him. “We can give you a card with his paw prints, if you would like? Or a lock of his fur for a memento,” she offered me. I stroked the still form on the table, reluctant to let go.

“I…. have quite a lot of his fur all over the house, actually,” I demurred, joking weakly. “So that’s ok. But… the paw prints sound nice?”

She assured me that they would do that and send them to me. And then she left me for my last good bye. I stroked his paws, still for the first time under my touches since he never let me stroke them patiently while he was alive. I cradled his head, unable to really grasp the complete stillness. I even thought I heard his purr for a moment but then realised it was the rustle of my sweater against the table. Finally, I pulled off my face mask and kissed his head gently, resting my head against his for a quiet moment before leaving the office.

The receptionist was quiet as she took payment, and repeated the offer of a lock of his fur or a card with his pawprints. I opened my mouth to repeat my answer when I realised he did in fact, leave me with a parting gift.

“pwatththth” I lisped, trying to clear my mouth. I had, of course, picked up some of his cat hair on my mouth and it was now firmly plastered to the inside of my facemask, tickling my mouth and nose.

“Just the paw prints, please,” I replied, unsuccessfully trying to de-shed my face with some sort of dignity without removing my mask. A quiet sort of feline revenge for a quiet sort of cat who loved quietly.

Goodbye, Darcy.

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