Wednesday, September 12, 2012

in which we help Mama Cat utilize one of his nine lives

Mama Cat was named before we knew he was a boy, when we thought he was a female because he was so much smaller than the Big Bruiser who was hanging around our property when we moved here.  There were a lot of cats around who looked like Mama Cat, so we figured that s/he was their Mama.  Hence the unimaginative name.  The Big Bruiser had feline leukemia and had to be put down in the spring of 2008, and after that, Mama Cat came around a lot more.  At first he would run whenever he saw us.  Then he gradually started to trust us, and was able to figure out the correlation between us being around, and food being in the dishes outside.  Finally he let us pet him.

He's secure enough in his masculinity that he has never minded being called Mama Cat.

Mama Cat is a fighter.  His fur is bristly and regularly matted down with blood from the cuts he gets when he scrapes with other cats, or the raccoons.  Mama Cat knows our schedule and waits by the door for me to bring him wet food, and even as I'm pouring it into his dish, he hisses at me.  Mama Cat doesn't purr very often.  Sometimes several days at a time will go by without us seeing Mama Cat, but then he'll make an appearance, sometimes with a fresh cut, and we continue to feed him his favorite turkey and cheese meal.

Mama Cat resists being trapped and taken in to get neutered.  He's sat by and watched at least four other cats get caught in the trap, and he's wise to it.  It breaks our heart that he continues to live a difficult life with so much fighting, but we're a little afraid of him anyway, and I can't imagine how we can trap him now that he so clearly understands how the trap works.

A few years ago Mama Cat got an infection behind his ear, probably from a fight he was in.  He came around with an enormous bump on the side of his head, and we proceeded to try to heal him.  We put a heating pad on a piece of outdoor furniture where he would lay to keep warm, even though he was feverish.  We made a little shelter for him, and he didn't leave our deck for two days.  Eventually his infection broke, the wound healed, and he was back to his old self.  There have been at least three times so far where we were convinced that Mama Cat was on his way out. We say goodbye to him, and prepare ourselves for his death.  And then he'll go away for a few days, and come back, wondering why we're making such a fuss over him, and why we won't just put out some cream for pete's sake.

Last Wednesday we were again certain that this was it for Mama Cat.  He came up to the deck leaking blood and shit.  It looked gruesome - like someone had taken a bite out of his ass, literally.  He stunk of crap and death.  He was weak and his head was falling into the water dish.  He could barely make it up onto the lounger.  He would drag his ass and leave streaks of shit everywhere.  It was 11pm and we didn't know what to do for him.  Do we try to trap him and take him in to be put down?  It seemed a horrible way for him to die - Mama Cat, who always ran free and has never been in a car, having to drive 45 minutes to the 24-hour emergency hospital.  I know the actual act of dying might have been kinder to him, but getting there would have been torture.  No, it seemed like the best thing we could do was try to make him as comfortable as possible, keep his water and food nearby, and let him know he was loved.  Jonathan fell asleep on the deck with Mama Cat, and came back to bed in the middle of the night when Mama left.

All day Thursday he was gone, and we figured that he had walked into the woods to die.  At least, that was what we hoped for - a peaceful death for our friend.

Thursday night we looked out on the deck at the little cat carrier we put out with blankets when it gets cold, so the feral cats have somewhere to get cozy.  Mama Cat was in it, sleeping, still looking dazed, and still an enormous mess in his butt region.  Wow, we thought.  Mama made it through the day.  We again made sure he had water and food, and he allowed us to give him a lot of love.

Friday morning he was still on the deck, though not in the carrier.  Just sleeping by himself on the wood.  By mid-morning he had enough strength to go up on a piece of furniture.  Jonathan went out to sit with him, and within a few minutes, Mama Cat had cuddled in, and was laying on J's lap.

This was unprecedented behavior for Mama Cat, who barely ever lets us pet him.  Suddenly he was becoming a lap cat.  We were happy to be able to love on him (though we always washed our hands very thoroughly after petting him), but we thought it must be a sign that things were worse with him, if he was willing to be so vulnerable with us.

Friday night we noticed that he was starting to bathe his wound, and we were able to look at it more clearly.  All his parts were still there, so that was a good sign.  We thought maybe he just had a horrible infection that got out of hand, or something.

He still wasn't eating or drinking though, which worried us.  Cats need fresh water often - a vet explained to me once that a cat will die if they don't have water in what seems to me like a very short time - it was something like just 24 hours or so.  It's actually a preventative mechanism to keep them from starving to death - if there is no water available, there probably isn't much food either, and they start to shut down very quickly.

We were with him almost constantly all weekend, taking shifts of spending time with him.  We still thought that he was going to die, and that he had honored us by wanting to spend his final hours with us, and we were going to take that job seriously.  We weren't going to let him die alone.  We were committed to being there for him, however long he needed us, petting him and being part of this sacred journey that he was on.  Both Saturday and Sunday nights one or both of us slept on the deck with him.  We fell asleep on the lounger with him between us.  We picked fleas off of him so that he would be more comfortable and not have to scratch himself.  We picked the scabs of his old wounds off so that they wouldn't itch.  We rubbed his back and his legs.  We thought about what we like when we're sick, and we tried to do those things for him.

By Sunday morning Mama Cat was eating the gravy from a can of wet food, though he wasn't eating the food itself.  He would lick up the gravy, and then look at the food, poking at it with his foot, sniffing it, but not eating any.  We were happy with the gravy, though.  We kept track of the amount he was eating - every four hours or so he would get up, drink some water, look at us expectantly, wait while we got a can of food, lick the gravy, then stretch out and lay in the sun for a bit, and then go back to his comfortable chair.

At one point I sat down with him, and he rolled into me so that his back was against my leg.  I reached down and scratched his legs, and he lifted his head up for chin-scratches.  He was looking right into my eyes, and his expression had the most love, understanding, and depth that I've ever experienced from any living thing.  I could be anthropomorphizing him and just imagining the whole scene, but I swear, all the questions in the universe were answered in his face.

We still didn't think he was out of the woods yet, but we could see that he was fighting for his life.  One time while I was loving on him, I told him that he could stop fighting if he wanted to.  He had spent his whole life fighting.  Feral cats in the mountains generally live about 3 years.  They get eaten by coyotes, or they starve or get sick within that time period.  Mama Cat is at least six years old - he was fully grown when we moved here five years ago.  So he has been a scrappy fellow who has fought for every breath he was taking.  He did have us looking out for him, but that didn't stop him from taking care of himself his own way.  I wanted him to know that if he wanted to give up the fight, we were ok with it, and we would miss him, but we would understand.

I spent a lot of time thinking over the weekend while I was sitting with Mama Cat, stroking his skeletal body, which seemed to be shrinking away before my eyes.  I asked him why he thought he had to fight so badly.  Why couldn't he have just spent his life living in our woods, getting food on our deck, sleeping in the shelters we make for the feral cats?  Why wouldn't he let us take him to the vet and get him fixed so that he didn't need to fight so much?  Why did he make it such a struggle?  And then I thought that I could probably ask myself the same questions.  Why do we all make life so hard?  Why do we think it has to be such a struggle?  I wondered whether God ever wanted to shake us and tell us to stop fighting so badly, to accept all the gifts and love that are available to us, and to just be loved.

Early Monday morning I went to the pet store to see if there was any high-nutrition gravy I could give him.  If he was going to fight for more life, we were going to help him.  They recommended kitten food as the most high-calorie and fatty, and I also got some nutrient paste that they give finicky cats.  It made me so happy on Monday afternoon to see him eating the kitten food, and then looking up, giving me a little meow, asking for more.

Tuesday he ate about five times throughout the day, including some cream (note: giving cats cream or milk is really not good for their tummies.  They can't digest it properly.  Pet stores do sell milky products that you can give your pets.  I still give Mama Cat cream because he loves it).

And today, a full week from when he showed up leaking every kind of bodily fluid imaginable, he is comfortably laying on his cushion outside.  His tummy is full - today alone he's had two full cans of wet food, two cups of dry kitten food, and a few splashes of heavy whipping cream.  When we pet him now, we can't feel his individual ribs.  He is purring, and his breathing is even and deep.  He has cleaned himself up, and since he hasn't left our deck in five days, he hasn't been out fighting, and he looks like a handsome fellow with a shiny coat (though it's sprinkled with gray) and his eyes are bright.

I don't know how much more time we'll get with Mama Cat.  This winter might be too much for him.  Or maybe he will continue to hang on to life and we'll get another few years with him.  But I do know a couple of things.  I know that if a little creature comes to your door needing help, and you drop your plans and help it, it will be so much more rewarding than anything else you had planned.  We've been through something profound, the three of us.  Both J and I have been touched by the sacredness of spending that time with Mama Cat, when his life easily could have ended.  I'm so happy for Mama Cat now because even if he does pass away sooner rather than later, he has been vulnerable with us, and has received more love in the past week than many cats will ever receive in their lifetimes.  He has loved us, and for the past few days at least, he has accepted our love.

And that is a lesson that many of us humans, with our bigger brains and opposable thumbs, could stand to learn.

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