It seems clear that Flora — AKA Screamy Cat — is in her last days. I took some time off this weekend, am still, and beyond Netflix marathons, it’s mostly been spent caring for her. She’s at the point where walking is clearly painful due to weakness, and getting her to eat or drink is a trial, at best, even after I went and made her a batch of the homemade food all the cats I have ever had have snarfed like nobody’s business when ill. She’s always been tiny, never weighing more than 9 pounds, but now she’s down to five.
About a month ago, we had a crap confluence of pet events around here that seems to have begun with flea season here on the island, something we were totally unprepared for, and so they basically caught us unprepared and seized their moment, investing all the pets and causing all of us to itch for weeks. I still have scabs on my ankles just from how thick they were outside in the grass. It’s nuts. So, she got the fleas, then also got a UTI, at the same time one of her nails had a bad injury. That meant a bunch of different meds, and I think all of that, combined with her age, was just too much for her. The vet tested her for everything, and save that UTI, which went away, there is nothing technically wrong with her. She’s just really damn old.
People who know us well know that Flora is really a goldfish.
Around 1992, when I first opened the little alternative school that I ran for a few years, one of my very first wee students came into the place I had set up and created with such care, looked around, then announced, “This is not a real school.” I think I probably gasped, I was so heartbroken. In asking for the criteria of such a determination, he explained to me that real schools have an orange goldfish in a bowl, something everyone knows. Duh. I tried to explain that no matter how much care I give them, I seem to be terrible with fish. I tried to explain that already, there were three cats at the school (and have I mentioned that despite a near-lifetime of having cats around, I’ve always been allergic to them? Oh yes.), even though they mostly stayed in my office. No explanation would do. I mean, that was all fine and well and good, but it just wasn’t a real school because of this fish issue, and that was just that.
There was a pet store a few blocks away, so — very much needing my school to be a real school, darnit — I asked if we all took a walk down there and got one, with the understanding the kinds would need to help care for the goldfish, if that would fix the problem. This was met with agreement. So, off we went.
When we got there, did they have every kind and color of fish under the sun? Oh yes, they did — well, almost. All except goldfish, of course: there were no orange goldfish. In the middle of a desperate discussion with the petshop owner about what fish might look orange under different light, I heard the little guy saying, “Heather, I found it!” Thank christ. I walked to where he was.
He was standing in front of a little cage full of mostly sleeping kittens, save one very rambunctious and especially tiny calico who was jumping all over all of them. “That’s a very cute kitten,” I said. “So, where’s that fish?”
“She’s got orange on her,” he said.
“She most certainly does,” I said. Then we had this same exchange about three or four times.
“She’s got —” he went to say again.
“Orange,” I said. “I know, she’s got orange on her, I’ve got it. Are you saying she’s an orange fish? I know you know she’s a cat. We have cats at the school already, three cats, which is already a lot of cats, I think. And just because they don’t have orange goldfish here doesn’t mean they aren’t somewhere else. I can go to another pet store myself later if this is really important to me — erm, you.”
“She’s got orange,” he said. “And I really like her. She’s funny. She’ll do.”
And so she was, and so she did.
At the time I got her, my hair was down to my waist, and the first few mornings I woke up, I’d be all “Ugh! My head feels like a bowling ball, what the hell?” This was because she’d nest in there while I slept, continuing to hold on after I stood up. A few years later, we had an insanely hot summer, and I was also very tired of people mistaking me for Rapunzel and thinking I was in need of rescue, so I shaved my head. (An experience which taught me many things, the biggest one being that I have a very round head and face, which means that instead of looking hot and butch with a shaved head, I look like a Cabbage Patch Kid. Yay.) She was very unhappy with me for years until most of it grew back.
The other cats made a point of hiding from the kids at the school: not this one. She was playful and friendly and awesome with all of them: they adored her. There were kerfuffles about who got to rest with her at naptime: some years, we even had to make a schedule. A couple years later, in an ironic twist, we were at another pet store and brought back a white lop rabbit who was in a cage with a bunch of dwarf rabbits hopping all over his poor head, after the sympathies for bouncy animals had apparently switched. The other cats were mortified by this: but Flora and Moe often played together.
After I had to close the school in ‘97, I was in a horrendous financial spot for a while, including having to spend some of a Chicago winter without decent heat and sans electricity or gas. Flora, with the other cats, made it through our awful spot, making do on about as little food as I did, save that the cats could eat the leftover meatstuffs I’d manage to gather from the school lunches at the school I was working at then for my Montessori internship. When I moved to Minneapolis in ‘98, she had to stay with an ex of mine for about six months in Chicago. Flora has always hated being in any kind of moving anything, so moving four unruly cats at once in an 8-hour-drive just was not doable, and she was always the most socially flexible of all the cats. When we finally did get her, she howled the whole. Drive. There.
When Sofi, my pug, came into our lives as a very small puppy, the other cats tried to kill her. For reals. Once I walked into the kitchen and Rita, my eldest cat at the time, in cahoots with another of them, were trying to push knives from the counter unto the unsuspecting puppy below. Flora, on the other hand, often circled the pug, hissing at the other cats. She slept near the puppy, she helped guard her when she ate, she did her level best to teach her all the things puppies ought to know, like why not to grab cat tails and how to clean your face (my dog still bathes herself like a cat sometimes: it’s ridiculous). When Rita began to die, Flora kept her company when the other two cats wouldn’t have anything to do with her. When I was crying my eyes out for days after euthanizing Rita, Flora worked in tandem with Sofi to keep me in fuzzy cuddles.
When I moved to Seattle, Flora howled the whole plane ride over, managing to drown out my own sobbing and very graciously make herself the hated enemy of every other poor fool on that flight so it didn’t have to be me. That’s about the same time Flora learned to yell all night and sometimes all day, for reasons unbenownst to anyone (though my guess is that always living in tiny places with lots of animals, the adjustment to a big old house with its own noises and only one other pet was not easy: it wasn’t easy for me, either, and I felt like howling sometimes, too).
She got a serious kidney infection somewhere in there, something that had felled another cat of mind years back — the lone cat who lived a normal kitty lifetime, unlike my others who all seem to want to hit 20 — and the few days she spent at the vet, they didn’t want to give her back. She’s a very loveable fish: everyone thinks so. They were particularly wooed by the way she lies which everyone instinctively calls Superman: stretching both her arms as far in front of her as possible and just kind of freezing like she’s flying, a posture she often did in the times she spent in my hair when I first got her.
When Blue moved his big dog into the mix, at a time when it was just Sofi and Flora left — a smaller family I think they were both enjoying — Flora was very whatever about it. Fur did not fly between cat and new dog. When we moved to the island, she delighted in looking out the window at he world outside. When mice found their way in here, despite having only one sad old tooth left in her little mouth, she caught one. She woke us up in the middle of the night with extra-loud yelling. We came out, and she had it in her mouth like, “Umm, okay, I got this thing I think I’m supposed to get. But I think I’m supposed to do something next I do not want to and also lack the tools to execute.” The mouse was looking clearly confused. Flora dropped the mouse and it ran away, probably feeling awfully grateful that day for what is, potentially, the world’s most gentle cat.
I have listened to this cat yelling and screaming for hours sometimes, for no reason I know of, where nothing makes her stop. She has driven me up a fucking wall with that yelling. But you know, I’ll look at her little fishy face, and pretty much think, “Ah, well. When I get that old, I’m going to annoy the crap out of everyone, too.” Then I’ll bitch about it some more, of course.
She stopped yelling a couple weeks back. I do not miss that yelling. Not even close. But after a few days without it, it was hard not to know that it probably meant something was wrong.
I’m really hoping I won’t need to put her to sleep. It’s not a political stance; I’m someone who feels very strongly that if and when life is ending and it hurts and has nothing good to offer, that whether we’re talking about my pets or me, making it better by making it stop is a good thing. But I had a horrible experience putting Rita down, the last animal I went through this with. Our regular vet was sick that day and his replacement was a shitheel who basically grabbed my cat from me, jabbed her with a needle and put her down while she screamed. I know that likely wouldn’t happen again, but I’m just really hoping that Flora will pass quietly here while I have her set up to be as cozy as possible and die in a much better, less traumatic way.
Mind, if she keeps going without eating, or barely doing so, or seems to be in real pain rather than just really out of it, I’ll cave, because I don’t want her to be uncomfortable.
It’s weird, Flora dying, weird and so sad. She’s been an awesome cat, a very strange, very awesome cat. But she’s also the last of my kitty brood, and I won’t be having cats again for a while, something I decided about the time we got Flora. I’m not allergic to her, specifically, thanks to a parent at the school who was a vet tech and who gave me some tricks when she was a kitten, but I am to most other cats, and my skin and sinuses need a break. It’s also really hard to be able to go places when you have more than one kind of pet, and the dogs really are more than enough for us to care for here, as it is. Plus, I can only take so many vet bills and so many elderly cat experiences.
I was never a “cat person,” whatever that means. In Chicago, you can’t be a renter and have dogs, so cats it was. Plus, almost all my cats save Flora — though really, even she in some ways — just kind of seemed to find me, rather than the other way round. But I like and understand dogs. I like cats, but I do not even remotely understand them. I feel about cats the way I think John Gray feels about people: I would need to construct some kind of bullshit philosophy in order to grok their motives or behavior or to make them make sense in my own limited understanding of life.
So, with the end of Flora comes, first of all, the end of Flora. Flora who I have loved and who has loved me, a big bunch of kids, my pug and other critters and pretty much anything and everyone else she’s come across. By the time a pet of mine gets to this age, I always think I’m so ready for this, but then, you know, I get there and it’s always so much harder than I thought it would be. I’m a very sad camper right now. And it’s also kind of the end of an era, one which started with the first member of my personal kitty brood when I was 18; the end of a kitty family which has, at times — thanks to a stay who entered our midst, had sex with other cats in our building, then left her kittens — been as large a group as eight. There have been some of the roughest times in my life where at least one of those cats was there, and we could morosely sit with booze in hand and catnip on face and say, “Hey, life fucking sucks, doesn’t it? But here’s lookin’ at you, cat.”
And now it’s down to one, this delicate, little one, and then, it seems, to none. And that’s just weird. And sad. Really sad.
Who knows, maybe she’ll turn around: they do that sometimes. But not only do I doubt it (I tried to feed her three times in the midst of writing this, and she just refuses to eat or drink), I just wanted to sing her silly kitty praises and take some time to tell her tales while it was all in my head.
So, here is looking at you, my little cat/fish with the orange on you. May you fall asleep soon, gently, and dream marvelous, endless dreams of hair to nest in, howls to howl, and big oceans it makes no sense at all for you to be swimming in, except to us, for whom you’ve sometimes magically made some important things real.