Meet Cat Number Five a/k/a Spotty a/k/a the Damn Cat. Spotty came to live with me late in the evening on September 15; the night my mother died. He has settled in quickly and well. I thought I would need to help him with kitty grief. I thought he would need to help me with people grief. As it turns out, we’re both more relieved than sad.
We were sad when my mother’s heart broke when both of her sons and her husband died in an eleven-month period. We were sad when Mom nearly died herself from deep vein thrombosis four months after my brother Steve died. We were sad when Spotty was separated from her during her recovery until she settled into her new home at an assisted living facility.
During the three years Mom lived at assisted living, Spotty stayed by her side. Every time I visited, I brushed him. He’d attack my hand as I pet or brushed him. But I’d persist, filling the brush over and over, dropping the wads of fur into the trash. A couple of times I googled whether snowshoe kitties were more prone to shedding. They’re not. I wondered whether Spotty’s shedding was due to how warm Mom kept her apartment. Cats prefer warmth.
After Mom fell and broke her hip in May, she was totally bedridden. She went on hospice care, and in addition, I hired a wonderful caregiver, Latrice, who stayed with Mom twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Three months after Mom went on hospice care, I decided to give myself a respite at the family cabin in Canada on Lake Superior. The idea was to spend two weeks writing, resting, and grieving. The grieving with Alzheimer’s starts well before the actual death. It is a series of small deaths, which begins at diagnosis, and ends at actual death. When Mom fell and broke her hip in late May, I knew she would not be with us for years. I knew it would be months. How many months, despite repeated and obsessive googling, I did not know. So when Mom had been bedridden for three months, I allowed myself to go to the cabin to rest. And grieve.
I called Mom each morning. Latrice would put her phone on speaker and I would talk. I described Lake Superior to her: it was as still as glass engulfed in a soft mist; or it was a clear windy day, the waves crashing against the rocky shore. I’d hold the phone near the water.
“Can you hear the waves, Mom? The loons are out front, fishing for breakfast.”
I’d call Mom each evening and tell her about her chipmunks, how I was taking care of them, feeding them seeds and nuts. How one little chipmunk sat in the palm of my hand as he stuffed the nuts I held into his mouth with tiny paws, making his cheeks fat.
I told Mom about the blue sky, the white bark of the birch trees, the yearling bear that was said to be nearby, but I never saw. I told her of the resident bald eagle that flew along the shore, and how I sat one morning for at least half an hour, photographing it as it pruned its feathers as it sat perched in the top of a tall pine.
Mom never spoke during my calls, but she listened.
During the second week of my trip, Latrice told me Mom had begun eating less, refusing meals. Latrice reported that in addition to the profuse shedding, she’d found clumps of Spotty’s fur on the carpet. Mom had begun clamping her mouth shut when Latrice tried to give her medication. Latrice, a strong and calming force, was upset. I asked the hospice nurse if I should cut my trip short. She thought there was no urgency, and my plan to return that Friday should be fine. I continued calling multiple times each day; I continued my monologues to my mother, describing the place she loved so much.
I returned to Austin late Friday night, September 9. Saturday morning, September 10, I drove to Houston. Mom was sleeping comfortably, and I sat with her, holding her hand. She’d refused the chocolate cream pie I brought. She refused lunch. After I’d been there several hours, she opened her eyes, smiled, and said,
As she drifted back to sleep, I didn’t know those would be the last words she spoke to me. Mom ate supper Saturday night. And lunch on Sunday. But by mid-week, she’d begun refusing food entirely. On Thursday morning, September 15, Mom took a turn. She was having difficulty breathing and the consensus was Mom had only days left. So I packed a bag and planned to stay with her and Spotty at her assisted living apartment until the end.
When I entered her apartment, Spotty lunged at me, attacking my leg. He then ran into the bathroom and hid. Mom’s throat had filled with fluid and when she breathed, it rattled. Latrice, who had been so composed and strong throughout the preceding months, took leave, saying,
“I can’t stand to watch her suffer.”
I sat with Mom throughout the afternoon. My sister came with her husband after work. My brother’s ex-wife brought me supper. The hospice and facility nurses came and went, giving Mom morphine and showing me how to use the suction machine. A dear family friend sat with me for a bit after my sister and her husband left. And then it was just Mom and me.
I pulled a sofa up next to Mom’s hospital bed and lay down next to her, holding her hand as she slept. I described the sunset to her. I promised I would take care of Spotty and he would, in turn, take care of me. As I spoke, Mom’s breathing slowed and became calmer. I was relieved the morphine was helping her to relax. I continued to hold Mom’s hand, crying quietly as I spoke to her. Mom’s breathing became softer. The rattling stopped. I watched her grimace soften; the lines on her face ease. She looked peaceful. Her breathing continued to slow. And then, it stopped.
Late that night, after the funeral home had come and taken Mom’s body to be cremated, I loaded Spotty into his carrier and into the car. I put him on the passenger’s seat and talked to him as we drove the two hours to Austin. He was quiet and slept most of the way. I’d assumed he was upset, grieving. But over the next several days he remained calm. He ingratiated himself with the four resident cats nearly immediately. Lucy, Cat Number Four, was particularly taken with him.
Whenever they got cross, Spotty would flop down onto the floor, showing the girls his belly. Within a week of moving in with us, Spotty’s shedding stopped. He hasn’t attacked my hand once in the two months he’s been here. He likes to sleep on the bed lying next to my hip. He (clearly) likes treats. He eats the girls’ leftovers. (But he’s lost half a pound!) He’s the kind of cat you trip over; the cat who follows you around, always at your feet. He nuzzles me with his wet nose when he wants pets. He awakens me in the morning, always the first one up. He is my solace. He brings me peace. And he’s a big fat lovable hunk of cat.