10.24.2016

loss, literally


As those of you who follow me elsewhere probably know by now, we lost our 18 1/2 year old cat Sophie on Thursday, October 13th. Actually, we "lost" her on Monday, October 10th, in the true definition of the word; she died three days later. I've written about the cats (Xander is the other half of this duo, who together gradually grew to be a very "bonded pair" since their adoption together in 1999) quite a bit over the course of this now 11 year old blog. I'd like eventually to write even more about Sophie's life, about all the delightfully mundane things I never thought to record here. But for now, the story that I need to get down is about the events of that awful week: her loss, our reunion, and her death.

The evening of Monday, October 10th (my birthday, which will forever be marked by the start of this tragic timeline of events) was a perfect storm of chaos. I'd taken the day off and Neal and I had enjoyed the day together after I volunteered in my son's art class that morning. We did some clothes shopping (still one of the most challenging things to do after having kids), had lunch, then tinkered around at home while the landscape guys jack-hammered away at the concrete out back on day two of the relandscaping and general home improvement project that had just gotten underway. I was suddenly in a bit of a funk that afternoon, which I wrote off to Sunday grumpies something fierce after a four-day weekend (not to mention the aforementioned jack-hammering going on outside). I was running later than I wanted to fetch the kids from their schools. I wanted to get them a bit earlier than usual, not only because I could, but because we had arranged to have a sitter that night for the first time in about ten months. I scrambled to put together a "cheat sheet", as promised to the sitter, and tidied their rooms and laid out their PJs before dashing off to retrieve them.

As I backed out of the garage that afternoon, I spied Sophie in the corner of my eye making an unusually spry dash toward the garage door as it opened. I should back up here to explain why Sophie would be in the garage in the first place. In short, in early 2016, Sophie had started spending some time out back and in the garage. Out back, when we were outside, because she suddenly wanted to and we felt she'd earned it (being an indoor cat, as advised, for most of her long life). The back and side yards are pretty secure and we kept a close eye on her; she was never out there alone. In the garage because, alongside a sudden desire to be outside, she'd also developed the less charming habit of meowing - no, howling - in the middle of the night, in our room, in the hallway, waking up the entire family, etc. We'd taken her to the Vet a number of times to try to determine why. We discovered early but stable kidney disease, hyper-thyroidism, and low potassium. We treated her for the latter two, keeping a close eye on kidney function via blood testing most check-ups, along with a pain medication that also included a mild sedative effect in the hopes that this would calm her midnight anxiety. Her physical ailments stabilized but her howling continued. In sleep-deprived desperation, as the weather (and poorly insulated garage) warmed, we set up a spot for her in the only place not outside where we could create some distance between our sleeping space and her nightly howling (see this post for an answer to your inevitable question: why not just close the bedroom door?). She didn't seem to mind being in the garage and after awhile, actually meowed at the kitchen door to get out at all times of the day and evening. It had clearly become her private little territory.

All of which explains why she was in the garage that afternoon. Admittedly, and now regrettably, we'd become a bit complacent about when she was out there. I recall many times coming home, not realizing Neal had let her out, and seeing her curled up in her bed next to the dryer, not so much worried that she'd make a break for it, but that I might run her over if she decided at that moment to get up and walk to the kitchen door. We acknowledged that her time in the garage should be closely monitored but we were inconsistent, particularly during times of chaos, which describes many, many moments in a small house with two young children and two aging cats. At any rate, of course, I threw the car in park, scrambled out, and snatched her up before she could escape entirely. A bit annoyed, I admit, I placed her in the kitchen ("Sophie!") and made a mental note to be sure she was inside the house before we left again later that evening.

Kids fed, kitchen quickly cleaned up, the sitter came and we left, but only after walking through the bedtime routine with her, she fielding many interrupting questions from the kids, us responding to a half-dozen extra hug & kiss requests from the three year old in particular. In the chaos, I failed to translate my earlier mental note into a verbal communication with Neal, and neither of us registered the exact location of each cat as we left. Had I noticed Sophie in the garage, I would have promptly deposited her inside the house. But I can't say I was really looking out for her in that moment, either.

We proceeded to enjoy our evening, extending the atypical experience of being out without kids (translation: we're not very good at date nights) with grocery shopping, of all things, so as to get closer to the contracted return time of 10 p.m. agreed upon by us and the sitter. I texted the sitter that we were on our way home around 9:30, to which she promptly replied something along the lines of the three year old still "making her way to sleep," a much gentler expression to describe the situation than I'd use. I was again annoyed. This is why we don't do date nights, I grumpily mumbled, mostly to myself. As we neared home, we transitioned into tag-team mode, like when one kid throws up and each parent automatically knows their role ("You get the barf bowl, I'll get the towel."). One of us would pay the sitter and get the three year old to bed while the other put away the groceries. Tomorrow was a school and work day, after all. The sitter was paid, the toddler successfully transitioned, asleep at last, from our bed to her's, the perishable grocery items in the fridge. The chaos from earlier had returned full-circle and, face washed, teeth brushed, laundry in the washer, at last I crawled into bed without even thinking about either cat, I'm now very sad to admit.

Tuesday morning began as any other (indeed, our days with kids are bookended with chaos). I usually get up around 5:30 a.m. to squeeze in a workout, then hop in the shower as soon as Neal is out of the bathroom. But because we'd gotten to bed later than usual Monday night, I "slept in" until about 6:15. Get up, take a shower, get halfway ready, help with breakfast, kids up, eat, "clear dishes, get dressed, you guys, did you brush your teeth yet?, okay socks and shoes, Elias you have band!, Daphne finish eating!" Neal took our eight year old to band practice around 7:35 or so. With a relatively quiet moment at last, I suddenly realized I hadn't seen Sophie, hadn't really interacted with her, since Monday afternoon. Where the hell was she? I calmly checked all the usual spots. She's disappeared before. Once she got stuck in the eight year old's closet and she was either in there long enough or pissed off enough to use it as her temporary litterbox. By the time Neal returned, I still hadn't found her, searching for her while also finishing getting myself and the three year old ready for the day. Daphne and I left the house around 8, the surreal possibility that Sophie was actually missing this time only just beginning to settle in.

Neal works from home so he was able to search more thoroughly inside and outside the house, and walk around the neighborhood after we left. I skipped out of my first meeting of the day, posting about Sophie on Next Door instead. Neal posted on our neighborhood's Yahoo group. I checked both the East Bay SPCA and Oakland Animal Services shelter hours on their websites, thinking I'd use my lunch break to search for her. The SPCA is closed on Tuesdays; the city shelter opens at 4. Such annoying hours, I thought. A possible sighting about 2 blocks away from a neighbor who was very confident she'd seen our cat and responded almost immediately to my Next Door post is the only explanation I can wrap my brain around as to why I didn't leave work early Tuesday afternoon to check out the city shelter. That and stupid afternoon meetings that could have been rescheduled. I was still optimistic Sophie would somehow find her way home at that point (we were leaving the garage door open about a foot at the bottom with food just inside for this very reason). It just didn't seem likely that she'd be at a shelter less than 24 hours after going missing. This is Oakland after all; I can't imagine picking up stray cats is high on the animal services officers' lists. I'll check the shelters later in the week, I thought.

I finished out the day at work, fetched both kids, and took them home for dinner. After dinner - and explaining to the kids that Sophie was missing, that somehow she'd slipped out - we took a family walk to continue looking for her. The gravity of the situation started to sink in that evening. As soon as the kids were in bed I drove and walked around some more, sobbing in my car and apologizing to Sophie out loud for allowing this to happen. Somehow I managed to get some sleep that night, and on Wednesday spent another lunch break stapling lost cat posters - something I never imagined I'd have to ever do - to telephone poles in a 2-3 block radius of our house. That evening I started to think I might have to come to peace with never knowing, imagining Sophie instead on a series of wild adventures before selecting a serene spot somewhere to peacefully curl up and die.

Thursday morning I got a call around 7 a.m. from a woman about 5 houses down the road - a neighbor I don't know very well, a neighbor who would have no idea the cat she spotted Tuesday morning was our's because our cats are mostly indoors, and when they have been outside, it's only been out back. She told me she saw my poster just then and that she'd found Sophie, who had limped across the street to her, meowing as if in pain, early Tuesday. She fed her a can of cat food and then almost immediately took her to the shelter. She said the SPCA. My heart lifted. She should still be there, she said. Oh my gosh, I said, thank you! My hopes were up, way up, I couldn't help it. When did the SPCA open again? 11 a.m. They would be the longest two hours, but I'd go to work and I'd get through the morning. I'd take an early lunch break and retrieve Sophie. I told myself I'd likely have to take her to the Vet. Should I call now to make an appointment for this afternoon? No, I'm getting ahead of myself, I told myself. I knew I needed to manage expectations for the kids but I failed to do so for myself.

At about 10:30, allowing plenty of time to get across Oakland, I left work and headed to the East Bay SPCA. The cat carrier was in the back of the car, where I left it. I didn't want to seem overly optimistic, after all. I had her basic pet papers - even her original adoption papers from the SPCA, then the Oakland SPCA, back in '99! - and a copy of the lost cat poster with her picture on it. I was visibly shaking. When they opened, I filed in, trying to contain my excitement. Ho hum, just here to look for a lost cat. They seemed to want a lot of information, including a lost pet report, and details from the woman who'd brought her in. Why couldn't I just peruse the cages, I wondered? They explained that if they had the last name of the person who surrendered her, they'd more easily be able to reunite me with my cat. I called the woman who'd called me earlier that day to get her last name. All I knew at the time was that her first name was Leticia. After I reminded her who I was she clarified that she'd taken Sophie to the shelter on Tuesday morning, the one on 29th Avenue, that she'd dropped her off with an officer there around 7:30 a.m. As soon as she said the word "officer" my heart sank. She meant the city shelter. I volunteered at the city shelter ages ago, before I was married with kids, before we'd even adopted Sophie and Xander. I came home every weekend afternoon that I volunteered there in tears, that place is so unbelievably depressing. Leticia asked me to text her when Sophie and I were reunited. Yes, of course, thank you. We hung up. The woman at the SPCA must have seen the look of defeat cross my face because she said Sophie should be fine. They have a five-day hold on strays, so she should still be there. I remembered their odd hours, not opening until 4 p.m., but at least they were open that day (they were closed on Wednesday). She encouraged me to go there anyway, if I had time. Sometimes, she offered, if you knock, the volunteers will let you in.

So I drove back toward the direction of work, via Oakland Animal Services. The city shelter is right next to a set of train tracks and the crossing guards were seemingly stuck in the down position, creating total gridlock. After several minutes going nowhere, I weaved illegally through the traffic to turn left into the shelter parking lot. There were two other people there to surrender animals. An officer came out to reluctantly deal with the surrendered animals but refused to let me in, confident though I was that my cat was there. I offered to even come back at 4 so they could officially "release" her then, when the computers were on, if I could just see her now, but he denied that possibility. I didn't want to be difficult so as difficult as it was I turned around, got in my car, and drove back to work.

When I got back to work, I made my way through several afternoon meetings, trying to distract myself by staying busy. I interrupted my busy-ness to double-check the protocol for claiming a lost pet. There were all these requirements around documentation, proof of ownership, and rabies vaccines. Thing is, the rabies vaccine is not required for indoor cats. Recommended, yes, but not required. I called the Vet and asked her if she could send me Sophie's records, perhaps with a cover letter explaining why, given her age and relatively fragile health, she had not received the rabies vaccine in several years. What if they wouldn't release her? Could they inoculate her right then and there or would I have to wait another night? The anxiety made me feel physically ill. To boot, the fax machine in my office was out of ink and the cartridge somebody had ordered was the wrong one. Who still uses a fax machine, anyway?! Forget it, I told her, and thank you. I'll swing by on my way to the shelter. I'll be there around 3:45, I told her.

I left work early and picked up the papers right on time. I crossed town along streets I'd somehow never traveled in my nearly 20 years in Oakland. I listened to NPR but my mind was racing and my stomach was churning. I'm going to bust Sophie out of kitty jail!, I thought. I'll take a picture and share it on Instagram with that caption. People will tell me how lucky we are to be reunited and I'll counter that with how unlucky I was to lose her in the first place, not unlike how I felt when I found my passport the day after losing it in London. We were supposed to go on a short trip the next day but maybe Neal could stay behind with her, get her to the Vet on Friday for a check-up, stay close to home. How shitty would it be, after all, to leave her for three days after being in the shelter for that long? It'll be okay, I thought, surely I can manage the kids on my own after a week like this!

I got to the shelter a few minutes early and was second in line to sign in when they opened the doors. I couldn't believe how busy it was, most people there to surrender animals. One woman brought three dogs in and they didn't appear to be strays. She was ahead of me and it took her forever to sign her name. Come on, I thought, hurry UP! At last, I signed in. I waited. When they called my name, they asked if I'd filled out a lost pet report. Oh my goodness again with the paperwork! Okay, fine, I'll fill that out. My hand was shaking to the point that my writing was barely legible. A volunteer greeted me, listened to my story, told me she'd be right back to take me to "the wards". It's not often we have someone looking for a lost cat, she told me, so she was pretty excited. For some reason, though, as soon as we went though the first set of doors, my heart sank, again. This whole thing suddenly felt totally doomed. What condition would Sophie be in when I found her? I fought back tears. She led me through the first of four wards. Sophie, I called, Sophie? Kittens, whole litters in single cages. No Sophie. She asked me when my cat was brought in as we entered the second ward. Tuesday morning, I said. As we made our way through the third ward she left to fetch another volunteer who'd been there on Tuesday. That volunteer joined us and I showed her the picture of Sophie on the lost pet poster I'd made. She looked at the poster then at me then back at the poster several times. She asked me how long ago that picture had been taken. I said I don't know, 6 months? A year maybe? (It was 2 years old.) She has some congestion in her right eye and nostril but otherwise she basically looks the same, I added. Then she said something about a cat who was brought in on Tuesday "in really bad shape." If that's your cat, she added, she was "in really bad shape." Was. The other, more cheerful volunteer urged me to finish looking through the wards. Still no Sophie. She told me that the other volunteer was checking with the Vet, could I wait out front? I asked her if there are exceptions to the five-day hold for strays? Yes, she said, if the animal is not doing well. If the animal is "in really bad shape."

As I waited I again fought back tears. Sophie wasn't near the end, I didn't think, but she wasn't in great shape, either. She was 18 1/2 years old, after all, and about a month earlier, we had taken both cats to the Vet, the first time where we've had any serious end-of-life conversations about either of them. But we left that appointment certain Xander, although the younger of the two, would be the first to go, indeed encouraged to start mentally preparing ourselves and our kids, particularly the older one, for the inevitable. Sophie had developed some congestion in her right eye and nostril, congestion that we treated, not terribly successfully, with antibiotics, but our Vet was optimistic she'd recover. She'd been acting strangely and not eating as well as usual over what would be her final weekend. Neal and I talked on Monday about both cats, and I remember saying I should call the Vet Tuesday morning to see if we could get Sophie in again before our trip, try another round of antibiotics, maybe some cortisone to boost her appetite. Somehow, on Monday night she went from Vet check-up probably a good idea to "really bad shape."

I texted Neal that it wasn't looking good. After several minutes in the waiting area, the volunteer reappeared to escort me to a classroom, where the other volunteer waited. As the first volunteer departed I asked her if they'd indeed put Sophie down. She nodded, apologized, and then quickly left me to wait with the other volunteer. At this point, I had, as you might expect, totally broken down. The volunteer and Vet explained again, through my sobs, that Sophie had been surrendered "in really bad shape." The woman who dropped her off, furthermore, did not stick around to give any kind of report, so they had no idea where she'd come from, how long she'd been out, etc. Not that the neighbor had any of that information, either, but the shelter was working with absolutely no background information on Sophie. They saw a likely stray who was very old, who'd probably been out for a long time, with a host of health issues, including a mysterious limp that developed sometime between Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning. Furthermore, once there her health rapidly declined. She mostly refused to eat or drink and by Wednesday couldn't stand on her own, by Thursday morning was laying on her side, not even able, or willing, to lift her head. The Vet reassured me that they don't take this kind of thing lightly (though I'm willing to bet they had an "oh shit" moment when they realized they'd just euthanized my cat) and that they felt she was in pain, suffering. The technician who'd been there each day Sophie had and had taken a bit of a liking to her was with the Vet when they euthanized her, sometime between when I tried in vain to get access to the shelter around 11:30 that morning and when I returned at 4 that afternoon. It's okay that you weren't here for her, they seemed to be telling me, because we were. Her body was still a little warm. Lukewarm. But she was gone. I was so close, but I'd missed her. After I said goodbye, again apologizing to her that I'd failed her, in the end, I took her body, wrapped in a towel, in a cardboard carrier, all of which felt impossibly light, to our Vet for cremation.

The only positive thing I take away from how these events unfolded is that at least I got there in time to see her, to confirm that it was her, and to take her body to our Vet for cremation (her ashes are now sitting in a little wooden box on our mantle - something I wasn't sure I wanted when discussed in the abstract but knew immediately I wanted to do when confronted with Sophie's lifeless body). Otherwise, I was and still am overwhelmed by the crushing pain of the loss of a cat I wasn't prepared to say goodbye to just yet, a cat who was an integral piece of the fabric of our lives stitched together over the last 17 years, almost our entire time together as a couple, before we were married, long before we added kids to the mix. Then there's the regret around things I could have done differently or better in her final months, and the endless string of should haves and what ifs that riddle her final days. What if we'd checked for her sooner? We should have checked on her sooner. What if we'd knocked on doors and talked to neighbors in addition to online list-serves and paper posters? What if that other neighbor hadn't been so confident she'd seen her two blocks away? Would I have gone to the shelter on Tuesday afternoon, after all? What if I called the shelter before they opened? If I told the officer who wouldn't let me in that not only was I confident my cat was there but that she was "in really bad shape," would he have let me in? And what if I'd made it to the shelter on Tuesday? Would that have made a difference in her potential recovery? In the very least, we could have been there for her to make that choice and be with her when she died. One thing is certain: once missing, we tried so very hard to find her. But we failed and were therefore robbed of that final act of being a pet's human guardian. Failing her in the end negates the otherwise overwhelmingly good 17 years we shared with her.


In the end, I know that last bit is what I need to focus on in order to heal and move forward, and I will write that portion of her story someday soon, when the sum of her good years again outweighs the tragedy of her final days.