A Cat in the Time of Corona

I have a pride of 3 cats. All very different in shape, size and personality. As I sit and write this, I am mindful of the head of the pride, AKA my furry wingman, AKA George Eyesapphire – to give him his full pedigree / posh name. George is clearly near his life’s end now, so I want to start to gather in our stories, to lift my heart and work through this transitioning time we still have together.

So I’m a cat person. Not anti any other animals – that’s just how it is. They’ve been in my life for most of my life, padding along its’ path with me through childhood and beyond.

I’ve grown up with moggies – rough-ty, tough-ty creatures created by a blend of genetics that chance and neighbourhood dictated. But then, one day I met 2 Birman cats who belonged to a friend. They were enchanting to look at and engaging to know, so I stored up a little desire, that one day, I would have one of my own.

It was actually many years later that the fates conspired for that desire to become a reality. I found a breeder and went to visit a litter of 6 kittens. All male. I walked in the house to be assailed by a terrier barking a greeting or warning at me – I didn’t know him well enough to decide which. At this point the mother cat strolled up to the dog and swiped him across the face, with a careful, clawless paw, then strolled away. The dog suitably admonished ceased his barking and I was left in peace to gaze at a raised basket full of sleeping kittens.

Well, when I say the basket was full, that’s true. But that fact didn’t matter, because one such creature had his head draped over the edge of the basket, sleeping sweetly. I knew right then and there, that this was my boy. I’m not sure that there was ever any choice involved, or who made the decision. It’s more that it was just so…

George at around 4 months old

So my partner at the time and the breeder woke up the sonambulant balls of gorgeous fluff and made me inspect them all. Over my head, they discussed colouration and type. They placed other kittens in my outstretched hands. But it made no difference, because I already knew…

Then the breeder’s grandson, aged about 8, swooped in to play with them, joyously mauling them about. They all took it in good stead. So I knew they were well socialised, they had grown up in a home rather than a cage and could cope with dogs and childish man-handling. We handed over a bundle of cash and stashed the kitten in a cat carrier.

I had him out of the carrier once we were in the car and we started to get to know each other. As we drove past Middlemarch Business Park on the edge of Coventry, it occurred to me that I would call my new friend George, for three reasons: in honour of local author George Eliot (a nom de plum for Mary Ann Evans); to reflect the swoon worthy, handsomeness of actor George Clooney; and not least that this was the name of my best friend’s father, who I was inordinately fond of and had recently passed away.

My mother, also a cat lover from childhood, gave me some money towards the purchase of my puss. She joked many times, over the years that followed, that his flowing, lustrous brown tail was technically owned by her, whilst giving it a stroke and admiring it, with a smile.

We took George home and I witnessed the confident evolutionary temerity of a creature who had been transplanted from mother and siblings, taken to a new territory with new guardians, yet immediately adjusted to his new surroundings, as if they weren’t anything new – just the latest game or meal or place to snuggle.

I’ve witnessed this phenomenon before and since, filtering an animal’s actions through my human senses, but it still surprises me everytime. I guess it is one of those evolutionary quirks that have made the feline / human bond so sustainable. Adult cats I notice are often not so quick to adjust, having inprinted on a territory. But basically experience and a stint as a cat sitter has taught me that most cats will accept food from any old stranger and very quickly assimilate them as a friend on that basis.

That being said, cats, like many creatures, form their favourites and it’s intriguing to see their choice at play. In George’s case, we bonded straight away, even though at the time we were introduced, I was a dyed in the wool career woman, who worked 50-60 hours a week, whilst George stayed at home with my partner Clint, who ran a business empire from his dining room table.

But George was always my boy. At the end of the working day he would sit and wait by the front door, for my return.

Two weeks after his arrival in the house, Clint bought in another kitten, a beautiful, little tabby cat we called Tigga. She was sharp and stripey. She was the antithesis of the laid back George, who absolutely hated her. But she played him, she followed him around, annoyed him and was not put off by swipes and growls. And one day, when George was purring on my lap, she crept on too and grabbed him. This time instead of growling, George started purring and they become inseparable. So different to look at, but just content in each other’s company.

As a kitten, George was sweet and playful, and very little trouble. He would sleep peacefully at the end of our bed and generally act the complete feline gentleman. In delightful contrast, Tigga though rampaged through the house, hunted everything in sight (once we let them outdoors) and turned the bedroom upside down, so we couldn’t get any sleep unless she was barracaded out. Especially since, just as George had chosen me, Tigga knew that Clint was her special hu(man)-person and would insist on clawing at his head and purring in his ear instead of letting him sleep.

Clint and I broke up a few months later. It was all very amicable and we stayed friends for a few years, until we both moved on to pastures and people new. It was clear that each cat had their own hu-parent, so Tigga stayed behind, as George and I packed up house and home for our next adventure.

And so he grew from a kitten into a handsome adult cat. George is a Seal Point Birman and his beautiful long, fluffy coat and evolved, developed and changed over the years. The base colour is a creamy white. All his extremities – ears, nose, paws and tail are rich dark brown. The brown on his face was centred on his nose as a baby and over time spread like a chocolate tide to cover his noble, fluffy face.

But his stand out feature is his eyes. They are a beautiful sapphire blue – large liquid orbs of love, annoyance or demand, taking his surroundings in and regarding them with the happiness or contempt that they deserve.

Sunbathing in our garden

Now, a long haired pedigree cat is a beautiful thing and with beauty often comes a certain amount of maintenance and effort. He grooms himself constantly of course and unless I groom him too, the fur flies through the air and sticks to every surface with magnetic purpose. I could spend hours brushing him and he would happily spend hours being brushed. As far as George is concerned, being brushed is sheer heaven. One of life’s absolute great pleasures. Brush the back, brush the sides, don’t forget the tail. Turn him over and brush the belly, which if neglected turns curly and sheep like. Then pull the fur off the brush and drop it into the bin, then begin again, until one of you grows bored of the pursuit. Then I look down into the bin and there are clouds of fur – cream and brown, billowing around and I marvel at how he isn’t actually bald, but constantly regrowing to maintain his fabulous furry mien.

And as a pretty pedigree is he a soft, characterless cushion of a cat? Far from it. He is a strong willed alpha male who has put himself at the head of the pride and will see off random feline interlopers who dare to stalk across its boundaries, with tooth, claw and ear splitting war-cry yowls.

Quite apart from the war cries, is the vast lexicon of his language – a panolpoly of vocabulary delivered at a cat’s whisper or rousing howl – deep, gutteral and primal, with every shade of sound and volume in between. Sometimes he cries endlessly with existential angst, others he demands attention, then again sometimes no sound is needed and he signals his wants and affections with a head butt or a cheek rub. One of my favourite things is that in the kitchen, whilst waiting for food, he will gently nudge my leg with his nose, a joint mark of affection and attention seeking.

Underneath that dictionary of meows, is the core of communication, the purring. His is low and steady, ramping up in intensity, the happier he becomes, usually when he is being brushed or having a chin scratch – which in his world, is the height of ecstasy.

And with all this, he has yet another layer of language – a series of low grunts and winnows overlaying the purring, which to my human brain sound like quiet declarations of love – although I completely accept I may only believe that, because that’s what I also give to him, in abundance.

Like most relationships, ours is multi-faceted. Because we’re both strong willed and stubborn, we’ve fallen out frequently, yet he is always the first to forgive and want to make up. And I have no choice but to acquiese in the face of such grace, every single time…

I could tell so many anecdotes, share so many stories, because George is 15 years old now. So there have been thousands of cuddles, of whispered exchanges. So much love and affection. So much pooh to clear up and the occasional dead animal. Unlike my two moggies who regard hunting as a constant, necessary sport and will frequently home hapless live creatures which I have to wrest from them and then repatriate to the wild, George was always a sporadic hunter.

The sporadic hunter in his favourite sleeping spot

Maybe once a year, he heads off and returns with a dead creature, such as a baby rabbit, and then, makes a big ceremony of laying it at my feet, then hunkering down and flicking his head proudly, for all the world like a patriarchal lion, providing for his pride. On one occasion he bought home a stoat – quite a magificent creature, with the most amazing coat. It is almost as if he likes to demonstrate that he is ‘all cat’ underneath that fluffy pedigree exterior.

Time passed and in his 14th year, as an old timer, he’d started to forget the fastidious toilet habits that most cats have, so the bane of my life became clearing up and trying to prevent mess and smell. I mean… cat’s pee… a vile smell that hits the back of the nose and refuses to be shifted by even the most advanced of modern cleaning products. And wasn’t just forgetfulness, sometimes, if I fell short as a hu-mum by leaving him alone too long, there would be a ‘protest pooh’ And once cats start this habit, the smell draws them back and they feel compelled to become repeat offenders. After a lifetime of freedom of the house, he and the other cats were all banned from the bedroom. I read up on what to do, I posted in online cat forums, but there was no one real solution. Until one day, I’m afraid I lost my own shit and yelled at him. A little later, the little sod started to squat on the carpet – so rather than yelling again, I picked him up and carried him over to the litter tray, with encouraging words. After a few more accidents / protests, he started to use the facilities rather than my living room carpet as his loo.

Apart from ‘pooh gate,’ after a life time of good health, some tests early last year revealed he had a kidney condition and towards the autumn he started, noticably to lose weight. Towards the end of September last year he had also developed an upper respiratory tract infection. I booked him in for a vet’s visit and then he started sneezing blood.

Within a few hours he had somehow sneezed blood all over the house. I found it on floor, carpet and walls. I had to cover up all my soft furnishings as within a short space of time, the house looked like the set of an armageddon movie.

When I got to the vet, she said he looked “chipper” but that sneezing blood was bad. She could put him to sleep right there or give him ‘one chance.’ I chose the chance, bought several types of medication and brought him home.

Back at the house I carefully placed his travel basket in the hall way as usual and opened the door. He stumbled out, clearly having lost the use of his back leg. I assumed he’d had a stroke, wailed with anguish, then called the vet. She wasn’t happy and we pretty much decided that he had used up his ‘chance’, but it was late in the day, so we arranged for me to take him back the following day. His leg, although not working, did not seem to be giving him any pain and he followed me round the house on his 3 good remaining ones.

Knowing this was our last night together, I slept on the sofa that night. A few minutes after I lay down, George jumped up and draped himself across my stomach. He lay there all night, purring for much of the time. It was a long, sleepless night for me, but I was so grateful to have that time with him before I had to say good bye.

When we both woke to the light of day, George had stopped sneezing blood. He also had some mobility back in his leg. I called the vet and cancelled the appointment, changing for a few days later. He was now on his second chance.

In the days that followed I went into a tail spin of grief tinged with panic. I couldn’t stop myself from talking about him constantly, whilst also joking to friends and colleagues that I was becoming a ‘dying cat bore.’

There followed many vet visits, injections and conversations about when he should be put to sleep. I started to dread taking him there, feverishly imagining they would grab him off me and forcibly take his life.

Meanwhile he became a cushion cat, barely moving from one spot on the sofa, except to do the daily necessities. Every day for months I dropped antibiotics down his throat to treat the constant sneezing. He was put on a special diet for his kidnies and at the back of my mind I wondered if he lost weight partyly because he hated it. Sneezing was a constant fact of our lives… sometimes it would be a good old fashioned wet sneeze, other times looked infected or bloody, regardless it was constant. It wasn’t fair to let him go on like that, I was coming round to the vet’s point of view and so the question became ‘when..?’

And when I reached ‘when’, I decided that I would stop giving him pills and taking him for injections. And if he only had a short time to live, then he may as well go back to having his favourite food again…

Somehow the autumn turned colder and shifted down towards Christmas. Having reached that far, and his being no worse, I decided to wait until the New Year… Christmas is always spent with my brother. I go for 2 nights and did not want to leave George in the care of anyone else, so took him with me.

My brother, observing the cat, remarked on how alert he was, how well he seemed (despite the constant sneezing) and how he took an interest in his surroundings, including several excursions into the garden. And somehow this little holiday seemed to shake George out of his antibiotic fuelled, cushion cat phug.

He got off the cushion and recognisably became his old self… After months of slow deterioration I had transitioned through the loss of alot of his characteristic quirks – like grumpiness with the other cats, being yelled at if I was the wrong side of a door, or having my belly pock marked with claw prints as he gave a purring paw dance at bed time. And then the sneezing stopped.

He was thin, but he ate prodigiously and often. Somehow we had both got a reprieve. And I always knew that there would be no miracle cure and that his span would still be relatively short, but he was still here. And he was having a good, happy quality of life, drug free, although I did put all the cats back on a more medicinal diet.

So there were months of gratitude that we had this bonus time together. I thanked him endlessly for choosing to stay and I treasured every second of licking and purring along with the constant contextual moments of habit and happiness that he shared with me. Time trickled from Spring into Summer and we would spend our spare time in the sunshine as the gates of COVID-19 lockdown kept me more close to home than ever.

And if I was grateful that George had stayed around, then to have his presence with me through lockdown was a balm. He relished having me working from home and glued his self to my side as I worked for long hours on my laptop and mobile phone. My summer birthday came and went and then so did his – on 10 July 2020, George Eyesapphire turned the ripe old age of 15.

And so I write about him in past tense as I recall the memories and also the present tense, because he is here in this room with me, but in a sense not here too, clearly withdrawing from life as his alloted span runs its course. So I write to manage the pain of losing him, which has already started, for very soon now he will be a creature of memory, made then of fixed pixelated image. Then I will cry more and smile and grieve and be glad that I knew him.

All my cats are different, so I love them all differently. Already I start to feel his loss, where there will be his shape missing in my heart. The flavour of the love I have for George is made of time and temperament; millions of shared moments; simple co-existence; the sheer pleasure of just watching him – sleeping, grooming, being. He is a strong character who holds a definitive place in my soul, so the grieving is starting to gnaw at me and I will give myself up to it soon enough, but for now, I wish to live in the living moments. To try to understand this bond we have. This animal human co-existence is built on and yet bypasses cupboard love. This creature is part friend, part family and it’s a simple primal feeling which is possibly made all the more solid by its very simplicity.

And I’m running out of words now, like my darling George is running out of time. But then again you see, it is his time and given all the love and lessons that we have shared together these 15 years, then I know that this time has been good. And we’ve both been blessed by sharing it.

Postscript: George passed away today. In the past 36 hours he suddenly deteriorated. I will spare you the details. And for all my mixed feelings about vets and euthanasia, I asked to the vet to come to my home as soon as possible, to end his suffering.

So he left the living world with kind words and a gentle cuddle from the creature he was closest to. And I can’t vouch for him, but that surely has to be a fine way to go. He has been in the room with me now for a few hours, so I can say my final farewells to the physical part of him. I have also let the other two cats see him. They sniffed him without interest and went on with their day, so I guess that was more for my benefit than theirs.

My brother is coming over soon and he will be with me for what happens next – when George leaves the house for a while and then returns in altered form. I haven’t decided what comes after that. I can bide my time and let my subconscious and I work it all out from there.

At this moment in time, I am tearful, but calm, feeling I made the last best act of love for him. I am so very grateful to have known / loved him, and he, me, for what is almost exactly 15 years to the day, together.

As I reflect I realise too that I have been incredibly privileged to have been a first hand witness to the complete life cycle, from kitten-hood to old age, of one of the Universe’s many amazing creations. I am blessed beyond measure for the experience.

And that is all for now. I guess my feelings will flux as the shock wears off and I adjust to him not being here. But those are other moments that do not or may not ever exist… and right now, I will inhabit this moment and what ever that entails.

Good bye, my blue eyed Birman baby boy.

S xx

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s