Wednesday was the fourth birthday I wasn’t expected to celebrate. You would think that would make me feel especially joyous, but lately my thoughts have been turning darkly toward death. Not the death I so narrowly avoided, but the demise of beloved animals.
You will see shortly why I used such a vague term.
The past month had been especially stressful, after our sweetest and oldest cat suddenly fell ill. We don’t know exactly how old Nala was because she was already a roly poly adult stray when Keith’s mom Joella began feeding her in her RV park.
It wasn’t long before Nala decided that Joella would be her new person. She strolled into Joella’s RV and wouldn’t leave it for six months.
Nala quickly became pals with Joella’s equally neurotic and sweet rescue dog, Sprite. We’ll never know if Nala was abandoned or became lost, but what we do know is that Nala was incredibly needy. I used to joke that her previous “owner(s)” abandoned Nala because they couldn’t keep up with her prodigious attention demands.
A few years after Nala adopted Joella, they all moved in with Keith, along with a kitten nicknamed Squirmy. (The all-too-appropriate name stuck.)
A month later I too moved in, with my cats Gort, Klaatu, and Hitch (short for Hitchcock) in tow. It was years before Nala would come out of Joella’s bedroom amidst the disruption and feline tumult. Yet once she did, Nala truly flowered.
Nala first adopted Keith, who isn’t a pet person. Or at least he wasn’t before the pet parade. Nala would snuggle herself by his side as he sprawled out on the couch. She even began “nursing” on his shirt for comfort.
One by one, our older pets began dying. First Gortie — my personal needy cat. Then Klaatu — with her clingy abandonment complex (she had been left to starve by her feral mother) — died suddenly while I was recovering in the nursing home. I had been going through so much during my recovery that Keith didn’t tell me until we were planning for my first home furlough.
I had been looking forward to reassuring Klaatu that I still loved her and hadn’t abandoned her.
Just before Christmas in 2015, it was Hitch’s turn, after he developed an aggressive colon tumor. By this time, Nala had already become my constant companion on my couch…whenever she wasn’t with Joella and her new dog after Sprite died, Sadie. One day — when I was still keeping crazy night owl hours before my coma — Nala suddenly snuggled in my arm as lay reading online.
After my coma, Nala became my nightly companion as we watched TV during dinnertime. Nala had completed the adoption process on me, too.
Nala hit the motherload of attention with me. I had lost my most affectionate cat — Gortie — and was in sore need of a new needy cat.
Nala was more than happy to oblige.
Toward the end of her illness, I started taking Nala into our bedroom so I could pet her while I wrote. Even as she stopped feeding, she was eating up the extra attention.
If her vets had been correct and her problems was merely due to some loose teeth — which they pulled — and hypothyroidism, then Nala would probably still be alive.
Before long, though, it became clear that her elevated thyroid production was incidental to her real problem, which is still unknown. Nala would rally and we would heave a sigh of relief, only for her to stop eating again the next day.
Our sweet, neurotic, “Queen Nala” was rapidly falling apart…quite literally. Her fur began peeling off in chunks. She didn’t really seem to be over-grooming, however, which is the most common cause of alopecia in cats. The vet thought she might have been experiencing some sort of autoimmune reaction — something I am more than familiar with.
It occurred to me later that, just like my doctors, the vets were stabbing in the dark at Nala’s diagnosis. They too were reaching for the more common conditions first and ignoring countervailing signs.
As Joella and I took her to the vet the final time, Nala looked like she was failing fast. But we were still in denial. Hadn’t Nala had run into the bedroom to get her special attention only the week before?
A day later, the vet called me to tell me that he thought Nala looked like she was dying. Keith, Joella, and I filed into his car to see Nala for the last time.
Yet Nala died ten minutes before we were led into an exam room to say our goodbyes. The vet broke the news to us, then went to get her body. He had estimated that Nala was 15 when she died.
I made a swift retreat to cry in the waiting room. I didn’t want my last memory to be of Nala’s lifeless body.
I know it shows a basic weakness, but I’ve never been able to stay with the dying cats I’ve been forced to put to sleep. I’ve always petted them until the final moments, then Keith or someone else would take over the final comforting until death.
I can’t say I fear death, because I don’t think anything happens after I die. I fear not existing. I want to keep existing as long as possible.
But I still shy away from watching a beloved pet die. I’ve never been faced with a dying human loved one…yet. I imagine in that circumstance, I would find the courage to stay.
So what is that I’m recoiling from then? In large part, I think it’s akin to my mom’s and uncle’s reaction when a funeral home director suggested an open casket funeral for my grandfather.
That was not the last memory of their dad they wanted in their heads. Though, to be honest, the image emblazoned in my mind of Nala lying listlessly in the pet carrier — eyes glazed — isn’t much different to what she must’ve looked like after the vet brought her body into the examining room.
Death: Never Far Away from Life
Nala died last Friday. On Easter Sunday, we all walked through Prime Desert Woodland Preserve to see real jackrabbits hop, hop, hopping down the desert trail. When we returned home, I asked Keith to snap a new pic of the nestlings in the second hummingbird nest hanging from the Christmas lights on our front porch.
He had the unenviable task of informing us that the babies didn’t make it. When I was going through the preserve photos, I could immediately see why he came to that conclusion.
I was filled with sadness and disgust when I noticed a large fly or wasp on the nest. Later, I realized that they were already dead by the time of Keith’s first nestling pic the week before.
Though the nestlings weren’t pets, we’ve always felt like house parents, emotionally invested in the broods repeatedly occupying the first nest, then later this one.
One day, Joella and I rescued a fallen nestling from the first nest, gently putting it back into the nest. (It’s a myth that mother hummingbirds will abandon chicks if people touch them.)
Though the baby was still alive at the time, it died anyway. Keith cleaned out the body, and eventually there was another brood before the second nest was built.
We’re hoping the same will happen this time, too. But nature is cruel. Studies show that only 17%-59% of hummingbird eggs survive to fledging. From that perspective, losing only two broods is a pretty good percentage.
Theists deny the reality of death. Vets — fortunately not ours — send sappy, theologically unsupported poems about dead pets crossing a “Rainbow Bridge” to Heaven. But as much as we would like to look away from the inevitability of death, it will always haunt our loving relationships.
The only way to avoid death and grieving is to never love in the first place.
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