Monday, February 24, 2014

Remembering Stan

Stan, 2005-2014

What are some of the most common traits one thinks of when he or she thinks of a cat? Peacefulness, quietness (hopefully), soft, gentle, lethargic, independent, and more than a little bit self-centered. But can a cat truly be loving? Compassionate? Selfless? Even noble? These traits are hard enough to find in humans, so how can a cat embody them? 

A little over eight years ago, when my brother Mike still lived in West Plains, he started feeding a stray cat. He wasn’t allowed to have cats in his apartment, but he loved the little fellow, and kept feeding him when he came around, and even went so far as to give him a bath. But he soon learned Animal Control was going to take the cat away, so he pleaded with our mom to take him in. Mom was reluctant at first, first and foremost because we already had a cat, Marv. Mom had three rules when it came to cats: 1, no male cats (and we had already broken that with Marv), 2, only one cat at a time (which is the rule Mike was asking her to break), and  3, no orange cats (Mom isn’t fond of orange cats for some reason, and thus far this is the only rule we have not broken). But when we went to visit Mike and his family one day, and this little white-and-lavender-grey cat with googly eyes came wandering up, Mom knew she had to have him. I didn’t understand at the time why Mom was so enamored with him. I thought he was goofy-looking and kind of ridiculous. On one occasion, I had friends over, and when Mom let Stan in the front door, he stopped stock-still when he reached the living room, realizing we had company. Terrified, he backed up, scrambled his feet like Fred Flintstone changing gears, whipped around and smacked headfirst into the door. I was also a bit upset when Stan decided to pee in my room … on the drawing I had spent the better part of a month penciling, inking and coloring. 

"Your stuff belongs to ME now!"
Marv wasn’t thrilled to have a new roommate either. He used to like other cats, but a frightening encounter with a neighbor’s cat (who might have been his father) left him jaded and a lot more paranoid. He was at the veterinarian’s office getting neutered when we brought Stan home, and returning home to find another cat was insult to injury. We had to put Stan in a pet carrier when Marv came home so Marv could get used to him without confrontation. Stan was very good about it, and just sat quietly in the cage while Marv circled it, hissing and snarling at the newcomer. Eventually Marv came to grudgingly accept Stan’s constant presence, and they were able to coexist, but there was still a bit of tension on Marv’s end. He had already been burned once by another cat … he wasn’t going to trust Stan so easily. 

But over time Stan came to mean something special to everyone in the family. For Marv, Stan was a protector … someone who had his back no matter what, even if Marv didn’t always show his appreciation. When they went outside at night, they usually went together, and if we shone a flashlight out in the dark and spotted one of them, the other was usually nearby. 

For Dad … well, to hear Dad tell it, he’s never liked cats and never will. But we know better. He likes them just fine. He liked Marv and Stan because they were entertaining (and since his Multiple Sclerosis is severe enough to keep him pretty much homebound, entertainment is hard to come by). Just the quirky little things they did were a joy to watch … the way they fought (which was almost always initiated by grooming each other, which then almost always turned into a fur-flying brawl) … the way they ate (bickering over which dish they wanted, or Stan swatting at Marv’s tail while he tried to eat) … even the way they slept (Marv curled up tight and Stan lying belly-up). That said, Stan was always a little wary of Dad, mainly because Dad fell on him a few times. Fortunately, he never got seriously hurt, but he still learned the hard way to stay scarce when he heard Dad staggering out of his room. 

For me, Stan became an unconditional buddy. Even though I was mad at him for peeing in my room, he tried his best to make amends, and for reasons I still can’t explain, he became obsessed with being my friend. He followed me everywhere, purring, rubbing against my leg, rolling over on his back for me to rub his tummy, and he made it clear he’d accept any attention I could give him. Over time, I came to appreciate that bizarre devotion, and I wish now that I had appreciated it from the start. Even though Stan was very much Mom’s Cat, he wanted to be Chris’ Buddy, which made him the polar opposite of Marv, who was Chris’ Cat but absolutely loathed me and preferred to be Mama’s Baby. Stan—big, fat, goofy-looking, googly-eyed cat that he was—was my buddy, and he always greeted me joyfully, often expecting me to scoop him up and (VERY gently) fall backward into a German suplex. For some reason, that cat loved his suplexes … I guess because he enjoyed the proximity to me, and also because he trusted me and knew I would never drop or hurt him. Of course, knowing Stan loved me made it harder to move away and go to college. He would often go into a state of depression when I was gone, seeming not to care about the humdrum of daily life, but on the rare occasions I was able to come home, he would immediately perk up and greet me joyously. This was in stark contrast to Marv’s reaction; on one occasion, I returned home only for Marv to raise his head and give me the honest-to-goodness stink-eye. 

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But it was Mom who was most affected by Stan’s presence. The past decade has not been a pleasant one for my mother, and with each passing day it gets harder and harder for her to keep going. Living with my father is not easy, and I don’t just mean in terms of being his 24/7 caregiver. It is as emotionally and mentally draining as it is physically. And were it not for Stan, she would have had to deal with it alone. Bear in mind, of course, that Stan couldn’t help Mom lift Dad off the bathroom floor when he fell or roll him into bed when he had a Multiple Sclerosis episode, but what he provided was something infinitely more valuable. Stan made Mom feel loved when all she felt was unappreciated. Stan was someone Mom could talk to when Dad’s voice became unintelligible. Stan was someone who could make Mom laugh when it seemed all the humor was gone from her life. Stan was gentle and sweet and always seemed to know when Mom needed him most. When she let him in each morning, he would greet her with his strange, warbling chatter (which was often punctuated with the feline equivalent of sharp curses if he were cold or wet). When she went to make coffee, he would often hop up on the kitchen table, where he knew he didn’t belong but where he was at the perfect level to receive cuddles. When she napped in the living room recliner, he would hop onto the arm of the chair before gently nestling with her, and she could feel him purring as they slept. Mom credits Stan with keeping her sane as life tried to strip the sanity from her. 

How Mom could breathe with that fat cat with her, I'll never know.
And, for the past three and a half years, Stan truly was all Mom had. After getting my associate’s degree from a local college, I was reluctant to transfer to get my bachelor’s degree because I knew I would be leaving Mom to deal with Dad, as well as the complete upkeep of the house and property, on her own. But Mom insisted that I go … pleaded, even … imploring me to get away, so I left. I should have known that I was leaving Mom in good paws. As I mentioned before, Stan was compassionate. He was loving. He was selfless. He was noble. Unlike Marv, he never demanded anything, preferring to simply wait by his bowl or by the door until somebody noticed him. He never lashed out in anger or displayed any haughty attitude. He was truly a joy to have around, and his tenderness made life at least tolerable for Mom. I realize now that it was no accident that Stan entered our lives, and that his job was to keep Mom going while I was away at school, to give her somebody to confide in and who would love her unconditionally as Dad became increasingly difficult to deal with. And that is why what happened next hurt so much.

In early December 2013, Stan came down with worms, which left him severely fatigued. When Mom told me, I was en route home after my finals were over, so I stopped and picked up some medicine from an animal clinic on the way. It took a while, but Stan slowly started getting better. And then, suddenly, he started going downhill. He was having severe difficulty pooping (what came out was essentially wood chips), and he started peeing outside of his box. We thought it was just the medication working its way out of his system, but then, on Sunday, January 12, disaster struck. Around 1 a.m. Stan started howling, which in and of itself was a sign that something was horribly wrong. Normally, no matter how much discomfort he was in, Stan was one to suffer in silence. But now he was huddled in Dad’s shower, howling and shivering, a puddle of orange urine under him. We tried to keep him comfortable, but he was in agony, and even though he tried to walk, he dragged his hind legs behind him. At 7 we called the vet, who told us to bring him in at 9. It was the worst two-hour wait of our lives. 
By the time we brought Stan to the vet’s office, he was still howling, and he was severely jaundiced. Eyes, ears, skin—all yellow. The vet said it was either severe liver failure or a tick-borne illness called cytauxzoonosis.. If the former, Stan’s chances were nil at best. If the latter, it was still bad but potentially treatable. We had to leave Stan overnight; by afternoon, the vet called and told us it was cytauxzoonosis, and he was going to try to treat him. For those unfamiliar with the disease, cytauxzoonosis is an extremely deadly disease that affects cats, transmitted by ticks. 

Stan had to stay at the vet’s for almost a week, and then the vet called to tell us we should bring him home, as he wasn’t eating, and maybe being home would help. So we brought him home, having prepared a nest of warm towels and blankets next to the wood stove, and tried unsuccessfully for several days to get him to eat. The transformation was horrifying: the roly-poly, 15-pound cat we knew was swiftly wasting away to nothing. We finally managed to get him to eat a little bit (he discovered a taste for honey-glazed ham), but then we were faced with a new problem: he was eating, but nothing was coming out. He was severely constipated. He would drag himself to the litter box (bless his heart) and would strain and strain, often howling with pain, to no avail. 

We tried everything we could to get that cat to poop (and I do mean everything), but nothing helped, so we took him back to the vet. Again Stan stayed overnight, and the next day we came to check on him. The good news was that the vet got him to poop; the bad news was Stan's condition had worsened again.

This is Stan, February 19, 2014. 
In the days to come, Stan kept getting weaker. His bowels were clear, but he lacked the strength to eat on his own. We started feeding him baby food and evaporated milk through a syringe. He didn’t like it, but over time he came to tolerate it. But even though he was getting food in his system, he was still wasting away. A friend told us there was a Cat and Cattle clinic in nearby Koshkonong, and suggested we contact Dr. Dye, who operated the clinic. If we had only known about the clinic sooner, the story might have had a different, happier ending. Dr. Dye was warm, caring, and genuinely wanted Stan to pull through.

Dr. Dye checked Stan’s paperwork and ran some tests of her own. The most startling thing she discovered was that Stan might have been misdiagnosed with cytauxzoonosis, and apparently had an illness that was flea-borne rather than tick-borne. She said Stan was severely dehydrated, and offered to send an IV kit home with Mom, but Mom was afraid of making a mistake and letting an air bubble into the drip. She decided to let Dr. Dye keep Stan overnight to get him rehydrated. 

The next morning, I went to work as usual and Mom got dressed to go visit Stan at the clinic. As she was getting ready, Dr. Dye called and told her to come to the clinic right away. Mom did so, and when she got there, Stan was on oxygen. He had held on just long enough to see Mom again, and after more than a month of suffering, with Mom by his side, there to stroke, kiss and comfort, he was finally able to let go. 

On the morning of February 21, 2014, we lost Stan, and it might have been the hardest loss our family has ever dealt with. He was a part of our family for eight years, and we had hoped to have him for at least eight more. He was one of the only bright spots in what has been a really dark time, and with him gone, it’s going to be a lot harder to find the light. 

But one thing I know for sure is that we were truly blessed to have Stan in our lives. We will always be grateful to Mike for taking in the little guy, and I will always be grateful to Mom for falling in love with him when I was too blind to. I honestly believe that any creature with the capacity for love is made, to some extent, in the image of its Creator, and as such I believe Stan is in a better place, where he will be rewarded for his eight years of devoted service. He loved us, and he, too, was loved, and will never be forgotten. We will always miss that unfailingly sweet, endlessly compassionate, always ridiculous cat. 

We'll always miss you, little Tubbles.