A few days before Stanley gave up his battle, I was trying to organize the kitchen sink, pushing around prescription bottles, small cans of cat food and jars of baby food, the bag of used needles from his sub-q fluid therapy, and there was the bag hanging from the ceiling, the line wrapped around the paper towel holder, and on the chair the beach towels I used to wrap him so he wouldn’t be able to get away from me, and the modified daily schedule to ensure that he ate and exercised and spent some time with the rest of the household. I guess he always knew there was nothing I wouldn’t do for him, and in the end isn’t that all any of us really need, the knowledge that there is at least one being in this world who cares unconditionally for our welfare and will do whatever they can for our happiness and security, simply out of love? When I was 25 years old and Stanley walked into my life did I know I could provide that for a cat? I don’t think so, but in the 21 years Stanley was with me I learned without even knowing there was a lesson.
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This is from the card I created in Stanley’s memory, pictured above. Years ago, before blogging, I designed a little printed piece for each of the cats I’d lost which included the most memorable photos and artwork and a tribute, printed them and mailed them out to friends and veterinarians. The cards gathered my thoughts at that moment, sometimes begun a short time before they actually transitioned as I sat with them in those final days, and sometimes a week or so after if I needed a bit of time. I often found I’d discovered or rediscovered a bit of poetry or prose that was entirely appropriate for the times and shared it in my card along with my own words and images.
It was an important part of my grieving, the writing, the design, turning my grief into creative energy and taking my time with each part. I wrote notes in each of the cards, reading the names and addresses and thinking of each person to whom I was sending the card and their relationship with the cat and with me, who was new on the list and how my life had changed during the years I’d shared with this cat. And not the least, I thought about how my life would be different without this cat to share it.
I had designed Stanley’s card to fold in on itself until it was a square, so that the reader could unfold it frame by frame and read and look at the art in sequence.
I still go through the rest of the process while gathering content for my blog posts, but of course there is no real design and I miss the finality of mailing and handling something tangible while thinking of the kitty in question. But I trade that for being able to reach more readers, and that the story is accessible as long as I leave it there so I can continue sharing it. What is important for me is, of course, the deep thought process beginning to lead to acceptance, working my way through the guilt that arises sometimes with a difficult passing and questioning my judgment, or with a long illness and actually looking forward to being released from complicated care.
In Stanley’s case, he had peed all over everything through his life, and I would not miss that and should not miss that, but felt guilty for admitting it. In his last months his spine was degrading, in his last week it was pinching his spinal cord so that he was losing the use of his hind legs until he could no longer manage his bowels. I had to express his bladder and bowels by putting him in the tub and squeezing, and with the tender state of his frail body I was frightened I would hurt him as I easily could have. A few days into that he looked up at me and I knew he was ready to finally let go. It was during that time that I wrote the narrative at the beginning of this post, organizing my thoughts while I organized my caretaking materials at the kitchen sink.
But the message, the written memorial, the time of focused contemplation, are all important to moving grief along at a pace that is right for each of us. And at the end of that process is not to be free from grief but shed the doubt and guilt and sadness and to turn your grief back into the love from which it was made.
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January 15, 2007 marks the day Stanley transitioned to his next existence after about 25 years in this mortal coil. I don’t always remember birthdays but I do remember the days my cats entered my life and left it; much led up to each event, and my life was changed forever with each one as well.
Stanley, though, for his longevity and for many other qualities, has a memorable leavetaking as much for his condition and care as for what his age and position in seniority represented. Not only was he very old, he was the last of the cats I’d rescued before I even moved into this house, and with him went all those memories of early rescues and working on the beginnings of my art career late into the night. A certain sense of my own youth had gone with him.
I haven’t written Stanley’s rescue story or much about him, partly because I’m working my way back from the cats who’ve been with me since I’ve been writing The Creative Cat. When you live with an evolving household of cats over a period of years, they arrive, stay for their time and sadly leave us too soon, but they are intertwined with our own lives and those of our other animal companions. Stanley was with me for 21 years, and that’s a lot of history to share. I’ve been reviewing photos for months, years really, and I’m constantly surprised at what I’ve forgotten. Some day soon, I’ll do him justice.
He was fully adult when his big green eyes first looked through my door one day and with all those tabby stripes, white whiskers and big white mittens and a white diamond between his eyes he asked to come in as if he’d been sent on an important errand, though it took him a couple of weeks and an ice storm to get his point across. Surely he was sent equipped with all the lessons he had to deliver about feline diet and health, emotional needs, patience and understanding, and it took him all 21 years to teach me, and to resolve the issues he carried until he was thoroughly done with me and this world and ready to move on.
The veterinarian who examined him at his first urinary blockage guessed his age at between three and five, so I took the average and figured he was four. He was the most troubled cat I’ve ever known, suffering from constant urinary issues and acting out from the chronic pain, finding a reason to pee on just about everything I’ve ever owned and once biting me so badly and narrowly missing the artery in my right wrist that I spent hours in the emergency room being filled with antibiotics and pain killers. But he was sweet and silly and apologetic so I covered much of my house in sheets of plastic and learned to understand what he was telling me so that I could help him through whatever physical or emotional crisis caused him to act that way. He was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure at age 21 but survived four years of my treating him with fluid therapy, wrapping him in a towel and sitting on him to hold him long enough to give him a therapeutic dose, and supplements thanks to my veterinarian’s patient guidance.
I’m not one for shopping in grocery stores on a regular basis, but a few weeks after he passed I found myself in the grocery store near midnight and realized the last time I’d been there it was also later at night to buy a few jars of baby food for Stanley because he would not eat his canned food. Stanley had still been alive, and that had not been too long before then. Stanley’s death had been long in coming and expected, I had plenty of time to prepare and recovered fairly quickly afterward, but right in the baby food aisle I began to cry all over again. I have no idea what anyone thought who might have seen me.
Stanley was the last of the original clowder I moved in here with and the last of four senior cats who passed in the space of a year. Though the adult cats who still lived with me were also seniors, I also had Lucy, my kitten, the new life who had known those older cats. I could pause and rest from a lot of caretaking and a lot of loss.
. . . . . . .
Below is the poem I’d discovered just a few months prior to this time, which I placed on the back of the card.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372)
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979
Read other stories and essays about Pet Loss as well as my Pet Loss in the First Person series.
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