As a writer and a storyteller, it’s hard to admit that I don’t know how to begin. Something is missing. Not something practical like a pencil or keyboard. Not something existential like creativity. This isn’t writer’s block. The something missing is more like having moved to a new house that is almost exactly like your old house. Almost. What is missing is basic and simplistic: a state of being, a state of knowing, and a state of reality that was a constant for me for 17 years. My cat Elsa has passed on.
The short version is that pet lovers need no explanation. This deep well of grief is well-explored. In fact, my Facebook feed has recently been overflowing with similar posts…saying goodbye to a longtime, beloved pet. Is it just the timing has come around for us, those of us in our early 40s? We, with or without children, are at an age paradigm shift signified in the passing of pets we adopted as young people with our first house or apartment, first good job—when getting a pet was another step of adulthood.
The long version is about to begin. To tell this story properly I have to tell it all, from Elsa’s beginning: Elsa was my first cat and my first pet all my own. My family had two small dogs successively through my childhood and college years. I did my part to care for them, but they weren’t entirely my responsibility. Elsa may never have been entirely mine (as cats generally don’t condescend to that), but in our way we belonged to each other. She taught me how to be a cat owner (servant?)…even if it took me a very long time to learn. And that is something I whispered to her as she faded in my arms.
Elsa was born free, like her namesake, outside the door of the rural office where I worked. At the time I was reading the 1966 book Born Free, by Joy Adamson, a native of Austria-Hungary who, with her husband George, was a naturalist in Kenya. Elsa was the lioness they raised from a cub. My Elsa was appropriately named for this Elsa, but this other ice queen Elsa wouldn’t be entirely off the mark.
She nearly wasn’t born at all. Mama Cat, reliable for her daily feedings, mysteriously disappeared one day well into gestation. We, a co-worker and I who were her chief feeders, knew kitten time was close and Mama Cat must be in trouble. Searching the campus of our workplace, we followed faint mewing into a dark barn and found Mama Cat tangled in a pile of old nets. We cut her free, and gave her food and water. Mama Cat was voracious. Hours later, she gave birth. We peeked at the litter when they were maybe a day old, where Mama Cat had stashed them in a shed.
The litter was born the first weekend of August 1998, so their first month must have been like living in the Garden of Eden. Elsa was one of four kittens, as was the case with Mama Cat’s two prior litters with Bobby the Cat (the resident feral and Papa Cat). Each litter had two kittens with tails, one with a bob-tail (like Bobby), and one tailless. Mama Cat paraded her brood around the gardens as soon as they were old enough. She showed them how to hunt by presenting them with a deceased chipmunk (each kitten took a play-hunt lunge at it), showed them how to drink out of the pond, and kept them well protected. We people handled them as often as Mama Cat would let us. At five weeks, the kittens were ranging close to a busy road, so we made the call to send them to forever homes.
A wild thing
The smallest and tailless, Elsa was the runt. The day I took her home, she was also the slowest and sleepiest. That’s the trouble with kittens. They are adorable, but either off or on. I was fooled, but also woefully unprepared for kitten ownership. All I knew was cuddly lap dogs.
She was so tiny in the beginning. Possibly too soon taken from mother’s milk, as her first ‘BM’ was tough for her. With a tissue in-hand, and Elsa mewing in panic, I ‘assisted’ a visit to the litter box. The things we do for our furbabies. She was litterbox trained almost instantly! As she started out confined to one room, the first time I let her explore (away from her litterbox), she left a tiny poo on the floor. I picked her up in one hand, and the poo with a tissue in the other, and carried her to the litter box where I deposited the tiny poo. I set Elsa on the floor. She looked at me, looked at the poo, and then climbed in to bury it. Training complete!
In fact, she was so fastidious that when she once pooped behind the television, she meowed and ran back and forth Lassie-style until we followed her to the scene of the offense. Elsa wanted it picked up, pronto. Another time she peed in the bathroom sink. The culprit both times? Her litterbox was not pristine. Thus followed years of maintaining two litterboxes for Queen Elsa.
At first, her rump was just that – a tailless rump with a tiny puff of fur. It would be several weeks later while petting her that I felt a little nub where her tail would be. It would never grow to more than a nub, and her puff of fur resembled a rabbit’s cottontail. Elsa was unaffected by the lack of a tail. Her agility was champion-level; her jumping from the floor to anywhere was as quick as a thought, as if she teleported. I once accidentally swatted her to the floor when I put out my hand to discourage a jump up to my desk, but she was already there! I spent years shooing her off counters and tables, and many times threw out fresh made tuna salad that Elsa had contaminated.
The lack of a tail, however, did present a problem for me as a novice cat owner. No tail means no barometer. Those swishes and upright wiggles that other cat owners use to gauge their cat’s mood? I didn’t have that. I eventually learned that when her normally pale pink nose turned dark pink, her agitation level was rising. That, and wiiiide eyes with huge pupils. (I got scratched and bit a lot.)
Years later, we did notice that if we watched her nub closely, the fur in the center would seem to be moving in a circle. It was her version of the upright “hello” wiggle.
Elsa was every bit a feral cat that first year (five years?) of her life: A biter, a scratcher, a wall-climber, a mischief-maker. I still own a plastic kitchen utensil that bears her needle-sharp kitten teeth marks. She never quite completely shed being feral. She mellowed later, around 8 years old, and then would actually sleep in my lap. But that feral streak… I got scratched and bit a lot. In fact, when she came down with an infection at about 10 weeks old, I knew only because she was so calm and easy to handle. I said, “There’s something wrong with this cat.” I was right; she had a very high fever and needed a day at the vet office on an IV.
But, she was my first pet, all my own. And, lucky for her, terribly cute.
Not a fan of company
When she was about a year old, I thought maybe Elsa’s wildness would ease if she had a cat companion. I brought home Moby, a six month old all black male cat. I was wrong about Elsa wanting feline companionship, at least not from Mo. She hissed and swatted him from the get-go. Trouble was that Moby would grow bigger than her—three times her weight and a shoulder taller. And payback is a you-know-what.
Moby wanted to stalk and play rough all the time. Elsa protested often, and avoided all of us. About this time she found a great hiding place where she would sleep at night: in the rag bin of The Husband’s workshop. The first time I discovered her there, I was heartbroken that she was sleeping “with the rags”—Elsa didn’t care. It was soft and secluded, and, importantly, away from Mo.
This went on for several years, until Mo’s severe diabetes took him. Elsa didn’t seem to miss him. But what we learned from his illness benefited her greatly as we went on to feed her top quality food for the rest of her life. (As The Husband terms it: “The most expensive sh!t we could find.”)
In the meantime, we also adopted a greyhound, Valentina, when Elsa was about six years old. Greyhounds are known for their high prey-drive, and Valentina tested ‘cat safe’, but we were advised to discourage any interest she might show in Elsa. No worries there; for the first several months, Valentina would avert her eyes, turn around, and seek another route through a room should Elsa be glaring nearby.
One moment of canine curiosity resulted in an effective ‘brow beating’: Elsa was sitting up on a cabinet when Valentina strolled by and became excitable at a furry thing at eye level. She began rapidly wagging her tail, stiffening her legs, and sniffs at Elsa’s belly became quick and poky with her sleek greyhound snoot. This was the kind of interaction we were supposed to discourage. Elsa took care of it. Her demeanor went from surprised, to annoyed, to thoroughly disgusted. Then she reached over and thwapped Valentina on top of her head several times. Valentina, a bit perplexed, got the message.
Elsa and Valentina regarded each other with respectful aloofness and physically interacted only a few times in over a decade of peaceful coexistence. Once or twice Valentina found Elsa lounging in the sunshine and gave her ears a good cleaning; surprisingly, Elsa looked absolutely blissful, until she noticed me watching. A handful of times they shared a dog bed. Both elderly at that point, it came of Valentina not acquiescing to Elsa stealing her bed, and Elsa not storming off insulted by the dog’s presence. They never actually cuddled, but I do think they had a dignified affection for each other.
Valentina did once rescue Elsa from the mad pursuit of a paper party hat, when the elastic inexplicably became encircled around her cat waist. No amount of running, all throughout the house, upstairs and down, escaped The Hat. The Husband and I, paralyzed by hysterics, were no help. Only the superior vision, speed, and reflexes of a greyhound could expertly grab just The Hat as the red foil and furry blur streaked by.
How to serve a cat
Elsa did everything on her own terms. She was a self-regulated eater, meaning we kept kibble for her to graze-at-will. For years her food bowl was atop a pantry countertop, first to thwart large Moby from eating her food (the big guy was too big to jump), then later to thwart Valentina. Because of these years of interlopers near her food bowl, Elsa liked to have what we called an escort. One of us had to stand there while she ate, or she meowed loudly and chased you around the kitchen. No petting or touching, just standing there. A couple years ago we moved her food bowl to the floor in the powder room. Elsa’s jumping days were waning.
Water was another story. Elsa would stare at the water bowl, stretch across to the far side, and then drink out of it with her tongue barely touching the surface, but somehow lapping water over the side. This cat splashed water everywhere. I learned once that cats don’t like to drink if they can’t tell the depth of the water. I put smooth rocks in her water bowl. Still splashed. A golf ball. Flooded the floor. A ceramic bowl with a picture on the bottom she could see. Splash. One day a few years ago I got so aggravated with this decade-plus long situation that I began taking all manner of vessels out of the cupboard to test her drinking preference.
The hit? A clear glass rectangular casserole. Elsa leaned her face in and lapped from the corner. THAT WAS IT. Drinking from the corner, her whiskers didn’t touch the sides! We called it her water trough. Of course, if the dog drank out of it (which was often), I’d have to clean the whole trough before Elsa would use it again. But she drank out of Valentina’s water bowl…who knows, it made sense to her.
Elsa maintained a svelte physique her whole life, never getting heavier than 8 pounds or so. She did enjoy various cat treats, and chomped my houseplants or flower arrangements every chance she got. Oh, and Elsa barfed. She was always good for a scarf-and-barf a couple times a week. The floral chomping also resulted in digestive reversal. She found a delicacy in pine needles tracked in by the back door. These would also reappear.
If I heard her heaving, I’d rush over and try to soothe her out of it, or slide a newspaper under her face, or just try to move her to bare flooring. Because, you know, she preferred to barf on rugs, furniture—really anything, anything, I preferred she not barf on. Oh, are you reading that magazine?…baarrffff. New rug?…baarrffff. I see you just got the porch furniture reupholstered…baarrffff. I don’t know if this was better or worse than her leaving butt-prints on some of the same places. Elsa was why we couldn’t have nice things.
A Hair Storm
Then there was her cat hair. It is very distinctly marked, the first half white, then the middle dark brown or black, and the tip a bright red-to-gold, like a lit match. Except for the white of her belly, face and paws, most of Elsa’s coat was a perfect camouflage. There were variations all over, including the place behind her ears where the fur was ultrasoft and butterscotch colored.
Though a short-coated cat, Elsa was a hair storm. Chairs, throw pillows, and couches were periodically draped with blankets or towels when I would get into a snit, vacuum the furniture, and try to overcome the cat hair situation — a true exercise in futility. She would nap in my clean laundry, or recline on the fresh outfit I just laid out on the bed. The Husband used to joke that there is Elsa hair inside the clean room at IBM. Or on the moon. A common refrain at meal time was, “Oh, there’s only one cat hair on my plate.” I once pulled one of her hairs off a co-worker’s shoulder, at work. She didn’t have a cat at that time. Elsa’s fur. Was. Everywhere. It still is.
Getting along…or not
Elsa played only sometimes, and despite Mama Cat’s instructions, she was a terrible hunter. Elsa once found a mouse. She caught it and carried it to my Dad, laying it at his feet, and then walked away. The mouse was unharmed, and walked away too. [Thanks, Elsa.] The same with bugs. If an ant or fly was around, she would watch it forever, but made no effort whatsoever to catch it. In fact, she would look at me as if to say, “Um, aren’t you going to do something about this?”
An early game we had was that she would sit atop a kitchen half-wall and would catch, with her front paws, little felt mice I would throw. Over and over! She was good at it. Like all cats, she was also good at later slap-shotting those same toys underneath the refrigerator or stove.
I learned not to buy her toys. Wadded paper, twist ties, and any kind of bag or box was just fine. Plastic bags or paper shopping bags were preferred. Especially appealing was any kind of tote bag I might be using for work or daytrips, and my reusable grocery bags were top choices. I purposely left bags and boxes around for Elsa. And she would sit in them with this expectant look on her face. I don’t know what she was expecting.
Elsa had expressions. A common one was disgust. The way she would look at me, The Husband, the dog, and especially at Moby, was tired disgust. You could almost hear her ‘tsk’ and sigh as she turned away after one of these stares. The disgusted look was often preceded or followed by a barrage of meows best described as a berating. We were all idiots.
Another more peculiar expression I called Human Face. Elsa had a way of fixing you with her eyes. Her cat features would kind of melt away and you would feel a chill on your spine—she was a someone looking back at you. I don’t know if she carried some past life with her, or if it was just her Self showing through, transcending species. Because of this expression, together with the firm belief that she understood every word I said, Elsa was to me more “Elsa” than “my cat.” She was a fully realized being, and she wanted everyone to know it.
Elsa was also very vocal, with insistent, sometimes bellowing, meows. Howls. Trills. Purring came later, perhaps as she left behind feline-teenage years. In these ‘voices’, Elsa and I would converse…or argue. Our first big argument was when she was only a few months old. I wanted to pet her, she didn’t want me to (I got scratched and bit a lot). So I said, “Well, I’m gonna touch your head,” and I did, with one finger. Without opening her mouth, Elsa let out a sound, both terrifying and hysterically funny, that sounded like the siren at the firehouse down the road: “rrrraaaAAAAAWWWWWRRRRRrrrr!” Her eyes were huge. I removed my finger right quick.
When to pet…or not to pet
I never learned to NOT try to pet Elsa. She was adorable and I wanted to cuddle her, much to her dismay. Whenever I went in for a hug, it was like Buddy the Elf opening his arms wide for a wild raccoon. I got scratched, bit, dug, and chastised. Still, I tried. I loved her!
You might be getting the impression that Elsa wasn’t very nice. Well, she didn’t go in for sentimentality, and maintaining her dignity was a priority. However, even in her youth, she couldn’t resist it when I wore a big wool sweater or fleece. She would burrow underneath and lie in wait for me to think she was being cute and cuddly. As time wore on, she was less vigilant and was actually cuddling, though stroking or petting her in this position wasn’t safe until she was almost 10 years old.
Because I wanted to pet her was the reason why for a long time Elsa preferred the lap of The Husband. He was smart enough to not try to touch her. But at night, he moves a lot in his sleep. I do not. I would often wake in the night to find Elsa curled up between my knees, on my abdomen, or in the crook of my arm. If we were both in deep sleeps, I would end up hugging her close like a teddy bear. Those moments when I would wake and realize this were heart-melting. She would eventually extract herself to a more dignified pose, but I cherished those fleeting moments. And you know what? To me she always smelled like my childhood stuffed animals — warm and comforting. When I could get away with it, I would scoop her up, bury my nose in her fur, and inhale. I would come away with a face full of cat hair, but it was worth it.
Elsa eventually began to show her version of appreciation for me. My lap was just fine if I had a wool or fleece blanket. When she did occasionally seek attention, she always buried her face in my palm and I would sit there just holding her head. And she increasingly showed distress if I was away for any length of time. My schedule changed when I began to work from home, and she got used to me being around all day. Dare I say – she liked it! She would even come when I called to her.
When I came home from three days at the hospital, Elsa was stuck to me like glue for days afterward. Not only did she follow me everywhere, she planted herself on my lap when I settled down with a fleece blanket a friend and her family made for my recuperation. I spent a lot of time under that blanket. Elsa spent an equal amount of time on top of it. Barely any biting.
Twilight and caretaking
Elsa began to decline in the last year or so. She had a few terrifying episodes that looked a lot like strokes, but were not. In robust health her whole life, these episodes shook her. I know because each time Elsa clung to me as I soothed her. Zero attempts to bite or get away. The first time I sat up the whole night, keeping her next to me in the bed. She had two more of these frightening episodes, and always came to find us rather than hiding away as some animals would do.
Unpleasant “accidents” in the basement increased. Her fur started to look raggedy. Elsa always checked out at her annual vet visits, but things took a turn about a year ago. She was confused a lot, losing weight, howling, and pacing. She had picked a spot in the dining room that she liked better than her litterbox, so we were forced to put a small litterbox there, surrounded by newspapers. Another check after Thanksgiving revealed an overactive thyroid, and Elsa went on daily medicine. I failed at ‘administering’ the pill (I have scars to prove I tried), and she rejected pill pockets. Canned food had historically caused a mess in the litterbox, but since Elsa was down to a few bowel movements a week, I figured I could crush the pill into canned food and she could use the ‘quickening’ properties.
There was no pill for her dementia. Howling became common. She would wake from a nap and carry on until I went and found her, then her meow would change from “Howl [where are you?]” to “Meerow [oh, there you are.]”
Elsa was ravenous, even nosing into Valentina’s food bowl right under her chin. The dog would actually turn away and leave it for Elsa. So at meal times I added policing the dog’s bowl to my agenda. Elsa and I argued a lot over that situation. But for all her eating, she was losing weight, and went down to barely 6 lbs. Her bones stuck out everywhere; her spine a small mountain range when I pet her, her leg bones so lacking muscle tone that she looked like a cricket.
She fell off the bed one night. Over all those years of her sleeping with me, Elsa was good at moving when I rolled over. One night last winter I rolled over, and The Husband and I were awakened by a loud thud. He asked, “What was that?” I knew immediately it was Elsa, and braced myself for what I might find when I switched on the lamp. She was fine, sitting normally, if a little stunned. She hadn’t landed on her feet. The Husband said it sounded like a brick hitting the floor.
Accidents increased. Elsa peed on the floor right in front of us. She once pooped on the floor right in front of me—a major breach of her personal dignity. She would pee inches away from a spotless litterbox. She would pee half in/half out of the litterbox. And she slept so, so deeply. I wished she would pass that way, but the vet said that was very rare.
The vet also said, at her last appointment in late spring, that Elsa was suffering from multiple organ disease. Her kidney function was terrible, and she likely had intestinal lymphoma. Elsa would, the doctor said, continue to waste away. There was no coming back from this. But, she was alert and her heart was very strong. Elsa was a few months shy of 17 years old.
Respecting her dignity
It got harder and harder to watch Elsa decline. I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt like Elsa had more time, but at what quality? I adamantly didn’t want her to experience a crisis, the kind of situation where she suddenly couldn’t stand or eat, or was weakened to that state.
She had become terrified of the veterinary office after her last few visits involved urine test by catheter and blood test by jugular. For 17 years she went to the vet with little trouble, sticking out her chin as if to say “you don’t scare me.” At her last visit, she trembled from the second I put her in the carrier. I would not carry her to her death that way.
In mid-summer I began researching. Doorbell Vet could come to the house for euthanasia. Pets At Peace could do a semi-private cremation, rather than the vet taking her away. I carried her home the first time, I would carry her out the last time.
Elsa’s few weekly bowel movements, previously pebbly and dry, were large and black. Waking from a nap on the porch glider next to The Husband, she sat up and promptly fell over sideways onto the floor.
I set the date. I ordered a kit from SilverPet Prints to take a paw print to later make into jewelry. On her last weekend, Elsa ate albacore tuna for every meal. Though August, I draped a fleece blanket over my lap. She napped. I just looked at her, petting her sparingly so she wouldn’t get annoyed and leave.
About an hour before The Time, I woke Elsa from one of these naps for another plate of tuna. She ambled out to the sunny porch and curled up into her usual “kitty bun” sleep position. I sat next to her, waiting for the call. The plan was for The Husband to let in the vet quietly, and he would come out to the porch to administer the sedative. Elsa barely knew he was there, and the prick must have been little because she let out only her familiar annoyed, closed-mouth “mmrrrr.” I had a wool blanket on my lap, the one I used to put against the radiator in my office where she often napped in winter. As the sedative worked, I gathered her up and laid her across my lap with her head on a pillow next to me.
I talked to her. I pet her. I think her eyes were focused on the large trees outside and the birds chirping and flying by. I whispered to her to go find Bobby and Mama Cat, who had passed almost 3 years ago. I told her she was a pretty girl, that she was good, and that I loved her through everything. I thanked her for teaching me how to have a cat, and apologized for taking so long to learn. The vet came back to the porch to administer the final injection. It happened very fast. Her adorable toe pads were pink and black; the pink toes began to turn pale. The vet listened with his stethoscope, closed her eyes, and said she had passed.
I continued to talk to her and pet her. I stroked that soft butterscotch fur behind her ears, and rubbed the short, velvety white fur above her nose. I smoothed her fur down where I had ruffled it too much. I hugged her and kissed her. And I cried and cried and cried. (I am crying nearly as hard as I type this).
She looked like she was sound asleep. Eventually, I carried Elsa inside to show Valentina, who, in her own advanced age situation, didn’t even get off the couch when the vet came in. I pulled the blanket back and showed her Elsa. She leaned forward to sniff. She looked at me, looked at The Husband, and sniffed Elsa one last time before leaning back. She knew. I wrapped the blanket around Elsa again and we left for Pets at Peace.
The sunny afternoon had clouded over and rain began to fall. Of course. It was pouring by the time we got there. The gentlemen there ushered us into a viewing room, a serene space with a waterfall fixture and a cushion on a dais to set down your pet. I set Elsa down and arranged her blanket. I pet her some more. Stood back. Pet her again. Stood back. It was so hard to leave her.
We were promised Elsa would be handled gingerly, with dignity, and that she would be cremated that very evening. A metal identification tag would accompany her, in her separated chamber, so that we would be sure to get back Elsa’s ashes only.
Across the Rainbow Bridge
Elsa is home now, her ashes in a velvet bag embroidered with “Until we meet again at the rainbow bridge,” tucked inside a latched wooden box. She sits on the table next to my living room chair, with a photo of her looking robust, and, appropriately, a little annoyed.
Her water trough is where we left it. Valentina hasn’t touched it. The water from the last time I filled it is nearly evaporated. I will have to pick it up soon. Having it there, though, has been a last shred of that reality. With it there on the kitchen floor, it seems like she could be under the chair nearby, or about to rush up from the basement with cobwebs in her whiskers.
Elsa lived a long life in perfect health for 16 of her 17 years. She was my cat, and I was her person. ‘Without Elsa’ is not a state I recognize, and I miss her terribly. I am altered forever by her.
There is so much more I could tell about life with this furry individual. Elsa did everything on her terms, rarely if ever yielding to the desires of her people. At least I was her favorite human to spurn.
Such memories, Terra! Thanks for sharing.
I’m so sorry you lost your muse. I lost one in January. It is a very sad and sweet pain for us, but there is peace in her having died with her peeps close by and without fear. I think losing a cat is the hardest thing I have ever experienced. I know I’ve been blessed in that, and blessed a thousand times over by cats that lived to be 20 🙂 I still can cry for them just by remembering the letting-go time. She was a wonderful cat, Terra! Go look for her at Lollypop Farm–she’ll come back to you–just a little different. You’ll know her when you see her (9 lives…). I just read that 38% of spouses love their pet more than their spouse (I know that’s not true of YOUR marriage 🙂 but I can appreciate it… ) You are blessed to have Mark and other critters to love.
Thank you, Robin. Elsa’s passing was a bittersweet experience, as was much of her ornery life! And for all her grouchiness and impatience with me, she was wonderful.
I can totally relate. Walter the former feral lives with me…the sweetest kitty anyone could ever want. And he shares the house with Bill, the black lab…who happens to be the best dog I ever had. Your blog made me laugh out loud (party hat and Valentina the rescuer), and sob along with you.
A couple of weeks ago, Walter showed unusual signs of illness, and I was panicked. Luckily, he recovered. Like you, I will be bereft when the time comes. Bill is 10 and 8 pound Walter is only 7. I hope I have 10 more years like you did.
Sadly as all pet owners know, you will miss her for a long, long time. And you will tell yourself that you will never get another one because it’s too painful to say goodbye. And God knows it is. But you probably will. We have, though Walter is my first cat. And each dog that we’ve had has gotten more and more lovable. It is a real possibility, though today I’m sure it doesn’t feel likely.
If it helps even a little bit, I know how you feel and I send condolences your way. Even those of us who DO have children, love our pets with their unconditional love with all our hearts.
I only wish there were a magic pill I could give you to make it stop hurting. Sadly, only time can do that….
Thank you, Donna. After a year of elderly pet caretaking, we are still nursing Valentina through her twilight; we agreed that we will probably need a break for a while. Until some dog or cat chooses us.