Our cat has lost her mind. Literally. She reminds me of the gray-headed character from the movie “Hook” – the little guy that wanders around looking for his lost marbles all day. Yes, that is our twenty-two-year-old cat. Recently she had a stroke and we thought we were looking at her last days. She was not in any pain, but she stopped using her back legs. We opted to keep her home and let her pass naturally (trips to the vet have always been torturous and stressful for her and we felt it would be worse to crate her up and travel) we made her comfortable and she slept for two days. And then she got up and helped herself to something to eat. Except she’s not at all the same cat. She has undergone a very strange transformation…and we are completely at odds as to how to handle it.
When Jordan came into my husbands life twenty years ago, she was given her name because of her ability to execute pro-athlete-type leaps into the air. She was a hunter and an avid fan of being outdoors. She had been declawed by her previous owner but it did not stop her from insisting on going outside or even from climbing and mousing. Jordan grew up with our kids, being dressed like a baby, taken on the trampoline, soothing them through bouts of sickness and times of sadness. She was there when we brought each baby home from the hospital. She flew with us from Seattle to North Carolina when we relocated across the country. She is a family institution.
And now she seems to be suffering from feline alzheimers. And we are at a crossroads.
We call her “Grandma Cat” and we treat her with kid gloves. She is skinny and frail despite giving her high calorie kitten food and supplementing with protein rich people food. Her eyes are cloudy, she looks confused and sleepy most of the time. She only goes outside during the day when we can supervise her. We have talked about “humane end-of-life options” but we aren’t ready to go there. She still seems happy to see us, she is still up-and-about, she eats…and she relieves herself… But…like a feeble little grandma, she is not herself. She never quite makes it to the litter box. Each morning we are greeted with her mess just outside of it. It’s as though she knows where to find the bathroom, she just can’t remember what to do when she gets there. We have made sure that she can easily climb in and out of the litter box by downgrading to a small, shallow pan. It hasn’t made a difference. She has even mistaken the laundry basket near her litter box for her bathroom. And, like a toddler, we catch her trying to eat strange items – rubbery toys, kleenex, baby wipes. She looks up at us with her watery, old eyes when we confiscate the non-edible contraband, seemingly confused as to what the problem is. She licks everything – the windows, the furniture, books, the dog, the front walk. She has lost all sense of manners and decorum – once a well-behaved and polite cat, she now gets on the table during meals, no matter how we protest, walking right up to a plate and eating whatever is on it. Yesterday she helped herself to a whole serving of collard greens while we watched in astonishment. Who’s ever seen a cat eat collard greens? And she no longer responds to anything we say, oh, she can hear just fine, but clearly nothing registers. Our cat is senile.
We can’t have the talk about putting her in an old cats home like we could if she was our grandma. Every morning, we search for her and find her asleep somewhere. And every morning, we all stare at her, while she sleeps, to see if she is still breathing. Each time, my breath catches in my throat just a little because I’m not sure she’s still with us. And we have an increasing concern about her falling and breaking a brittle bone, just like a little old lady. She jumps up on things and before we can catch her, she loses her balance and falls off. The window sills, tables, chairs, the toy box. At least she doesn’t try to maneuver the stairs anymore, she just sticks to the first level of the house.
And while I pray that she will go peacefully in her sleep one day, I worry that we will be making a mad dash to the vet with our twenty-two year old cat, because of a fall or her having eaten something that she should not have. And we will have to make that most difficult of decisions in an emergency setting. So here we are, trying to formulate an end-of-life plan for our companion of two decades. I’m a firm believer that animals will let you know when things have gotten to be too much for them. I’m also a firm believer that we are selfish beings and we sometimes cause them to endure suffering because it’s harder for us to let go. We walk a fine line when that responsibility falls on our shoulders.
So our plan for Grandma Cat is to make sure she is comfortable. To watch her as closely as possible for signs of distress or pain. To not shuttle her needlessly to the vet as that is a scary and traumatizing trip. To be patient and gentle with her even though I am frustrated with accidents and dinner table invasions. She has endured numerous moves, the harassment of three children, the addition of other pets, and, at times, being ignored. She has been our loyal companion for twenty + years and she deserves our loyalty in her end days. Our plan is to love her and to let her go. On her terms, in her own time without intervening unless absolutely necessary. Yes, I will be Swiffering with the wet jet every couple of hours around that litterbox, but it’s nothing she wouldn’t do for us…