The First Firsts

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Taken on my birthday, September 2020

In the end, nothing could prepare me for the first firsts without Minou.

On Saturday morning at half past ten, Ed and I said goodbye to Minou. As her paperwork reminded me, she was seventeen years, seven months, and eight days old. A good age for a cat, though that is no consolation at this moment in time. I have been steeling myself for this day at regular intervals ever since Minou was diagnosed with kidney disease and pancreatitis in the summer of 2018. Each time she had a flare up, Ed and I prepared ourselves to say goodbye. There have been so many times where we’ve driven down the Hagley Road to the emergency vet in Halesowen with Minou in my arms thinking we’d come back with an empty carrier, only to have her bounce back to life with fluid therapy, anti-emetics and intensive home nursing.

Minou’s flare up last June at the end of the first lockdown was severe. She lost the ability to walk, and for a few days at the height of summer I carried her everywhere, at all times of day. In the middle of the night I’d wake to find her sat up beside me, needing the toilet but too weak to walk there herself. I’d carry her out to her litter tray on the balcony, supporting her whilst she relieved herself, then carry her back to her pillow on our bed and stroke her until she settled back in to sleep. She regained her appetite and thirst as well as her ability to walk quite quickly, and arthritis supplements coupled with fish oil got her jumping and using her scratching post again by late August. Ed and I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that the worst had passed, for the time being.

Minou had another flare up in November during England’s second lockdown. This time it was a respiratory infection that caused her to lose her appetite, for which she was prescribed antibiotics at the appointment we thankfully managed to secure for her in person despite the physical distancing restrictions. The antibiotics worked, briefly, but her immune system was so weak that the infection eventually returned. From late November Minou’s weight hovered around 3kg, no matter what we tempted her with. Her healthy pre-illness adult weight was 4kg. We kept her warm in her chair by the radiator, let her eat non-prescription wet food just to get calories into her, and she pottered about the flat quite content. There is no doubt in my mind that she enjoyed a good quality of life these last three months. She wasn’t eating enough, but she was eating something each and every day. She was still able to walk and to jump, and she was incredibly affectionate, seeking us both out for lap time and cuddles and standing on our pillows in the mornings when she thought it was time we got up and paid her some attention.

Ten days ago, Minou was ravenous. This was part of her pattern of illness with pancreatitis which was more of a challenge for her than her kidney disease; she’d be really hungry for a couple of days and then lose her appetite completely. Once she stopped eating, I started syringe feeding her water on the hour every hour, which is what I have done to keep her hydrated during the quarterly flare ups of pancreatitis she has experienced these past three years. It’s usually enough to help her turn a corner and start eating independently once the nausea passes. She briefly regained her appetite for sardines in tomato sauce, but by Friday afternoon she was refusing all food, all water, and kept pushing the syringe away when I tried to help her. She could barely walk, and all she wanted to do was lie in our arms and rest. I have heard so many people say that they just know when their cats or dogs are at the end of their lives, but I never knew what they meant until I experienced it with Minou. When the final decline came, she went downhill fast.

After calling the vet on Friday afternoon, Ed and I spent a beautiful final evening with Minou. We wrapped her in a blanket and respected her wishes not to eat or drink, though she would accept coconut yoghurt if we offered it to her on our fingers or on a spoon. We watched The Royal Tenenbaums together for what must have been the hundredth time and then went to bed. For the past two years, Minou has slept on our bed on a pillow between our pillows. This is an arrangement which we came to because the alternative was waking in the early hours with a headache because she was asleep on our heads. There is no middle ground with an elderly Siamese cat, they are the clingiest and most attention seeking of all cats. They really do think that they are human.

Whilst cleaning my teeth I watched as she slowly carried herself through to our bedroom from the music room and climbed up onto the bed via the box we had positioned at the end as a step stool, settling herself in on her pillow for the last time. I managed a couple of hours of sleep but woke up at 2am and stayed up with her on my chest until morning, thanking her for all the years we have had together, and giving her permission to go. Her breathing was fast, shallow and very congested, and she could barely lift her head from my shoulder.

Saturday morning
Saturday morning

On Saturday morning Ed joined us on the spare bed where we had tea and coffee together. With her final reserves of energy she climbed down off my chest and over to Ed’s lap where she hugged his knee, leaving us both laughing through our tears, as she has always loved his lap best for his longer legs and warmth. She seemed to want to spend time with us both, in equal measure, and we took it in turns to cuddle her as we both got ready for the day.

My biggest fear was that Ed and I wouldn’t be allowed to be with Minou in her final moments. I was terrified that we’d be asked to pass her in her carrier to the vet at the surgery door. We are in our third lockdown in England at the moment, and the physical distancing restrictions are very strict. Thankfully our practice let us be with her. We waited in the car until they called us through to an empty surgery. When the end came, it was quick. Minou hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours and she was so exhausted. Watching her fall asleep for the final time, I felt relief for her despite the immense sadness. The vet let us have a quiet moment alone to say goodbye, leaving us in the appointment room. I kissed her gently, and wrapped her in the blanket the vet had provided before we turned and quietly shut the door behind us.

Coming home for the first time, putting the key in the door, was awful. I had put her bowls in the sink but everywhere we turned there were signs of life with Minou. Her scratching post nailed to the wall in the hallway, her cat flap in the glass door to the balcony. The basket positioned beside an armchair so that she could climb up comfortably, and the wooden box at the end of the bed, positioned for similar reasons so that she could maintain dignity and independence, and come and go easily around the flat. The brand new bag of litter we had just bought, and the mountain of specialist food stored on the shelving unit in the bathroom. I have put away everything we are keeping for the future, once our grief has become manageable enough to entertain the idea of offering our home and hearts to another cat, and thrown out all of her medicines, syringes and the paraphernalia that has kept her stable these past three years of illness. Dad has offered to store her basket and bowls in his garage once we are allowed to meet up again after lockdown.

The first time arriving home after leaving for a walk, the first dinner without her chair pulled up between us at the table. The first night without her pillow between ours, and the first morning without waking to find her nestled up in the duvet beside me. Each of these moments felt like losing her all over again. Last night Ed played guitar just before we went to bed, which is something he does every night. Minou always joins us when we play music together, sitting between us on the bed or on the piano stool. It’s in the everyday moments that I feel her absence so strongly.

At the moment, my thoughts are on a loop of her final days and my arms feel empty without her frail body cradled in them, but I know that one day in the not too distant future these painful days will fade into the background and my memories will predominantly be of my healthy, happy, hilarious cat. I know each day will get easier and that eventually I will feel about Minou and her death the way I feel about Mikado – my childhood cat – and his death. A sadness, but mostly just happiness for the lives they have lived and for all the joy experienced during the years we spent together. Part of loving a cat as much as I loved Minou is feeling an intense wave of grief, but I wouldn’t exchange it for anything. I am so glad I got to know her. I am so grateful that we got to spend seventeen and a half years together. I am so grateful for her love, her companionship, and her trust.

Taken when she was still well, just before her final flare up

Minou’s death marks the end of an era. I was a child still when she came into my life, in the final year of school. As a kitten she slept beside me in a radiator bed whilst I wrote essays and studied for my A levels in politics, maths and physics. She sat on our laps in the spring of 2008 when Ed and I returned to our home town to revise for our university finals. She was there on our wedding day, hiding from the noise of a full house in the skirt of my wedding dress, and she sat on my lap or my desk during the nocturnal winter of 2013/2014 I spent writing up my PhD thesis. She has been a constant companion to us both throughout early adulthood, and so it is natural that her death makes us feel nostalgic and keenly aware of the passing of time. She is dearly missed, by me and by Ed, but also by my parents with whom she lived for the first nine years of her life. They adored her just as much as we did, and the upset of not being able to be together at the moment to say goodbye and remember is hard to shoulder. I am so thankful that Minou died at the end of winter rather than at the beginning, as I don’t know how we would have got through this third lockdown and the darkest days of the year without her. In the spring, under the blossom, and once this latest lockdown is eased, the four of us will gather together once more and celebrate her life.

You will never be forgotten, you will be celebrated

The Flatliners – Eulogy

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