It’s disquieting the turns life can take when you least expect it. Good changes and bad in sequence. Sometimes together. This Thanksgiving, Ryan and I are grateful for many things, but what we’re most grateful for is an opportunity to experience and share love and joy that came to an end much too soon.
We both have a roof over our heads. Camões the 12-year-old danger cat (the white cat in the above picture) is in fine form. We’re blessed with good friends and a wonderful congregation (with the latter two items very mutually inclusive.) I’ve finally moved forwarded with my rabbinic school application (more on that in a different post.) And the buried lede is that I’ve fallen back into the same social-justice based strategic communications project work for the same local Chicago nonprofit and community-based clients with the same wonderful colleagues that I a.) used to do before the recession, b.) sorely missed, and c.) asked Hashem to return me to. Which happened this month, unexpectedly and 100%, so I acknowledge with gratitude God’s everyday miracles that arrive evening, morning, and Noon.
And then we lost Ryza.
I first met her in summer 2009 when former-boyfriend Overly Frank adopted her from a no-kill shelter in Lincoln Park. She was 12 then and had had a hard life. Her original owner gave her and her mate up (we think the owner died.) She spent six months in an animal hospital for severe dental and urinary issues. Her mate was adopted out without her. She had been declawed front and back (an awful thing to do to a cat at all.) By the time we met her in the shelter, she couldn’t care much about other humans or cats. It was obvious she craved connection–she’d let you pet her madly–but then she’d walk away and hide and stay hidden.
And that’s what she did most of the time at Frank’s house. Frank was out of town a lot for work, and I became Ryza’s long-term cat-sitter for the first year-and-a-half that I knew her. She loved her food as much as she loved to be petted. When she felt safe or interested enough to come out, she would bat your hand to demand more if you stopped petting her. And she’d fly across the apartment from wherever she was hidden when she heard a can open. It was always so obvious how much had been deprived of her previously. But I had Camões and it would break my heart to see her walking towards the door every time I went home to attend to the rest of my life.
When Frank moved in with a new boyfriend who was allergic to cats 18 months ago, there wasn’t a question about where Ryza was going to go. She came home with Ryan and me. Camões had already had an alleged play date with her, so we knew he’d be foaming at the mouth in terror and hiding on the refrigerator for a while. What we didn’t expect was the two of them to end up spending 90% of their time sleeping together, eating together, following each other and us around the house (sometimes we looked like a parade), sitting on either side of us and on top of us together. Becoming inseparable.
Camões is an active, needy, willful cat. Ryza was quiet, hard to excite or disturb, easy to frighten. Also fat and wheezy, with a funny walk and a squeak for a meow that led us to imagine a previous life as a gin-swilling, Marlboro-smoking truck stop waitress. She was hard on the outside, sometimes impenetrably. So it was amazing to watch that melt away in our home. No more hiding, lots of bonding, lots of playing. Finally a feline bond for Camões, who loved her, and groomed her, and defended her to us when we’d grouse about her accidents. Lots of soulful looks from her little green eyes into Ryan’s and mine.
The blessing of Ryza worked two ways. Here, she was never alone and was safe to become the full-fledged, fearless cat she was always meant to be. And we were blessed with watching it happen, and feeling the love and joy flow consistently from her plump feline form more than it had in a long time. Ryza became young again and it was a miracle and we knew it.
Which made those accidents more bearable. Even at Frank’s house, she would gain attention through her urinary tract. We went through litter brand after litter brand, food brand after food brand, bought a second litter box and a man-eating rug shampooer. But when Ryza wanted to tell you something angrily, there was no modesty in the message. A few times we told Frank we wanted him to take her back. We were never emotionally able to follow through, though.
After we lost her, I opened a closet door in the room where the litter boxes were to retrieve something knowing full well the inside smelled like a past Ryza accident and knew someday that smell would fade away and sat down and lost it. Ryan discovered how much he missed her plaintive, nonstop screeching for food every morning at 6 a.m. He told me to tell you she was an amazing cat. That she put up with a lot, but she never gave up. I’ll also tell you that, like me, he burst into tears of sorrow at unexpected times after she was gone. We still do.
Ryza had been sick and constipated a month ago and both issues seemed to have resolved. She had started hiding behind the couch, but we thought it was because she was trying to keep away from a particularly amorous Camões. Only after the fact did we realize she had started taking breaks to rest on her walks across the living room from her food bowl in the kitchen.
And then the awful, terrible weekend came. Two weekends ago Ryza couldn’t get out of her bed. As if someone had turned down a dimmer switch, as the weekend wore on she lost the ability to use her litter box, eat or drink–or even make it to her food bowl, or by the end of the weekend, stand on her own. Ryan knew immediately what was going on. He had lost his beloved dog, Jasper, to illness a few months before meeting me. He started crying early.
We took Ryza to an emergency vet that Monday. She could barely stand on the examining table. The vet came back with her blood sample to show us how pale it was. He would have the tests run, but it was clear an unknown systemic issue had thrown our little girl into severe and sudden anemia. He suggested we take her to the emergency animal hospital and warned us the cost would be prohibitive. That would prove not to matter as Frank would open his wallet unconditionally the next day and several thousand dollars would be spent on bone marrow and spleen biopsies and transfusions.
But we wanted one more night. It seemed likely there might not be any others. So we took her home to her bed, and held her in our arms and gazed into her little eyes, and Camões slept with her one last time. In the morning before we left for the vet, I held her up as she wet her bed and told her what a good girl she was.
The animal hospital called in the afternoon to say that Ryza’s heart had stopped during her first transfusion. They asked if they should continue CPR. I said yes. They said if I didn’t hear back from them in five minutes, it didn’t work. They didn’t call back for 20. I called Ryan and in tears told him our little girl was gone. His response before heading into the bathroom at work to cry was regretting not being able to be there to say goodbye to her.
When the hospital did call back, Ryza’s heart was beating again…but her brain was gone. She was alive, but convulsing and paddling. She had been without oxygen for too long. I told the vet we were on our way and called Ryan to say there was one last chance to say goodbye. The image of her shaved, out-of-control body in the incubator is what I can’t get out of my head. It was a moment of nightmare, and of a deep sense of guilt for not telling the vet to let her go.
I texted Frank that it was time, and Ryan and I waited in a private exam room. When they brought Ryza in pre-sedated on a cat bed, we bent over her to pet her and hold her and smell her. I nuzzled her nose like I used to and inhaled as deeply as I could to try and remember what she smelled like. Then I lay my hands on her head and body while they administered the injections, recited the Jewish prayers for the dead and for remembrance through choking tears, felt her last breath leave her body, and it was over.
Some people don’t understand the human bond with animals. To many, a pet is just a pet and can never be a family member. To them I say, you don’t get to choose who is a member of my family. Not whom I include, nor how deeply I love them, nor the prayers I say when I mourn for them. And if you don’t understand how a person can bond with a helpless creature fully dependent on you for their care, how on earth can you understand how to bond in a true way with some of God’s more independent creations, like human beings?
The house feels much emptier in the nine days Ryza hasn’t been in it. Camões is still standing and looking and waiting for her to appear around every corner. So are we. I lit a yahrzeit candle over the clay paw print the hospital gave us last week. It burned for 36 hours. Ryan, who never rises during Kaddish (the prayer for the dead), rose with me last Friday at synagogue.
Sometimes we don’t get what we deserve in this life. And sometimes we do, but we don’t get it for nearly long enough. Ryza deserved to be happy again, finally. She deserved it for longer than she got it. Marcey Rosenbaum, a soon-to-be rabbi and big inspiration for rabbinical school, told me Ryza has gone on to the Pantheon of good cats. I like that. But I see it in another way.
To my mind, the little piece of God that was pretending to play Ryza just decided to stop pretending. And we were blessed before that happened with recognizing the divinity behind those soulful green eyes.
So goodbye, little girl. Most of all, thank you for being here.