Mr. Big Stuff

After a loved one passes away, your mind and heart go into a state of panic. First there’s the disbelief that you won’t ever see them again. You have recurrences of seeing them out of the corner of your eye. Hearing them only to discover it was someone or something else. Each time this happens, your mind remembers that they’re gone and your heart breaks all over again. As you work through it, you become obsessed with remembering the mundane things about them: the sound of their voice, things they’d say at certain parts of the day, little looks they’d give you. This obsession is fueled by the fact that you know you will forget many of these things, and you don’t want to. You know that your mind is built to forget, and by it’s nature you will end up not caring as intensely as you do at that moment. It is a survival mechanism, it is unavoidable, it is heart-breaking.

Plenty of people don’t like cats, are allergic to cats, prefer dogs, think pets are silly, don’t understand how people can be so attached to animals, etc. If you are one of those people, stop reading now and go share of your time in some other productive way: feed the homeless or raise money for breast cancer awareness;

Murphy was our cat. The day I first set eyes on him was September 20th, 2004. Following an advertisement in the Toronto Star, we drove out to a dodgy very East part of Eglinton, to a shoddy townhouse where this hideous woman who was clearly out of her mind had been questioningly breeding Maine Coons. Prior to that day I had done research on the various dispositions of pure-bred cats, and I had decided that we should either get a Norwegian Forest cat or a Main Coon. After discovering the advertisement for pure-bred Maine Coons in the Star, and not knowing anything about responsible feline breeding, we made the trip and found Murphy:

Murphy on Sept 20, 2004

This woman’s house stunk. There were cats everywhere. The big cat who the woman claimed was Murphy’s mother had a growth what looked like a goyter on her bottom lip. In retrospect, the entire experience was terrifying. But I believe that I’m not the type of person who realizes the situation he’s in until he’s had time to reflect upon it. Only all these years later do I fully understand what we were getting ourselves into. But I’m also a firm believer in fate, and that we were meant to find Murphy and fall in love with him that day, which we did.

After speaking with other breeders and discovering that this woman was in-breeding her cats, that her cats were likely to have health problems, that they could even be mentally handicapped, Sarah convinced me that we needed to save Murphy from whatever other life he might lead. Could he really find a home better than ours? Two devout cat lovers, ready and willing to give ourselves wholeheartedly to this small animal built to generate and consume love? It was already too late, we had fallen for him. So, on October 6th, 2004, we brought him 20 floors up to our 2 bedroom, 900 square foot Walmer Road apartment near St. Clair & Bathurst in Toronto. The ride home had been a bumpy one in our jeep, and he threw up a little tube of cat chow in the elevator. But it didn’t stop him from being playful and fun even on that first day.

After playing around for a bit, I sat down on the floor. He jumped up on my lap and fell asleep shockingly fast. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he had already decided that I was his “person”. He was mine, I was his, and that was final. That would never waver throughout all of the years he graced us with his presence.

He was a loud cat. He never screamed, he always roared. A little low on water in his bowl? Roar! He just had a big poop and wanted everyone to know? Roar! Annoyed that we had been gone from the house for too long? ROAR!! We are trying to sleep in on Saturday morning and he wants us to get up? ROAR!!!

That being said, he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. I never heard him growl in his entire life. I don’t believe he had the capacity to get that angry. Sure he got feisty and chased us around, rough-housed us a bit. But he was just playing, and that was clear. He was never mad at anyone. The only emotions he ever experienced were love, joy, contentment, and fear.

He was afraid of the vet’s office. When he was very little he spent quite a bit of time there. It turned out that when we got him from the dodgy breeder he had fleas. He got a strange growth on his forehead that took some ointment to get rid of. He was in-and-out of the vets office for a variety of problems, and he decided with complete finality that he didn’t like the vet’s office when we had him neutered and he had to spend a couple of nights there. We went to visit him after the procedure, and when he saw us he started panicking. Reaching for us through the cage, roaring and roaring. It was heartbreaking to leave him for another night, and he continued to roar long after we had left (so the vets told us).

Murphy adored us. He never wanted to be away from us. And for the first 6 years of his life, he didn’t have to be. I was a contractor, and I worked from home for most of those years. If he wasn’t on my lap, he was on the desk beside my computer as I worked. We had our daily routine where I would get up in the morning and feed him; go change his litter; make myself some cereal and tea as he ate his food. We’d re-convene in my spare-bedroom office where I’d go through my email and he’d have a bath. I’d lose myself in work, and sooner or later this would be the situation:

Six years. SIX years spending every day with each other. I can’t describe to you how our lives became intertwined. I know … he was “just” a cat. But the patterns we developed together became the fabric of my existence. Not only was I used to them, I enjoyed them. I WANTED to get up each day and perform our mundane routines. I wanted to waste time jokingly calling him insulting names and playfully pushing him around. I liked him fighting back, scratching my arms, nibbling at my hands, and eventually fall asleep again on my lap.

Over the years there were times when I got mad at him. He’d make messes, he’d wake us up when we were exhausted, he’d get “the mads” and chase Sarah (terrified and shrieking) into a corner. I would get mad at him in return, assert my dominant position, and he’d accept. He was never angry at me; It wasn’t in him to be that way.

Everyone who met Murphy immediately understood that he was special. We used to call him many names, but my favorite was “The Prince”. He was unlike any other cat we’ve ever met in his happiness, zest for life, and loving nature; but also in the way he commanded people’s attention. Once they saw him, they couldn’t turn away. They had to pet him. People who were deathly allergic to cats and don’t even like to be near them would say, “No, it’s fine. I can pet him. I’ll just take some Claritin™”, and I’d watch in awe as these people would be completely captivated by him. He was the Sven Gali of cats.

I believe he led an incredibly happy and full life until 2010, when we moved from Saskatoon to Montreal. When we first moved there, he got sick. We had been in the city for less than a day when he stopped eating and drinking water. He would hide in corners, staring at walls, moaning. Sarah and I were in a state, and to this day we don’t know what was wrong with him. We took him to a number of different veterinarians, none of whom could say what was wrong with him. We thought for sure that he was going to die. I was grief stricken, and I sat holding him for hours, sobbing, wishing there was something I could do to bring him back to us. In the end we enticed him back to the world with delicious and unhealthy cat-foods. Eventually he began eating again (although throwing a lot of it up). It took a few weeks, but eventually he normalized. But the truth is that he was never the same after that. The next upheaval in his life was a new addition to our family. On November 14, 2010 our daughter Francesca was born.

I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for Murphy to go from being the head honcho to being swept aside by the time-intensive requirements of parenthood. We literally had no time for Murphy anymore, and because he was such a loud cat and our daughter had such a hard time sleeping, we had to put up a barrier to keep him downstairs. He went from being treated like a King, pushing our heads off our pillows to make more room for himself, to being left downstairs alone at night so we could get a couple of hours of desperately needed sleep.

Of course, Murphy accepted all of this with grace. We knew that he didn’t like it, but he accepted the order of things and took the love and time he could get. Again, he didn’t have it in him to hold a grudge or be angry.

Murphy’s one crutch was always his love of water. From when he was just a young boy, his favourite past-time was getting wet. As a kitten he would hop into the shower as I got ready in the morning and “accidentally” fall into the deluge. And for the last two years of his life his one daily sojourn was to get into the bath-tub and drink water from the tap. He roared for it constantly, and we let him do it as much as we could because he loved it so much and we desperately wanted to give him any joy we could in a time where we had so little to give. It was quite literally the least we could do.

As Frankie grew and eventually began interacting with him, he took it all in stride. As a clumsy baby, Francesca was not exactly tender with him. She climbed all over him, using him as a rolling pin, hitting him repeatedly with excitement. We did our best to stop her from hurting him, but he loved the attention and would get in there like a dirty shirt no matter how rough the play was. He never hurt her. He never bit or scratched back as she learned the limits of her strength. She did get scratches from time to time, but only from the way that she tackled him, none of it came from Murphy trying to inflict any damage.

Over the final months of Murphy’s life, Frankie had gotten old enough that she was able to understand us when we would explain to her how she should treat Murphy. “You need to be NICE to Murphy. He’s a GOOD boy. Pet him SOFTly. That’s right. SOFT.” His life was gradually regaining some of the comfort and adoration that he had enjoyed for so long. We were able to give him more attention! After Frankie was asleep, Sarah and I would hang out with him downstairs. We would groom him, pet him, massage him. He’d cozy up next to us and sleep. Things were moving in the right direction.

Finally, about three months before Murphy passed, I made some major decisions about our future. I needed to make life better for my family, and Murphy was a big part of that family. I knew that we needed to turn everything upside down, and as things settled in this new place, I wanted it to be better for everyone, including Murphy: if we moved to a new house, I wanted Murphy to sleep in our room with us again; I wanted to give him back some of the life he had before moving to Montreal; I wanted him to feel that kind of love and devotion again.

On Tuesday, September 11 2012, Sarah and I got up and began our daily routine. Sarah went downstairs to get Frankie’s breakfast ready, and she lifted Murphy over the child barrier so he could come up to the bath-tub for water, one of our daily rituals. I was changing Frankie’s diaper, and instead of going to the bathroom, Murphy came into her bedroom and roared at me. This was slightly unusual. I said, “Hi Murph! Frankie, want to see Murph?!”

I picked him up and gave him a good scratch on his neck & shoulders. I held him upside down across my chest like a baby, and I dipped his head back towards Frankie on the changing table. She laughed and reached up to kiss him on the forehead. “That’s right!”, I said, “He’s a good boy!”

I put him back down on the ground and told him I’d put the tap on in the tub for him in a minute. I was finishing getting Frankie dressed, and Sarah yelled up to me that he was back downstairs. Again, unusual. I took Frankie down to Sarah, and carried Murphy up to the bathroom. I put him on the side of the tub so he wouldn’t have to jump up himself (he always had a hard time jumping). I turned the water on, and he hopped down and began to drink. I showered as he drank and bathed himself. I got dressed, we met at the top of the stairs, and we went down together. I picked him up and carried him over the baby-barrier. I began to get my things together for work, and I filled up his water & food bowls. I turned around, and saw that he was low-walking and panting. His back legs were very low to the ground, and he was mostly dragging himself with his front legs. His breathing was shallow, but he was taking rapid short breaths. His mouth was open. His tongue was out. Something was clearly wrong.

I dropped everything and took him to the vet. Sarah didn’t even get to kiss him goodbye. We had no idea he wouldn’t be coming home. He was on the exam table within 30 minutes, and the doctor knew immediately what was wrong: He had suffered a stroke. The blood clot had gone down a main artery in his back and blocked blood flow to his back legs, which is why his legs weren’t working. Murphy had let out a heart-wrenching moan as I slid him out of his travel bag onto the table, and the doctor now confirmed that he was in an immense amount of pain. The doctor explained that the available treatments were not very effective, but I already knew that Murphy was going to die. Blubbering like a fool, I said to the doctor, “He’s in pain?”

The doctor nodded solemnly and confirmed, “Yes.”

The words fell out of my mouth like unwelcome thoughts, “Then … he …. has to … go”.

“I’m sorry, man,” the doctor said, “This is just shitty.”

They gave him a local anesthetic in his hind quarters to ease the pain. Then they euthanized him. When they put the needle in his arm, he bit my hand from the pain and gave me a little scratch. I’m looking at it now with love. I wish it was deeper, bigger, and would scar permanently. I told him he’d feel better soon. I caressed his head and looked into his eyes throughout. He stared back at me as he went.

I feel so proud and lucky to have been chosen by him, and I do truly feel that he chose us to live with, and me as his person. I wish that his life over the last 2 years had been better, and I wish that I had been able to have some more time with him to show him that he wasn’t being punished since Frankie had been born; that he was still my beloved boy. But none of that matters now. Now he’s gone, and our intertwined lives are unraveling. Our patterns are gone, and I feel it in everything that I do.

The house feels empty. Quiet. So quiet. We are going to forget what his roar sounded like. The pain of the loss will dull. But I can’t believe how much I miss him. I’m so shocked by his sudden death. Living our happy comfortable rut one moment, and one hour later he’s gone. This Sven Gali of cats with the ability to soften the hardest of hearts is gone. The world has lost some of it’s magic. I am just so lucky to have been witness to it for the last 8 years.