Photos and Commentary by Rick Hiduk
Simba and Lily (above) were living the dream at our isolated country home until Lily’s deteriorating bathroom habits made it impossible for us to keep her. She was the third cat that we had to have put down in a 10-year span and also the hardest to justify.
Any life-long pet owner knows that the most difficult decisions concerning our furry friends involve medical care and the inevitable end of the pet’s life. Regardless of how many pets we have already outlived, parting with each animal is just as heart-wrenching because it is the end of another era of our lives.
For us, last week marked the end of the Lily Era or, more specifically, the end of the Lily with Simba Era. In August 2003, my partner Mike picked Lily out of a litter of three barn kittens that had been dropped off at the farmhouse door by their mother. Apparently, Lily’s mother had done this before but proved difficult to catch for spaying. Lily inherited that wild streak and would demonstrate it regularly.
I had never adopted a truly feral animal before and therefore never imagined that the tiny little three-week old critter that I could hardly contain with my hands as Mike drove us home from the farm would prove challenging in so many ways. Without a doubt, Lily became a very loving and lovable addition to the family, but the issues that she presented us made her less endearing to us than other cats we have owned.
That may sound harsh, but who among lifetime pet owners will not admit to having had favorites through the years and also memories of the pets that made life difficult?
We acquired Lily as a companion to 13-year-old Kitty, who we felt was sleeping too much. We hoped that Lily would engage Kitty and keep her on her feet more often, and that Lily would in turn learn from Kitty. The pairing of an uncontrollable feline fireball with a mature and very refined cat who had always flown solo resulted in a comedy of errors.
Kitty was furious, turning on Mike and me for bringing a new animal into the household, even though we were careful to slowly introduce them to each other. Lily brought fleas from the farm that hatched about four days into her life with us. The house was so big that we battled fleas for the next two months. “No more farm cats,” we vowed.
Lily initially stayed in the back half of the large house in which we lived at the time. She slept in our landscaping office but usually had access to my studio and other back rooms while Mike and I moved in and out during the day.
Therefore, she got a lot of personal attention. For the first two weeks, we were bottle feeding her kitten formula twice a day. She was so small when we got her that she literally fit into the palm of our hands. Her first litter box was an aluminum lasagna pan, which she mastered in a week, and she maintained good bathroom habits for nearly 11 years. Her visits to the main part of the house increased until she was brought over permanently within a month.
She tried everyday to win over Kitty, but Kitty wasn’t budging. We did get part of our wish in that Kitty was reactivated. Unfortunately, most of her activity involved chasing Lily away. During this time, I was having sleep issues and had to start locking Kitty out of my room at night after allowing her to sleep in my bed for 13 years.
Lily was closed in at night in a guest room with her own floor bed, litter box and food. Kitty meanwhile took my bedtime snubbing personally and moved across the hall to sleep on Mike’s bed with him. She continued to sleep with him for the rest of her life and essentially became his cat, even though she always welcomed the attention that I continued to gave her.
I was fine with Kitty “leaving me” for Mike. After years of continuous cat ownership, I welcomed the break and thought, “Now Mike has two cats.” I could not have been more wrong.
Though Lily continued to try to befriend Kitty and accepted her status as the Queen Cat in the house, Lily also sensed the bond between Kitty and Mike. I have always provided most of the routine care for our cats – feeding, litter box cleaning, brushing, purchasing food – but in the course of interacting with Kitty and Lily, I was careful not to show any favoritism.
It was futile. Lily suddenly became my shadow and starting clinging to me during every waking hour while simultaneously withdrawing from Mike and all other people who visited the house. The little girl with the black fur and the white tuxedo who seemed to embrace all of humanity when we first brought her home turned antisocial in the course of a week.
Lily’s guardian angel was our friend, Cindy, who worked part time at a local animal hospital. She took Lily in for her first checkup, eradicated her fleas, and helped us administer pills the first time that Lily got worms. Cindy didn’t believe me that Lily could produce a foam of bile that would push a pill back up her throat and out of her mouth until she saw it happen. Pill time was always hell.
When we moved from our mini mansion to a smaller house with a larger property at the far end of town, Lily coped by staying in my bedroom most of the time, laying on top of my bed if she was feeling especially comfortable and confident. She ventured downstairs after some months and loved to go to the basement when she could. Kitty in the meantime took quickly to the outdoors, as she had at other houses.
Realizing that Lily had completely adopted me, I took to trying to train her and teach her right from wrong in the same manner that had been so successful with Kitty: repetitious phrases and key words and positive reinforcement tied to those phrases.
For example, we could say to Kitty, “Jump up in the window and look out.” Kitty usually complied quickly, at which point we would say “Good Kitty jump up in the window and look out” as a verbal reinforcement. Kitty was an exceptionally bright cat, able to process two and three-part commands, and she knew that we wouldn’t be telling her to “look out” if there was not something there for her to see. Vets would often take note of how Kitty anticipated and responded to my instructions. She possibly saved our lives one night by alerting us to a gas leak by howling at the basement door until we opened it.
Lily on the other hand seemed to be at the opposite end of the learning curve. While Kitty craved knowledge and would hang onto my every word, Lily seemed oblivious that we were even talking to her for the first few years. nonetheless, Lily sort of worshiped Kitty for being old and wise. She watched Kitty’s reactions to our speaking to her and wished she understood what we were saying too.
After about nine months in the new home, Kitty began having what we always wanted to believe were “accidents” on her way to the litter box in my studio. On numerous mornings, I walked into the room barefoot or in socks and stepped into the latest puddle on the newest replacement rug. Finally, a large sheet of plastic ran from the door to the litter box on which she continued to pee. More than once, smaller puddles led us to believe that Lily was beginning to join in the fun and games.
Kitty was now 17. We had already spent hundreds of dollars at veterinarians who had given her new leases on life several times. We were always grateful for her recovery but agreed after Mike spent a week on a mattress on the living room floor with her that we would not put Kitty through any more blood work or procedures. She had enjoyed a good life among loving people and had long outlived the life expectancy of a shelter cat.
This is the point at which people start to weigh the “quality of life” issue. In addition to the peeing problem, Kitty’s joints had been stiffened by arthritis to the point that Mike had to build a staircase of books covered with fabric for her to get onto his bed. She only trekked downstairs and back up once per day.
The house was becoming sad. We were sad watching Kitty wear down. Kitty was sad because she felt responsible for our sadness. And Lily became sad because Kitty would no longer chase her. So she laid directly under the bed from Kitty for hours per day. We discussed the inevitability of having Kitty put down but couldn’t pick a date. My foot landing in the biggest puddle yet one morning prompted the call that took Kitty out of our lives by the end of the day.
I went to work and Mike spent a final morning with Kitty, dancing with her to big band music and carrying her out into the yard to look at the house from where he intended to bury her later that day. I came home to Mike smiling sadly as he led me to the garage where a small wooden toolbox sat on the floor. Mike wanted to show me how comfortably he had laid Kitty out on a piece of her favorite blanket with one of her stuffed meese toys under her paws, and he opened the lid.
One loud sob led to me bawling for about five minutes as I smoothed out the soft fur on her stiff and lifeless body. We closed the casket and carried it out to the corner of the yard and cried while we dug the hole and buried the box. We transplanted a large hosta over top of her that she used to like to hide under. As much as putting her down was the right thing to do, we felt remorse for days.
Whereas we thought that the void that Kitty left in our lives would make room for Lily to grow and mature, Lily had other ideas. For some reason, she developed bladder stones and had to be put on a special diet. She had also developed a bad habit of eating whole blades of grass from top to bottom. I pulled many of them out of her throat but, if they got too far down, it took days for them to work their way through her system.
Both the bladder stones and the difficulty of digesting grass led to her writhing on the floor in pain and discomfort and alternately cooing and howling day and night. She sounded and acted as if she were in heat, even though we’d had her spayed. I actually accused the animal hospital of botching the surgery. They gave us “kitty downers,” small pills that would all but knock her out and allow her to relax her enough to pass the stones or the grass. Lily continued to be prone to worms as well, which we treated with more pills.
It would take almost three years for her to grow out of these problems, during which we almost gave her away twice because of the stress it brought on the household. That was inside the house. Outside, the attention we were giving to a semi-stray neighborhood cat was about to take an unexpected turn.
We’d met Simon many years ago as a slinky handsome kitten. Part Abyssinian and part either Siamese or Burmese, Simon had grown up in the house next to us but was forced outside years before we moved in because of spraying inside. When the family had to move out of state for work, the neighbors, who had grown accustomed to Simon wandering in and out of their lives agreed to look after him collectively.
Shortly after Kitty’s death, Simon peed on all four doors of our house and on our truck tires one evening, as he walked around the perimeter of the house meowing to us. He was quite proud of himself in the morning, as he had obviously decided to adopt us. We accepted his proposal, and he never peed on the house again.
As winter approached, we started letting Simon come into the house long enough to get warm. We also obtained a small dog house for him in which we had a heating pad. Eventually, we built a cat door into the landscaping office in the garage which was heated. By the end of the winter, he had proven that he would use the litter box and was allowed to be inside most of the day.
We already knew that Simon was in the twilight of his life and were happy to give him some of the comforts that he had missed all those years that he lived in cardboard boxes in an alley. The best part was that he and Lily could be in the same room without an issue. They never became friends, but they shared a non-aggression pact that worked well. Outside, Simon never backed away from a fight when he was approached by other stray cats at night, and we patched him up several times.
With Kitty gone, Mike became quite attached to Simon, who roamed the garage freely during the day. Because of his presence, Lily had developed enough confidence to venture out into the yard and actually looked to Simon to set safe boundaries for her. When we called Simon into the house each morning, she trotted down the stairs to watch him walk by to his food dish.
Simon slowed down dramatically over the course of the next summer, and we decided that he should not be forced to make it through another winter. A fall down our interior stairs, being caught one day in a horrible hail storm, and a few more fights with his feline foes took away whatever joy had been left in his life. He limped down the sidewalk into the house each morning, and his weak meow faded to a whisper.
My step-father made and delivered a cat coffin, and Mike secured a date with Pet Vet Express who sent a veterinarian in a van to the house to compassionately put Simon to sleep in his bed in the garage while Mike held him. This was obviously hardest on Mike, but most of our neighbors also came to pay their final respects before the van arrived, and they thanked us for giving Simon a much-deserved “golden year.” We were satisfied that Simon had left this Earth with dignity.
We did not have much time to miss Simon, as Mike felt an immediate need to fill the void in his heart with a new cat buddy within a week. We went to a relatively new no-kill shelter that had about 20 cats in two spacious rooms and met Simba, a big yellow tabby with a subtle and beautiful striping pattern. As Simon’s replacement was intended to live mostly in the garage and outside like Simon had, we chose 15-pound Simba primarily because of his size.
At the shelter, this Lion King was the alpha-male of a pride of seven cats with whom he’d arrived. We watched as a kitten swatted at him with outstretched paw to get his attention, and Simba reached out and patted the little tyke on the head. He was just as gentle with us, but it was his hardiness that made us think he’d do well in the garage.
We were wrong once again. Simba was a giant wuss. He hated walking on cold sidewalks, all but insisting that he be picked up and carried. His meow was weak and high-pitched, like the Mike Tyson of big muscular cats. When we brought Simba into the house, he found the litter box within minutes, climbed in and did his business, completely buried it and jumped up on the middle of the couch and curled up. “I think that he just became a house cat,” I said to Mike.
Simba instantly became a wonderful addition to the household and also succeeded at bringing Lily out of her shell. I’m so happy that he was there for her when I had to move north to take a new job while Mike remained behind for a year to wrap up business there and sell the house. Though Mike said that Lily would spend most of the week lying on my bed waiting and hoping that I’d be home for the weekend, she and Simba also enjoyed many hours of play, mostly chasing each other up and down the stairs.
They were separated for a little more than a month as the sale of the house neared. I drove away with more furniture each week and finally took Lily with me. Simba remained at the house with Mike until he moved down the street for a few months to wrap up the landscape year. Lily went with me first to my Aunt’s old farmhouse in which I was temporarily living alone and then to our current home, which I moved into two months before Mike. Simba was moved here a week or two after Lily and I arrived, and he was quick to reengage his feline friend, especially while he pined for Mike during the week.
Though life in the country has proven to be time-consuming and full of new challenges for us, our first three years here seemed blissful for the cats. Both took to the outside quickly after a relatively mild winter and continuously expanded their boundaries and safe zones in the following years. Lily preferred the front of the house, from the porch down to the first pond. She would however take a walk out back each morning and check for water in a bird bath stone at the garden. Simba roams far and wide. They both loved to hunt and have brought us numerous critters.
Things were not going so well for Mike and I last fall. I was having trouble landing a new job in my field and the part-time work wasn’t adding up. Nonetheless, we opted to invest in having a natural gas line installed from the main road down our lane. We thought we could dig the trench but couldn’t, and communication and resolving ongoing issues with the gas company proved to be a pain in the butt. Yes, there was a lot of stress in the house, and for once, our pets were not causing it.
We’ll never know what made Lily start to stray from the litter box, but, by October she was peeing all over the house. She had in fact been doing her business in our mulched flower beds for most of the summer without repercussion, so maybe she was upset or confused by having only the litter boxes as an option again. Maybe our nearly constant bickering over money and the gas hookup was upsetting her.
Maybe Simba was getting in the way of her bathroom habits, but we never caught him in the act of stalking her when she was in the litter box. One time that I watched him, he seemed sincerely surprised to find out that the litter box was already occupied when he poked his head in, and he stepped aside like a gentleman and waited for her to finish.
Nonetheless, the peeing continued throughout the winter. We seal our old upstairs windows, and it was so cold that we couldn’t even open a downstairs window for ventilation. I pulled up two carpets after realizing that she had been wetting them both alternately for some time. The urine had soaked into the wood, which I’m finally starting to effectively neutralize.
Well before Christmas, we took Lily to Bunker Hill Veterinary Clinic for a complete check up and round of tests, all of which came back negative. I took to cleaning the litter boxes every single day to see what had been left for us there. If there was no gift from Lily, I had to go looking for it and would almost always catch it in time to prevent it from settling in.
We bought new litter boxes, changed litter brands twice, added a litter box, and moved the litter boxes to where she seemed to want to pee (and poop), stepping back and leaving ample time for each attempt to work. But the peeing continued, even when she started going outside in the spring. Rather than using the flower beds like the year before, she was coming inside the house to pee…somewhere.
We learned early on that negative reinforcement did not work. She just wasn’t smart enough to understand what we were yelling about beyond maybe the words “bad girl.” On the other hand, I patiently awaited those moments when I might see her step softly into one of the litter boxes, so I could say “Yay! Good Lily pee in the box,” but they were so few and far between.
By summer, life had turned around again for me and Mike like it always does, and we have finally achieved a harmony here that eluded us for the first few years. That said, we would have thought that Lily would be reassured and bring her wayward bladder into check. Instead, she became more manic depressive by day – rolling around in the sunshine on the front porch one minute and slinking out from behind the sofa with a guilty look on her face the next. It seemed that she had become ashamed of doing her business and could no longer help herself.
As adorable as she was, this was making Lily very difficult to love. For the most part, we were controlling our temper and just trying to clean up behind her without much fanfare. But the writing was on the wall. “Quality of life” came into question again. This time, however, it was the quality of our lives that we were questioning.
We realized that we had stopped inviting people to the house because we were afraid that it smelled. We stopped caring about what the inside of the house looked like (more than we do in a normal summer) because it seemed that keeping things picked up was futile when you had to move a piece of furniture or two every day to get at a new wet spot.
Lily’s activities became centered on one of the last nice rugs in the house, and we had to ask ourselves, “Do we let yet another rug be destroyed, or do we stop this problem?” The answer was obvious, and we started looking for a suitable home for Lily to go to. The best we could find was a woman who already has a menagerie of misfit pets and was sincerely interested in taking Lily on board, peeing and all.
We knew that the new animals and home would confuse Lily but thought just maybe it would jolt her in a new direction and give her a few more years of life in a caring environment. When the woman didn’t get back to us after we left two messages for her and even saw her in person, it seemed that there was really no place for Lily to go where she would not feel abandoned by us and be miserable. We were the only family she had ever known. And taking her to a shelter was totally out of the question.
Day by day, our home grew sadder as Lily sensed our gradual disengagement from her. I continued to allow her to sleep on my bed at night, but I was no longer cuddling with her or even speaking to her in endearing terms. We were never unkind and did try to call her “good girl” and “sugar plum” as often as possible. I also did my best to put up with her incessant need to start waking me up at the crack of dawn.
It wasn’t enough. She began to groom herself less and was becoming matted along her sides. She didn’t like to be brushed, and we knew that using the trimmers on her would be nearly impossible. Despite the joy that still seemed apparent when she was out on the porch or wandering the yard, she looked sad whenever she was in the house.
I set two dates for taking her to the vet, and we let each of them pass. Last Wednesday night, Mike was watching TV, and Lily went into the living room and pooped right next to the sofa. He smelled it and grabbed her and held her to it and gave a scolding the likes of which I had given up. He had finally lost it. He felt terrible after he did it and tried to apologize to her.
“We have to end this cycle,” I said to myself before I went to bed. The next morning, Lily was right beside me as always on the bed when I awoke. I patted her head and went downstairs. I habitually drew in a big breath through my nostrils and took in the strong owner of cat pee. I quickly found the spot in the corner near the sofa that she had been using most consistently lately. I sopped it up with one rag and cleaned the rug with another and picked up the phone book.
The first clinic I called because it is closer to home wanted $168 dollars, which included an “exam,” so they could determined if this was the best thing for the cat. I said to the receptionist that this was really my decision to make and an exam would not be necessary, but she insisted. So I called Bunker Hill and made an appointment for 5:30 that evening at a total cost of $45. You can pay for cremation and other very nice additional services like making a paw print, but I told them that I would be bringing Lily home for burial.
I set about the rest of the work that I had to do that day, mostly landscaping. Mike and I had an early dinner together, and he left for an auction. He had taken Kitty to the vet 10 years ago this month and held Simon when the vet came to his office almost five years ago. It was clearly my turn, and I asked God for strength as I walked upstairs and put the picnic-basket shaped cat carrier on my bed and covered it with a doubled-up sheet.
I got Lily out from under Mike’s bed and into the box swiftly, and the cries began. Simba, who’d been napping on top of Mike’s bed thundered down the stairs behind me. We’d come under the impression that Lily had become a bit of a nuisance to him to as well, and that he would not really miss her. He ran up to me with a look that asked, “Watcha doing, Rick? Where are you taking Lily, and why is she so upset?”
I put the carrier on the floor and asked, “Do you want to say ‘Goodbye’ to Lily?” He put his nose to the plastic mesh as her cries continued and glared at me. I had never seen him angry before, and I hope I never do again. He turned around and ran back up the stairs, perhaps concerned that he might be going as well.
Lily cried all the way to the clinic, which hurt like hell. I couldn’t give her those reassuring words that I usually do when I’m taking a worried cat to “the doctor.” I couldn’t tell her that everything was going to be alright. All I could do was dangle the fingers of my right hand into the carrier and let her nuzzle against them as her cries faded into less frantic murmurs. Finally reaching Bunker Hill, I opened the carrier quickly, drew Lily to me, thanked her for loving me so much and kissed her head. She never made another sound from that moment to me leaving her in Exam Room #1.
I told the nurse, who was as compassionate and patient with me as the desk clerk had been despite them having heard so many sob stories under the same circumstances, “This hurts the most because I know that she loves me so much more than I loved her.” She said that she had recently dealt with a very similar situation with a younger cat at her house and had reached the same conclusion. She really did understand.
As much as I admired Mike’s bravery for having stood with both Kitty and Simon as they were put to sleep, I just couldn’t be there for Lily. By that point, our relationship had become lopsided and I had purposely distanced myself emotionally over the previous weeks to be ready to let go at that moment. I went to the parking lot and had a brief cry in my truck before going back in to retrieve her.
The nurse told me that Lily went without a fight. She was given a sedative to calm her down and had already all but fallen asleep by the time she got the lethal injection. For all the things that she didn’t understand. Lily knew when to give up, and I was grateful to hear that. Nonetheless, I drove home numb, subconsciously slowing down for potholes so as not to disturb Lily, wrapped lifeless but still warm in the sheet at the bottom of the carrier.
I called Mike when I got home, and he left the auction immediately to come and help to bury Lily next to the pond at the spot where she sat till sunset so many nights watching the frogs. We cried and felt like horrible people. We went out and drank to ease the pain and were comforted by the kind words of friends who understood what we were going through.
I had taken a muscle relaxer for my back, so I had no problem going to sleep when we got home. Mike stayed up for a little while and decided to say “goodbye” to Lily, the little girl he had picked from the litter 12 years ago, in his own way. In the darkness, he cut fresh flowers from the garden and walked down to the pond and laid them on her grave and cried.
I awoke the next morning to a feeling of emptiness as I realized that Lily was not laying there staring at me anxious for me to get up. I looked out across the lawn from the dining room and wasn’t sure what was laying on her grave until Mike told me. I walked down to see them myself after he left for work and wept one more time.
“How could we have been so sure of ourselves and now have such deep regrets?” I thought. “Did we kill her just because we didn’t love her anymore?”
Of course not. For the first two days after she was gone, we’d stop every few hours and talk to each other about a different aspect of Lily’s life or her demise, obviously needing reassurance from each other to justify how we had handled the situation.
After three days, we were able to put it in the following perspective. If either one of us was 80 years old – a plausible comparison to Lily’s age in cat years – going to the bathroom everywhere, terminally sad and becoming a burden on our family and given the following options: caged in a shelter with little hope of adoption; moved to a stranger’s house with strange animals; or going to sleep and never waking up, we would choose to be euthanized.
On Sunday night, we also realized the need to address Lily with Simba. For selfish reasons, we were pretending instead that she never existed, even though we mentioned Kitty to Lily many times after Kitty was put down. Simba was noticeably despondent. I think that he was still expecting to find her somewhere in the house or yard. Since Sunday night, we have said to Simba several times that we all miss Lily, that she was a good girl, but also that she is gone. He seems to be more at ease all the time.
So now the Simba Era has begun, and I’m already dreading the day when we have to make that decision with him or worse yet, lose him to an accident or predator. Mike’s already talking about getting a new cat or dog, the latter of which I’ve always resisted because it makes traveling difficult. It’s hard enough for us to commit to getting out of town once every two months for one reason or another, and I don’t want a dog to be just one more reason that we can’t leave. But I’m not ready at the moment either to bring another cat into the house.
Most importantly, Lily is no longer sad and no longer being yelled at for things that she didn’t understand. She is resting in peace. Yes, we are still sad, but this sadness will pass and we will ultimately adopt more animals because we love them. We took a gamble on a feral kitten, and we won her love and affection if nothing else. As Mike said, “She was a good girl, she just wasn’t a good house cat.”
We gave 12 years of food, shelter, care and comfort to a cat that otherwise had a life expectancy of two years at best in a barn. That, we have determined, is something to celebrate. We are getting over the guilt that is apparently unavoidable in this situation and are ready to move on.
When we are ready to adopt again, we will go to a shelter and find an affectionate animal that seems as eager to go home with us as Kitty was in 1988 when she reached out of her cage and snagged my shirt as I was walking by her. Until that time comes, we’re giving our handsome yellow man, Simba, all of the love that we can.