Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Memento Mori for Theo

Today's sunrise

The sun came up blazing near Mt. Rainier this morning, jack frost shimmered on the neighbor’s lawn, and in our house the smell of death lingers on blankets, clothes, and bodies, as our cat Theo labors to breathe on this, the last day of his life. 

Beauty and loss have been especially twinned in my mind and heart this Fall as the days grew ever shorter, the brief glory of fiery leaves punctuating the leaden sky before their descent to the compost pile, as I received news of the precarious health of those I love.

Theo in our Christmas tree 2014

And yet I know others who carry burdens and sorrows more dire and devastating with an acceptance and strength that towers like a grand mountain over my tiny hill of hope. For though I am a believer now (and for the past 30 years), I was a worrier first, and that deeply grooved record can begin spinning before I’m even aware of it: how will I know when Theo's time has come? How will our wild Bengal Malika get along without her Theo? How will any of us get along without our affable affectionate Theo?

Malika and her Theo before our move to Washington December 2011

Theo and Malika enjoying the view from our Bainbridge Island home Spring 2012
Malika and Theo enjoying the second floor deck at our Gig Harbor home Summer 2015

Last night, I wasn’t sure if he would be with us this morning. After the vet sent him home with some fluids under the skin so that our family had time at home to say goodbye, we set him in his heated cat bed in my lap, underneath a blanket, and he was so still, his breathing so shallow I had to put my finger in front of his nose to feel a faint whiffle of breath. Part of me wanted him to slip from this world while we all slept, sparing us the heartache of the injection that lies ahead of us late this afternoon. Another part of me is grateful for the hard gift of companioning him into death, whether he his aware of our presence or not.

I remember visiting my grandfather in skilled nursing less than two weeks before he died. It was my first encounter with death, and I took my cue from maudlin Hallmark movies, holding his hand, looking deeply into his eyes, and saying, “I love you Grandpa,” my big declaration that would somehow bring him peace. His response, “I know. And I love you, too.”

Of course he knew. We were not estranged. We’d had 35 years of history. I spent holidays and a week at my grandparents’ each summer as a child, and held my grandfather’s large warm hand while he prayed over our meals. He was present at my wedding, the baptism of my children, Thanksgivings and Easters, driving 500 miles two or three times a year to visit my growing family in a VW Vanagon that always broke down. A stroke and immanent death would not erase a lifetime of love demonstrated and uttered so thoroughly that it had lodged in our bones.

Today I held Theo against my chest while the late morning sun streamed in the living room. He raised his weak head to the rays, began to purr and nuzzle my face—his trademark move set aside these past weeks. Then, worn out from the effort, he inched away and I returned him to his own bed. He shifts uncomfortably, and I offer blankets and a heater, small succor as dehydration, kidney disease, and infection slow his heart and temperature, and usher him from my life. Today he suffers. Tomorrow he will be memory. And, oh, how I will remember him.

Cat pile on my husband Winter 2012

I first saw Theo in 2004 in a photo on Project Purr’s website. Our dog and I were mourning the loss of our cat Roscoe, looking for another companion. He was named “Angel” at the time and stared at the camera with his one eye open wide. I knew he was meant to be mine and went to visit his foster home, a small room above a garage secluded from humans and other pets. He was about one-year-old (an estimate our current vet feels is 3-4 years short, given his health crisis), and feral, one of 20 found on a ranch near Santa Cruz, California. A veterinarian who worked with the rescue removed his eye, damaged beyond repair by respiratory disease, and replaced it with a ball (an unusual reconstruction in a cat) before sewing the lid shut. The impression is a permanent cheerful wink.

My family and I picked up Angel and returned home only to find a message from the rescue on our answering machine, saying they’d decided against giving him to us since we lived in Boulder Creek—home to coyotes. In earlier years, we’d had two cats go missing, assumably snatched by coyotes, and my husband erected two acres of deer fencing that kept out all predators except rattlesnakes. I guess Project Purr didn’t have the heart to say no to the four of us when we showed up eager for our new family member, having left our house before they called.

We promptly renamed our adoptee Theo—after my father whose middle name is Theodore, and who lost one eye in his successful battle against sinus cancer. Then we began household desensitization—showing Theo that running taps, flushing toilets, dishwashers, television, and human laps posed no dangers. We succeeded on all those fronts, though we never could convince him about the vacuum.

The rescue told us Theo had hip dysplasia, and that combined with the loss of an eye, would relegate him to a quiet sedentary life. The first time he slipped out our backdoor, into our fully fenced yard, he climbed high into an oak tree, and never looked back. Soon he was taking full advantage of the cat door, slipping out to walk the top of our deck rails, 14 feet off the ground, and successfully capturing blue-bellied lizards while they basked on sunny rocks.
Enjoying the fenced at yard on Bainbridge Island
Once, unbeknownst to us, Theo caught a garter snake that slipped into a heater vent and lodged in our ductwork. I will never forget the horrendous odor that greeted me when I switched on the heat, nor my husband’s attempts to locate the source, nor the sight and smell of the maggot infested carcass he finally located. We closed the cat door after that, becoming door monitors who refused to let Theo or our other cats in until they released their prey.

For nearly 12 years, Theo lived the life any two-eyed cat would envy. And his “eye-niqueness” led our youngest daughter to adopt her own one-eyed cat and its sibling five years ago. The “grand-kittens” are frequent visitors at our home, and when two friendly one-eyed cats greet visitors at the door, our guests often do double-takes. Last year, a repairman said, “What’s with the one-eyed cats?”
I muttered something about them both being rescues, while I ushered him to the water heater. My explanation was inadequate, as it always is when we talk about love and how it alone has the power to save us, no matter our fate.
Farewell furry friend


  1. Poignant dear friend...our beloved pets are such our teachers! Oh how they open our hearts to the beauty and pain that coexists in our world. They make us better two-leggeds.

  2. Lovely thoughts about a dear soul who is going to spirit, Peace be to Theo and to you and your family. Loss of a dear member of the tribe is painful.