It’s almost the Day of the Dead, and time to honor those who have left us this year. Here is my tribute to a family member I lost this year.
I first saw him when I was in graduate school living in a two story townhouse style apartment with my elderly tortoiseshell cat, Ginger. One night I was awoken by the sound of Ginger growling at the glass door that led out to the balcony from the bedroom on the second floor.
I got up to see what she was upset about. Out on the balcony, there was a handsome gray tabby cat with white legs and a white chest chewing on Ginger’s potted catnip. When he saw me looking at him through the door, he looked completely unconcerned and continued enjoying the catnip. Ginger didn’t even like catnip that much, but she growled at him as if to say, “The nerve of that guy! That’s MY catnip!”
Like many apartment complexes, there were several stray cats living around the place. Some of them were feral, but some of them were probably cats who previously had owners, but had been left behind either intentionally or unintentionally when the owners moved. Over the next several weeks, I started to pay attention to the gray tabby cat, and it started to seem more and more likely that he didn’t have an owner anymore, despite being friendly and already neutered. He was a bit skinny and got beat up by the local tomcats a lot. He also seemed to be outside all the time, day or night. He started coming to get catnip on my balcony regularly each night. This apartment complex was right next to a major interstate highway, and I worried that he’d get hit by a car sooner or later, like many of the stray cats did.
The day before Thanksgiving 2006 it was one of those days where it was going to be in the mid-80’s during the day, then that night we were getting a sudden cold front and it was going to freeze. When I was walking home to my apartment, the gray tabby greeted me and rubbed up on my legs. That moment I decided I shouldn’t leave him outside in the cold that night, and I picked him up and brought him inside.
He spent the night downstairs in the living room while Ginger and I spent the night upstairs in the bedroom. Ginger wasn’t too happy about him being inside her apartment now, but she had already gotten used to him getting on our balcony each night, so at least he wasn’t a complete stranger to her.
I wasn’t sure what to call him. My balcony had several different potted herbs besides the catnip, so I started calling him Basil, since that was the one herb I had that also seemed to make a nice name. My sister came to spend Thanksgiving with me the next day, and she thought Basil was kind of a stupid name, but I told her it was just going to be temporary until I thought of something better.
Eventually I took him to a vet to get a checkup. I told them he was a stray cat I found and was thinking of keeping him. They scanned him for a microchip and he didn’t have one, so I said, “OK, I guess that means he’s mine now.” I got him vaccinated and microchipped, and the vet commented that it was hard to get the needle in because his skin was tough, which is another sign that he’s been living outside all the time for a while. They estimated his age as being about a year and a half old, so he was probably born in the spring or summer of 2005.
I’d often see him visiting other apartments and getting treats and pets from other people. That was probably how he’d been surviving. None of my neighbors said they owned him, though, and over time it became known in the apartment complex that he was my cat now. But obviously someone had owned him at some point. It remained a mystery how he came to be living out in the parking lot of the apartment complex.
He was even friendly towards dogs. I had neighbors who got a female pitbull puppy, and I’d come home to find that dog and my cat laying right next to each other on the lawn between our apartments. The dog’s owner even came to me one time and said, “I think your cat is friends with my dog,” and I told him yes, I had noticed that. He said that Basil came to visit his dog often and they’d hang out together.
Since he had been living outside for a while, he didn’t like being inside much at all. He didn’t seem to understand the concept of a litterbox at first and left some messes for me to clean up. As a compromise, I let him outside each morning before I left for class, and brought him in each evening when it got dark. Eventually he figured out my schedule, and would make himself hard to find in the evening when it was time for him to come in for the night. It felt like having a teenage son staying out late past his curfew.
In the summer of 2008 I met the man who would eventually become my husband. Sometimes he’d help me search for Basil when he’d go missing. We spent many evenings searching the apartment complex for him shaking a bag of cat treats. I remember one time we found him all the way at the other side of the apartment complex at the volleyball court, and he sent us on a wild chase trying to get him and make him come in.
In 2009 I graduated with my Master’s degree and moved into a rental house with my boyfriend, who already had two cats of his own, so we had to merge them together into one big cat family. He had an elderly Tonkinese cat named K.K., who used to be his store cat when he owned an antique store. He said he didn’t know what K.K. stood for because that’s just the name she came with when he adopted her. Maybe it was Kitty Kat? His other cat was Lily, a young black and white spotted cat.
The two elderly cats, Ginger and K.K., were too old for shenanigans and settled in together just fine, but the two young cats, Basil and Lily, had some serious issues getting along at first, complete with territorial peeing and occasional fights where blood was drawn. Ginger ended up passing away in 2011 at the ripe old age of 18, and eventually the remaining three cats settled their differences and figured out how to live together in harmony.
In 2012 we got married and bought a house on a large lot further out in the country, away from any busy roads. The girls remained mostly indoor cats with occasional brief excursions into the back yard, but Basil still loved being outside, climbing trees and getting on the roof, chasing little critters around, and lounging in the sun in the herb garden or on the brick BBQ pit. Whenever my husband or I did any work out in the yard, he was out there with us assisting. He remained an extremely friendly cat and loved it when I had barbecues for Midsummer and invited all my friends over. So many legs to rub on! So many people to pet him and tell him how handsome he is!
K.K. passed away in autumn of 2012 at the age of 17 and we were down to two cats, but Basil and Lily had finally become good friends. In many ways, they had opposite personalities. Lily is afraid of most people and really only likes my husband. She kind of tolerates me, but if we have company, she always runs and hides. But she and Basil would chase each other around and play together. Each night when it was time to for Basil to come in, I shook the package of cat treats to lure him in, and then both of the cats would get treats. Eventually she learned that when it got dark, it was time for Basil to come in for treats time, so she would meow at the back door, or even come and find me and meow at me to let me know. Then I’d get the treats, open the back door and shake them, and when Basil came in, Lily would rub up against him in greeting before they’d both get their treats.
Heathens say that cats belong to Freya, but I always thought Basil was more of a Loki’s cat with how much he got into trouble. He was a bit too smart and too fearless for his own good. At the apartment complex, he learned how to ring people’s doorbells to get them to give him treats. He figured out that doorknobs are how humans open doors, and would stretch himself out as tall as he could to grab the doorknob with his paws to ask to go out. I’m sure if the backdoor had a level-style doorknob instead of a round one, he would have figured out how to open it. One evening I couldn’t find him, and I finally heard his meowing coming from my neighbor’s garage, and had to awkwardly ring the doorbell and ask them to open the garage to let him out. He must have gone in there to explore earlier that day while they had it open and then got shut in.
He once got crystals in his urine that blocked his urinary tract and almost died. He had to have a catheter put in and stayed at the animal hospital for several days. Before that, he was as friendly with vets as he was with anyone else, but after that he became aggressive with them. His charts at the vet ended up with a warning on them, “Aggressive! Will bite and scratch!”
He also got into fights with other cats in the neighborhood, because of course he had to defend his territory and his family from these invaders. Many of our neighbors let their cats run loose outside most of the time, and many of them also don’t even get their cats fixed, so they get into territorial fights a lot. Sometimes he got injuries that got infected and he needed to go to the vet to drain them and get antibiotics.
He seemed to like dogs better than other cats and continued to make friends with neighbors’ dogs wherever we lived, but he was NOT happy when my sister-in-law visited with her two dogs, a blue heeler and a border collie mix. I guess he didn’t give them permission to come into his house! My sister also has cats, so her dogs are used to cats and view them as friends, but when they tried to greet Basil he stood his ground and arched his back and puffed himself up and was almost ready to strike. These dogs were several times bigger than him, and there were two of them, but I had to lock Basil in a back bedroom, for the dogs’ safety!
He was a real warrior of a cat, so maybe he was Freya’s cat too.
Last year my husband and I started to notice that Basil was getting skinnier and Lily was getting fatter. Lily would eat all her food and then help herself to the rest of Basil’s, because Basil would only eat a few bites and then wanted to go back outside. We started trying different foods to see if he’d like other food better. We started trying to feed him in a separate room from Lily (which only freaked him out because he didn’t like being shut in a room). We took him to a vet, and they did a blood test and said his liver and kidney functions were just fine, and maybe he was just a picky eater. They asked me if he had been lethargic lately, and I told them a little, but I figured it was because he was 12 and starting to get older. The vet concluded that there was probably nothing wrong with him and sent us home.
By February his hip bones had started sticking out, so we took him to a different vet to get a second opinion. That vet ran a complete blood count on him, something the previous vet didn’t do, and found out he was severely anemic, and told us we have a very sick cat here. He also tested positive for FIV, which the vet said was very common in cats the fight with other cats. They said I would have to bring him in for twice a week injections of a drug that should stimulate his bone marrow to make more red blood cells. Since my husband and I both work during the day, I had to drop him off at the vet before work, and then pick him up after work, for something that only took a few minutes. I felt terrible leaving him at the vet so much.
He kept getting sicker, and by March the vet concluded that the drug was not working, and his bone marrow must have failed due to the FIV. Daniel and I did lots of research online and found out that getting a cat vaccinated for FIV can cause them to test positive for FIV. I had gotten that vaccination way back when I first took him in, because I knew his “lifestyle” put him at risk, so I got him vaccinated for pretty much every cat disease they had a vaccine for! We told the vet that, and he said there was another, much more expensive test they could do to see if he really had FIV, and also if he had something called “feline infectious anemia” that is caused by a bacterium.
We got the test, and he was negative for both of those infectious diseases, so the vet said he probably had cancer. They said to be sure they’d have to do some biopsies of his bone marrow, but at that point he was so sick and had already been at the vet so much that I didn’t feel like having the vet drill into his bones to confirm that he had a disease that wasn’t curable anyway. My mom recently had one of her cats die of cancer, and she had been on steroids for her last few months, which really helped her feel better, even though it doesn’t actually do anything to cure the disease. We asked the vet for some steroids to give Basil.
Basil wasn’t completely back to normal on the steroids, but it did seem to make him feel better. He became a little more active and ate a little more. Easter was April 1, and I had my sister-in-law, her husband, and my parents –in-law over for Easter dinner, and Basil got a lot of petting from them and seemed to have a good time.
But the steroids only worked for a couple of weeks, and then he started to go back to the way he was before even with the steroids. I started to try to mentally prepare myself for the reality that Basil wasn’t going to make it this time, but my husband had more trouble accepting that. He did a lot of research online and found out that there are other infectious diseases that can cause anemia in cats, so we got the vet to give us an antibiotic to give him along with the steroids, even though the vet said he doubted they would work because those other diseases were very rare. The steroids and antibiotic were both liquid medications we had to force-feed him with a syringe at home, and they must have tasted terrible because he’d struggle and then foam at the mouth when we gave him the medicine. We had to do that twice a day, every day.
We started keeping him shut up in a spare bedroom during the day while we were both at work and at night while we were asleep. We put food, water, a bed, and a litterbox in there all close together so he could get to them easily. He had gotten to the point where he stumbled around when he walked. I fed him meat baby food that he could lap up because he had trouble chewing hard food.
The medications didn’t seem to be working, but my husband was having a much harder time accepting that it was time to give up on Basil. I found a vet that does home euthanasia, so we set up an appointment for the afternoon of Sunday, April 15. All day Saturday and Sunday we let him lie outside in the herb garden in the sun, which was all he ever wanted to do. My husband wondered if cats understand what death is and if he knew his time was short, and so he wanted to do as much lying in the sun as possible. I guess there’s no way to know for sure.
And maybe all that sunshine did him some good, because Sunday morning he seemed to perk up a bit, and Daniel became doubtful again that we were doing the right thing. He ended up calling the home euthanasia vet and cancelling, telling the vet we were going to give him a few more days.
But by the time we came home from work Monday evening, he could hardly walk at all. I went to bed that night completely expecting to find him dead the next morning.
The next morning, April 17, he was still alive, but just barely. Daniel and I both called in sick to work. If we held baby food or cream up to his mouth, he would lick a little, but then would sort of nod off and his face would fall into the food, and then he’d jerk awake again and try licking some more. Sometimes he’d try to get up and walk and only take a few steps before lying down on the floor exhausted and breathing heavily like he had just had a hard run.
We called the vet again, and he said he could get there in about an hour. We put Basil in his bed and put him in the herb garden in one of his favorite spots. The vet had two injections to give him, one that would render him unconscious, and then a second one that would stop his heart. We petted him as he got the first injection. When he was completely unresponsive, he got the second injection, which actually made him start gasping and coughing, which bothered me a little. Then he let out one more big sigh, and death came over him.
Daniel didn’t want to bury him right away, so we put him back in his room, still in his bed. We left the door open so that Lily could go in there with him. I don’t know if she understood what was wrong with her big brother or not, but she kept vigil over him for a while. I set my Freya statue and my Odin candle in there on a table. Daniel is always reluctant to bury our cats right away, just in case they are maybe not really dead. We both know that’s an irrational thought, but I think waiting until rigor mortis sets in and they really start to look dead helps with closure. We buried Basil after work that Thursday. We put his grave under a Mountain Laurel tree just outside our ritual circle in the backyard, near where K.K. is buried under an American Beautyberry tree. The weather had started getting warmer, and the mosquitoes were starting to come out, so Daniel put out a lot of citronella candles and torches. We had Basil’s funeral by the light of those torches, listening to the sounds of night creatures like Chuck-wills-widows starting to come out. We wrapped him in the red fleece blanket from his bed, with one of his favorite toys, some catnip, and some cat treats as grave goods.
I still feel horribly cheated that he died that young. I expected him to make it until at least 17 or 18 like our other cats had. I still wonder if we would have been able to get him better medical treatment if we had gotten a proper diagnosis sooner. During his funeral Daniel apologized to Basil that he might have put him through unnecessary suffering by giving him those medications he hated so much for the last few weeks of his life. It’s just so hard to know what the right thing to do in this situation is. In some ways, the death of pets is easier because euthanasia is an option, so you don’t have to wait and wait and wait for nature to take its course, like how I had to just wait and watch my dad slowly die of dehydration in that hospice. But on the other hand, euthanasia means you have to decide yourself when your loved one is going to die, and pets can’t tell you when they want you to do it.
For a few weeks after Basil died, Lily continued to meow at the backdoor when it got dark to let me know it was time for Basil to come in and get his treats. She’d look confused when I didn’t open the door and just gave her some treats. She’d eat her treats, then go back to the door and start meowing some more because Basil still wasn’t in yet.
Lily started spending all day in Basil’s room, which probably still smells like him. She lies in the same spot he was laying the night before he died, before we took him outside to wait for the vet.
It took a while to get used to coming home to a quiet house, instead of coming home to Basil greeting me at the door. Lily eventually stopped meowing at the back door each evening, but she never goes outside at all anymore, so I had to get used to working in the garden with no cat.
I waffle about getting a new cat. Lily seems to get no exercise at all anymore, so maybe getting her a new friend would do her some good. For all I know she does nothing but lie in that room all day when we’re at work. But I decided I would at least wait until after the Wild Hunt has come to collect Basil’s soul and take him away.
Is there such a thing as Cat Valhalla? Can Basil feast on cream and tuna and catnip with the gods now? He did fight all the way up until the end. Even that last day, when it was clear his anemic body was struggling just to get him enough oxygen to stay alive, he was still trying to get up and walk.
I know it’s been six months, but it’s still hard to believe he’s actually gone. He was an especially good cat. I know, all my cats have been especially good cats, but he was especially good. Even though his life was shorter than I would have liked, I hope I at least managed to give him a better life than he would have had if I had not taken him in 12 years ago. He was my buddy through graduate school and getting married and buying a house and pretty much becoming an adult. George Carlin said “life is a series of dogs,” but my life has been a series of cats.