It started ten years ago when I was young and foolish and invincible. My brother had two cats but no longer wanted one of them. He offered her to me. I asked him what was wrong with her, why would he give me a cat with no strings attached. He said there was nothing wrong with her and her name was Marley. And so began a friendship that others never understood.
My brother and his now wife and came by Marley through a friend. The friend had found her digging through the trash and she was small and in need of some food. She was taken in and brought back to health and by way of my brother after a few years, made it to me.
I was twenty years old then and it was the first year I lived in an apartment and in addition to taking care of myself, I had this extra life to look after. I went into it thinking I would be taking care of her as though she was a pet but that was wrong. Pets are a novelty–something you have to say you have but not something you put your soul into. Marley was never a pet to me because she quickly became much more than a friend. She took care of me as much as I took care of her. It sounds like crazy person talk, but really we were connected in a way I still cannot understand. She got me and I got her.
For the next two years, we kept each other company. She was playful and chatty and in my face at all hours. I kept her locked in my bedroom every night because I didn’t want her bothering my roommates. At least that’s what I said, but really I didn’t want her to grow attached to any of them more than me. Selfish? Maybe, but I would change how it worked out. At night, she’d sleep by my feet on my twin bed. Occasionally I’d roll over and accidentally kick her. She’d get up and sleep somewhere else. She’d get back at me by walking on me while I was trying to sleep.
When girlfriends broke up with me, I’d run to her and hold her close because I knew she would never break up with me. She comforted me. We’d sit in silence on my bed. I would just stroke her fur and she’d lie there purring in a way only Marley could purr–loudly and with vigor. It made me feel better to have that kind of constant in my life.
Marley was never a people cat. She preferred her solitude and quiet, a trait I admire in her and sometimes wonder if I picked it up from her. As a result, she never much cared for the parties we’d throw in college. She would always need to be dug out from under my bed or the couch because everyone wanted to see her. They loved her because she was soft and could be cuddled and they all were in college and needed that comfort in their lives. Marley made friends. Em, a girl I dated when I first got Marley, would bring her toys and other things for her. Marley also made enemies. Like the time Eileen, Zoe, and Micaela were over and Marley decided to puke in Zoe’s shoe. It is one of my favorite Marley stories, and I don’t let Zoe forget it.
Then college ended and I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I knew I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but that was complicated by Marley. It wasn’t complicated by my girlfriend then, she dumped me without a second thought. Marley had no such thoughts but I couldn’t help but feel like I was dumping her. I had only gotten her two years earlier and now I was passing her off to whoever could take her while I was away. When that person ended up being Eileen, I knew she was in good hands. Eileen already had four or five cats of her own. She knew what she was doing and she happily offered to take care of Marley for me. So I packed up my things and shipped off.
In the Peace Corps, I missed a lot of things. I missed peanut butter and toothpaste. I missed motorcycles and friends and family. But more than all, I missed Marley. Peanut butter and toothpaste were sent to me. My motorcycle would be there when I got back and I could talk to my friends and family. I couldn’t talk to Marley. I couldn’t hold her and I couldn’t feel the rumble of her purrs. It was hard to leave her. I missed her so much that I found a Peace Corps cat to fill the hole she left. His name was Ernest Hemingway and I found him on the street and brought him home with me. The whole time I had him, a measly two weeks, I felt like I was betraying Marley. Like I was replacing her. I was actually relieved when he disappeared from my apartment mysteriously. There was only room in my heart for one cat.
When I came home in the middle of my Peace Corps service, I made a point to see her. I needed to see her more than I needed anything else from that trip. So I made the drive out to Eileen’s and we hunted her out from beneath a piece of furniture and I just got to hold her. I held her close and soaked up as much of her as I could for the next year apart.
In the time the remaining time in the Peace Corps, Marley had left the care of Eileen. Her fiancé had moved in and brought a cat of his own and suddenly they had one more cat than they bargained for. My parents graciously scooped her up and took care of her the rest of the time she and I were apart. They had two dogs of their own, Rosi and Mabel, both of which who roamed around the downstairs of the house. Marley chose to camp out in my old bedroom, where it was safe and a gate protected her from the over-eager dogs. When I finally got home to my parents, she was there waiting for me. And we were back together like we had never left each other.
The two of us were never really apart from each other again for more than a few days. When I moved to Waukesha, she came with me. She also followed me to Madison. She didn’t have much say in the matter, but I never intended to leave her or give her up to someone else again.
Around the time I moved into my apartment in Waukesha, I started dating Ellie. Only then was it brought to my attention what kind of relationship I had with this cat. To me, I was letting her be a cat. She slept in my bed and she pooped in a box on the floor. It never really bothered me that she walked on the counter and dug through my trash, that was just Marley being Marley. You can’t train a cat, can you? Ellie saw it differently. She saw her competition for my attention and my heart. At the time, I thought she was speaking nonsense, I remember saying to her over and over, “She’s just a cat!” But she never was just a cat to me and Ellie had every right to be jealous. She was the other woman. The other woman who smelled and made messes and got into things she shouldn’t have. She walked all over us at night and kept us awake. But I didn’t see any of that, Ellie did.
Toward the end of the time Marley and I lived in Waukesha, I took her to the vet to get some things checked one. Mainly, the smell. Ellie noticed it more than I did and I chalk that one up to living in it and just not being used to it. What made me really catch on to something being up was when Marley started being more snuggly than she ever was. She’d lie on my chest at night and purr away. This wasn’t something she really did, but I eventually learned it’s how she told me something was not okay and I needed to help her. Conversely, when I would be sick or not feeling well for some reason, she would come lie on my chest and knead my belly and purr. It’s how she cheered me up. And apparently, it’s how she told me she needed cheering up too. The vet couldn’t do much by way of the smell that came out of her back-end, but they were able to address her bad breath. Apparently, nearly all her teeth had rotted and she needed to get them pulled. So we had that done and she bounced back nicely.
When Ellie and I moved in together, there were more than one arguments about what to do about Marley’s this or Marley’s that. They were silly things really, but in their own way they helped Ellie and I work through a lot of the hurdles of living together.
Marley had some learning to do too. Ellie had her own cat, Tilly, who we learned Marley wasn’t too fond of. Tilly was still a young cat when we moved in and was full of energy. Marley, being the old grouch who has always liked her solitude, did not take well to Tilly. She’d hiss and growl and swat her paws at Tilly and Tilly just wanted to play. I can’t say the two of them ever became friends, but eventually, they learned to tolerate each other and live in the same place.
For one of my birthdays after coming home from the Peace Corps, my parents decided that I needed a steam cleaner. I don’t know why but I think they were going to give it to my sister as a gift but she moved to a place without carpets so I had carpets and why not? It came in handy from time to time when I felt like I really needed a good cleaning of my apartment. And then Marley got sick. She couldn’t keep her food down. She’d eat and eat and then a little while later, I’d hear the sound of a cat getting ready to puke. Not once, usually twice. Since our apartment was nearly all carpet at the time, even the bathroom, the steam cleaner came in handy. She’d puke and I’d get to clean it up with the steam cleaner. All the while, Ellie started to suspect something was wrong and suggested that I get her checked out. I dragged my feet for a reason that escapes me. I thought, maybe it was the food. We could try different foods for her. The internet had said that might be the problem. So we did. It didn’t help. It just came out of her as different colors and smells.
And then I broke down and took her to the vet. The vet knew as much as I did and suggested the same sorts of solutions that we had tried. We carried on with it for a while. Then the vet decided it was time to get an ultrasound of her belly to see what was going on. They found she had inflamed bowels. She could eat, but the food couldn’t move out of her stomach because she was plugged up. Since she was plugged at one end, the food came back out the other end.
The only thing to do, they said, was to get her on a steroid and give her a few shots of a vitamin. The steroid should decrease the inflammation and she should be able to eat again and hopefully, the vomiting would go away. It did. It did after upping the dosage they originally prescribed. We were cautioned, however, that her body or whatever was sick might build up a tolerance to the steroid over time and she might need to increase the dosage again. We were also told, it could be cleared up after a while with the steroid. 50/50 odds, we had to take them.
For the ninth time in her life, Marley needed to move again. Ellie and I had bought our first house and the cats were coming with us. We have more than double the space that we had at our last apartment so the two cats could have plenty of space to themselves. There was both the main floor and the basement. We gave them a bedroom to make their own and we filled the basement with litter boxes. The windows were replaced so they could sit on the ledges and look out and sleep in the open window. Marley learned to love it over time.
I had said to Ellie at one point, I don’t want to get a dog until Marley is no longer with us. She’s old and she’s had a rough life so why should we put her through that added stress? And then I saw Stella’s mug online and I fell for her. I went back on what I said and we brought the pooch into our home, changing things drastically. A four-month-old puppy brought a lot into the house but mostly she brought a curiosity for these new unknowns. One of those unknowns was Marley, and Marley didn’t care for it one bit. She would hiss and swat at Stella when her nose got too close. She just wanted to sleep, eat, and poop. I felt bad. Ellie felt bad. We made sure to spend more time with the cats each day, Marley in particular because she seemed to dislike Stella more than Tilly did. Her habits changed. She slept in the bottom of the cat tree and she had accidents in the basement. She snuggled closer to us when she felt daring enough to be out and about with Stella around.
But I started to suspect the stress got to her. I said to Ellie, “Marley looks smaller. Like she’s lost weight.” Ellie didn’t see it and truthfully, I’m not sure I really saw it. But she seemed like she needed a good meal or two. I vowed to be extra diligent to keep the food bowls filled and the water fresh and clean. But then the day came where I really noticed it. I picked up this already tiny kitty and realized she weighed a fraction of what she had before. I don’t know what Marley weight at her best, but she’s always been a small cat. If I had to guess she’s never weighed more than 6.5 lbs. So when I took her to the vet in November to see what is up, I was shocked to find out she weighed right around 4 lbs (before she had weighed nearly 6 lbs in February).
Her heart and lungs sound normal but are difficult to hear over the purring.
Vet notes 11/14/2017
Of course, I was distraught at this fact and I resolved to do everything in my power to get her weight back up. My concern was that she was stressed out by the daily barrage of Stella’s curiosity. I decided to start giving her special meals in the evenings so I knew she was eating. She happily purred her way through the high-calorie wet food. She was eating and acting normally, but I was afraid she would waste away to nothing unless she didn’t get enough food in her belly. And so it went.
Then the first bad weekend came. Ever since Marley was new to me, I’ve trained her to come to me by making a kissing-like noise. On this weekend, I was trying to get her attention so she would eat and I made the noise. She turned to face me but then kept turning and turning and turning before eventually stopping. At first, I didn’t really notice it. But then throughout the day, I started to see it more and more. She’d keep spinning before settling down to nap. She’d spin to get to her food. She’d spin to walk around the house. Always spinning to the right and always more than one full rotation. Other than the spinning, she seemed perfectly normal. But I was scared. I called an on-call vet service and they recommended taking her in to see her usual vet the first chance I could. Fortunately, I was working from home the following week and I was able to get her in that Monday. After a full Saturday and Sunday of watching her spin, I was terrified.
The vet was kind. She did some tests. She knew Marley’s medical history and her living situation and she knew what the problem appeared to be. The problem she had with vomiting likely had grown immune to the steroids she had been on for a year and a half. What she suspected is that the inflammation had originally been or eventually became a form of lymphoma that spread throughout her body. The spinning she had was symptomatic of pets who had a brain tumor. The tumor pressed on a certain spot in the brain and made her mostly unresponsive to anything on one side of her body. I watched the tests and it added up. The vet said they could have her taken to the vet school in town and get an MRI done, but that would likely cost a few thousand dollars and only confirm what she already suspected.
And then I asked one of the hardest questions I’ve ever had to ask. How long?
She could have only a week or she could have six months. In the meantime, keep her happy. Double her dose of medicine. Give her treats and don’t worry about her weight.
And that’s what I did. She got special meals twice a day with her pill. The food we bought for her was the expensive freeze-dried raw food. It improved her coat and added back on a few ounces over a couple of weeks. The increased dosage of her pills seemed to keep the spinning at bay. And, at the recommendation of a few people, we mixed in 5 mg of CBD oil in her dinner every night. One of Ellie’s coworkers was kind enough to give us a sample pack. Everything combined, she seemed to bounce back a little. I was more than elated when I weighed her and saw that she had gained back a few ounces.
Back in November, I had a brief talk with Ellie. I asked her to be my voice of reason because I knew when the time came that I wouldn’t be able to say she isn’t going to get better and it’s time to give her peace. I knew I’d be selfish and want one more week, or day, or hour with my Marley and I couldn’t be trusted to do what I had signed up for ten years ago. To treat her well. Ellie agreed and she asked what sign I was waiting for. When she asked, I knew the answer but I couldn’t bring myself to say it. A few days later, I mustered up the courage. I said, “I’m waiting for her to decide and I want her to pass peacefully in her sleep.” The fool in me thought that might happen. The realist across the table looked at me with eyes that said, “You know she’ll suffer before that day comes. You will need to decide.”
I didn’t want to.
Christmas was difficult this year. We usually go to my parents and the drive to Ellie’s parents and spend the night but since we had Stella, it complicated things. My parents have a ban on dogs coming to Christmas after an incident a few years ago. We ended up boarding Stella. While I was relieved that Marley would have a few days of peace around the house, I was concerned that she would miss a few special feedings and pills and CBD oil dosages. I knew it was helping her, but I really didn’t know how much each of those things were helping. I worried while we were away that we would come home to Marley spinning endlessly in a circle or worse, collapsed from exhaustion. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. What happened scared me just as much. When we got home, she wouldn’t take her pill. She didn’t see it when I put it in front of her. I tried and tried to get her attention and she’d just spin past it. Then I tried putting it in her mouth. She spit it out over and over. After maybe the twelfth time, I was able to keep it in her mouth and get her to swallow it. It was a hollow victory. It wasn’t the last time I had to do it that way either.
Towards the end of the week, there was a noticeable change in Marley. She stopped purring and for Marley, that meant a lot. This was a cat that purred so loud you could hear her across the house. She could wake from a deep sleep after a slight pet and she would immediately purr her heart out. Other times she would start purring all on her own while sitting on the couch as if she just heard the funniest joke that made her so happy. The vets always commented on it, perfectly healthy and happy they’d say. Often it would be added to her exam notes. So for Marley to stop purring, despite whatever I did, I knew what was to come.
That following Saturday, December 30th, was Ellie’s birthday. I had gotten up early to make her coffee and shovel and get breakfast started. While I was in the kitchen, Marley was too. She kept faintly meowing and stumbling around the kitchen perimeter. She climbed on the couch and then fell off the couch and then she walked to the stairs and tried to go down but stumbled and fell with each one she attempted. She had no recognition of Stella or where solid objects where. When I fed Stella her breakfast, Marley walked beneath her. Stella growled and nipped at her. I scooped Marley up and held her close on the kitchen floor. I didn’t let her go and when Ellie came out of the bedroom, I didn’t greet her with a happy birthday. My eyes were on the ground and I had Marley tight in my arms and I said, “I need you to call.”
The vet had an opening that day at 10:30 am. The next available spot wouldn’t be until Tuesday because of the holidays. I knew she wasn’t going to get any better and I gave Ellie the nod. And then suddenly, I only had a couple of hours left with my best friend. I held her and sat with her. She stayed with me longer than she ever had, and I think it’s because she didn’t have any fight left in her. She knew too.
I had Ellie drive to the vet. I wanted to hold her in the car. She wasn’t in her pet carrier, I just bundled her up in my coat. I knew that on the way home, I wouldn’t be able to drive. It was a long, quiet drive.
We got to the vet and without saying a word they ushered us into the room. They either were expecting us at that very moment or we looked like so many people who had come there before for the same reason. The room had a towel on the exam table. I kept her in my coat. Ellie sat by my side, stroking Marley’s head.
The tech came in asked a couple of questions and explained what would happen. The vet would give her a sedative and then leave the room to let it kick in. After that, she would come back and give an overdose of anesthetic. At that point, it should only take a minute.
The vet who was there that day was the vet who was always kind and sympathetic to Marley’s ailments. She had the best bedside manner of any vet I’ve worked with. She gave Marley the sedative and said I can hold her again and that she’d be back. I scooped up her tiny frame. She fell asleep in my arms. The vet came back and I knew it was time. Back to the towel, she went and she was given the anesthetic. The vet listened to her heart rate, easy to hear without her signature purring. And after maybe twenty seconds, she said, “She’s passed.” She gave us another moment alone.
As I stood there sobbing in Ellie’s arms, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I kept waiting to see her move or start breathing again because I desperately wanted a second chance. I knew this day was coming and I knew when it was close but I never wanted it to pass. I never wanted to give her up.
The drive home was hard. Every moment of the rest of the day was hard. It wasn’t Ellie’s best birthday. The next day was hard too. Ellie said she kept waiting for her to come around a corner. I kept looking for her in her spots. In the afternoon, we started talking about her. We looked through old photos. It helped. It helped a lot. Talking about her still made me sad, but it felt better to talk about what happened than pretend to be strong and pretend that it didn’t happen.
It’s still hard. I still miss her.
We had her cremated. The plan is to bury her ashes in the flower bed in the Spring. That seems too soon, I don’t feel ready to put her in the ground. When her ashes came back, the cremation service had included a small gift with them. It was an ornament with her name written on one side and the year. On the other side was an imprint of her tiny paw. It’s such a small gesture but it means so much to me.