If you were going to pick a place to die, this wouldn’t be so bad.
I followed Mik here today. Mik – the elder kitty, queen of the property, official watch cat, former barn kitty from South Carolina. She’s been my almost daily companion for 14 of her over 16 years. I could tell story after story of Mik’s greatness from amazing physical feats, to how she would happily stay and listen to students who played in tune but would walk out of lessons when the student played out of tune, to her fearlessness and regalness. But, maybe another time. This is about Mik deciding how she wants to die.
She’d been declining over the last couple of months – not eating as much, sleeping more, and not grooming herself as perfectly as usual. We, including Mik, not being the go-to-the-vet for everything kind of family decided to just concentrate on keeping her comfortable. She being the always-wanting-to-be-outside kitty except when it was snowing and there was a fire in the woodstove, keeping her comfortable was a little tricky. I’d try to keep her in on rainy nights but even if I did manage to persuade her to join us on the bed she’d be in my face at 3:30 AM yelling to go out. And, as always, not matter how much rain she always came in for breakfast totally dry. We never figured out where she went but it wasn’t on our porch.
But as she gradually stopped eating altogether (despite changes of food and purchase of various liquid diets for old and ailing cats) and was losing weight quickly she wanted to be out more and more and would much prefer lying in the woods to coming anywhere near the house. I’d take her water and food but she wasn’t interested anymore.
Last Saturday she could barely move. She would get up and walk a few feet to follow the shadows and stay out of the sun but seemed to welcome attention. I meant to bring her in Saturday night thinking it might be her last night but she disappeared just before dark. I searched everywhere for her but no sign of her. She didn’t show up at all on Sunday and we searched the woods and the neighbors. It seemed simple. She had gone off to die. I had a little cry in the woods but knew that that was her way. Native Americans went off to the woods to die and so do barn kitties. Monday I was pretty sad and Tuesday was the Eno Festival so I got to be with friends and play music. I was pretty much resigned to her being gone. I took up her food bowls and bedding and gave Cat0 Mik’s dining spot at the end of the kitchen counter.
Yesterday (Wednesday) morning I was getting ready to start working on an instrument in the shop and went out to walk back to the house for something and there she was lying on the walkway. I practically screamed and was overjoyed to see her though she was thinner than the already impossibly thin she had been on Saturday. She seemed happy to see me, purred lying in my lap and moved her head around so she could get all the scritches in exactly the right places. She even drank some water. I kept her with me all day – she’d lay in her bed on the floor of the shop for a while but then moved over to right under my feet making it hard to work so I took her back out and we sat on the deck for a long time. I eventually got some more work done but had to check on her and pet her every few minutes I was so happy to have her back.
We kept her in last night. She seemed OK with that but only wanted to be on the tile floor or the brick behind the woodstove. When I got up this morning I really didn’t expect to find her alive but she greeted me with a loud cry that unmistakably said “let me out!!!” and headed for the door. It took her two tries to get there. She couldn’t go more than 10 feet or so without having to lie down.
She started on the deck but after a couple of moves she was in the side yard and the sun was starting to hit her so I moved her to a spot on the edge of the woods that I knew she liked and left her there with a bowl of water while I taught my 9:00 student. After the lesson she was gone but I found her a ways down the path to I moved the water bowl down there but as soon as I put it down she got up and moved further down the path. I left her for 15 minutes and when I came back she was another 20 feet down the path and looking up toward the road. I was really afraid that she was thinking kitty suicide on the highway so I decided to keep an eye on her all morning.
After another 15 minute break up at the house I could not find her anywhere on the path. Checked the road and the bushes near it but no sign there. Then I saw her down at the creek. It’s a very steep climb down there and she was lying on a flat bottom there but no sign of having fallen – her coat was still clean from the brushing I gave her yesterday. I stayed with her and after each little 10 minute rest she’d move further down stream – that’s the area of the picture above. There’s a pile up there of logs and branches against the rocks from recent flooding so no going any further that way. It had taken her nearly two hours to make this short journey.
She was just lying there and I wondered if maybe this was the place she’d chosen and I remembered our commitment to not interfere with whatever choice she made so I was going to leave but couldn’t pull myself away so I climbed back to the top of the hill and sat in the trees there and watched. Eventually she moved toward the water and then after some studying she jumped to a nearby rock in the water. After a rest she got up climbed over a couple of smaller rocks and stood on a larger one overlooking a 4 foot leap to the next rock. I had started videoing her with my phone when she got on the rocks but when I saw what she was contemplating my heart sank and I did not record any further. Even 6 months ago that leap would not have been any problem for her but today I knew she could not make it. The water was in shadow so I could not see how deep it was. And then she jumped. She made it halfway and fell into the water. Her head barely sticking up and in some current, I wondered if maybe this was the real kitty suicide and she hesitated long enough that I think maybe she thought that, too. I was at the top of the steep hill but still had to totally restrain myself from running down and rescuing her. But, this is what barn kitties do.
After some very long seconds she started for the rock she had missed and tried to claw her way up it and fell into a space between two rocks and lay there half in the water, half out. She stayed there unmoving for a very long time. I thought “Ok, this isn’t so bad. The next big rain her bones will wash down to Jordan Lake.” But she wasn’t done. She pulled herself out and went to the far edge of those rocks. Next stop – a big rock by the shore. Well over 6 feet away. And once again she went in but this time it was shallow enough for her to make her way to some smaller rocks along the shore and pull herself partially out of the water.
I moved down to the side of the creek. She was directly across from me, a drowned looking cat hanging off some rocks, tail and left hind foot still in the water. Her head was resting on a rock turned sideways facing me, eyes open, seemingly looking right at me. I watched her shallow breathing slow and then it stopped. But then it started up again. She still wasn’t through. I had thought “she only wanted to make it to the other side” – such a common metaphor maybe even cats use it.
After much slipping around she managed to pull herself onto the shore and moved into some bushes behind a tree. I couldn’t see her from where I was so I moved back up the hill but could not see her anywhere. I hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink in a long time so I went back the house and ate a little. I came back down with binoculars and scanned the shoreline and woods for any sign of movement and using the binoculars to examine any darkness or shadow. I had no idea if she had moved upstream, down, or up the hill on the other side. After an hour I was getting ready to give up when a squirrel tipped me off. He was making that whining sound they make when the cats are out on the deck and the squirrels want to come down and raid the bird feeders. And sure enough, right at that moment a gray movement in some bushes just 10 feet downstream of where she had come out of the water. It looked like she was just repositioning herself rather than on the move and I only saw her for that moment.
I’m having a terrible time tearing myself away from this. It’s clear she wants to be alone. But I just want to know where my kitty is and how she is. Every time I start back for the house I turn around and think “ok, just one more glance from the big pine tree where I watched her go into the water” and then I’m waiting and watching again. I came back thinking I would start writing all this down and maybe that would make me feel better but as soon as I sat in front of the computer I felt nauseous and agitated and found myself going back out and scanning the shoreline and woods for movement. What if she decided to come back across? What if she heads up to a neighbors yard and they find her and decide to take her to an emergency vet? She hates car rides. She hates vets. She hates being poked and prodded. She just wants to die and the vet is just going to say she can’t be saved let’s put her down and dump her in the landfill. Not the death this barn kitty planned. But she doesn’t want me following her around either. That’s the hardest part.
So that was a few hours ago. After going back and searching a couple more times and sitting in the woods remembering my mother’s three and a half years of trying to die and how I had to see her every day knowing she just wanted to die and wishing I could be like my brothers who once they realized she could no longer be a mother to them just decided to skip the whole thing.
OK, barn kitty. I’m letting you go. After I just go down to the creek and look one more time.