Living with a dying pet on the Feast of St. Francis

We celebrated Blessing of the Animals at Grace on September 29, for logistical reasons. It was especially poignant for me because for the first time, we didn’t bring any of our living cats with us. Instead, I brought the ashes of Maggie Pie, who died in 2003, and Margery Kempe, who died on New Year’s Day this year. My heart was heavy because back home Thomas Merton is sharing his last days with us. He was diagnosed with cancer two months ago.

We actually thought that Merton would probably be dead by now.  He’s lost weight; the tumor in his jaw has grown; but for the most part, he seems to be enjoying life. He’s become very affectionate and since he’s lost weight, he’s taken to lying between my legs which was a favorite spot of his predecessors.

Coincidentally, at night he has begun sleeping where both Maggie and Margery slept the last months of their lives, up at the top of the bed between our pillows. Maggie slept there because it was a place of safety away from Merton, who tended to beat up on her. Merton sleeps there because it’s where he seems to want to be.

This morning, he seemed to be in a very good mood and feeling well. He played with his ball, even carried it in his mouth, and ran around the house.

So we are facing that difficult decision so many people face. With the deep love we share for our animal companions, it is extremely difficult to watch them suffer, and as difficult to imagine life without them. But when we open our homes and our hearts to them, we also accept the responsibility of caring for them in life and in death. We accept the responsibility to release them from the pain they suffer and don’t understand.

Here he is this morning, resting after his bout of play:




Cat-blogging: Thomas Merton

We received the terrible news that Thomas Merton, our fourteen-year old, has a tumor in his jaw and will likely die within a few weeks. He’d been drooling for the past several weeks and Corrie took him to the vet in our cat stroller. We’re shocked because other than that, he’s showed no symptoms of illness. And we attributed his mouth issues to the fact that he had two or three teeth removed in January and had something of a grimace ever since.

The vet asked Corrie if his tongue had been sticking out, but that had been the case for years. Apparently there’s nothing that can be done with this particular sort of tumor except to try to control the pain, and when he is no longer able to eat, that will be a sign that we need to let him die.

Merton came to us in the winter of 2000. Corrie had the bright idea, after we’d moved to Spartanburg, that Margery needed a friend. He had been found with his siblings in a box in an abandoned mill. A rescue organization found a foster home for him. He was about nine months old when he joined our family. The adoption process was quite rigorous. They made a home visit before placing him with us, and then after he’d been living with us for several weeks, they came back. This time, the foster family came along, including the little children, pre-schoolers. When we told them that we had named him Thomas Merton (our other cats were Maggie Pie and Margery, so we were going with “M”s), the little boy asked if that was a “Christian name” (they had called him “Lazarus”). The family were fundamentalists, and I suppose the boy worried that a name change might mean that Merton would burn in hell for eternity.

The idea of having a playmate for Margery never worked out. Merton was an alpha male and bonded with Corrie immediately. He is vocal, and playful. For years, he would play “ballie ball” with us. As soon as we got into bed at night to read, he would jump in the bed with one of his balls (spongie things the size of golf balls). He would drop it and start to meow until we tossed it across the room. He would run and catch it, bring it back. This would continue until we turned the lights out. He’ll still occasionally find one of these balls and bring it to us, but at fourteen, he’s content to watch us throw it.

Bodhi arrived as a tiny little kitten in 2003 and the two of them were fast friends (Merton always annoyed the two older cats, occasionally jumping them when they emerged from the litter box, or otherwise just terrorizing them). But when Pilgrim arrived at Thanksgiving 2004, Merton’s took to her. They could play for hours, often rough-housing throughout the house.

He’s slowed down considerably over the last few years but one thing hasn’t changed. He is incredibly affectionate and deeply attached to Corrie. He wants to be on her, or near almost all of the time. He usually sleeps between our pillows in the bed, depending on the mood he’ll lean on one or the other of us.

Oh, and like so many males, he’s never met an 18-year old girl he didn’t like. When Corrie was teaching at a women’s college and often had students over, he would be in the middle of the group, accepting their praise and their caresses as were his due.

My favorite picture of him is this one, where he seems to have just completed reading Augustine’s City of God, and has decided it wasn’t worth the effort (probably somewhere between 2002 and 2004):


Here is in his prime, somewhere between 2006 and 2009, proving that although he weighed 20 pounds, he could still act like a kitten.

4422_1092553226512_5665392_nAnd here he is tonight:

photo(1)I blogged about Margery’s last days and death last December, and linked to Anne Lamott’s description of her cat’s death here.

Andrew Sullivan lost one of his beloved pet dogs over the weekend, and in the past few weeks has been blogging about what we learn as we watch our pets die.


Margery Kempe 1995-2013

We came home last night after a wonderful dinner with friends to find Margery had died. She was in her bed in front of the gas stove where she had spent much of her time over the last couple of months. She seemed to have had a peaceful end after a very difficult few days. As I mentioned in a previous post, Margery was a wonderful and feisty cat, very affectionate who loved life and persevered through a great deal.

A few more pictures of her:

as a kitten (she spent over a month in isolation in a spare bedroom after coming to us for fear that she might infect Maggie Pie). We would go in and spend time with her and she loved to play as most kittens do:

margeryplayingAfter she emerged permanently from her isolation chamber, she shared living quarters with us and for nearly eight years with the “magnificent” Maggie Pie. The two never really got along. This picture sums up their relationship:


But my favorite photo of Margery may be this one. It’s probably from her second Christmas with us:


And special thanks to the vets that cared for her over the years, especially the staff at Lakeview Veterinary Clinic who accompanied us on her final journey.

Let light perpetual shine upon her and may she be warm and have lots of good things to eat and embraced by love.

Anne LaMott on the death of her beloved cat

As we prepare for Margery’s death, some words from Anne Lamott (from Help, Thanks, Wow)

Now it turns out that my cat is going to die later today. She is struggling to breathe. I had hoped and prayed that she would slip off in the night and that I would not have to have the bet come by to put her down. I said, Help. Also, I gave her a lot of morphine, what had to have been an overdose, which she just slept off. All I wanted was for her not to die miserable and afraid. That’s all.

It is nighttime now, and Jeanie passed an hour ago, miserable and afraid.

When the vet came, we tried to gently get her out from under the futon, and she went crazy, and the next ten minutes were so awful that I won’t describe them. Suffice it to say that she did not go gently into that good night. It broke my heart. But she had been suffering, and is suffering no more. She had an amazing run of love with my family. She was a proud little union cat, and also a model of queenly disdain with a bit of grudging affection for most people, and pure adoration for me.

Was my prayer answered? Yes, although I didn’t get what I’d hoped and prayed for, what I’d selected from the menu. Am I sick with anxiety, that I did the wrong thing? Of course. Sad? Heartbroken. But Jeanie hit the lottery when she got me as her person for thirteen years, and the bad death was only ten minutes. So let me get back to you on this.

Certainly the same could be said of Margery. Had we not noticed her that afternoon in Sewanee, or had we accepted the first vet’s opinion, Margery would have died as a kitten. She’s had a good life. She’s been loved and loved us and she’s endured all of the other cats we’ve brought into her life. She’s brought us joy and she’s enjoyed shrimp and calamari, and all manner of other things, including a nap on a sunny day on a screened-in porch in Madison.

Cat-Blogging: Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe came to us in the fall of 1995. It was Parents’ Weekend at Sewanee and we suspected that she was dropped off by people who had come up to the Mountain for the weekend. We found her running from the general direction of St. Luke’s Chapel towards All Saints’ Chapel, crying with all of her might (Hence the name Margery Kempe). She was an itty-bitty little thing. When we took her to the vet for the first time to have her checked out, he told us she tested positive for Feline Leukemia and needed to be put down. We disagreed.

Another vet, vitamins and interferon, plus a couple of months of isolation away from our Maggie Pie, Margery was retested and came up negative. She was a feisty thing. She had a dear friend in Sewanee for a couple of years, Tigger, who would come and visit every day after his girls went off to school. And we’ll never forget the summer Reginald Fuller and his wife lived next door, and when a dead cat appeared on the street below us, Mrs. Fuller worried that it was Margery, or the “little fat one” as she called her. In Sewanee, our cleaners named her “Large Marge.” Although she was small-bodied, she ate her fill.

When we moved to South Carolina, Corrie wanted to get her a new playmate to replace Tigger. That explains Merton but they never really got on. Perhaps the most poignant moment ever for me and Margery came upon Maggie Pie’s death. For the last couple of years of her life, Maggie always slept up next to my head. It was the spot where she felt protected from Merton’s onslaughts. Margery never slept in the bed. She had grown accustomed to sleeping on her own, probably because of her early months in isolation.

Maggie’s last night, I knew she something was wrong. She couldn’t get comfortable next to me and in the morning, we took her to the vet and he discovered a huge tumor in her lungs. That night, for the first time, Margery came in the bed and settled down next to my head.

A couple of photos from Margery in her prime:

1(3) copyMargery copy

As I wrote this a couple of nights ago, Margery was sleeping on my lap. She barely moved her limbs in an hour. Her breath at times seemed forced; at other times it came easily. She’s on pain medication, blood pressure medication, subcutaneous fluids. But she’s still eating and especially enjoyed bites of shrimp cocktail on Christmas Eve.