Animals entered my life very early. Since I was about four or five years old until I was a teenager, a parade of dogs and birds came through our home. I would become attached to every one of them and their death or disappearance invariably caused me grief. Even though all the family members were involved in the care of the pets, my mother noted that I tended to become unusually close to them. I was always very fond of cats but except for the occasional stray cat that was fed fish scraps and platters of milk outside the home, in the courtyard or the verandah, a pet feline had never lived with us. That changed in 1974 when one afternoon in New Delhi, I brought home a beautiful ginger and white kitten (probably a couple of weeks old) handed over to me by a group of frantic children on the street who were trying to save him from a big dog. I named him Tuni and he charmed the entire household with his friendly demeanor and beautiful looks. Tuni disappeared one day and never came back, leaving all of us sad and helpless. Many years later, (Omaha, 1991) at the urging of my son, we adopted a pair of kitties. They were brothers and we called them Raja and Ali. Playful, loving, friendly, each with his idiosyncratic ways, they kept us and each other engaged for many years. Raja succumbed to cancer in 2005 at the age of fourteen despite many heroic efforts on our part and that of our cats' wonderful vet, Dr. Cheryl Stanley. For the last five and a half years his brother Ali became my sole feline companion. Ali died at home last Saturday (January 15, 2011) peacefully, gracefully - suffering from no discernible illness, pain or distress. He had been steadily losing weight in the last one year but there was really nothing much else wrong with him. He had slowed down but continued to enjoy life till the very end. Four months short of his twentieth birthday, he just drifted away due to old age. His death came rapidly and although I was not prepared for it, it was probably the best thing for him. The following is a message I wrote to a friend soon after his death. It captures my immediate and spontaneous recollection of the last hours with Ali and needless to say, at a time when I was very, very sad.
The house feels eerily weird. I have been functioning in a zoned-out way since yesterday. This morning was particularly hard when I got up from bed and Ali was not waiting for me to tend to him and serve him his breakfast.
Ali had been showing his age in the last year or so but had remained in good health overall. Last Thursday evening, he began to show weakness in his hind legs and started to fall down while walking. He still was able to go to the bathroom and to his water bowl on his own. Since Friday morning his condition took a steady turn for the worse and he was having great difficulty in walking more than a few steps. Although he continued to drink water, he did not eat anything at all. On Saturday morning, we took him to see Dr. Stanley, his vet of many years, for an emergency visit . His weight was a mere 4.4 pounds, down from the already low 5.3 just a month ago. (Ali had weighed between 12 - 13 pounds in his prime) He was fading fast. The doctor said that although he did not seem to be in pain, all his systems were shutting down gradually and she predicted that he would not last the night. She gave us the choice of either euthanizing him or letting him die at home in his own time. Since he was not in pain or in any obvious distress, we decided to bring him home. Sudhir and I kept vigil over him - he was by our side all the time. Gradually, he seemed to go deeper and deeper into oblivion. He seemed to stir only on hearing my voice.
Around 4:45pm, he stopped breathing and his heart stopped after a few long breaths. He was in my lap with Sudhir beside us. Amazingly enough, half an hour prior to that he had opened his eyes, raised his head, looked at me, meowed a few times and gently bitten my arm. After that he became completely quiet, except for his breathing which became shallower by the minute. I don't know what his final movement and meowing meant, whether he even knew me by then. But I will always remember that last gesture as his way of saying goodbye.
I had a hard time when Raja died of cancer five years ago. But Ali kept me going in his absence, forcing me to tend to his routine. Now Sudhir and I are feeling disoriented without a cat around us. Our human children left home a long time ago and the cats kept the home lively with their child like presence and playfulness. I think with Ali gone, we have now become empty-nesters in the true sense of the word. I know that we will adjust, focusing on other things. It will be a different kind of life. But that's okay. Ali died the way he deserved to go - surrounded by love. Over time, I am sure the painful thoughts of Ali's last hours will be replaced by memories of the good times we had together, just as it was for Raja and Tuni whose death and disappearance too were devastating for me.
I don't know how one takes an honest measure of one's life but if it is by counting the cats we have loved, it is probably as good a yard stick as any.
(I rarely write anything so personal on the blog. My husband and son urged me to write it in order to come to terms with Ali's absence in my life from now on. Our animal companions are some of the best people we know.)