Nine lives is a lot — but not forever

My wife and I don’t have a lot of yard; our house sits on three-quarters of an acre. Moreover, a lot of that partial acre is taken up by the old horse barn that now serves as our garage and woodshed. But somehow we have found the space in our yard to bury eight cats: Merlin, Clinton, Cassandra, Dorset, Dalvay, BK, BK2, and – a couple of weeks ago – Ella.

That might sound like we’ve had bad luck with cats. On the contrary, we’ve had great luck. It’s simply that we’ve always had a large pride. During most of our quarter-century in Lincoln, we’ve had at least four cats, and sometimes we’ve had as many as six.

But, alas, on a Saturday last month, the pride fell by one: Ella. She was a black cat who, at her largest, looked like a very plush throw pillow. According to an animal communicator who once interviewed her, she aspired to be a dancer – like my wife’s and my daughter. I am not making that up.BnTb1-dIUAE5U1r

Ella lived to be 16 and change, and the last year and four months of her life we brought her to the Bristol Animal Hospital every three or four days, where Heather or Nancy or Jen or two different women who share the name Kathy would hydrate her. Her kidneys were in renal failure and this was the treatment. They would squeeze a bag of water into her side and her kidneys would work like a charm for another three or four days, and she would chow down like she’d been entered into a competitive eating competition at Coney Island.

I remember that when she was diagnosed with renal failure in February 2013, my wife and I were hoping the hydration would give her a happy, comfortable four or five months. She’d get to spend a few warm summer days lounging in the sun on the front porch. Well, she got that. She also got an autumn sniffing at the mole holes beside the blueberry bushes and the birdbath. She got another winter beside the woodstove. And she was given the gift of another full spring – which meant we did, too.

What got her in the end? A stroke, which just might be the way to go. I took a break from yard work on a Saturday afternoon and wandered inside for a glass of water. There I heard Ella yowling. She was facing a corner in the den, apparently believing that she was trapped. When I lifted her up and brought her to the center of the room, she was dragging her left leg and stumbling in a circle. Immediately my wife and I brought her to the Burlington Emergency and Veterinary Services in Williston, which is open on Saturday afternoons. There we learned that Ella was most likely blind and deaf now. She also seemed to be losing control of her left front leg.

Two days earlier, she had had her annual physical, and she was doing great. Sure, her kidneys needed a little help. But otherwise she happy and healthy. She was always a trooper of a traveler and patient.10268529_10152235334737928_5574370337973117750_n

But now we knew it was time for her to join the other members of the pride who had come – and gone – before her. We buried her at dusk in a spot not far from Merlin and Clinton.

I have friends who think the size of my family’s pride is excessive, but not because of the hairballs, the turd hockey, or (most recently) the hydration. They think we’re crazy because the size invariably means mourning.

And, yes, that loss is hard. I wrote literally tens of thousands of words with Ella purring in my lap. Barely a week after we said good-bye to her, we learned that another of our cats, Horton, has a heart murmur, and even with treatment her time with us will be abridged.

But that pain is a small price to pay for all the pleasure we derive from caring for a large and eccentric pride. So we live with loss – and savor the time we have together.

Godspeed, Ella. See you on the other side.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on June 1, 2014. Chris’s new novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives next month.)9780385539333_p0_v3_s600

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.