Today we had to say goodbye to Storm Shadow.
I’ve been reticent when it comes to talking about his health publicly. In fact, at first, my husband and I spoke to practically no one save our employers (due to the multiple vet visits), because each day brought a whiplash of hope and despair, and we were still grappling with Storm Shadow’s sudden crash in health ourselves. Trying to understand how our mostly healthy cat had gone from normal to the brink of death in less than a week was impossible to wrap our heads around, let alone explain to other people. So we kept quiet. This was back in January.
I remember I was reading Seanan McGuire’s newest release: Dusk or Dawn or Dark or Day. It’s a lovely twist on a ghost story, in which ghosts can’t move on until they reach the age they would’ve died naturally, and in order to do so, they have to earn that time. The heroine earns that time by helping people who want to die want to live instead, and she’s able to give that time back to others. There’s a sweet, sweet scene involving elderly cats in this book, and I remember after finishing it, I was sitting in bed with Storm Shadow beside me, and he was clearly in pain. He wasn’t panting, but he was breathing through an open mouth. I’d gotten the diagnosis from the emergency care vet in Knoxville, and it was the worst diagnosis possible: FIP. I thought I only had a few weeks, and I remember sitting there, crying, and this story — that scene — was in my head, and I wished, prayed for a little more time.
I got it the next day, when my vet adamantly told us the emergency care clinic in Knoxville was wrong (they were: a cat who’s responded to steroids in the past couldn’t have the virus, and neither Storm Shadow nor us had been exposed to a feline who’d had it), and we put him on a new regiment: a steroid shot for his inflammation (he’d stopped eating his food, on which we’d sprinkle Dasuquin on each serving), and then because he couldn’t continue his pain pill while on the steroid shot, we had to start giving him a shot to control the pain in his hips.
We could do that. If it meant keeping our cat alive, you bet your ass we would do it.
But in two weeks, when he was eating happily and finally left our bedroom to socialize, we realized he was breathing heavily. Rapidly. Like he’d just run a marathon. So back to the vet again. We took an x-ray and discovered a huge mass in his chest: so huge, there was barely any room for his lungs, and we couldn’t see his heart. The vet feared a tumor, but there was a 25% chance it was fluid. Because Storm Shadow wasn’t in any distress, just breathing heavily, we opted to treat the fluid. We would know in a few days if his breathing improved, and if it didn’t, we’d know it was a tumor.
His breathing improved.
So now we had a new regiment. It required us to give Storm Shadow a shot to pull the excess fluid out every day, and then a shot to manage his pain every other day, and then a visit to the vet roughly once a month for the steroid booster. Our buddy rallied through February. He was social. He was re-engaging in some of his favorite habits. He was catting again. We were thrilled.
But two and a half weeks ago, we had a cold snap here in Tennessee. While the North was getting that awful blizzard, we were freezing our asses off. Storm Shadow wasn’t due for his steroid booster for another week, but it had already started to weaken. What I think happened, and frankly it’s only a theory, is that the cold snap affected him like it would affect any human with arthritis: the barometric pressure crushed an already weakening steroid, and by Tuesday night two weeks ago, he could not use his back legs at all.
So back to the vet the next morning, earliest I could get Storm Shadow in, for a booster. We talked about whether it was the weather, or whether the steroid shot had diminishing returns. Our vet offered it may be a mix of both, but to keep an eye on him. We did. It took him longer to recover, frighteningly so. I’m not sure the back right leg ever really got back to where it should be, and his tail, which was a source of constant movement through-out his life, had stopped moving unless you touched it.
But he was managing. He wouldn’t leave our bedroom, but he was managing.
Then last week he stopped eating.
This time, there was no supplement on his food to blame. The vet said we could bring him in at the two week mark for another steroid, and I did on Wednesday, hoping the steroid would boost his hunger, and I also gave him some of the primo food he really, really loved. I told the vet on that visit that I knew this was it: that if he didn’t eat after this, I knew it was the end. Because Storm Shadow had lost two pounds in two weeks, and he was already showing clear signs of muscular atrophy. He was weak.
Wednesday afternoon, Storm Shadow did eat. He ate all the way into Thursday morning. Not everything, but enough to give me hope. But after that, he picked at his cat treats. Steroid shots take 24-48 hours to take full effect, but by Friday evening, after the vet was closed and would not open again until Monday, it was clear what would need to be done. I just hoped we could wait till Monday, and we would have, if he’d just kept doing what he’d been doing, which was rest in various spots around the room, drink water, and use the litter box the best he could.
But Saturday night, as we were getting ready for bed, we realized he couldn’t use his front left leg, and when he tried to walk, he was falling. He was crying. He’d been restless that evening, and seeing this, I understood. Despite our best efforts to keep him comfortable, which we had done, he was now at the end and didn’t know what was going on. So I did the only thing I could do. I called the emergency care clinic in Alcoa, and we took the long drive to say goodbye.
It took longer than I expected. The emergency care clinic in Alcoa is a small outfit, and there were several emergencies that night. And Storm Shadow, bless him, was pretty calm for a cat who hated his cat carrier and hated car rides. In fact, he played his own little April Fool’s Day joke on us: he didn’t puke, poop, or pee on the ride up there, and for those of you who knew him, you know that’s a rare thing indeed.
But it meant we got to spend as much time as possible with him. Keeping him calm. Petting him. Bawling our eyes out and saying goodbye. Holding him, kissing him. We stayed for the whole thing, and I’m glad of it. I like to think that us being there made it easy for him to let go, and the staff at the clinic was wonderful and compassionate. He did not pass on April Fool’s Day, but in the wee hours after. And in the wee hours after, we drove the forty minutes home to an empty house and cleaned our bedroom of all the pee pads, of the litter box, of his food and water: everything in our immediate sight. It’s not that we want to forget him. It’s that, for my part, I didn’t want to wake up with the room still looking like his sick room and him not be in it.
Of course, the sheer emptiness now is its own reminder.
Storm Shadow will be the first pet I’ve ever had cremated. I would have considered burying him, but we’re in a suburban neighborhood that we don’t plan on staying in for long. It seemed wrong to bury him and leave him behind, so we’ll be taking his ashes with us.
It’s a funny thing: I grew up on a farm. I’ve had cats all my life. I’m no stranger to death, and in fact, I’ve had cats die in very sudden and traumatic ways. But this has absolutely been the hardest: the slow decline, the warring hope and despair. Storm Shadow was, without a doubt, the best cat I ever had. You could attribute that to the fact that he’s the first house cat I ever had, but he had the best personality. We have so many wonderful and funny stories about him, stories that we loved sharing, and will hopefully love to share in the future.
But right now, we’re dealing with our grief. We have no plans to rush out and get Storm Shadow’s successor(s): we need time to miss him. And it’s going to suck, because there were so many habits built into my daily life, even when he was ailing, that are going to be hard to break. I wonder how many times I’m going to leave for work and say goodbye even though he’s not there? Or come home for lunch and check on him, and oh yeah, I forgot for just a moment? How many times will I open the shower curtain to expect to find him sitting there, ready to muscle in and lap up the leftover shower water (because he’s SUCH a weirdo)?
Storm Shadow was fifteen years old when he passed on April 2, 2017. And what I wouldn’t have given — if it meant he’d rallied, if he’d gotten better — for a little more time.