Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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Photo: Zandria Muench Beraldo

Lion died. The vet came to the house at 11:30 a.m. in late October. One minute my beautiful little cat was alive. Then he wasn’t. The vet tranquilized him and, when he was fully asleep, shaved a little hair on a front leg and injected the euthanizing drug. I held him while the drug was injected. I held him afterward. I held him and I cried. Later, we took him outside with us so he could lie in the warm October sun.

He began life as an outside cat. Born under my garage in Bozeman, one of a litter of four, the outside was his world. I discovered him when, on a day of no wind, I noticed tulips moving in the little garden next to the garage. Investigating, I found four kittens exploring the world that, for them, consisted of soft earth under the garage, several skunks who also lived there, the tree in the small garden, and tulips. (I captured two of the kittens, took them to Bozeman’s no kill animal shelter where they were inoculated and would be socialized, then adopted. I’d planned to take all four, but after the first two died the next day of a sudden, new strain of distemper, there was no way the remaining kittens were going.)

When Lion began a wider wandering, I noticed him at the edge of a larger garden on the other side of the walkway through the yard, engaged with a yellow flower. He batted the flower. The flower rebounded. He batted. The flower rebounded. This went on for a very long time.

I put out food for the kittens, and for Mamacat, in the little enclosed garden I now called the Cat’s Garden. A small hole in the garage foundation (the garage was a slightly refurbished barn built in the 1880s, about the time my house was built) served as a sort of cave entrance to the ground below the garage floor. Reaching over the low fence defining the garden as the kittens ate, I stroked Lion’s sister, Calicat, with one finger. At first she ran under the garage, but gradually she allowed it. Lion, on the other hand, took it upon himself to defend his family. A few weeks old, he stood at the entrance to his cave, and hissed. I considered him very brave. And quite fierce.

One day as I was sitting on my deck, my back against the warm brick of the house, Calicat rubbed up against me, her invitation to friendship. After that, we spent a great deal of time together. Lion kept his distance, but because he and Calicat were very close, he saw that nothing terrible happened to her when she was near me. It wasn’t until I took Calicat to the vet to get her shots and spayed, that Lion, lonesome without her, allowed himself to come close to me.

When I brought Calicat back, opening the crate on the walkway near their garden, Lion was there to meet her. She sat down on the walkway and Lion sat down next to her. He put his arm around her. (There is no other way to say this. That is exactly what he did.)

After seeing a skunk eating from their food bowl, I moved food and water bowls into my bedroom, placing them on the window seat where Blue, my wheaten terrier, couldn’t reach them. I left the bedroom door to the deck open. (Why it never occurred to me that the skunks might also come in, I’ve no idea. They didn’t.) Mamacat came in to eat, too. She liked the house, although she refused to be touched. Nevertheless, if I was on the phone in the bedroom, she jumped up on the bed and lay next to me. I don’t think it was me. I think she liked phones.

I was used to Mamacat going off for weeks at a time but one day Calicat disappeared as well. It was unlike her to disappear. No one could have caught her, but kids shooting bb guns in the alley could have hit her. Or she could have been run over. I looked everywhere. She was nowhere.

So, when a year later I moved to New Mexico with David, I was determined to take Lion. He had a piece of cat furniture that allowed him to be in my bedroom high enough that Blue could not reach him. He was lying on it when I picked him up and put him in a large carrier. He struggled, but would not scratch me. On our three day drive to New Mexico, I climbed into the back of my vehicle at every stop, closed windows and doors, opened the crate and let him out to move a little. I cleaned the litter box and gave him fresh water.

There are coyotes where we live. I often see them behind the house. "Not many stray cats here," our new vet told me, "the coyotes see to that."

So Lion, the little wild kitten born under my garage, climber of trees and roofs, batter of daffodils, became an indoor cat.

And my best friend. When I had problems with my back and could not move, he stayed next to me, continually watchful. Once I was well, he was eager to play, to cuddle when I read, to supervise in the kitchen, to make sure I went to bed at a proper time, to stretch with me in the morning, to sit with me in meditation. The only thing I did that didn’t interest him terribly was work. Extraordinary as he was, he had no particular interest in writing, and rarely spent much time in my workroom.

Perhaps he thought of work differently. Twice he caught mice in the house. Once he caught a bat. Bat populations are struggling, and no one should kill a bat, but you have to admire a 13 year old cat who can chase a cat from room to room, then leap toward the ceiling and grab the bat out of the air.

Then, one day, he cried when I touched his face. When the vet looked at his mouth, two teeth fell out. The vet said he’d seen that before. With a cancer of the jaw. A fast moving cancer, he said. But because x-rays were not definitive, we gave him antibiotics, in case it was an infection and not cancer. It was not an infection. The only treatment for that cancer is removal of the entire jaw. That was not an option.

He was diagnosed in May. Drainage from his jaw began staining his fur, but, because his jaw was becoming distorted, he could no longer use his tongue to clean himself. Sometimes the drainage was red with blood. For almost six months, I washed him several times a day. Because he continued to eat and drink, and was interested in everything I did, it didn’t seem possible to me that he was dying.

I asked the vet how I would know when it was time. "When he hasn’t eaten for two or three days," the vet said.

What I hadn’t imagined was that he would still want to eat, but find it physically impossible. He could not put his tongue into a position to eat. Or drink. I tried giving him water with an eye dropper, but he objected to the eye dropper.

I called the vet. "It’s time," he said. He said he would come to the house. I asked him to just walk in so Lion would not be alarmed by someone ringing the doorbell. When anyone with whom he was not intimate came to the house, he hid. He had figured out that no one could reach him midway under the bed.

I was holding Lion when the vet and his assistant arrived. Seeing them, he scrambled onto my back so that he was clinging to the back of my neck while I struggled to hold my arms behind my neck and not let go of him. The vet got to him at once, pulling him from my back. The assistant wrapped him in a towel. The vet tranquilized him. I held him as he calmed into sleep. We all sat in the living room, Lion in my arms, David, the vet, the vet’s assistant. When the tranquilizer was fully effective, the vet, gently, said it was time. He gave him the final shot.

And I was destroyed.

You pray an animal you love will die before you do, so it will never have to be without you. You pray it will die naturally, die on its own. For some lucky people, that happens. It has never happened to me. But my dogs have been old, ready to go. Lion wasn’t ready. It wasn’t time.

This week two of my friends had to put their dogs to sleep. Both dogs – one next door to me, one in Montana—were also my friends. I mourn them.

It is almost five months since Lion died. I continue to see him in the house.

Copyright © 2011 Ruth Rudner