remembering gretel

first of all, this post is not intended to be read by anyone but myself, even though i’ve made it available to everyone on the internet. you may read it (or try to read it) if you like, but i expect that it will be too long and boring for anyone other than myself, or my darling girlfriend who has been an immeasurable comfort, to bother with. but for me, one week ago i had a seemingly happy, healthy, beautiful, elderly pet and very suddenly she is gone. i have so many thoughts about gretel pechtol that i want to remember when this week is past and this is eulogy, biography and catharsis all rolled into one.

baby Gretel Pechtolthe reason gretel came into my life was that i had one cat that i adopted with my then-fiancée and we were worried that he was bored when we were away at university. we went to the SPCA to pick out a cat for adoption. my fiancée knew that i had hoped to find a black cat because i briefly owned one years before, but when we saw gretel, we knew we found our girl. she is a torbi (which is a mashing of “tortoise-shell” coloured and “tabby” style markings) domestic short haired cat. her brown and black and gray and orange fur bristled with colour and texture. she was just a puff of a kitten and had enormous green eyes. i clearly remember thinking that she was the most beautiful creature that i had ever seen and i fell in love with her immediately. i originally wanted to name her “aurora” because of the way her fur shimmered like the northern lights. but our boy cat’s name was “hans” – a play on the fact that he is polydactyl and his paws look like little hands. if we were to give little hans a sister, “gretel” seemed like a tested and true choice for a name. and so she became gretel pechtol and a card-carrying member of our family.

Gretel used to like sleeping on her back with her paws in the airconventional wisdom says that care and patience should be employed when introducing a new cat into the domain of an existing cat. so we put hans in the bathroom and let gretel smell around the apartment and let them smell each other through the door. i think that we waited only a half-hour before seeing what would happen if we allowed them to get together in the same room. gretel was easily a third of the size of her enormous older brother… but she never backed down from him or his explorations and they seemed to bond right away. there’s an epic photo that i had of tiny-gretel digging in her heels, eyes up, as kooky-hans is up on his hind legs, front paws flailing, looking like goliath about to pounce on a little kitten david, but i can’t find it. for their whole lives, they would often snuggle together and sleep in the same spaces providing some of my favourite photo ops.

this is a short list of some of gretel’s favourite things:

  • tuna
  • more tuna
  • warm laundry
  • bath water
  • licking margarine off of my toast
  • sleeping on my pillow
  • high places
  • making the bed
  • sleeping
  • bugs
  • string
  • laser pointers (thanks annie)

the cats stop to smell the roses.. er lilieswhy do i love my cats so much? the short answer is that pets love their people (who love them properly) unconditionally and that bond can be as strong or stronger than bonds between humans. but i feel like there’s a little more to it in my case. both of my parents moved to canada alone, leaving their extended families behind. as an only child, i had no cousins or nephews or nieces or aunts or uncles less than 7,000km away. i was raised in a family bubble that insulated me from attachment outside of my parents, and i never felt any strong connection to my extended family like i’ve observed in my friends and acquaintances. we moved around from province to province when i was young and i guess that is how i learned to be nomadic and how not to nest. i left home on my 18th birthday and moved from apartment to apartment for almost a decade throughout university and my early career. before i had my cats, my home was edmonton because that was where my wife, my family and all my worldly possessions were. when i separated from my wife, i made the choice to relinquish all of our stuff, everything that had been “home”, in exchange for custody of the cats. my cats from that point on became my home and i found that i could go anywhere and do anything so long as i was near my cats. and i did. i travelled around the country, changed jobs, changed cities over and over, and so long as i could open a door and see hans and gretel, i was home.

Hans and Gretel on top of the cupboards - High Park, Toronto, 2002we first moved to toronto in 2002 for a short time to live with some nice roommates. edmonton had become too full of associations and memories and i felt that it was time to expand my professional horizons and test my mettle in a larger arena.  it was the first time my cats would be on a plane and i chose to give them a sedative so that they could sleep through the trip. when we arrived and i picked them up from the air cargo centre, they looked like zombie cats. i don’t know what happened on that flight (i shudder to think of baggage handlers tossing animal cages… it could happen, right?), or whether it was the sedative itself, but once i got the cats home they both immediately climbed up to the highest shelf that they could find and stayed there for three days straight. they may have come down for food and water while i was sleeping, but apart from that, they were spooked! after the third day, they finally came down and started exploring. at times like that, i was always relieved that they had one another with whom to go through stressful situations.

Gretel helping with the laundrywe flew back to edmonton in 2003, but without sedation. they recovered much much quicker this time, and subsequently, i never doped them for a trip. and more trips they did indeed have. i travelled to victoria, bc, with my cats for several months on an extended project. the suite i was in was quite grand so i felt like this was no real inconvenience to them. i reveled in our portability and was so grateful that i was able to explore new          cities with them at my side (well, not literally at my side, but in my hotel room :). when i decided to move back to toronto in early 2006, it was no hardship at all to pack them up and move all my stuff back east a second time.

Hans and Gretel at bedtimein 2008, i embarked on a project of recording as many things as i could think of that would allow me to take time-lapse videos of my cats interfering with those activities. there was cooking, napping, making and decorating furniture, and my favourite, the bed-making video that stars gretel almost exclusively doing one of the things she liked most – chasing the linens while i was making the bed. i am so thankful that i made all those because i will never need to forget what kind of silliness we could get up to together.

cats after a long movein 2011, i left toronto for the final time to move back to edmonton to look after my parents. i opted to drive the cats with me in a big moving truck and have a cross-country excursion (especially since they had already had a round-trip flight to calgary for work in 2007, after which i swore they would not fly again). the trip takes four long days stuck in a cat carrier only a couple times bigger than the cat in it. both hans and gretel were such troopers though. they managed to hold their bladders the whole time they were in their carriers and when we got to each hotel room, they dutifully relieved themselves, rehydrated themselves and fed themselves, explored their new surroundings (most of which were smoking rooms because that’s what they give to pet owners), and came to bed with me. after a couple of days, they understood the routine and had become hardened travellers… which was extremely fortunate because we moved back to toronto six months later, but returned in my honda rather than a big truck.

Stately Gretelso at the time we settled back in toronto, gretel was the equivalent of 69 human years and hans was about 73. work started to take me to ottawa for four-day stretches and i had to get cat sitters to look after hans and gretel. it was the first time i had ever asked anyone other than myself to look after them, and i felt like i was reneging on my promise to always look after them.  however, i knew that it was better than shlepping them back and forth with me, and they were in familiar surroundings and had one another for support.  after the ottawa work ended, hans and gretel seemed just as they had always been – curious, affectionate, peaceful and playful. but then, neither of the cats had noticeably aged since reaching adulthood… even i can’t tell the age of my cats after their first years by looking at pictures of them, apart from the furniture around them – they simply did not seem to age. at least not on the outside.

this is what i wrote on facebook on april 9, 2013, about gretel’s sudden failing of health:

At 8:19pm, my veterinarian called me to let me know that Gretel’s acute pancreatitis and renal failure were not responding well to the treatments we were offering. She had only been noticeably ill since Saturday, coming to bed and sleeping on my chest at bedtime like she had so many times over the past 15 years. Trying to take care of her at home over the weekend, she was so weak and sad and afraid… I asked the doctor to please end her suffering as soon as possible. I was not there for the procedure, but she was spared minutes of agony. Some will think that she was only a cat. But to me she was a member of my family and I loved her and protected her from all harm in every way that I could. I will always miss you, my princess. xox

obviously, there was so much more to it than this.

Gretel's new matfriday night we went to sleep like any other night with gretel jumping up onto the bed and sleeping with me for a while until she went off to her chair to sleep. saturday morning i heard a row as the cats were chasing each other, which is not an unusual sound… they’ve been scrapping since the day they met after all :). i washed up and went to work (yes, on saturday), and then came home and found gretel was not doing much other than sleeping on her chair. i wasn’t too worried about it, but saturday night she did not come to bed. in the morning, i noticed that she had hardly moved and i started to worry whether she had eaten or had anything to drink since saturday. worse, i noticed that she was having trouble walking, stumbling on her hind legs, which made me think perhaps she had some kind of injury due to her tussle with hans. gretel has always had a very light step and been a great jumper, so this was particularly distressing to watch.

i woke up at 5:30am monday morning to prepare to take gretel to the vet.  i took gretel in her carrier to the veterinary clinic at 9am. she seemed sort of fine… walking around the examination room… jumping from the table… even during the examination, she didn’t appear to be in much discomfort. but she has always been so stoic. the vet took some blood for analysis and gave me some pain medication and something to enhance her appetite to try and induce her to eat. i was grateful and took my sad cat home.

when we got home, gretel started to appear much worse. she seemed to be in a half-sleep looking distant and vacant. for a couple of hours in the afternoon, it appeared like she was more active. but when i started tracking her activity, hoping that she would eat or drink, this is what it looked like:

 2:33pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 2:38pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 2:47pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 2:49pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 2:54pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 2:57pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 2:58pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 3:09pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 3:10pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 3:28pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 3:37pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 3:46pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 3:51pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 3:55pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 4:03pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 4:25pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 4:31pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 4:35pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 4:43pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 4:53pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 4:58pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 5:10pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 5:14pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom
 5:15pm - Gretel goes to the front bathroom from the carrier
 5:18pm - Gretel goes to carrier from front bathroom

finally around 6 she seemed to settle in the carrier. no food or water.  at bed time, i fetched her out and gave her pain meds and the second dose of the appetite medicine. she went to bed in the carrier and i went to bed unaccompanied. hans stayed out in the living room – he clearly understood better than i did that something was up. i am sure he smelled the fear and discomfort from gretel. even days later, he still doesn’t seem interested in wandering into the spaces gretel was.

and that brings me to tuesday. terrible tuesday. although i couldn’t be positive, i believe that gretel didn’t get up all night. i took her out to give her her medication and could see and smell how distressed she was. i decided that with the meds in her and all of her resting, i had done all that i could and decided to go to the office to await the results of her bloodwork. i didn’t hear anything until about 10:30am so i called to see if they had received the results yet. i spoke to the vet and he suggested that i bring gretel in immediately to be hooked up to an IV for fluids and pain meds and a feeding tube for nutrients. she was “a very sick cat” with elevated pancreatic and renal enzymes, indicative of pancreatitis. i immediately left work and took a cab home. i took gretel out of the carrier for one last hug and was terrified. she had thrown up a little on herself and smelled of terrible panic. i got a cloth of warm water and tried to tidy her up a bit… she had crusties all around her mouth, but short of giving her a bath, there was not much i could do for her. i boxed her up and drove her directly to the vet. they took her from me immediately and commenced her treatment.  there was nothing left for me to do but leave and go back to work.

at 1:30pm, the doctor called to let me know that her condition appeared to be worsening, and that they were easing off of her meds and feeding so as not to worsen her condition. all of this seemed very sensible and i agreed emphatically with the course of action.

finally, at 8:19pm, i received the four minute call that i described in the facebook post.

i wasn’t able to get back to the vet until wednesday afternoon. it was grey and cold and raining all day and when i got to the vet there was full-on downpour. gretel had been “in storage” since her euthanizing the night before, which meant that she was frozen solid. the aide brought her out in a thick, dark-blue blanket and placed her in an exam room and left me to say my farewells. i pulled back the blanket and gretel’s neck had been turned in an awful angle, but apart from that, and being completely solid, there was my little princess, as beautiful and peaceful as any time i had ever seen her sleeping. i stroked her beautiful, colourful fur. it shone and shimmered just like it did the very first day i saw her. i rubbed her brow like she always liked and i put my finger in the small of her frozen paw. i put my face to her side to smell the smell of gretel for the last time and give her our final kiss. i wrapped her back up in her blanket as tenderly as i could and then picked her up and held her for a long while. i apologized to her for failing to protect her from this… i’d promised her so many times over the years that i would always protect her and keep her safe, but in the end i had to give the word to end her life… such a terrible turn of events. but even in her last days, gretel made the choice so easy for me, by being so strong until she could no longer mask her pain, and then succumbing quickly so that there would be no hesitation in how to respond.

Hans and Gretel in the chair - 2012i’ve spent all of the time since my farewell getting used to the very new idea that my cat, who seemed just fine a week ago, who i have cherished and loved so very dearly for almost 15 years, is now gone and that i will never see her again. i’ve gone through all of my old photographs and all my digital ones. i’ve looked at our videos of her and remembered those moments and the feeling of having her near. the reality of it is sinking in as i write these words, but the sense of loss is so strong. i’ve never had relationships like the ones i’ve had with hans and gretel before, and i’ve never invested so much of my identity and will into anyone or anything like i have with them. it’s so hard to let someone like that go, but when i think of all the happiness and memories that she has given to me for all of these years, i feel only gratitude and joy at the thought of my little girl.  i called her pookie.  i called her princess.  i called her my little one.  but her name is gretel, and i will miss her until the end of my days.

– g