Right now I’m getting ready to take Hans to the vet. He’s found a quiet place to hide and rest – which is a huge improvement over how he has been spending his time over the past two days. He has been pacing around in circles in the basement groaning softly.
The most unsettling thing about this new behaviour is that I have never seen it before, even on the worst days of my cats’ lives. Hans has been ranging around vacantly pacing, and when he finally settles down, he sticks his head in narrow spaces with his body rigidly prone. He has trapped himself behind furniture, caught himself in wires, and has left vomit and poop all around the basement. His pain must be terrible because he has never ever done anything remotely like this.
It’s snowing today. It’s snowing heavily. It is a day a lot like the day that I took Gretel to the vet on our final trip together last April, except that instead of heavy snow, there was heavy rain.
I don’t want to be eulogizing my cat who is still breathing and lying six feet away from me, but I don’t know what else to do in these last few minutes that we have together. He’s “comfortable” where he is and at least we’re together in the same room for a little bit longer… a little more time to feel his physical presence near me before what needs to be done.
Hans was a birthday present from my then-fiancée, Janice, in 1997, and was and remains the very best present I have ever received. He was about six weeks old and was a hellion of a kitten – feisty, scrappy and full of intense energy when awake; serene, adorable and angelic when asleep. As a kitten, he was an exaggeration of cuteness – a giant orange head with huge orange eyes and enormous satellite dish ears. But his paws – they were unavoidable – gigantic galoshes of appendages that looked oversized and immovable at the ends of his tiny body. He had extra fingers and toes at the end of each of his paws that made them look like hands and feet – which gave rise to his name, Hans. It was literally the name into which he was born.
Hans was always getting in trouble from the day we got him. The first apartment we had was pretty large by today’s standards and he had lots of room to explore his surroundings, but he missed us when we left to go to University or work. The door to our apartment had a handle, not a knob, and he quickly learned that he could just jump up and grab the handle with his forepaws and try and push the door open with his hind paws – if the door was unlocked, he would work his way out into the hallway. When we finally moved out of that apartment after a year, the scratches underneath the door handle were a half-centimetre deep. In the end, our solution to Hans’s anxiety was to find him a playmate – a little sister to look after and play with… and so, Gretel joined the family a year later and they were fast friends and cohorts from the very start.
I drove Mary Jo to the airport so that she could fly to Vancouver for a weeklong business trip. She didn’t want to leave me alone to deal with this, but I think that it’s better this way. As hard as it is for me to see my big guy suffer with his condition, it must be just as hard for her to watch me suffer.
There was the time when I left my apartment in Toronto in 2002 to move back to Edmonton. I had loaded the truck with all of my furniture and my possessions, and the only thing that I had to do was to put Hans in the carrier and bring him down to the truck. He was so nervous about leaving that it took almost an hour for me to finally get him into the cat carrier. He gave me long scratches all along my arms, and my shirt and jeans were covered with cat hair. He insisted on jumping onto the kitchen counters, sticking his face into my dinner, unravelling the toilet paper, knocking onto the floor anything that was on top of anything else, and exploring every single space in every place he lived. That was how tenacious and stubborn he was. When I look back at those episodes now, I realize that it was the constant struggle that he made that made him such a character and made him so adorable… scratches notwithstanding.
Hans was always happiest when I was working at home on the computer or drawing. I must have dozens of photographs of him sitting in front of my keyboard, on top of my keyboard, above my keyboard, and between my arms trying his best to occupy the exact centre of my attention. It never made working easy, but it always made it fun. At least, it made for a pretty entertaining YouTube video.
Then there’s Hans’s love of pizza boxes. I could never order pizza without him insisting on jumping onto the counter to curl up on the pizza box while it was still warm. He developed this habit very early and never grew out of it. He would love the pizza box for days sometimes weeks after the pizza box was empty. It’s a wonder that I never had an ant infestation in any of the places we lived.
I’m now worried that I haven’t left myself enough time to fight the falling snow and slippery roads and weekend traffic to get to the vet’s. They are booked solid all day, but have agreed to see Hans at 3:00pm after closing so that I would have some time to spend with him. The carrier that I have been using to shlep Hans around for over a decade has a blanket stained with pee from the visit to the vet’s on Wednesday, so I have to clean it and replace the blanket with a clean one – maybe the bright red one that reminds me of Superman’s cape and that he has been sleeping on for years. I’ll put his catnip blanket in it too – his Christmas present from this year and something that he has liked to sleep on since he got it.
Hans and Gretel were indoor cats. They had always lived in apartments and never spent any real time in the outdoors where traffic and dogs and other threats loomed. So when we finally moved to a house outside of a downtown area, Hans was finally able to go outside and explore a little bit and walk in the snow. I only wish he could have stayed around a little longer to experience the spring and the summer and to walk in our backyard through the flowers and the grass. I think that he would have really enjoyed the grass and the sun on his fur.
I brought Hans to the vet, but had to go to the washroom as soon as I got there – something about the “fight or flight” response was broken inside of me, probably due to my emotional state. When I returned from the washroom, Hans had already been taken to the back and I was told that the veterinarian was fitting him with a catheter for the procedure. I waited for a few tormented minutes in the waiting area until the vet emerged and called me into the examination room. An aide brought Hans into the room with a bright blue bandage holding the catheter in place in his front right forearm. They placed him on the bench on top of a clean burgundy blanket and a nice woollen fluffy and I gently cradled him while the vet prepared two syringes. She explained the massive anaesthetic that would be used to heavily sedate him and … to do the business.
After the first injection, only seconds passed before I could feel Hans gently slump into relaxation. He had been sitting stiffly out of pain for days and when he finally released, it was like his whole body exhaled into an ease that I had not seen in days. The second injection went in and again, only seconds went by before the vet removed the stethoscope from Hans’s chest and said that he was gone.
The vet left the room and let me spend the last few minutes with him. His body jerked and exhaled a few times as the residual electrical potential stored in his thin, frail body expended itself. For the first time, I saw my brightly-coloured orange baby motionless and still… his chest not moving, no breathing or purring or groaning… his stiff, coarse fur that had been matted and bunchy from weeks of neglect suddenly felt like the softest velvet in my hands and I couldn’t stop stroking and massaging my little baby who I had loved and cared for every single day for almost seventeen years.
I’ve only wept like that once before – and that was when I went to say goodbye to Gretel. I didn’t think that I could feel more pain than I did that day, but this was worse. I hadn’t been present for Gretel’s procedure, and the fact that one second Hans was alive and the next he was not was excruciating. Hans was my first and longest pet and a lifetime of love and cherished companionship flooded over me and I bathed his soft orange furs in my tears. I held his magical paws and felt the sharpness of his claws… I rubbed his brow and gums and stroked his belly like he liked me to do so many nights before we would go to sleep. I put my forehead against his and wished him peace and told him I loved him. I closed his eyes and then the vet returned to walk me out.
On Tuesday, Mary Jo and I were watching television on the main floor and Hans came up from the basement where he likes to sleep and scrambled up onto the couch with us. He fidgeted for attention and soaked up our adoration as we stroked his fur, rubbed his head, massaged his face, all the while listening to his grumpy wheezy purring. He lavished us with his joy for about fifteen jubilant minutes before heading back downstairs. That was the last time I would see him happy, and MJ and I told each other, “he’s a happy boy.”
And that was my cat. He was a happy boy. All the years that I was struggling to find myself and further myself and then to challenge myself or to destroy myself… he was there… reminding me that life was simple and that love was everything. Hans and Gretel. Now they are both gone, but I feel like I’ve learned the lesson that they were trying to teach me. I proposed to Mary Jo last week today… and it was such a happy day. This week, I have this terrible sadness rather than happiness to deal with. But forever more, I have my two cats to thank for getting me here… getting me to a place where I can be happy and love my life. That is the reason why I owe them everything.
The snow is gently falling on this cold, calm, winter night.
Billions of silent visitors in the sky tumble to the ground,
Like all the souls who have ever lived, visiting now that the time is right.
Untroubled by the worries of the world, they fall without a sound,
Like the padding of gentle cat feet, they remind us to love with all our might.
Sleep well, now that you are reunited, my darling Hans and Gretel. I will love you both always.