“Now cracks a noble heart. —Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”
–Horatio in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare
I’ve had a cat in my life since the day I was born. The one I grew up with, Snopsie, was a member of the family before I was. As I was growing up I often suspected that my parents loved that cat more than they did me. Now that I’m a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, I know with absolute certainty that such was true. Studies have shown that people have more empathy for animals than they do for other humans. I believe it. More often than not, I am one of them.
Of course the status a pet carries in a household varies significantly. Sometimes they’re a pet and sometimes they’re a fur-baby. The years when I was raising a family and had a houseful of kids, the cats were pets. I cared about them, enjoyed having them sit on my lap, and did the best I could to take care of them, but they didn’t own my heart. Once I retired, however, and the kids were gone, it was another story.
I adopted Hamlet and Ophelia in December 2006 as a Christmas/Birthday present to myself. I’d heard that Bengals were unique, lively, and entertaining and were supposed to live as long as twenty years. One eighth of their genetic material is Asian Leopard, which accounts for their distinct markings and strong personalities. They’re intelligent, curious, agile, and adventurous which, as expected, leads to lots of mischief. Over the years, property damage and veterinarian bills have amounted to literally thousands of dollars, mostly credited to Ophelia.
Mine was not their first home. Originally a young couple who lived in an apartment with a preschool age son and a baby were the ones who adopted them from a cattery. It didn’t take long to realize that that was not the ideal environment for these active felines. Luckily for me, they realized this about the time I decided to get a cat.
My daughter sent me a picture of these two from her company newsletter, mentioning how adorable they were. I immediately recognized them as Bengals and knew they were supposed to be mine. They were half-siblings sharing the same father but different mothers and born a day apart at a local cattery. Soon they were racing up and down the stairs of my Houston townhome, sitting on top of cabinets and bookcases, and scrutinizing the potential meals lurking in the fish tanks.
When I retired in October 2009 we all moved to my lake house. It was half the size with no stairs. They were clearly bored, but we all made the best of it. There was one high perch that became Hamlet’s favorite, though he also liked the top of the refrigerator or the pie safe. I’m sure they would have loved to go outside, but they’d always been indoor cats and I worried about them in the rural environment. Hammie actually got outside one time, but freaked out almost as much as I did.
I never thought he would leave so soon. Ophelia was the one who nearly died a couple times, usually from eating something she shouldn’t, like a leather shoe lace and a hair tie, the latter of which required surgery. He was supposed to live to a ripe old age as an indoor cat, then gradually fade away and die a peaceful death. Instead, in what should have still been his prime, he slipped away within a relatively short time. He’d been losing weight, which wasn’t unheard of for a fourteen year-old cat. It seemed to get worse about the time the COVID-19 pandemic locked everything down.
When I finally got him to the vet, the procedures were far different. Instead of going inside the examining room with your pet, you waited in your car.
An assistant came to get him and deliver him inside, then the vet would talk to you on the phone. Hamlet hadn’t been to the vet very much and hated the car. Then we sat there for over an hour in the hot afternoon sun before they took him inside. Upon talking to the vet, I decided to leave him there overnight for them to gather the samples they needed to make a diagnosis.
In the morning he was frantic, his wild blood turning him into a snarling, spitting, angry kitty who undoubtedly felt horribly abandoned. I took him home. The next day or so I noticed that his pupils were not the same size. I called the vet, took him in again. He had a detached retina, which could be caused by high blood pressure or a blow to the head. Which I later deduced occurred when he’d been left there overnight and gotten so upset. He got through that exam better, but the tests weren’t conclusive. The doctor suspected cancer, but his symptoms fit kidney failure or possibly pancreatitis.
I took him home and watched day after day as he sat in the sunroom, staring out the window. No doubt he was now half blind, which broke my heart. For a while he still ate and drank and used the litter box. In the evening he would usually come into the living room and sit on the couch with me, his sister, and step-sister. If he didn’t join us, I would go get him.
He continued to fail, losing weight and strength such that he was very wobbly on his feet. Before long he no longer had any interest in looking out the window. He sat on a cushion in my office, half asleep. He’d drink water, but was unable to get into the litter box. When he wet, he would move away from the puddle. I knew it was time, but it was 4th of July weekend. I couldn’t take him in to be put out of his misery until Monday.
I agonized at the thought of taking him in. He hated the car and would yowl the entire 20 miles. Whether I could be with him was in question due to the COVID-19 procedures. He might even die on the way from fear, given his weakened state. Not exactly a peaceful, humane demise.
Fortunately that drive wasn’t necessary. He passed away Sunday night around ten o’clock on the couch beside me where he’d spent every evening for the past ten years. Ophelia watched, instincts telling her what was happening. It was heartbreaking and intense but only took a few minutes and he was gone. At least it had been in a safe, familiar place with me doing all I could to comfort him.
I called my wonderful neighbor, Heike, who’s a fellow cat lover. She came over to help me wrap him in a blanket. We laid him on the futon in the sunroom where he’d always loved to sleep until the next morning when we would dig a grave to bury him. In the morning when I got up and checked on him I found his sister sleeping next to him for the last time. Talk about a tearjerker. But she knew he was gone. If I’d taken him to the vet she never would have known or understood in the same way. One of Heike’s cats typically shunned her for a while after making that dreaded trip to the vet, apparently blaming her for the feline family member who never returned.
Heike and I, two women in our 70s, dug a hole in the rocky, Central Texas ground and laid him to rest by my shed in the shade of one of my oak trees. I’m still deciding what to plant on his grave. The rocks you see around it all came out of the hole itself. We got as deep as we could until the rocks were too big to remove. In the next few days I’ll make it prettier and a decent memorial to an awesome cat.
The house feels so empty. Up until the past few months his presence was always known. He was very vocal and his climbing antics legendary. I’m so glad I took so many pictures over the years. Like they say, photos may not seem important until they are all you have left. Ophie has been in my lap much more than usual. Hammie was never much of a lap sitter. Actually, he was too big to get comfortable. If I had a blanket on my lap he would get under it and become the “undercover cat.”
One thing that touched me deeply was the response I received on Facebook. The post of his death got 152 likes and 96 comments and the post of Ophie beside his blanket-wrapped body got 59 likes and 124 comments. I’ve never had a response like that to anything before. Pet owners share an important bond, that of loving our fur babies like family. Their compassion and support meant so much, even though most of them are otherwise strangers.
In closing this memorial to my sweet Hamlet, here are some parody lyrics dedicated to all pet lovers for those difficult times when you say goodbye. Sing it to the tune of “All the Girls I Loved Before”, either the Julio Iglesias or Willy Nelson version, your choice.
To all the cats I’ve loved before
Who traveled in and out my door
I’m so glad they came along
To them I dedicate this song
To all the cats I’ve loved before
To all the cats who shared my bed
And never did a thing I said
I love and miss you, oh, so much
And miss your fur beneath my touch
The Rainbow Bridge you may have crossed
But in my heart you’re never lost
Your sweet spirit lingers on
And will never be completely gone.