The day Mina finally died, it was freezing cold outside. I had left the window open a crack to let the fresh air in while we snuggled under her electric blanket. My screams must have terrified the neighbors. It was 7:12 a.m. There was a movie on the television, Nochnoi Dozor, the Russian original version of the film Night Watch, but it was just flashing frames; I had been staring at Mina for the last hour.
The flesh around her ears had yellowed even more, and her breathing patterns had changed, slowing, becoming more labored. The fear and dread had been coursing through me for so long, I was sure that somehow, she would keep fighting, and take a turn for the better. The palliative care I had been performing for months would definitely hold out a little longer, must hold out a little longer, but no. She exhaled one final time, and it came out in a haunting, jagged sound it’s sometimes hard to stop hearing. She was gone, though the cloud of dread and fear never left.
Fourteen months before this, alongside a barn, at the edge of a cornfield, I set down the bolt cutters I had used to gain access to a large dairy farm. A colony of feral cats were living in and around the barns, stables and outbuildings. I had received information from a frustrated rescue volunteer in the area about rampant sickness and pregnancy. With the property owners refusing to allow any intervention, I decided to have a gander myself and see what could be done.
Feral cats tend to roam and congregate at night. Pairs of glowing eyes peered at me from on and under the farm equipment, hunched, ready to scatter at the first sign of danger. A single, plaintive mewl broke the silence, coming from an equipment shed behind a tractor. The door let out a loud squeak that reminded me of the penalties for being caught — not only trespassing, but now breaking and entering.
I stepped inside and, using the flashlight app on my phone, knelt down to begin searching through the dirty cardboard boxes and rusty tools. When you’re trespassing, every noise you make is gigantic, and the racket from the shed door had me on edge. I sat perfectly still, closed my eyes, and listened. The tiniest sound, a shifty sort of rustling, led me under a precarious set of metal shelves in the furthest corner. There, in a makeshift nest of detritus, lay five kittens. Four of the babies were lifeless, stiff in the cold, but one tiny grey body wriggled and huddled.
Still stressed about the racket I had made, I grabbed the kit and fled. Out the door, past the barns, scattering the ferals, through the corn, the hole in the fence, back to the road, the kitten raising such a clamor in my jacket that I feared the sound could be heard from outer space. I cranked the heat up in my car to an unwholesome level and sang songs from “‘The Wind in the Willows” for the two-hour ride back home.
Mina approached every aspect of life with a lunatic glee. Together, we enjoyed six months of carefree love and fun. She was the loudest, boldest, most vivacious cat I’ve ever known. She loved corn on the cob, fresh watermelon, and frozen juice popsicles. She woke me each morning with wide, curious eyes, grooming my eyebrows with her sandpaper tongue and purring like a diesel engine. I was her pincushion, her pillow, her personal masseuse, her carpenter, and her favorite toy.
We shared everything, and never spent more than a few moments apart. Even when I would shower, she stood at the edge of the tub, chatting, or playing on the bathroom rug. She brought delight and joy to a house that had previously been dull and austere. One morning, I woke up on my own. I got out of bed quickly, concerned she had been shut behind the office door somehow, but instead found her splayed out on the hallway carpet. “Nani? What are you doing?” She looked up at me with her bright, curious eyes, but when she tried to stand up, her back legs went out from under her. I came over and sat down next to her, touching her back, hips, legs, tail, ever so gently, finding nothing. I carried her to the office and called the vet, who had an opening that afternoon and agreed to see her.
They didn’t know what was wrong. She appeared healthy, other than her back legs not working. A battery of tests was ordered, and we were sent home with medications; Prednisone and, at my request, Metacam, in case she was experiencing pain.
The steroid helped almost immediately. Mina’s appetite had always been huge, and she was plowing through her food, slowly regaining use of her legs. After 24 hours of steady progress I was sure things would be back to normal soon.
The next day we were in the office together, her asleep in her cubby on the desk, me working on a paper, when the phone rang. “Little Bombs” was coming out of the speakers, Aimee Mann singing with the resigned voice of wisdom.
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,” the strangely disconnected professional voice said. “Wilhelmina’s test results have come back, it looks like FIP. No, there is no cure, it is 100 percent fatal. Would you like to schedule a euthanasia? Okay, well just give us a call when you’re ready. “
I knew that what the voice said could not possibly be true. If it were true, the sky would be black. The birds would be dead. The cars would be stalled in the streets, if it were true. It’s not possible the world could be carrying on normally. It was absurd. It was insulting. I decided not to accept it. We were special, we were different, we were in love. We could fight this and win, even if nobody else had.
I help cats now, with my every resource, because I couldn’t help her, but nothing has ever made a dent in the devastation that was left in the wake of FIP. Feline Infectious Peritonitis is a hateful, merciless disease, and primarily a killer of the young. Still shrouded in mystery, hopefully time and money will begin to reveal more, until we can reach the point of preventing this from ever happening again. The experience was so damaging for me that I’ve never been able to talk about it.
Thank you for reading this, it’s been a heavy burden to carry alone. I think most of us have some experience with grief and remorse; it’s part of what connects us all.
Have you ever been through an experience like mine? Let me know in the comments.
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