This time last week, I lived with five cats. Now there are four. I may never know what happened or if it was somehow my fault.
On the last morning of Clover’s life, all of us got up at the usual time. All five cats kept me company as I got dressed, then lolloped past me on the way downstairs, in anticipation of kitty breakfast. Instead of going straight to the kitchen, I stopped to pick up and put on my glasses from an end table in the living room.
At the same time, one of my two male cats chased Clover, a shy, submissive girl who was born feral. This happens all the time, and not just to Clover, so I didn’t pay much attention as she jumped onto the cat gym. Within seconds, it turned horribly wrong. There was a crash, and I heard Clover cry out in distress. In the seconds it took me to get to her, she was on the carpeted floor, still and limp.
I picked her up and put her in a cat carrier, got in the car and took her to the vet, where they intubated her and tried to get her little heart started again. Clover was still warm, soft, and beautiful, without a mark on her.
The vet said it might have been a blood clot, or she might have hit her head. I didn’t want a necropsy -ÔÇô later, I realized I should have done it, in case the operation would have revealed a cause that might relate to the health of my other cats. All I could think of is that I didn’t want Clover to be hurt any more. Irrationally, I hoped that she might struggle to her feet, a Lady Lazarus kitty who had just been stunned.
That didn’t happen. Instead, I went home with an empty carrier and tried to figure out what had happened in those few seconds. I looked at the cat gym ÔÇô- a low-end, nylon, fabric, and PVC-pipe structure that had seen better days, but was still intact. There were no holes and nothing sharp poking out of it.
I made myself look at the place where Clover had fallen. There was no blood, no sharp object on the floor. Whatever took Clover was something I couldn’t see.
For the first few days, I blamed myself obsessively. If a cat not much more than a year old had died, a cat who had just been to the vet three weeks earlier and pronounced healthy — it must have been something I did or didn’t do. Were my four other cats in danger from poisoned pet food, an unsafe play structure, something I had left out that she had swallowed?
After a few days, I did a Google search for "sudden death cat." I found articles about asthma (not us, no coughing or wheezing), choking on hairballs (Clover’s airway was clear), heartworm (we use Revolution), and HCM (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a congenital heart defect, and the only explanation that seemed possible for us).
I also found a long, long page of posts going back to 2009 from pet parents who were grieving the loss of their cats, most in circumstances that sounded very much like Clover’s. She or he was fine, suddenly fell, died instantly, released urine, and couldn’t be revived. Nearly every post included a tribute to the lost cat, and most of the writers blamed themselves, although they didn’t know why.
One had even tried pet CPR, which I have never learned. I had thought about that, as one of the what-ifs: What if I’d been able to revive her at home? For that matter, what if I’d gone straight to the kitchen, or grabbed the cat who was chasing Clover? What if I’d gotten up earlier? Or later? One post said the dog had been chasing the cat ÔÇô- was it a stress-induced heart attack? But the dog had always done that, just as my two boys had always chased Clover.
There is great heartache in keeping vigil with a loved one, human or non-human, who is succumbing to a slow, debilitating disease, but a sudden loss is very hard to process, and not just for me. Clover’s best friend, my senior girl Ridley, still looks for her and "talks" to me ÔÇô- not a usual thing for this seldom-vocal cat. None of the cats will sleep on Clover’s favorite bed.
Because she had such a short life and a shy one, Clover wasn’t known to many. I understand why the sudden-death posters wrote about their lost cats: We don’t want it to seem that they never lived at all. Clover was a riotously colored calico, with graffiti-like chevrons on her left side, bright green eyes, a pink nose with a ginger smudge next to it, multicolored paw pads, and a sweet spirit. She went from a feral kitten who tunneled into a box spring to a confident, tail-up girl who learned to love other cats and people. I could pet her if she was sleepy — and sometimes I think she faked being sleepy just so I would pet her.
The night before she died, Clover kept coming up to me, stopping about a foot away and making eye contact. I thought she was thinking about jumping up onto my lap as she’d seen other cats do, and just couldn’t bring herself to go against her instincts. I wish now I had scooped her up and held her as long as we both wanted.
I wish I could have prevented whatever happened to her. I pray I am doing my best to keep my other cats safe.
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Illustrations by the always awesome Nigel Sussman.