In the summer of 2009 I started my first foray into what I called "fun rescue". Basically, I volunteered with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, no-kill rescue, at first starting out on PetSmart duty, where I came in every other weekend to take the cats in the adoption center out of their enclosures, play with them, clean the enclosures and give them fresh litter, food and water. Seriously, it was fun. What is more fun than playing with cats that have already been rescued often from desperate situations? I also volunteered at their adoption events on Sundays when I was available. |
So one Sunday in October 2009 I was there when the adoption event coordinator got a message that someone who had adopted two cats as kittens two years prior was going to be returning one of those two cats to the rescue. Those were the rules, no questions asked, if you ever couldn't care for or didn't want your adopted cat -- you returned it to the rescue.
The way the event was set up is that the cats already in the adoption center stayed in their enclosures. But foster caregivers who had foster cats in their homes would show up with their fosters as well to try to get them adopted. For that purpose, there was always a set of small crates set up to put those cats into. So when the guy who was returning the cat he had adopted two years prior showed up, they went ahead and put her into one of those crates so that maybe she would get adopted again. Let me tell you, I have never seen a cat more terrified than this cat was. When they put her in the crate, there was a blankie and a small litterbox in there, and she burrowed under that blankie. Occasionally I would look into the crate and I would just see the blankie shaking. She was paralyzed by fear and shaking. Her name was Bella.
I went up to the adoption coordinator and told him that I would foster her, and that I wanted to take her home right away because I was actually really worried about the level of stress she was experiencing. They agreed, and I took her home, crate and all, and set her up in my office. When I first got her home and opened the crate, she was so terrified that she literally urinated on herself. I cleaned it up, left the crate door open, put food and water inside the crate and a litterbox nearby but not so close that it would be offensive. There is a reason why the expression "you don't shit where you eat" exists, and anyone with cats knows this. :-)
For the first day, she did not come out from under that blankie in that crate, nor did she touch her food or water or her litterbox. I gave her a day or two with minimal contact, meaning I only entered the room for necessary purposes, and by the second day I could see that she was eating and drinking and using the litterbox, but she always hid under that blankie when I came in.
I started just going in there several times a day to sit quietly on the floor across the room from where her safe space was located to read on my Kindle. I wanted to get her used to at least my presence, the sounds I made, and my smell. This went on for at least two weeks and she made no attempt to engage me and I made no attempt to force her. This was going to have to be on her terms.
Sometime shortly after that two week mark, as I'm sitting in there reading, I catch some motion outside of the top of my eyes. I was so careful not to move my head or my hands and just shifted my eyes upward to see what was going on. she was crouched low, a very protective posture in cats, with her tail down, but her ears were up and she was keeping her eye on me as she's slowly walk/crawled out of her crate. She was nowhere near my reach, but she kept slowly advancing. She eventually got to a point where if I reached my hand out, it would be close enough for her to decide if she wanted to give it a sniff. So I slowly did that. I extended my hand, palm down, and just held it there. She had a moment of what seemed to me to be very obvious indecision, and then she decided. She sniffed my hand, and then she rubbed my hand with her head. That was it. She has chosen me and we never looked back. On November 2, 2009, we made it official -- she was adopted.
It was both joyful and extremely sad to watch how her interactions grew over the next weeks. It became really obvious to me that she had come from an abusive home. I don't think they physically abused her, but they definitely emotionally abused and neglected her. It was instantly apparent when she would even hear my husband's voice come up the stairs from downstairs that she had been yelled at by a man all the time. It took her years to even allow my husband to touch her, and until the last couple of days in real time, she never allowed him to touch her unless I was physically within 1 foot of both of them, I guess in case he snapped or something. It was so sad, but at the same time, watching her be brave and come out of her shell was also really rewarding even if she always had boundaries around her interactions with my husband, who never wanted to do anything more than love her. He always just met her on her own terms.
It also became really obvious as she bonded even more tightly to me and started to follow me around the house that no one had ever played with her with toys. She didn't know what they were! When I was trying to get her interested in a toy mouse by gently tossing it in her direction, it was as if I was trying to forcibly hit her -- she'd flinch and duck. Who gets a cat and then constantly yells at the cat and never gives them any affection or playtime or joy? It's more than 13 years later and thinking about it still pisses me off.
She did eventually learn to play with toys, though it was an unconventional type of playing. The toy mice eventually became not projectiles but toys, and she would knock them around a little bit. I always tied a knot in the tails of those toy mice because she would put that tail up in her mouth and swing the toy around and then chase it. Picture a soft toy mouse being swung in slow circles, and then being let go when she opened her mouth. :) It was so freaking rewarding every time she learned to play with a new toy and to see her just finally be able to be a cat.
She was always a chatty girl. You know how sometimes your cats meow, but some of your cats also actually try to talk with different tones and inflections in their voice? That's what she had. If I would turn to her and say, "Bella girl!", she would chirp at me. Her chirps were always distinct. That chirp was to acknowledge that I was asking her to come over. She had others to indicate that she was interested in something or that she wasn't interested in something or what have you. She would literally talk to me if I asked her a question -- "Bella girl? What do you need"? "Mrr-ow-wow?" she would answer in return.
Occasionally, her tone was what I refer to as "grousey". It was a lower tone, less conversational and more annoyed. :-) I loved it when she would walk around the house and grouse. I would always ask her what was aggravating her, and while I never got an answer, I always knew that she was somehow aggravated. :-)
She was an avid watcher of birds and would chitter and chirp and show her excitement when she would see them at the feeder outside the large plate glass front window. Another thing she did (I never really got to experience this myself, but apparently this would happen when I would briefly exit the house sometime mid-morning), only after I left, was employ that low toned grousy play growl-meow and she would get real low to the ground, and then she would take off running towards another part of the house! She'd get low again, both in posture and in voice, and then take off running back into the living room! We never really figured out what this was about. It only happened when I left -- It was a combination of being grumbly but also super excited and getting the zoomies.
Whenever I would return home and my husband was also home, when I would walk in the door, my husband would say, "the alarm went off". He was referring to the fact that Bella always knew that I had pulled up out front and was at the door meowing, anticipating my return.
She was utterly devoted to me and only to me. I was the only person she ever chose. When others would come into her house for a rehearsal or whatever, she would run upstairs and hide, although part of her progress as a cat and getting more comfortable and bolder and more confident was that in the past years, she wouldn't run and hide (although she would never allow anyone who was not me to get close to her. Ever).
I have always said, if she could crawl inside my skin and live there, that would be when she would truly be the happiest. The pandemic was great for her, because I was home all the time. She was a constant presence on my zoom work calls right up until two days ago. She had to be on my lap, she would occasionally poke her pretty little head into our calls, and the folks I work with always talked to her -- always.
Honestly, there were times that I felt guilty that I had to work or clean or do something else in the house that didn't allow me to give her my undivided attention. That's what she always sought, I think I gave her a lot, I know I wanted her with me all the time when we were able, but there were times when I had to take her off my lap because frankly, I had to work or get up and do something. :-) I guess the point is, I always knew how much she loved me. I always knew how singularly devoted she was to me.
She had always actually been a really healthy cat. She's never even need dental work, and anyone with cats knows that eventually, cats need dental work. But every time she saw the dental specialist, they said her mouth was just in great shape. In July 2019, however, I started noticing that she was vomiting a lot. PSA for those who think that frequent vomiting in cats is normal: it's not. if your cat is vomiting frequently and they're not vomiting up an inappropriate foreign object that they have ingested, it's time for a trip to the vet. I knew this and I took her to an internal medicine specialist to get an ultrasound. They said they saw some mild thickening in her intestinal walls and in an abundance of caution, given that she was otherwise in great physical shape, they recommended a sedated endoscopy where they could get samples of some of her intestinal lymph nodes to send out for biopsy. I agreed.
She came back with a definitive diagnosis via biopsy of having small cell intestinal lymphoma, a cancer. Fortunately, that type of cancer is pretty treatable in cats, especially when you catch it as early as we caught it in her. She started treatment in August 2019. Again, the pandemic was a real boon for her and for me because I was able to really keep my eyes on her and stick to her oral chemo and oral steroid regimen. My February 2021, she was deemed in remission.
In late September and early October of this year I started noticing two things. The first thing had me questioning whether I was just going into full on crazy cat lady mode. I started to see very rare but occasional indications that she might be having trouble with her vision. In early October as well, the vomiting had come back. I always kept regular oncology re-checks with her oncologist every 90 days even when she was in remission, but I was concerned about the increase I saw in her vomiting in the first week of October, and so I managed to get her appointment for the end of October moved up to October 18. Her blood work looked great, but she had lost some weight. She was always a tiny girl with a healthy weight of 7 pounds. It's impossible to describe to all of you how petite and pretty she was. So when she lost 8/10 of a pound between June and her appointment in October, that's a pretty big chunk as a percentage of her overall body weight. Furthermore, her ultrasound showed thickening in her intestinal walls. The oncologist believed she had come out of remission for her small cell intestinal lymphoma. I didn't panic, because there was no indication that it was anything other than that and we had treated it successfully once before and had a really good shot of treating it successfully again.
Meanwhile, I realized that I was not imagining that she was having vision issues. She was. So I took her to a veterinary ophthalmologist on Halloween and she was diagnosed with progressive retinal atrophy, typically a congenital condition that causes the retinal cells to die off painlessly. There's no cure or treatment for it, and I knew she would eventually go completely blind, but given how adaptable cats are, we were just gonna roll with it. As long as it wasn't anything serious and it wasn't causing her any pain, I was down.
I don't even know how to describe what the last 2 to 3 weeks kind of held for us. She didn't go slowly progressively blind, she went from seeing almost totally clearly to almost completely blind in two months flat. Again, every cat is different and if her progressive retinal atrophy was faster than others, so be it.
But two weeks ago, I came home and found her on the floor of my office. This was weird, because my office, which I never use as an office because it became a glorified cat room, has a large L-shaped desk with some awesome kitty stairs up to it where her food and water was located, and where there were multiple other levels with comfy cat beds. Except to come down to the "ground level" to use the kitty box, she was always up -- she was a tree dweller and not a ground dweller. So finding her on the floor of my office after I'd been out running errands in kind of a meatloaf position, not in crisis but not looking comfortable either, caught my attention. I didn't panic, I grabbed her freeze dried chicken treats which are usually my gauge of whether or not she's OK. She always goes after them. And she did on that day, but it was like she couldn't find them. Her ears were twitching, and although she had gone almost completely rapidly blind, she would always turn her eyes to the direction of my voice. As I was consistently talking to her, it was as if she couldn't find me. That's when I started to get really concerned. And as I put my hand down, because I had been sitting on the floor with her, I put it into a wet spot where presumably she had lost control of her bladder. I immediately picked her up and took her to the emergency vet.
So I'll try to condense what happened there. First of all, everyone agreed that she had a "neurological event". She was seen by two separate ER doctors and had an oncology consult the day after she was admitted and then her regular oncologist reviewed the records when he was back in his office the day after that. They were all pretty certain, and I agreed, that she had had a mild seizure. They said they couldn't say 100%, but they were concerned that the return of her cancer meant that it had metastasized to her central nervous system and her brain, but that the only real way to know what was going on was to get her an MRI.
An MRI on a cat requires full anesthesia. So I was willing to do it, but I wanted assurances from her various vets that she was a normal risk for anesthesia. There's always a risk with anesthesia, I just wanted to know that hers was normal. They all said it was, and so I managed to get her in for an MRI the following Thursday, December 8. When the neurologist who did the MRI called me, she said the Bella had done well under anesthesia but that she did clearly see a mass in the center of her brain in an inoperable location. They further said there wasn't even any way to get a biopsy of the mass because of its location. They did say, however, that they were sending the images out to a radiology pathologist for additional interpretation and we would have the results back on Monday the 12th.
So when I got the call on that Monday, they said that while they couldn't rule out metastasized lymphoma, which is actually a terrible diagnosis, they didn't seem to think that that's what this was. With metastasized lymphoma, you're going to typically see masses in other parts of the body, particularly the G.I. tract, kidneys and lungs. She had had all of that checked and was clear. Rather, they thought this tumor was in the family of a glioma. Gliomas can range in severity from benign and very slow growing on up to extremely malignant and rampaging. So I asked the neurologist, do we know if this is slow growing or not? She said she couldn't say for certain (because you know they never can and I get it), but that typically with very fast growing brain tumors they will see evidence of inflammation in the brain around the circumference of the actual tumor itself. Aggressive fast growing tumors apparently kind of act like the brain is being punched from the inside out, and it swells as a result. She did not see any of that.
The reason why all of that mattered was because if she had a brain tumor, which she clearly did, radiation oncology is an option. This particular type of tumor (from what they could gather) seemed like a good candidate for that and my only holdup was, why put her through that treatment where she has to be anesthetized for a CT scan and then anesthetized again three more times to actually get the radiation if the tumor was just going to quickly grow back, you know? But they didn't think so, and so I made an appointment with radiation oncology for Monday the 19th at 1 PM.
I don't know how to describe what the last slightly less than a week has been like. From day to day, she was still eating for me, she was still coming to me and walking around the house (supervised, because of her blindness of course), but every day she was just a little less coordinated and having just a little more trouble. There was more than one time between last Wednesday and yesterday afternoon that I wondered if she was starting to really go downhill and I was just like, oh my God please no. We finally have this appointment with one of the best radiology oncologists in the country, just hang on!
It wasn't until last night, Saturday the 17th at about 10 PM Eastern that I really thought something was wrong. She had gotten on my lap, we were watching TV together, and she was relaxed like she was falling asleep on my lap which was great. But then she just went limp and her head hung down off of my leg in a way that has never happened with her before. Honestly I was so freaked out, I kept looking at her side to see if she was still breathing. She snapped out of that briefly, but she was uncoordinated and seemed confused. I talked with my husband about taking her up to the local ER and specialty center on fear that we would need to humanely euthanize her to spare something really bad happening. We were not 100% convinced that this was the end for Bella, but we also weren't 100% convinced that it wasn't. So we agreed to take her up there and to just see how she did once we got there. We could always change our minds. But when I opened her carrier when we got there she just wasn't moving. She was still breathing, she wasn't in pain, but she wasn't snapping back. So they took her back and placed an IV catheter (because that's how these things work if it's done correctly) and then they brought her to me so that I could spend a little time with her. She was in the favorite green kitty bed that I hand crocheted from chunky chenille yarn as a hobby at the beginning of the pandemic, but it was like she wasn't there. I honestly thought they had already given her the sedative before they brought her into the room.
Ironically, when the doctor came in, it was the same doctor that had attended her when she had been admitted to the ER two weeks prior. I really liked this doctor. I liked that she was frank with me then, I liked how she paid attention to Bella and made recommendations and everything about her. And so I asked her when she came in the room, "did you already administer the sedative?" She said she had not. She said that we were making the right decision. Bella was ready to go.
You know, it's pretty easy to say that the first promise you ever make to these precious beings who bring so much joy and so much love to your life is the last and most important one that you ever keep to them. But I kept that promise to her last night. I let her go onto her next adventure. Honestly, it hurt especially to know that we were so close to getting to the specialist on Monday, but with 18 hours of reflection since setting her free, I don't think it would've made a difference. She clearly either had metastasized lymphoma or a very aggressive brain tumor. I don't think there was any way we could've been able to treat that, and even sitting here crying as I write this all out, I know that I did the right thing. I paid the balance on everything that she brought to my life for 13 years, one month and 15 days.
So that's a bummer. But I'll tell you what: even sitting here in pain right now, missing her, I wouldn't trade any of it. She brought me unqualified love and devotion for each of those 13 years and change that she was with me. I can't imagine not having had her in my life, and if this is the price that I pay, so be it. I'll pay it over and over again.
So this is my tribute to my sweet girl, my little Bella girl. My constant sidekick, my indefatigable companion and my joy and happiness. The last couple weeks here have been rough, but every one of the countless weeks before that had been joyful and funny, filled with laughter and cuddles and purring and naps together and everything that you could ever want out of any relationship that you have in your life. The only thing I would change would be to make her immortal.
Thanks for reading, hug your babies super close and send the thought up to Bella who is now with my other dearly departed cats, each of whom brought their own unique friend of joy into my life and who remain, to this day, both deeply missed but fully appreciated.
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