Saying Goodbye to SledgeApril 3rd, 2009 at 12:54
Cats, unfortunately, do not live as long as most of us humans do. So if you are a family that has cats, odds are you will experience the death of one. For my kids, it was a memorable experience, but first some context…
I grew up with cats in the house. In 1965, when I was ten we got our first one, a big black un-fixed male we called “Midnight”. He would go out for days and come back with part of his ear chewed off and an oozing wound just below that ear. Since he was big and powerful he probably gave worse than he got to the other cat. But he was still our kitty and we were his human companions.
While Midnight was still with us, we got him a female companion, a beautiful golden-haired cat we called “Ra” (the Egyptian sun god). She was always calm and regal in bearing. I remember once she was sitting on her haunches in that classic cat pose in the middle of the street outside our house. A car came up the street and had to stop because Ra was blocking its way. Rather than scamper with trepidation to the curb, Ra just sat there, poised as always, looking at the car as if to say, “I was here first”. The car honked and Ra pondered the situation, and in her own good time got up and sauntered to the curb to let the car by.
So back in the 1960s, before most of us humans were as conscious about the problem of pet overpopulation, both our cats had their reproductive organs intact and Ra produced three litters of kittens. Watching them being born, in the closet in my brothers room she favored, was an amazing experience. My mom would then put an ad in the paper, people would come, we would interview them, and if they seemed okay, we would give them one of the kittens. With their pedigree, I am sure they grew up to be strong, beautiful cats.
When I was off at college in 1974, Ra became ill and my mom decided, with a veterinarian’s advice, to have her euthanized, or “put to sleep” as it is usually referred to. She called me at school and told me. I was sad to hear it, but was caught up with my own crazy world of college classes, term papers, and dorm life.
Midnight hung in there. When my parents remarried each other in 1977 and we moved my mom down to Dayton where my dad was living, we built a space in the “Wayback” of my mom’s Volvo station wagon and transported the old black fighter, worse for wear, two-hundred miles down I-75 to his new home on South Main Street in Dayton, Ohio.
The big time outdoor cat from Ann Arbor lived the last chapter of his life as an elderly indoor cat in Dayton, spending the bulk of his time in the basement of my parents’ new home, hanging out mostly with my dad, the college professor, who had his office down there. In 1980 I had already moved to Los Angeles when I got the call from my mom that due to his age and infirmity, they had also had Midnight “put to sleep”. Again I was sad but it had been years since this cat I had grown up with had really been part of my life. I in fact had never had the experience of being present when a human or a companion animal died.
Just before Eric was born, while we were fixing up the fixer-upper house we had just bought to have room for our new human to be, a small starving street-cat appeared at our doorstep, desperate for food. So we started feeding her, and as these things go, she eventually became our cat. We called her “Morgan” after the character “Morgaine” from Marian Zimmer Bradley’s re-visioning of the Arthurian Legend in her book “The Mists of Avalon”.
We tried to fully domesticate Morgan and make her an inside cat, but she was determined to get out, and with her small wiry frame and maniacal determination busted out of even specially reinforced screens in our windows. Eventually we gave in and put a cat door in our side door so she could come in and out as she pleased. Unlike with the cats of my youth, we were more conscious now and had Morgan spayed. We also had her front claws removed to protect our furniture (which we later understood to be quite an inhumane practice.) Morgan was no lap cat, but was a dexterous and fearless little creature, who could jump from the kitchen floor to the top of our refrigerator and when a dog came into our yard, whatever size, would literally attack the larger animal and drive it away.
Sally’s sister had taken in a neighbor’s cat that had apparently suffered some abuse. Since he was a sort of dirty gray in color, the neighbors had (derisively perhaps) named him “Sludge”. With three-year-old Eric and new baby Emma, Sally and I decided to adopt this cat as a companion for Morgan, to try and mellow him out so he would be more of a playmate maybe for our kids. We changed his name slightly to “Sledge”, maybe inspired by the humorous TV detective show of the time, “Sledge Hammer”.
Sledge was anything but tough. He was a total love of a lap cat that liked nothing better than to climb up on your chest and nuzzle your neck when you were reclined on the couch. He also tried to befriend Morgan, who would generally retreat to high perches and hiss at him. Our kids, particularly Emma, loved him and played with him often. We have a memorable picture of toddler Emma, under her crib with Sledge.
Around 1990, Morgan, who apparently roamed the neighborhood and was well known to most of the neighbors on our block, failed to come home. After several days we went out looking for him but never found any trace of him. Sledge, on the other hand, continued to be a loving presence in our lives for the next eight years, until he developed a malady, got jaundiced and stopped eating. We took him to the vets and they diagnosed him with incurable Kidney Cancer. It was clear that Sledge would die soon and should probably be “put to sleep” at some point soon.
As was our way, Sally and I shared the reality of Sledge’s condition and prognosis with our kids. This was their first encounter with the coming of death. They were sad and very serious about it, and spent much time petting Sledge, trying to get him to eat, and looking into his yellow jaundiced eyes.
On the veterinarian’s advice, Sally and I knew that we were going to have Sledge euthanized, but we wrestled with how to deal with it with our kids. Some people we knew had just had it done and told their kids about it afterwards. That didn’t feel right to us. Should we take Eric and Emma with us to the vet and maybe have them wait with one of us in the waiting room while the injection was done? That did not feel right either. It seemed they would want to and should be with Sledge in his last moment, but would it be to awful an experience and give them nightmares and psychic scars? Sally and I wrestled with this for a week, out of earshot from our kids.
In the end we decided, for better or worse, that all four of us should be there for Sledge’s last moment among the living. We scheduled the day with the vet, took Sledge in the car in his cat carrier, Eric and Emma in the back seat with him, solemn but full of loving words of encouragement for their dear cat companion.
When it was time, our vet, Dr. Pilch brought Sledge and all of us into a small examining room. He put Sledge on the table and stroked his fur. We all took our turns stroking Sledge’s long gray fur coat. When we said we were ready and had said our final goodbyes to our cat, Dr. Pilch gave him the injection that did whatever it did to quickly, and seemingly painlessly, end his life. All the time the vet stroked sledge and we stood silently sobbing in witness. Soon sledge closed his eyes and was still. I recall we all cried. (I have tears in my eyes now writing this.) I recall that Dr. Pilch, the four of us, and Sledge were all their together another ten minutes or so in quiet respect for this wonderfully loving being.
We arranged for Sledge’s body to be cremated and his ashes put in a small wooden box, which still sits in a place of honor in our house. It took all of us a while to fully process Sledge’s death, but we all did. Eric and Emma have repeatedly acknowledged since that it was important that they were there and that anything else would not have been good.
After completing our mourning period we proactively (this time) went out to get a new cat. We had gotten a flier from a group called “Kitten Rescue” that would be doing adoptions over the weekend at our mall. All four of us went, with that same cat carrier that carried Sledge on his last car trip to the vets, and checked out all the young rescued kittens. Eric and Emma focused in on an energetic gray one. We paid for the neutering and initial shots and took him home. We went back and forth on names. Sally and I liked “Thoreau”, but that name did nothing for Eric and Emma. I think it was Emma that suggested we call him “Tiger” or maybe even “Tigger”. We finally all agreed on the name “Ti”.
Ti is now ten years old, and a healthy indoor-only cat. The Kitten Rescue people had insisted we sign a pledge to keep him indoors only as part of taking him. We have honored that pledge though sometimes we wonder if we are denying Ti a whole wider world of experience outdoors. Ti is not generally a lap cat, but will occasionally, on his own decision but never on ours, come and curl up on you. But otherwise he is and affectionate “people person” and even greets strangers by rubbing against them and being willing to “kiss” (sniff or touch noses) with any human so inclined.
Ti will hang out with any of the four of us, but seems to have the most fondness for Emma, who has made the greatest effort to figure out the kind of petting, scratching, roughhousing, etc that Ti likes. She has studied him so carefully that she pretty much can tell you, by his body language, what the cat is thinking at every point. When Emma comes home, Ti stops whatever he’s doing and finds her to say hello. Ti waits for her to go to sleep so he can join her on her bed. When Emma is away for a night or out of town for longer periods he sleeps instead on Sally’s and my bed, but always seeming to wait for her return.