Saying Good-bye

Sara hates this story, but I have to tell it one more time.

After she left home to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, a friend of hers gave me a present — a small gray and white kitten — telling me that with Sara gone, we needed something temperamental in the house. That was nearly 15 years ago.

We named him Michael, having just seen a comedy of  that name in which John Travolta portrayed an angel named Michael — a rude and obnoxious angel, and he became part of the family. Pets do that, take up residence not only in our homes, but in our hearts.

Like other family members, they begin to influence our decisions.

Ever after Michael joined our family, it was necessary for me to find housing that allowed pets. That led me to a wonderful apartment in Pierre that overlooked Hilger’s Gulch, which would watch turn gold as the sun set. That led me to a house in Lake Preston owned by a man who allowed me to paint the walls, so finally I was surrounded by color, which was a joy and comfort for me. That led me to my current apartment and the friendship of a 95-year-old woman who also lives here.

Michael didn’t do well as an only cat, though, so his presence expanded my family in another way, too. For the first ten years, his companion was a classy black cat with white tuxedo markings named Claude. Their bond never ceased to amaze me.

I picked up Claude on the last day of my work week so I could be around and negotiate their getting-acquainted period. I separated them briefly so I could introduce Claude to the litter box, and then I allowed them to meet. Surprisingly, after a brief hiss, Michael laid down on the floor  about six feet from the box in which I brought Claude home and waited.

Claude was a little dandy, about three months younger than Michael, who was eight- or nine-months-old at the time. I had chosen him because he managed to hold his own with puppies at the pet shot, even though he appeared very delicate. Michael, by this time, was quite large. The vet had told me he needed a companion, but I wasn’t sure how he’d  react to an interloper. I didn’t want his companion to be afraid of him.

With those two, I really didn’t have to worry. Claude hopped out of his box, did a Halloween cat routine with arched back and fluffed fur, and waited. Michael just laid on the floor, flicking the tip of his tail. Claude hopped a little closer and repeated the routine; Michael didn’t move.

A couple hops later, Claude was cautiously sniffing Michael from one end to the other. By this time, Michael was purring loudly. When he finished sniffing Michael, Claude laid down beside him and Michael began to groom him. That was it. They’d adopted each other and began to emulate each other.

Claude died during my last year in Pierre. It was a grueling death, not because I hadn’t tried to put him to sleep, but because, unknowingly, I had chosen a vet who didn’t believe in euthanizing animals. Finally, when Claude began to go into convulsions, I stopped believing in her and called someone else.

Since Michael was older, I decided not to introduce another cat into our family. However, Michael’s insistence upon being the center of my universe eventually wore me down. With companionship, he still wants to be held on a daily basis, and still wants to sleep with me, but he doesn’t feel I needed to devote every waking moment to him.

Jake (Jacob) and Izzie (Issaac) were small orange bundles of fur when they joined our household. That transistion was not easy. I needed to put gates between rooms to keep them separated. Michael would stand on one side hissing and snarling. The kittens vacillated between hiding behind furniture and standing on the other side of the gate hissing back.

I can’t honestly say I know how they eventually resolved  their differences. Michael, clever cat that he is, learned to jump the gate and I could no longer keep them separated. Eventually, the kittens began to curl up by Michael — one at a time, not both together — and they’d groom him. This peace-making happened while I was at work.

I’ve recently learned the name Michael is from Hebrew and means “who is like God.” Somehow, I wasn’t surprised. More than once over the past 15 years, I’ve come to understand the gentle way in which God works from that cat. He tends to be persistent and creative, but also very loving in his efforts to direct this household.

Most often, I’ve noticed his intervention when I’ve resisted prayer. Sometimes, I admit, I’m not entirely happy with the life God has given me, and when I’m feeling that way, I don’t want to talk about it — not too God, not to anyone. I just want to read until the raw feelings inside have been numbed by fiction and I can face the world again.

Michael would never leave me alone at times like that. He’d insist on being held, or complain until I fed him, or indicate that scooping the litter wasn’t enough, it needed changing. Once he pushed me past the inertia, I’d find myself making a cup of coffee and heading for my prayer table, where I would journal and pray myself into a place where I was open once again to God’s will in my life.

I don’t know what I’m going to do now. For the past couple months, I’ve noticed that he was slowing down and losing weight. I thought his age was catching up with him. At 15, he was definitely an old cat.

Last week, though, I noticed he was drooling more than usual, and when he tried to eat treats, they just fell out of his mouth. That made me watch him more closely. I noticed his wasn’t eating very much, and decided I needed to take him to the vet. I had planned to make an appointment for Monday, when I wasn’t scheduled to work, but when he didn’t sleep with me Friday night, I knew it was more serious than I realized.

On Saturday, the vet found a growth on his tongue. She couldn’t tell whether it was an infection or a tumor. Before deciding whether to try treating him or to put him to sleep, I had her run a few tests to see if he was otherwise healthy. He was, and received a powerful antibiotic injection. It didn’t help.

It’s a tumor, so today my friend, my personal messenger from God, will leave me. Over the past few years, when I’ve been exasperated with him, Katie has told me I would miss him if anything happened to him. If tears are any indication, she’s right. My heart is breaking — for that stupid cat.

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