Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Story of Millie Joyful

The last pic of the two of us together, taken on Friday.

Millennium Joy

The first picture of us. 
Three days after my parents surprised me with a small torbie kitten, I sat on the floor of my living room in the wee hours of the morning, having finally caught the hyperactive little fart, and looked her in the eyes.

"I can't keep you," I told her. "It's Finals Week. I need to sleep. I'm going to have to give you back."

This was followed by a fit of sobbing. The inevitable had happened about five minutes after I first laid eyes on her--Millennium Joy had moved in taken full possession of my life. Giving her back was not an option.

I took her home to my parents' for the winter break, where she charmed and danced her way into all of our hearts. I can distinctly remember coming back from a trip to the grocery store with Mom to find that my brother Aaron had arrived for a visit. When I walked in the house, I was greeted by the sight of my 6'2" brother holding my tiny cat, with a big grin on his face. "We've met!" he said, before sitting on the floor to wave some sort of toy at her. We spent the rest of the holiday season watching her "spider dance" (that "Halloween Cat" arched-back hopping thing they do) at her reflection in the sliding glass door, and periodically calling out, "Where's the baby?" to find her halfway up the Christmas tree.

Dad took this one--I've always loved it because you can
see her personality. 
And so it began. A love story. One that spanned over fifteen years, a lot of car rides, several apartments, and one year of leaving her with Mom and Dad so I could teach in England. My high-energy kitten became an active, sweet adult. More than a cat, she became my best friend. Her fur caught a lot of tears, and my ever-patient girl put up with the frequent indignities of the "I got your nose! I got your toes!" game with great equanimity. I gave her a safe home, lots of good food, all the silly cat toys she could play with, and my heart. In turn, she gave me unconditional love, free therapy, and endless cuddling and purring.

It wasn't always easy. A bout of pancreatitis in December 2009 made me fear for her life, but she pulled through and thrived again. I remember that initial vet visit when I realized she was ill--the receipt from the office labelled her as geriatric. "But she's only ten!!" I remember thinking. And suddenly it occurred to me that ten is old for a cat; she really was starting to age, even if she acted like a kitten still.

Post-pancreatitis, she had five years left--many of them filled with the late Twerpus Maximus, Harley Dude, and with Mom's cats, Bella and Duchess. She didn't mind being around other cats, even after being an "only child" for so many years, and may have been the most laid-back cat I've ever known. She could share her food dish, her litter box, and even her human. She loved my parents, greeted guests with great curiosity, and was quite fond of my friends.

Like any tortie, she had her feisty side. Back in my Antioch days, my parents came down to see my Winter Concert. I had one more day of school before heading home for Winter Break, so my parents had offered to take Millie home that night so I could leave straight from school the next day without having to stop and catch her. It was a great arrangement, and off they went in the night with my indignant cat. The next day, while they were making their bed, Mom leaned over to pet Millie, who promptly reached out and whopped Mom across her head.

So many stories. I could sit here writing for hours, and not touch them all. She was one hell of a special girl. Sweet, curious, mischievous. Inquisitive, smart, agile.

The last few months, I suppose, it's become very apparent that Millie was moving from "active geriatric" to "slowing down." It's easy, when you love someone so much, to be in denial for some time, but after a while, it must be acknowledged. Millie, always slender, was getting bony from the weight she was losing. She had started to change some of her patterns and habits--a sure sign that something is wrong--and she was pulling away from all of us. Not just me, but my parents and the other cats, as well. She would no longer cuddle with Bella.

A few days ago. She liked chicken broth. You can see her hip
bones protruding, though. 
She showed some signs of life--her appetite was okay, she was happy to cuddle on my lap and get her belly rubbed. But slowly but surely, she was winding down. I admit I had a really hard time acknowledging and accepting that. But two weeks ago, I couldn't deny her discomfort and we headed to the vet. It was good news--temporarily. I started her on the thyroid meds the very next day, and she seemed to get some of her spark back. Rome wasn't built in a day, so I looked for small signs, and I did see them--begging for treats, "talking" to me a little bit (in hindsight, I realize now that my very vocal girl hasn't been talking a lot of late). She was still sleeping on the floor instead of on furniture, and at night she'd only stay on my bed for maybe ten minutes before heading off to curl up on the wood floor, next to a wall. It wasn't the Millie I was used to, but I was hopeful that Millie would come back.

But she didn't. Maybe she couldn't.

Yesterday, I heard her heaving and tip-toed over to be ready to clean up the mess...only there was no mess. She just dry heaved for a few minutes, and nothing came up. I leaned down to comfort her and she purred, but it was weak.

I watched her, gave her her evening pill, offered her a treat. She showed no interest in the treat, but stretched out on the rug next to my bed. She couldn't seem to sleep, and I knew she was dehydrated.

I stayed up late reading, periodically leaning over the side of the bed to check on her, where she just lay there, eyes open, her whole tiny body showing the effort of her breathing. I got on the floor and sang "You Are My Sunshine" to her, reverting back to something I used to do when she was a kitten needing some quiet time after a good playtime. Around 1:30, I offered her some chicken broth, and she eagerly dove into that. It was encouraging. Still, I knew I would need to call the vet this morning and get her checked out.

The vet's office was able to squeeze her in to a busy morning, and we got there at 10:30. By now, Millie had skipped breakfast, and was lying listlessly around the house wherever I might leave her after picking her up. She would let me hold her for a few minutes but then weakly push against me to be let down. I went for a long walk and a good cry. I knew. I didn't want to know, but I knew.

Dr. Ann knew, too. Bless her, she offered me options. She could pump Millie full of liquids and even some lymphoma medicine (it's a huge possibility in older cats). She could run blood tests and other tests. Maybe it's the kidneys, maybe it's cancer. Hard to know. The thought of all those tests on an already-weakened cat broke my heart.

"I have to give you options. That's my job." I nodded, crying, and waited for her to continue. "I need to hear the actual words from you."

I took a deep breath, sobbed once, and said, "I need to let her go. She's telling me."

Dr. Ann, who I have found to be a wonderful, knowledgeable veterinarian, but also a stellar human being, nodded and smiled at me. "Okay. I'm so sorry. But I think you're doing the right thing."

She explained to me how wild cats, when it's time for them to die, wander away from other cats and find a bush. There they hide, not quite living, not quite dead, and wait. Millie was basically doing that. Her eyes were dull. She wasn't my Millie anymore. Understanding that made the decision easier to make.

But not easy. Oh, never easy.

I stayed with her the whole way, as the vet techs prepped her. Not a peep from my girl. They left me for a few minutes to say goodbye, and then Dr. Ann returned. Through the whole process, it was always given to me to establish the timeline. "Are you ready?" she asked me. "Yes," I replied.

"Well, no. But yes."

A sad smile. "I understand."

The last picture, taken on Saturday. She was sitting on me,
and purring. 
She wrapped my sweet Millie Joyful in a towel and handed her to me. I cradled her in my arms, as I have so many times over the last 15 years. She purred weakly, and I commented on this.

"She's thanking you for listening to her."

I held her, and watched her go. Tears fell on her fur, and I said, "I love you," and "Thank you" to her, over and over. I held my baby girl, and cried because goodbye is not an easy word to say. I let her go, because I promised her I would listen to her when she told me.

So she's gone. The day I always knew would come has come and I'm left with a blue-and-green collar, a bottle of unused feline thyroid pills, and a massive headache. But I'm also left with wonderful memories. My entire adult life has featured the inimitable Millie Joyful, and I am a better person for it.

If the Rainbow Bridge and heaven really exist, I hope to see her there someday. I know she will be filled out--no protruding hip bones--and when I run my hand down her back, I will feel soft fur and a layer of flesh, not bone. Her tail will be up, her eyes bright, and she will meow that loud meow of hers to tell me, "I'm so glad to see you."

Rest well, Millie. I miss you already. I love you forever.

Late 1999, early 2000. She was still small, nest
to Millennium Bear.
2000--my screen saver had a little airplane, and she was convinced she could
catch it.

My apartment in Chico. She was not a legal resident there, but I didn't care.

Day One. She fell asleep on my chest and I was smitten.

Day One. Mom and Dad managed to truly surprise me! 

This was in my Antioch apartment, getting ready to move. 

After a hospital stay for pancreatitis. I'm so glad I didn't lose
her then.

The early days. This is one of my favorite pictures I ever snapped of Millie. 
She got really good at traveling in the car. 

Teaching an ornithology lesson to Duchess and Bella. 

With her adopted fur brother, the late Harley Dude.

She loved to sit in that window.

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