She was 16, but looked older. And she was ready to die. Her decline had been shockingly sudden: one day she was there, as friendly and eager as ever, the very next day she withdrew from the world. Wouldn't eat, wouldn't drink, wouldn't even come into the house. Instead, she lay down in the garden and closed her eyes. "I just can't go on," everything about her suggested.
She was Pippy, our tabby cat. Rescued, along with her brother, from under a house in Devonport, the tiny kitten foundlings were offered to us by Elsa, the Devonport vet. We all adored the pair from the moment we set eyes on them. They had beautiful markings, like the skin of pythons, and blue eyes that sparkled. They were playful, tumbling over one another, leaping over the furniture, pretending to stalk. Once they passed the kitten stage they were a calmer, comforting presence, aloof like all cats but affectionate too, when they felt like it.
When Peter Wells published an anthology, The Cat's Whiskers, about writers and cats, I contributed a chapter to it, based on Pippy and Jimmy and how they came into our lives and brought such joy with them. Many writers have an affinity with cats. I think it's the calm beauty and mystery of the creatures that fascinates. The Herald published my story, along with a photograph of Pippy and Jimmy. They accepted their new celebrity status with typical feline equanimity.
Years passed. Big strong brother Jimmy, bursting with energy like a teenage boy, took to roaming at night. At the age of 10 he was knocked down and killed on Lake Rd. Grief-stricken, I buried him in the garden. Pippy didn't mourn Jim for long though, she just assumed a new, singular authority as the Top Cat.
She was a creature of routine. First thing in the morning she would yowl down the hall, demanding breakfast. Once victualled, for most of the rest of the day she slept, seeking out patches of sun, then curling up and dozing. When awake she would patrol the front and sides of the property. Although petite, she was feisty. Woe betide any other cat who strayed on to Pippy's territory. She also had a liking for small spaces: cupboards, drawers, boxes. She was always ready for a snack, her favourite foods, cheese and chicken.
Naturally affectionate, she was excellent with our toddling grandchildren, tolerating their tail pulling and against-her-fur stroking. She was very much a people cat.
Routines were important to her. Late afternoons, while I was still working at my computer, she would jump up on my desk and intervene by placing a paw firmly on the keyboard. The message was clear: "Never mind writing, it's dinnertime, dude."
Then with terrible suddenness, her world changed. She became weak and uninterested in eating or drinking. She became thinner. When the ring-necked doves that have adopted us walked close by her, she regarded them with utter indifference.
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We placed her in the cat carrier and took her down to the Devonport vet. Because she was rarely unwell – having typical hybrid vigour – we hadn't had to take her there for years. So the vet was new: a kind auburn-haired young woman. I opened the cat carrier and she emerged cautiously on to the consulting room table. This was the same room where I had collected her and Jimmy, 16 years earlier, so her life was about to come full circle. To my astonishment, she began to purr. The vet was gentle and kind. Examining Pippy, she said quietly, "She has a renal problem." Pippy kept purring. "And there may be cardiac issues." She looked very sad. "I could treat her, but, well, she's over 16. She would not recover for long."
I was aware that 16was over 80, in human years. The vet went on: "And she may just creep away under the house to die and you might never find her. That would be a terrible end." We agreed, yes, it would be.
We stroked her as she lay on her side. She remained amazingly calm. It was obvious what had to be done, she had to be euthanised.
The vet explained. "I'll first give her a sedative, to make sure she's completely relaxed. Then another injection." I looked at her, lying on the table. She stared back at me, her dark eyes clear and full of affection. It was too much. My own eyes filled with tears, I had to turn away.
Preparations began. The vet shaved a section of one hind leg, then a dosage was injected. Pippy's eyes stayed open, but began to glaze. My eyes flooded now. Again, I turned away.
Goodbye little girl, you've been a huge part of our family. We will miss you, always.