A Cat Named Rooster
It's 2am and I can't sleep.
Rooster is not well.
For more than a decade there has been one constant in my life. Whenever I returned to whatever place I called home, there he was. Tonight I came home and he is not here. He is in intensive care.
As I rode the three hour trip home from Boston in the cold, dark night, I thought constantly about his life.
It was mid-May of 1996 when Diane and I went to an apartment in Fairfax, Virginia, to find a companion for Snoop Catty Cat. The woman who lived there worked with a Washington cat rescue group, Feline Foundation. She had a litter of kittens that had been brought all the way up to northern Virginia from a woodpile at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. They were about 6 weeks old.
Mostly the kittens stumbled around in the undirected way that little kittens do. Juan, however, chose us. The tiny little orange puffball came right up and asserted himself. It was love at first sight.
Juan? No, that name wouldn't do. Later Diane would say that she had a red-headed uncle whose nickname was Rooster. It immediately stuck.
I declared his birthday to be April 1st. He was playful and silly and funny. It fit.
He was such a tiny thing. Fit the palm of my hand. Brought him home to Arlington.
We isolated him in the bedroom for a day to adjust to his new place. The next day I set a gate at the door. Snoops, who had been an only cat for nearly a year, knew something was up. I opened the door. Snoops growled. Rooster, a third of Snoops's size, asserted himself again. This was going to be his place to rule.
It worked. Rooster was alpha to Snoops for more than a decade. Not in some bullyish way. They became fast friends. Brothers. But each knew who was really in charge.
He was such a brave little cat. He wasn't needy. He wasn't aloof and distant. He had so much affection to give, but he did it on his terms.
He grew from a little orange puffball to a very handsome boy.
In 1997 Diane and I wed. We returned from 10 days away to start a whirlwind of packing. Three days after being home, we loaded the moving truck. Rooster and Snoops went into the pet carrier on the passenger seat of the pickup for their 10 hour trip to northern Vermont.
They hated that drive. They were not car cats. Just a few hours into it we stopped to check on them. I remember their noses being white with ... anxiety? We tried to reassure them. We forged on.
At our new home in Underhill they quickly adjusted again. Rooster explored every nook and cranny. The king had to know his kingdom.
The first time I took him to the vet in Vermont, they were surprised to see he was a cat. They expected, naturally, a rooster.
I began traveling a lot for work. Whenever I came home, Snoops would immediately be on me. Rooster would be near. I would joke how we had this nice sized house but it seemed everyone in it always had to be within four feet of each other.
Sometimes less. Sometimes when I worked both of them would lay in my lap, across my arms, as I typed away.
October 2000. The new house we'd built in Middlesex was ready to be moved into. I was so happy. In my mind I wouldn't be moving ever again, or at least not for many decades. One last time for packing. One last time to take the boys on a long trip, though this one only an hour.
Once again the king surveyed his kingdom. We'd designed elements into the house for them. One was a screened porch. For their safety and that of local wildlife they were not allowed outdoors. They loved that porch. We put a cat door in the wall to allow them out to it whenever they wanted. Another went to the basement, for their litter box needs.
The king approved.
Early 2002. There is so much bad energy in the household that it could run Enron for months. After nearly five years of marriage counseling it is becoming more and more apparent when mere disagreements elevate to irreconcilable differences.
When that bad energy started surging, the cats would scurry from the room. I didn't blame them in the least; I wanted to go with them. What does it say about me that in such times I was most concerned about how they were feeling, more so than her? Or me?
Rooster's anxiety from it was constant. He often howled at his own reflection. He licked his belly til it was hairless and raw. It was not a good environment.
In late April there was an earthquake. Shook the house for several seconds. "Cats were freaked," said the email from Diane. I missed the earthquake because I was in California. Oh, the irony.
At the end of April she moved out of the house. Rooster mostly stopped howling at his reflection. The hair on his belly mostly started growing back. Mostly. She would still come to visit them occasionally, and there was still stress.
July 2002. While I was at the Right Coast Ride in Broadway, Virginia, she filed for divorce. Most of what transpired with that is not relevant here. When it came to the cats, what was most important to me was that they stay together. If she were to have demanded one, I might have given them both up. She never asked. I was very glad.
I met Jan. She was from far away, but came up to visit me in Vermont sometimes. She loved animals. The cats loved her. It was a good fit. Most days though it was just me, Snoops and Rooster in the big ol' house. Except for the occasional travel I did, they were very used to having me around 22 hours per day, seven days per week, which was pretty much as it had been since early '97.
July 2003. The arduous divorce process was finally reaching a conclusion. Two hours before I was to sign away all of my liquidity in the final agreement, I got a call from my boss. I was being laid off in a 30% reduction in force. I signed the agreement anyway. I needed it to end. I don't normally like that word "need" very much. I needed it to end.
I found another position quickly, but was feeling burned out on life. It was very difficult to be productive telecommuting to California. My boss and I mutually agreed I needed more time for myself, away from work. It was the start of 2004.
Rooster was doing much, much better. No howling, no belly licking. The vet had recommended a raw foods diet for them. They got whole chicken legs, salmon and swordfish steaks. Friends joked, "When I die, I want to be reincarnated as Tale's cats."
For most of that year I did a couple of small contract jobs from home with the cats. In October a previous employer wanted me on location in California for two months.
I took the job. The cats came with me. 900 mile days cross-country in the Outback. Three of them to get to Tucson where I needed to spend two weeks with the lead developer on the project getting up to speed. Each night between at a pet-friendly but unfamiliar hotel.
The first day Snoops rode in my lap while Rooster wandered around the car. On the second day Snoops was apparently shocked and disgusted to find there even was a second day of this, so he burrowed himself between luggage to hide himself from the unfamiliar world that was whizzing by. Rooster gladly took up the position on my lap, between his still regular patrols of the rest of the car.
In Tucson they got 12 nights in one location. One unfamiliar location. In a single room. With daily maid service coming in. With me gone for most of every day. The dealt with it, but never really settled in.
Then we were off to the Silicon Valley. Another 900 mile day. Snoops disappeared. Rooster rode in my lap. Snoops finally came out and rode in my lap too, alongside his brother.
The hotel situation in California was similar. Extended Stay America. One room. A stranger coming in daily to clean the place. Me gone most of every day. Again, they dealt with it, but it was clear that they were not in their element.
The two month contract became four months. In the third month, my furnace failed back at home and a frozen pipe burst, flooding the house for several tens of thousands of dollars of damage. This was discovered roughly a week after it happened, and a scant 15 minutes after the rear hatch window and right rear window of my Outback were simultaneously blown out by a freak incident involving a utility box mounted on a telephone pole outside of Muir Woods. What a shitty day.
It looked like they wanted to keep me longer than four months, but my friend Dane had let me know about an open position in the Boston area that would bring me back to New England. I applied. They accepted me. At the end of February 2005 the boys were finally moving out of the hotel.
Three days of a thousand miles each to get home. Rooster still managed the travel relatively well. Snoops still hated it.
Back at home we faced a new challenge. I was not giving up my house in Vermont. It was three hours to work in Massachusetts.
So again the boys had to adjust. I was only at the house on weekends. On weekdays a neighbor came in and took care of their needs. Otherwise they were alone, with just each other. On the weekends, they were all over me. Without me being there daily, Rooster had gotten outwardly needier. I didn't blame him. I felt terrible for it.
After a couple of months I got an apartment in Cambridge where I could move them, so they would be with me more than not. Just two days away from them instead of five. They liked that better but it was still so different from the experience they grew up with.
September 2005. I met Sarah. In the first hour of our all-day first date I mentioned something about the cats. She let me know she was not a cat person. The date ended well despite this. But with friends it was one of the concerns I voiced about the potential longevity of the nascent relationship.
August 2006. Sarah moved into the house in Vermont. The cats remained in Cambridge, more so because that was still where I was five days a week. They'd only be moving home when I was there more than not.
Spring 2007. I started working one day a week from home. I was still in Cambridge more than in Middlesex. The cats remained at the apartment, with me there one fewer day per week.
June 2007. Many of you have already read the story about Snoops's ear infection, surgery and the tragic final result. It still weighs heavily on me that I was 1000 miles away when he passed.
That story was written before I had picked up Snoops's remains from the hospital. I asked the vet about whether it would be good for Rooster to see Snoops, whether it would help him understand his brother wasn't going to be with him anymore. She didn't exactly discourage me from doing so, but did caution me that it was far more likely that Rooster wouldn't recognize Snoops because the smells were different, and that he could be indifferent or even revulsed.
At the hospital I sat in the car with the cold, heavy box closed in my lap and cried. When I could finally see past the tears, I drove. I took him back to the apartment and sat on the floor. Rooster came over. I opened the box and unswaddled Snoops.
Rooster sniffed him. He nuzzled him. He looked at me. He nuzzled Snoops again. He was not indifferent. He was not revulsed. I think he understood.
I rewrapped Snoops and prepared to take him home to Vermont. I planned to bury him at the base of a willow tree I'd planted earlier in the summer.
Sarah, not a cat person, had already cried many tears over the passing of Snoop Catty Cat. As I lowered his box into the hole, she cried many more.
I spoke through my own tears. "God, if you're there you know I have serious doubts about your existence. But please, if you are there, watch over him. Let him help this tree grow big and strong as a monument to his life."
Maybe not exact, more than a year later, but that was the essence of it. Not much more. I turned the dirt back into the hole. It was done.
That summer Sarah left many flowers for him.
I still miss him.
Rooster then had no company at all for those times when I was away.
At the end of September, less than a month before Sarah and I were to be married, it was finally time for Rooster to come home too. I was switching to a schedule where I could work two days per week from home. I'd be in Vermont more than Massachusetts.
Coming home didn't mean things would be back to the way they were in the old days, though. He'd have to adjust to living with Sarah, and Sarah to living with him. The biggest change was that he was not allowed upstairs. He wouldn't be able to sleep with me anymore.
Sarah came to love him. She'd sing to him. "Rooster, Dooster, he's a cat. He is not a chicken hat! His name is Rooster..."
He vocalized a lot. Meow, meow, meow. Not randomly, it pretty clearly seemed to be about food. He'd become a finicky eater. Also he meowed because of the gate at the top of the stairs. When we were upstairs he knew we were in the house but that he couldn't be with us. It was so different from how he'd interacted with me for 11 years.
In December he started showing some bad signs. The main issues were that he seemed to drool a lot, his breath was awful, his eating habits were different and he was pooping inappropriately on the basement floor instead of in his box. His weight was down too. The first two were pretty obviously from a buildup of plaque on his teeth, the eating habits changing could be easily connected to that as well, and the pooping, well, poor dental health and the resulting unhappiness can lead to various side-effects like that.
The vet chipped away some plaque and gave us some medicine to help clear up the rest. We used it as prescribed but months later there really wasn't much of an improvement in weight or the poop problem, though a little improvement (but not cure) in the drool and breath. The poop problem could also have been acting out.
So I brought him back to see about having an anesthetized cleaning done. At the exam the doctor was concerned about a lump he felt in his belly that he thought might be lymphoma. If it was, the prognosis was dire. Ultimately he determined it was just a kidney, but in a bit of an odd location.
Rooster got his teeth thoroughly cleaned. Over the next few weeks his weight slowly improved. I repositioned litter boxes in the basement and the pooping problem became significantly better. Nearly all of it was properly ending up in a box.
In early August he had a seizure one morning. I rushed him to the vet. We talked a long time about what happened. The basics of that conversation were that a one-time incident (at least, the only one I ever observed) doesn't indicate much and it could have been something relatively minor like exposure to something in the environment or epilepsy, or terribly serious like a brain tumour. Our floors had been extensively cleaned just a day prior and he says that is a likely but not definitive source, especially if we do not see it recur.
Two weekends ago we started a week long vacation. A neighbor came by daily to take care of him. When I got back last Saturday there was a note.
That did seem a little odd, but I really didn't make too much of it. The pooping could have been just acting out again since we had left him alone, and over the next couple of days his drinking seemed okay.
Tuesday night he was stretched across the top of the couch behind us. Sarah asked, "What's that noise?" "Just Rooster. He's snoring." He didn't usually snore, but it wasn't the first time. Didn't think much of it.
Wednesday morning it was a bit unusual when I came downstairs and he wasn't right there, meowing for food. I'd heard him meowing just a short while before coming down. As I looked around for him, I saw him stroll out of the laundry room. He looked at me, meowed and came over to get his food. I set a fresh bowl down for him. He ate a few bites. I finished getting ready for my ride to Boston.
As I was about to step out the door I looked for him to say goodbye. I found him on my office chair, not a common place for him but not the first time. I petted him. He purred. But he wasn't very ... interactive. Something seemed off. I pet him some more. He purred more. Something nagged at me that he wasn't quite right. But it was subtle. Not his typical mannerisms.
Damnit. I should have stayed. Why did I leave? I hadn't been in the office for two weeks. He wasn't really behaving significantly differently from usual. He wasn't in apparent distress.
Still. Why didn't I stay with him? Damnit.
When Sarah got home from work that night she called me. Rooster was having trouble breathing. She was thinking she should take him to the vet. "Yes, please do."
She called me from the vet. She was crying. She tried to explain what was going on but having trouble. Rooster was in bad shape.
She passed the phone to the vet. We had a frank conversation about what was going on and what the options were. Full diagnostics was beyond the scope of his shop, but we could send him up to the hospital in Williston for a full work-up of x-rays, scans, blood tests and whatever else they'd do. Expensive, and maybe not worth it for a cat this old, but it would help target what exactly was going on.
He could also try a broad approach to relieve the immediate breathing problems and get him stabilized. Given his age, this was the recommended initial approach.
Or. Euthanasia. The doctor said this was a crossroads.
12 is old? Why did I always grow up with cats thinking "old" didn't start until the latter half of the teens? He's not even at the start of the teens! Snoops was 11, but that was an infection. Post surgery complication. What the hell? Do I suck as a caregiver that much?
The choices never really were about money, though. I spent $8000 in less than a week for Snoops's care. Even with the outcome, I'd do it all over again. What he had was treatable. It was those damned post surgery complications that took him from me.
Euthanasia at that point was really straight out. The crossroads choice was clear to me. Even if the eventual prognosis was that he was at the end of his life, I needed a diagnosis. I needed to know more about what was going on before ending his life. The doctor said that having Rooster stay with him did not appreciably increase his chances of a negative versus positive outcome.
The vet slept by Rooster's side that night. In the morning his breathing was only slightly improved. He recommended analysis by the hospital. I approved.
Sarah had a big day at school. It was Picture Day, everyone dressed up for their class pictures. Busy, busy. She called the vet then the hospital to see when he should be taken up. They said the sooner, the better. She dropped everything.
The hospital called to say that the initial x-rays and exam were in. Fluid in 75% of his lungs. Temperature down to 94 from a normal of 102. Blood pressure very weak. Abnormal heart. Might just be an infection in the lungs. I authorize more tests.
I also plan to go home.
Three hours later, the call for the test results. Likely root cause: hyperthyroidism leading to heart disease. Doctor is mildly encouraged by no signs of cancer, and hyperthyroidism is treatable, but the heart disease is a giant question mark.
Prognosis is still guarded to grave.
I authorize overnight intensive care to try to get his temperature and blood pressure back up. Oxygen tent, IV drip, some sort of warming cozy, I don't remember what else. They'd monitor him overnight and call me in the morning, or sooner if necessary. If they could get signs back up, there might be some hope, but it seemed likely that complete organ failure was imminent.
The doctor had told me a bunch of the signs of hyperthyroidism. Rooster had shown nearly all of them over the prior nine months. Did I fail him? Should I have seen this coming? He'd been to the vet four times in less than a year. Should he have seen it coming?
I check Wikipedia for more information. A lot of the symptoms for humans were things I'd seen in Rooster. Oh look, a section just about cats.
In veterinary medicine, hyperthyroidism is one of the most common endocrine conditions affecting older domesticated cats. The disease has become significantly more common since the first reports of feline hyperthyroidism in the 1970s.
This is really dismaying. I feel like I should have this figured out long ago. The outcome could have been very different
Sarah called. More tears. She had paperwork to fill out. Would I want them to resuscitate him?
I don't know how to answer.
You mean, like "heroic measures"? Try to bring him back to life so he could live what, one more hour? day? year? I mean, why wouldn't I want them to if he just hit a physiological speed bump and could be facing several more years with me. But if things look grim for long term survival, what would be the point? So I could have time to make it there when he is put down?
She needs an answer. I am deep in thought.
I hate that he is going through this.
I hate that she is going through this.
I hate that I am going through this.
Why am I here, in Boston?
It wasn't 1000 miles away again like it was with Snoops, but it wasn't with him.
Why was I there? In Boston. How did this situation deteriorate so rapidly? Just a week ago I'd watched him play in the basement with the energy of a kitten for a good long time ...
It seemed selfish and cruel to bring him back to life just so I could be there when he finally passed. Bring him back to live a while longer in distress just so I could try to scrub a corner of my conscience?
No, do not resuscitate.
I get on the road from Boston with the temperature near 60 degrees. No longer with a computer in front of me, being alone in my helmet I can do little but think through his life. I'm already composing this narrative in my head. This is not conducive to good motorcycling.
Tears start welling in my eyes. This is definitely not conducive to good motorcycling. I fight them back.
The temperature's dropping. Through the 50s. Through the 40s. I'm riding unmovingly as I fight the cold and obsess over Rooster.
I ponder whether, if we need to euthanize him, if they would let me do it. No, probably not. Doubtless some law or regulation or medical code that prohibitis it.
This is personal. I'm a vegetarian pacifist. Killing animals is not exactly high on my fun things to do list. But if it has to be done, if I make that decision, I don't want it carried out by proxy.
Into the 30s. It is 35 when I get home. I'm so cold.
Rooster is not here.
I go upstairs to see Sarah. The gate is closed, of habit. I pass through and leave it open.
Sarah touches me and feels how cold I am. We don't say much right then. There isn't much to say.
She suggests I take a nice hot shower. I do.
When finished, I cuddle with her for a while.
I don't feel remotely ready to fall asleep.
I know I will be tossing and turning and Sarah has to get up in a few hours to go to work. I come down to the office and try to busy my brain with other things. Hoping that I'll start feeling tired soon.
Then it is 2am. I start this story.
Death is inevitable, I know.
But this is too soon.
This is too soon.
Did I fail him?
I can't sleep.
Shortly after I wrote the above, exhaustion overcame me, flood water released from behind the dam that was my need to get those thoughts out. I lay down on the couch and quickly fell asleep.
The phone rings at 7:30am. It is the vet. I do not hear it.
The phone rings at 10am. It is the vet. I hear it.
She gives me the bad news. They were not able to get his temperature back up. They were not able to get his blood pressure back up. His heart was clearly in advanced failure. Euthanasia was by far the most responsible choice. I say I will call my wife and expect we would be there within a couple of hours.
I call Sarah. Voice mail. "Please call me as soon as you can."
I text Sarah.
I call my boss. Sorry, I won't be available to call in for the group meeting.
The phone rings at 10:10am. I expect it is Sarah. It is the doctor again. Rooster has stopped breathing. Should she proceed with euthanasia?
I get three words into what I realize is unnecessary talking. Every word I utter will be one more word during which his poor weak lungs struggle to gasp but can't, his brain trapped in a panic.
Yes, please do it now. Please call back when you can.
I sit and stare out the window, down the meadow to where Snoops is buried under the young willow tree. My mind is both numb and awash in thoughts I no longer recall.
Sarah calls back and I tell her what has happened. More tears.
When she gets home, we go down to the willow tree and dig a hole, there besides Snoops. Then we begin the 45 minute drive up to the hospital.
During the drive she reluctantly tells me more about her trips to our vet and then the hospital. It was heartbreaking for her. When she left the vet, Rooster was looking at her with scared and sorrowful eyes as if to say, "What's going on? Where am I? Don't leave me here!"
At the hospital he kept trying to crawl off the table and into her lap, but the doctor didn't want him to because Rooster was too fragile and he didn't want him moving. It was devastating to her to see him like that, him just wanting her comfort but not being allowed to get it.
She didn't want to tell me, because I'd feel bad that I wasn't there. I already felt bad that I wasn't there. I needed to hear what happened anyway.
We arrive at the hospital and are shown into one of the examination rooms. The doctor who took care of him in the morning is still there. It is the mother of one of the children in Sarah's school. Discovering this consoles Sarah a little; she knows that he was well cared for and with deep compassion.
When I picked up Snoop Catty Cat I was not given an opportunity to speak to any doctor there at all, much less one who had taken care of him. The reception nurse had just gone to the back, got his box, and presented him to me. That was it. After a moment of standing there in shock, it was out the door.
I am grateful to be able to talk to Rooster's doctor. I tell her I want truth, no matter how bitter. I just had a few questions that I didn't want to always wonder about. Or beat myself up over. Or, if beating myself up is warranted, to know it is so I can do better next time. If there is a next time.
Did I fail him? Should I have figured this out sooner? No, she says. Even with the occasional symptoms it would have been very hard to piece them together and see them as indicating a bigger problem. "Cats are very good at hiding their illness." That is exactly the same thing our vet had said a month before.
Should our vet have figured this out sooner? I'm definitely not looking to blame anyone, it is just a natural question. I just want to understand. No, she says. While she might have found a prblem sooner because she is inclined to do blood testing sooner, he has a more holistic approach to care that has other merits.
Would it have made a difference if the hyperthyroidism was detected a week ago? A month? Six months? No, she says. it's unlikely the outcome would have been much different. In the end it seemed Rooster had several things going on at once, and it is even possible the heart disease was not caused by the hyperthyroidism. He'd also shown neurological symptoms the morning of his death, which are really very inconsistent with the hyperthyroidism or the heart problem. They could well have been caused by a tumour associated with the seizure the prior month. His body had reached its limit.
Would I have been able to bring him to his end? No, she says ... then, "I don't know. I've never been asked that question before. I can't even do it for my own pets." The real answer to the question is no longer relevant, and that's okay. I just needed to ask.
She tells us Rooster was a fighter, right up to the end. Though I am suspicious of (understandable) platitudes from doctors at times like this, I believe her. Rooster was a fighter.
She hugs Sarah, hugs me, and then leaves to get Rooster. He comes to us in a box identical to one in which I picked up Snoops.
In the car Sarah holds him on her lap until we are on the highway. Then she gives me the box and he rides in my lap, like he did to California and back. I tell Sarah to start thinking about whether she will want to see him or not, because I plan on seeing him but do not want to distress her. She immediately replies that she wants to hug him goodbye too.
Back at the house, I park at the bottom of the driveway. I open the box and unswaddle him. Tears streaming from my eyes, one drips into the box. I pet him and tell him how sorry I am and how much I will miss him and how it wasn't fair and how I should have been there and ... and ... and ...
I kiss him and pull away, and it is Sarah's turn to pet him and say her goodbyes.
Then it is time. The blanket is placed back over him, the box is closed, and we walk to the willow tree. I place the box in the hole and once again turn my voice to the God of my agnosticism. "Please, if you are there, watch over him." Then to Snoops, "Snoopy, Rooster's here." I mumble some other things, but nothing so poignant as I would want it to be. I lose my words.
After filling the hole, Sarah and I gather flowers and leave them on each of their graves. She asks, "Do you want to lay some stones?" There are none handy in the meadow there. I start thinking about going to Barre later and getting a small monument made.
We return up the hill to the house. Walking in from the garage, there's a part of each of us that still expects him to be right there, greeting us.
The house is empty without him.
We miss you.