Sunday, December 13, 2009

Roxie was quite a girl

Roxie was a tortoise-shell cat with odd, scary yellow eyes, a perpetually peevish expression, and long hair that tended toward impossible mats.

She didn't particularly care for human companionship, even that of the humans who fed her. She didn't scratch me when I tried to hold her (usually), but she objected quite vocally, with a low growl, gradually escalating into a piercing yowl, which continued until I set her back down.

In recent years, she was old and skinny and she slept a lot, but when she was a young and vigorous cat, she made a habit of attacking the first thing to come down the stairs each morning. Sometimes that thing was my leg in a new pair of nylons I had just put on to wear to work. Sometimes it was the hapless Caitlin, stumbling half-asleep toward breakfast on a school morning.

Eventually Cait figured out that if she threw a shoe down the stairs ahead of her every morning, Roxie would leap on it, and would be so busy trying to kill it that Cait could slip past her unnoticed.

We were all a little afraid of Roxie, including Remy, who learned as a young pup that she had no sense of humor whatsoever. The first time he playfully tried to jump on her, she hooked him in the lower lip with one of her fearsome talons, and he dripped blood all across the kitchen floor. After that, he always gave her a wide berth, and frequently found himself trapped in a room, whimpering but unwilling to risk her wrath, when she chose (deliberately, I'm sure) to park herself in the doorway.

Roxie was a good mouser, and although she liked to devour her prey, she was always kind enough to leave their heads in a convenient place for me to find, often by stepping on them barefoot in the dark.

As a mouser, she was both clever and cruel. She used the bathtub in our second-floor bathroom as her own personal Coliseum, where she would dispatch mice like Christians thrown to the lions by the ancient Romans. She would catch a mouse, sometimes as far away as the basement, carry it up two flights of stairs, and drop it into the tub, where she would proceed to torture it to death. There were many mornings when I pulled back the curtain to step into the shower and found the tub covered with tiny, bloody footprints. (Yes, it's horrible and gross, but you do have to admire her resourcefulness.)

Roxie died last Friday, December 11th, sometime between 7:30 in the morning, when I left for work, and noon, when Tony checked on her.

It was not unexpected. She had essentially been in hospice care here at home for about a week, and she had gradually been eating less and less, until she had stopped eating altogether a couple of days earlier.

Up until a few weeks ago, she had been as active as ever (which is to say, not terribly active, sleeping most of the day, but with occasional bursts of energy). I actually saw her chase a spider across the kitchen floor with great interest just a couple of weeks ago, but it had been pretty clear for a while that she was nearing the end of her life.

She didn't seem to be sick: she didn't cough or wheeze or throw up. She didn't seem to be in any pain: she didn't cry or wince when I petted her. She just got very skinny.

There are probably people who will read this and think that I should have taken her to the vet when she started losing weight, to see if anything could be done to get her eating again, to prolong her life. To those people, I will point out that Roxie did not like cat carriers, car trips, or vets--well, really, Roxie didn't much like anyone, but she had a particular aversion to strangers who pinned her down on stainless steel tables and treated her in undignified ways--and there was a special notation on her chart at our vet's, reminding them not to attempt to examine her without first donning shoulder-length falconer's gloves. Since she was quiet, calm, and apparently comfortable, I considered allowing her to die on her own terms, without all of that upheaval, a kindness.

Also, she was old. I didn't realize just how old, because I have heard of cats living to age 20 or beyond, but I did some research and learned that 12-15 years is the average life expectancy for an indoor cat, and Roxie was nearly 17.

I could say a lot here about our (human) health care system in America and the sometimes ill-advised heroic measures we take to prolong life long after it should be prolonged, but for now I will just repeat two things I heard recently:

1) Nearly 30% of Medicare is spent during the last year of our lives, and half of that is spent during the last 60 days, trying to prolong what in many cases is no longer a reasonable quality of life.

2) Nearly everyone who is polled on the question says he hopes to die a "natural" death, at home, surrounded by family, yet the fact is that most of us die in intensive care units while undergoing complex and often invasive medical treatment.

I will miss Roxie, but I'm glad I let her die peacefully at home, and if I'm ever in her position (which is to say, old, tired, peeing on the floor, and no longer interested in mice), I hope someone will do the same for me.