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Willow, 2005-2021

Started: 2021-09-11 15:17:49

Submitted: 2021-09-12 00:46:45

Visibility: World-readable

Content warning: Death of a pet

Willow joined our family as a kitten in the fall of 2005, when Kiesa showed up at work an her library in Greeley one morning and discovered that a litter of kittens had been dropped off through the library book drop. Willow hid from the librarians running after her long enough that Kiesa decided to take her home and see if she'd get along with our existing cat, Cat5. (I guess we could call her a "rescue".)

willow attacks a cat toy
willow attacks a cat toy

Cat5 and Willow never precisely got along, exactly, but it seemed like Cat5 appreciated having another lifeform in the house while Kiesa and I were away at work during the day. As Willow grew it seemed like she was beginning to challenge Cat5 for dominance in the household, but Cat5 never really understood what Willow was trying to do.

Cat5 and Willow: Sibbling Rivalry
Cat5 and Willow: Sibbling Rivalry

Willow and Cat5 lived with us longer than either of our children. Cat5 seemed bemused by Calvin as a toddler, letting him do terrible things like grab her tail. Willow was considerably more skittish around Calvin: she maintained a strict two-meter Calvin Exclusion Zone to keep the erratic toddler at bay. As Calvin grew, Willow still kept her distance; only in the last year has she even considered sitting on the same couch as Calvin.

Calvin reacts to Willow
Calvin reacts to Willow

In the fall of 2015, as Julian was an infant and was beginning to think about crawling around the house, Cat5 developed the unfortunate (and apparently incurable) habit of defecating at random around the living room. This was too much for us with a small child with an oral fixation: we surrendered Cat5 back to the Humane Society and became a one-cat household.

Cat5 and Willow on Jaeger's lap
Cat5 and Willow on Jaeger's lap

Willow moved with me to San Francisco in 2016, keeping me company as I lived alone in a temporary apartment in Mission Bay and in an empty house in Mission Terrace, furnished only by the housewares I carried in my car, flat-pack furniture from Ikea and Target, and a couple of chairs I bought off Craigslist.

A couple of years ago I took Willow to the vet and the vet told us that the persistent scab on the tip of Willow's ear looked like the early stages of skin cancer. (Apparently white cats are susceptible to skin cancer by the same mechanism as humans.) The vet suggested that they could trim the end of her ears, and maybe we were supposed to put sunscreen on Willow when she went outside. The idea of putting sunscreen on a cat seemed ridiculous to me; at the time we were living in Seattle and Willow wasn't going outside very much, and when she did go outside she sat on the upper-floor decks under the weak cloud-shrouded sun. The pre-cancerous scab didn't advance for a couple of years, so we didn't do anything.

When we moved to Loma Prieta last year, Willow discovered the outside again and insisted on being let outside. We indulged her, since she clearly enjoyed lounging in the sun (and she developed the habit of scratching at the door if we didn't let her out immediately).

Willow stalks in from outside, covered in dirt
Willow stalks in from outside, covered in dirt

Early this year, the scab on the end of Willow's right ear started getting worse. It happened gradually enough that it wasn't immediately obvious how bad it was getting. Willow was clearly scratching her ear and opening up the scab again, so we put her in a cone with the hope it would let the scab heal. This was somewhat effective to the extent that it kept her from scratching and reopening the scab (and splattering blood on the duvet cover), but it didn't stop the forward progress of the wound on her ear. (This was when I stopped posting cat pictures on Willow's Twitter feed, since she was embarrassed by wearing the cone.)

By the time we took Willow to the vet, her entire right ear had been enveloped by the scab. It was as if her ears, always ethereal as if they existed only partially in this dimension, had begin to phase out of existence entirely. The local vet couldn't do anything but gave us some painkillers to try to keep Willow relatively comfortable, and referred us to Sage veterinary clinic, across the mountain in the Santa Clara Valley.

One morning in July I drove Willow across the mountain to the specialty vet in Redwood City for a consultation. By this point Willow's right ear was a bloody mess, matted against the side of her head because it still itched and the only way she could scratch it was to mash the cone against her head, and that meant smearing what was left of her ear against her head in a mess that looked both ugly and uncomfortable. The Sage vets were concerned by a mass growing in her skull behind her ear and thought that the best they could do was surgery plus radiation treatment, and that might buy us six or nine months (at a cost of $25k out-of-pocket).

Willow naps on the duvet
Willow naps on the duvet

Sage gave us an opioid painkiller for Willow, packaged in little syringes that we were supposed to squeeze into her mouth twice a day, where the drug would be absorbed through her gum, in addition to a pill that she was not enthusiastic about taking. We kept her on this regime for a couple of weeks as she grew more lethargic. We couldn't really ask her how she was feeling but it seemed like her quality of life was diminishing, and would not be getting better.

Willow sits on the carpet
Willow sits on the carpet

We found a local vet who offered house calls for in-home euthanasia, which seemed like the least-bad option given the circumstances. We made an appointment for Thursday afternoon, 5th August.

The first time I broke down in tears was when I decided to look up memorial statues for Willow. Many of the monuments I found online with a quick search were more than I wanted for myself: angel kitties with wings; names, birth and death dates. I didn't really feel like I needed to bury her myself or hold on to her remains, and I didn't want text on the monument or anything too elaborate, just a statue I could put in the yard where she liked to lounge in the sun. I ordered a small concrete statue on Etsy, and it arrived a week later.

Willow sits on Kiesa's lap on the patio
Willow sits on Kiesa's lap on the patio

The vet arrived for her house call on Thursday afternoon. We sat outside on the patio in the sun. (Kiesa had just broken her foot and was hobbling around on crutches, which made the whole thing slightly more awkward than it could have been.) I held Willow on my lap and I broke down crying again. I was confident this was our best option, but knowing that didn't make it hurt any less.

After a few minutes, I indicated to the vet that I was ready for the next step, and she administered a subcutaneous shot in the scruff of Willow's neck to make her sleep. Willow settled down quickly, sleeping curled up on my lap in a position we both knew well, but for the last time. We sat there for a few minutes, while I watched her breathe and noticed the dirt matted into her fur. She hadn't been able to groom herself the way she wanted to with the cone around her head, and I tried to wipe away some of the dirt on her leg — something she'd never let me get away with if she were awake.

I indicated to the vet that I was ready for the next step, and she shaved a small portion of fur off Willow's leg and administered the lethal injection. (She came prepared with multiple backup plans just in case.) This worked quickly: after a minute the vet announced softly, "She has passed" and I held Willow on my lap, so small and limp, diminished from the opinionated and vibrant and skittish and adorable cat I knew and loved for sixteen years.

When I was ready I carried Willow's body into the pet bed the vet brought. I'd never felt Willow so limp: even when she was sleeping she was still wrapped tightly into a ball, purring softly if she were on my lap on in my bed.

The vet departed, and I went into the kitchen to eat some emotional support brownies.

Emotional support brownies
Emotional support brownies

When the memorial statue arrived I put it out on the patio in the sun, where Willow liked to nap when we let her outside.

Memorial statue for Willow in the sun on the patio
Memorial statue for Willow in the sun on the patio

I'm grateful that Willow got to live with us for sixteen years, and that she helped me get through the COVID-19 pandemic just by being a cat who loved to sleep on my lap while I was working.

I distrust few things more deeply than acts of literary explication.
- William Gibson, foreword to _Dhalgren_