Thursday, November 15, 2012

How Will I learn To Live Again With My Grief?

The Meeting

      I am a military wife.  My husband was sent to Korea for a year while my newborn son and I stayed behind.  It was a decision we made together because with the Air Force, spending a year in Korea is a mandatory sort of “rite of passage.”  We thought it best he do his tour while our son was too young to remember his being gone for so long.

      We lived in Florida where I had no friends and family and decided to go home to my parents for a few months, my son was eight months old and being alone was hard.  Summer in Louisiana wasn’t an easy choice, but at least it wasn’t so lonely.  My parents owned an antique store and for the first week of July, they always had a sidewalk sale to move inventory around. My son stayed in the playpen in the air conditioning inside the store, while I manned the outdoor tables.

      Early morning was slow and most people hadn’t ventured to town yet so I sat in the blessed shade while it would last, munching on donut holes from my favorite bakery watching the feral cats in the alley alongside the hardware store across the street.  They chased butterflies, lazed on the concrete, but one in particular noticed me.  He was still young, about eight months old, and this knowledge came from growing up on a farm.

      A deep reddish-orange on top, white underneath, he looked like a can of paint had dropped on him.  He sat beneath a porch swing mewling at me.  Always a cat lover, I clucked my tongue and invited him over, but he just stayed there watching me.  This game went on for a couple of hours.  His wanting me while I tried to bring him closer.  Customers came and went, traffic on the street increased, but still he watched me from the porch of the hardware store across the street.

      As lunch rolled around and the streets thinned in the heat, he braved the crossing and came to me.

Golden eyes looked at me in longing and I could tell he was hungry.  Gaunt, a gash on his ear where a small piece was missing and dirty, my heart melted.  My dad had gone to get shrimp po-boys for lunch and at the time, all I had were a few remaining donut holes, but I offered him one just the same.  To my surprise, he ate it, and then three more.                                                                                                                                                  

      My mother emerged from the front door of the shop and brought my sandwich. Scared by the intrusion, he bolted back across the street and hid beneath the steps of the porch.  I pointed him out to my mother.

      “See the kitty under the porch?” I asked.

      “Sure, the owners of the hardware store allow them to stay because they keep the mice away.” She answered.

      “He just ate four donut holes.” I informed her.

      “Well that’s a strange choice for a cat, but you can share some of the shrimp on your sandwich if you want.” With that she went back inside.

      I ate my sandwich, careful to pick out half of the shrimp just in case he returned and placed them on a napkin.  I continued to sell antiques, rearranging as needed and towards late afternoon, with the tables mostly empty, I noticed the cat again.  He sat upright with his tail wrapped around his feet on the porch watching me.  When I looked at him I told him “Hi” and he meowed at me in return.  Then he took a long slow walk across the street and came over again.

      I put the napkin filled with shrimp on the ground and he voraciously ate every scrap while I stroked his back.  While he licked the paper napkin in hopes it would somehow produce more shrimp, my mom came out of the shop with my son in his stroller.  My son immediately pointed and started babbling, “Buh, bu, b-b-b-b.”  Since I was a guest in my mother’s home for the time being I gave her my best pleading eyes and asked the question she always dreaded.

      “Can I keep him?”

      As an only child, my mother barely hesitated before suggesting I find a box to put him in for the car ride home, else he’d probably claw our eyes out.  The details of bringing him home aren’t important, because the point is, I did, and all the way home we tried to pick out a name.  My son still babbling his B’s, had us starting in that direction.

      Mr. Beasely? No. Buttercup?  No, he’s a boy. Bacchus? Bailey? Buford?  Boudreaux? Then it came to me.  Every Southern woman knows the name of a true man.  From a book as well read as the Bible in the South, Margaret Mitchell’s timeless classic: Gone With the Wind.  Captain Rhett Butler, so we called him Red Butler.  Or just Butler.

      Being close to the same age as my son, we gave him the birth date of November 1st, All Saints Day, because his coming into my life was such a blessing in easing the loneliness, surely the Saints must have sent him.

The Introduction

      I only had the opportunity to talk to my husband once a week, for fifteen minutes in those days,
and when I received that week’s call it didn't go the way he expected.

      “I met someone.” I hinted.

      “What?” he asked.

      “He’s got red hair, golden eyes, he’s super sweet to me, and Bear (our son) really loves him.” I explained.

      “What?” he asked again.

      This is when I giggled and explained I’d adopted a cat off the streets.  To this day he still doesn't forgive me for the scare of letting him believe I was leaving him for another man.

      We had him de-clawed and neutered, the cat not my husband (his only demand) and he became an indoor cat and never seemed to mind leaving his freedom of the outdoors behind for a full belly, warm bed, and a family that loved him.

      As the year’s end came and my husband would soon be returning to the States, we packed and moved back to Florida, me, my son, and Butler.  That’s when the real fun began.

      Butler slept in the bed with me.  Actually, Butler did everything with us.  He would watch from the toilet seat as I bathed my son, he would lie in the toddler bed with Bear during nap time; he rode in the stroller with our son around the house.  The most important thing was that he became my hero for killing all of the giant cockroaches in the house because they are the only things I am afraid of to the point of paralysis.  He even tried saving me from the terrible water by latching on to my big toe with his teeth and pulling me out of the tub when I was bathing.

      When my husband first returned, Butler didn't like him at all.  He would sit at the end of the hall crying for me at night and I would have to get up to sleep in the guest room with him for six weeks before my husband put his foot down and Butler had to learn to share the bed.

      The jealousy went on for years.  If my husband dropped his clothes on the floor Butler would spray them showing dominance so my husband had to learn to put them in the hamper and not leave them on the floor, but not before threatening to toss him back on the street.

      We moved from base to base over the years and Butler learned to adapt.  Sort of.  We learned he had severe separation anxiety where I was concerned and he had to ride in my lap in the car.  He usually christened each new home by urinating on something my husband owned and always giving my husband what he referred to as his “plotting to kill me in my sleep” stare.  Where my son and I were concerned, we were his family and the usurper could leave at any time, preferably immediately.

      My husband, ever indulgent of whatever I wanted, put up with it until the day Butler started calling me Momma.  If he was asleep on the sofa and we went to bed, he would wake up alone and start yelling, “Momma!”  If he just wanted to know which room I was in, he called for me.  Dinner time, snack time, nap time, didn't matter.  He called for me specifically and it drove my husband nuts.

      We added to our family by adopting a dog and another cat, but Butler knew he reigned supreme and was never jealous because he never believed he was an animal.  My husband on the other hand believed as bread-winner, he should hold the title of Master of our household.  Butler did everything he could to show him otherwise.

      If my husband came into a room I was in, just to talk, Butler would sit in my lap or on my chest.  If my husband talked to me on any subject, Butler always interrupted and need to be picked up and held while we conversed.  My husband swears he was sneered at with squinty eyes from the demon cat, but I just laughed it off.

      If my husband tried to get into bed with me, Butler would run around the edge of the mattress trying to prevent him from lying with me and he would even steal his spot in the middle of the night if my husband got up to use the bathroom.

      Eventually they both came to realize that neither would be moving out and had come to accept each other.  They would even nap together on the sofa and it always melted my heart to see them pretending to hate each other while my husband would pet him and Butler would purr.

The Beginning

      Butler was what we termed our “problem child”.  If a suitcase came out he’d stop eating and drinking.  He went through a phase where he started ripping all the hair off of his forearms.  We had him on kitty Valium for a while, but it didn't help.  If a door that was usually open was shut, he would freak out and start screaming.  He didn't like to be locked in anything.  A room, a cat carrier, didn't matter; he would bloody his face trying to escape.  We once tried a pheromone plug-in to try and calm him down, but the only thing that ever worked for him, was my staying home with him.

      When we moved from Utah to North Carolina, he spent five days riding in my lap because he didn't want to be without me in times of stress.  It made for interesting stops for fast food along the way.

      We all grew older, my son too busy as a teenager to care much for a cat and my husband always deploying to parts unknown, but Butler and I depended on each other to get through the long nights, the depression, the stress of our family’s constantly changing structure as well as location.

      Butler had been a part of our lives for fifteen years before I noticed something wasn't quite right.  He was getting thin and I was worried.  My husband told me to stop worrying about the cat that always ate people foods (deli meats, boiled chicken, and cheeses, not to mention ice cream).

      “He eats better than I do; besides, he’s the Anti-Christ and will never die.” He always complained.

      It made me laugh because I knew no matter how much he complained, there had to have been a part that cared after all these years or Butler wouldn't still be part of the family.

      Family.  That’s what we were.  I had a terrible health scare that led to the fact that we couldn't have any more children after our son, so our furry adopted pets became the children I couldn't have.  So when I suspected something might have been wrong, I took him to the veterinarian.

      We found out he had a heart murmur and I knew he had one canine left in his mouth that I was worried needed to be removed because I had been told once by a former veterinarian that anesthesia after the age of ten was dangerous for a cat, especially one with a heart condition.  He was a few months shy of fifteen at this time.

      The heart murmur had me crying because the man doing his residency at the clinic scared me half to death with his animal illness jargon.  I called another specialist for a second opinion and after reading the notes from Butler’s file was told that the stress from the ultrasound and forcing him to take medication daily would be more stressful than helpful for something that isn't significant enough to worry about at this time.

      That was good enough for me.  Butler once had a urinary tract infection for a year because we couldn't get the medicine in him.  He was getting older and we accepted that, like us, he had good days and bad.  Some days he slept more than others, but then I was usually napping with him on those days so I wasn't concerned.

The Decline

      We had been through a rough patch in our lives, one of which was my car being destroyed in a hail storm, leaving me from driving my beloved SUV to a small car that stressed me out to shop with because getting groceries out of the back of that thing required the help of a magician to call forth the bags so that I could even reach them.

      I returned from the grocery one day and after putting all the bags away I had two eager faces patiently waiting to see what kind of goodies I had purchased for them.  Our dog, Darby an Australian Shepherd wagged his tail when I finally stopped to notice them.  Our other cat Comet, a Maine Coon, just meowed and that’s when I knew something was wrong.  Someone was missing.

      Going to the store and the rustling of plastic bags always brought Butler in first because he knew as I purchase new things, in order to clear out the fridge to make room; they got lots of deli meats.  I spoiled them this much.

      Butler didn't come when I called so I went on the hunt.  It wasn't completely unusual for him not to be there if he was in a spot of sun on the carpet and didn't want to give it up so I searched for him.  After the usual places were found empty I went into the guest room and he was curled up in the blankets.  He was so spoiled my husband began sleeping in another room so that he could have the other half of the king-sized bed I slept in, so he was curled up in the unmade bed.

      “Hey, Sweetie!” I greeted him as I walked in the room. His eyes half open, his barely audible mew reached out to me.  I dropped to my knees for a closer look.  His fur was unkempt, he was frothing at the mouth a bit and although I have no other way to describe it, he smelled like death.  Like puppy breath to some, the sweet smell of his fur was something I never got enough of in my life.  He would sometimes share a pillow with me and I would bury my head in his side and breathe deeply and get a calming effect from it.  Now something was wrong.

      He tried to stand up and fell over before getting his legs under him.  I carried him into the kitchen and set him down.  I opened the fridge and got out some deli turkey, the good kind that costs ten dollars a pound.  I dished some out to all of the pets keeping an eye on Butler.  He looked and sniffed at it, then slowly walked away.

      While he did this, my mind was transported back to the day before when he turned down the ham I put out for everyone’s afternoon snack.  Flashes went through my mind like snapshots rapid-fire and a sick feeling came over me.  I have two cats that eat out of the same bowl so how would I know how long it’s been since he ate?  At least two days I can pinpoint.  I remembered a time when he squinted his eyes, he pawed at his cheek while he tossed his head side-to-side like it was that tooth.  That last canine, was all I thought.

      I called my husband at work, hysterical and crying, while I laid my head next to my baby on my bed.  He told me not to worry; he probably just isn't feeling well, but I told him it wasn't that, something was terribly wrong and he told me to call the veterinarian for peace of mind.

      I called the vet and explained every detail to the desk clerk. I said he needed a tooth extracted immediately.  I was told they would do blood work the next day and if need-be, the tooth would be pulled the day after.  That was not good enough for me.  I didn't know how long it had been since he had eaten and I wasn't waiting another two days to watch him get sicker.

      We have an emergency animal hospital in town that opens after hours and I was waiting in the parking lot with my precious kitty ten minutes before they opened.  I was crying and I was broke, but I would have sold my soul to help out the one that has helped me through everything that has ever gone wrong in my adult life.  In my head while the seconds ticked by I added up what jewelry I had, anything I could sell, credit card balances, any amount of money I could come up with.

      When the door opened, I rushed in and went through the whole process of explaining his symptoms and actions.  Paperwork had to be filled out.  Paperwork always needs to be filled out in a crisis and I barely remember signing anything, but as long as Butler was saved, I didn't care the cost.  The ER veterinarian came in and we went through the process, blood work needed, yes, his mouth was obviously tender, probably x-rays, definitely needed fluids, and so on it went.  I was told it would take about an hour after they took him back.

      While I cried in the lobby, my husband showed up.  Never expecting to see him there, we held each other and waited four hours for a prognosis.  We paced, we cried, we sat in silence, but all the while, we prayed.  Something he always does and something I never do, but if I was ever willing to find God and beg forgiveness it would be for Butler.

      He had a part of his heart enlarged, a toothache, was malnourished and dehydrated, crystals in his kidneys, but overall nothing they wouldn't expect in a cat that was fifteen and a half years old. In the end, they hydrated him, gave us antibiotics, and told us after a few days of the medication, we should take him to his regular veterinarian for a tooth extraction.  I was relieved and exhausted from the stress of it all, but still managed little sleep as I watched his steady breathing all night long.

The Week

      That was a Tuesday night and the following Monday, he had surgery.  Everything from the ER was faxed to our usual vet and they took care of him right away and by two in the afternoon he was resting peacefully at home, while I was given stronger antibiotics for him.

      Monday he didn't eat, but I wouldn't either if I just had a tooth pulled.  He seemed to be drinking normally so we weren't too concerned.  Tuesday he wouldn't eat.  I tried everything we had in the house: turkey, ham, chicken, canned cat food, and tuna.  He took a bite of tuna and left to go sleep.  Wednesday I bought baby food and tried that, but he just sniffed it and walked away, again I tried everything we had, but nothing would tempt him so I pulled out my last stop.  Shrimp.

      Once we had a big birthday bash and boiled shrimp as we lived on the Gulf Coast and we could get it fresh.  Forty pounds went further than we thought and the leftovers were in the refrigerator.  I woke up the next morning to find the refrigerator door wide open and what looked like a million shrimp heads all over the house.  I don’t know if it’s because it was the first real food he ever ate, but shrimp was his all-time favorite food.

So I defrosted some shrimp, broke the tails into tiny pieces and he ate maybe a half of one.  My husband said, “He’s hurting, give him time.”

      And I tried.

      Friday night we both laid on the kitchen floor hand-feeding him raw chicken because we discovered that not only was that the only thing he would eat, but whenever he had taken a bite of any foods that week, he’d thrown it up immediately and for some reason the raw chicken stayed in him so I would take whatever I could get as long as he ate something.  He ate maybe half a tender’s worth, drank some water, and then slowly eased himself onto the pet bed next to ours in the bedroom.

      We originally bought the pet bed for our dog, it’s a giant orthopedic foam mattress from the pet store, but all three of them liked it and Butler’s favorite red fleece blanket was folded on half and he curled up on it and went to sleep.

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

      The night before I mentioned to my husband I felt like a pimple was coming on my chin under my lips so I put extra cleanser on it before bed.  When I woke up Saturday morning, my face felt funny and I rushed out of bed, before getting to the bathroom he asked,

      “What’s wrong?”

      “Something’s not right!” I told him in a panic.

When I looked in the mirror, half of my mouth and cheek were swollen and I told him, “We have to get to the ER.  NOW!”  We left a note for our son and left in a hurry.

      My prognosis was some sort of bacterial/staph infection, two different kinds of antibiotics, and Benadryl.  I should expect my face to swell worse and if it gets too bad I’ll have to see a plastic surgeon to have what he thought was a boil lanced on my face.  Not feeling all that hot, we came home and in the darkened bedroom, Butler was lying on a pillow on our bed.  I smiled at him, murmured an “awww” and walked into the bathroom to check on my face.

(My husband calls me Reg, short for Reggie)

      “Reg, something’s wrong with Butler.”

      I came to him quickly to assess what he meant and I saw it.  He was covered in blood.

      “Oh my God! Oh my God.  Do you think it’s his tooth?” I begged more than asked.

      “I don’t know, maybe he busted it open”, was his guess.

      I got a wet cloth and started to wipe his paws while my husband turned on the light and then I could see it.  It was everywhere.  The blood.  The bed, the pillow, as well as his fur.  It was coming out of his mouth, his nose, and even leaking from his right eye that was half closed by his inner eyelid.  I started to panic and my husband calmed me down,

      “We’re taking him to Emergency, can you carry him or do you want me?”

      I wouldn't let him go no matter what, we wrapped him in his favorite red fleece blanket and we got in the car and drove as fast as early morning traffic allowed.  Butler studied every detail outside of the window flying past while I tried to keep him calm talking to him, assuring him he would be fine, over and over again as tears rolled down my face from staring into his bloodied one.

      We got into a room immediately at the Emergency care and I was inconsolable.  We tried to explain everything from the past two weeks that had happened and the lady veterinarian took it all into account.  My tears never stopped flowing and we tried to stay outwardly calm as Butler laid next to me on a bench.

      She said just by looking at him and the symptoms he’s had, and that is when all the horrible words you never want to hear came out, cancer, leukemia, and other things that I blocked out.  They brought in an outrageous estimate on what this visit would cost and my husband didn't blink.  Whatever it would take.

      “I love him, too, you know,” he choked out as I cried harder.

      We had been left alone in the room to discuss whether we would treat at their price, which wasn't even an option because we felt we would and I was on my knees with my forehead on Butler’s telling him how sorry I was.

      I was so sorry I didn't pay closer attention.  I was so sorry he was in pain. I was so sorry for whatever was wrong now.  I said it over and over and over again.

      “I’m so sorry, my love, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  Mommy loves you so much!”

      I could hear my husband sniffing behind me and I knew he was hurting too.  For Butler, for me, didn't matter, his heart was breaking and I was so grateful.  Not that he hurt, but that he could have an inkling of understanding of my distress, my own pain.

      “I love you, Butler, I love you so much. I love you, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Oh God, I’m so sorry,” I wailed.

      My husband was on his knees next to me now, we stroked his head, his body while we cried and he could barely move.  When the nurse came back I asked her to get the vet.

I looked at my husband, “Even if it’s only 50-50 we’re going for it, I can’t lose him,” as tears continued to roll down my face.

      The vet came in and I told her, “It’s not the money, we have that, but before you poke and prod and hurt him more for days you have to tell me, what are his chances?  Fifty-fifty?” I was hopeful for the worst at this point.

      She looked me straight in the eye and told me, “He’s very sick, there is a very slim chance he will make it.”

      We always swore we wouldn't allow our pets to suffer, that we would calmly weigh the quality of life issue if faced with it, but now I couldn't do it.  I started to tell her to euthanize but it came out in a moan more like this:

      As I looked to my husband, “Oh God I can’t, I can’t say it.  You have to, you have to do it. I can’t. I can’t.”

      He rushed to me and held me hard and they gave us time to deal with our situation.  When they asked if I wanted to be there when they did it I cried so hard I couldn't see any more, everything was a white hot light because I couldn't do it.  I couldn't be there when they took my heart from me.  My husband held me and told me he would be with him.

      They left to make arrangements as we said our good-byes.  All the love I had, all the pain I felt, everything that ever went bad in my life didn't compare to the pain I was in.  They took him away to set up an IV while I stumbled down the hall to throw up, sobbing and uncaring who saw me or heard me.

      In the end, I couldn't leave him.  Our entire life together he never left my side and I wouldn't leave his.  While my husband took care of billing, Butler and I sat in a room with a living room setting to it.  He lay on the sofa and around the lump in my throat, I read to him a book on Cat Heaven.  I kissed him repeatedly, told him over and over how much I loved him.  How much I loved him, again and again.  My husband joined us and said his good-byes and the doctor came in and matter-of-factly, injected him.  As he drifted off to sleep forever, I whispered to him, “If I only have nine lives, let me spend them all with you.”

      And he was gone.

      Then the real pain began.

The Pain

      Grief is a funny thing.  It’s like a crack in your soul that allows everything inside you to leave and you are left an empty shell.

      We came home and had to explain to our son that Butler was gone.  I’m grateful he didn't see him in the end because it would have hurt him more.  There was blood all over the house and I was grateful that my husband took care of that as well.  I refused to get out of bed or even change the shirt that I was wearing.  It was covered in blood and hair, but it was a part of Butler and I wouldn't give it up, I had already lost so much.

      I curled up with Butler’s red blanket and refused to let it go.  My husband came in and out and held me as I cried.  We stayed up late into the night tried to talk about all the funny and quirky things that Butler did over the years, but in the end, the image of him lying next to me face-down was all I could see.  It was haunting me.

      The dog wouldn't sleep on the pet bed and the other cat searched all night room to room, for Butler.  It broke what was left of my heart.  We’re left now with choosing an urn for when we receive his remains.  The grieving will start all over again when that happens.

      We plan on building our final house in three years and it wouldn't be a home without Butler.  I’ll take him there and bury him where he will remain with me in more than just thought or spirit.

       I've lost many people in my life, but losing Butler has been the hardest, the tears still flow and the lump still remains in my throat. I remember all the times I was there for someone else when they lost a loved one.  Telling them it’ll be fine, that time will heal their wound, they’re in a better place now, or it was their time and it’s not your fault.  None of that nonsense consoles me.  None of that erases my guilt, my pain, or my sorrow.

      Our family tried to remember all of those little things that made us laugh and what we will carry of him for the rest of our lives as we laid in bed together, all of us holding each other, we told our favorite Butler story and tried to smile knowing he didn't like to see us sad, but in the end it wasn't enough for me and the tears fell again.

      He touched a part of me I didn't know existed. Although my period of  mourning and grief will be a long one, I will eventually heal from the support of what’s left of my family and from the unconditional love I once had from this scrawny little stray that once ate a donut and made me whole when I didn't know I wasn't.

      In the meantime I keep asking myself: How long before I breathe again?

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