Successive Approximations


"So, what do we do?"

"We keep her going as long as she'll eat. And when she stops eating, we'll know it's time."

There's no easy way to have a conversation about cancer, even when it's about a cat. But having the conversation over the phone doesn't make it any easier. And so, there I was, sitting there on the couch, talking to Steph on the phone. Telling her the ultrasound at the vet showed some kind of cancer, lymphoma or stomach or something, but definitely cancer. This was why Kassie had been vomiting every day and struggling to keep food down.

But they said steroids could help. Start her on a high dose and taper down and see where she could stay. The vet said she knew of cat who had a good quality of life for a year on steroids, although the internet said weeks to months was more typical.

So I brought her home and that night, Steph and I talked on the phone.

Kassie joined my story when I was 20 years old, on November 29th, 2009. I had just moved into an off-campus apartment in August and my girlfriend at the time knew I hadn't had pets growing up and thought I should have a cat. Always being up for going along with a interesting plan, I said sure when she found an adult cat for adoption on Craigslist.

We drove over to Wake Forest and knocked on the door. The family told us they thought she was about five years old, and wanted her to find a good home because they were thinking the kids were allergic to her. She was pretty sulky and didn't spend a lot of time with the family, but she was well-fed, and fairly sedate.

When we came in to meet her, I remember her standing with her butt on the ground, front paws straight, hands out at an angle with her extra thumbs visible.

I remember her being vaguely grumpy, but based on my past experience with cats, that was on-brand for them. I may have petted her briefly, or she may have looked grumpy and I decided not to risk it. My girlfriend and I were just coming to look, but when they asked if we wanted to take her, we said sure. A few minutes later they handed her to us in her cat carrier with a half-empty bag of dry food, some kitty litter, a record of her last checkup, and a pat on the back.

And so, with no litter box, and no heads up to my roommate, and no real plan, we brought her home.

As soon as I let her out of the carrier in my room, she ran to the edge of the bed, jumped down, and hid under it. She didn't come out for 12 hours.

That gave me time to improvise a litter pan out of a cardboard box top because I was, if you haven't picked up on it already, clueless.

I was 20. I was halfway through my junior year of college. Between my roommate and myself, I was a comparative chef because I cooked mac and cheese on the stove top while he used the single-serving microwave bowls.

My only memorable previous experience with cats was when I was 10, give or take, and staying with my cousins for a week during spring break. They had a few cats, who really did mostly keep to themselves. When one came near me long enough, I wanted really hard to make friends and kept trying to pet it. As I reached out with my left hand, it gave me the mother of all nips, leaving a matched pair of little white scar dots on the back of my hand that stayed even as I hit puberty and continued to grow, to the point now that it's bizarre to imagine a cat large enough to leave the marks.

When I brought her home, I wrote in my journal about the experience, including how unhappy she was about the car ride, which made me feel bad at the time.  I eventually learned that she just did not like riding in the car, and I had done everything I could. She was more of a stay-at-home kinda cat.

And after that, she just became part of my life, blending right into things. Most of the time in that apartment, she would just lay on the bed behind me while I was at my computer working on homework or playing World of Warcraft. Occasionally she'd circle around my feet and I'd arrange for her to have a place to lay on a chair next to me where she would quite contentedly doze for hours.

Over time, she would grow to be a big fan of lap time, but even from the start, she was always friendly and always around the people. I didn't give much thought at the time to what the family I adopted her from said, but I couldn't imagine her being lonesome or sulky. When I was home, she was always near me, and found a corner of the bed to sleep on when I went to bed.

She lived with me in that apartment for almost two years, and then another apartment for one year. That was the apartment where I found out she had a taste for flowers when she made a snack out of my roommate's Valentine's Day flowers from her boyfriend. (Did I mention I was inconsiderate in addition to clueless?)

She also once disappeared when a guest was staying over, and only turned up when we started calling her. Then she emerged from what I can only surmise was the greatest cat fort EVER under the hide-a-bed in the couch.

After that apartment lease expired, she came along with me to my first house.

That townhouse in Morrisville, where I lived from December 2012 until December 2016 was her home for the longest stretch of time, although I have to admit she must have gotten lonely after July 2015 when I started spending more and more time at Steph's house.

It wasn't until December 2016, after Steph and I got married that I moved into Steph's house and Kassie finally had her own space, a spare bedroom with a baby gate to keep out the dog. We also added a chair where I could spend my reading time and she could join me. Curled up in my lap, or sometimes just laying on the ottoman at my feet, it seemed like it was her favorite part of the day.

When I would get sick and spend the days on the couch, she would helpfully join.

She and our dog Mack never did learn to really get along. Most of the time he would chase after her, wanting to play and she wanted none of that and would hiss to let him know. Despite the fact that he outweighed her 4:1, the hiss always stopped him cold in his tracks.

The best we could hope for was that every so often they could studiously ignore each other while being in roughly the same vicinity (as a rule, Kassie was there first and too stubborn to leave).

She had always been a bit of a finnicky eater, throwing up every now and then, but it seemed like dry food was worse than wet, so for almost her entire life with me she had canned, wet food. But this past summer, there would be weeks where she would be throwing up every day. We tried changing her food. We took her to the vet, who gave us some ideas. They didn't work. She kept vomiting, and sometimes there wasn't even any food, just bile.

Eventually we set up an ultrasound. June 26th was the day. I dropped her off in the morning, picked her up that afternoon. The vet was tactful, but told me the ultrasound showed some kind of cancer; might be stomach, probably lymph.

"So, what do we do?"

"We keep her going as long as she'll eat. And when she stops eating, we'll know it's time."

That day, the day of her diagnosis, was the second hardest day of the entire experience, because I just couldn't understand it. She seemed just like herself, the same happy, energetic cat I'd always known. If she was sick, why didn't she look sick?

We started her on the steroids. Almost immediately she stopped vomiting, was eating more, and seemed healthier than ever. For a few weeks, we were diligent, but hopeful.

But in late July, as we were directed to taper the dose of the steroids to avoid long-term problems, she took a turn for the worse. Not eating, becoming dehydrated. She went to the vet, and had a follow up check a week later. It looked like her kidneys were failing.

She was becoming visibly weak, losing her footing jumping down from reasonable heights. She started moving less and less.

When she was reluctant to eat, we switched from cat food to straight up tuna, which she had always come running for. Each little change helped for a few days.

But eventually she stopped showing any interest in the pill pockets with her medicine. And then she stopped eating.

The night that we knew the time had come, I watched her get up from her nest (a pair of my shorts; she had always made nests out of any discarded article of clothing of mine), walk over to the bowl of tuna, sniff at it, stare at it, and then turn back around and lay down. I took that to mean she wanted to eat but could feel whatever was inside her wouldn't let her digest it.

The next morning, as we gathered her up to go for one last car ride, the bright energy was already gone from her eyes. She would purr when petted but wouldn't stand up. Her eyes were always just staring off into the distance, like she didn't want to be seen like this.

Everyone at the vet's office was kind and treated us well.

At the end, there were four of us gathered around her, Steph, myself, the vet, and a vet tech. And yet Kassie found a way to stare off into the distance and not look at any of us. I tried to stand out of the way as the vet petted her and made her ready. At the last minute though, I laid my hand on her side to pet her one last time.

Steph told me later only at that moment did she start purring.

I don't pretend to try to understand why things happen at the times they do.  Why 20 was the right time that the world decided I needed a cat, and 30 was when the world decided I need to learn what it was like to lose one. The journey in between has seen me go from an undergrad with an internship to a Senior Developer. From an IDPA Novice to a USPSA Grandmaster. From a single guy going to school on loans to a debt-free, married man in the middle of the process of building a house in which to write the next chapter of our family. And Kassie came along for the ride.

So, you'll indulge me a little longer to share a few more memories.

As a single man, I had always allowed/tolerated Kassie to sleep wherever she wanted, which most of the time was on some part of the unoccupied bed I was sleeping in. But when I moved in with Steph after we got married, I agreed that keeping her outside the bedroom while we were sleeping  made sense (and I wasn't going to miss being woken up for food in the mornings).

But one Tuesday night, this past February, somehow she managed to sneak past us and make her way into the room. She stayed out of sight until we'd both gone to sleep. And, more than two years after the last time she'd been allowed to, she jumped up and laid down and went to sleep next to me. Steph took the picture when she woke up during the night.

If she hadn't gotten an opportunity to spend time in my lap in a given evening, eventually she would just jump up when I was at my computer. Despite being wedged between my body and the desk, and usually resting her head on my arm that I was constantly moving back and forth between keyboard and mouse, she didn't seem to mind. She would just sit there like there was nowhere else in the world she would rather be.

Any discarded article of clothing was fair game.

A Sunday morning in January. Warm socks, warm pants. I'm up early, and make some coffee. I let the dog out to go to the bathroom, and lay out his blanket on the bed so his hair doesn't get all over the comforter. He jumps up, curls up next to Steph, and goes right back to sleep. I sit down to my coffee and a book. Kassie jumps up and promptly finds a nook to lay out in. The stars align. Everything is right with the world, for just a few, quiet minutes.

Ben Berry

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