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The First of the Second Ones


Michael Hillman

"At first I thought Lizzy was aloof and I didn’t care for her much, but my mother told me she was just shy. That was probably one of my mother’s most insightful comments and it changed forever how I thought of Lizzy." Audrey Hillman

My wife and I looked over the now still body of Lizzy. We had been on a deathwatch for well over a week. Hoping against hope that she would rally, but knowing full well that once engaged, the death spiral that will claim us all is inescapable. For Lizzy, death came quietly in the night. She was not alone, and she left this world with the hands of the person who loved her most on her side.

We should all be so lucky.

I can still remember the first time I heard her name. My wife had just received a call from her mother that she had adopted two cats, sisters, which she named Callie and Lizzy. Audrey’s mother, Sybil, answered an ad in a local paper that offering the cats for adoption. Their owner was moving and couldn’t take them – but as they were sisters, she wished to keep them together - Syble obliged. She had no idea how old they were, other then they were your adults.

My first thought after hearing she had adopted two cats was a selfish one—they would surely outlive her parents and one day they would be ours. With four cats already, I was not looking forward to the day that number would increase to six.

Callie was the more outgoing of the two, relegating Lizzy to the background. While Callie was eager to engage visitors, seek out scratches or gobble up food, Lizzy was always in the background, peeking around corners, far enough away to be unnoticed. When scratches were given out, Lizzy was almost always an afterthought because she was always so far away.

But she was the perfect cat for my wife’s elderly father, Charles. For hours she would sit placidly on the couch next to him, accepting his gentle strokes as he listened to Frank Sinatra or watched TV. But that placidity came with a price. Overindulged at the food bowl, she and her sister were enormous, and that is surely an understatement.

Lizzy, more than any other cat I’ve known, clearly wanted nothing to do with the outside—being an inside cat was quite OK with her. One day while my wife was visiting her parents, she let Lizzy out; Lizzy almost had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t waddle fast enough to the open door to safety.

Lizzy had beautiful blue eyes, but had a stigma that gave her a cross eyed appearance. She attempted to correct the stigma by wobbling her head, which gave her a wobbly appearance, which made her even more the odd cat out.

When my wife’s father’s health deteriorated, Lizzy and Callie followed he and my wife’s mother into assisted living. The two-room apartment they now called home would have been cramped in the best of situations for anyone, but add in all the life-long belongings with which any of us would be unwilling to part, and it was nearly impossible to move in the rooms. In that environment, shy Lizzy all but disappeared. Her release came not from the death of one of the parents, but from a completely unforeseen event—superstition.

Some of the staff from the assisted living facility bore a superstition of cats, and soon refused to clean the apartment unless the cats were caged, and them cleaning the litter box was completely out of the question. With the smell becoming intolerable, my wife finally got the request we all knew from day one would be coming: "Could you please come and pick up Lizzy and Callie?" Her father was devastated, and from his remaining days, which were not many, he always ended his call with, "How’s Lizzy?"

So ended the second phase of Lizzy’s life.

The shock of moving from her old house into the assisted living paled in comparison to the move to our farm. Where before all she had to do was contend with her sister for affection, she suddenly found herself in a home with four other cats, and three dogs. The cats we knew she could deal with; the dogs we were not so sure about.

Thankfully our dogs had grown up with cats, so the addition of two more didn’t bother them one way or another. Lizzy was just a new addition to the clan that only rated a sniff or two. My wife and I howled in laughter as Lizzy, mortified by the approach of the dogs, tried to waddle away—she was unsuccessful. Never having lifted her claws in anger, she had no idea how to respond, so she went limp and allowed them all a good sniff. After that harrowing moment, life was all good.

Lizzy didn’t like get picked up—if you tried, she would howl like you were killing her. When you put her down, she would waddle off and disappear. "Pet me if you want," her body language would say, "but please don’t pick me up." As a dog lover used to overly affectionate dogs, it took me a while to figure Lizzy out, but once I did, we got along well.

As sweet as Lizzy was, she bore the brunt of the actions of her more aggressive sister. Callie wanted to be the "queen bee," and she quickly set her sights on our other two indoor cats. We were constantly breaking up catfights between Callie and our other cats. When the howling began, Lizzy always raced for cover, cowering lest she be drawn into the fray.

Before we knew it, we suddenly found ourselves with upstairs and downstairs cats and with it, divided loyalties. The upstairs cats were our old indoor cats, a brother and sister pair that we called the "Binars," and they spent the days alone. I always held their forced isolation against Callie, a grudge that affected Lizzy even thought she was innocent. While the "Binars" could make up the isolation of human companionship at night by sleeping in our bed, Lizzy had few options. During the day, the house was mostly empty with me at work and my wife outside tending to the farm. When we were in, she had to contend for our affection not only with her sisters, but also with our two male indoor/outdoor cats, as well as the dogs.

Lizzy was clearly the lowest on the pecking order, but she seemed to accept that role, and in doing so, we slowly but surely began to appreciate how special she was. With her sister preoccupied with attacking the Binars, Lizzy, for the first time in her life, was free to shake herself from her sister’s shadow. New cat toys always caught her attention and probably for the first time in her life, play was part of everyday’s equation. To everyone’s surprise, Lizzy once caught a mouse—how we’ll never know, She didn’t even know what to do with it. Every time it tried to run away, she would clamp her paw over it and draw it back. Knowing full well she would never kill the mouse, we ended the game by putting him outside. Unperturbed, Lizzy took a long nap to recover from all the excitement.

Fresh catnip from the garden could always be counted on to bring out the inner kitten in Lizzy. She would roll in it until she was exhausted; once recovered, the rolling would continue. The cycle would only be broken with the call to dinner.

Much to her chagrin, one of my wife’s first priorities upon Lizzy and her sister’s arrival was to put them on a diet. Going from a never-empty food bowl to only one meal a day did not sit well with Lizzy. When she discovered that the Binars had a magically refilling food bowl upstairs, she summoned the courage to venture into uncharted territory and she did her best to empty that daily. Her secret was soon uncovered and the Binars’ food bowl was put out of reach, and the diet continued.

While Lizzy would give way to her sister on almost all account, her passiveness did not extend to her food. As she got hungrier, she defended her food bowl against all comers. When her sister tried to mooch in on her food, Lizzy pushed her away. It was the only sign of possessiveness she would ever demonstrate. Soon the pounds were dropping off of her, and with it, her limp walk that had come from her excessive weight became a thing of the past. While at one time she loathed even walking a few feet, the newer, leaner Lizzy was more mobile, and the whole house was soon her domain.

I was pleasantly surprised one day to see her sleeping in the sun in the upstairs screened-in porch. If there ever was a moment that I could point to as the time when I can truly say I began to like Lizzy, that day was it. She was just sitting there on the couch, her paw crossed, looking out at who knows what. But she had a smile on her face. While the outside once terrorized her, the screened-in porch offered Lizzy the opportunity to enjoy the outside without experiencing all the terrors that come with it. Lizzy was clearly happy—of course, she would have been happier if she had more to eat, but still, she was happy. And I was happy for her.

For Lizzy however, it was clear to my wife and I that outside of food, long winter naps next to her "God" was what made life worth living. "Lizzy’s God," as we like to call it, was a portable electric heater, one of the ones that looks like an old style radiator, but is powered electrically. It no sooner appeared for the heating season than Lizzy made camp next to it. With her sleeping pad at the heater’s base and the litter box less than two feet away, Lizzy had little reason to move all winter—only the evening trip to the food bowl. Winter hibernation suited her personality quite nicely.

And for what seems like an eternity, that was Lizzy’s life. The fact that I can’t recall much about her is a testimony to how non-intrusive and undemanding she was. She was just always there, happy for the occasional scratch. She was simply put, a simple sweet cat.

The end for Lizzy came sooner than we had planned. Being the low cat on the totem pole in a house with multiple cats took its toll on her in the form of urinary tract stones induced from stress. We were able to address that with a diet change, but the dye was cast—old age ailments seemed to creep up on her faster than we could correct them. Her thyroid soon began to fail, which necessitated daily medication, something my veterinary nurse wife was ideally suited to address, but not something Lizzy was able to support. Try as she might, all my veterinary nurse wife could do was slow the progress of time. When the vet informed us that Lizzy had renal failure, it was now no longer a matter of if Lizzy would die, but rather when.

As the disease progressed, Lizzy started to drop weight; soon the one-time pudgy cat was thin. Thin to the point that her ribs could be felt for the first time. When Lizzy set up camp next to her water bowl, unable to satisfy her thirst, nightly infusions of saline injections became routine to help flush the toxins out of her system.

As the end for Lizzy neared, my wife and I discussed putting her to sleep, but opted not to. As humane as vets try to make the euthanizing process, it’s always scary to the animal. As Lizzy was in no apparent pain, we opted to let her die at her own pace, in her own way, in her own home.

On the last night of her life, it was apparent to both of us that Lizzy’s time was up. My wife was in tears at the thought of Lizzy dying by herself during the night, so I suggested that she bring Lizzy upstairs and sleep in the guest bed with her, so when she did die, she would have the person who loved her best by her side.

At 2:45, my wife was awoken out of her sleep. Whether it was her parents waking her to let her know Lizzy’s time was up, or just the sound of the change in Lizzy’s breathing, we’ll never know. For me, I like to think it was the former.

My wife reached out and put her hand on Lizzy’s chest as she took in three deep breaths, and then Lizzy ceased breathing.

I’m a firm believer that when we die, we’ll be greeted in the afterlife by all the dogs and cats that have journeyed through life with us. But in Lizzy’s case, Audrey’s father – Charles had long ago earned the right to her eternal companionship. I’m sure she was greeted into heaven by the open arms of Charles and the two are now sitting on a plush couch, basking in the sun and listening to Frank Sinatra.

Before she was cremated, my wife took a lock of Lizzy’s hair and some of her whiskers, which will one day be buried with my wife. A few weeks later, my wife took Lizzy’s ashes to the graves of her parents and buried Lizzy between the two. For eternity, she will rest peacefully with those who came to love her.

Lizzy may be gone, but she will never be forgotten. She earned the right to never be forgotten.

"Farewell, Master, Yet not farewell
Where I go, ye too shall dwell
I am gone, before your face,
A moment's time, a little space.
When ye come where I have stepped
Ye will wonder why ye wept."

Part 1: Charmer's Story
Part 2: Emma's Story
Part 3: Willie's Story
Part 4: Tony's Story

Part 5 : PJ's Story

Read other stories by Michael Hillman