Even with bright spring sunshine streaming through the windows, it’s been a gloomy weekend in our house. It’s never fun when you’re on a death watch … even if it’s only for a cat.
For the past 14 years, Merlin has been the scourge of birds, chipmunks and unfamiliar visitors to our home. And, often, me. But now his reign of terror is coming to an end.
Merlin’s story begins about 12:30 a.m. on a warm spring night in 2003. As a newspaper editor, I’d just put Sunday’s edition to bed and headed out the employees’ entrance at the loading dock. As usual, more than 100 vans, pickups and cars jammed the parking lot, their drivers eager to pick up bundles of papers for delivery to carriers in a three-county area.
Jan, a security guard and occasional smoking buddy, was in the designated smoking area outside the door, playing with a tiny kitten. I crouched down and scratched him behind his ears. “Cute kitten,” I told Jan. “Is he yours?”
“No,” she replied. “He just showed up a few minutes ago.”
I figured he’d escaped from a driver’s car, so I picked him up and brought him around the parking lot for the next 15 minutes. Nobody knew anything about a missing cat, so I came back to Jan. Eyeing the idling vehicles, I knew the kitten was sure to be squished if he was roaming freely as the drivers made a mad rush for the loading dock when the papers became available.
We already had two pets — Sydney, an Australian terrier, and Loki, the Best Cat in the World — so I sure didn’t want to bring the little critter home. But when I asked Jan to keep the stray, she said her apartment didn’t allow pets.
I had no choice. He went into the car with me, and wound up spending most of the trip home on my shoulder. All the while, I wondered how my wife, Shirley, would react to our guest.
I shouldn’t have worried — Shirley was immediately enthralled by him. But her enthusiasm seemed dim next to daughter Sandy’s response. We were still up when Sandy’s alarm went off at 4 a.m. She fussed over him so much she was nearly late for her 6 o’clock work shift.
In the next day or so, he got a name, Merlin, based on his mysterious and magical appearance at my workplace. Shirley and especially Sandy spoiled him terribly. Sandy carried Merlin everywhere; at one point, Shirley chided her: “If you don’t put that cat down, he’ll forget how to walk.”
But while Merlin was bonding with the ladies, he began shunning me. Maybe it was because Sydney was my dog, who usually occupied the space next to me on the couch and sometimes my lap. Merlin got along very well with Syd and Loki — once they put him in his place — but he barely tolerated me.
Merlin’s kittenhood passed all too quickly, and he grew. And grew. He finally topped out at about 16 pounds of bone and muscle. Our research showed he was probably at least part Maine Coon Cat, and he proved to be a skillful hunter.
Without a doubt, he was the handsomest cat I’ve ever had, with his sleek, thick coat and huge, bright eyes. But he also was the stupidest cat in creation. Outside of hunting, he never showed any sign of typical feline cleverness. I came to refer to him as “a cinder block with fur.”
Merlin and I endured an uneasy truce. For the longest time, I tempted fate by trying to pick him up or pet him. Too often, my reward was teeth and claws jammed into my hands and arms.
But something funny happened after several years. He discovered that I actually knew how to hit a cat’s sweet spots with scratches and massages. When I was sitting on the couch or a chair, he would approach and nudge his head against my hand, demanding a scratch.
When I gave in, I got a real reward: the deepest, loudest purr I’ve ever heard. It was like sitting next to a furry mini-Harley. It was so loud that it would wake up Shirley when he came to me in bed and I’d scratch under his chin.
Still, he’s always been Shirley’s boy, and I appreciated him mainly because he brought her so much joy.
Except for a urinary tract blockage in 2012, Merlin has always been in fine health. A couple weeks ago, however, I realized he had lost a lot of weight. He wasn’t eating so much of his dry cat food, so we broke protocol and bought him some cans.
Despite gobbling down the canned food, he was becoming so lethargic that I decided to take him to the vet, who had given him a clean bill of health at his checkup in October. Shirley and I were stunned to learn he had lost three pounds in five months and weighed less than 10 pounds for the first time since 2004. An X-ray showed no problem, but the vet drew blood for testing.
The news was not good Friday morning. The vet called and said the tests showed Merlin apparently has lymphoma. Shirley and I had discussed such a diagnosis in advance and decided we would turn our home into a hospice. As long as Merlin shows no sign or pain or even discomfort, we’ll keep him here and cater to his whims. If things turn, the vet will make sure he doesn’t suffer.
Merlin is growing weaker by the hour, and we don’t expect him to last the week. The canned food still tempts him, but he can manage only a few bites before giving up. But when we fondle and scratch him, he still has that awesome purr.
The approaching end has caused me to shed some tears despite my best efforts, but I still have hope.
Because of my faith, I firmly believe in heaven. Theologians might disagree, but I believe paradise also awaits cats and dogs, too. Of course, nobody knows what comes in the afterlife, but I like the idea put forward by some scholars that death brings us unity with God for all eternity, and we are embraced forever in His almighty splendor.
To the Maker of All, mankind is special, created in His image. But all life bears a sparkle or hint of the divine. The bridge between people and their pets is vast, but it’s a only an atom’s span compared to the inconceivable gulf between man and God. In His infinite compassion for His creations, He surely wouldn’t condemn the tiny spark of a soul in a cat or dog to everlasting darkness.
I pray that Shirley and I earn a place in heaven. But it wouldn’t truly be paradise if Merlin doesn’t pull himself away from Shirley every now and then and come up to me and demand a scratch. I’ll be ready to give it.