Monday, September 24, 2007

Merlin Louise -- A Eulogy of 9 Lives

For almost a month, we have known that my cat of 18.5 years was dying.

Friday night, held in Jeff's lap, she breathed her last breath.

I was out of town, but I knew she was failing and would likely not live until I returned. So one of the last nights I was home, when Merlin ventured into the dining area, I picked her up and held her and stroked her soft fur until she purred. I told Ryan that Merlin would die soon but that she had had a very good and very long life.

Nine lives, he corrected.

We had a living memorial for Merlin right there at the dining table, remembering all of the things we liked about her, stroking her, telling her she was a good kitty -- somehow we never stopped calling our cats kitties.

Ryan suggested I pray, so I prayed for a peaceful passing and in thanksgiving for her long life. Amen.

Nine lives, Ryan corrected again.

Merlin's first life began in 1989 somewhere in Dallas, Texas, where her pregnant, stray mother was tended to by a Dallas Times Herald sports editor and his neighbor until the kittens' birth.

Merlin's second life began when I went to that editor's home, eager to add a pet to my lonely home and lonely heart. I immediately gravitated toward Merlin and then I saw her sister cowering under a table and decided to adopt her, too. I got them sometime shortly after my 29th birthday. I remember this because I had birthday balloons that were slowly losing their helium and nearing the floor. Merlin, truly a kitty then, would grab the balloon's ribbon and tear through the house with the balloon trailing behind her. Her sister would join in the chase, which sometimes took them directly across my bed while I was trying to sleep in after getting home from work on the night desk at 1 a.m.

Merlin's third life began with a move to San Diego. She and her sister were still in their first year and had grown into a gangly teenage stage. I had to find an apartment that would take cats. It had a balcony that was directly over the entrance to the apartments' parking garage. I left the sliding glass door open when I was home so they could come in and out. Soon, my cats knew more of my neighbors than I did, and I would hear some of them roll down their windows and greet my cats as they waited for the garage door to open. Merlin and her sister grew quite large, prompting me to contact the editor and ask what size their mother had been. Turns out that even in a non-pregnant state she was plus-size, just like her girls.

Merlin's fourth life began (and almost ended, or so I thought) with a move a year later to a little 1948 post-war house with a big yard in La Mesa. Her sister, as was her life posture, cowered under furniture, but Merlin explored. I don't recall whether I let her out to explore the backyard or whether she found her own way out, but, at the end of the day, I couldn't find her. I looked everywhere; I waited hours. I called my mother who shared my concern and was sympathetic. The house had a rather large deck off the back door. I had looked under it several times, but, at dusk, I took a flashlight out and looked under it again. Disturbed by the light, Merlin crawled out from under the deck, took a long, luxurious stretch, looked at me as if to wonder why I had disturbed her rest and followed me inside for dinner.

Merlin, her sister Mathilde and I shared that house for six years. Shortly into that time, I decided to install a small cat door in a door leading to the garage, which then led to an exterior door that already had a pet door. This was the beginning of Merlin's true freedom. Though, it took longer than it should have for her to realize it. The door had been in three or four days, with me escorting her through it more than once before she realized she could go through it all by herself. Early one morning -- about the same time of day as those earlier balloon races -- I heard the distinctive flap of the door and Merlin had found her freedom. This was the beginning of Merlin's fifth life. And it was the beginning, too, of her generous gift-giving. She brought mice, mostly dead, but one still very much alive, through that door. She sometimes brought tasty bits from neighborhood trash bins through the door and once she brought a live but stunned mourning dove, which I took to an animal rescue group and gave them a donation in Merlin's name. She now patrolled not just the backyard but the neighborhood. Once again, my neighbors knew her better than they knew me.

After Jeff and I married in 1996, he and his cat, Lyle, moved in. That was the beginning of Merlin's sixth life. We closed the cat door because Lyle had always been an indoor cat and our vet had been telling me that Merlin's longevity would increase if she, too, were an indoor dweller. Lyle quickly attempted to establish himself as the alpha male. Mathilde simply agreed and left it to Merlin to defend their turf. We knew we were having a good and relaxing evening when both humans and all three cats were on the sofa.

In 1998, the same Labor Day weekend as the death of Princess Diana, the princess of our household, Mathilde, died. She had been beset much of her life with kidney trouble and had come very close to death six months earlier. Merlin was distraught while Mathilde was dying, so Jeff closed Merlin off in the office. Lyle came close to Mathilde and noted that she was no longer really there. It spooked him a bit, but he got the message. We didn't think to let Merlin out to have the same encounter, so she spent days walking around the house crying for her sister. That was the beginning of Merlin's seventh life.

Later that same year, we all moved uneventfully into a new home. It was large enough that territory wasn't really an issue. Then one day, six Septembers ago, following all the rules of all of the books -- cuz that's what we did back then -- we brought a crying baby into the house in a carrier and set it down on the floor for the cats to contemplate. After holding and nurturing and nursing a six pound baby for three days in the hospital, those 10-plus pound cats seemed huge to me as Lyle and Merlin drew ever closer to the baby in the carrier. Jeff was recording the encounter on video as the cats drew near the crying babe. Finally, as Merlin came close and began to lift a paw, I rushed in to intervene. I also realized that that's the day the cats became just cats. Friendly, comforting, curious, but just cats. That was the beginning of Merlin's eighth life.

The boy crew, as boys do, and went through several years of not knowing how, exactly, to interact with the cats, almost always choosing the wrong way. In the beginning we needed to protect him from the cats, but it didn't take long to need to protect the cats from him. Neither Jeff nor I can remember exactly when Lyle died, also from kidney troubles. It was sometime in 2004. I remember that it was a night when we were having real troubles getting Ryan to sleep, he had already been up once or twice and was in a phase of being afraid to go to sleep for fear of bad dreams. Jeff had been tending to Ryan when I noticed that Lyle was in the hallway outside our bedroom door, looking very lethargic. I told Jeff and then went to bed. Because Lyle was still young, we weren't expecting death as we were with Merlin, so when he still was lethargic the next morning, I took him to the animal emergency hospital. He was far closer to death than we knew, and he died soon after we got there. Again, Merlin searched the house looking for her friend. That was the beginning of Merlin's ninth life, the first time in her life that she had lived as the only cat.

In recent years, Merlin had lost a bit of weight and had been slowed by arthritis. She could no longer climb stairs, so remained on the lower floor of the house. She had lots of little corners that were hers, but her favorite place to be was wherever I was. If I was at the computer, she was in the room with me, often at my feet. I kept wondering why she hadn't padded up while I was writing this, and then I remembered. She was still able to get agitated when she sensed that her territory was being invaded. One night recently, I came home to encounter a skunk on the porch, carefully startled it away and went in to find Merlin in the entry way moving toward the window nearest where the skunk had scampered outside. Ever on patrol.

Merlin had two names because the first one was not the best fit. As a kitten Merlin loved to go up things and over things (recall the story of her running up and over my bed). She liked to go up and over, her sister liked to be down under things. So my down under cat was named Mathilde and her sister my up and over cat was named Louise for Louise Ritter, a Dallas athlete who had dramatically won the gold medal in women's high jump in the most recent summer Olympics. So Louise it was, but it didn't fit and it didn't last. One night, though, I had gone to visit my parents and my cats were in the back of my hatchback. A thunderstorm was nearing and Mathilde was crouched down under somewhere, but Merlin was watching the lightening flashes reflected on the window of the hatchback and began to paw at them, trying to catch them. So, I named my cat who would catch lightening if she could, Merlin, keeping the Louise. Merlin stuck and was an apt description of this kitty whose curiosity stayed with her until near her last breath.

As I drove Ryan to school yesterday, I decided to check in to see how he was doing with Merlin's death. He told me he was sad and we talked again about what a good life she had had, what a good pet friend she had been, and how 18 and a half years is a long time for a cat. She had a really long life, I said.

Nine lives, Ryan said.

Jeff had a little phrase about Merlin that we repeated many times over the years, and I hadn't realized that someday it would be her epitaph:

Everybody loves Merlin, Merlin Louise.


RevErikaG said...

Thanks for a beautiful telling of this life...or nine lives. May you be comforted in your grief, K!

Jeri said...

Nine lives--Sounds like Merlin was one of those great personalities. Trying to catch lightning. And it seems that she had a great life. Full and fulfilling. You describe it beautifully. She is honored by your words.

Orangeblossoms said...

Merlin Louise-- clearly she was lovable to the end.... Thanks, Karen, for sharing her story and your grief.

Peace, sister.

molly said...