Lessons in empathy from my cat

A few days after we found out that I had miscarried, we had to have our gorgeous cat Mike put to sleep.

Mike and his sister Charlie had entered our lives against my better judgement. We went to the cats home a couple of years ago for “a look”. I thought we could probably cope with one young, male, short haired cat, preferably quite small. What we ended up with were two enormous, hairy, middle aged cats, one male and one female. They spent the next couple of years being sick on the carpets, getting hair EVERYWHERE, howling and pawing at our bedroom door at 3 in the morning, dribbling, nibbling our elbows when we eventually let them in to our room in the morning to indicate they were hungry, and generally being a RIGHT handful. But…they also made us laugh, made us feel like special humans, and made us fall in love with them. When Charlie died back in March it broke our hearts, and Mike, all 7 kilos of him, suddenly appeared more vulnerable and lonely.

Mike was a people cat, and liked nothing more than snuggling up to my husband, Dave, on the sofa in an evening. He would snuggle up to me if (and only if) Dave was unavailable, and made his feelings well and truly known if I tried to move him to get in on the action.

When Charlie died, Mike just wanted to be near us. He would follow us around the house and just sit wherever we were.

When we came back from our scan which confirmed a miscarriage, Mike sat with me the rest of the day whilst I cried. Strangely, despite Dave being in another room, Mike stayed with me, and I felt so grateful that I held in a wee for about an hour for fear of disturbing him and risking him running back to Dave.

When I came back from hospital after medical management, Mike again slept next to me on the sofa. I was dozing and every now and then would stir and remember he was next to me, paws in the air (to show he was REALLY relaxed) just being still and not demanding anything other than someone being there next to him.

The next day, Dave, who up until this point had spent every day since our scan either with me or working from home so he wasn’t too far away, had to go away for the day. I was nervous about the prospect of this. Before my miscarriage I had been a (relatively) confident person, enjoying my own company and not thinking twice about being at home on my own for any period of time. During pregnancy, I had strangely become more relaxed about everything; things which would have caused me anxiety in the past suddenly felt trivial, and I would think “what’s the worst that could happen?”

During my miscarriage though, it felt as though all my senses went in to overdrive. I was constantly worried about infection, the possibility of bleeding to death, collapsing due to a haemorrhage whilst driving or whilst on my own at home. I didn’t want to be alone.

So when Dave had to go away for the day, we agreed on the following conditions (looking back, setting these conditions was my way of showing Dave that I was anxious about being on my own, and I’m sure he knew this, but staying with me would have just fed that anxiety gremlin!):
1) Dave would phone me every half hour (!)
2) If I didn’t answer, Dave would call an ambulance

So at 5am Dave fed Mike, brought him upstairs to replace his space on the bed, and set off. And to give him his due, Dave did phone me every (roughly) half hour, at 6, 6.40, 7.15 etc, receiving a rather groggy but very grateful answer from me. I hadn’t really been planning on getting out of bed that day, due to being exhausted from the procedure I’d had and only having got back from hospital the day before, following a very sleepless night.

Mike seemed happy with this plan, purring loudly next to me, pawing at my iPad to express his dislike of “Friends”, and plodding over my head when he fancied a bit of my water that was at the side of the bed. At that moment, I was so glad to have this big, pain in the arse fluff ball to keep me company, to remind me that life was carrying on. He was happy to just be here (I mean he’d have been happy in anyone’s company – I fancifully imagined that he would choose me over a total stranger but if I’m honest I couldn’t be sure of that).

Fast forward a couple of hours; Mike had followed me downstairs when I went to get a drink, and stayed there after I fed him. I had another little snooze and went downstairs again for a refill, and there was poor old Mike, flat out and unresponsive on the floor, breathing very quickly. Panic ensued; I phoned Dave, who mercifully was on his way home but still around 2 hours away; phoned the vet; called a taxi; realised I was going to have to get out of my Pyjamas. And by 5pm that day we received a call from the vet to say that the tests they had done showed that Mike had a tumour on his liver, which was either hepatitis or cancer, and she didn’t think he would survive an operation to investigate or remove it.

So we went back to the vets and spent a bit of time with Mike, who was pretty out of it. We eventually said our goodbyes and cuddled him while he went to sleep. And I marvelled at how he had disguised his pain; the vet said that the mass she could see on his liver was large, and had probably been there for a while, but that cats have a way of appearing totally normal until it’s too late to save them. And Mike had done exactly that; right up until those last few hours, when it became too much for him and he crashed.

For a short time after that I woke up every day feeling like we had been too smug in our happiness, and we had done something to displease the universe; had some higher power heard me saying that Mike was a pain in the arse, or that I hated being pregnant? Was something trying to show me that too much happiness will only ever end in disaster?

I still think that sometimes, but I realise that we were so lucky to have Mike, and rather than thinking about why he was taken away, I try now to think about what he gave us.

Every time we were sad or coming back from somewhere if we’d been away we’d always say “I can’t wait to see Mike”. We were looking forward to showing him our new house, and more than a little apprehensive about showing him a new baby! He gave us something to come home for, and sat with us regardless of how we were feeling. He would sit on our lap and just the heaviness of him being there was a comfort. He was quiet and didn’t try to fix things, but let you stroke him and feel your emotions with him. His routine never changed; when he was hungry he was hungry, and that was the priority right then, but having him in the background made it feel like there was someone there.

And actually, isn’t this what we want from our human companions? Someone to sit with us (perhaps not on our lap), and just be? Listen if we want them to listen, but not try to fix things? Accept that life goes on, but give us companionship and support when we feel the world has stopped?

We knew that if we got older cats, they might not be with us for very long. And we said “but wouldn’t it be nice to give them a good home in their autumn years?” But while we provided a roof and square meals, what they gave us was something far more profound. They taught us about empathy, and about carrying on, and that at the end of the day the most fundamental importance is this; the people we love and a place to call home.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: