This week, I said goodbye to my elderly familiar, Phoebe. She was nearly 20 years old and suffered from thyroid issues. Though I’ve lost several cats over the last few years, Phoebe was the first to pass peacefully and comfortably at home instead of a vet’s office. She was my longest-serving familiar, clocking in 14 years — more than any other animal by far. It’s going to take some time to get used to her absence.
In 2007, a scraggly, scrawny, nearly hairless orange cat appeared on my back deck. She meowed softly and hid under the Adirondack chairs when I went out to feed her or give her water. I already had two cats, Piper and Thor, who tolerated each other. I wasn’t sold on the idea of having another cat in the house, and this one didn’t really like human contact, so it worked out. She preferred to keep her distance, meow at me, and hang out with a feral cat nicknamed Romeo. So for a year, she stayed an outside cat and I gave her cat food and fresh water. I named her Phoebe as a bit of a joke – I already had a Piper, but I didn’t want a Pru, and she was orange and sunny, so I picked Phoebe.
Over the new few months, I tried to get closer to Phoebe. She would let me pet her sides and rub up against my legs, but never let me touch her head, back, legs, feet, or face. She wouldn’t hiss or scratch, she’d just run away or flinch when I stroked a bit too close. I figured she wasn’t feral — I lived in a college town, people got animals and dumped them outside when the semester ended all the time. But I couldn’t guess her age or if she had been fixed because she wouldn’t let me too close to her. She also had really bad cuts and scrapes, but getting near them was a lost cause. I would have to respect Phoebe’s very strict boundaries.
In 2008, a bad tropical storm hit the Gulf. During regular storms, Phoebe would either run and hide or press herself up against the sliding glass doors. But as the tropical storm closed in, I knew we couldn’t just leave her outside where she could risk injury or death. So I tricked her — I set out some food, waited for her to eat, then flung a towel over her to pick her up. Poor Phoebe began screeching and struggling while I hurried into the ensuite bathroom, where I had prepared a bed, litter box, and some catnip separate from the other cats. During the entire storm, she hid behind the clothes hamper, refusing to come out even to use the bathroom. Once the storm passed, I picked her back up with the same towel and took her back out.
After a few more months outside, I noticed Phoebe getting thinner and more wounds appearing on her little body. One in particular was a nasty, bleeding gash on the back of her neck. Knowing she wouldn’t let me touch her, I tricked Phoebe — again! — into eating food, then gently wiped her gash with a washcloth soaked in peroxide. She put up with that for a solid minute before she caught on and ran away.
As she did, I realized I had to make Phoebe my third inside kitty.
It took Phoebe a long time to get used to our house and our presence.
The vet checked her out and gave good news and bad news: good news, she didn’t have any of the big problems (FIV/FeLuk, etc). Bad news, she had parasites, fleas, yeast infections in her ears, and she was malnourished. Sadly, when they checked her belly (that was FUN — holding down a scared, nearly feral kitty), the vet found stitches — meaning, someone had her before, spayed her, bonded with her, and then threw her outside. No wonder she didn’t trust anyone, but she still came up to people for food. Despite all of this, I paid for her medication and brought her inside with Piper and Thor (who weren’t thrilled with their new sibling, but got used to her after a while).
For the first year, she hid under the couch in the guest room. She only came out at night to eat and occasionally play with a cat nip mouse toy. Though she would meow and rub up against my legs, she still didn’t like too much petting and didn’t want her neck to be touched. She never scratched us or hissed, she just scurried away when she was done. I didn’t push her and when she hid, and I didn’t prod her out of hiding. Occasionally, she slept on the bed, but if I walked in the room she jumped down and hid under it. I did catch her cuddled up against Thor’s rear end from time to time. Thor, who was old and cantankerous at the time, didn’t like it that much and would grumble when she got close but chilled out after a while. Piper, on the other had, was an absolute brat and would pounce or chase Phoebe just for fun.
In late 2011, I had to temporarily relocate to the DC area for six months. Along with a new state, I had to downsize my surroundings into corporate housing (cute but small). All three cats came with me, however; I wasn’t going to leave them behind. Stuffing three cats into a car and then into a one-bedroom apartment didn’t sound easy, but it worked out shockingly well for Phoebe. Maybe it was the change of scenery or maybe the smaller space, but in NOVA she really came out of her shell. She sat on the couch next to me, she let me stroke her neck a bit more, she gave me head butts, and she didn’t immediately run away when I came home. By the time we moved back, I felt Phoebe had crossed a major hurdle in her personality. She still didn’t care for strangers, but was at least starting to trust her family (after almost five years).
Between 2012 and 2014 a couple of major things happened: Thor died, Roland moved in (who is still here today), and I adopted Paige (also still here). Phoebe weathered these changes very well, especially Paige. I daresay that Paige helped Phoebe come out of her shell a bit more since she wasn’t at the bottom of the food chain anymore. I joke of course: Phoebe was never at the bottom; she just acted like she was. She sure liked to smack at Paige when I prepared their dinner. And poor Paige, the puppy, didn’t know what to do. As she got older, she learned to push back a little more with a growl and a bark. Eventually, both Paige and Phoebe learned to share a bed like an old married couple.
In 2017, Phoebe underwent one more big personality change. This was right around the time Piper (my first cat) died. One day, Phoebe just jumped on my lap. Maybe she was comforting me, or maybe she was tired of the half-assed petting, but she surprised the hell out of me. Shocked, I slid my phone off my desk and snapped a picture. After that day, she would insist on daily lap cuddles and pets, along with head and neck scratches. Her skittishness had all but disappeared. I could bump something in the room and she wouldn’t run away and hide. I could accidentally brush against her and she would scamper into the other room. And when I came home from the store or from hours gone, she walked into the room and meowed at me, licking her chops and expecting dinner.
She stayed in excellent health until 2019, when she accidentally hurt her front claw jumping over a baby gate. She hadn’t been to the vet in years unlike Roland and Paige, who were in all the time for diabetes and thyroid issues. I worried that because of her age, she may have health problems too. But after a complete physical, the vet gave her a clean bill of health. Even her teeth were in great shape.
“Phoebe, you’ve been with me the longest now,” I told her. “I hope you’ll stick around for a few more years.”
A few months ago, Phoebe started losing weight and stopped eating. She had always been a svelte, lanky kitty. She was also a picky eater, too: sometimes eating half of her food and then walking away from it. She loved treats, especially the Sheba meat sticks (dubbed cat Slim Jims at my house). One day, she sat at the water bowl and just stared into it, unable to drink. It’s one thing when cats take a day or two off from eating, the vet told me. They may have an upset stomach or just don’t want their cat food anymore. But when they don’t drink, she said, then it’s a bigger problem.
The vet told me she was dehydrated. After a round of blood tests, she diagnosed Phoebe with hyperthyroidism — for which she’d have to take a pill for the rest of her life to manage it. No problem, I thought. Roland and Paige take medication every day. How hard is it to give one more cat another pill?
Harder than it looked. Somedays, Phoebe would eat. Other days, she would eat a bite or two and walk away. She drank water again, thankfully, but getting her to eat was trickier. During the day, she cried until I let her jump on my lap, where I would let her sit until I had to take a meeting or she got in the way. She sat with Paige on their shared blanket, or she would hunker down on the couch in the living room. She never seemed to get comfortable or get much sleep.
Two weeks ago, she improved by a slight margin. Every other day, she cleared her plate or got close to it. She took her medicine without spitting it out. I swore I saw her gain some weight around her middle.
Then last weekend, she took a turn for the worst.
Pet owners know what that means, even if it’s different for every pet. For Phoebe, she just stopped. She could barely get up to use the litter box, and when she did she did, she collapsed afterward. Moving exhausted her.
Sunday morning, I woke up early. Phoebe crept out to say good morning in a small, creaky voice. I made her breakfast and tried to get her to take her pill. She sniffed it and took a polite lick, but sat down beside it.
“Ok, sweet girl,” I murmured. “I hear you.”
I sat down on my chaise. I call it my Animal Barge — though I bought it for myself a few years ago, the pets took it over, leaving no space for me. Mustering her last bit of strength, Phoebe jumped on the chaise next to me with a soft mah-eh. Then, she finally laid down.
I couldn’t move too far from the chaise that day because she would try to get up and follow me. A few times, she stumbled off the chaise, her little legs weak but her eyes blinking and mouth opening in a silent, questioning meow. I arranged her favorite blanket around her tiny body and stayed next to her, stroking her soft, furry head and whispering to her how much I loved her. She rested, breathing softly and slowly, occasionally raising her head to look around.
In the morning, she was gone. Fourteen years, three states, five houses. My longest living kitty had passed.
Her cremains are on the mantle.
I think back to what a sweet, gentle, unobtrusive kitty Phoebe was and how little she asked for. Until this year, she required no vet visits and no medical emergencies. She was the picture of health until the end. She started off as this terrified ball of hairless panic and over fourteen years mellowed out into a relaxed, loving, lap cat. No longer worried about her neck, she loved strokes and scratches and the occasional pat on the behind. She never enjoyed being picked up (until the very end, when I had to move her toward her food dish and then on her blanket one final time), but she loved to sit on my lap.
How many people have stories about their cats rallying to be with them at the end? I read stories where cats go off to hide to die, probably to instinctively protect themselves from predators and scavengers. Not Phoebe — this little old lady wanted to be next to me. And she was the first kitty that didn’t die at that vet’s. Piper, Thor, Chloe all were sick and had to be put to sleep or died just before the final goodbye; but Phoebe got to be in her home, where she felt safe and secure. I’m happy about that.
So now there’s just Roland and Paige — one cat, one dog. I haven’t gone without at least two cats in my house in 14 years now. I’m not sure if I want to adopt another cat. If so, it’ll be another older kitty, probably a senior. Routinely, I threatened both Roland and Phoebe with another cat sibling when they misbehaved. “A good cat,” I told them, “one that doesn’t get in the sink, run around upstairs at 3 in the morning, and leaves their shit unburied in the litter box.”
Of course, that cat doesn’t exist — unless it’s a dog. So I’ll need time to mourn Phoebe’s loss and think if I want another kitty in my life.
Having been with Phoebe the longest, I accrued some really good memories from her time with me. Here’s a shortened list:
- Before becoming an indoor cat, Phoebe brought a dead chipmunk to the back door. For a minute, I watched her drop it on the deck, then pick it up and start munching on its head. You’d think this would disturb me, but I observed in fascination and contemplated the effects of nature taking its course. Then out of nowhere, Romeo — the big feral cat — ran up and stole the chipmunk from her, which pissed me off. I flung the door open and yelled a few choice, feminist words at him, too. Poor Phoebe — she caught that ‘munk fair and square and a dude swooped in and stole it from her. Ah well. I gave her extra cat food that day (and expedited my decision to bring her indoors).
- Early on in her life indoors, I got Phoebe a “safe” pillow to put under the coffee table. This was supposed to be her pillow that she could sleep on or escape to when she felt overwhelmed and no human was allowed to touch her. My genius idea behind this was that she could come into the living room and socialize and feel safe. I worked for a while (spoiler alert — eventually Roland peed on it and we had to get rid of it) but one day I had to move it in oder to vacuum under it. When I lifted the pillow to vacuum, I jumped back in horror. At least a dozen dead crickets lay under it. Dead crickets. Had Phoebe been collecting prey for Satan knows how long and storing them under her pillow? Who knows! My stomach lurching, I vacuumed up the carapaces and dropped the pillow back into place. I never saw more crickets. Maybe she was embarrassed that I found out.
- I had no idea that orange cats were almost entirely male. Phoebe, a rare female orange cat, had beautiful orange fur — dark orange, almost peanut butter colored. She was a horrible shedder though, and whenever she got up from her usual haunts, it looked like a mushroom had exploded orange spores all over the place.
- Both Phoebe and Roland were the two cats that showed up on my deck at my first house and proceeded to move in. Because I practically fished them out of the garbage, they both became known as my orange Garbage Cats. Roland can claim the title of Garbage Cat more than Phoebe since he will eat everything and anything like a garbage compactor, Phoebe wasn’t without her moments of impropriety. During her lap cat phase, she jumped on my lap and proceeded to get a skid mark on my nice white sweater. She lost lap privileges for two weeks for that.
- Though Roland picked on her a bit over the years, Phoebe could dish it out just as much as she took it — especially with Paige. When Paige was a puppy, Phoebe learned very quickly that she could intimidate Paige into doing whatever she wanted. Unlike Roland, who would hit Paige and Paige would chase after him, Phoebe would smack Paige across the rear end or sucker punch her face and Paige would yelp and not move. This made Phoebe very bold. She would walk right up to poor Paige and sniff her eyeball while Paige held perfectly still, afraid that one false move would send Phoebe into a smacking frenzy. Then Phoebe would walk away and I’d tell Paige she was a good girl. One day, Phoebe did her face-sniffing thing and Paige snapped her little underbite at Phoebe — who puffed up and took three big steps right at her! Paige backed away, terrified. After I stopped laughing, I shooed them both away from each other. No one ever got hurt, thankfully, but Phoebe seemed to like tormenting Paige.
- Last night, I dreamed about her. She wasn’t the main focus of my dream, but she was there, rubbing against my leg, letting me pet her and head-butting me. In the dream, I tried to get her to come sit with me, but she didn’t seem too interested in staying. She wanted to go somewhere else, and soon she got up and left. When I woke up, I cried. I’m not religious and I’m really not that spiritual, but I like to think that somehow, I was getting a message (externally or internally) that Phoebe was fine.
I end this post wishing everyone who has lost a pet recently my condolences. I’ve lost several over the years and it never gets easier.
Rest well, Phoebe. I miss you.