About two months ago I buried one of our cats, digging into ivy-root clogged earth with a trowel and gloved hands along with my wife as we pulled up stones and rich dark dirt until we reached clay, our breath steaming in the cool autumnal air. We picked up the box, the base still warm from her body-- which was wrapped inside by a scarf, with a witch-stone, knitted mouse, old old dried rose and leaves-- and set it inside before standing and weeping, filled deep with loss and sorrow.
Zot was one of those cats of which they say the mold was broken after birth. I first met her while visiting heyoka, and she took an instant liking to me, shown by leaping down from the tallest shelf of the bookcase in the Soho flat onto my shoulder scaring the fucking daylights out of me, followed by rubbing the underside of my chin with her face between pacing from shoulder to shoulder behind my neck.
One day over two decades ago a bike courier was on a job and stopped at a crossing. On the kerb was a plastic bin bag, which started moving. The cyclist opened the bag and inside was a five-week old kitten. So the cyclist took her to the Battersea Dog’s Home, which was what you do if you have a kind heart and there happens to be a place like this in your city. A few days later heyoka was at the home looking for a nice older cat to be company for her cat called Cat when this very same bin bag rescued kitten caught her eye by being awesome. For much of the rest of her life, when she was worried about something, or wanted to irritate the hell out of us, Zot would find a plastic bag and lick it repeatedly so that I was always on the alert for making sure all bags stayed under the kitchen sink or in the cupboard.
This is a story we would tell over and over to visitors not long after they were introduced to her. There were a zillion more. How she had used up her nine lives by licking bleach, getting stuck down the inside frame of a house a floor or two down, falling off the roof twice with the second time landing on another cat sunning in a patio. She would get violently ill the day or night before we were ready to go on the holiday of a lifetime, prompting midnight vet visits and frantic instructions to housemates or cat sitters. She woke up one cat sitter by licking her nipples. An avid mouser, neighbours would borrow her to clear out their flat.
All cats have superpowers. Zot’s was mass transference: she was the Higg’s Boson. Although weighing about as much as a tin of tuna, she was able to wake me by concentrating all weight onto my bladder. Or stomping on my head, face, nose, eyes, throat. Or hovering over my ear and breathing heavily (she had never learned to purr until much later). Or hooking a claw in my bottom lip or one of my nostrils.
This may appear as evidence that this cat was a nightmare, a neurotic bundle of tricks and traps aimed at shortening man’s lifespan all in service of some feline devilry, and you are correct in interpreting it that way. She was a goddamn infernal creature who would suddenly appear in my lap of an evening, fast asleep as if for hours. Balance on my side as I slept, somehow riding the duvet in the same position as I turned in my sleep. Making sure I was protected when I was bedbound from the flu, or burglars arrived. She’d chase a coffeebean from the kitchen to the loo, fetch a tossed wad of paper, follow a laser light point around and around, try to pop every soap bubble, and eviscerate catnipped flavoured synthetic mice. Visitors would exclaim over the cute kitten playing even when she was 8, 10, 15 or 20 years old.
A few years after my first meeting Zot, our other cat, Cat, quickly died: she was also a very fine cat, all black and smart as a whip, and another rescue by heyoka from an early death many years before. We buried her in a friend’s garden, with a rose bush planted above her. Soon we picked up another cat from Battersea: a male Siberian, who turned out to be quite vain and clever. When we moved out to Suffolk, we learned he had a natural affinity and glee over snow, dancing and skipping about in it. Siberians are also known as circus cats, and we discovered he was able to open windows and doors. Living in the countryside, getting a dog was considered, then rejected and so yet another cat joined us: the kitten of a tom father and Abyssinian mother, who inherited her mother’s instinct for hunting, as we found out when living on a river island: she caught and disemboweled water voles, great tits, field mice and even brought home moles in the hopes that a fine hat for her would be made.
It was while living on the island that Zot began losing her hearing. She used to be able to hear the slight rubbing of two fingers together from another room and come running to me to be scritched. Now, she couldn’t hear this and as well at certain tone and pitches her name. I would find myself at bedtime crossing a wooden bridge in the deep dark onto the river island path, calling for her to come in for supper while swans oinked curiously under the bridge, and bats whipped across the water to snag bugs. She started getting lost in the house, calling out mournfully in the night as she forgot the way from the bathroom back to the bedroom. We moved again, and all the cats become housebound in Edinburgh. The local vet claimed Zot in good health, although now a bit ‘doo-lally’. We were fortunate in that some cats in this condition become feral: instead this always underfoot cat became even cuddlier, to the point of wanting to sleep under one’s head.
The years slipped by, her coat becoming thinner and smellier, her gait getting twitchy and stiffer; yet she still gambolled after a wad of paper, stomped on visitors, pestered me every morning long before it was civil to wake to feed her. She stopped getting lost when we began scooping her up and taking her to a spot to curl on the bed at night. We’d joke about this ‘zombie-kitteh’, and how she’d probably outlast us all. Although every few months she’d weaken and we would think this was it, she’d rally right back to her impossible self. Then, she reached the final point: getting thinner and thinner, standing on my lap wondering what the heck she was meaning to do, no longer rubbing back after a scritch under the chin or behind an ear. She’d developed a tooth abscess, and while blood tests showed no other illness, she was too weak to recover from an operation. And so came the cold morning, watching her struggle as we held her for the vet who injected the drug that quickly stopped her heart.
One of the laws we broke after this was not getting her cremated, despite not having a garden. A pet cemetery was out of the question; instead we found a space in the overgrown abandoned ruinous corner of a nearby labyrinthine jungle of a cemetery, between heavily ivied fallen over headstones and dug deep, about a yard down as recommended. This act of burial was another law we broke, having neither asked nor received permission. But while we dug, other people passed, walking their dogs in violation of another law. We smoked our cigs and nodded wanly as they would stride away… then got back to our task. Heavy bricks were placed just under the surface as we filled the hole. Flamed sunset and sunrise elm oak and beech leaves were gathered by the armful and piled on top. We sat on the nearby Cross of Sacrifice memorial and mourned, while the leaves kept falling.
A year ago on Boxing Day, my father-in-law was fetched to come and live with us.
Although we’d moved the month before in anticipation of this happening, we didn’t expect it for a few more months. He’d been kicked out by his wife for being impossible, so we brought him home. The reason he was being impossible was because he has mixed dementia, something we discovered he’d been trying to mask for some time, but we were able to get diagnosed officially the summer before. Heyoka had been travelling the 200 mile trip every month or so, getting him to medical visits, then to a GP to diagnose, then to a solicitor to obtain her father’s wishes for care, and power of attorney. By late last summer, after we had him with us for a week, we told him that when things became too difficult at his home, he had an out: stay with us until the next stage. It would be a long, pitiful story to explain why his wife of almost 60 years wouldn’t recognise or accept his disease, so suffice to say he took the out when it came.
Along with the old man came some baggage. Reader, I married into a family with a history that goes back to the Early Crusades and King Arthur’s court and plunges forward through assassinated Prime Ministers, Bletchley Park codebreakers, racehorse breeders and Cold War spies to arrive at this old man who like many of his male line, served the Majesty in the military, helping to prevent the loss of life and keep peace around the world. Made quite deaf as a gunnery commander, almost killed in terrorist bomb blasts, responsible for the safe transport of nuclear missiles and charged with moving tens of thousands of troops across Eastern Europe without causing tension among global powers and now left to ask help of the only person he hadn’t cut ties with as he began to lose his memory: his youngest daughter. His daughter had tried to keep communication with him over the past few decades to a minimum, mainly because of her mother, but we were still visited now and then by him, or both when their daughter had her several surgeries on her hips. In the last decade and a half, I could count the times meeting him by holding up my fingers. Still, this was family, and he is a decent man who supported his children as best he could. So we took him in because that’s what you do, and there really wasn’t another option.
For those unfamiliar with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, there are two aphorisms connected to this disease. One is that it is ‘The Long Goodbye’. The other is ‘If you know someone with Alzheimer’s, you know someone with Alzheimer’s’. While there are common symptoms, because this disease is a gradual degradation of neural pathways, with some sudden spikes of mini-stroke mind-death, the brain is complicated, with individual reactions to competency being snipped, sucked or whisked away. While the old man was able to tell me stories of his military exploits, or his families’ rich complications, the next day he would tell me the same story, almost word for word, emotional beats whether a joke or bittersweet bang on target. A few months ago, the stories were mixing with each other: he would become his father, who would become his uncle, who was also his brother-in-law, who was the old man as a boy. As avid a reader as his daughters, one could see him start to read, then doze off, then turn a third of the way in to read again, while newspapers, once read with certain subjects brought up over supper, has become reduced to an avid fascination with only the weather page, read out several times over the morning and constant checks out the window for confirmation, even though each time he is reading for a different part of the United Kingdom. Once devoted to recording his history on a computer word program, now the computer sits unused. Notebooks are filled with attempts to figure out his age by measures such as using the newspaper date and his birthday and subtracting, or writing each year down and trying to tick them off. One evening he spoke solemnly in private to his daughter about something of great concern physically which turned out that he had put on some weight (having been skeletal and malnourished on his arrival last year) and found the bumps confusing. Kettles are to be stuffed sideways into the microwave to heat the water. Tea gets two spoonfulls of sugar, whether it’s a teaspoon or a soup spoon. Washing up must be done to help out, even if it’s smearing grease around and drying with a subsequently greasy teatowel. Morning and breakfast is when he wakes up, obviously, whether it’s an hour after bed time, midnite, 2 am or 4am or anytime in between or after.
For a while, we got things somewhat settled: Rearranging his medication so we administered it in the morning and evening, instead of him trying to medicate himself by double or triple dosing or stashing pills for safekeeping. Replacing his hearing aids (which may have been from mid 20th century) so that he freaked out at the rushing sound of the toilet flushing. Dental checkup so that when he exclaimed his teeth were moving around we could ensure this wasn’t true; the same with toes, hips, bowels, eyes, chin, elbows, knees and more bowels. Lunch help was arranged, insisting they stayed through lunch to ease his fear of choking (excessive saliva production is one effect of dementia). Weekday afternoons a carer arrives, to make sure he has daily exercise, which has resulted in firstly obsession with a bookstore going out of business down the road and the past few months with playing with the squirrels in the large Botanic Gardens nearby (The joy he gets from trying to charm the carers is remarkable). Solicitor engaged, social workers visiting, military duties arranged and historical papers properly archived, and a myriad other old man responsibilities heretoforth seemed alien. I set up a Sunday morning grocery shop with him, dutifully taking a list from my wife for him to tick off and guiding him around the store, trying to make sure he doesn’t get lost between aisles, checkout or between store and car.
But it’s never settled. Routine becomes duty becomes broken becomes crisis.
This is another person, in our home. A responsibility. A burden. A lockdown. Someone who cannot safely prepare themselves supper, cannot for certain get dressed decently, tell time, know the denomination of coins, someone who does not recognise the way home from around a corner and expects that he is meant to be the centre of attention. Due to my own fucked-up upbringing, I have a small neurosis in that sometimes the sound of someone eating makes me want to punch them hard in the face. Consider open mouth chewing with smacks in between and little or elongated belching along with somehow amplified swallowing sounds combined with the blackboard-like screech of a fork and knife trying to capture a pea on a plate and you will see my despair.
And so I tie this more extricably to the loss of a cat with dementia, whose own sounds while eating I had to endure to ensure the other cats did not steal from her. Always underfoot cat beneath the oblivious feet of a forgetful person. Weak cat unable to push open a bathroom door always closed shut by a forgetful person so it can’t get to the litter tray. The old man didn’t make the last year of her life any easier, and fuck me if I don’t feel guilty about caring more about a cat than the father of the woman I love.
And yet, he trusts me. He tilts his head up waiting for the eyedrops. Looks surprised each night I say ‘time for this pill’ but then goes ahead and takes it. Looks surprised as I emerge from my bedroom as he sits at the dining room table but believes me when I explain that it is only 2 am and returns to bed. Looks to me for which direction to turn from the front door. Stands and gives his daughter a hug after we get home from burying a much loved cat. Tells me I’m a capable young man, very capable.
A couple of weeks ago, alone with the old man overnight, I fed him, made sure he had his medication, hot water bottle, was changing into PJs and said good night. I went into the study and ate leftover Chinese while watching Twin Peaks on a laptop, earphones on to listen to the Badalamenti soundtrack. Around midnight I was in bed, somewhere in the back of my mind relieved as I hadn’t heard the old man get up to use the loo a dozen times. Half hour later, the police brought him home, from the sub-zero Celsius temperature, having wandering into a pub several miles away in a quite dangerous part of town. He had no ID on him, and had told the police his son was a scientist. A week later-- not a few hours after a social worker visited and not a half hour after lunch and before his favourite afternoon walker arrived-- he was out again, taking a bus to the opposite side of the city and somehow walking into a regional hospital café.
The GPS tracker arrives just after Boxing Day.
If someone you care about or for has the symptoms of dementia, the Alzheimer's Association provides invaluable support and guidance. US, UK