On a cold, stormy night just after Samhain in 2002, there came a knock at our door. The door was at the end of a long, dirt driveway, which was at the end of a long, mountain road in rural Maine. So if you came to it, you meant to be there. I was cleaning up after a Halloween party, and Sean was in town working late. So I was surprised to find our neighbors' son-in-law, covered in falling snow, holding the most emaciated cat I had ever seen. He knew we had cats, he said, and he had found this one on the road nearby. Was it ours?
At this, the cat leaped from his arms, raced behind my heels and sat down, looking up at him. It's worth noting that our beloved Angus, a cat we had lost a year before, used to do this all the time when she wanted my protection for some reason. It was as if she was telling the world, "This is my human, and she'll kick your ass" (I would have, too). I had dreamed of Angus the night before, so when this little, gray bag of bones pulled an Angus on me, my only response to the neighbor was, "Yes, I do believe she is."
Later that evening, I told Sean what she had done and obtained his consent to keep her if she passed a feline leukemia test. She had to live in the workshop until then, though, so I took her out there, lit a fire in the wood stove and set about clipping the burrs from her body. She curled into my lap, and even when I accidentally nicked the tip of her tail, she did no more than whimper a bit. Thereafter, she devoured a bowl of food, gathered her strength and meowed loudly in protest all night. We had left her alone, you see, and she wanted to be with us.
She passed her test and was pronounced healthy, so we introduced her to the existing pride of three cats and named her "Wintersnacht" (Winter's Night), a name we shortened to "Winter" shortly thereafter. Thus did our life together begin. In the early days, she was a lithe, agile kitty who could leap from the floor to our shoulders without leaving a mark, who bounded after the toys we threw and returned them to us, who loved us and loved the other cats so much that she would run toward trouble, suffering or sadness and throw her love at the problem. I had never seen that in any being before, let alone a cat, and it taught me a great deal about the nature of compassion.
Years passed, and she picked up nicknames; "Gray Head of Badness", "Miss Jingles" and most often "Winterkins". The time came when she could no longer leap to our shoulders, and soon after she developed a strange cough. Her Maine veterinarian couldn't figure out what was causing it, but in 2007, a Michigan vet thought it might be feline asthma. She was right. Initially, Winter was placed on prednisone, but I researched the disease and learned she could take the same asthma medication humans did, so we transitioned her to inhaled drugs right about the time she developed pneumonia. A few months after her recovery, she was intubated for a dental cleaning, which collapsed her right lung and left her very sick. We learned from her emergency vet thereafter that asthmatic cats are anasthesia risks because intubation is hard on their fragile lungs, and we were told she had a year to live, at best. That was in 2010.
But we refused to accept Winter's prognosis. Rather, we increased her medication per the emergency vet's request and took her home. For two weeks, we kept her in a makeshift moist air chamber and gave her percussive therapy three times a day. When she saw the same vet for a follow-up, the woman told us she had never seen such a dramatic improvement in feline lungs. Shortly thereafter, we moved to Canada, and with the help of Winter's Michigan vets, we found a good practice in Nova Scotia.
Here, Winter developed cystitis and a sluggish bowel, likely in response to the stress of her asthma, which was now quite severe. Her visits to the vet became more frequent, and her medications increased. She adapted, and so did we. We were family, after all. She was happy, if well-medicated, and continued to play, hunt mice and curl up with us in bed at night. From the autumn of 2010 to the winter of 2015, we cared for our chronically-ill girl, and she returned our care with unconditional love and the same compassion she had always given us. We never knew how long we would have her, and eventually we stopped worrying about it as her care became routine.
Then a few months ago, she was misdiagnosed with heart disease by a Cape Breton vet we only visited because her regular vet was so far away, and the prescribed treatment weakened her kidneys. She was subsequently treated for a kidney infection and was just settling into a new routine of medications as a cat with chronic renal failure when she developed difficulty breathing. At first, her regular vet in Dartmouth and her new substitute vet in Cape Breton thought she was in end-stage asthma. But she worsened very quickly over the course of a day, and an x-ray revealed fluid in her chest cavity. In a desperate effort to relieve the pressure on her lungs, her chest was tapped with a needle, and some lymphatic fluid was drained that looked perhaps cancerous under a microscope. By this time, she had not slept in nearly a day, her lungs were in danger of respiratory arrest and there was no way to drain the all the fluid in her chest because of her extant health problems. In short, there was nothing anyone could do to help her anymore. She had come to the end of her journey with us.
Winter was our family, and we were her pride. She was ill, but she wasn't defined by her illness any more than we were defined by our care for her. It was what it was, and we would rather have her and all her medications for the rest of our lives than the hole of her absence. We miss our girl; the way she would come to fetch the one of us who was late getting to bed, the way she stayed with us through the night, the way she chirped good morning when we woke, the way she sniffed our faces when we came home from an errand, the kindness in her face, the way she created and held a unique space of love in our home. There is no love so unconditional as that of a companion animal, and we were fortunate to have hers for nearly fifteen years.
Thank you, Winterkins. We promise to remember everything.