Of Grief, "The Gambler" and My Cat Rufus (2000-2012)

Friday morning I went to check on my cat Rufus, who had been fighting a serious illness for the past few months, but who we thought was getting better. He wasn't better.
Publish date:
August 20, 2012
cats, loss, cat ladies

Had you the power to travel the miles between whereever you are and my home on the northeastern shore of the United States, and peered into my front windows into my living room at around 9am on Saturday morning, you would have witnessed an odd spectacle. You would have seen me, tousled and bleak from a deficit of quality sleep, curled up on our massive grey sofa, staring at my iPhone, on which was playing a video of Kenny Rogers’ 1978 hit “The Gambler,” and sobbing.

You probably know it:

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em

Know when to walk away, and know when to run

You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table

There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.

I first heard “The Gambler” in a car, a ragged old 1970s Ford Bronco, which belonged to the parents of one of my best middle school friends. We grew up on the same street and thus knew one another’s families well, and often we would tag along to family dinners out, to pick up her little sister from gymnastics, to drive to Lums or some other kids-eat-cheap establishment with early bird specials because her dad was a renowned cheapskate, a thing he took great pride in.

I was stuck to the vinyl back seat when “The Gambler” came on the radio, and her mom started singing, which was, of course, terrifically embarrassing, until we all started singing, her parents, her little sister, my friend and me, because it was fun, and funny, and because even sullen preteens sometimes remember that it takes so much energy to be unimpressed all the time, and that it’s OK to be silly and have fun once in awhile, and by the end the car was ringing with our tuneless efforts at belting out the chorus.

A year or two later I would be with her when we came home from a dinner out with my family, when we would walk into her house to find her mother convulsively sobbing, choking with grief as she told her daughter that her father was dead, and they two would clutch at each other and wail with an incomparable horror, an otherworldly, superhuman sound of loss and shock, while I held her younger sister who stood silent, shellshocked and perfectly still.

And I would think about “The Gambler.”

Now every gambler knows that the secret to surviving

Is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep

'Cause every hand's a winner and every hand's a loser

And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.

This past Friday morning, I went into the living room -- the same room where I would be crying on Saturday -- to check on my cat Rufus, for whom I’d been carefully administering medical care over the past few months as he recovered from liver failure. For all our efforts, he hadn’t been bouncing back as we’d hoped; in the past two weeks other problems had started to appear.

On his weekly vet visits his kidneys were looking suspicious; his calcium was dangerously high. The feeding tube we’d had installed in his neck had gotten him through the liver failure but he still was not showing any interest in food, and that was unusual and a little inexplicable. We were supplying him with subcutaneous fluids daily, to support his kidneys, which weren’t flushing the toxins out of his body as they should. We were waiting on further test results to help us diagnose was what wrong.

On Friday I went to check on him prior to preparing his first tube-feeding of the day, and found him collapsed beside his water fountain, his back legs splayed awkwardly behind him as if they had ceased to function, his shoulders and head slumped against the floor in an unnatural posture. I petted him, said his name, and he tried to lift his head only to drop it heavily, resting at an angle on one of his front paws. His breathing was shallow and labored. He had vomited a bit on himself and been unable to clean it off.

My husband had the car, he was driving to work. I called him and told him to come home, because I needed the car, because something was very wrong.

At the ER, the critical care doctor came into the exam room where we waited for a diagnosis, and her face spoke volumes before she said a word. Rufus was extremely ill. He was severely anemic; his blood sugar was so high it couldn’t be measured, and given his lack of diabetes this would likely indicate a serious problem with his pancreas. His kidneys had all but failed; the subcutaneous fluids we’d so carefully been dispensing weren’t even being absorbed, but were instead pooling as fluid around his heart and lungs.

The vet suggested a litany of things that could be done, that we could hospitalize him, but she also expressed skepticism that he would pull through with even the most extraordinary measures. She said that if we had both been out at work all day, we likely would have returned home that evening to find that Rufus had died. I kept crying and apologizing for crying.

My husband and I have had many cats, and subsequently had many cats whose lives we chose to end in order to limit their suffering, and we knew without speaking that to hospitalize Rufus on the slim chance that he might live a bit longer would have been selfish. It was time. You’ve got to know when to fold ‘em.

As many times as we’ve done it, the moment of ending it never gets any easier. They brought Rufus in to the bereavement room where we waited; he was wrapped in a thick blanket, and my husband and I took turns holding him for nearly half an hour. Rufus did not purr, he only occasionally tried to shift, but we hugged him and petted him and told him how glad we were to have known him.

We only had Rufus in our lives for just shy of four years; this is the gamble you take when you adopt a senior cat. Four years did not seem like it was enough -- but it’s what we got.

We called the doctor back in and she gave Rufus the final injection as I hugged him to my chest; he reared a bit, yowled some, which can happen, and then his eyes went dim, his pupils spinning wide, eclipsing his beautiful green eyes, turning them nearly black. His body slackened, shuddered, slackened again. I’ve done this before and every time you can feel the life that was the cat you loved evaporate from his body; you want to believe it isn’t just extinguished, that it persists in the universe somewhere, but who knows.

Mourning a pet is difficult to describe; it is neither easier nor harder than mourning a person, but it is very different. I saw Rufus every day; in truth, as a person who works at home, I probably spent more hours in his presence each day than I did my husband’s.

And through these months of turning our home into a low-rent cat hospital, it never really occurred to me that he would not eventually get better -- surely I had my days when the frustration was overwhelming, but I never gave up on the belief that Rufus would make it through, somehow. I could not imagine that this could be the end. So soon? You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table.

Penny, our calico, and likely Rufus’s daughter, is our lone pet for now. She has Rufus’s eyes, and in moments of fanciful longing over the past few days, I have looked at her and thought I saw a glimmer of Rufus looking back at me. We will probably get another cat, in time, and someday Penny too will die, and there are cats not born yet that will one day be ours, whom we will also see off into oblivion in some distant future, and though we will never meet another Rufus, we will meet other cats who are special and precious in their own ways.

I tell myself that it is a gift to feel this kind of loss, because feeling it means we have allowed ourselves to love someone (or something) so completely even knowing that should the inevitable ever separate us, the pain would be unendureable. We rolled the dice on our love eventually being paid for in heartbreak, opened ourselves to that possibility fearlessly, without restraint, and our lives are richer for the experience, even if it means we will someday spend a future Saturday morning sitting on the sofa in the late summer sun, sobbing at YouTube, realizing what we will miss, and what we have lost.

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em

Know when to walk away, and know when to run

You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table

There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.

As Rufus was much beloved by so many people who never even met him, if you’d like to do something in his memory, please consider donating a few dollars to the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, MA, where we originally adopted him. And thank you, for sharing in the magic that was this absurd and marvelous cat.