Monday, May 18, 2020

An Ode to Sam

We'll begin with a fast-forward to the mournful end - our beloved cat Sam died last month in my arms at the local vet while I bawled my eyes out. What follows is my best effort at shining some light on his pure soul, adventurous spirit, and myriad hijinks. It's a mix of narrative, asides, and vignettes, and all of it was pretty difficult to write, so good luck making sense of it. If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you met Sam, or knew him well, or maybe even cared for him for some stretch of time while we were away. In any case, sincere thanks for whatever role you played in his life.


In late 2008, a few months after arriving in Reno after being hogtied and chucked into the trunk of the car, Ethel thought it might be cool to get a cat, so she made some advance visits to the Nevada Humane Society and quickly discovered that of their ~600 adoptable cats, only a handful had the joie de vivre that appealed to her. I accompanied her for the final visit, and really, there was only one choice. It was the cuddly one who had a hell of a voice and a considerable knack for stealing food from the other cats' cages. As such, the 11-month-old tabby with aggravatingly symmetric swirls and stripes came home with us, and there was no reason for us to change his name from what the NHS had given him. Sam was now part of the family.

Between 2008 and 2014, Sam moved house with us four times around Reno, and each time, he quickly became "acquainted" with the wildlife in the area. Birds, lizards, rabbits, and mice were all fair game, and in his remaining waking hours, he proved to have a remarkably friendly temperament. Sam really only had two modes: murderous rampage and unrestrained cuddles. OK, I guess some minor modes included dizzying climbing antics and calorie-shredding playtime, but it's safe to say he traded complexity for aptitude across his chosen pursuits.

When he was still super young, he got super dirty pretty frequently, and we hadn't yet figured out that he was fine with being bathed but showers weren't at all cool with him; maybe the noise, maybe the feel of the water, who knows. Anyhow, I remember being in the tiny shower with him, and with no run-up, he jumped straight up 2m/6.5ft and clambered over the top of the shower door and plummeted, sopping, to safety. As I was impressed more than anything, he thusly received a lifetime get-out-of-jail free card for the shower.

When Ethel and I would go on walks around the neighborhood at night, Sam would frequently follow us, but never too close...he'd be up to a minute behind, darting in and out of the shadows, up trees, and over rocks. He'd shadow us for a mile or more, which was equal parts awesome and terrifying, as I wasn't sure that encouraging him to expand his territory that much was necessarily a good thing, but he always made it home.

One notable habit of his was a nightly inspection of the kitchen countertop for anything that warranted tasting or further deconstruction. This certainly trained us to be more diligent about our cleanup routine; no such thing as uncovered butter with a cat in the house.

From the very first conversation we had about returning to New Zealand, which I think was in 2009, our calculus included the cost of bringing Sam with us; there was to be no abandonment of this little beast.

NZ happens to have extraordinarily strict (and for good reason) biosecurity laws, and hence, the hoops to jump through in order to bring a household pet into the country are prodigious and then some. Once we were committed to the move ourselves and had a date locked down, we began Sam's process. Tests, vaccinations, certifications, vet visits, and permit fees become our lingo for several months, and then, at the final stage, we discovered that his rabies vaccination had expired during the process, and not only would he have to get a new one, but that he'd also have to wait for several months to prove that he didn't have rabies. The only out we had was to let him stay with my dad in Reno for the intervening months, which they both handled like champs. Nonetheless, the setback was a serious bummer and we felt awful about being split up from the furry child for the interim.

5 months later, it was finally time. I was in the US for a work trip, and while the exact details are a bit hazy, Sam made the journey from Reno down to San Francisco (I think I flew to Reno and drove him down), where I handed him off to the pet transport people (you don't fly -with- your pet; they're "cargo") along with a mountain of paperwork and promised him that I'd see him on the flip side. Upon his arrival in NZ, he served his mandatory 10-day quarantine sentence (this used to be ~6 weeks, but they increased the front-end diligence to be able to reduce the quarantine) at the only quarantine facility on the South Island, on the outskirts of Christchurch.

We weighed the pros and cons of driving vs. flying to get him from Christchurch to Queenstown and ultimately settled on flying. So I flew there, borrowed a friend's car (thanks Porno) to rescue him from quarantine (and he was Very Happy to See Me), then again handed him off at the airport to go into the hold. All that remained was this 45-minute turboprop flight to finally get him to his new home!

As we approached Queenstown, the cloud layer increased, and when we circled the first time, I knew we were on thin ice. When we circled the second time, the next announcement was inevitable: we couldn't land at ZQN due to the low ceiling and instead were diverting to Inver-fucking-cargill, a 2.5-hour bus trip away. I was the last person on the bus as Sam was the last piece of luggage to come off the plane, and the last seat on the bus was the one in the middle in the back row. Sam's carrier was (as mandated by international pet transport regulations) freakin' GIGANTIC, and I rammed it into the shoulders of every aisle passenger on the bus on my walk of shame to the back, where I turned around, apologized like a Canadian to the seatmates I was about to wedge myself between, and plonked down with this plastic prison spanning from my lap to eye level.

Sam did great on the bus. Really. So by one account, we were only about 5 hours late getting him home, and by another account, it was 5 months, but we're splitting hairs at this point. The reunion was joyous, cuddles were had, and we started introducing him to his new home. The $20 pound cat from Reno was now a several thousand dollar dual citizen!

After a couple days, his desire to be outside had reached a fever pitch, so we started the process of introducing him to his new habitat. The day after that, he went outside and didn't come back. The furry little motherfucker went walkabout on us, and I spent an inordinate amount of time canvassing our 'hood in ever-increasing spirals, introducing myself to bemused neighbors, and generally being distraught. In the middle of the night, 3 days after disappearing, he wandered in, nonchalant as ever, and I'd put money on him having been deep in a bush no more than a few meters from the house the entire time, just...recalibrating...or whatever it is cats do when they move a third of the way across the globe.

From his arrival in NZ, Sam moved with us 5 more times (we've moved a lot over the years, I suppose). When we finished building our house in late 2017, we were happy to have the build done, happy to be less nomadic, and also happy to give the little beast a more stable home. I guess that lasted for about a year…

His entrenchment into our rural home included a shocking culling of the local rabbit population. I lost count of the live and semi-live rabbits we chased around the house, and it was with a particular dread that I slowly opened the laundry room door each morning to see how far it would swing before it would be halted by the partial corpse of a midnight meal. Some of them were appalling. I'd also like to state for the record that, while in the US, Sam was an enthusiastic bird hunter, but after we moved to Rabbit Central, I saw zero evidence of even a single bird kill from him. I guess rabbit is more satisfying hunting, or just higher in the Hierarchy of Snacks. He would also come for evening romps around the property with us, galloping from rock to rock and bush to bush. I think it was pretty fun for all of us.

But really, the point of everything I've written so far is to impress upon you that he was the paragon of health, Healthiest Cat Ever, and that we weren't prepared in the least bit for what was to come.

Our first indication that anything was awry was September 2018, just under a month before Ethel gave birth to a slightly less furry child. Without any change in his temperament or activity level, Sam's belly had swollen from "exemplary athlete" to "nearly a basketball." A few trips to the vet later, we knew...nothing. Bloodwork was normal, ultrasound just showed the fluid, and that's about it.

At this point, not knowing what was wrong was the worst part. We went down internet rabbit holes of every persuasion, and our vet probably got sick of fielding questions about every damn vector under the sun. I think I might actually have broken Google's autocomplete feature and/or been the first person to ever search for "false pregnancy in male cat" (it's worth pointing out that Ethel was now 39 weeks pregnant and they looked quite a lot like each other). Our local vet referred us to a vet in Christchurch who was used to weird cases, House of the cat world or something, and also had the best ultrasound machine in the country.

We loaded up, again, 39 weeks gone, and drove our once-lithe-now-roly-poly beastie to Chch, where testing was again inconclusive. Strangely, after returning, it seemed that the mild sedative he'd been given wouldn't wear off, and over the course of the next week, his life force faded away, I'd estimate down to 2%, and we thought we'd be saying goodbye to him at the same time we were welcoming the Howling Marshmallow into the fold. In that week, for the first time ever, there weren't inquisitive little paw prints on the kitchen counter in the morning. Like it or not, we suddenly had a very low-tech metric for his overall health. Thankfully, the Chch vet suggested a last-ditch treatment regimen, and we decided to see if it'd work.

Astoundingly, the neighbor who was watching him while we were away birthing Echo reported that he turned a corner the day after Ethel popped and that he might not be in dire straits after all. Thrilled to see a change, we continued treating him, he steadily improved, and we felt like it was a judicious choice on his part to use up one of his lives. After a few weeks, we had paw prints on the counter again! Well done, Sam; good to have ya back.

Echo's awareness of her surroundings of course began with boob and only boob, but rapidly expanded to include the rest of Ethel, Sam, and me (and probably in that order). His tolerance of her unmitigated and unintentioned abuse amazed us both, and he skipped countless opportunities to teach her lessons she probably deserved.

In August of 2019, his belly had swollen again, so we spoke to the Chch vet again, who asserted a hunch that while it wasn't definitively diagnosed, it was most likely treatable lymphoma. So we took him in to get drained, and his bloodwork was still essentially normal, and we continued on a slightly different treatment regimen, this time with a scary pill that required rubber gloves to administer, and all was well. Back to full activity, and no wavering of his cat-ness through it all.

And then in early April, we noticed that his abdomen was swelling up again, so we booked him in for another drain, which obviously meant that he wasn't completely healthy, but if an every-eight-months drain was the new normal, well, so be it. He got drained, but now his bloodwork had some serious red flags regarding anemia, and the vet's recommendation was to either switch up the treatment regimen or call it a day. This visit was on a Thursday, and the chat with the vet was on the Friday, and we could either get him on the new meds on Saturday or on the vet's next duty day, which was the following Thursday. This was a difficult proverbial pill to swallow, but we decided to let him get over his "hangover" of visiting the vet and getting drained before we jumped to any conclusions.

He'd been up on the kitchen counter Thursday morning.

And he never got over the hangover.

Over the next few days, poor Sammy completely unraveled. Between going to the vet on Thursday afternoon and that Monday, he went from normal to bad to unthinkably awful. There were some signs that the end was nigh, and on Monday night, I stayed up with him, hand-feeding him, cleaning up after him, and comforting him. There was simply nothing left.

When Tuesday rolled around, we had no choice. His suffering was impossible to ignore; Ethel rang the vet. While NZ's highest level of Covid lockdown meant that vets couldn't make home visits, one of us could at least go in with him. When the time came, we gathered ourselves for some final excruciating photos and loaded him up.

Our entire relationship with Sam was based on trust. We never betrayed his trust and vice-versa. The two biggest tests of this trust were our habitual abandonments when we'd go traveling, from which we of course always returned, and the occasional trips to the vet. Consequently, it absolutely fucking wrecked me, and still does, that his last act of trusting me was to load into the infernal carrier for a car ride to the vet, except this time it was an act of pure betrayal with no chance for redemption. I'd rather he had been carried off by a hawk than marched to his death in my arms.

The vet prepped him while I waited outside, and then I was allowed to go in and sit on the Bench of Sadness while the vet waited the mandated 2 meters away with the fatal dose. I was allowed a couple minutes to comfort him (slash prepare myself).

At 4:35pm on the 21st of April, 2020, I nodded to the vet, and then I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed while Sam's pupils dilated and he went limp in my arms. I slunk outside and waited while they confirmed that he was indeed gone, put him back in the gigantic carrier for the last time, and brought him out to me. I drove him home, but the betrayal was complete.

Echo watched while Ethel and I took turns hacking away a hole in our marvelously rocky ground. There wasn't much digging, rather more picking away at schist, but we ended up with something that resembled a hole. Ethel wrapped his still-warm and curled body in a sheet, we said our goodbyes as the veil of dusk rose, and we tossed the symbolically heavy first shovel of dirt on top of the sheet.

We're going to plant a little garden around him, and he's got a hell of a view in the meantime. His spot is just a few meters off my daily circuit around the property, too.

Samuel Murphy-Drake, you did mighty well for a pound cat from the streets of Reno. The last year and a half shattered our assumptions of your immortality; 12 is barely moving the needle for a cat. We miss your happy voice and your kneading claws and your expressive whiskers and your smug eyes and your soft ears every single day.

Sam -- 2008-2020


Past Detritus