I found Orpheus at a rundown city pound on a roadtrip to Southern Utah, lying unresponsive in the litter tray at the back of his cage. He was less than two weeks old, small enough to fit in the palm of one hand. His eyes had just opened. He was too young to eat the cat food they had left him, and starvation had eaten away at his back legs until they were all bones and he couldn't move. The staff said they were going to put him down that night. I begged them to let me take him home instead, to give him one warm, loved night before he died. I took him to the vet where my sister-in-law worked and they gave him glucose injections and gently told us that there was no chance he would make it. I stayed up all night with him, dripping formula into his mouth with a rag and crying. The next night I had a bottle. The night after, I knew I had a new baby.
I called him Orpheus, because he came back from the dead. He hopped like a rabbit those first two weeks until his legs started working again. He got HUGE - 14 lean pounds of muscle and fluff. His fur never stopped growing - the tufts between his toes sprouted back like Hermes' winged sandals, his belly fur dragged when he walked. He looked more bedraggled wolf than cat, with a low, swaggering gait and a tail that dragged behind him, constantly twitching. His wide green eyes had the habit of turning solid black when he got excited. I called him Bright Eyes in those days, after the Looney Tunes' Jane Goodall parody: he was stupid, but adorably enthusiastic about everything.
He was always a neurotic, delicate cat, prone to illness and panic. The first time I moved, when he was about a year old, I found him motionless on my bed, awake but unresponsive. I took him to the pet emergency hospital where he was diagnosed with liver failure brought on by stress. They put him on an IV drip overnight. When I came back in the morning, they told me he wasn't going to make it; he wasn't improving. I went to the cages to see him, crying. And when he saw me there, his whole body changed. He lit up. He purred and rubbed my hand and ate all the treats i had brought. The vet didn't know what to make of it. But he was better, and he went home right then.
I have another cat who predates Orpheus. To her, I am just the bringer of food. To Orpheus, I was everything: protector, comforter, the one who fixes hurts and scares away enemies, the one who relieves boredom and resolves sadness, the one to tell about achievements and the one to hide with when frightened. He would curl up behind me in my chair when I was working, and climb under the covers to sleep with me at night, his body pressed against my belly, kneading his paws into my stomach until he fell asleep. I would bury my face in his fur some days and just breathe in his smell: a cinnamony musk that made all my woes fade away into insignificance.
When my house burned down, I found him the next day, mournfully sitting on what was once my kitchen table, surveying the charred remains of his toys and beds. He came to the awful hotel for a month and spent every night crying at the door for his lost home. Most nights I cried with him. But eventually, he learned to love a new house, and many others after that one. He even moved to a new state. Every change, he would retreat for a week, barely eating, but come back in the end, for me. As long as we had each other, he was okay.
As he got on in years, those back legs stopped working so well, knotted with arthritis. He developed hyperthyroidism and had to be medicated twice a day. His weight dropped down, gradually at first and then more dramatically. His first nickname became ever more appropriate: Little One. He started having random episodes once a year where he would just lay in one spot for a few weeks, moving only to drag himself to the litter and back. Then he would recover, the same bright-eyed fluffball, ready to hunt down leaves and chirp at birds with me.
Two months ago, he didn't get better.
I took him to the vet and they found an inoperable bladder tumor. While I was asking about diet and treatment and timelines, they were gently telling me he wasn't going to make it. I didn't believe them; they ALWAYS said that. We tried an experimental medication that was toxic in cats, but might reduce the tumor. In days, he was back on his feet, feistier than ever. I felt vindicated. But then he stopped eating. He started getting so dehydrated that I had to inject fluids every night. He stopped sleeping on my bed. When I petted him, he would drag himself to his feet and limp away.
I put off the inevitable. I wanted my kitten back, purring under the covers, playing under the rug. My Bright Eyes, my Little One, my death-defying Orpheus. But he was already gone; he disappeared two months ago when I wasn't looking, leaving behind this dull-eyed, fading shell.
So I set up the euthanasia a few days in advance, at home, and started counting all the lasts: the last time I would fill his fountain. The last time I would lay out clean blankets on his bed. The last time I would wake up to the sound of him pawing at the towel under his water bowl while he drank.
And in the end, he didn't make it. He got worse and worse and one night at 3AM as he lay next to me on the bed, I realized that his eyes were bright and clear. My little baby was back, and he was scared. He was twitching uncontrollably. He was in pain. So I wrapped him in every blanket in the house, and brought him to the hospital to be put down. He was too weak to move, and just stared at me with terrified eyes. And quicker than I had thought possible, they put him to sleep. Just when he had come back. He was gone. And I drove home, alone, on empty streets.
16 years ago, I naively took home a tiny kitten for one night. I had no idea how much work he would be, how much money he would cost, how many times I would cry over him (or rage at him, for that matter). After all the times he was ready to give up and I persuaded him to give life one more chance, I find that this time I am the one curled up in a ball, not wanting to eat or move until things go back to the way they were. But they never can. I just have to wait, and adjust to being by myself.