In August 2017 Hurricane Harvey spawned storms into Tampa Bay that downed trees and knocked out power. Andy and I went on our usual walk along the Hillsborough River after the storms had passed. There was debris and water everywhere, but the clouds had gone and the sky had that post-storm brightness to it, even late in the evening. That’s when I heard it: the meow.
I stopped, held my breath, shushed Andy–that had been a kitten! He insisted it wasn’t, but I knew: this was what I had trained my whole life for. I was about to find a lost, baby cat.
And we did. On the bank of the river, hidden under a huge downed palm frond, soaking wet, shivering, and screaming. All alone, this nearly-drowned little black floof had been waiting, and when we got close enough, he decided to cry. He knew we weren’t predators, or was just incredibly lucky, but I’d come to learn that we were actually the lucky ones that day.
The vet diagnosed him with an eye infection, fleas, ring worm, and regular old worms. And then we had to evacuate for Hurricane Irma. Things were a blur on that trip, Bart and Di were horrified and miserable, the new kitten had to be separated from the others to keep the big boys from getting ring worm, Andy and I slept in separate rooms at his dad’s house in Ohio to accommodate the cats. My stress levels were so high I was losing clumps of hair and then got a patch of ring worm myself, I nearly had a mental breakdown somewhere in one of the Carolinas. But we had a name: Rutherford.
Rutherford was a menace. He had no boundaries or fear. He had to be sequestered for a number of weeks when we first found him because of that ring worm, so we kept him in the office which had these glass French doors leading out to it off the living room. We’d feed him in the morning before heading to work, then shut him up in there alone. One day we came home and what did we see but one of the other boys, Di, with his face smooshed up against the glass wearing a look of terror. He’d gotten locked in there on accident and boy was he sorry about that. Rutherford, on the other hand, was absolutely thrilled at his first full day with a big brother to play with.
When he didn’t have to be locked away anymore, he spent as much time as possible with someone else. He slept above our heads on the pillows or sometimes on our necks. He tried to cuddle Bart and Di when we were busy. He attacked feet and chased the vacuum. He loved black beans and spinach leaves. He hated nothing. Well, nothing except this stuffed reindeer which over the next two years would lose both antlers and its tail.
Bart and Di were closing in on a decade old. Even though they were from the same litter, they grew out of cuddling one another long ago. Rutherford never understood why they didn’t want him around, and sometimes he would get his way with them, but to me and Andy, he became our eternal snuggle bug. He liked to be carried, to lay in your lap, to flop over your arm at night. He just wanted to be with you as much as possible, and his presence was almost always welcome. Except when cooking dinner, sometimes he’d have to be shut in another room. Another cat would be pissed about that, but when you finally let Rutherford out he was just thrilled to hang out with you again. And get some of whatever you made.
We moved to Atlanta shortly after Rutherford became the fifth member of our family. He did a lot of growing up in the apartment we rented in Midtown. We taught him to play monkey in the middle (he was always the monkey) and hide and seek. He started to get an obsession with toilet paper, so we couldn’t keep it on the roll anymore because he’d unravel it and eat as much as possible. He became obsessed with the toilet too, to the point where if it was open for even a second he would go diving in regardless of what was in there. He even taught himself to flush it just to listen to the sound. He was so damn odd, we would tell everyone, Rutherford is just the weirdest cat, we think his brain is broken or something. His quirks, of course, make him special and lovable, but unfortunately we were right about what was wrong.
We moved out of the apartment and into our house here in Atlanta. With more space, Rutherford grew and had an even longer distance to run. It’s strange to us, but because of our two moves, Rutherford spent the majority of his life in this house, over a whole year. Shortly after he turned two, though, I took Rutherford to the vet for a bladder issue. It was September 2019. Simple urinary tract infection, I thought, but when we physically brought him into the vet’s office, well, I don’t know what happened, honestly. There was a buzzer noise, a dog, the smells of other animals, the carrier, just a lot of things, and Rutherford flipped out. His personality went from docile baby to feral monster. He started tearing up the inside of the cage, spitting, hissing, yeowling, he urinated a full day’s worth (he had been having this problem with holding it), and he just could not calm down. It was like a switch flipped, and he was a whole different cat.
He couldn’t be examined, but we managed to get a urine sample that came back with crystals. Antibiotics and pain meds were prescribed, but Rutherford was inconsolable. We returned with him home and tried to let him relax. He couldn’t. He acted like a feral beast and we were complete strangers. We had no idea what to do. We were told to get him to another vet, and so we did. This vet only saw him as some wild animal, they assumed he was always like this with strangers which could not have been further from the truth. They put him under anesthesia to examine him, gave him fluids, expressed his bladder, and tried to figure out what was wrong. There was really no solution, but they were at least able to give him meds.
We got him back home again, and again he didn’t recognize anyone or anything. He hissed and screamed–and I mean screamed–for a week straight. We had him shut in our guest room where I would go in and offer him cat food, human food, kitten milk, anything. He refused it all. He never attacked me, but he hated my presence. It was a little like he’d gone blind or been possessed. Rutherford was completely lost to us.
We had no idea what to do. We were sleeping on our couch because our bedroom was to close to the guest room, and he would start screaming from inside the room if he heard anything out in the hall. And when I say sleeping, I mean “sleeping” as in we were woken multiple times a night, and when we finally did sleep it was fitful and filled with nightmares. It was only a week, but it felt like a lifetime. I would relive any part of my lifetime over again 100 times to not have to relive that week. I cried multiple times a day, I prayed to every deity imaginable, I tried to cast spells, to dig inside myself and grab onto anything I possibly could to heal him. I begged for anyone or anything to just give me whatever he had and to let him go back to normal. Nothing worked, and we were sure he was just going to die in there, alone, hating us, starved, from a burst bladder.
Then we found a literal cat whisperer. We got him to a new, cats-only vet, explained everything, and they put him under again, they expressed his bladder again, they gave him fluids again, they examined him, and they prescribed a host of medications that no one else had ever even suggested to try and help him. We brought him home, and he was still really out of it. This time we put in him the master bathroom, more secluded and quiet, smaller and comforting, and I spent the night sitting on the bathroom floor, just waiting and hoping and praying he might come back to me.
And by some mix of medications and miracles he did.
I wish that were the end of the story. I wish that the recovery he made over the next week or two had just continued on and he integrated back into our family as our happy-go-lucky, weirdo of a third son, but he never really got back to normal. He got to a point where we could allow him to have free reign in our bedroom and bathroom, but if he even smelled the other cats he would get triggered and start to hiss. He’d also get scared and “lost” sometimes. He might see his own reflection and get upset or have a hard time walking without stumbling. We put our mattress onto the ground so he could easily get up in the bed as he’d constantly fall off. He was still only peeing once a day, and he didn’t have total control over his bowels. He didn’t seem able to look up to follow toys, and he would get scared for seemingly no reason. But he was incredibly cuddly, and he wanted to spend all of his time with somebody, which was usually me because I was home 24/7.
I gave him meds 4 times a day and spent every waking moment with him to the point that Bart and Di actually resorted to cuddling each other. I felt particularly bad about that, knowing that I was neglecting them, but my youngest needed me. I know, I was a bad mom, I just didn’t know what else to do. But he was getting better, at least a little bit, until he wasn’t.
He had another episode, he didn’t recognize me, he hissed, he screamed. He had to be put back into the bathroom, alone. I cursed every deity I could think of for taking him away from me again. And so the vet told us he had to go to the neurologist. Our joke had come to fruition.
I drove Rutherford to the animal neurology office on October 7th. Andy had to go to a conference out of town, it had been planned for months, and he wanted to stay home from it to go with me, but I didn’t want him to compromise his job. So he was gone for a week, and on the first day I had to drive 40 miles in Atlanta rush hour traffic (it took about two hours) with a VERY pissed off cat in the backseat.
When I dropped him off to be put under yet again so he could have brain imaging done, I had to fill out a form stating whether I wanted him to be resuscitated if his heart stopped while under. I signed no. I realized at that point he had been through so much, and I just didn’t want him to suffer anymore. I thought, selfishly, it might be better for everyone if he just got to go peacefully in his sleep. I wanted so badly to be with him, but he didn’t recognize me anymore, and I just didn’t want him to hurt.
But he was always ridiculously resilient. I was given the diagnosis, something we feared and I guess sort of knew all along: Rutherford had a neurodegenerative disease that was essentially eating away at his brain. He was only two years old, but he was experiencing a very aggressive, very end-stage type of dementia. Honestly, I don’t know how he kept it together so well for so long. He had his quirks, and every so often he’d go into the bathroom and just sit on the rug and stare at the toilet, but for the most part he was just a weird little dude. I didn’t know he was suffering with such a destructive disease that he’d had his whole life. Finding him abandoned after a storm, and the fact that neither Di nor Bart ever warmed up to him made so much more sense. The cats knew something the humans couldn’t figure out without an MRI: Rutherford was born only to be with us for a very short while.
There was no cure, no reversal of what had been done, there was only an attempt at new meds. I called four human pharmacies til one could fill the prescription for the barbiturate I had the same day, as I hoped I could get it into him before he fully came to from his last bout of anesthesia. I gave it to him, and I waited. He came out of it. He hated me again. I cried all night. I hated myself for not having him put down while he was at the neurologist. I had no idea what the hell I was supposed to do for the next two days alone, giving him medication all by myself, but I figured it out, and it got easier. My mom came to stay with methe final few days Andy was gone as at this point it had been almost a month, and I was losing all sense of who I was. I’ve never been so close to broken.
By the end of the week, right before Andy came home, Rutherford made another turn. The meds, or something, was working. He recognized me, he didn’t hiss, he just wanted to be loved again.
We had a last week with Rutherford before we had to make the call. He got a lot of drug-induced cuddles and took so many naps snuggled up in armpits and thighs. He often forgot where he was–now that we knew what what going on it was more plain to see–and I don’t know that he really knew who Andy and I were anymore, if the previous two years had been swallowed up by disease, but he knew that we were these two big creatures that really loved him and gave him food and were pretty warm, and I think he was happy with that in the end.
He forgot me one last time on a Tuesday night. Andy was strong enough to call an in-home euthanasia service who came out the next morning. We warned the doctor that he might be aggressive and we may have to hold him down to administer the drugs, but Rutherford was nothing short of the best possible boy he could be. And the truth is, he always was the best. He tried harder than anyone knew he was, and he loved more than anyone could have understood.
When my grandma died two years ago I sat cross legged on my living room floor and cried these big, gross tears. Rutherford crawled under my arms and over my legs to get into my lap and reach up to my face to lick it. He was always affectionate and liked to lick faces, but not like that. That had been very special. The only other time he really saw me cry like that was when he was sick, during one of his lucid phases, but before we knew what was really going on. I had laid down on the bed and just started sobbing. Rutherford climbed up onto my chest, laid down, and started licking my face. He didn’t know what was wrong, he just wanted to try and make it right.
This was all five months ago, and some days are just as hard as the day we had to say goodbye, but there is more space between those hard days now. It may sound like an exaggeration, especially if you are privy to some of the objectively bad things I have lived through, but I must tell you that nothing has hurt quite like losing Rutherford. It wasn’t necessarily the death of a pet, so much as it was knowing how young he was and how much he silently struggled before he went, and the pain of being forgotten by him so many times. Ultimately I found it unfair that the universe would give us such an amazing little creature all just to take him away so painfully and so soon. I know you should be thankful for the time you had, and I am, I just find it hard to accept this as our fate, to be separated by disease and death, and just be expected to accept it and move on.
But that, I suppose, is life, the existence we’re forced to endure. There are immutable things whether we like it or not.
Rutherford, thank you for being so easy to love, and for raising the bar so high for everyone else. You may have ruined everything, but for that I couldn’t be more grateful.