Losing Gremlin was harder than Tia. Hilde and I are both compulsive cat-lovers, but Gremlin was definitely a "favorite son" among the herd.
He was also the only non-rescue cat. Hilde used to breed Siamese, for several years before she and I got together, until the combination of rheumatoid arthritis, becoming a parent, and a divorce forced Hilde to close the cattery. But she's always had at least one pure-bred Siamese as a pet since then (and a fair number of our rescue cats have been part-Siamese).
Hilde likes Siamese because they tend to have a strong personality. Gremlin took that trait and double-downed on it. He got his name when the cattery we were negotiating with, back in 2000, sent a photo of a Siamese kitten with hu-u-u-u-uge ears and a wicked expression, causing me to exclaim "It's a gremlin!"
(Yet one more proof that you should be careful what you name your cats. Sometimes they live up to it.)
Gremlin was a cat for whom rules, guidelines and acceptable behavior were optional. Counters and tabletops were one more roadway. He was usually the smallest cat in the household, and at the same time the almost-alpha cat of the pack. (He could have probably been the alpha cat, but he didn't have any interest in leadership, being much more into the "instant and unquestioning obedience to my slightest whim" thing.) But he was also the cat who would spend hours on Hilde's lap, and snuggle up to her legs in bed at night.
Gremlin's final illness was unexpected and sudden. Late Saturday night, June 25th, our housemate Tabbi called out "I think Gremlin's choking!" I found him on the dining room floor, frantic and making retching motions, head and jaws extended, as if something was blocking his airway. When I tried to hold him, he bit one of my fingers deeply, something he'd never done before. (There'd been a few "play bites" over the years, but this one went deep, nearly to the bone.) I grabbed our cat carrier and had Tabbi and James, one of our other housemates, get Gremlin into it while I threw some clothes on, grabbed the loaded carrier from them, ran out to the car, and sped off to the closest Emergency Animal Clinic.
"sped" is not an exaggeration. I've had the Outlander up to 80 mph on the freeway occasionally, but this was the first time I've ever driven 80 mph on city streets. Gremlin thrashed and made strangled throat noises during the ten-minute dash, but the noises slowed, then stopped about a half-mile away from the clinic.
How bad off was he? Bad enough that the emergency vet's first notation on the medical chart was "DOA". Chest compressions and oxygen got Gremlin breathing again.
While x-rays were taken and bloodwork done, I tried to think what might have caused Gremlin's choking. Eventually I realized that he'd been occasionally acting, for about the previous week, like he was trying to cough up a hairball. (Gremlin never coughed up the type of Big-Momma, "Oh my God! What IS that thing?" hairballs our long-haired cats sometimes produce, but he'd bring up an occasional thin, streamlined version.) He'd also acted like he was getting the beginnings of a head cold. With hindsight, these might actually have been the early symptoms of whatever was causing his respiratory distress.
Which was uncertain. X-rays showed no actual blockage in the air way, and the lungs looked pretty clear. He'd been placed in an oxygen cage, and had recovered dramatically, regaining consciousness and alertness. Throughout the night, the oxygen ration was stepped down to normal levels, and the vet thought Gremlin able to go home Sunday morning, to be followed up on by his regular veterinarian on Monday.
Except Sunday night was a repeat of Saturday night, but catching the early choking signs soon enough to get Gremlin back to the Emergency Clinic and the oxygen cage while still conscious. An internal medicine specialist performed an ultrasound and endoscopy the next morning, and drew some fluid from the lung for further testing. The fluid in the lung was not a good sign, and Gremlin was started on an antibiotic and bronchodilator while the fluid samples were being tested. This time Gremlin was kept until Wednesday morning, when he again seemed to be okay without oxygen.
At least until late Thursday night/early Friday morning, when he went into the scary HEY!-CHOKING-TO-DEATH-HERE! behavior for a third time. This time I was at work, and it was James who got to make the mad dash to the Emergency Clinic. (Thank you, James.)
Back to the oxygen cage. By this point, we were waiting for the final test results from the fluid samples. The fluid and mucuous in Gremlin's lung did NOT appear to be coming from a bacterial infection, we knew by this point. One of the alternate possibilities raised by the internist was Valley Fever, and it was that test we were waiting for the results on.
In the meantime, Gremlin became a full-time occupant of the oxygen cage, and despite medication, seemed to slowly be getting worse. When the door would be opened for cleaning or feeding or visits, and regular air replaced the oxygen-rich environment, he'd start showing beginning signs of distress within a few minutes. He never got weaned back to regular air this time. (Part of this may have been because after three episodes of choking and agonal gasping and straining to breath, the internal stress and strain he'd gone through would have been like being in a bad fistfight with your own insides.) The fluid in his lungs did not improve under the antibiotic treatment.
The Valley Fever test came back negative. At this point, the internist thought there were two possibilities: Gremlin might have aspirated something foreign into his lung, or there might be cancer. In either case, surgery to remove the affected part of the lung would be the next step.
And that was when Hilde and I had to make a decision. I thought it was most likely the cancer diagnosis was the correct one. (The first visit's emergency vet had raised cancer as a possibility.) So even if Gremlin survived the lung surgery and rallied back to health, there was a possibility the cancer had metatasized elsewhere in the body and the surgery would only be a delaying tactic, not a cure.
And there was another factor, the factor no one likes to think about. Gremlin's medical bills had already cost nearly $8,000. Surgery and aftercare would be at least another $5,000. We would have maxed out our primary credit card and had to move to using a second one, something I'd never had to do before. And there was a significant possibility that all those extra efforts and expenses wouldn't save Gremlin, or save him only temporarily.
That's something you don't want to think about. It's something you don't want to have to think about. Thinking about it gives you feelings of guilt, of betraying your beloved pet. You don't want to be "reasonable". You don't want to be "pragmatic". You want the financial costs to be irrelevant, to not be a factor in your decisions. But there's a point when those costs become so overwhelming that they have to become a factor.
So we made the decision, to stop Gremlin's treatment and have him put to sleep. This was tough, and made tougher because, just so long as he stayed in that oxygen cage, he didn't seem sick. He was active, and alert, and annoyed that he was being kept in a strange place and in a cage. (That was another factor to consider: Even if we could afford to continue paying hundreds of dollars a day to keep him in that oxygen cage, how did it feel to Gremlin to go from having a territory of several thousand square feet to being restricted to one of less than a square yard?
We were put into one of the examination rooms, where the doctor brought Gremlin to us a few minutes later. We gave him petting and chin-critches and held him for a little while, until he began to show early signs of having to work at drawing breath. I held Gremlin in my arms while the doctor put the syringe's contents into the injection port in Gremlin's front leg, and then he was gone.
We had Gremlin cremated, and the box with his ashes is on top of the A/V cabinet in our family room. We've always buried our pets before, but it's gotten harder to go through that again, especially after burying Tia just a month or so before Gremlin's illness. (And it's probably not going to be too much longer before Rikkus, the frail old man of our cat herd, passes on.)
I'm not a believer in Heaven or Hell for humans, but I'd like to think there's a Heaven for cats, where the food and water dishes fill themselves, where you can actually catch that damned red dot, and where there's always a sunbeam to sleep in.