My Sister’s Cats: A Story About Commitment

My sister Andrea had a tough beginning and her life never really got any easier. By her 30s, when she was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, she had settled down and found some happiness taking care of animals, many of them rescued from bad homes or abandonment.

A year ago last fall, after 15 years battling one medical setback after another, she called me, crying, and asked me to take her half-Siamese, partly feral cat Tinker to a shelter. She was too sick and weak and couldn’t handle his needs anymore.

The C Word
It didn’t occur to me to take him. I didn’t have a steady job and was living in a friend’s basement. I was a dog person and didn’t really get cats. And I was terrified of commitment, especially not being able to take care of animals. I tried to find someone among my cat people friends, but no new owner materialized.

One of the many permanent wounds of Andrea’s life was losing her then-3-year-old son to Social Services. Wondering where he was, if he was okay, if she should have fought harder to keep him. I couldn’t imagine taking Tinks to a shelter, even a good no-kill place, and leaving him there to fend for himself. Our mom and other sister Beth had shouldered most of the responsibility for taking care of Andrea, but neither of them could take Tinks.

Time for me to grow up a little and commit. My housemate, a lifelong cat person herself, said yes and I was so relieved to be able to tell my sister that I would take her boy cat.

As the story goes, Andrea had found out her neighbor was beating up on the alley cat he’d taken in. She stormed over and took Tinker away, blending him in with her older cat Daisy. He hid whenever I came over. I’d barely seen him except once when he let me pet him until he bit me.

Picking him up was both easier and more painful than I’d imagined. Andrea, barely able to walk or breathe, managed to wrestle him into the cat carrier, managed to keep it together, managed to let him go. But it was the last thing she wanted to do. She knew her time to go was near or she never would have given up her Tinkie.

He yowled all the way to his new home but once there, went tharn and wouldn’t come out of his carrier. Andrea and my Facebook friends said to leave him alone and let him come to me. After three days, he came out of his hiding place and started eating. Another week and he let me play with him. I was amazed as he slowly began to adapt, to trust again, to accept me as the person who would be taking care of him. After a few weeks, Andrea asked if I liked having a cat and I could honestly answer yes.

Around Thanksgiving, the fistula they’d put in Andrea’s leg for easier dialysis failed again. She had to go into the hospital for the thousandth time. Others had always taken care of the cats when Andrea was away. This time I said I’d go feed Daisy. I had the feeling she should get to know me.

Daisy lived at the vet’s when she was a kitten, abandoned when her owners didn’t want to pay the bill. One of the vet techs talked Andrea into taking the sweet little thing. Alone in Andrea’s place without even Tinks for company, Daisy came out when I poured her food, a small black and white cat who at 14 looked and acted like a kitten. She cuddled sort of desperately with me and I called Andrea and told her how much she was missed. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if she didn’t have her fur baby to come home to.

December 1st, 2012
Less than a week later, Andrea was home when the fistula burst open again. She was alone in her apartment except for Daisy–Mom made it there before Andrea was completely gone but she was unresponsive.

Then the hospital scenes. Waiting in the private room where they pull families aside to give them bad news. The doctor coming in to tell us Andrea couldn’t be revived. Crying, viewing the body, praying, phone calls. Touching my sister’s cold arm, I promised her that I would do everything in my power to keep her babies warm and safe and dry.

Beth and I went to get Daisy. The little cat waiting alone for the mom who would never come home. Daisy hid in her usual place behind the entertainment center, running away through my sister’s blood, the chaos of the EMTs trying to save her. Mom had tried to warn us about all the blood, but of course you never really–

All the way home, I worried about Daisy, that she wouldn’t be okay, that she couldn’t bond with anyone else. But she came out of the carrier after a few hours, or at least tried to–Tinks had become used to being an only cat and didn’t want to let her out. Scraggly and reeking of my sister’s cigarette smoke, she still crawled onto my lap and let me pet her. She was okay, a small miracle.

Trips to the Vet
Only not so okay. Less than a month later, she got a nasty UTI, which led to hyperthyroid pills, which led to a diagnosis of kidney failure. She was very sick and the vet didn’t know how long she had. I received just the smallest taste of what it must have been like for my mother, rushing her daughter to the ER, tending to her, getting her meds, wondering how bad it was, unable to sleep for worry. But I was grateful Daisy’s body had waited until after my sister left to fall apart. Too awful for Andrea to have to know about that.

Another thing I’m  grateful for is that I managed to get it together to take pictures of Tinks so that during that last hospital stay I could bring the camera to my sister. She was so relieved to see the boy she’d had to give up looking healthy and happy. Now when I grab the camera and take pictures of the kitties doing silly little nothings, I like to imagine Andrea can see them, like looking through a magic mirror. She knows her sister was good to her word and the fur babies are warm and safe and dry. And loved beyond all reason.

Cat Lady
Now, over a year later, thanks to a great vet and great friends and family who’ve helped me afford my sick little kitty, Daisy is still here, still taunting Tinks into chasing her to get him in trouble, still sickly but hanging in there. I’m a crazy cat lady, with mugs and sweaters and cat toys to prove it. And when I feel survivor’s guilt, that these are my sister’s cats and she should be here to bask in the juicy kitty love, I tell myself that at least they’re with family, the last living connection to my sister.

When people give me a hard time about staying home with my cats, the expense, giving up writer’s conferences and Comic Con, I brush it off. I hold tight to Daisy when she clings to me like a little monkey baby. I pay attention to Tinks when he needs me to and leave him alone when he doesn’t. For someone who’s not religious, a promise to a sister on her deathbed is as close as I come to the sacred. What could be more important than this?

I even bought a house with my sister Beth and committed to staying in it so our sister’s cats would have a permanent place to live. Commitment, hard and scary though it is, no longer feels like it’s choking me or like a burden. It feels like home.

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