I learned recently that in the Polynesian langauge of Hawai’ian, a word for describing the relationship we have with our animals is not “owner,” but kahu. The word doesn’t imply ownership of property; it roughly translates as guardian or attendant. One who is entrusted to care for something precious.
In the spring of 2011, I took on the role of kahu for an adult cat named Wilson. The best available information suggested he was around three-ish or four years old.
My primary intention here is to pay tribute to Wilson, not to recount a detailed play-by-play of the twists and turns of the medical events that led to the agonizing decision to help him out of his ailing body this past weekend. His spiral downward was fast, entirely unexpected, and devastating. I had no inkling we could lose him in such a short time.
On the medical side of things, I’ll simply summarize here by saying that Wilson had a mostly uneventful medical history since I brought him home 12 years ago. We had been at ‘stage 2’ chronic kidney disease (CKD) for awhile, but was holding steady. His bloodwork on the kidney front was quite fine only eight weeks earlier in late June. Ten days ago he was suddenly stricken by terrible constipation, something that had never happened before. The vet visit to help him with that revealed that he had a small amount of fluid in his lungs suggesting he might have heart disease. A trip to a veterinary cardiologist had me initially rejoicing; the echocardiogram revealed his heart was in pretty fine shape. However, bloodwork taken that day made crystal clear that his kidneys had fallen quite suddenly, and steeply, off the cliff. That is what had triggered the constipation. CKD is one thing, but acute renal failure is something else altogether. We had been managing his early-stage CKD quite effectively with diet. But there was no coming back from acute renal failure. When a cat’s kidneys cannot perform their job any longer, the build-up of uremic toxins becomes deadly. Wilson had become deeply lethargic – he was unable to clear simple sedatives I’d given him to take the stress edge off of vet visits, just for starters. After consulting with the vets that I trust most in the world came the agonizing decision to have him euthanized the following day at home. Thankfully, he had an extremely peaceful passing, resting on his favorite spot on our screened porch on Saturday, 26 August 2023.
That’s about all I want to say for the moment about the weeklong medical drama and trauma that got us to that place. Losing Wilson has been devastating beyond anything words can capture. I carry intensely heavy sorrow in these first days without him. But I don’t want to say much about that here either. If you’ve ever had to say goodbye an animal, you already know how wrenching and painful it can be. The contours of my grief are not as compelling or consequential as Wilson’s life. What I want is to pay tribute to Wilson, conveying something that captures the miraculous and amazing being that he was.
Wilson came into my life after I’d decided “no more cats” in the wake the loss of my dear Nettie the Wondercat. I met him by chance when I visited the home of some fine folks who happened to be fostering him. I’d gone there to get a massage with a bodyworker friend whom they were hosting. They encouraged me to consider adopting him, but I declined to even consider it. I was far too grief stricken about Nettie. I was eager then to put a quiet close to that chapter of my life living with cats. Or, at the least, I wanted to try that on for a spell. Find out what it would be like to not have the responsibility and heartache that comes from the commitment to caring for an animal.
Yet after my first brief meeting Wilson? He lingered in my mind. After I left their home, he stuck with me for days and days. He had a ridiculously dashing smudge of white on his nose. But I assumed from what I knew of his background ending up in their foster home that he had to be a skittish, untrusting, nervous, paranoid cat. I wasn’t up for that. Still, when I met him he’d been cucumber cool. His known history and his easygoing temperament didn’t align.
What was it about this guy?
Obviously, I changed my mind about adopting him. I brought him home a week or so later. During the 330-mile roundtrip drive, glancing down at this creature in the carrier in the passenger seat, I recall thinking that I wasn’t so much adopting an adult cat so much as I was bringing home a remarkable being named Wilson who happened to be wearing a tabby cat suit.
From his first minutes in the house, he settled straight in like he owned the joint. He showed no fear. No skittishness. He was playing with a kick toy within moments, strutting around with that sexy and graceful gait of his. From Day One it was like he’d lived here forever and could already lead narrated house tours. We figured out quickly that just about the only turnoff for Wilson was the sound of someone in shoes walking toward him. We’re mostly a shoe-free house here anyway, so that was easy.
About a month after he came home, we did that crazy, rash thing of bringing home a rescue kitten: a darling little pipsqueak named Ernie whom we re-christened as Sidney-Beans.
Wilson took charge of training. He made sure Sidney knew his place in the pecking order. Those two formed a fast and lasting life bond. Play buddies. Grooming buddies. Snuggling sleep buddies. Chase buddies. Wrestle buddies. Wilson also had a way of reminding Sid of his place with an activity that’s not fit for sharing on a family website.
To this day, Wilson strikes me as a miracle. I have loved and cherished every cat I’ve had the privilege of caring for. And when they passed, I was devastated.
Yet there was something different about this guy, right from the start, that had me awestruck. And that’s resulted in a different quality of anguish about his passing. Maybe the way the mind protects the heart is to forget just how hard it is to lose someone we love, but saying goodbye to Wilson has cut me to the quick like almost nothing else ever has.
I never stopped wondering if I was actually good enough for him. He seemed to think I was. I suppose at some point I decided all I could do was take him at his word.
His intelligence astonished me. And he had a streak of unwavering confidence and willfulness I could only salute. Some cats arrive in our lives carrying at some baggage of lurking insecurities or fears. These are the extra-cautious, jumpy creatures that flinch at an unfamiliar sound or dash to a hiding spot when visitors arrive. Those sensitive creatures deserve all the tender, thoughtful, respectful care they can get to even begin to feel safe and comfortable in their surroundings.
That wasn’t Wilson. Heck, he was probably more comfortable here than I’ve ever been, and I am pretty at ease in this little old house. He had that classic “total cat mojo” that Jackson Galaxy writes about: natural ease and self-assurance in his environment, a skinny sassy tail always held high when he strolled about, and an extreme sociability and interest when visitors came.
Wilson is the cat that would jump on a plumber’s back when he was working under the sink to investigate what on earth was so interesting to look at down there.
Wilson got me and I got him right from the start. He slept still as a statue at my side, always leaning in for human contact. Never clingy or needy, but always loving.
His deposits into the joy bank of this home were frequent, generous, and appreciated. More than any other place, he loved lounging on a soft spot on the screened-in porch, taunting birds, eyeing squirrels and chipmunks, and sitting side-by-side with Sidney-Beans to keep vigil on all the goings-on on our street.
He was one of those easy indoor-only cats who never showed interest in dashing out the door to escape to the outdoors. He was content to be exactly where he was, showing none of the outdoor wanderlust that many cats have. It was a relief that he seemed satisfied to be here because I knew I never wanted to live here without him.
His head tilt to get my attention or puzzle out why I was so slow and tight-fisted with the treats? It was to die for.
Wilson became my practice companion when I took up learning the banjo at the start of the COVID pandemic shutdown. By contrast, Sidney has a wholly different opinion of the sound of a banjo. Whenever I pulled out the instrument to practice, Wilson leaped over to listen. Sid scurried away to muffle his ears in another room or pray for soft cello music. Sometimes he’d lean his face directly into the banjo head to feel the vibration for minutes at a time. He sat on, and wrinkled, any sheet music so I couldn’t see it. I bought a music stand to solve that problem, but he’d head-butt that until it toppled over. It’s because of Wilson that I favor learning music by ear instead of banjo tablature.
He never had a noisy purr motor. His purr was understated. Just like his classy good looks and the way he wore that mackerel tabby cat suit. His stride was graceful. I’m certain he would look as dashing in a tuxedo as he would in torn jeans and a designer blazer; I’d come to regard him as the Cary Grant of cats. I told more than a few friends over the years that if Wilson were a different species, he’d be the only one I’d cheat on my husband to be with.
Our bond grew deeper over the 12 too-short years I had with him. I feel lucky that his life and mine intersected. Having Wilson in my daily life was like winning a massive lottery or something. I couldn’t believe my good fortune that a sentient being that wise, elegant, willful, and intelligent loved me back.
The final kind and merciful act I could offer him was to help ease him peacefully out of his beautiful form. And to hand him off to wherever it is he goes to begin his next chapter.
The night before Dr. Deborah Boos, a wonderful vet, came to the house for the euthanasia, a friend had texted me to “hold him tight.” I know what they meant. And yet as I snuggled next to that very weary, beautiful being that night, thanking him for being in my life and telling him I loved him, it came to me that it was a time to let my hold on him become a little lighter, not tighter. I didn’t want him to sense me tugging him back into this world while his assignment was to glide without resistance into whatever was next for him. Which isn’t to say I didn’t hold him near and softly all through our final night together.
Thank you, Wilson, for enriching life in this house in a bajillion different ways. Thank you for being a steady, sanguine, and sacred presence that blessed our lives. Thank you for loving your human staff so well and being such an entertaining and big-brotherly love-bug in Sidney-Beans’ life. He misses you like crazy, so please check in with him when you can. He’s never known life here without you, after all.
My friend Crystal, the Executive Director of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, did us a tremendous kindness the day we had him put to sleep. She hung prayer flags for him at the sacred stupa at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana. That place on this spinning blue planet that has held my heart since 2004. It’s the place where the ashes of my beloved Duke and Nettie are scattered. And it’s where I will scatter Wilson’s remains next summer.
I’ll never stop missing you, loving you, or thanking you, Wilson. Godspeed, beloved fellow. One of my life’s greatest honors has been to be your kahu. May the next leg of your journey be safe, may you always be free from suffering, and may you always be drizzled with joy.