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we buried elf today
november 30, 2000
Elf was our first cat.
We found her at Operation Kindness, a local animal shelter, ten years ago.
We wandered through the back rooms piled high with cages, and through the mesh of one Mary's and Elf's eyes met. Holding her for the first time ever, up against her blouse, Elf looking up and Mary looking down, Mary asked, "Do you think she likes me?"
She was a skinny gray torti, gray and brown body, a gray head with white spiked around her nose and eyes. Because of the white illumination of her features, we talked of her 'flashlight face'.
She was found under a car. Only a few weeks old at the time. The attendant who handed her over to us after we filled out the paperwork held her at arm's length, Elf's four little legs shooting out in different directions. "She didn't like her flea bath. This is one unhappy cat."
She was feisty. The energy inside her was bigger than her body.
We have videotapes of her from that first year, leaping around our apartment, so manic she seemed to be flying around any object on the floor, batting at it.
While we were at work, we kept her closed in our bathroom. Each night, when we got home, we'd open the bathroom door like opening Pandora's box, Elf out like a sprite, the bathroom she had abandoned beribboned with unraveled toilet paper.
We bought another cat, Rudo, to keep her company during the day.
The night we brought Rudo home, a quiet black kitten Elf's size, we put him down outside the kitchen. Elf spent the rest of the evening flying around the apartment, occasionally swooping down to swat the top of his head. Breaking the new boy in. We held her in our arms at one point. Her eyes were dancing around like ping-pong balls.
Despite her tremendous energy, eventually, as she started to get old, after we had moved to our own home, she put on some weight to where her body assumed a teardrop shape as she leaped from kitchen floor to kitchen counter. We took to calling her 'Elf-aphant'.
But then, in the mid-nineties, she started losing weight.
It was so gradual we didn't notice at first. When we did, we took her to a vet, because we loved her more than anything else in the world other than ourselves, and we wanted to make sure she was okay.
The vet took some tests, came back to the room where we were waiting, hands in our laps, and told us she had feline leukemia.
That was four years ago.
Feline leukemia is fatal. Most victims die within a year of diagnosis.
But Elf was a fighter. There were some days when she seemed down, when her spirit seemed depleted, and her fur matted, but the next day she'd be sprightly again, leaping up on counters, meowing at us for attention, hopping up on the bed to curl on Mary's chest while we watched TV.
Here's a couple of examples of Elf's feistiness during that period.
1. We took all our cats in to have their front paws declawed. Once we brought them home, we constructed a castle wall of cardboard around the kitchen area to keep them confined there until they healed. The three boys settled on the kitchen floor within the confined area, no fight left to them. Within five minutes, Elf had scaled the wall, thin shoulders rippling as she clambered over the top to enjoy the freedom of roaming wherever she wanted, leaving bloody paw prints everywhere on our white carpets.
2. Because of the progressive nature of her disease, she eventually had to have most of her teeth pulled, as they became infected. After one major oral surgery, to where she was left with one front fang and little else, we shut her in our master closet, behind heavy, sliding mirror doors, so she wouldn't be bothered by the three boys. When we came home that night she had somehow, incredibly, slid those heavy doors open, waiting at the head of the phalanx of cats at our back door.
3. She loved prowling around in our garage. That was her backyard. We never let our cats outside, because of all the dangers. We hadn't let her or the other cats in the garage for a while, because it had gotten so cluttered. Finally, one Saturday, we spent the whole day cleaning it up, making it 'cat-proof'. Each time we came in for another drink of water, or to get another garbage bag, she'd race in from wherever she had been, tense as a teenager on four legs, looking up from the kitchen floor at our faces to see if the garage was ready yet. Once she got out there, she immediately flew up to the hood of our car. We heard a bang, bang, bang. She was repeatedly flinging herself up in the air from the hood, trying to grab the very top of the antenna.
She was a fighter. She never complained, like cats so often do. When we brought her to the vet's each Saturday for her chemotherapy treatment, she went into the back room willingly. The doctor told us she handled the procedure coolly, never once flinching when needle after needle was pushed into her thin stomach.
But we could see her gradual decline. Over the years, watching her try to clean herself, or try to eat, we used to say to each other, "It's not easy being Elf." But through it all, she kept her playfulness, her love of us. She taught us, by her example, willpower, strength, grace, and dignity. We learned more from her about how to handle life's ups and downs than we ever did from any human. Outside of each other, she will probably remain the biggest, most important influence on our lives.
She was a better, wiser, nobler friend to us than any man or woman.
Each evening, in bed, when we turned off the TV and got ready to go to sleep, we'd feel the spring on the mattress as she bounded on the bed, stopping briefly by me for a head-rubbing, then continuing on to Mary, her true love, to curl up on her chest. I never saw such a closeness between cat and human as I did between Elf and Mary. Mary would talk to her briefly, sometimes whisper to her how much she loved her, sometimes sing to her in the quiet of our bedroom the old song, 'Only you'. Throughout, Elf would stare into Mary's eyes, with rapt attention. Did she understand the words? Probably not. Did she understand the emotion? You better believe it.
We buried Elf today.
She was the daughter we never had, as surely as if Mary had given birth to her.
This past Monday, November 27, we returned to work after Thanksgiving vacation. That evening, at one point, we squirted some canned whipped cream down into a ramekin for her, a favorite treat. Moments later, she sprung up onto the bed, mouth encircled with the white remnants of her treat, like the perfect 'Got Milk?' ad.
The next day, Tuesday, when we got home, we couldn't find Elf anywhere, stepping past the three boys to look for her. This was not the first time this had happened. Eventually, we found her at the back of one of the kitchen cabinets, behind an accordion file of receipts.
We pulled her out, but her four legs drooped more than usual.
We watched her that evening, and she seemed listless. Not her usual self.
The next morning, Wednesday the 29th, yesterday, she was barely moving. She made it to a bowl of water we kept on the kitchen counter just for her, and she drank from it for a long, frightening period of time, way past normal.
As we got ready to leave for work, she hopped onto our breakfast nook table, lying in a patch of early morning sunlight. We put her bowl of water there, and again, she lapped from it for a long, long time.
We decided to drive home at lunch to see how she was doing.
She was even more listless. For the first time ever, petting her fur, her fur felt like the fur on a stuffed animal.
We took her to the veterinary hospital. The doctor who examined her, not her regular doctor, who was unavailable, was cheerful. According to her, Elf's organs seemed okay, and there didn't seem to be any tumors. We arranged to leave her overnight, so tests could be run.
I called the hospital this morning, to see if we could take her home. Her regular doctor, Dr. Tabone, got on the phone. "She's in end stage leukemia. She's dying."
I guess Mary and I always knew we would hear those words one day, but we always hoped and prayed they'd be years away.
I asked a lot of questions, none of which really meant anything, thanked the doctor, and hung up. I looked at the phone, knowing Mary was waiting anxiously for me to call, to let her know how Elf was doing.
We both left work, driving over to the hospital to be present when Elf was put to sleep. We went into the anteroom with dead eyes, just wanting to get this over with.
We were escorted into the same small examination room where we had waited years ago, on our first visit.
A male assistant brought Elf in, wrapped in a white towel, so we could spend some private time with her before Dr. Tabone came in.
Although her body was hopelessly thin-- down to a mere two and a half pounds-- and her back legs weak, her eyes were momentarily alert on seeing us, and we both thought, thinking back to all the other times over the years where she started wasting away, but then through sheer Elf will-power, forced herself well again, Maybe she can make it again. Maybe she can pull off another Elf miracle.
But within a minute of holding her, petting her, and kissing her on top of her head, we knew. As Mary held her in her lap, Elf would suddenly stop breathing, for half a minute or so, horribly long, like time underwater, then laboriously heave and start up again.
We knew it was over.
Dr. Tabone came in with the same male assistant.
We talked briefly, then Tabone slipped a syringe into the bandage around Elf's right front leg.
We watched as the contents of the syringe flowed into our dear, sweet daughter.
What was administered was an overdose of anesthesia. That's what's meant by putting a pet 'to sleep.'
We had been warned she might cry out, but that she would be in no pain.
Mary held her in her lap, both my hands on Elf, as the anesthesia went into her.
She did cry out, once, a horrible, heart-rending cry of tired protest, almost, but not, as powerful as the cry of birth, and then her body flexed in Mary's lap. The doctor signaled the male assistant to get a second, unexpectedly needed, syringe, which he also slid into her thin veins.
Like I said, she was a real fighter.
She coughed a few times, her body shuddered, let out a tremendous sigh, as she often did when lying in bed all those years next to Mary, ready to fall asleep, and Mary said she suddenly felt this incredible energy pass through, a whoosh that felt like the freshest breeze.
That was Elf's soul.
The doctor held his stethoscope against her bony chest, listening. She was dead. Her long, thin body was limp on Mary's lap, head, with its one fang left, lolled.
She died at 11:15 a.m. We drove her home, dug a hole in our backyard under a spreading pear tree, and buried her at 12:30 p.m.
For the past twenty years or so, we've kept annual wall calendars with a box for each day of the year. In each box, we wrote what happened that day, so we'd have a daily diary of our past together.
We also keep a software-generated calendar that lists everything that's happened in our lives over the years for each calendar day. I happened to look at the entry for November 30, and was stunned to see that exactly ten years ago today, to this very date, we first brought Elf home to live with us.
So we had precisely one decade with her, to the day.
I think that precision is too great to be a coincidence.
I think at some time over the years of watching over her, taking her in for chemotherapy, hand-feeding her when she couldn't feed herself, one or the other of us must have prayed, "Please, dear God, at least give us ten years with her."
Which is precisely what happened.
Right now, we feel terrible. It's a sorrow so deep it feels like sickness. Everywhere we go in our home, there seems to be dozens of things in each room that remind us of her. The kitchen is particularly hard, since she spent so much time there, near the end. It's hard to listen to music, since so much music is sad. But much worse than the sadness, is the loss. To put it as plainly as possible, we just really miss her. Miss going out in the kitchen and seeing her on top of the little TV we keep out there, miss going to bed at night and not feeling her hop up on the mattress to join us in sleep.
After her death, I was in the bathroom, and suddenly started thinking of her again. And started crying again. I went back to our bedroom, and Mary was crying too. She said she had been lying there, and abruptly felt a body land on the mattress just like Elf always did. She said Chirper and Rudo, at the same time, suddenly stood up from their naps, staring at the spot where Mary had felt the landing.
We believe in ghosts, and thank God for them.
We buried her where we did, under the pear tree in our backyard, because, years ago, when she was still young and healthy, she used to love looking out the picture window in our breakfast nook at that spot. We had planted lantanna there, and once it bloomed, a wide variety of butterflies would flit atop the yellow lantanna blooms, causing Elf, twenty feet away, behind glass, to leap against the windows as if she could grasp something ungraspable.
Years ago, too, during a winter particularly cold for Dallas, we actually got icicles hanging off our eaves above that same wide window. Mary went out one morning to get some coffee. Elf wheeled around from her watch of the slow drip, drip, of icicles melting, calling out to her mommy to join her at the window, which Mary gladly did, to witness this additional, astonishing, absolutely fascinating proof of how wonderful our world is.