Several years ago, I remember going to an office supply store, getting out of the car, looking over at an adjacent pet store, and thinking, “That’s the last store you’ll ever find me in.” It was as if I was referring to a tattoo parlor or a gun store. Completely foreign territory.
A few years later, my youngest son, Andy, then eleven years old, asked about getting a pet. Neither my husband nor I had pets growing up and the idea of getting a dog seemed like too big of a leap. Raising two boys seemed like enough responsibility. We suggested my son think about goldfish. Instead, he proposed a turtle.
We researched on the Internet what it took to raise a turtle. It’s more than you think, without much emotional payback. Nevertheless, we did our due diligence, and visited a friend of my older son, who had turtles as pets. Andy and I were both underwhelmed.
A year later, my son brought up the idea of a cat—not as much work as a dog, but definitely more engaging than a turtle. The entire family decided to look online at the pets available for adoption at the local humane society. We noted cats that seemed to be easier to take care of—short hair instead of long hair, no longer a kitten but not too old, low maintenance vs. high maintenance personality. A friend recommended getting a male, as they seemed to continue to be affectionate throughout their lifetime, while females can become temperamental (okay, let’s stick to the topic.)
The four of us—my husband, my two sons, and I—thought we were only looking when we entered the humane society nearly six years ago. Instead, we left with a large, short-haired male cat, thought to be anywhere from 1-3 years of age, declawed by a previous owner, previously found on the street.
The humane society had named him Llama, but my older son, Casey, thought it wasn’t right for one animal to be named another animal. We took the Spanish pronunciation of the cat’s given name and spelled it phonetically. We named him Yama.
Andy insisted that his name be put on the official papers as Yama’s owner. (Later we would find out that Andy was allergic to cat hair. You can own something and still have it be irritating. ) But we all felt responsible for the well-being of this new living creature who had joined our household. Suddenly, we were pet owners. Like good parents, we researched cat behavior, watched instructional videos about what your cat’s tail can tell you, and introduced him to the litter box. The cat seemed to be well acquainted with litter boxes, for which I was thankful.
We gave the cat his space. Immediately upon entering our house, Yama headed for the basement, into the playroom, and underneath a book case. He stayed there for days, before venturing upstairs, making short appearances in the family room as we watched TV.
In the ensuing months, we got used to Yama and he got used to us. During the day, he ate and slept and gave occasional nudges to our legs and ankles. He “head-butted” my hand as I tipped the metal cup of dry cat food into his bowl. I took this to be a gracious gesture of gratitude. My husband, Chip, cleaned his litter box diligently. He made sure Yama had fresh water every day in a white bowl. We all remembered to keep toilet lids down to prevent unauthorized drinking. I became acquainted with the same pet store that I previously vowed never to enter. Under our care, Yama put on weight, from under 13 pounds when we first got him, to over 20 pounds a year later.
At night, Yama was free to explore and had the run of the house. Occasionally, in the middle of the night, I could hear him tearing across the living room floor, like a teen trying out new tires in an empty parking lot. In the morning, I would see our rug on the wood floor, normally positioned neatly before the front door, pushed in and slightly askew. It was the only sign of Yama’s night on the town.
Over time, Yama’s emotional ownership transferred from my younger son, to my husband, older son and myself. We doted on him, made up nicknames for him (Yamasita, Mr. Yams), and played his favorite game of peek-a-boo on our open staircase. Evenings watching television included Yama on chest or lap, where we indulged him with a neck massage or a head rub. (At times, I wondered if my husband liked the cat more than me. Chip was never quite so forthcoming in offering me massages or beckoning me to join him on the couch.) In the winter, Yama slept in our beds, close to our feet, like a lead-weighted blanket. We lovingly called him names like “Big Old Mau” and “Fat Boy”, especially when he resisted making room in bed for our feet. At the family Christmas dinner that we hosted with aunts, uncles and cousins, my older son, Casey, made a place card for “Mr. Yams”.
The cat became a constant presence in the house, low-key, patiently waiting by his bowl when it was empty, hoping someone would notice enough to fill it up. As my mother would observe, “Yama is a gentleman.” He greeted us by the door leading from the garage when we returned to the house after an outing, whether it was an hour at the grocery store or an evening at a concert. When one of us was sick in bed, Yama snuggled close to that person, sleeping alongside. This was a cat’s version of a sympathy vote. On cold winter nights, Yama wandered into my home office, settling into a director’s chair while I worked at my computer.
About nine months into his residency at the Ross house, Yama escaped—into our fenced-in backyard. Until then, the house was enough new territory to satisfy his curiosity and serve as a playground. One day, Casey opened the sliding glass door to the patio to walk outside. The cat saw his chance to expand his playground and slipped past the opening. He headed for tall grasses near the patio and began to whack at them with his paw.
It wasn’t long before he established his dominancy in the backyard, catching mice, rabbits, and even a bird. This must be what cat nirvana is like—plenty of prey to hunt, and if the day’s bounty was scarce, he had the luxury of returning home to a prepared meal of dehydrated fish-flavored nuggets.
At the end of the day, I would call Yama inside for the night. Usually, he would come running from the far reaches of the back yard, sometimes at top speed, just to show he still had it. Sometimes, like a small child, he had to be coaxed back in. Turning on the sprinkler system never failed to turn him up.
In the morning, Yama became my wake-up call, meowing loudly until I let him out for a morning ramble. When it was too wet or cold to go out, he turned his back on the door and flicked his tail as if to say, “Not now. I’ll go out later.” Other times, he went out briefly and would scratch at my basement level office window, or simply meow. It was his way of saying that he was ready to come back in. More than once, I have been on a business call and after heading upstairs, I would motion him to come through the opening in the sliding glass door. I used to joke that he needed to be welcomed back in.
While the four of us saw plenty of Yama, friends and family--really nearly any visitor to our home--was oblivious to our four-legged companion. When the doorbell rang, Yama was quick to run upstairs and hide in my walk-in closet, behind boxes of wrapping paper and bows. He found other hiding places that became an instant refuge from strangers—behind the filing cabinet in my home office, between the shower curtain and the liner in a basement bathroom, under Casey’s bed, among poster board and old school papers, and once, in a toy box in Andy’s closet.
He lived out the stereotype of a “fraidy cat”, even running away from the noise of aluminum foil being unraveled. He had an intense fear of teenage boys, to the point where I wondered if he had had a bad encounter before he came into our lives. When my sons got older and invited friends over for long bouts of Dungeons and Dragons and late night LAN parties, Yama would be in hiding for hours.
In the end, it wasn’t fear of teenage boys that did Yama in. It was his stomach. Yama would throw up on a monthly basis. Never having owned a cat, my husband and I thought that this is just what cats do. He was losing weight. Last fall, during a checkup, the vet told us that he either had an intestinal disorder, possibly treatable with antibiotics , or in the worst case, the intestinal disorder had transformed into an incurable cancer. We betted on the intestinal disorder, but the antibiotics didn’t work.
This past week, Yama took a distinct turn for the worse. Within 48 hours of noticing that he was lethargic and in pain, we had taken him to the vet twice, gotten numerous tests performed and finally heard from the vet, “The prognosis is not good.” Yama had free floating fluid in his belly, possibly the result of ruptured intestines. His white blood count had shot up to multiple times the normal levels. His body temperature was dropping. He hadn’t eaten in two days.
We decided to end his suffering. The nurse gave us two choices—letting him die on his own or euthanasia. I had not heard that term, “euthanasia” in years, since the days of Jack Kevorkian.
The decision to put him to sleep was not a hard one. Chip and I immediately agreed that it was the humane thing to do. Beyond what the vet was telling us in terms of treatment options and his vital stats, we intuitively knew that the life that Yama led, as part of our household for nearly six years, was gone. We could not turn the clock back.
I am grateful that he was peaceful at the end. The nurse brought Yama into the treatment room, after stabilizing him enough to make him comfortable. Wrapped in a green fleece blanket, his eyes were wide open. She laid him between Chip and me. As we stroked his head, he closed his eyes. Our tired warrior could finally rest. We told him it was okay to go. He did not resist. Chip remarked that for the first time in two days, Yama did not seem be in pain.
When we were ready, the vet came in and explained that Yama would receive two injections. The first was a sedative. She explained that in human terms, it would be akin to being on the operating table and counting from 100 backwards, with not much awareness after 98. The second injection was an overdose that would stop his heart. It would all happen in a matter of seconds.
Chip chose not to be in the room for the injections. He kissed Yama on the head and left the room. I decided to stay, to see him through to the end. It was fast, and from the look on Yama’s face, painless. The only thing that seemed to be amiss was his left ear, which was cocked at a slightly different angle from its normal posture.
After the vet confirmed that his heart had stopped beating, she asked me if I wanted to have a few moments with him. I told her no. I knew that all that was before me was an empty vessel. Yama’s gentle spirit had already gone.
Looking back on Yama’s time with us, I not only became a cat owner. I became a cat lover.
Yama taught me how much animals can be like humans. He knew contentment and peace, laying on a patio chair next to me on a warm summer day. He felt anger when a stray cat entered our yard in the middle of the night and taunted him through the sliding glass door. He knew focus and achievement, mixed with pride after coming inside the house to show us a dead mouse he had caught. He showed loyalty with the many hours by our bedside. He could be curious and playful, fearful and timid, loving and patient.
Chip liked to say that Yama was smarter than a lot of humans. I think he was wiser. He showed me how our presence, over time, translates to genuine love.
Now that Yama is gone, I am learning how to love and let go. I move from moment to moment, between a state of being grateful for the photos and memories and a state of noticing the void in our daily lives and being sad. I never expected to be this heartbroken over the loss of a pet, but I am. As a friend told me recently, our hearts are tender things, but resilient in the end.