NOOKIE: June 1 1997 - January 5, 2009
He was taken seriously ill on New Year's Day, while I was at work. His caregiver Auntie S, said he had gone off his food and wasn't drinking, and worse, he was struggling to breathe.
Alarm bells went off in me. Respiratory distress should never be taken lightly. I asked Auntie S to send him immediately to A&E. It was a public holiday, so some poor vet at the Animal Recovery Centre in Balestier Road had to be summoned back to work.
That evening, 500 ml of fluid was drawn out from his lungs - quite a lot for a creature the size of a cat. He was to spend the next four days in the ICU, and be put through a battery of tests and ultrasound scans to find out what was wrong with him.
Quite a lot, it turned out. The vet said she was reasonably sure his problems started with an enlarged heart, around which fluid had also collected. His liver was also enlarged, and there was a stone in one of his kidneys. On top of it all, he was anaemic.
The prognosis was poor, said the vet, and that Nookie had, at the very most, a month or two left to live. Treatment would be palliative, that is, aimed only at relieving his discomfort. It would involve drawing fluids regularly from his flooded lungs to help him breathe more easily; it may also - with my consent - include the very risky procedure to drain the fluids from around his heart.
The vet suspected Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), which remains incurable to this day. It can't even be diagnosed conclusively. Incurable, it hits either kittens or old cats with compromised immune systems. (Nookie qualifies as an old cat.) It presents vague symptoms that could pass off for a mere cold. Cats with it accumulate fluids around the heart or lungs or stomach, have dull coats and are generally lethargic.
If it wasn't FIP, it could be a diaphragmatic hernia, in which a part of the stomach or bowel intrudes into or punctures the diaphragm, hence the breathing difficulties. Such hernias result from falls, but since he is so old and largely not very active, a fall wouldn't have been the likely cause. However, such hernias can also happen in cats born with a weakness in their diaphragm, the ill effects of which don't show up till they are old.
FIP or hernia or whatever, it all doesn't matter now.
Practically every one of Nookie's major organs was not working and not likely to start up again. All I was concerned about when he was in hospital was that he not be in fear, in pain or feeling discomfort.
On hindsight, I'm glad that I made the call to send him for emergency care on Jan 1 (entailing extra holiday charges). Auntie S had said she would wait till the next day to see a vet during regular hours. At least, after the fluid was out, he could breathe better.
On Jan 3, it hit me really hard that I would have to make The Call that most pet owners dread - to decide whether their good friend lives on for further treatment or is "let go". The choice was between keeping Nookie in ICU for the last month (or two) of his life, facing fluid extractions every so often, and releasing him from this suffering.
I chose the second, wrenching though it was. It hit me that this would be it, Nookie would be no more. It also hit me that it was going to fall to me and nobody else to decide when he died. He himself had no say.
But it was painful watching him gasp for breath again, just two days after the lung tap. He wasn't eating or drinking, and had to be fed intravenously.(He did, however, sit up to greet me when I visited him every day from Jan 2 till the end.)
This is one cat who has never relished being in strange places or being seen by vets even for his annual checkup and shots, never mind being in a strange place AND sick to boot.
He was a creature of habit all right. I remember his being upset some years ago when I switched from working the night shift to regular hours. He moped around, slept a lot more than usual, but came around to my new routine after a while.
The renovations made to our home presented another example of his inability to accept change. Three months after the works were completed, he was still shredding our (new) furniture.
I have come across people who love their pets and would accept living in raggedy or even less-than-clean homes. But I have always been house-proud, and it dismayed me that my friend wasn't as enthusiastic about our new-and-improved home.
To top this off, it wasn't just between him and me. There was also my non-cat-person husband, who had by then, tolerated having Nookie around for NINE years. For a non-cat person, I can imagine, it would not have been pleasant having his fine fur flying all over, scratched furniture, those annoying brown marks he left in corners to mark his territory. Litter pan smells were also something else...
So, looking back now, I would say, next to choosing to put Nookie to sleep, choosing to board him out with Auntie S would rank right up there among the hard decisions I've had to take with this long-time friend of mine.
Before I boarded him out, there was a brief experiment with Soft Paws. These were rubber toe caps I ordered online, which had to be glued onto his front claws to minimise the damage to the furniture. (Declawing him was never an option. It is a cruel, disfiguring, painful and psychologically damaging operation.) Soft Paws didn't quite work. He kept pulling them off, or they fell off. At least, the wild colours Soft Paws came in provided some amusement for us humans, if not Nookie himself. (In this picture, you can just make out the green Christmas season ones on his front paws.)
I look back now on his years with us and remember the many times, on my days off, he would come sit by me on the sofa, unfailingly aligning his trunk with my leg, or lying in such a way that one part of his body had to be against me. He knew getting on the sofa was a matter of permission, and would sometimes sit primly at my feet, looking solemnly at me until I said "Nookie, up!".
He also knew the rules about not going into the bedrooms or jumping on the kitchen counter, though this didn't stop him from breaking them. It was just a "cat thing" to investigate the sights, sounds and smells from beyond the house. I would just shout "Nookie, NO!" and guilt would come over his mug as he leaped off the bedroom or kitchen window sill.
He had a couple of "escapes". With our balcony just one floor off the ground, he would spend a good part of his day with his feet on the balcony grilles, looking at the sparrows twittering in the garden. He would let out a series of excited clicks as his lips quivered, thrilled at the sight of live food.
I never figured he would take the leap. Then one day he did. I didn't see him jump, but it must be how he got out, because our front door is always shut. He was missing for a day and a night.
I thought I had lost him for good, until he signalled his return - via the front door, mind you - with a loud meow. I opened the door and he strolled in, slightly grubby from a night's worth of adventures, but behaving like nothing ever happened.
There was the "toe incident" of 2006, while he was already living with Auntie S. His right rear paw got caught between the slats of a double-decker bed and when he yanked to get it free, he left his small toe hanging by a shred of skin. That entailed a trip to the vet and emergency surgery, of course. It healed beautifully, and his gait was never affected.
He loved the scent of toothpaste, hated oranges. I couldn't persuade him to drink milk or lap up eggs for a beautiful coat, but he was happy enough to eat his Science Diet kibble - smelly to me - six days of the week.
Saturday mornings were his favourite, because that was "wet food" day. You know how detached cats normally are, but Nookie was a hopeless, dog-like fawning mass of tensed muscle come Saturday mornings. He would curl around my legs, trail me, look terribly appealing and meow urgently until he heard the divine sound of a can of tuna - mondo smelly to me - being opened.
He had those green eyes which would stare back at me sometimes and make me wonder what was going on in his head. Or maybe he was telling me he knew what was going on in mine.
Other times, he would creep me out staring at something in mid-air that only he, apparently, could see. You know what they say about cats being spiritual, or capable of seeing other-worldly beings...
He was a big guy. Used to his size, I used to wonder how come Singapore's strays were so scrawny. Of course, he was fat at some points - or, as a visiting plumber once said diplomatically, "muscular" - but after I put him on a lower-fat, "senior cats" version of Science Diet at age six, his waistline came back.
His face could have been described as prettily feminine. Many visitors thought he was a she. The vet's assistant, whose obvious love for animals enabled her to see past his scrawny frame a few days before his death, said he didn't look 11 at all. Some senior toms have that grizzled, "bearded" look or just looked plain old, but not Nookie.
I spent the last hour of his life sitting quietly with him, petting him and asking the good Lord to come take his spirit to a better place. He was hooked up to an IV, and sitting on a pan lined with surgical sheets. Despite his condition, he was still quite restless, trying to climb out of the pan. Each attempt exhausted him, so he would lay his head on my lap to rest for a while, his nostrils flaring rhythmically from his exertions.
Anyone coming into the clinic would have seen me with him and just taken me for a pet owner visiting her pet. Who would have thought that he was waiting for surgery on some canine to be done so his own life could be ended?
The vet came around, put a liquid painkiller into his IV with a syringe, followed by a second syringe of bright green fluid. "Goodbye, buddy," she said, chucking him under his chin. Then she put a syringe-ful of saline into his IV to "flush it in".
Nookie went into a crouch, even as I supported his head. He gave two little coughs and went still, and the light went out of his eyes.
Goodbye, Nookie. It was a good run. Thank you for having been there. You will be missed.