It has been three months since we lost Ariel. I've taken too long, but it has been hard to write this memorial. For one thing, even though every animal that has been part of my life has been special, he was that extra special friend to me; he came to me when I was a stranger in a strange land, and he shared that adventure with me. For another, we had to be away from home, leaving him critically ill and in the hands of our wonderful pet sitter, when he died. So there is a certain measure of guilt that goes with the loss. And also a huge debt of gratitude to Paula and to the staff at Montrose Pet Hospital, for being there for him when we were not.
But really what I want to share now is who he was, my little (well, not so little, in his prime he was the Rocky of cats, compact and muscular) Spanish gatito. He was Ariel, my Gatito Pequeñito, , my Arielito, Kitty Pasta (it's a bilingual pun, you see).
Yes, he was a boy-cat - he was named after the impish creature Prospero found in a cloven pine in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and not after the little mermaid. He was so named because I first spotted him under a bush, as I passed by it on the way to lunch one day. I was working in Spain at a European Space Agency facility that was located in a large open area overlooked by a crumbling castle. The station property was densely populated with feral cats and rabbits, the latter serving as the diet for the former. But this little cat was different. He was a late adolescent and would have been gangly anyway, but he was also dangerously emaciated and the look he gave me said, "I want to be with you, but I am afraid". I spent the day trying to catch him, each time I got just a little closer before he would run out of reach and then stop and wait for me. Finally I was able to pick him up, but that was too much for him and he ran off leaving me to staunch the bleeding… undaunted I returned the next morning with a friend, a borrowed carrier and a can of food, and home he went with me.
He was, indeed, starving, essentially in the midst of plenty. I would watch out my office window as the local cats hunted and once saw a small cat carry off a full-sized rabbit so large she could barely hold it off the ground, still kicking. Ariel had none of the survival skills of the resident cat population, and I have always assumed he was a cute kitten that got dumped when he stopped being cute. One thing for sure, he had utterly no outdoor survival skills. On the few occasions he found himself outside the house (Spanish homes don't have window screens) he would sit and cower and wait for me to come and rescue him.
So there I was with an animated skeleton in a cat carrier. The vet I found in the small town of El Escorial was not a whole lot of help, having little understanding of why people would keep cats rather than dogs and no feline bedside manner. On more than one occasion we had to retrieve the terrified cat from various hiding places in the exam room after an escape. At that point my Spanish was severely limited which made the whole adventure that much more adventurous. I was later able to persuade this vet, whose horrified expression suggested he identified his manhood entirely too closely with that of his patients, to neuter Ariel only after a number of increasingly insistent conversations, He agreed, finally, when, as a mature male, he began spraying my bed! But on that first visit, he sent us home, with instructions to wash off the rancid-garlic-oil he was coated in and to feed him. He left me unsure if the scrawny, weightless package of bones and fur was likely to survive.
But survive he did. At first he did not want me to touch him, but he ate and drank well. Within 48 hours he was sleeping on top of my head for the warmth. After a month or so he turned into the happy, affectionate soul he would remain for the rest of his life, although it took a return to the US (a whole adventure on its own) before he suddenly transformed from a gangly slender cat - POOF! - into a robust and muscular one. He loved to snuggle up next to a warm human, even climbing under the covers and resting his head on an arm. He was sweetness incarnate, always easy to handle, always cheerful, if a bit sedate. When we added Nikki to our family in 2009 we weren't quite sure how he, and Pepe, with whom he had a negotiated truce, would cope with a younger cat. Not to worry, he and Nikki became the best of friends and we often caught them curled up together. He reminded me of a shy, older, bookish man walking out with a cute girl, partly embarrassed and partly proud. She misses him, too.
He lived a healthy and happy life into his early teens. One day about a year ago, we felt he was not quite right, losing a bit of weight, sleeping even more than usual, and he was diagnosed with mild compromise to his kidney function. I think it was then that his flirtation with starvation caught up with him, because after a period of holding his own without any treatment, he suddenly went downhill rapidly, losing weight and becoming quite weak. We tried fluid dialysis and supporting him at home with subcutaneous fluids, but his body was just done, I think. The timing was heart-rending because my husband and I were committed to an event in Death Valley just at the time his illness became critical.
My husband wrote the following about the phone call I got from Ben and its aftermath in his blog (www.badwaterbill.com). The phone call was a kind of miracle of its own - I was out in Death Valley halfway between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells with nothing but miles and miles of desert around, where the phone had no business finding coverage.
Here is what he wrote:
"Little Spanish Ariel was named from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" because he was found under a bush, starving, covered with oil, and near death. […] When Deborah brought him home from Spain, he met his forced siblings, Kira and Merlin. A fast friendship in the new family was not exactly what happened, but tolerance and some comfort in each other's company finally came to pass.
I first met Ariel not long after. He was a bit nervous about new people, but he could see in me someone that was not a worry. Deborah told me he did not like being picked up. That is the wrong thing to say to me. I moved carefully toward him, introducing myself. He was happy with that, so up he came into my arms. My first real greeting with this fine, loving cat was to have him throw his paws around my neck and put his head under my chin, purring happily. And so, another new friendship was born.
Ariel was a heat seeker. He loved his heated bed, but he loved the lesser in temperature human warmth more. He would, usually, politely check to see if we would accept his nuzzling. Sometimes, he would just assume and take his place next to us in bed. Like all strong friendships, there were ups and downs. He could be annoying at times, and he could get grumpy if we did not do just want he wanted on occasion. But, forgiveness would immediately follow, as if we really could do no wrong. In full health, Ariel, I called him Rurr Rurr, walked like a tiny bulldog. His countenance was regal. He loved us and when not sleeping, he would show us every chance he got.
Deborah worried a bit that Ariel's traumatic youth might take him from us early. Perhaps she was right. At 14 years old, Ariel's kidneys started to fail. With care and the right food, it looked like he might have years. Such would not be the case. Cats instinctually hide how they are feeling when they are sick. Ariel was a pro at that. When Deborah and I left for Death Valley for my training session in July, he appeared well and we were content to leave him in the capable hands of our long time cat sitter. He likely stayed in his bed the times she visited, so she had no reason to worry, either. When we returned five days later, an Ariel made up of little more than skin and bones greeted us. His kidney function had declined drastically. We knew the end would come much sooner than we wanted. We would make his last months or weeks good ones. We finished preparations for Death Valley and we left believing we would find Ariel greeting us as always, if not the muscled kitty he once had been.
The call came Monday evening, as I headed toward Stovepipe Wells. Somehow Deborah had cellular connectively where we had never seen it before. The call was weak. She did not want to tell me what the call was about, but I read it on her face. While we were somewhere on the road to Stovepipe Wells, Ariel with dignity and compassion would be sent to cross the Rainbow Bridge. His time had come. I headed into the setting sun with a heavy heart, and determination in my eyes. The hot breeze quickly dried the tears.
"You will never leave me
nor shall anything part us
You are my cat and
I am your human -
Now and onwards
Into the fullness of peace"
-- Hilaire Belloc
Goodbye Ariel, I miss you.