I’ve learned some valuable life lessons from Fionn MacCuhul.
Life is short.
Love is vital.
Companionship is cherished.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
We can start over at any time.
We’ve much more in common than not.
I too will die.
In many vital respects, among my very best pals these past 16 years was Fionn MacCuhul. And no, to clarify, my pal wasn’t the storied warrior of Irish legend. Fionn (Finn, or Finnie, as we affectionately addressed him) was my feline companion during that time. He died November 7, at 4:37 p.m., a date and time that I strongly suspect will be forever etched into my soul, along with the dates of passing of other members of my immediate family, that is, my Mom, Dad, sister, grandparents, and Finnie’s ‘adoptive’ sister, Deirdre.
Pictured, Finn and Deirdre in their early years, with a pillow made by my first mother.
I came to relish his companionship, and, to my enduring credit, I never took it for granted. I have, hanging on a latch on my apartment door, a sign that reads, “Have you hugged your cat today?” (As I type this my eyes are brimming with tears, with one stray drop falling onto my upper lip). Yes, I unabashedly state -- I have (or at least did when Finnie was alive) embrace my feline every single day we were together. I savored just about everything about him -- his fragrance, the softness of his fur, the sound of his meowing, the way he would purr when I nuzzled him, how he responded to my voice (and I to his).
I knew within a week of Finn becoming a part of my life that he was a talker, and he, in fact, taught me to talk to him. I must admit that took some time, as I was reticent. I’d never had a feline companion before, and wondered, “Can I have a conversation with a cat?” But he was rapt when I began speaking to him, and I found that hugely encouraging. (More tears are now travelling down my face.)
When Deirdre died in 2011, my friend and neighbor Dawn (their ‘auntie’ and cat-sitter) and I kept waiting to see Finn reflect our grief at Deirdre’s death. But Finnie never seemed to lose stride, never got sentimental or even sad, as best we could tell. He just simply remained, well, happy! Brings to mind the 12-step slogan, “Look back, but don’t stare back.” With Finnie, this wisdom became more visceral.
Pictured, Finn McCool comes to aid the Fianna, by Stephen Reed, 1932. Wikimedia Commons
Finn was a keen hunter, as well, and here perhaps he best took on the personification of his namesake. From early days, we incorporated hunting into the meal time of both Finn and Deirdre, inspired by Anitra Frazier’s book “The New Natural Cat.” She emphasized the value of ‘hunting’ before meal time, to better help felines exercise their hunting proclivities and to stimulate their appetites. We had a large array of items that we employed to provide a hunting experience, including many fabric mice suitable for tossing (and biting), and feathers on a stick that ‘fluthered’ at our direction like wounded ducks.
The value of ‘hunting’ before meal time
Let me also, perhaps bravely, confess to enjoying a power nap when circumstances allow. When I would stretch out on our couch, I merely had to thump the bottom cushion and say, “Finnie, sleepy time,” and, within a few seconds, I enjoyed him and his warmth stretched out alongside, a good few feet.
This reminds me -- Finnie, much to my pleasure, was, like me, long and (relatively) slender, though we came from different parents, much less species. He mysteriously emerged in or near our building on a fateful Thursday in mid-November 1999. A neighbor found him, then about six months old, by the tree in front of our apartment building’s entrance. She took him in, aiming to find him a home. I’ve often wondered where he spent his those first six months.
One placement arranged apparently didn’t work out, and he was found again, near the same tree, a day or so later. I first set eyes on him as I exited the building, heading to Gettysburg for a commemoration. By the tree, another neighbor, Juliette, was holding Finn and introduced us as I headed out, mentioning that Finn (yet to be named) was looking for a home. Surely not coincidentally, I had been thinking about taking in such a feline pal, as I lived by myself.
Pictured, Finn eyeing a red rose, there to help me mourn Deirdre's death a few weeks earlier, May 2011.
I told Juliette that I’d take him when I came back that Sunday night. That night, I collected him from her menagerie, finding him among 2 or 3 other felines, Finn jauntily strutting through her living room. I scooped him up and carried him to his new home one floor above, full of hope and anxiety -- I was now responsible for another living creature. We bonded quickly, Juliette commented, when she visited us a few days later.
The tallest feline I've ever seen
Finn grew into perhaps the tallest feline I’ve ever seen, almost as if my stature (6’4”) inspired him. I always relished Finn’s length, as it seemed to provide yet another affirmation that we were a great match. As well, he had an extraordinarily long tail, which, more times than not, was hoisted happily, indicating that all was well with Finn, and hence my world.
When I would pray and then meditate in the mornings, as I’ve come to do over the years, I would intone a litany of those in my prayer circle, my loved ones and those whom I cared about, and, when I reached “my pal Finnie,” he was always there, perched on the desktop alongside, in easy arm’s reach. I can’t be certain if this was to better assert his desire to ‘hunt’ (most likely) and / or to get some TLC, but he was always alongside. Perhaps my most memorable of numerous recent outbursts of tears came when I prayed the morning after his passing. Reaching out as I intoned his name, I was forced to realize that he was, in fact, gone.
I certainly didn’t expect him to die last month. After all, he was 16 going on 12, at least in my mind’s eye. He’d slowed down some, sensibly, I thought, no longer vaulting from the kitchen table to the refrigerator top to an aerie situated above a cabinet. He showed no signs of arthritis or other obvious age-related disabilities.
So when I took Finn for his bi-annual ‘senior’ checkup, I was quite shocked to be told that his blood panel suggested he had developed severe kidney disease. In retrospect, there were signs -- his large volume of urine the previous month or so, and occasions of urinating outside the box (in our bed a few times, once on my brief case, another time in Dawn’s overnight bag). These seemed aberrations, though, and even, then, I thought, perhaps expressions of mischievousness or pique. He also experienced bouts of constipation, accompanied by some inappetance. But he always rebounded after a few days.
On October 23, his vet called for a few days of intravenous hydration in a hospital setting, which we arranged. He went into a hospital October 28 (what I call Day 1), for what was thought to be three days, his first time overnighting in a hospital since he was neutered as a kitten. His critical numbers didn’t go down, and the vet there thought two more days offered at least a chance that the toxins accumulated in his system could be reduced.
Pictured, Finn and me, a.k.a. "the boys," during one of our frequent power naps.
I was skeptical, but my sweetheart was facing surgery two days hence, and I was having trouble imagining how I could juggle Finn’s care at home with my yearning to support her. So I agreed to the extended stay. On Day 4, still in the hospital, his rear legs would no longer support his weight, something we hoped was temporary. On Day 5, I brought him home with a diagnosis of “end-stage kidney failure.” I was staggered.
Embracing the inevitable
That night, I put him in bed alongside me, not sure if he could make it into bed himself. Unfortunately, after a few comforting hours he urinated. I cleaned him up and put him on the floor. Much to my surprise and delight, shortly thereafter, I heard him hop onto the bed and he remained there even after I awoke. But he wasn’t eating, and he remained incontinent, even again wetting our bed.
On Day 7, at home, he still wasn’t eating on his own and then lost the ability to walk with his front legs, too. The prognosis was grim, but we began feeding him via syringe -- not enough, alas, to sustain life but enough seemingly to make him comfortable. He now seemed comfortable, if not ecstatic, and the sparkle seemed to return to his eyes, as we tenderly lifted him to deliver his feedings, medication and subcutaneous hydration. He could only crawl, though, an indignity that greatly distressed me.
Pictured, Finn in his aerie, alongside a memorial photo of Deirdre, who had to vie with Finn for that vaunted perch.
Finally, on Day 8, I moved my power nap to the floor alongside Finn, him in his donut bed lined with a wee pad. After 30 minutes with my arm around him, me on a throw rug on our wood floor, I realized that we -- he and I -- could by ourselves find no value in postponing the inevitable. He’d lost two more pounds, 20 percent of his weight, in only a few weeks, plus he wasn’t eating on his own and could no longer walk.
I spent each of those remaining days, understanding that the prognosis was poor, taking care of Finn as best I knew how. I understood, through my work in Al-Anon, that I didn’t have to make decisions based on tomorrow, but could focus on the day in front of me. “Saint of 9/11” Mychal Judge is famously credited with saying: “Stay out of tomorrow. God hasn’t even created it yet.” And these words proved yet again to be a great comfort to me.
Even on the day we appointed for a trip to the veterinarian for what I feared would be the last time, I groomed Finn and brushed his teeth, as I had for years. With that, I remembered my Dad’s last trip to the hospital, in 2007, awaiting an ambulance. Suffering from what seemed a likely intestinal blockage, he ambled into his bathroom with his four-legged cane and combed his hair. Dad wanted to look his best, whether heading to the bank, restaurant or the emergency room. I wanted that dignity for Finn, too!
I told myself throughout what became Finnie’s last few days, and particularly on what became his final day, that only God has it within his power to cure him, but I can take actions to seed that possibility, and leave the result to Him.
So, with that mindset, that we were forging at least the possibility of a miracle, I put Finn into his donut bed and then that into his carrier, and off we went in search of a miracle -- or, in the worst case, a quiet exit. I’m not sure I could have kept my composure any other way. We didn’t get our miracle for Finn, at least not then, but in retrospect I sense that the miracle we sought was in fact each day of our 16 years together.
Pictured, Finn in the minutes prior to his passing.
My sweetheart, and I took Finn to the vet that final day, me caressing him as always, as he lay calmly, serenely, in his carrier. He looked really good, like he might walk out of there, as he lay curled up in his carrier. I had to remind myself, though, that Finn wasn’t eating and could no longer walk, at least not without God’s help. It’s unclear, of course, what he was feeling, and while he hadn’t purred since he entered the hospital (Who could blame him!), he was clear-eyed and seemed content right up to his last moments, when the telltale rise and fall of his lungs gradually stilled.
“Dying is much easier than living,” I heard someone say recently. In the hours after Finnie’s passing, I recalled that, and how calmly Finnie died, and how painful I’ve found his absence.
With Finn's death, I often find myself hearing the the voice of Peggy Lee as she sings, "Is that all there is, is that all there is ... If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let's break out the booze and have a ball if that's all there is."