How Bear Got to Living His Best Life

Bear came into our lives 11 years ago. He was a rescue – young, underweight, a bit skittish. He was a Christmas gift for my daughter, Liv, who was 11 at the time. He joined our pack which then consisted of 2 dogs, 2 cats and 2 kids. The reason I agreed to this addition is because Liv had been asking for her own pet for years. She had a hamster, but they are nocturnal and have short life spans. She asked for a rabbit, but I dismissed that when I learned what that would require. I decided to stick with what I knew. And so I told Liv that when one pet died, I would get her a kitten. It seemed reasonable given the ages of our pets. But a few years passed and all the pets were still doing great. The cats, 16 and 14, and dogs, 11 and 9, showed no signs of slowing down. So on Christmas morning, 2011, Liv opened a box with a stuffed animal kitten inside along with a note “This pretend kitten will soon be a real kitten, just for you.”

Liv went to the animal shelter with her dad. (If I went, I would almost certainly come home with the most unadoptable animal in their care in addition to Liv’s promised kitten.) There weren’t a lot of kittens because of the time of year, but she found the one she wanted. His given name was Gingerbread Man. A strange name for a cat, we thought. We soon learned how fast he was and that when he got outside, he would not be caught. “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the Gingerbread Man.” In spite of the fittingness of his name, we changed it to Bear.

Bear settled in quickly. He was independent and not fussy. He didn’t mess with others, and he didn’t tolerate being messed with. He would casually walk away from any pack drama and find a quiet place to hang out. He was easy to have, with one exception. He wanted to be outside. With two dogs regularly being let out, he learned how to take advantage of the opportunity.

We worked very hard to not let Bear out, but his escape would happen on occasion. And when he got out, Gingerbread Man would not be caught. We could see him and get close, but not close enough to scoop him up. And so we learned that we would have to wait for him to come to us. We would prop open the screened porch door. He would stay outside for just a few hours at first, but soon that stretched to the remainder of the day and then periodically overnight as well. He never seemed to leave the surrounding yards. He just wanted to be outside.

I had never experienced this with a cat before. Typically I would let a cat out to roll on the ground, eat grass, and maybe explore a bit. But there was never an effort to escape. I figured Bear was part feral and part domesticated, caught early enough to not fear humans but late enough to remember his freedom. I worried though when he was out. He was declawed in the front. And we have lots of birds around. It felt irresponsible to both Bear and the environment to let him out. So the fight to keep him in continued.

Early 2015, one of our cats and one of our dogs died a week apart from each other. And they were the younger of our geriatric crew. It was devastating for all of us. And five months later, our 18 year old cat died. Bear and 14 year old black lab Lucy remained. Shortly after our 3rd pet’s death that year, Bear got sick. Bear is already thin. He has always had minor health issues that kept him on the low weight side. When Bear gets sick, he can’t afford to lose any weight. So off to the vet we went with me in a panic. “This is our young pet!” I said to the vet, as if this couldn’t be happening. We learned that Bear had a UTI, something he’d never had before. The vet said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the stress from losing his friends is to blame.” Fortunately the UTI was an easy fix. The grief, not so much.

I sat in my car and wept. Bear’s body seemed to be bearing the weight of our sadness. “As soon as you’re better, we’re getting you a kitten!” Bear seemed unimpressed. I was wondering how much longer we would have with our black lab and was scared what that would do to Bear, to all of us. Once the antibiotics did their thing and Bear was feeling better, off to the shelter Liv and her dad went. Bear had never really been Liv’s cat. He was far too independent. Maybe this cat would be a better companion for her.

Fast forward to spring 2020. We are in the midst of a pandemic and in lockdown. My kids have come home to stay for a few months. Since I work in a hospital I was the only one not working from home. Just before work I let the dogs out. Bear decided to join them. I propped open the porch door and left a note not unfamiliar – “Bear’s out.” When I returned home that afternoon, my son told me that Bear had made a new friend. “Come see,” he said.

We walked to the back yard. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day. I saw Bear with a large grey cat I hadn’t seen before. They were chasing bugs and wrestling with each other. They perched themselves under the trees to watch the birds and squirrels, uninterested in catching them. It was one of the sweetest things I have ever experienced. Bear was living his best life. And in that moment I decided that if Bear wanted to be outside, he would be outside. I set up food, water and shelter on our porch and kept the door propped open. I would rather have him live one month this happy, than 5 years imprisoned. Bear came and went as he wished from that day forward.

We soon learned that the grey cat was named Gus and belonged to the neighbors behind us. I also learned that after meeting Bear, Gus had become a happier, more confident cat. Before Bear, Gus clung to my neighbor when she came outside, unwilling to leave her side. Now she comes out and he may stroll over to her for a few pets, or he may just give her a nod and keep doing what he’s doing. We got to know Gus, and our neighbors got to know Bear. Gus and Bear now have two families looking after them and loving them. They never venture too far. They love getting fed twice as much. And Bear’s minor health issues have diminished significantly. He has even gained some weight.

Each winter since, Bear has gotten more acclimated to the cold. The first winter he would come in at night. The second winter, he would come in when it dipped into the 30s or below. This winter we see him for his meals and a periodic respite from the cold. But otherwise he is outside. Bear is definitely more comfortable outside. When he comes in, he retreats to the basement for a nap. Then he finds a human to let him out. Or he waits for the sound of the dogs being let out. But now, instead of running out the door as fast as he can, Bear simply strolls outside to go back home.

Bear living his best life, every day

Another Tough Goodbye

Jen.Kids.KittyThis is Pumpkin, along with 6 year old Isaac and newborn Liv. I am the giant in the middle. We often called Pumpkin “Kitty” because when you said KittyKittyKittyKittyKitty in a relatively high voice, she would nearly always come. Jeremy surprised Isaac and me with Kitty back in 1998 while living in Merrillville, IN. Isaac was almost 4 and Kitty was 7 months. Upon meeting her for the first time, Isaac responded, “I wike that wittle kitty cat.” Thankfully we have the moment on video.

At the time we lived in an apartment with a long hallway, the family room and kitchen on one end and the master bedroom on the other. Twice a day, for about half an hour each time, she would play by running back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Often she would run to one end with me at the other and not return. Sometimes this meant playtime had ended. But every so often, just when I assumed she had settled down, Kitty would burst back into the room and then just as quickly run away. The routine burned kitty energy and greatly entertained me.

We were in Indiana less than a year when we moved to the Chicago area. Liv was born about a year or so after our move. Kitty accepted her immediately, I assume since she was still able to keep her place on our bed. As you can see in the above photo, she liked to curl up on my side of the bed between me and the bed’s edge. (Thankfully I didn’t have twins. Otherwise resentment might have occurred.) Kitty not only accepted Liv but seemed to carry a sense of responsibility for her. We would often find her curled up in Liv’s crib on the opposite end of where Liv slept. I don’t think Kitty wanted to be in reach but seemed to want to keep an eye on her. She would leave as soon as one of us would arrive, as if to say “Your turn.” Kitty also tolerated behavior from Liv that she has never tolerated from anyone else. Normally if someone got too close, particularly young children, Kitty would run and hide. But on multiple occasions, Kitty let Liv carry her around, upside down no less. As Toddler Liv walked by with Kitty in her arms, Kitty would look at me but never struggle to get free.

For 17 years Kitty has slept by my side. 17 years. 17 fucking years. While the family certainly loved her, I think I gave her a sense of belonging. I interacted with her frequently throughout each day, and when it was time to go to bed she would be by my side. She would either be sleeping in her spot waiting for me or she would arrive shortly after I got in bed. If she didn’t show up within minutes, I would go looking for her, often finding her locked on the porch or garage. When away from home, I would struggle to sleep without her next to me. It was just part of settling in, a routine of having her there next to me.

Up until two months ago, people could not believe her age. She seemed significantly younger in appearance and activity. But her age finally caught up with her. In the final few weeks, I watched as she lost weight and energy. She became increasingly unable to get comfortable. She would hide for hours at a time. Eventually she gave up eating. Her back legs began to give out. I would find her laying by the water bowl, either without energy to leave or an unwillingness to have to make the inevitable trip back. And yet she continued to sleep by my side… until her last night with us. She no longer belonged. She couldn’t belong anymore. I needed to let her go. It was time.

I sat in the vet’s office saying my goodbye. As her sedative was kicking in, my memories flooded back. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to Kitty. I was saying goodbye to a lifetime. Isaac doesn’t remember life before Kitty and for Liv, there was no life before Kitty. I tried to be strong for Kitty so that she would drift off into deep sleep hearing my comforting voice. But I couldn’t do it. What she heard instead was my shaky, raspy voice. What she felt were my tears streaming off of my face and onto her fur. She didn’t get a pillar of strength to lean upon. Instead she got someone feeling a little lost herself. I couldn’t be strong, but I could be there. I was where I belonged, by her side. Just as she had been for me, so many times and in so many ways.

We have lost three pets in three months. While all three were older and we could say had lived full, long lives, there never is a good time to say goodbye. As I look now over at my very old black labrador sleeping on her pillow nearby, I am comforted by this. I might still whisper, “Don’t go, not yet.” But as with Kitty, I would never want her to linger and suffer for my sake. Goodbyes are hard. Watching suffering is harder. Godspeed, Pumpkin Kitty. My life is richer because of you.