If you’re not an animal person, nothing in this post will resonate with you. However, if you’ve ever had the honor and privilege of caring for a beloved companion of any species or breed, you will have seen more than one example of the story I’m about to relate.
Marko came to us purely by chance, as was the case with many of our pets. One day, more than 14 years ago, one of my husband Rick’s co-workers was about to empty a dumpster into his trash truck. An instant before he hit the switch to up-end the dumpster, he heard a mewling sound, and, peering over the edge of the container, beheld a small orange tabby. The guy scooped up the kitten and carried him back to the office of the truck yard where he and Rick worked at the time. The ladies in the office put him in a box, keeping him warm and safe until Rick finished his day, because, they reasoned, Rick would be sure to adopt him. They were right. Later, the vet estimated the kitten was about two months old, apparently the only survivor of his litter. Rick named him “Marko,” after one of the tigers at the Cleveland Zoo, who we’d encountered in a behind-the-scenes tour. Our Marko was thin and scared, as you’d imagine, but he quickly made himself at home among our other animals.
For most of his life, Marko was a quiet presence in our house, never demanding attention or quarreling with the other cats. He went his own way, keeping to himself, becoming a sturdy, strong-but-not-bulked-up young cat, shy and a bit timid. In due course, he made his trip to the vet to make sure he’d never father any litters of his own. As does any other housecat, he liked to sit on window sills and watch the world go by, and he loved playing with the roving red laser dot. He was just a normal guy, doing nothing to cause trouble or make himself stand out in any way. On the rare occasions when we’d have a pet sitter come in, he usually proved to be invisible. After we got our motorhome, he’d be packed up with the rest of the herd and carted along on our annual 10-day trips. As a rule, he spent those vacations hiding behind the couch, but once in awhile, he’d crawl up on the dashboard to bask in the sun.
In the summer of 2017, Rick rescued another cat from his work environment, who we named Zach (his story is here). At that point, Marko was about ten years old. Zach quickly asserted dominance over the other cats (and our shih tzus), and Marko became more retiring, preferring to make himself scarce rather than fight with Zach. I made a point of it to show Marko extra attention, and he would come to me from time to time and snuggle up next to me, provided Zach was nowhere in sight.
In August of 2019, Marko’s world changed. Zach, the escape artist, managed to get the back sliding door open, and we didn’t discover it for 15 or 20 minutes. During that time, for the first time since he’d come to us, Marko went outside without being in a carrier. When Zach had gotten out previously, Marko had never dared cross the threshold, contenting himself with merely looking out onto the deck. We have no idea what induced him to venture out that day, and for hours, we searched the house, convinced that he wouldn’t actually have gone out. By nightfall, we knew he was gone. Of course, we walked up and down our street, calling him, and went as far as the next street over, after alerting most of the neighbors on our street, all cat lovers. We told ourselves he’d be back by the next morning, but he wasn’t. I again searched all the surrounding yards, shaking the treat bag and calling him. I imagined how terrified he must be, and knew how much danger he was in, because, of course, there are raccoons and other wildlife in the neighborhood. Finally, on the third day, we called a cat whisperer we’d worked with before. She reminded us that Marko didn’t know what his house looked like, because he’d never seen it clearly from the outside. She advised us to leave the porch light on, the front door propped open, and a dish of food at the top of the steps. She warned us that he’d be confused and frightened, and if he did come in the door, to not approach him, just let him walk all the way into the house. I followed her instructions, and sat up on the couch, waiting for him. There was no sign the first night, but the second night, after two forays through the front door and immediately back out again, Marko finally went all the way through the living room and into the kitchen, where I’d set out a bowl of tuna. I jumped up and slammed the door, and Marko was home. For several days, though, he was nervous and jumpy, not immediately acclimating to being a housecat again. And since that time, every so often, he’s made a half-hearted run at the back door, but never fast enough that I haven’t been able to catch him.
In January of 2020, Marko’s life changed again. He had some kind of episode. I didn’t see it happen, but I noticed one afternoon that he seemed a bit disoriented, and his left side seemed weak. I thought it was a stroke, so I took him right to the vet, and she suspected that it was a brain tumor. There wasn’t much we could do in any case, so she prescribed some calming meds and sent him home. We installed him in our upstairs bath, to keep him quiet and keep the other animals away. His left rear leg was completely stiff, and he was walking on what would be his left wrist, with his paw bent under. By no means was he incapacitated; he was just moving more slowly than usual, and didn’t feel steady enough to jump up anywhere. After about a week, he’d regained his equilibrium, but still didn’t have much mobility on his left side. We let him out of the bathroom, and he cautiously made his way downstairs, but as I’d feared, Zach immediately began to bully him. Marko fled back upstairs, and the bathroom became his den. There he stayed for about six months, and in that time, he made what I thought was a miraculous recovery. He gained strength in his left front paw, and began to flex it as he walked, putting it down squarely. He re-learned the use of his left rear leg, and although it never bent quite normally again, it didn’t affect his gait or his jumping ability. Watching him, no one would ever know how close he’d come to being disabled. He simply….didn’t react to his temporary handicap. He was all about getting on with his day, lounging in his bed, pinballing from the floor to the vanity top to the bathtub. Eventually, he wanted to leave the bathroom, and at that point, he resumed his run-of-the-house life, albeit keeping his distance from Zach. He returned to the window sills, the back of the couch, and the pool of sunlight on the dining room table.
At his check-up this past January, the vet noticed that Marko had lost a little weight, and advised me to keep an eye on him, in case he’d lose any more. Within a month, he was down another half-pound, which, for a nine-pound cat, is significant. Back he went for a full blood panel, and the diagnosis was lymphocytic leukemia (as opposed to the better-known, contagious form of feline leukemia). The vet started Marko on chemotherapy, which he tolerated better than I’d expected. Because the chemo drugs are toxic, if they caused Marko to throw up, his fluids would also be toxic, so we had to keep him away from the other animals, and….he returned to his bathroom lair. A month later, despite the chemo, his white-cell count had risen even further, and the vet referred us to an oncologist.
The last eight months have been a fierce battle, with Marko submitting uncomplainingly to all the drugs and all the testing. Throughout, he never fought us once. As some of the supporting meds had to be administered every day, we started taking him with us every time we went camping, although initially, he hated going in the carrier and was scared to be in the motorhome. After the second or third trip, however, he suddenly decided he liked traveling with us. After all, it was still a relatively small space, and he could move around to different areas, find his own nooks, and best of all, Zach wasn’t there (we don’t take all the cats if we’re just going to be gone for two days). Marko became a confident camper kitty.
The oncologist prescribed very high doses of the chemo drugs, and though we were concerned about the toxic factor, we gave them to him. Very slowly, over the course of six months, his white-cell count dropped to a high-normal level. That was the good news. The bad news was that, in the course of his leukemia treatment, Marko had developed inoperable intestinal cancer. It turns out that the predisposition to both leukemia and intestinal cancer are inherited on the same gene with cats. The result was that, even eating as much as he could possibly cram in every day, he still wasn’t absorbing nutrients, so he continued to lose weight. The vet said to give him any food he wanted, and he did crave the food in the fancy little cans, but it wouldn’t stay down. He was stuffing himself, while at the same time, wasting away.
Oddly enough, this week, after having made the bathroom his home for ten months, Marko began to demand to be let out into the house. We let him go, safeguarding him around Zach, but Marko didn’t show much fear of the big black cat. He did his rounds of the house, but spent much of his time next to me, curled up with his shih tzu sisters. I was very happy to have his company. He was a bit slow on the stairs, and took his time getting on and off the couch, but showed the same determined, independent attitude he always had.
But he’d become so thin, and it was obvious he was fading; he’d gotten a bit unsteady in his walk. I’d said to Rick a couple days ago that maybe we should take him for his last visit to the vet, but Rick said, “Look at him. He’s moving around, talking to us, eating….he just doesn’t stop. Let’s let him have some more time.” I agreed, hoping that Marko would choose his own time. As late as last night, he was still munching away at the food bowl on the floor, pausing to grab the treats I put down for him. I noticed that, for the first time, he wasn’t getting up onto the vanity to eat the food there, and I marked that as a sign that he was failing. It was status quo this morning, though, and I filled his water, laid down some treats, and went out for an appointment.
He was gone when I checked on him this afternoon, just that quickly.
When I look back on Marko’s journey, I’m amazed and humbled at his courage and steadfastness. He began and ended by surviving and thriving, against almost impossibly long odds. He stood up to everything the cat gods threw at him, and was remarkably brave through all of it. He never gave in, never gave one sign that he was anything but ready to live his life. And his most astonishing quality? Unwavering affection throughout every ordeal. Every time I picked him up, he started to purr. Even when it was difficult for him to move, he’d make his way over to sit with me and ask for a head scratch. He loved being petted, was never temperamental like some cats. I’d bundle him up on my lap, and he’d lean into me in quiet bliss. No matter how sick he was, no matter how severe the drug regimen, he always showed love for Rick and me. According to reading I’ve done, the religious consensus is that animals do not possess souls. I think the shining light that was Marko is proof that animals are as spiritually complete as humans. Probably more so. If there is an Other Side of the Rainbow Bridge, I’m sure Marko will be waiting.