An Indomitable Spirit

Marko, two days before his death, with his shih tzu sisters

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.

lounging in the motorhome, early October

18 thoughts on “An Indomitable Spirit

  1. Denise, I’m experiencing the same sense of loss. My faithful companion for the last 15 years, my beautiful Calico cat Puss expired on Tuesday. She was a daily part of my Life.

    This is the announcement posted to my Public FaceBook page,
    It’s with pain and sorrow I have to inform those who knew her, my wonderful and faithful companion Puss, expired Tonight.
    She was born when I just moved in here, and at 15 cat years she was my age of 77 in Human years. We grew old together.
    While the Vet told me to expect it, her end came suddenly, from one Day to the next, like her brother Big Boy who expired last year. She will be sorely missed.
    She is the beautiful Calico cat on the wing-back chair behind Buttons, who disappeared last year when she was just 3 years old.
    Puss lost so much weight in her old age which is normal for female cats.
    This picture is from 2017, and the only cat I have left is Tux, lounging on the right of the sofa beside Big Boy.
    The sofa is gone too!

    If you are on FB, you can see the unique photo of my 4 cats that arranged themselves on that sofa taken in 2017.

    https://www.facebook.com/ray.j.cormier/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing Puss’ story with me, Ray. She was indeed a beautiful animal! I love that photo! What a perfect little family, all cozy and friendly together.

      My best friend’s dog companion passed away this past summer, and she said that making the arrangements for her companion’s cremation was more difficult for her than was planning her mother’s funeral. I understand and empathize. So it is with those of us who love our animals. Their time with us is all too short.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think I can edit a comment you’ve made, Ray. If I can, and you know how, please clue me in. I did try to copy and paste into a new comment from me, but couldn’t do that, either. Again, would appreciate it if you can instruct me.

    Like

    1. I would think once you copied and saved the picture, which is easy to do, you could post it in your blog article in the same way you posted the pictures of Marko.

      In my WordPress Blog, I can edit other People’s comments which I don’t do.

      Like

    2. Anyone posting a comment to any article in my Blog would not see the Edit button at the upper right side of every comment I see since it’s my Blog. I would expect you have the same WP function.

      You should see that Edit button beside this comment.

      Like

      1. Yes, I can edit in various ways, but I’ve tried copying the image from your FB page and from my own computer, and it won’t work. No idea why. Will have to check into it.

        Like

  3. It is a heavy-hearted story. (Marko does seem to have a look of concern in his eyes.) To me, a cat’s qualities, especially an un-humanly innocence, makes losing that feline someday such an extremely heartbreaking experience.

    Many of us can appreciate the reciprocally healthy, perhaps even somewhat symbiotic, relationships that can exist between pet cats and their lovingly appreciative human hosts, especially when the host lives with physical and/or mental ailments. Whenever I observe anxiety in the facial expression of my aging mother, I can also witness how that stress suddenly drains and is replaced with joyful adoration upon her cat entering the room. “Hi, sweetheart,” she’ll say. Countless other seniors with a cat also experience its emotional benefits. Of course, the cat’s qualities, especially an un-humanly innocence, makes losing that pet someday such a heartbreaking experience.

    Perhaps cats have a beneficial effect on the human psyche that most people still cannot fathom thus appreciate. That unawareness may help explain why it was reported a few years ago that Surrey, British Columbia, had an estimated 36,000 feral cats, very many of which suffer severe malnourishment, debilitating injury and/or infection (I’ve seen many shocking, heart-wrenching images). And why the municipal government, as well as aware yet uncaring residents, did little or nothing to help with the local non-profit Trap/Neuter/Release program, regardless of their documented success in reducing the needless great suffering by these beautiful animals.
    (Once, a Surrey Community Cat Coalition TNR-program staffer left me a phone message in which she emotionally thanked me for my $500 donation. I deduced that the organization may rarely or never receive such large private donations, which may indicate to her that society collectively doesn’t care about such terrible yet needless feral homeless feline great suffering.)

    Yesterday I contacted Surrey Community Cat Foundation and was informed that, if anything, their “numbers would have increased, not decreased, in the last 5 years.”

    I was also informed that the problems continuing for feral cats and strays in Surrey, B.C. are:
    • The increase in population and the lack of interest by more residents in caring for strays..
    • Lack of affordable pet friending housing causing cat owners to leave their pet behind and outdoor.
    • Tear-down of older homes where there was feeding done by the resident or the neighbourhood.
    • New construction and lack of places for ferals and strays to go.
    • Lack of City participation in reducing the suffering of all the cats (ferals and strays) by providing funding for a City veterinary hospital including low or no fees for low income spay/neuter.
    • Increase in residential housing and condos with developer fees not being put toward the care of misplaced feral and stray cats on the land.
    • Lack of cooperation with City services that are unable or do not want to care for stray cats that are not tame.
    • No place to house trapped feral cats.
    • Barn locations must be checked out and meet high criteria for the care of the animal. Colonies cannot be maintained without a resident caretaker and a food supply.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a friend who used to help a feral colony, and I’m aware of the time and effort involved. Those who are devoted to ferals are truly noble people. And shame on communities who give no thought to ferals.

      On our street, probably half the residents put food out for strays, and several people help with TNR. Fortunately, there’s a local low-cost program.

      Thanks for including the information, fgsjr. We elected a new mayor in Cleveland last week; maybe I’ll have occasion to make use of your facts if they do another survey about allocating federal funds.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m very glad for those feral felines in Cleveland. …

        I’ve found there’s a shocking yet unjustified disdain towards cats by too many people. With their vertical slit pupils and Hollywood-cliché fanged hiss when confronted, in a world mostly hostile toward snakes (including me), cats may have a permanent PR problem, despite their Internet adorable-pet dominance.

        I, always a cat enthusiast, grew up knowing a few cat-haters willing to procure sick satisfaction from torturing to death those naively-trusting thus likely sweet-natured cats whose owners have recklessly allowed them to wander the neighborhood at night. Why? Judging from their own words, I found that these boys simply didn’t care for cats’ collective failure to heel at their human masters’ command.

        As an adult I noticed that people who said they were ‘not an animal person’ held a particular dislike for cats, regardless of cats’ incapacity for committing humanlike vicious acts out of plain malice. (I, at age 52, believe that along with human intelligence comes the proportionate reprehensible potential for evil behavior simply for its sake.) And while many will readily note cats’ propensity for preying upon small birds, the former seem oblivious to larger wildlife preying upon cats.

        When a B.C. community newspaper editor wrote a column about courthouse protestors demanding justice in 2014 for a Sarnia, Ontario, cat shot in the head 17 times with a pellet gun, taking out an eye, she rather recklessly declared: “Hey crazy people, it’s [just] a cat.” Apparently she couldn’t relate to the heartfelt motivation behind the public outrage, regardless of it being directed at such senseless cruelty to an innocent animal, and therefore the demonstrators were somehow misguided. Maybe the court also perceived it so, as the charges against the two adult perpetrators were dropped.

        Even progressive national commentator Vicky Mochama proclaimed in one of her syndicated columns, “I never liked cats”. In another she wrote that Canadian politicians should replace their traditional unproductively rude heckling with caterwauling: “My vote is for meowing because I don’t like cats and I’d like to sabotage their brand as much as possible. So if our elected politicians are going to be disrespectful in our House of Commons, they might as well channel the animal that holds us all in contempt.” (I search-engined the Internet but found nothing as to the reason(s) behind her anti-feline comments.)

        It’s conceivable that the above publicly declared disregard for a repeatedly shot and maimed cat, and an unexplained contempt toward cats as a species, can have repercussions. It might reflect on why Trap/Neuter/Release programs for mostly feral cats, regardless of their documented immense suffering, are typically underfunded by governments as well as private donors. Could it be subconscious yet tragic human nature to perceive the value of life (sometimes even human life in regularly war-torn or overpopulated famine-stricken global regions) in relation to the conditions enjoyed or suffered by that life? With the mindset of feline disposability, it might be ‘Oh, there’s a lot more whence they came’.

        Only when unwanted overpopulations of cats are greatly reduced in number by responsible owners consistently spaying/neutering their pet felines will this beautiful animal’s presence be truly appreciated, especially for the symbiotic-like healthy relationship (contrary to common misinformation) they can and do give us.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. OH! Don’t get me STARTED on animal abuse!!! If I ruled the world, anyone abusing an animal would have the same thing done to him or her, before an extended prison sentence, at the very least (and in my heart of hearts, I’m actually inclined to say that shooting’s too good for them ).

    I agree completely that cats get an utterly undeserved bad rap. Ms. Mochama’s comments are inexcusable; she should lose her job.

    As for people who say they, “aren’t animal/pet people,” that’s always an immediate red flag for me. I’ve never met anyone like that who proved to be either trustworthy or compassionate.

    Liked by 1 person

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