Losing "Hope"

by Barb Wehmann

"There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more
eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep
contrition, and of unspeakable love."   Washington Irving

While each loss of a SCOOP cat is overwhelmingly sad, the story of Hope is an especially poignant one about a little black cat who touched our hearts in unforgettable ways.

As with most adult rescued cats, Hope's age was unknown when she joined our family. She lived with us for six and a half years and was about 5 when she joined us. On October 22, 2007, Hope was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. A tumor, which wasn't even visible at an exam one month earlier, had quickly appeared on her jaw. Hope's prognosis was extremely poor. It was most likely that the cancer would grow fast and take her life within a month. No reasonable treatment was available. We were shocked and devastated, and felt helpless. How could this happen to a sweet little cat who had been through abuse in her early years? Why could Hope not grow old in our home enjoying her favorite window and toys?

Hope was rescued by a county kill shelter seven months before joining our home. Someone had placed her and her litter of kittens in a closed garbage can. When she was found by the county shelter, her jaw had been fractured and her kittens were dead. She was nearly starved. The shelter workers felt sorry for her and decided not to euthanize despite her condition. After she was spayed and recovered from her injuries, Hope was placed at a PetSmart store for her chance at a home. Hope waited six months, and that home lasted only one night. She was returned the next day because she hid at her new home.

Later that week, my husband and I were at the store and asked if there was a cat no one would adopt. Hope was quickly pointed out to us. I saw a beautiful yet scared little face peeking from under a blanket, and my heart melted. I held her and asked why no one wanted her. The store manager replied that she was very scared and shy, but the employees all loved her. Hope had a runny eye that made her face all the more endearing to me. The store manager told us that they always made sure she had a blanket so she could hide. Every once in a while, her paw would come out from under the blanket to play with a toy mouse, so they named her "Friskie." The kind store manager refused to send her back to the county shelter, since she felt Hope would not be as lucky at escaping euthanasia the second time. She also said that since Hope was a black cat, she would be placed in the back of the store during the month of October so she would not end up in cruel hands. The day we took her home in August 2001, I looked in the back seat of our car at her and said, "There's always hope, sweet cat." It struck me--Hope--what a fitting new name for such a beautiful cat who had been through so much.

Hope was put in an isolation room so we could work with her. She hid for three months under a blanket. That was okay with us. We spoke to her and put her food, water, and litter box near the blanket, many times a day reaching under it to pet her. She was a gentle cat, yet so scared. People asked me what I would do if she never stopped hiding. I replied that she could hide the rest of her life if she chose. Then one day, I entered her room and panicked when I couldn't find her. I looked up and saw her on top of a 2-inch-wide door, and I still recall my shock and laughter at seeing her look down at me. I said, "Are you ready, Hope?" She meowed very loudly. Hope was ready to trust again, and I will never forget that day. Over the next few years she became a lap cat--very sweet and loving, but trusting only several people. In addition to her gentle nature, perhaps her most distinctive trait was her loud, shrill meow--no doubt developed during her days in the garbage can when she cried for help. She would scream loudly when she wanted food, and I heard this every morning and evening for hours, even though she had all-day access to dry food. Her meow was so shrill that, for a period, I wore ear plugs as I cared for the other cats! However, as Hope was dying, I yearned for that meowing. I took brief videos while she still would scream for food. The videos gave me a feeling that I would always have her. However, I knew there was no hope of a recovery for this sweet cat. All I could do was be there for her as she declined. My heart felt broken.

Hope surprised everyone and lived for five months after her diagnosis. During her final months, she would only eat from a spoon (and only a certain spoon!). She had to be spoon-fed many times throughout the day and often the night. She purred loudly the whole time I fed her. Eating was always her greatest pleasure--what a cruel irony of life to die of mouth cancer. We decided that when Hope stopped eating, it would be time for us to let go of her. Losing Hope was unbearable, and I felt overwhelmingly sad that I could not help her get better. Our kind vets probably tired of us asking what could be done, but they answered patiently each time. As her tumor grew, her mouth looked quite bad and drooled constantly--yet she would always be beautiful to us. When I was overtly upset, Hope would crawl onto my lap to comfort me. She continued to enjoy life, playing and purring, and I took note of a lesson of dignity from Hope.

One Saturday, Hope refused to eat and had a different look in her eyes. For the first time, she would not purr. With heavy hearts, we knew this was the end. We decided to keep her as comfortable as possible and hope she could pass away at home without veterinary intervention. On the day I knew was her last, I held her in her favorite bed and walked her around the house. She lifted her head only to look at my husband and to look out the window. Many of the other cats gently laid their paw on her as I bent down to show them. I visualized Hope getting up again to meow loudly for food. That evening, March 12, 2008, I lifted her to her favorite window one last time and she gasped. I kissed her, talked to her, and held her on my lap as she passed away, trying hard to be a calm presence for her at the end.

It was unbearably painful to loss sweet Hope, as anyone who has dearly loved and lost a pet knows. Undoubtedly, grief is one of the deepest of all human emotions. We don't "get over" the loss of a person or pet whom we dearly love. Rather, we learn to incorporate the loss into our lives. Grief changes us, whether we grieve for a person or pet whom we loved. Those who have dearly loved a pet will understand, while for others, it may be difficult to comprehend loving an animal so deeply. Everyone copes with loss differently, but one certainty is that it's never easy. Regardless of what I told myself, the words would not connect with my heart and I couldn't find comfort as Hope died. I felt only immense pain and wondered how I could ever go through this again.

Animal rescuers deal with loss often. I envision their hearts indented with notches of the names of animals they loved who have died. My grief was not divided equally for the loss of each cat in our home that year. Rather, it was multiplied by each loss and it was unbearable. I looked around at the other rescued cats in our home, most unadoptable due to an illness. Clearly, it would be just a matter of time, but how could I ever do this again? One evening when I was very upset, I looked down and my year-old cat named Buddy was standing on his hind legs hugging my leg with his front paws. He then gently laid his head on my knee while still hugging me and looking up at me. He answered my question. I couldn't change--I would continue to love and help these beautiful and sensitive animals, as I have since I was a very young girl. Many were abandoned and abused, yet trusted again. When their time comes, the pain and grief will be unbearable. As I try to find peace, I'll keep in mind the quote by Washington Irving that offered me some comfort. Through my immense emotional pain, I'll remind myself of what I've learned as I held a sick or dying cat--that comforting these cats in their time of need is a great gift, honor, and privilege. The gift of being capable of loving an animal so deeply. The honor of being trusted by a sick or dying cat to give comfort. And the privilege of being able to help an animal who otherwise might die painfully and alone. Yes, I'll do it again, and undoubtedly with no less pain.  

Hope, at her favorite window just a few weeks before she died.

We miss you so much, sweetheart!!