Camille died on April 30, 2010. That was a hard day. She had been ailing for about three years. In her last week of life she barely moved from her sleeping spot, had stopped eating, and wasn’t drinking very much. Even though putting her down seemed like a merciful thing to do, it was still very difficult. I cried a lot that day.
Camille was our very first cat. We got her back in 1996 when we were still living on Vashon Island. She had been left, along with her litter of kittens, in a box outside Fairisle Veterinary Clinic. A friend of ours was fostering them and we went to visit the little cat family. I had never had a pet before and I really wanted to get a cat. Kittens often find homes but it is harder to find homes for adult cats. I wanted an adult cat and we decided to adopt the mama and her littlest kitten, the runt of the litter. In June, when the other kittens were already at their new home, we brought home mama and baby whom we named Camille and Emma. Camille seemed like an elegant name for this elegant, sleek, black cat. Emma was still very tiny and still nursing.
We didn’t know much about cats. We had read that we should keep a new cat in a separate room for a while to allow her to get acclimated to a new environment. But we didn’t do that. We brought Camille and Emma home; showed Camille the litter box; and let her have the run of the house. That first night we went upstairs to our bedroom and left Camille and Emma downstairs. Pete wasn’t sure about letting cats into the bedroom but we didn’t close the door because we thought Camille would stay downstairs with little Emma who was too small to climb stairs. That night we woke up to the little squeaking cries of a kitten. Camille was on the bed. She had carried Emma upstairs, stashed her safely in the closet, and joined us at the foot of the bed. From that night on, we tried to close our bedroom door, hoping that Camille would not want to come in. She kept us awake scratching insistently on the door until finally we gave in and let her into the bedroom.
First we allowed Camille to sleep at the foot of the bed, on top of the covers. But eventually she wormed her way underneath the covers. She wanted to be with us all the time. She followed us from room to room and greeted us at the door whenever we came home. I had the summer off from my teaching job, so Camille and I bonded.
Camille was a good mama though sometimes we thought she washed Emma a bit too vigorously. Emma died three weeks after we got her. The vet thought she had a congenital heart defect. Her heart was enlarged, she had trouble breathing, and she wasn’t really growing. Camille wandered mournfully around the house that day looking for Emma. Camille also had a sense of what constituted a baby human. When my nephew visited, not too bigger than a cat himself, and went in search of cats to pet and carry, Camille allowed herself to be dragged about by this boy who was not big enough or strong enough to actually carry a cat.
A couple of months later we adopted Macallan and Duncan, our two boys. Camille was not very pleased. She made sure they knew who ruled the household and she often wandered around grumbling. But she was protective of them, even if she didn’t really like them. When Macallan got startled by a stray cat hanging outside the screen door and let out a screech, Camille flew down from upstairs in a fury to defend her own. She enjoyed the outside. After exploring, she would come back to where we were and settle herself within sight. I think she hunted, but my only experience of that was when she brought me a little vole once when I was sunning myself outside.
At first Camille was not much of a lap cat. That changed about a year after we brought her home. I had shoulder surgery and was recuperating on my big round papazon chair, my shoulder hurting every time I shifted position. Camille, perhaps sensing that I needed some comfort, jumped up and settled herself next to me and then on me, becoming, from that day, a pretty good lap cat.
Things settled down once we moved to Indiana. In a new house, everything was new and the cat dynamics changed. Camille didn’t grumble as much. She still grumbled and growled every time we clipped her claws, making her displeasure known, but she never scratched, never even struggled, to get out of our arms. A couple of years after moving to Indiana, a stray cat gave birth to kittens in our back yard. We ended up bringing two of those kittens inside. Camille wasn’t happy. The kittens, Gretel and Whidbey, wild active little creatures, would claw their way up onto the bed to snuggle up under my hair. Camille took one look at them and would leave the bed in a huff. It was months before she forgave us enough to join us back at the foot of the bed.
Later that same year, we began a multi-year experiment to try to tame a feral cat who was making our back yard its home. We named her D’Ni. We set up sleeping quarters for her on our back porch and began feeding her outside. Our indoor cats didn’t have any interactions with D’Ni unless they went outside. We would let our cats outside, supervised, when we were outside. We worried about Camille’s interactions with D’Ni, since, as head cat of the house, she seemed the most territorial and would always chase stray cats out of the back yard. Surprisingly, Camille was not at all bothered by D’Ni’s presence. Did she sense that D’Ni was a frightened little thing that would not at all assert herself? I don’t know. But, even when we finally ended up bringing D’Ni into the house, Camille did not mind. She never did snuggle up with D’Ni, but neither did she ever grumble that D’Ni was added to the household.
About three years ago Camille started to show signs of illness. She stopped eating well and lost weight at an alarming rate. We took her, time and again, to the vet to try to figure out what was wrong with her. Nothing definitive was ever diagnosed. In retrospect we wonder if she had eaten some of that tainted food back in the melamine cat food recall of 2007. The prescription dry food we had been feeding her (ironically prescribed because she was overweight) was the only dry food that was recalled. Of course we didn’t feed her that food after the recall, but was the food we had already fed her before tainted in some way? We will never know. What we do know is that a couple of months after the recall we noticed this precipitous loss of weight. For three years her health was up and down along with her weight. When Pete’s father died in 2008, Camille also seemed at death’s door and I postponed going to Evanston for a day before the funeral because I was sure Camille wouldn’t make it through the day. I said goodbye’s to her that day and told her that she had my permission to die if she so wanted. I woke up periodically that night to check on her – to see if she was still alive. The next morning, however, her eyes were bright. She had rallied and I went off to take the train to Evanston for the funeral. Some time after that she had a seizure when we were at home. That was horrible and frightening. A year later, she again nearly died. In the spring of 2009, Camille was thin as a rail. She slept on top of me nearly every night and I could barely feel the weight of her. When we saw that she was frequently using the litter box, we took her in because we thought she had a UTI and that is fixable. The vet found out that she was severely dehydrated, weighed less than five pounds, and had a couple of broken teeth. After a stay in the clinic, getting fluids intravenously and getting her broken teeth pulled, she again rallied. Because we noticed that she seemed to get worse every winter and then rally in the spring and summer, we decided to move her to my mum’s house in the fall of 2009. My mum would keep the house warmer than we would. Camille gained weight and seemed to be doing pretty well, except that she never did seem to get over the urinary tract problem. In the spring of 2010, she took a turn for the worse and never did rally again.
We buried her in our backyard, in this little semicircle where last year I greeted the sun. It seems appropriate for a cat who always searched out for a sunny spot.
We still have the other five cats and we do love them all. But there is a special place in my heart for my very first cat, the one I first bonded with, Camille: A Good Cat.