My life with Chocolate

Chocolate came bounding into the world in Arlington, Texas in 1988, and from early on, it was obvious that this kitty had a mind of her own, a common trait of all felines, but especially pronounced in this energetic little bundle of fluffy black fur.

My wife Deb and I had adopted Chocolate’s parents, Rocky and Sinjin, at a local pet shop, and before Rocky departed for parts unknown and Sinjin got “fixed,” they had one batch of kittens that included, of course, Chocolate, along with two brothers and a sister. Chocolate immediately became known as a cat who made choices for herself regardless of what the humans desired. When she wanted to be held, she’d crawl into your lap; if you put her in your lap, she’d extricate herself as quickly as possible. She was a feisty and spirited little girl, and she groomed herself impeccably.

When Deb and I parted ways in 1991, Chocolate came with me. The two of us were constant companions, and our evening ritual included Chocolate climbing into bed with me, laying on my chest for a while, purring resonantly, head butting my hand or arm to bring my attention to her rather than the book I was reading, then retiring to sleep by my side throughout the night.

chocolate

Chocolate

Just the two of us in the hills of Austin
When we relocated to a small cottage in the hills outside Austin shortly thereafter, Chocolate began to more fully express her natural feline instincts. She roamed the woods, played in the streams and drank from the nearby lake. She chased squirrels, mice and other rodents, occasionally bringing back her prey as a gift to me. From time to time she’d stay out all night long and once or twice for several days at a time. But she always returned home, and we’d pick up our bedtime ritual where we’d left off.

Since I was earning my living as a writer and communicating with clients via email or phone most of the time, Chocolate and I would go days without seeing another living animal, except maybe some occasional birds or lizards. During these five years, I was experiencing my dark night of the soul, a challenging transition from who I thought I was to who I really am, and it would have been easy to fall into loneliness and despair but for my sweet, fuzzy Chocolate. In addition, it was during this time that I was without full-time human female companionship, reluctantly focusing on my relationship with myself rather than with the other. A date or weekend visit every now and then, yes, but no one present in my life that I could really count on, no one but Chocolate.

When I did have the rare overnight female guest, Chocolate refused to relinquish her usual place in the bed. She insisted on being there even when things got a little rambunctious . . . if you know what I mean. And while the women occasionally came and went, there was one constant in my life at this time: Chocolate at my side almost every night.

Our blended family
In late 1996 after a short courtship that included running many miles together around Town Lake, Shonnie and I decided we’d take up residence together in her condo in South Austin. Before we did so, we made commitments about how we would be with one another, some of which later found their way into our wedding vows. One of the commitments we included was about loving each other’s cats as our own, since I was bringing Chocolate to join her three kitties—Attabi, Kaali and Aurora. Kaali and Aurora, female sisters, kept their distance, but after a brief warming up period, Attabi (a male cat) and Chocolate played gleefully with one another. Their favorite game involved Attabi sitting on the coffee table, Chocolate under it and whacking at each other in a playful manner with claws sheathed.

Attabi

Attabi

In October 1997, Shonnie and I were drawn to move to Asheville. After everything was packed in the moving van, we put the travelling necessities into our Honda Accords, including food, water and litter for the cats. Aurora had been hit by a car months earlier, a real loss to our little family and stayed in Austin buried in the backyard. Kaali and Attabi joined Shonnie in her car, and Chocolate came with me . . . at least initially. After spending the night somewhere in Mississippi (or was it Alabama?), however, Chocolate decided to join Shonnie and the other cats for the rest of the journey.

Settling down in Asheville
Immediately after arriving at our new home in North Asheville, Attabi climbed down the 16-foot back deck to go for a walkabout. Needless to say, we were deeply relieved at his reappearance two days later. It was a great place for humans and cats to live. There were woods all about, and we installed a kitty door so the feline family members could come and go as they pleased. The Lavender-Mulkey household settled into our regular routine, Chocolate sleeping at my side, Kaali sleeping on the outer edge of Shonnie’s pillow and Attabi frequently sleeping at our feet.

Kaali

Kaali

Sometime during 1999, Shonnie called from work where one of her co-workers had brought in three kittens that had been abandoned in the forest near her home. “Can we take one?” she asked so eagerly. “They’re so adorable!” I responded that we already have three cats, but I’d come by and have a look. When I arrived at Shonnie’s office only two kittens were left, and they were laying on her desk licking and grooming each other. Shonnie’s expression was so compelling, the kittens were so darling, how could I say no. We adopted them both and named them Desmond (after Bishop Tutu) and Bandit (because of his markings).

The addition of all this masculine energy took a while for the other cats, including Chocolate, to get accustomed to. But soon everyone found their place, with Chocolate as the grande dame of the bunch, hissing loudly if the young boys wandered too close to her domain. They learned early on to give her a pretty wide berth, yet when we put the food bowls down, the pecking order was relatively consistent: first Desmond, then Bandit, Attabi, Kaali and, finally, Chocolate.

Before and after we moved to our townhouse closer to downtown Asheville in 2001, on warm, sunny days Chocolate loved laying outside soaking up the sun. And during cold or rainy weather, she tended to stay close to me in my office at home, frequently laying on my desk or on the window seat where I could stroke her soft fur and listen to her deep purr, and where she could easily head butt my arm when she wanted my attention.

Bandit & Desmond

Bandit & Desmond

As the years passed and Chocolate entered her mid-teens (60s-70s in human years), she began to slow down a bit, spending more time indoors with me in my office during the day, with us in bed at night. It was during this era that a dinner time ritual began. Chocolate, and frequently Kaali, joined us around the table, and after Shonnie and I shared what we were grateful for during that day and acknowledged one another and ourselves, we shared some bread and butter with the kitty girls, who appreciatively licked it up. Chocolate was insistent about this, so even when we were having meals that didn’t call for bread and butter, we’d bring out some to share anyway.

Rory comes, but not to stay
It was during this time that a little feral kitty came to live with us for a couple of years. Rory, a loveable and handsome cat with a spirited personality, adapted to life with humans and other felines pretty well, but he lived most of his life outdoors, coming in to eat and, in foul weather, to sleep. He and Bandit would romp and play together, but once Rory got bigger, the play got more intense and less frequent. After almost two years with us, he disappeared, and years later via Chocolate through our marvelous vet Dr. Laurel Davis (who we know simply as Laurel), Rory let us know he’d left his feline form and was now in the body of another animal. He also informed us that he had really enjoyed his time with us and was currently doing fine.

Rory

Rory

Chocolate, the kitty elder
In her upper teens (80s-90s in human years), Chocolate developed some arthritis in her rear legs. We got her acupuncture, gave her fish oil and provided her with some additional natural food additives that seemed to help her maintain her mobility, so that when she was in front of our home and wanted inside, she could still go around the building, scale the six-foot wooden fence that surrounds our back courtyard and come inside through the cat door.

In her 20th year (96 in human years) in 2008, Chocolate’s hip problems became more pronounced, and she was having a more challenging time getting around. And her usual meticulous grooming continued going downhill. In February of that year, she communicated to me and Shonnie during an office visit with Laurel, letting us know that:

  • I want you to be realistic about me at this age and treat me as you want to be treated when you’re my age.
  • I want to know that I am still a valuable member of our family, that I am loved and respected, that I have a purpose—to be with you, to remind you of who you really are and to remind you of your mortality.
  • I want you to know that I am not in my power as I once was, but I am in the flow, right where I’m supposed to be.

We later got a diagnosis that Chocolate had a kidney infection, but several rounds of oral and injected antibiotics did nothing to cure it.

Chocolate turns 21
This year Chocolate turned 21 (100 in human years), and her physical condition began to deteriorate noticeably. She became unsteady on her back legs, though she could still get around OK. She became incontinent, urinating and defecating wherever seemed convenient to her. And in a June 2009 office visit with Laurel, Chocolate told us:

  • I am in the flow.
  • I am letting go and moving on and letting go is a delight.
  • I want no help with this; I’m doing it on my own and in my own way.
  • I want to sleep with you.
  • My pain is 2 on scale of 1-10, not bad.
  • I want to be part of what’s going on—in office, at dinner, in bed at night.
  • My quality of life is 8 on scale of 1-10
  • I need time for separation—under bed, futon, etc.
  • I want my choice of place to let go.
  • I want to be cremated.
  • I know you love me; you don’t have to do a lot of stuff for me.

During the past month Chocolate was sometimes reduced to pulling herself around by her front legs, her rear legs almost non-functional. She began to spend more and more time outdoors, finally taking up residence on the back patio in a sheltered nest I built for her out of her green kitty bed and some of her favorite pieces of fleece fabric. We made sure she had plenty of fresh water nearby, and we brought her food directly to her. Still, she climbed from her nest onto the deck or into the midst of the catnip growing nearby to relax and soak up the sun’s rays. Even when I brought her is to join us at dinner or in bed, she promptly returned to her nest. It was evident to us that her separation from us had begun in earnest. And as it did, I noticed the other cats, especially Kaali and Desmond, stepping forward to be with me as Chocolate continued withdrawing from the family circle.

Shonnie and I had occasional conversations about Chocolate and her health, but I refused to hear anything that might indicate that her time in her little feline body was about up. I’d even begun making plans to build her a heated and insulated kitty house so she could continue living outside as the weather got colder this fall.

But deep inside both of us knew Chocolate’s days in her current form were numbered. I wanted to believe that we’d have weeks, even months with our little girl, but it turned out to be days.

Chocolate’s time with us comes to a close
Whether this was caused by her diseased kidneys or an internal growth as Laurel had speculated, it seems that Chocolate had lost a lot of blood circulation in the lower part of her body. And last Friday, to our horror, we discovered that that some of her skin had died and maggots had begun feeding on it. We immediately took her to Charlotte Street Animal Hospital, and the vet, Dr. Erin Husted, said they’d endeavor to remove the maggots and the dead skin. Chocolate would stay overnight with them, and Dr. Husted would call us the next morning to let us know how things were proceeding.

The call that I’d been dreading came around 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning, August 1. Dr. Husted compassionately told us that Chocolate was in worse shape than their initial observations indicated, that given the circulation problems, successful treatment and recovery were doubtful and that she thought it was time to release Chocolate from her body and her pain. I cried, collected myself a bit and said we’d arrive at the animal hospital shortly. In the meantime, since Laurel was out of town, we contacted an animal communicator, Cindy Smith, who spoke with Chocolate. Through Cindy, Chocolate said that she’d prefer to make the transition at our home, but if that were not possible, she wanted to be outside. Chocolate was ready. Her tired little body was no longer able to support her indomitable and spunky spirit

We packed up some of Chocolate’s favorite things—her pink fuzzy fleece blanket, some catnip, her favorite kitty treats, bread and butter, flowers from near her nest on the patio, etc.—and arrived at the animal hospital around 10:30 a.m. We talked with Dr. Husted and requested time with Chocolate at their outdoor garden at the rear of the building. When we arrived, someone had placed blankets on the ground. There were flowers growing nearby, and the little pond had a gurgling fountain.

Chocolate was wrapped in a blanket, and Shonnie and I took turns holding her close to our hearts. We told her how much we loved her, how much we were going to miss her presence in our lives, how she would always be a part of our family and have a place in our hearts. We sang to her—“May the road rise with you,” “All shall be well,” “Here’s hoping.” We burned incense, we lit a candle, we offered her the bread and butter (which she refused). Chocolate made a courageous effort to purr and lick my hand. And I endeavored to quiet my mind and its insistence that I should have done more for Chocolate so that I could be fully present in the moment with my little girl.

When we were ready, Dr. Husted came out to administer the sedative. We continued talking with Chocolate, petting her, holding her. And after ten or 15 minutes, it was time to inject the chemicals that would bring death to my precious girl. Dr. Husted, along with a technician, came back out, clipped the fur off one of Chocolate’s front legs, found a vein, inserted the needle and the plunger of the syringe was pushed. In a few moments, Dr. Husted checked Chocolate’s heartbeat and declared her dead. We all hugged one another, and Shonnie and I were left alone with Chocolate another 15 minutes or so—crying, holding each other, touching her soft, dark fur for the last time. Then we signaled that we were ready, and another technician wrapped Chocolate’s body up with the flowers, catnip and other memorabilia and was gone.

We packed up our remaining gear, put Chocolate’s fur that had been clipped off in a baggie, shed a few more tears, took a deep breath and departed.

Honoring Chocolate’s memory
During our daily ritual before our evening meal on Saturday, we took the opportunity to express our deep gratitude for Chocolate’s 21-year presence in our lives and our grief at her physical departure. We also expressed our gratitude for all of those who have shown such great compassion toward us and toward Chocolate during this very challenging time, whether in person, by telephone, email, Facebook, cards or by sending loving energy our way.

After a nurturing Sunday Jubilee! Celebration, we returned home and created a little altar on our fireplace hearth in Chocolate’s memory. I took her green kitty bed from outdoors and placed her pink fleece blanket in it. Shonnie framed a photo of Chocolate and placed it along with a vase of flowers on the altar. I added some of Chocolate’s fur, catnip, kitty treats, candles, a heart-shaped stone and some other items to honor her. And we’ll include Chocolate’s ashes on the altar once we have them.

Twenty-one years. That’s the longest I’ve ever lived with anyone. I was with my mom and dad for 18 years, with my daughter Lilla for 16 years, with her mom Shannon for 17 years and now with Shonnie for close to 13 years. Some might say, “But Chocolate’s only a cat.” To me Chocolate’s a member of my family, a close companion who loved me unconditionally. And while there’s a part of me that’s really glad Chocolate is now free to roam and play as she did in her youth, there’s also a part of me that feels extraordinary anguish, the grief of knowing that she’s no longer with me in the way she has been in the past.

I don’t pretend to know what happens when we leave our mortal form or when a cat leaves its feline form. Perhaps I’ll find some respite in communicating with Chocolate through Laurel. For now, my heart aches at Chocolate’s passing, though as the days progress, the pain subsides somewhat and the tears diminish. And the remorse I’ve felt at not having done more for my sweet girl fades as well. In truth, we did all we knew to do to make her final weeks with us as enjoyable as possible. We communicated with Chocolate through Laurel and fulfilled almost all of her wishes. We gave our kitty the space to separate from the family circle, even when we preferred that she join us inside. We did our best to keep her and her nest clean and her surroundings comfortable. We talked with her, let her know we loved her and told her she could let go when she was ready.

Alas, my perfect final scenario didn’t come to pass. I had hoped that when Chocolate’s time came, she would join me at bedtime as has been our custom. The next morning I would awaken, and she, lying there beside me, would have died peacefully in her sleep. But that’s not what Life dealt us. And now I get to make peace with what is.

I love the little bugger so much and wish that she could be here in her youthful body—spunky, independent, running, playing, head butting me for attention. And, yes, I have these memories stored in my heart where they’ll remain for all my days.

Come to me in my dreams, old girl, like you did with Shonnie a few nights ago, and give me a hint that you’re still around in spirit. Who knows, maybe we’ll be reunited when I pass from my bodily form. But for now, goodbye and safe travels, sweet Chocolate. I’ve always loved you, and I always will.

* * *

Update: Shortly after Chocolate’s passing, I had the opportunity to communicate with Chocolate through Laurel Davis. Chocolate reports that she’s doing just fine in the spirit domain. She retains her wisdom and her indomitable spirit, plus her energy is now very powerful. She is happy where she is now, and says that it was a most honorable experience being with me, with us. Chocolate expressed great love toward me and Shonnie, and says she remains with us in spirit.

Chocolate also informed us that the other cats sense her spirit presence and fully understand what has recently come to pass. In addition, Chocolate says the trail runs Shonnie and I go on in the nearby mountains are really beneficial for us, and I got a sense that she’d like us to expand that activity, spending more time outdoors. She also says she wants me to sing more (which came as a real surprise since I’m basically tone deaf) and to finish the book I’ve been working on, “Be Happy Now.”

On Friday (8/7/09) we picked up Chocolate’s ashes at Charlotte Street Animal Hospital, and once we got home, we placed the beautiful wooden box containing her remains on the altar we’ve created for her.

So Chocolate’s now one with all that is, and while her physical presence is still missed, it’s really comforting to know that all is well on the other side.

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