I’ll never forget the day we got the call about fostering Akhe. Jennifer, a volunteer on ARFP‘s rescue team, told us that she needed a foster home for two young kittens, about ten weeks old. “They’re pretty scared – not feral, just timid, so they’ll need a lot of socialization. You guys are really good at that, so I’d really like to place them with you.”
When she brought the kittens to our house, she told us the rest of the story. Someone had placed them in a cardboard box, taped it shut, and left it by the side of I-40. For those of you not familiar with Greensboro, NC, that’s a highway so large and so busy that it regularly turns into an eight-lane parking lot during rush hour. No wonder the kittens were scared.
We’d already set up our office for them with food, water, and a litterbox as soon as we got off the phone with Jennifer. The kittens would have it as their private abode for three weeks while we got them up to date on vaccinations and integrated into our household. When we let them out of their carrier, we only caught a flash of gray and a similar blur of tabby and white before the kittens bolted behind a bookcase.
After work, we’d sit on the floor in the office for an hour or two and read, not looking at the kittens, not even saying a word. Every once in a while, out of the corner of our eyes, we’d see a kitten peek out from behind a piece of furniture. The gray kitten, a little girl we eventually named Semerkhet, wandered over to sniff me after only a day or two. The other one took longer.
That was Akhenaten.
Semerkhet got over her fear quickly and was soon adopted by a nice couple who renamed her Stormy. But no one showed much interest in Akhe. He was still pretty timid, and terrified of loud noises, so he didn’t show well at adoption fairs. Not bad — no hissing or growling or anything — just nothing that really grabbed anyone’s heartstrings.
At home, he was doing better, in large part because of our personal cat, Adwen. She was the only resident cat we had at the time, and she’d let us know from day one that she wasn’t thrilled with this whole cat-fostering thing. Namely by hiding behind the couch or on top of the fridge for days on end, coming down only when necessary for food, water, and potty breaks. Which, truth be told, was pretty par for the course for Adwen even before we started fostering.
But then we noticed her coming out more. One day, after Semerkhet had been adopted, I looked up to see Adwen in the hallway with Akhe, showing him how to bat a toy mouse around.
Akhe had never played with toys before. He didn’t seem to understand how. So Adwen would bat the mouse, then nudge Akhe until he did. Over and over again. Soon enough, he was playing like any other kitten would.
It surprised me, to see Adwen do that. She’d never liked any of our other foster cats. For some reason, though, she took to Akhe, and from that day on she took him under her wing. Taught him how to play, how to “hunt” (mostly bugs, because our cats have always been strictly indoors), even groomed him — a favor which he’d return. They were good for each other, and pretty soon Chad and I found ourselves talking about adopting Akhe.
When Sharon, ARFP’s executive director, came over so we could sign the adoption contract and pay the adoption fee, the first thing she said when she came through the door was, “You know, he’s a very adoptable cat.”
“I know,” I said, “but Adwen likes him.”
Akhe was still a very timid cat for most of his life. It’s like he never could shake that fear from being in that box beside the highway. He was the biggest cat in our house, about 16 pounds, and the biggest scaredy cat. He was great when it was just us, but he’d hide if anyone came over. The slightest noise would send him running for a place to hide. Usually the middle of the floor, which he never seemed to realize wasn’t as secure or invisible as he seemed to think. But other places, too. For a cat his size, he managed to fit in some of the most amazing places.
Like when we moved into our house in Ohio. We’d get home from work, go look for each of the cats (we had four by then), and find everyone except Akhe. A few hours later, he’d come strolling by, not so much a tabby and white cat as a dust gray cat. He had us stumped for days. We knew he wasn’t getting outside, or even into the unfinished basement. We’d made sure all doors were shut and there were no openings he could slip through. Then finally we happened to be standing near the kitchen when we saw one dust-covered paw emerge from under the built-in 1950s diner table, then another, then this little head with eyes that said, “Aw, dang! Busted!” as soon as he saw us looking at him. We’d thought the base of the table was solid, but it wasn’t, and Akhe has figured out that he could slip in there and hide out during the day.
Needless to say, we picked up some wood and covered that opening right away.
It took us years of working with him, but eventually Akhe stopped being so afraid. In fact, these past few years people could come to the house and he’d hang out with everyone, rubbing up against people he’d never met before so he could be petted. He’d lay on his back a lot and do bunny paws, and he loved to have his belly rubbed.
He was a handsome cat, and that became his nickname. Handsome. Our big, handsome man.
For some reason he had a fondness for toys that were white. We don’t know why. But he did. And he was great at hunting them. He’d track them down, grab them in his mouth, and bring them to you while mewling his battle cry. Then he’d drop whatever he’d caught at your feet while you petted him and told him he was a brave and mighty hunter.
If you didn’t, he’d give you the most pitiful look that would break your heart. You couldn’t help but stop whatever you were doing to pet him then.
One night we heard him give his battle cry, but since it was, oh, maybe two in the morning and we were both asleep, Chad and I mumbled, “Good job, Ahke,” and rolled over. We got up the next morning to discover that he’d lined the doorway to our bedroom with a perfectly straight row of catnip fleece circles (one of his favorite toys). He couldn’t have made the row straighter if he’d used a T-square. It was… unnerving.
And, yet, somehow impressive.
It wasn’t the last time he did it, either. He eventually stopped, and to this day we don’t know what it was about.
He liked to play string with you, where you’d drag a string in front of him and he’d grab it with his paw. He was amazing at grabbing it between his “fingers”, wrapping it around his paw like it was a hand, and holding on so tight you couldn’t get it away from him no matter how hard you tried. These past few months, he’d even taken to attacking my shoelaces when I was trying to tie them. I could never resist playing with him for a few minutes, even if it made me late to wherever we needed to go.
Akhe turned 13 last year, on November 11th, Nigel Tufnel Day: 11/11/11. “These go to 11.”
A few weeks ago, I noticed Akhe was a little lethargic and was giving me this look like, “Mom, I don’t feel good.” I asked Chad, and neither of us had seen him eat breakfast. Akhe LOVED food — it was always a bigger problem to get him to slow down so he didn’t make himself sick, and our vet had threatened to put him on special diet food more than once — so him not eating along with lethargy was a sign that something was wrong.
We heard lots of scary words at the vet’s office, like diabetes, blood clot, heart murmur, and thryoid disease. In the end, though, it was none of those. It was his kidneys.
We lost Adwen to kidney failure four years ago.
This morning, we lost Akhe.
If you follow me on Twitter or FaceBook, then you know everything we did to treat Akhe’s kidney failure. And it was working, too. His bloodwork on Tuesday showed that his levels were almost all back to normal. We’d had a feeding tube inserted last week when he wasn’t eating good, probably from nausea due to his IBD (we had to stop his steroids while a bleeding ulcer healed), and although he was doing good enough to come home Tuesday, we took him back to the vet and re-hospitalized him yesterday because he kept vomiting or retching when we tried to feed him. The vet called late yesterday afternoon to say that she thought his underbandage was a little too tight, so she loosened that (and he immediately laid down and took a nap), and also that three feedings might have been too much so she was cutting him back to two. But he looked good, was doing fine, and the plan was to keep him hospitalized until Friday. Chad and I would go in that morning to feed him with supervision, to make sure we were doing everything right, and then we’d pick him up and take him home that evening.
At 8:58 this morning, Chad’s cellphone rang. Akhe had done fine last night, although he had retched a bit when the vet tech gave him his feeding, and he was fine and happy when everyone got into the vet’s office this morning. Then, at 8:15, he gave a cry and fell onto his left side. He’d thrown a blood clot that the vet suspects lodged in his lung. Chad asked if we could come in to say goodbye.
It takes us less than a half hour to get to our vet’s office. Akhe wasn’t going to make it that long, and he was in agony. So we gave Dr. Ho permission to let him go, peacefully.
I take solace in knowing that even if we couldn’t be there, Akhe was surrounded by people who knew and loved him when he died. Because they loved him there, just like we did. Even at the after hours clinic, where he only stayed one night for observation, they raved the next morning about what a sweet boy he was.
Even our cat sitter told us after our last trip that he was her favorite.
He was just that kind of cat.
I miss him, and every time I think I’m done crying I start all over again. He had fourteen years he wouldn’t have had otherwise, if someone hadn’t found that box by the side of the highway. And I know he was happy. But I still wasn’t ready for him to go.
I spent a lot of today remembering all the good things about him. That’s part of why I wrote this post. To remember all the things about Akhe that made me smile. Him curling up on my pillow to sleep at night. Giving me head butts when he wanted to be petted. The way our friends and pet sitters used to joke, “Are you sure you have six cats? Because we’ve only ever seen five.” The way he could get any collar off in seconds — until he got his arm stuck in one so we decided to get him microchipped instead. The Thanksgiving when he walked up to us as we were finishing lunch, and we noticed a tooth sticking out at an odd angle — because he’d broken it. He didn’t cry, didn’t even make a sound. Just looked up at us like, “Hey, guys. What’s up?”
He was that kind of cat. The kind that everybody loved. The kind that never really caused any trouble. And even with five other cats, our house is going to feel empty without him.
We named Akhe after the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, because that’s what you do when one of you has a bachelor’s degree in archaeology with a master’s in history, and the other has a degree in creative writing. We’ll put his ashes in a canopic jar, which just seems fitting, and I spent part of today reading about Akhe’s namesake, and about the Egyptians, who revered cats even more than I do. As I read about the Book of the Dead again, and about the ancient Egyptians’ beliefs of what happens after you die, I couldn’t help thinking that I have no doubt that Akhe’s heart weighs less than a feather.
He was just that kind of cat.