Mister Whiskers, named for his prominent white whiskers which must have been glorious in his youth, was a gaunt, spectral being when I met him. He was getting the best possible care at the sanctuary but the ravages of abandonment and kidney disease had taken their toll. He was another victim of human indifference - a waif denied love or compassion—until the shelter took him in.
This gentle, fragile cat made a deep impression on all who knew him. He would lift his bony frame from where he sat at the back of his cage and come to greet you, hoping for a pat or a chin rub. And everyone obliged.
He came to live with me and my roommates because it was clear that he needed hospice care. According to the vet, he was dying and we thought we could offer him a real home for his waning days, the home that the sanctuary had tried to find for him without success. We thought we would give him so much he had missed...what we didn't realize is how much we would get in return.
From the first night, Mister Whiskers took over my bedroom which had been prepared for his arrival. Food, litter...even homemade steps up to my bed when we realized just how brittle he was. And oh how he took to the bed...it was commandeered from the first. We may as well have erected a mast and called him Cap'n Whiskers for mutiny was immediately put down as this cat was not abandoning his ship for anything.
In the beginning, Whiskers laid waste to his dire prognosis. His eyes sparkled, he ate like a horse and he eventually wandered up and down the stairs to mingle with the other felines. He was deaf on top of all his other problems so he couldn't hear warning growls from our other cats. They were completely spooked because he didn't respond to their feline cues with appropriate humility. So, he wandered through the house in a world of his own, parting the sea of cats before him.
It seemed that he would live forever. We would joke about how he would surpass us all, creaking far into the future.
But the inevitable happened about two months after we had grown accustomed to his ghostly presence. One day he was eating 6 meals and the next nothing. He barely moved from his chosen place under the window and the sparkle started to fade from those glowing eyes of his. This was what we had planned for...why we had taken him in the first place. But, now with the moment fast approaching we were not sure we were ready. And, this is when Whiskers worked his magic.
It dawned on us that he didn't share our fears or inhibitions about death. We needed to look beyond ourselves, to truly focus on another's needs. This was about allowing another soul to pass with dignity and compassion, about accepting the dying process and not interfering with it. Above all, we asked, "What does Mister Whiskers want?" It was clear to us that he didn't want a last-ditch run to an emergency vet, needles and pills forced upon him in a vain attempt to gain a few more hours. It seemed to us that he wanted a quiet place, an old cushion and a tender caress. He would do the rest, even to the point of giving us all a chance to lay on the floor with him and say our personal goodbyes. He gave right to the end.
Mister Whiskers passed from us in the best way I think anyone can pass. Not in defeat...as we so often think of death. But, in his own time. In his own way. The hardest lesson to learn is when to let go - it took a skinny, black cat to teach me this.
But though we let go in the flesh, we hang on in our hearts and there will always be a tiny corner for the cat who tottered out of a Tim Burton film and lit up my kitchen with his shining eyes, splendid whiskers and wide open heart.