In Memoriam: Gremlin Matthews, 1999-2016

I dreaded writing this post. It took me two weeks to drum up the courage to write it, and another week and a half to push through posting it.

A few weeks ago, our wonderful cat Gremlin passed away. Gremlin was an old fart – he was 17, which is the equivalent of something like 85 in cat years – and he was ill. We’d been treating him for diabetes and after about four months, he went into remission (something unique to feline diabetes). It didn’t last long; his diabetes came back. Daily glucose tests, infrequent insulin shots, prescription diet. And he did really well. Gremlin was a total champ when it came to his glucose tests, which involved taking a blood sample from one of his paw pads. He didn’t even care. I could flip him onto his back on my lap and get the entire test done in a matter of seconds while he just laid there and purred. Our vets constantly told us how lucky we were to have a cat that tolerated it so well. He didn’t just tolerate it, he practically ignored it.

Suddenly, in the last few months, his glucose levels spiked and we were giving him shots every day, sometimes twice per day. We took him to the vet and they diagnosed him with pancreatitis, a fairly common affliction for diabetic cats. Unfortunately there’s not a real “cure” for pancreatitis, you just have to treat the symptoms and manage flare-ups.

Days after the diagnosis, before we were even able to start treatment in earnest, something went wrong. Gremlin was even more lethargic than normal over the weekend, so I called and made another vet appointment for him. He went downhill fast, forcing us to take him into the emergency vet that Sunday night, where they told us his breathing was irregular – he was breathing through his mouth, which is really bad for cats because they’re obligate nose-breathers. X-rays revealed fluid in his chest cavity, in and around his lungs.

This prompted the single hardest discussion I’ve had in my entire life. The weighing of options, and determination of Gremlin’s quality of life. There were a number of things that could’ve caused the effusion, most prominently congestive heart failure. I won’t recount and relive the long – almost three-hour – back-and-forth with the vet, but we came to the difficult conclusion that basically anything that would cause this kind of effusion was a serious issue that would result in a ton of vet visits, testing, and rigorous treatment… none of which guaranteed any kind of improved quality or length of life for Gremlin.

This all happened very late at night. Initially, we were going to move Gremlin to our primary vet in the morning, possibly have them do a chest tap (where they insert a needle and drain the fluid from his chest) and see what other kinds of tests could be done. We never made it that far.

We got a call a little after 2am from the emergency vet, telling us that the diuretics they were giving Gremlin with the intent to pharmaceutically drain some of the fluids inhibiting his breathing just weren’t working; a very bad sign. His breathing was getting worse, even in an oxygen box. He wasn’t going to get better without putting him through a spate of risky procedures, made even riskier by his already less-than-stellar health and age. We couldn’t bear to put our wonderful cat through any of that on a vague hope supported entirely on uncertainties. That would’ve been selfish.

Gremlin was the first animal in my life that was truly mine. Sure, I’d grown up with animals all my life, but they were always taken care of by my parents. So, while they were part of my family, they weren’t solely my responsibility. Gremlin was my cat. My responsibility. My family member. My friend.

gremlin_001We picked up Gremlin and Bastion in 1999, during our first anniversary. For the first several years of our marriage, we traveled to Victoria, BC for vacation. Normally, we’d drive to Port Angeles, WA to catch the ferry, but this time our trip was slightly delayed. We missed the last boat out by literally minutes, stranding us in Port Angeles overnight.

With not much to do in Port Angeles, we decided to seek out a pet store and just go look at animals. We honestly weren’t looking to buy any, we just wanted a distraction. In our talks about animals, we had decided that our first purchase would be two kittens. We both wanted cats, but we also wanted them to have company so if we were away, we wouldn’t be leaving a solitary cat alone. When we walked into the pet store, we approached their cat area and saw two 7-week-old white and grey kittens, snoring away, the last two of their litter.

We fell instantly in love. It’s one of the few times in my life I’ve thought something truly felt like a sign.

gremlin_002We asked to see them, each picked one up, and they sunk their hooks into our hearts the moment we touched them. Christina immediately knew Bastion was “hers”, and I felt the same way about Gremlin (even though we didn’t have names for them yet). We even traded holding each of them several times, just to be absolutely sure which ones we were attached to, and from that first moment on those attachments never faded or changed. The problem was that we were about to go on a week-long vacation, and couldn’t take them with. So, we paid for them (only $10 each!) and left them in the pet store to pick up on our way home.

As we spent time in Victoria, we couldn’t stop thinking about them. We ended up cutting our vacation short just so we could take them home.

At first, their coloring was so similar we could only tell them apart by Gremlin’s black nose (Bastion’s was pink). As they grew older, they grew more distinct, Bastion maintaining a slender, lithe form while Gremlin got heavy, at one point hitting sixteen pounds. Gremlin was always the alpha of the two, definitely dominant. The two of them always curled up together, but it was always on Gremlin’s terms. Gremlin would sometimes assert his dominance by hissing or swiping at Bastion. This was especially prominent when Midnight joined the family, and they would get into little fights about who she was cuddling with. But the rifts never lasted long. They were very close their whole life.

gremlin_003He accepted Midnight into the family without even a thought. Their adjustment period was only hours, and they curled up with each other the first night they were able. Gremlin was like our family’s animal ambassador. Although he was initially very wary of Colt (which, combined with Midnight’s hostility and Bastion’s aloofness, made Colt very gun-shy of cats), he was the only cat to ever try to actively befriend Colt. He’d approach Colt for attention, try to play with him, and even walk back and forth under Colt’s midsection to try and make nice. Even though Colt was scared and not having any of it, Gremlin continued to try. I even got them to lay on the same bed a few times, without too much coaxing.

gremlin_005In my life, I’ve had well over 10 cats, starting from when I was very young. I can say, definitively, Gremlin was the best of them. He was affectionate, but not needy. Confident, but not aloof. Playful, but not manic. He was the most cuddly, warm, loving cat I’ve ever had the privilege of caring for. He loved unconditionally, and was unconditionally loved. He’s irreplaceable, and that’s the hardest part for me.

His loss has affected our whole household. Christina’s torn apart by it, Midnight no longer has any brothers to curl up with, and Colt has lost the only cat who ever showed him affection. I found, after he passed, that Gremlin was effectively a therapy animal for me, without me even knowing it. He and I had a very strong, unique bond. Whenever I was angry or sad or depressed, all it took to settle my mood was to interact with Gremlin. Sometimes, I’d just lay my head on his side and listen to him purr. Others, I’d sit in my favorite chair and he’s just come curl up on my lap.

There was no place in the world Gremlin would rather have been than curled up on me. He slept next to my pillow, or cuddled up on my chest or side, almost every night for the last 17 years. If I was sitting somewhere, it was almost guaranteed that Gremlin would show up and claim his space on my lap. If he couldn’t climb up on me, I could be sure he’d be somewhere very nearby.

gremlin_004There was something specifically comforting about Gremlin’s attention. It never felt like he was demanding attention from you… instead it was like he was paying attention to you. It’s a feeling that’s almost impossible for me to articulate, because it felt so special. So human. I’ve never in my life had a bond with an animal as strong as what I had with Gremlin. Without him, the world is a much harder place to deal with, to accept. He was with me for my entire adult life. Losing him, for me, is like losing a piece of myself.

I know, intellectually, we made the right decision for Gremlin. My heart still tears me a part over it, though. Some people will tell you that it’s somehow easier to lose an animal when you make the decision yourself, but for me, that’s a lie. Although I can be glad he’s no longer suffering, there has been nothing easier or nicer or more comforting about this. With the exception of my parents, this has been the single hardest loss I’ve ever dealt with. The thought of it tortured me before he fell ill, and eviscerated me when there was no other choice left. I’m broken.

Gremlin was my all-time favorite cat. The best animal friend I’ve ever had; likely ever will have. I don’t think, even with the words I’ve written here, I can ever appropriately express how truly awesome he was, or the void his passing has left in my life. I am sustained only by the idea that in whatever afterlife you may believe in, he and his brother are finally reunited. And that some day, maybe, I’ll get to see them again.

We miss you so much, Gremlin, and we will always love you. You are in our hearts, forever.


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