I started to worry about Merrick on Tuesday. His usual ungainly gait was shaky in a different way, and his familiar skinniness was more profound, somehow, than the day before. I told Tom, my husband, that our old cat seemed weak. "He's on his last legs," said Tom.
Well, Merrick had been on his last legs for years. He had seemed doomed in 2011 when weakened kidneys turned him into a bony, tufty, tottery shadow of his previously burly self. But a daily half-pill of Fortekor squashed into a knob of cheese caused him to bloom again. Then, in December, he relapsed and I gloomily Facebooked that I thought Merrick was days away from death; in fact, he rallied and enjoyed a summer of sun-baked luxury.
But on Tuesday he looked poorly. Something prompted me to take a photo of him.
A while later, he sought to get down from the couch, ignoring the steps that we keep pushed against it so he and the dogs don't have to jump. But he did jump, and his body couldn't take it. He ended lying on his side for 10 seconds before gathering himself up and starting a slow walk to his food bowl in the kitchen.
He was still eating, then. As a treat, I'd bought a tub of raw meat for him and he was tearing his way through it, meal by meal.
But by Thursday things had changed. He merely licked at his food, then disappeared. A storm blew in and a minute later I heard the catflap swing and Merrick appeared, covered in hailstones. I texted Tom: "He is not well... I was thinking a visit to the vet tomorrow to see how things stand."
That night I drove out to watch an election candidates' meeting. When I got home, Tom was in the middle of texting me. "I think Merrick's dying." He told me that our old tabby could not move.
Merrick was lying on his side, on a blanket near a column heater. He lifted his head, not because he heard my voice - he's deaf - but because he must have felt the movement as I came into the room and the dogs danced around me. He tried to get up, failed, but on his second attempt succeeded. I petted him for a bit, but he made his way past me to the kitchen - not to his food bowl, but to the water fountain.
He had stopped eating, and now only wanted to drink.
I left him for the night on a blanket on the couch, the pet-steps placed right next to him.
In the morning he was back next to the water fountain, drinking. The dogs cavorted around him witlessly. Connor came up to nuzzle Merrick, as he often does; Phoebe kept away, as she always does.
We watched Merrick drink. Suddenly he lifted his head and let out an awful, chesty wail, then another. Tom took him to the litter box. There Merrick stood in the gravel but peed on to newspaper that had been spread next to it for just this kind of mishap. Tom saw that Merrick's pee was clear as water.
At this point I was phoning the vet, telling him we need to bring Merrick to him urgently, and it may be for the last time. He set an appointment for 9.20, forty minutes later.
The cat tottered back to the water fountain and drank again. I wondered if he was getting enough to drink from it, so I topped it up, and also filled a food bowl with water and put it next to him. He lapped from it, seemingly unable to get any relief.
Then he stopped drinking.
But he stayed where he was, looking at the wall, occasionally lifting his head as he noticed branches moving outside the kitchen window.
It was 9.05, and I stopped taking pictures. It was time to not be a journalist.
I sat on a dining chair a few feet from him, and thought about him as I watched him. I felt sure I wouldn't get a chance again.
I thought about the immensity of Merrick when we first met him at the SPCA shelter in Waikanae; it was the incredible soft hugeness, the lavish lusciousness of his coat, contrasting with the tininess of his voice - just a murmured "Mmmm?" - that won me over, and Tom too. We took him home and gave him what I think, what I'm sure, was a good life.
I thought about Merrick's oddities. That infinitesimal voice of his; his fear of rain landing on our skylights; his exasperating inability to eat a bowl of food in one go; his indiscriminate love of human laps; his tolerance of the dogs and the endearing attachment that grew between him and Connor; his strange bursts of energy; that one unrepeated time I saw him trapeze-walking along the rail of our balcony, wide-eyed and shocked at his own audacity.
I thought about the huge weight of him that I'd feel and the trim "Mmmm?" that I'd hear if Merrick ever found me in bed; those drippy yellow eyes that I never seemed to be able to capture in a photograph; the food thievery that grew in boldness as he got older; the unintended claws...
Merrick sat in that same position, next to the water fountain, for 25 minutes. Then he caught sight of me, twisted round and wobbled over to me. "Mmmm?" I gave him a hug. Then I placed him in the crate.
Five minutes later the vet eased Merrick from the crate with an oddly cheery "Righty ho then." This, the final checkup, was something that happens every day, something tthe vet must have done hundreds if not thousands of times with his assistant at his side. But this time it was our Merrick.
The vet gave him a patdown, a grim check that confirmed what we'd feared. "All the signs are there," the vet said.
Instinctively, inappropriately, Merrick started purring.
The vet explained what would happen next. "Have you done this before?" he asked us. I said yes, remembering Pierre.
Then Tom and I held Merrick. Our good cat didn't struggle. He was looking away from us at the moment the vet took away his purring, and his pain.
Part of the good life that I think Tom and I gave to Merrick was to enter a solemn contract with him. In adopting him, we made him a promise that he'd never be hungry again, he'd never be a stray, he'd never lack shelter and he'd never want for affection. We would always look after him and always ensure that he'd be safe.
A feature of that contract is that it runs to the end. Cats don't live as long as people do. Tom and I always knew that we would have to look after Merrick during months and years of his failing health and in the final days of his life. We knew that one day we'd be standing in a room in a vet's surgery as Merrick's life reached its end.
So though Friday was a terribly sad day for us, it was a day we'd signed up for, and also a kind of privilege. We got to ensure that Merrick suffered as little as possible. We got to ensure that he died not on a road or in a culvert or in a trap, but held by the two humans who loved him.
We should never stop making, and keeping, that promise to our pets.
And Merrick, my dear old friend, goodbye.
Thank you to the hundreds who left messages for us and Merrick on the Four Legs Good Facebook page. It's wonderful how many of you followed Merrick's ups and downs over the years and came to care about him.