andrew burke





A Too-Brief Visit From Gretchen

Posted on: 2024-01-25

Gretchen the cat stretching in the sunlight

Meet Gretchen, the most recent addition to our family. Unfortunately, she wasn't with us for very long.

Since 2007 we've always been a two-cat household, and often rescue cats from various shelters and SPCAs. We're pretty good at treatments and special diets and all that, and we like to be able to be good to cats who have come from rough backgrounds.

In the summer of 2022, we lost our lovely golden boy Camden after 11 years together.

Camden the orange cat in the sunshine

This left us with just Samson, our big sassy tomcat, who is a lot of fun but not very cuddly.

Samson leaning jauntily in bed and helping us sort our laundry

After a year, we decided it was time to see about getting another cat in our lives. Shannon found a likely-looking candidate from the SPCA, and in mid September of 2023 we brought Gretchen home. She spent some time at first hiding under various beds:

Gretchen hiding under a bed

But she was out and about in just a couple of days, and was ready to meet Samson within a week. They got along much better than we had hoped. Maybe not great friends, but certainly happy enough housemates:

Gretchen and Samson sitting by the bedroom window

Gretchen was the name she had come with, and while we considered others, we ended up sticking with "Gretchen" - it's a nice short name, but also slightly exotic and old-fashioned, with the added bonus of being prominent in Goethe's "Faust" and some great music.

Gretchen was about three years old, and had been rescued from a cat hoarding situation somewhere in New Brunswick, where 30 cats were somehow surviving together in a small trailer home. She had had a bevy of diseases and conditions when first rescued but the SPCA had fixed her up. Gretchen had been staying with an SPCA foster for several months before we took her, and the foster was such a fan of her that she regularly visited us to see how Gretchen was doing.

Gretchen was happy to have a proper home and some space to herself, but also managed to hold her own against Samson. She had her own strong opinions about things, and was especially notable for her epic three-part stretches.

Gretchen doing phase 1 of her epic three-part stretch

Gretchen had a pretty three-colour coat, with a batman-style mask over the top part of her face, surrounding pretty little eyes that often seemed a little bit sad.

Gretchen in portrait mode on the kitchen counter

Visits to the vet revealed that while most of her conditions had been cleared up, she had very advanced kidney disease. In fact, her blood test numbers were so bad that most cats would already be in their final stages - yet Gretchen seemed to be active, happy, and normal. The contrast between test numbers and our day-to-day experience with her was jarring. We never quite knew when the other shoe might drop. In the meantime, we found her special food, set up a treatment plan, and even became pretty accomplished at administering subcutaneous fluids on a regular basis, which is a skill I didn't imagine I would acquire in 2023.

Gretchen looking alert

Unfortunately, Gretchen took a turn for the worse over the holidays. We're not sure if it was the disruption of people travelling, the cold and dark of December, or just the way timing worked out, but her condition got untenable and just a few days into 2024, while I was touring my nephew around the Montreal Science Centre, Shannon had to take Gretchen to the vet to say goodbye.

We had hoped to have a sweet new cat for a decade, or at least a few years, like we had had with our others. Unfortunately we only had Gretchen for a few months, and we spent much of it unsure of what might be helping or not, and wondering if and when things might get worse. We had gone from the worry of introducing a new cat to the household to the worry of terminal health care, without the usual years of coziness in between.

I recently went back through my journal entries for the last year, and I realized that I was in pretty rough shape in the final few months. At the time I wondered if it was work, or the darkening seasons, or something else, but in retrospect a lot of it was clearly the extra worry about poor little Gretchen. It's a new year and we're now on the other side of things. There is sadness, but at least no longer anxiety.

Gretchen didn't have as much time in this world as she deserved, but she did well with the time she did have. She was loved by several households. She enjoyed sitting in the sunlight and watching birds out the window and sleeping cozily on warm laps:

Gretchen sitting in a sunbeam on the kitchen table by a MacBook Pro

Gretchen looking out a window at birds

Gretchen sleeping on my lap

Over the years we've collected art that reminds us of our various cats (much of it by Liz Mac, and we have it all up in our kitchen.

Paintings representing our cats

Gretchen was so special and distinctive that I decided to try making my own art for her (using Procreate on my iPad). I did two pieces: one captured the glory of her epic three-part stretches:

Digital painting triptych of Gretchen stretching

The other had her watching out the window, which let me capture her great three-coloured coat, and especially the back of her ears, with the reflection allowing me to show her sad-looking eyes and extensive whiskers. The bluejay is accurate to our backyard, but also maybe metaphorical.

Digital painting of Gretchen looking out a window at a bird with her face reflected

I've put that picture up next to the bedroom window that she used to enjoy looking out of:

Picture of Gretchen hung by a window

We're not sure when we're going to try to get another cat again. It might be a while. In the meantime, we have our memories of Gretchen. It turns out Samson has memories too: over the fall he managed to pick up Gretchen's epic three-part stretch, and now whenever he gets up from a nap it feels like a bit of a tribute.

So here's to the memories of Gretchen, who was a great cat and who had some good times, but left us too soon.

Gretchen looking curious

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