Black kitten cat with paws extended in front of him

Leaving pawprints on my heart

So many people lucky enough to be truly owned by a pet often feel bereft at the passing of their beloved four-legged family member. There is no funeral, there is no eulogy, there is no order of service, But the life that they lived with their pet was just as important, just as valid, if not more so, than some relationships we have with family members.

With the ongoing lockdown, we have become closer to our four-legged family than ever before. We have had more time with them, more cuddles with cats, more, and longer, walks with our dogs. We have luxuriated in spending all our time with them since March last year – something that has been a benefit for both them and us. That time has been precious, utterly precious. And I know that I am so grateful to have had that time. This is my story.

In August 2006, I found myself ‘mum’ of a young, gorgeous, fluffy, blue-eyed, black kitten. He came from a farm where he lived in a pigsty with other kittens. The new owners to the farm were slowly coming to terms with the feral cats, catching and neutering them, and offering their kittens free to a good home.

This little fluffball came home with me, his paw through the bars of the cage as I took him the short drive back to our house. I put my finger up to the cage, and his paw wrapped around it. He was special from the off.

Black cat kitten Merlin with his big paws
Merlin on his first morning with me

A magical name was needed, and so Merlin arrived in beautiful force. The ginger cat, Biggles, immediately looked after him, washing him and protecting him from Jasper. Within a year, Merlin was bigger than Biggles, and would chase him, but that uncle-like love from the ginger cat was never forgotten.

Merlin was unique. His blue eyes turned to green, and he was wholly ‘my cat’. While the others – all indoor cats – would sit with anyone, Merlin was totally mine, only going to my dad if I was away for a period of time. The connection between us was so strong that mum would know if I was on my way home as he would go and sit on the window, watching for me – only for me to pull up anything up to two hours later.

He would talk to us as we unloaded the dishwasher, chattering away and telling us where everything went, and he would always come to the kitchen to watch me cook. If he saw my apron go on in the morning or afternoon, he would come and lay on the table, keeping half an eye on me as I mixed, baked, chopped, and cooked. It was never for treats – he just wanted to be near me.

Merlin black cat green eyes
Merlin in his prime at 10 years

In May 2019, Merlin became ill. He was constantly sick, and the tests at the vets vaguely pointed to a kidney problem, so we adjusted food accordingly. By 2020, Merlin was a shadow of his former self and, not happy with the continued lack of support and diagnosis from the vets, I switched him to a different surgery. A round of tests later and, on 20 October 2020, Merlin was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. I was heartbroken.

The tumour was inside his intestine, and while friends rallied and said that six months could be a lot longer, I knew that time was going to be against us. Indeed, in November, I was cautioned by the vets that it could be a lot less than six months.

Merlin was always a Christmas cat, so the tree went up a little earlier in 2020 – and this did have a positive effect on him. He took his daily meds without complaint, most of the time, as I hid them in food rather than wrestle with a cancer cat and hurt him.

Merlin in front of a Christmas tree
Merlin’s last Christmas

Merlin made it through Christmas, and then to New Year. We didn’t think he would see my birthday, at the end of January, but he did. And then he made it to Valentine’s Day, each milestone marked by him stomping on my dressing gown and smiling at me as he purred.

At the end of February, Merlin had to go back to the vets for another check up and they said that they were amazed he was still with us as they honestly hadn’t thought he would make 2021. I replied that his spirit and fight were strong, but I knew that his body would give up first.

On 12 March, Merlin stopped taking his pills. I have long said that animals self-medicate, and this was a case in point. I managed to get just half a pill into him on the Saturday and Sunday, and on Monday he rallied and took a whole steroid again. But it was too little too late. I knew, and he was telling me, that it was time. Those who know their animals inside out know the looks, the signs that they give, and it was clear. That Tuesday, I contacted the vet and when I next went back to the house from the office, Merlin looked at me with relief and understanding in his eyes. He knew; I didn’t need to say it out loud.

So, on 18 March, I held Merlin in my arms as he took his final breath. I felt his heart flutter to a stop, and I continued to hold him, telling him I loved him, thanking him for being in my life, and reminding him how special he was. That I would always love him.

Writing this, exactly one week on, the acceptance that Merlin is no longer with me, in the physical form at least, is sinking in. But that doesn’t stop me looking for him. Seeing shadows in doorways, and heart-shaped clouds in the sky.

Merlin has always been my shadow, my familiar. When someone said in December that he was my soul mate, I was startled – only because you always think of that term in a romantic human to human sense. But it is true. Merlin was my heart, my soul, and I knew what he wanted from the way he would look at me, or what he was thinking from the look on his face or the way he positioned his body.

Now, he is gone. We have two cats left, Jade, brother of Biggles, who sadly passed away last November, and Sheeba. Sheeba will be seven this year, and when she arrived, Merlin took charge of her the same way Biggles had him – but more so. He would wash her, curl up with her, protect her from Jasper, and basically showed what a good dad he would have been had he had the chance. Sheeba’s pattern has changed since Merlin died. She was scrabbling and calling at the kitchen door when the vet came to see Merlin last Thursday – she knew, and she didn’t want him to go. She now takes herself upstairs after lunch, not coming down until 5.30 or so. She looks for Merlin, as does Jade. And she also looks to comfort me. She wants to see us all smile again, and she doesn’t understand where Merlin has gone.

Merlin cat just over a month before he passed
Merlin Cat in February, just a month before he passed away

My story is not unique. So many of us have an incredible bond with our pets, a bond that rips us apart when they have to go. And each time it happens, it becomes that much more difficult to bear. We are so fortunate to have had our lives blessed by such amazing, characterful four-legged family members, each unique in their own way. However, the pawprints that they leave on our hearts when they go are deep and indelible.

I am lucky enough to have loved, and been loved, by so many amazing cats, dogs, and horses in my time. But there will never be another Merlin, that magical cat with green eyes who was always by my side, keeping a watchful eye on me and making sure that I was okay.

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