Overcoming Illness and Heartbreak with Simon

Learning to navigate the loss of my husband while dealing with illness together.
By: Samantha Drake
Simon, the author's cat

As my sister and I settled into chairs on her patio, she said carefully, “I have to tell you about something that happened while you were in the hospital. First of all, the cats are fine—Simon and Lila are both fine.”

I couldn’t imagine what she was about to tell me. Then again, I didn’t see anything that happened in the past three weeks coming.

It started with a terrible, strange headache that came out of nowhere one afternoon. It turned out to be ruptured aneurysm in my brain. Twelve days in an intensive care unit and a week in a nursing home later, I was at my sister’s house to recuperate for a few days before finally being allowed to return home. I actually remembered very little about being in the ICU, but now I felt a pang of guilt that I hadn’t thought of my two kitties.

For the past week, my gray-and-white tuxedo Simon had been in a veterinary hospital suffering from a severe bout of pancreatitis, my sister explained. He’d been a very sick cat but turned a corner just a few days ago and hopefully would be coming home around the same time as me.

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas caused by digestive enzymes invading the abdominal area, which can damage other organs. In severe cases, pancreatitis can be fatal. Suspected causes of pancreatitis include concurrent inflammatory bowel or liver disease, diabetes mellitus, and certain types of infections. Unfortunately, for many cats the cause is a mystery. Personally, I have my own theory, at least in Simon’s case. I think the stress of our separation somehow triggered it.

My cats are always well cared for whenever I go away, whether it’s for just one night or more than a week. While my calico, Lila, is happy to see me and demands her share of scratching and petting upon my return, Simon tends to give me the cold shoulder for a while. True, I was away longer than I’d ever been before, but this time he had no warning that I was leaving—no packing, no preparation—and no indication that I’d be coming back.

I simply disappeared. And it wasn’t the first time this had happened in Simon’s life.

The first time was when my husband died less than a year before. He and Simon had a sweet bond; Glenn loved cats and made it his mission from the moment he first set foot in my house to win Simon over, with treats, attention and consideration.

True, I was away longer than I’d ever been before, but this time he had no warning that I was leaving—no packing, no preparation—and no indication that I’d be coming back.

Adopting Lila was his idea, partly because he thought Simon needed his own furry friend. Glenn also understood Simon’s jealousy of any attention I gave Lila in the early days. The night we first turned the cats loose following several days of in-house separation, I started to get off the couch to go to bed when Simon jumped in my lap. Glenn insisted that we sit and pet him for a while because Simon obviously needed some “Mommy time.”

I knew Glenn had earned a place in Simon’s affections one day when Simon sat in the window making that guttural, menacing sound that cats make when a strange cat is just a foot away on the other side of the window screen. As Glenn reached to shut the window, a startled Simon whipped around and scratched his arm. Later, he and I sat on the couch watching TV when Simon appeared and walked across me to curl up on Glenn’s lap. He had never done that before and I knew Simon was checking in to make sure he and Glenn were OK.

Years later, the three of us had a very different moment. Simon was the only witness to my frantic efforts to revive Glenn when I discovered that he had unexpectedly died not long after coming home from work. Simon was initially the only friend present in the chaos that came with the paramedics, and my companion in the days and weeks of solitary grief that followed when family and friends went home.

Maybe we anthropomorphize our pets’ emotions too much or maybe we don’t. Whether our cats and dogs think and feel the same way we do is up for debate, but I believe there’s no denying the depth of their feelings. I can only imagine what Simon must have felt when the most important person in his life was suddenly gone, not long after another important person departed forever.

After I got sick, several friends came in and out to help take care of my cats. I’d been in ICU for several days when my mother noticed Simon acting lethargic and eating little. My feline-loving friends promptly took him to the vet, made sure he got the care he needed and fretted when his health continued to worsen. One of my friends even dropped by the vet hospital to visit and reported that Simon immediately recognized her and came to the front of his cage to greet her.

When I finally returned home, Simon was already there. I found him in my bedroom. Leaning over post-aneurysm still made my head hurt, so I gingerly knelt down on the floor next to him. I saw dried flecks of blood on the white fur of his neck where the feeding tube had been placed. He had also lost weight. But Simon’s eyes were bright as he looked up at me.

“We’ve been sick and sad together, haven’t we?” I said quietly as I stroked his head.

Amazingly, we’re both in good health today but I’m not taking any chances. Whenever I go away now, I bring out my suitcase or overnight bag a day or two before, and leave it open in my room so Simon can investigate it and understand my leaving is only temporary. At least, the crazy cat lady in me prefers to think he understands.