[ Godsends ]

A Godsend from Down Under

A Godsend from Down Under

They named her Matilda. "Why Matilda?" I asked my father. He explained that she was from "down under" - meaning, from beneath their outbuilding. It was a reference to the old Aussie folk song, "Waltzing Matilda" - a humorous start to a long relationship.

She appeared in the spring of 1990, a young and obviously pregnant cat. Where she came from no one knew. She must have had a negative experience with humans, because she was very hesitant to come out from under the building. One day Dad coaxed her out with a morsel placed in the grass a few feet beyond the outbuilding. Then a little more, and a little more. Before long she was cautiously coming out from under the building for meals. Her next step was allowing my parents to touch her. Each day she stayed a little longer, until she finally decided she could trust them. From then on she adopted them.

My parents, Ruth and Clarence, had always been dog people. I never knew them to even like cats. After our family dog passed away in the winter of 1970, they never got another. The pain left from losing a long-time companion sometimes makes the heart cautious about loving another one. But I guess that hole in their compassionate hearts needed to be filled. They never really intended to do anything more than just feed a poor homeless cat, but Matilda had other plans.

Her litter was born in the boat house. She was a good and attentive mother, and my parents provided care for them. But there were just too many to keep, so they took them to a shelter in Ravenswood, West Virginia, that found homes for them. One of her litter became the resident kitten and the star of advertisements for the shelter.

Matilda was a good cat and seemed to have taken up permanent residence, so my parents had her spayed and declawed. As time went on, Matilda found her way into the house. Soon she was officially in charge.

Outside, Matilda had the run of the outdoors, scaring off any other animal that approached the property. Then she would sit and stare at them, foreboding, until they would give up and leave.

In short order, Matilda had made her way into the hearts of two people that she needed and who also needed her. Somehow she knew that.

One dark and cold January night five years later, my mother passed away suddenly. She had not been ill, so this was a terrible shock to us all. Poor Matilda did not understand where mother was.

The next day I came to stay with my father. That night while I was sleeping in my old room, Matilda came bounding through the door and leapt onto my bed as if to say, "There you are!" When she saw that I was not Mom, she halted suddenly, looked at me, and jumped off the bed, confused. I looked at the clock - it was 1:30 a.m. - almost exactly 24 hours after my mother died.

A few days before the funeral, we couldn’t find Matilda. After looking everywhere, I found her crouched behind the door in the room in which Mom had died. There was a pain in her that I yearned to address. I wished I could have explained to her what had happened, but then, I wasn’t really sure I understood either.

I stayed awhile with my father. It was the coldest, darkest, snowiest winter southern Ohio had seen in many years. The dreariness of the weather was only matched by the dreariness of our spirits.

One day, Dad and I were in the kitchen when we heard the doorbell at the front door ring. A doorbell? I didn’t even know we had a doorbell! We looked at each other as if to say, "My, that was odd." First of all, no one, and I mean no one, ever came to the front door, and second, no one, including Dad, ever used the doorbell.

We scurried to the door, expecting to find a salesman or a stranger who didn’t know we don’t use the front door. A bitter wind whipped in as we opened the door. No one. We looked up and down the street - still no one. But there, huddled at the base of the door, was poor Matilda. She rushed inside when we made way for her.

Dad and I looked at each other curiously. We never said anything to each other, but I feel sure he was thinking the same thing I was. Mom knew there was a doorbell, and she knew her cat was freezing. The skeptical would say it was the wind, or some such nonsense, but I have no trouble believing the obvious.

The years went by. Matilda was Dad’s most faithful and steadfast companion, his source of amusement and entertainment. We used to say that she was more like a dog than a cat, as she was very social and even played games with Dad as a matter of ritual. She would lie on his chest and pat his face gently with her paws. She would talk to him with her distinctive "meow" and communicate her needs. She would tap his leg when he was eating to suggest to him that it would be nice to share his food with her. He would buy rotisserie chicken at Kroger for the two of them. Dad was very attentive to her, and liked to talk about her antics as if she were a child.

In October of 2002, Matilda became very ill. My husband Kel and I came to visit Dad, along with my sister Terry and her husband Leon. As soon as we walked onto the porch, we saw Matilda lying there looking very distressed. Her fur was matted and her eyes were dull. She looked weak and listless. Dad said he knew she wasn’t feeling well, but he was waiting until after our visit to take her to a vet. I think that her debilitated state had occurred gradually enough that it wasn’t as obvious to him as it was to us.

A cousin of my mother had told him about a good animal hospital in Parkersburg, West Virginia, located about an hour away. They agreed to see her and soon Dad, Kel and Leon were on the road. I worried that Dad might never see his dear pet again, or at best, would have to be making some difficult decisions.

The vet kept Matilda and called the next day with the words, "You have a sick kitty." The x-rays and blood tests showed that she had a lesion in her lung, an enlarged spleen, a mass in her abdomen behind her liver, possible pneumonia, and a very high white blood cell count, indicating a severe infection. The prognosis was poor to guarded. We were all very doubtful there was any hope, but agreed that we should at least try some treatment: IV antibiotics, IV fluids. If there was any improvement, they’d repeat the blood work-up and do an ultrasound.

The prognosis remained unchanged as treatment continued. The costs began to mount. We needed to consider her pain and quality of life. After several weeks on this course, the vet and Dad reluctantly agreed that the humane thing would be to put her to sleep.

By this time, Kel and I were back home and in contact with Dad daily about Matilda. I was feeling guilty for taking his cat to the vet and now having him have to face this alone. The event was scheduled for Thursday. I went to Bible Study that morning and asked for prayers for my Dad.

When I got home, there was a message on my machine from Dad. He said, "Hi, I went to the vet this morning to get Matilda, and I brought her home. And she is not dead, she’s very much alive and she’s right here with me!"

When Dad had arrived at the animal hospital, the vet told him, "Mr. Bradford, if it’s all right with you, I don’t think we should put Matilda to sleep." He said that Matilda was stable, and suggested Dad take her home and give her the medications -- steroids, antibiotics, and eye medicine -- and just see what happens. And he did.

Over the course of the next couple of months, her appetite would wax and wane, but she perked up considerably. A follow up check-up showed the chest lesion resolving while there was no change in the abdominal lump. Dad faithfully gave her medications, and took one day at a time. He eventually stopped medicating her.

A year and a half passed, Dad's faithful friend still at his side.

One morning, Dad went out to shovel snow off the driveway. He never came back. He suffered a stroke and was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Gallipolis, Ohio, and then on to Columbus, Ohio, two-and-a-half hours away.

Family members rushed to the hospital from all different directions. Dad’s neighbor came in and fed Matilda several times a day.

Some days after his stroke, the doctor and the therapists had told us that Dad was doing so well that he was a good candidate for intensive therapy in a rehabilitation facility.

We drove to his home to pack his clothes, shoes and toiletries and take care of his affairs: forward the mail and the paper, handle his finances, turn down the furnace, dump the garbage, secure the house and pick up poor Matilda. The neighbor said she had been crying and meowing, wandering around anxiously.

When we arrived at Dad’s house, we found Matilda in the kitchen on a chair that was her usual nesting spot. She seemed very calm, as if she finally could relax with familiar people around her, but it must have been very confusing to her as we rushed around, taking care of things.

I felt heavy-hearted with a sense that things would never be the same. I knew that Dad would probably never live in this house again. Even if he did recover, he would probably never be able to live alone. There was a thick feeling of grief and finality. It was a dreary day.

Late that afternoon, we headed to the animal hospital in Parkersburg to board Matilda until the situation had calmed down. On the ride there, she expressed her objections every now and then with a low "mew". I tried to reassure her, even though I did not know what the future held. We just had to take one step at a time. The only thing we knew for sure was that we were thankful for this animal hospital.

As we entered Parkersburg, the directions didn’t seem to make sense. It had been snowing all day there and the roads were covered. We were lost, it was 4:50 p.m. and the animal hospital was closing at 5:00! But finally we found it.

The staff expressed much concern for Dad and reassured us that Matilda would be well taken care of. They settled her in a kennel and we bid her farewell. I said a prayer for her to be at peace. At least, I comforted myself, she had been there before. And we could tell Dad that Matilda was with her friends at Dudley Avenue Animal Hospital. That should please him, I thought.

Driving in a raging blizzard, it took us four exhausting hours to return to Columbus. It was 9:00 p.m. when we arrived, too late to go to the hospital to look in on Dad. We went home to my sister’s and fell into bed.

The next day at the hospital we found that Dad had failed considerably. He was never alert again. Pressure in his brain had increased from fluid that was not draining normally and he was developing pneumonia. All thoughts of Matilda were put aside. Knowing she was being cared for was all we needed to know.

Dad became less and less aware of our presence. Eleven days after his stroke, he passed away. Our sorrow was great. Amidst all that was happening, I called the animal hospital to tell them. They expressed deepest sympathy and reassured me that Matilda was fine. She could stay as long as we needed her to.

I felt such compassion for the old cat, and such great respect. She had been Dad’s companion and brought him much comfort. Though he affectionately called her his "animal" and would say she wasn’t much good for anything, we all knew differently. She was a cat guardian angel that helped stave off the specters of loneliness for my Dad.

But just what were we going to do with her now? Patched together and probably on her ninth life, she was obviously only holding on because she knew Dad needed her. At least 14 years old, ill and incontinent, she was not a good candidate for adoption. Moving would be stressful for her.

My sister Terry already had two cats and I had a dog. Monica, my niece and a true animal lover, considered taking her, but she had a new house with two dogs and a cat. None of these situations seemed right for Matilda.

To have her put to sleep seemed like such a betrayal. I just couldn’t do it. There had to be another answer, there just had to be.

Aha! Perhaps the animal hospital knew of a cat shelter in the area, a home for homeless and older cats. It was worth a try, I thought. But though they had heard that question oh so many times before, they did not know of one. Heavy hearted, I ended the conversation with a request to call if they found one.

The night before Dad's memorial service, I was driving to Charleston, West Virginia to the airport to meet my family coming for the service. I turned on my cell phone, which did not work at my father’s house in Ohio, and discovered that I had a message. When I checked the message, my heart soared: it was from the animal hospital. They said that all the doctors and staff had talked about it and had decided that Matilda should live out her life right there with them! One doctor had taken a liking to her, and had put a bed for Matilda in her own office!

I burst into tears. What a blessing! What a gift of love What a beautiful testimony of compassionate caring! I was overcome. I called my sister and tearfully told her, the warmth of this blessing washing over her as well. In the midst of the darkness of the grief we were bearing, this was a bright light. We wouldn’t be betraying Matilda; she would be better off there than any other place we could possibly imagine.

Thank you, God! Thank you for truly compassionate people who love and respect the animals they care for.

Dad's memorial service was on Tuesday. My family and I returned home to Atlanta on Wednesday. On Thursday, I mailed a letter releasing Matilda to the care of the animal hospital. The following Monday, I called them to tell them the letter was on its way.

That's when I was told that Matilda had passed away Thursday night. She hadn’t eaten well the last several days. I caught my breath. I thought a minute. Matilda had died exactly one week after my Dad! There was a quiet moment of reverence and awe. Somehow it just seemed right.

I started to cry. Poor, sweet Matilda. Somehow she knew that Dad wasn’t coming back. Somehow she knew that the reason she had held on for so long - long after she herself was ready to go - was gone.

I felt as if in some way I was witnessing a spiritual event. God’s loving hand reaching down and gently stroking her and saying, "You can come now, Matilda. Your purpose is fulfilled. You have given of yourself and now it is over. Come. Come and rest. Come and leap into Ruth and Clarence’s arms. They are waiting for you."

There are so many obvious blessings in the way it all turned out. Not the least of these blessings is that Dad did not have to go through the pain of losing Matilda. She bore that pain so that he wouldn’t have to. The depth of a pet’s love for its master is beyond our human ability to comprehend.

God is good. I am humbled. I am thankful. I am blessed.

"But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you." -Job 12:7

Brenda W.

Atlanta, GA