THROUGH THE FIRE: The Death of My First Baby

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By TRISHA MURAKAWA
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on October 21, 2010.)

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My first baby finally passed away last week. He was 19-years-old. He lived as long as he could and finally died when we gave him permission to leave us. I know he would have struggled and suffered longer if we wanted him to but we knew his fragile weakened little body couldn’t withstand any more pain.

Opus, our cat, was my husband and my first cat and our first pet together. We only had dogs all our lives so a cat was new for both of us. We got Opus because we saw a filthy injured tiny kitten in the garbage in Chinatown and were upset. The orange puff ball, about the size of a tennis ball, was hunched over and crying and looked like someone had stabbed his eyes out because they were swollen shut and bloody.

Even though we were meeting my family for dim sum for Fathers’ Day, we couldn’t find it in our hearts to leave the poor kitten there to die in the trash. So we pushed the rancid smelling flea riddled live fur ball onto a piece of a torn box we picked out of the trash and put him on the floor of our car and intended to drop him off at the emergency vet right after lunch.

We took him in and were immediately informed that unless we paid for his treatment and took him home, they would let him die.

So they bathed, flea plucked and pumped him up with antibiotics, instructed us how to bottle feed him, and $200 later, he became our cat.

Opus Wong Murakawa

The first night with us, we put him in a box to sleep with a comfortable towel for padding. The next morning, I found him in the bed under the covers snuggled next to me.

A week later, I was thankful for him because Opus came to us at a critical time. A week after we brought Opus home, my husband’s childhood dog died. It was hard for my husband to deal with her passing because they grew up together. He was 10 when he got her.

So Opus played an important role in helping my husband mourn the loss of his childhood dog in the way that only another pet can.

Opus was important to my husband and me in so many more ways than just being our cat and our first pet together. We were in our 20s when we rescued Opus. We had just bought our first house and were adjusting to the responsibilities of all that entailed. We were in that weird transition period between college and the first phase of real adulthood when you realize there are no safety nets.

Opus was there to experience that transition with us.

Seven years after rescuing Opus and living in our small first house, we moved to our second house to gain a little more room. We were in our 30s and time for the next transition in our lives–kids.

Prior to our daughter’s birth, like most 30-somethings, our careers were our focus. That, and of course, Opus was the center of attention (even though we had a second cat, because of his personality, Opus always stole the focus away).

When our daughter was born, Opus was mildly interested in her because he didn’t yet know his purpose in our family. It wasn’t until our son was born almost three years later that Opus clearly understood what his purpose was.

From the day our son came home from the hospital, except when we went on vacation without him, Opus slept with our son in the room and later, on the bed, every night including the day he died. Opus watched over our son and our daughter every night as they slept.

It seems ridiculous but Opus would watch over our kids as if to protect them while they slept.

Over the span of Opus’ life, my husband and I shared and participated in every phase of his life as well.

We found him as an infant cat. We nurtured him back to health, bottle fed him and raised him to be a spoiled indignant cantankerous cat who forgot his abandonment and had seemingly no appreciation for his rescue. Through Opus, we learned patience and tolerance and mastered the use of timeouts as an effective disciplinary tool–yes even with a cat.

Opus kept us company and shared all our experiences. He was with us through holidays, birthdays  and other milestones and celebrations. Opus was there during good economic times and bad ones. He was there when I left my stable well-paying job to start a consulting firm and he was there again when I left my firm to consult on my own and spend time with my daughter.

And Opus shared his senior years with us and showed us how to live well with kidney disease and arthritis with strength, grace and courage–and yes, still be the alpha of the family.

Over the years, we watched our 17 pound fat fluffy ornery spoiled demanding cat wither away to a five-pound skinny old kitty. But every day of his life, though he could be a cranky nasty jerk of a cat, he still gave us joy and loving and took his job of protecting our kids seriously until the very end.

About four months ago, we inadvertently rescued a dog from a kill shelter. He is still a rambunctious puppy and a rather large one, so we kept his area downstairs separate from Opus to protect Opus and his fragile body.

Since we brought our dog home, Opus, by his choice, remained upstairs exclusively.

The last few weeks of his life, Opus wandered downstairs and into the domain of our dog (who was not allowed upstairs). We found Opus facing our dog more than once. The day before Opus died, he laid on the rug in the garage next to our dog’s bed as if to pass the torch.

Opus was our first cat and our first baby, but he also represented so much more. He was with us as we learned to grow up and grow together.

Opus was our kids’ cat too. He played with them, slept with them and watched them at night. He taught them about old age, strength and courage.

Now it’s our dog’s turn to take our kids through puberty, into college and adulthood just as my husband’s dog took him.

We’re thankful for Opus and all that he experienced with us and meant to us and we’re thankful for our dog who, unknowingly now has the torch. He will teach our kids about responsibility and how to love another being as they enter the next phases of their lives.

And our dog will help my husband and me mourn the loss of our first baby in the way that only an animal can.

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Trisha Murakawa is a strategic communications and public affairs consultant based in Redondo Beach. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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