A Cat’s the Only Cat Who Knows Where It’s at

He was tiny. A few weeks old, eyes barely open. He was perfect.

I always had pets growing up and as pets are wont to do, one died. I don’t remember it well but it was my mom’s pet, it had been a month or so since, and as is the way with our family, it was time to find a new companion. Friends of ours had adopted a puppy from my brother’s dog so we returned the favor when one of their wild cats had her own brood. The kittens had been irresistible to me as soon as the adults allowed us to play with them. A cautionary chorus of ‘gentle’s and ‘hold them carefully’s followed us through the house as we watched and helped them develop motor skills and explore their world. By the time they were old enough to take one home with me I already knew which one I wanted. He was a cute tabby with a white chin, chest, and tummy and little white socks. He was playful and exuberant and the perfect fit for my hyperactive, hyperfocused pre-teen self.

We brought him home and I could’t leave him alone. While my family watched TV and polished off dad’s Top Ramen Tuna Fish Casserole I cuddled our newest addition and sang phrases from songs I though might be comforting. Ostensibly he was mom’s pet but that first evening and my subsequent fixation created a bond that was to last until his passing sixteen years later.

His kitten year was adorable and fun; all the things that children and kittens like. We played with strings and feathers and I spent hours giggling and shrieking with delight at his leaps and spins. His ‘teenage’ years were full of mischief and mayhem. He used to relax on the steps between the first and second story, his twitching tail the only action. Innocent stair climbers would soon discover a coiled spring that would launch itself mercilessly at passing ankles. Those of us who were most often home learned to step wide or to the side, but there are family members who still harbor a grudge against the little stair monster. When that grew boring, he would lie on the ledge at the top and to one side of the stairs and swipe at whatever eartips and scalps presented themselves.

As the result of a urinary territory battle with a new arrival, he became an outdoor cat as all our cats have inevitably become. Despite the added danger and the succession of missing and DOA pets, we could neither deny freedom nor his ferocious tenacity as he grew into an affectionate and scrappy adult. Birds and mice were a common gift from the cats to our doorstep and we quickly learned to look first in the morning when heading to school lest we hear a tiny crunch underfoot. I once came across him toying with a mouse on the lawn. I rescued the little creature and brought it inside, only to have it escape in the kitchen. It lived in the kitchen long enough to create some highly amusing stories concerning mouse traps, fingers, and midnight snacks but it wasn’t until we invited my mighty hunter back inside that the now thoroughly fattened rodent took its leave.

I used to climb into the neighbor’s apple tree with a bag full of apples, oranges, water, and a thick book to sit in the warm summer sun, reading and snacking. On rare occasion he would come join me until my incessant petting became annoying and he left.

On the evenings we let him into the house, we would fall asleep together, his fur and my long hair an inseparable tangle of fuzzy, cuddly affection. Many of my pets had an affinity for hiding in my hair but he spent the most time by far on my pillow with me.

Leaving him behind when I went off to college didn’t feel like a betrayal or abandonment, it felt like an interlude at the end of which we would fall back into old patterns like the best kind of friends. Finding him wherever he was on property and giving him a snuggle was part of my home visit routine until I finally got a place where I could bring him with me. I had a little cottage type place out far enough that I felt fine letting him roam around and the little old couple who lived next door would give him little treats.

He and I lived it up that year. We had boys over and parties where he and I both earned the affectionate title of ‘snuggle sluts’. I remember one evening when he went from person to person until he had received adequate pets and snuggles from each attendee, then went back for seconds from the best cuddlers. Even my allergic friends couldn’t resist him, if just long enough to start sneezing before they had to shuffle him to the next person. By this point he was ten or eleven and had settled into a calm, alert, but relaxed regality that ruled our social circles from whichever perch he chose.

It is this age that I remember the most clearly. His full, round belly, thick, ropey muscles, easy, strong purr, and alert, brightly green gaze glowed with health and stability. I can see in my mind’s eye my hand cupped around his face, his eyes closed in ecstasy, his breath hearty and rumbly as my fingertips found all the right spots: under his chin, behind his ears, and that one spot that made him scritch like a dog with his hind leg. He always met me at the door in the morning and when I came home. A few times I even saw him racing me home as I turned the last corner to the little side street we lived on.

There’s something about that perfect combination of total independence and devotion that only a cat you’ve lived with your whole life can share with you. Dogs are wonderful and I’ll have them, too, when I can, but they have an element of neediness that cats lack. Many cats have that aloofness that keeps you from bonding but when you share the better part of two decades with them, there comes a point where that aloofness wears off. You share vulnerability with each other, you share strength when it is needed, and you become family in a way that still leaves you both room, free of judgement, to pick fights and make mistakes and still come home to someone who loves you.

My life thereafter didn’t lend itself well to pet ownership. I ran out of money and left him in the care of a friend ‘just until I can take him back.’ A year passed, two years, three, and I was finally in a place to bring him home with me but by then he had become a source of strength and joy for her in her times of need. He had become a loving grandfather now. He stayed indoors and slept a lot, he lost some weight but his eyes still took everything in and radiated wisdom and calm in return. His teeth started to loosen and fall out and we saw less of each other. Every time I saw him it was a surprise. The kind of surprise you get when you see you your parents after a few months away and suddenly they have gray hair. It’s been silvering for a few years now but you missed a few months of it and now suddenly you notice. His immune system started to fail but both I and my friend failed to get him the care that he needed.

Tuesday morning I got a text. “I just got home from work. He’s really bad. Can you come?”

I knew it. I’ve had pets before and they all find their end sooner or later. I went home and emptied out a cardboard box. I lined it with ragged towels and put it in the car. My eyes blurred as I drove and that image of his face pursed in ecstasy and joy came to my mind. I knew what I would find when I arrived and I knew none of us were prepared. I’m not proud of what I did when I bundled him up. I couldn’t deal with her grief on top of mine and so I left her behind, unable to make a full cathartic goodbye. I took him and he never came back.

I felt for the people at the vet’s office. I walked in, carrying a sack of bones and bawling, knowing what had to be done. They expect people to hang on, to be sentimental, to demand extension of their beloved pet’s life and so they didn’t understand that I knew. I knew that he and I weren’t going out the same door that morning. I knew that his run was over, probably sooner than it needed to be. I knew that I had failed him by leaving him in the care of a friend and not checking in. I knew that regardless of what regrets I might have or damage I might have averted six months ago, it was too late now and he was already gone.

His belly heaved with each breath. His spine was a serrated knife, ready to tear through his thin skin. His fur was still soft and fine but now tiny parasites crawled in it. His gaze was directed inward, focused or fighting I will never know. I stayed alone with him until he began to grow cold. I had left him before and I would leave him now but not until he had left me first.

Mortality is a funny thing. We all have it, we mostly deny it. I’ve expounded to some on the research being done into hallucinogens as treatment for end of life anxiety and other mental disorders. I wonder if there was something more I could have done. His eyes that final morning did not hold the bright, outward gaze I got so used to but instead held the inward focus of a starving creature in pain. I had a thought of a cat on LSD, taking a guided trip to help him come to terms with his end and his pain. That wasn’t my only moment of wry, morbid amusement as the morning came and went. I thought of the last really bad hangover I slept through. It was all encompassing. I felt feeble and weak, wanting to eat and vomit at the same time, able to do neither. If that’s bad I can’t imagine what he must have felt and feared. The thought brought a chukle devoid of joy.

They say time heals all wounds and I’ve got a remarkably robust mental immune system so the pain of yesterday is already a shadow of what it was. The life that left us yesterday, however, was not, and I felt it important to memorialize that life. Words are my punishment, my joy, my artistic medium, and my platform and so in words we find his memorial.

My Kitty, I know you never could understand my words, but the feelings behind them must have rubbed off a little. I hope that you felt my love and my need for you and I hope that all cats go to heaven too.