Encomium for a Cat (Guest Post)

My partner, Jonathan Sumpter, wrote this piece about our cat, Peekie. She got sick 14 months ago with diabetes. The vet had given her a six months to live. A year, tops. Over a year later, on a special diet, her formerly stratospheric blood sugar levels were back down and she seemed to be thriving. Then earlier in the month she suddenly stopped eating. A week later, after blood tests, we got the news: it wasn’t diabetes that was killing her; it was leukemia and, given this cat’s temperament and other health problems we were advised not to treat her.

She was on her way out of the world. But she needed help leaving. So we helped her.

For well over a decade we lived as a happy trio with our difficult cat. And then there were two.

You feel self-conscious, grieving openly for a cat. But people you know come out of themselves and tell you their own stories. The people who have lost pets understand. The ones who don’t? Well, their loss is ultimately much greater than is ours.

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It’s 9:03 in the morning. In less than eight hours my cat will be dead.

She has leukemia with no hope of recovery. She has stopped eating. She has no more body fat. She is running out of energy.

At approximately 3:45 this afternoon I am going to pick her up from whichever warm spot she has found for herself and she will protest weakly (when once she would protest with every fiber in her body) and then I will put her in the carrying case she hates so much with its door of metal bars and then I will put her in the car and drive her to a place she fears to go and betray her into the hands of her nemesis and then I will watch her as she dies. In the car along the way I will make comforting sounds to her and try to touch her through the bars but it will not help, not her and not me.

I have an appointment of my own at 1:15. I’ll be leaving the house at 12:30. I should be back by 3:00. That gives me forty five minutes to be with her. I’ll try to give her a tranquilizer. The vet prescribed them years ago. For his sake as much as hers. She used to be too violent to treat. Every visit was a cage fight.

The tranquilizer has a long name. I Google it. I wonder what would happen if I took one. I Google that. People advise against it.

I am crying and I cannot stop.

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For 12 years I have watched her in her many lairs. Behind the curtains, beneath the couch, atop the discarded boxes in the basement, under the Christmas tree. I have tried and failed to coax her forth; she does all things on her own terms and in her own time. Lately she consents to sit on my lap for a minute or two or lie beside me on the couch. I dare not move lest she leap away. I stroke the top of her head between her ears. I am very careful. Sometimes she purrs. I would like to stroke more of her but if I try she will bite and scratch me.

She’s a gray tabby with a snowy chin. She was always small. She was probably the runt of her litter. At her heaviest she weighed only ten pounds. Four days ago she weighed seven pounds. She weighs less now. She was a great mouser. She killed all the mice in our house. She spent hours stalking them, learning their hiding places, waiting for them. She earned her keep, you might say. She caught and killed birds as well. Blue jays and cardinals. Often in spectacular fashion, leaping and shredding their tail feathers with her claws. Then she had them, they could no longer fly, she could take her time. I tried to rescue some of them. But it was always too late. They always died. Now it is her turn. Now the mice will come back, I suppose.

She was an outdoors cat. Today she went outside and sat on the back porch about two feet from the door. She sniffed the air. She seemed reflective. She watched a few squirrels then came back inside. I remember the first time I let her go outside by herself. I watched her through the window as she went off to explore. I was nervous. Ten minutes was all I could take. I went out and called her. And she came, meowing loudly, proud of herself. Today on the back porch did she also remember?

She will not let me pick her up or let me hold her. But she likes to be carried around the house in a cardboard box. A shoe box works well. Or something from Amazon. She jumps in and waits. Usually she shows no emotion, betrays nothing, gives nothing away. But this she seems to love. She sits or stands in the box while I carry her from room to room. She likes to inspect objects that are usually out of reach. On the mantelpiece or on a high book shelf. It’s like a little journey for her. A voyage. I call it her balloon ride. We touch down on the dining room table. She hops out then leaps to the floor. Then she leaves and I put the box back in the corner for next time.

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It’s 11:45 now. Four more hours. I’ve shaved and taken a shower. I’m ready to go. I look in on her. She’s in one of her favorite spots behind the curtain in the living room. She’s made a bed for herself there. We used to fret about her leaving cat fur all over the bottom of the curtain. We tried to discourage her. We adjusted the curtain so it wouldn’t trail on the floor. But we always relented. At least I did. What’s so important about a fur-free curtain? I could never deny her anything. She didn’t ask for much. Most of the time she just wanted to be left alone. Sometimes she studied us with her predator’s eyes. She was thinking: if you were only small enough I’d bite your heads off. Just like the mice.

Time. She has no conception of it. She suffers none of its agonies. She doesn’t know what lies in store for her. She knows many things. She’s a master of interpreting body language. She anticipates my every move. She understands things I shall never understand. Just not this thing. That’s reserved for me.

We just gave her the tranquilizer. Of course she did not cooperate. We forced it into her mouth. Julie was sobbing the whole time. We decided to do it early, before I left for my appointment, to give it time to work.

So that’s that. It has begun.

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It’s 3:45. It’s time. Her final balloon ride. (Look at the world, at the things you know. Look, look, look.)

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It’s done.

She fought to the end. I tried to soothe her. I stroked her but she sought no comfort. She wanted nothing from me. She looked to me for nothing.

It was quick. First a shot to sedate her, to put her to sleep literally. Then an overdose of barbiturates.

At first I couldn’t tell if she was dead or not. I picked her up and held her for the first time in her life. My life. I held her against my shoulder and laid my cheek on her head. She felt the way I thought she would feel. I rocked her for a few seconds. Then I put her back down on the stainless steel table and stroked her some more, the whole length of her. I tried to close her eyes but they would not close. Her right eye had rolled to the side but her left eye looked straight ahead. It was unfocused yet it appeared to be fixed on something. I wonder what she was seeing. She gave no clue. But in it there seemed a kind of knowledge. Nothing I could understand, something only she knew. And yet I felt at that moment that she gave me something, a direction to look in.

I will look for her. Julie asks me where she has gone. Neither of us knows. Nowhere, I guess. Here in this house. Behind the curtains. Beneath the couch. She has rubbed her scent on every door jamb. On the legs of every chair. I live in her territory.

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Two days now.

People in the vet’s office were kind. They understood what we were going through. They had been through the same thing themselves. With their cats or their dogs. With their other pets. I sat in a chair covered in shiny transparent plastic. A really ugly chair. I held her carrying case on my lap. I wrapped my arms around it. I wanted to protect her from what was to come. I was waiting for the vet to get done with another patient. A dog with an eye infection. Then it would be our turn. I was waiting to deliver her to her fate. I didn’t think of turning back. There was nowhere to turn back to. There was just this terrible ineluctable thing, forever waiting. If not now then tomorrow, in the morning, in the afternoon, next week. Let me check the appointment book, we have these times available. It didn’t matter when. It was going to happen.

It turned out to be a sunny day, warmish even, mild for mid December, in the upper 40s, maybe even 50, the kind of day that would have found her outside once, doing whatever she did, prowling, sleeping, keeping an eye on things. You wouldn’t see her until supper time. Then there she was. No need to call her. She knew what time it was. She showed up at the kitchen window. Up on the window sill. In the dark you couldn’t see her. Scratching the screen. She knew that would get my attention. She knew the exact degree of destructiveness required to do the job. She knew I’d yell at her. Goddamn it! Stop doing that! Then I’d sweep my arm as if in some grand gesture of invitation and say Come on then I’d go to the kitchen door and let her in and she would run to her food bowl on the red mat that says Eat and I’d wait with the door still open because once she was done eating she would go straight out again. Every time I go into the kitchen I expect to see her on the window sill. My body anticipates her. My arm begins to move, to form the signal. Then stops.

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Three days. Still waiting for the resurrection.

I cried when I left her. The vet was understanding. He touched my arm. He may have squeezed it. I think I had been waiting for him to pronounce her dead. Maybe listen to her heart with a stethoscope. Something like that. Something official. It doesn’t work that way. It goes unspoken. Is she . . . ? Had you not watched when the needle went in?

Something has gone from the universe, a living thing. And something has been left behind. This, I think. A lesson in love. To accept things on terms not your own, to stop insisting. I have learned this from her. She is just a cat. But love is love.

I keep feeling whenever I pass the front door or the back door or the window in the kitchen I need to let her in. She is in already. That feeling: that is her. Love’s tiny ghost.

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