The cat’s head is a knob sheathed in velvet; she is all boney hips and shoulders, her tail, now pulled behind her, parallels the floor as she walks, no longer that marvel of punctuation. We love her and she’s dying. This is wrenching, trivial, the time and tide of things. It is Kitty’s last day, Miss Kitty Mitten’s. Of course, she doesn’t know it. Who would want to know? She has no idea what separates one day from any other, drivenby habits and needs. When the vitality or will with which to satisfy them diminishes, we will know it’s time to let her go.
The vet has interpreted the sonogram; various organs show “thickening.” The diagnosis is lymphoma. It’s decommissioned her eating/drinking apparatus. She dwindles – sweetly, it appears, does not complain, seems not to suffer. But something looks off. She props herself, rests her chin on a pile of folded laundry. Noting that, we see that she’s having trouble swallowing, just sitting there. Her curious positions suggest that she’s trying to settle her organs around pain. Although lifting the small tuft of her, she doesn’t resist or cry, we know by her curious repositionings that comfort eludes her.
Today is the day we have determined for two reasons. The first is love. With our untrained touch, we keep fiddling with her discomfort. The ambiguity of when to put her down is awful – put her down – a conflating phrase, as one puts down the baby for a nap. Whenever I hear that said about the baby, I want to say, “No, don’t’ do that. Please!”
Oh, the second reason: it’s when the vet can do it. Today is Thursday, euthanasia day.
I will miss my cat. I already do. Yesterday we said good bye many times together. She would appear from a shady patch in the garden, and hop up onto my chair and hold on. Today is Kitty’s last day. Her eyes seem a little slower to respond to light and movement. Her spine feels like rigid hills and sharp divots. My old cat, who even in decrepitude looks fresh and young, sniffing this and that, decorously entitled.
There is, of course, a kinder way of saying it, but in the end, this is how it felt – that we had to kill the cat.
I will see her in so many places – turning from the hall into the living room her now boney saunter. It would not occur to her that she would be unwelcome. There is no hurry in her step. Her place is never questioned. She does not enter a room in a fit of social un-ease, looking around for the drinks tray, worried that there will be nothing to add to a conversation. She turns the corner like a precision instrument, tail once again erect, and approaches the couch and her place beside me. Up with a slight launch and a soft landing. We called the plush fur plumping her haunches pantalones, because they looked like little puffs of pants atop the slenderness of leg and ankle. Departing a room, the tail might twitch, as each hip paused between steps so that she looked flirtatious, as if issuing a seductive dare to rise up from the couch, and follow. I would always regard Kitty’s exit from the room with awe.
I see her in all of the places where we accompanied each other – the morning couch; the studio in which she made her rounds – table top for kibble; under the computer desk for pats and assurance; high desk top, where she surveyed the unkempt piles of bills and correspondances, and philosophized on time as it would get recorded in the oversized Week-at-a-Glance. We greatly benefited each other.
She could be very supportive.
I know, so much of pet adoration is the projection of human need, or whimsy. Did the cat need reassurance? When, from under the computer desk I felt soft paw tap bare leg, what did that, from the cat’s point of view, signify?
I see her in elegant positions all over the place, the shapes she makes, on her pad, on the bed, one arm flung over her eyes, as if it is all too much, this experiment with humans, the shared fates, the dis-commingling needs, schedules, and agendas. The duplicitous insult of the dog. Humans, with their terrible, clattering machines. But there are wonderful things to savor – sipping from a tub full of bath salts, soap scum, floating hairs, a pink, glistening human happy to share the riches.
There was a neighbor cat named, Groucho, owned by a plump old woman who lived across the street. We would marvel that he continued to show up – alive, robust – as she forgot, from time to time, that she had a cat, and thus, that he had outwitted being run over. Groucho was a big cat, a tuxedo, with medium long fur, and personable. He visited regularly, finding our garden and our cat of interest. At first, because he was so big and she, Miss Kitty Mitten, by comparison, so tiny, I was disconcerted by his visits. But they seemed fine together, content mostly to exhibit curious regard, with an occasional, decorous closing of the space between them. He had a distinct mustache and a neat goatee, and his paws were white, like boots and mittens.
One morning, from the back deck, I heard a cry, a loud, operatic issue. On the deck, Miss Kitty Mitten writhed, heaving herself from side to side. Her wail had a lot of diaphragm to it. She writhed, belly up, stretching her limbs in full extension, and then curled herself into a circle, and flopped herself over. She performed this many times as Groucho, formal in his tuxedo, looked on. What was the cause of this behavior? Her writhing seemed unattached to reason.
I came to understand that Kitty was enjoying herself; that Kitty’s time with Groucho had the flavor of an assignation. There had been an evolution – from the cautious to the curious to the sublime, like a school girl encountering poetry – first, with an aloof regard, then surrender, and then the rapture – behold! An English Major in the making.
And that is how I learnedthat Miss Kitty had a flair for drama.
When putting an animal down, there is a certain movement of the head that suggests the soul exuded from the body in a long breath, gently, slowly, albeit in a second. Life disengages from the body. This is an image that stays with me, one that I regret, as it triggers the guilt of the killer, the kind that admits guilt into the circle, anyway.
In the euthanasia room, she melted into my wife’s lap, anesthetized. Humanely, she had been given a numbing potion so that we could hold and pet her for as long as we all needed, as her consciousness, but not yet life, waned. How quickly, the light drained from her bright eyes.
In four minutes she became a tiny, inert heap, and soon would come the injection to the heart. As she lay on a light green fleece on the steel examining table, her forearm shaved, the vein pricked and entered, it took a moment for that slow arching of her head, lengthening the spine as her life departed. And then, gone, the shell, still dear, striped richly.
Perhaps why that final moment – the head tipped back in a slow arch – is so poignant is that it is the picture of life, departing – of the particular spirit of this particular life. It will take a while to delete this image. She was out like a light on a dimmer, on that metal table, presumably at peace on the light green blanket. I am vastly ignorant about what, if anything, awaits us on the other side.
And then there is the death that comes in cartoon guises – the time Kitty played catch with a head. I had taken down the long, bright red bird feeder to clean it for use next winter. It leaned against a wall on the back deck. In the morning, we discovered, to our chagrin, that a sparrow had gotten its head stuck in the bottom feeder hole, unable to extract itself. With tiny, gentle, encouraging tugs, we tried to free it. Guilt-sickened, we retreated to strategize over coffee. Emerging as hour later, we saw Kitty leaping, frontpaws punching the air,
as something thudded. She rushed, and pounced, tossing. She caught and batted. The sparrow’s head bounced across the deck.
As comic was our horror, animated and instant. Upon recognizing that Kitty was playing toss with a head, we leapt backward, shrieking like little girls whose brother had plastered worms onto some exposed body part. Once again, we retreated, to recover and further caffeinate. Kitty continued to bounce her sparrow ball, the perfect mix of jollity and murder – pirouette, toss, turn, bat. A boredom suddenly descended, and shaking a paw, bringing it up for a quick, grooming lick, she tiptoed into shadow, herself to rest and recover.
Miss Kitty Mitten was supposed to be a bird.
Many years ago, when we were a recently re-configured family – two women and two girls, who had bought a house together, and when some time had passed, and some adjustments made – I thought that a pet would smooth out the lingering rough edges, and bring us closer in. This required research. What pet? Something exotic, I reckoned. Why, I am not sure. Dogs and cats remain defaults for a reason. It occurred to me it might be fun to have a bird. I’d been charmed by a love bird once, with rose petal pink cheeks and extravagant affection for its human. Research, however, stalled us. The younger had entered an avid, anti-research phase. Research, she repeated, sneeringly, as if we – her mother and I, the auxiliary parent figure – had slipped bits of algae and slug eggs into the Cheerios. Research had become vile, something so beyond revolting, somelightening roddrawing down tempests of the divorce.
One clear, hot day in August, we drove across the water to Denise’s Parrot Place on Mercer Island. I had floated the idea of a pocket parrot as our family pet. The girls agreed that a pocket parrot might prove an amusing option. There had been expressed mild enthusiasm and some cheer.
We walked into a racket and din and a cacophonic chorus. Talking in a normal decibel range was impossible; even the humans in the Parrot Place were shouting.. There were parrots of all colors and sizes – tiny ones in dull green feathers, in stacked cages; others flashed by in slashes of harsh white or cobalt blue. There was a terrible cry. A door was flung open to reveal a Cockatoo the size of a spaniel, commanding and savage, and someone staggered out, bleeding. She’d been bit, we learned. And that this was notuncommon.
We joined the mania, the only other choice being to flee. What bird might satisfy our needs? We were led to the row of small, stacked cages, in which perched, demurely, the dull green pocket parrots. Denise lifted one out and stuffed it into her pocket, subject and verb. We were puzzled. What would one do with such a thing? Was it capable of affection? Would it come to its name, when called? What was the incidence of loss regarding so miniscule a thing? Denise thought about that, and admitted that sometimes they got stepped on. Which led to the question of cost. $500, she told us.
Why would anyone pay $500 for a liability, and one that might not even show gratitude or affection? You could not hold it in your lap; would it sing, even? Clearly parrot people were of a group, a genre. The ten or so romping in the shop were clearly enthusiasts, even those who were bleeding. They all seemed to be wearing bright Hawaiian print shirts. There was a lot of hair dyed vigorous reds and brash yellows. There were voices crying out in jubilation about the attributes of African Grays over Amazonians. We were out of our depth, and knew it, and so we told Denise we’d think about it and thanked her and drove back across the water, and to safety.
We dropped the older girl off at a friend’s house for summer play, and that left the three of us to dangle in the disappointment. We had not procured a pet, in spite of research. This put me in the mind, momentarily, of the younger girl’s disdain for it. I suggested we go to the neighborhood pet store for a final stab at something. A hamster, maybe.
The pet store in our neighborhood offered cool respite from the dazzling day outside, and it took my eyes a little while to adjust, and when they did, down the shiny corridor sat the tiniest kitten imaginable with a plume of a tail curled around her front paws – a delicate, brown tabby with a diamond face and cheekbones anyone would envy. She sat outside her cage in a delicacy of curves and stripes and paws and made eye contact with me, I swear it, and – in this moment that so many of us share, believing that our pets, in some way, choose us – she drew me forward, no hesitation in my step. She seemed patiently to have been waiting for us to get over the Pocket Parrot nonsense, and leave Denise’s and drive back across the water on that hot day to come and get her, finally. It took only a moment to decide – one of us was allergic; one still nursed a grudge against research, and had to be assured that what had brought us (except for the older girl; but that is another story) to this moment was completely free of the taint of it. We gathered what was needed for a kitten kit, and scooped up our new kitten, the first pet that we would have together. We paid a modest adoption fee – not $500 – and signed some sort of agreement that we would all live happily ever after, which, following one or two more hurdles, we would come to do.