There won’t be many cat pictures after all. We put her to sleep this morning.
One Saturday, when I was thirteen years old, my brother knocked on my bedroom door to tell me that there was a cat in our garage. Our parents weren’t home, or I’m sure he would have hidden her. She was lying under my dad’s workbench, clearly malnourished and ill. My brother, age seven, said he was sure he knew where she lived, and so would I please get her out and go with him back to her house. I reached in and very gingerly stroked her head. When she didn’t snap or growl, I lifted her out of her hole. She curled right up against my chest. I don’t think she weighed more than six or seven pounds, and she had wide running sores on her neck that she proceeded to rub all over my shirt. Her gentle passivity was a sign of how very unwell she was.
I followed my brother around our neighborhood for nearly an hour. I’m not sure if he thought her owners would be out looking for her, or what, but we eventually gave up and took her home. By the time our parents got home, we’d already set her up in a cardboard box, with a bathmat for insulation and a saucer of milk. We all desperately wanted furry pets, but they had never let us own any, because they thought furry pets would shed and shit all over the house (they were absolutely right). After this cat made it through, my brother brought home a “lost” tabby,* a retriever-beagle mix, and three secret hamsters.**
My parents agreed to take her to the vet. They paid to treat her fleas and her infected fleabites, as well as a deep cut on her left hind leg. Spending four hundred dollars on her made her our cat.
She gained weight. The fur grew back over the bald patches on her neck. She started to explore the house and the yard. She brought us birds. She adopted me as her owner and started sleeping on my bed. She had definitely been a house cat, since she was already spayed and housetrained.
She was not an easy cat. She would not be moved from chairs or keyboards. She growled when people shifted their laps under her or their feet near her corner of the bed. I was the only one allowed to pick her up. I was loved; everyone else was tolerated. She fought with the tabby, twice her size and twelve years her junior. The dog lived in fear of her until the day she died. When my brother’s best friend brought a kitten home to visit for an afternoon, we caught her creeping towards it from behind the couch, belly to the ground, tail twitching.
She was not a young cat when we found her. When we took her in for a follow-up appointment a few months after she came to us, the vet estimated her age at twelve. That was ten years ago. I choose to believe that she was twenty-two when she died, because she was just that scrappy, and because she really did look like Sophia Petrillo. She made cats of nine and thirteen seem spry. She had a kinky spine, a bent tail, a sagging stomach, and a threadbare coat. She was never able to jump onto countertops or bookshelves. I never saw her run.
She gradually declined. She mellowed a little bit. She wasn’t any kinder to other members of the family, but she liked to be near them for protection. She would curl up on the arm of the couch where you were reading, or follow my dad into the living room where he did the bills. She ate less, and spent much more time sleeping. Every March, she would shed her winter coat and we would see how much thinner she had become. She stopped staying out overnight. Her circuit shrank from the neighborhood to the yard, and finally to the doorstep. For the last few months, she was afraid to go outside at all. She couldn’t climb the stairs. She would sit down in the middle of rooms to rest. She camped near her food dish rather than go to far away. She was afraid of the dog.
She was also in increasing pain. She was arthritic when she came to us. Her lower back and legs were always off limits. As she aged, she became more sensitive. By this morning, I couldn’t really touch her anywhere but her head. She was too stiff to hop onto the seat of a chair, and she had trouble curling up in my arms.
A few months ago, she went through a bad spell. She wouldn’t eat. She barely moved. My parents called to tell me that she was finally about to go. Since she didn’t seem to be in terrible pain, we thought it would be okay to let her go by herself. She recovered, a little. She started to eat again, and walk around the house. But she was painfully thin and very weak, and she started to seem fretful, confused, uncomfortable. She started to have accidents all over the house–not because she was forgetful or incontinent, but because she couldn’t get into her litterbox.
My parents wanted to put her to sleep rather than wait for her to worsen. I had my reservations, but when I went down to their house last night to say goodbye, she was noticeably less comfortable than she had been a few weeks before. I could feel every bone from her neck to her tail. She bit me, hard, when I scratched behind her ears. My brother gave her a saucer of milk after dinner. She spent her last night alternately sleeping next to me and demanding attention. She peed one last time against the wall of the guest room.
In the morning, I fed her into the pet carrier and we drove to the vet’s office: me, my mother, my father, and our cat. She was well-behaved on the way, only letting out a few peevish meows. We were led into a tiny exam room with light blue walls. The veterinary assistant verified our billing information and talked us through our options. We decided against communal cremation and scattering her ashes in the Garden of Companions in Monterey. I let her out of the pet carrier to explore the examination table, which was covered with a waterproof pad, blue with pink butterflies. She was calm and relatively happy, probably because I was there.
The veterinarian came in to meet us. She was a kind, personable woman, obviously very generous with animals. We explained the age, the stiffness, the exhaustion, and the pain. I don’t think she completely understood; I glanced at her notes when she was handling my cat, and they read, “does not go outside to eliminate.” She argued with us. Not in a, “How dare you kill this animal?!” way, but she talked about how “bright” and “alert” she was. She mentioned possible medications and therapies, suggested a thyroid problem. We explained that she had never weighed very much. I felt horrible.
The vet wanted to give her a sedative injection in the back room, so that she wouldn’t freak out in the exam room. She was growling and stiffening when the vet tried to pick her up, so I stroked her head and kept her quiet until the vet had her settled in her arms. The vet called her good girl and little girl, and I was vaguely offended. My cat was never anything other than an old lady.
We waited for ten minutes or so; it seemed much longer. I heard my cat let out a fighting yowl just once. The vet brought her back in, and said that she had been given a high dose of painkiller since the vet’s first choice of sedative was unavailable. The vet left us alone while we waited for the sedative to take effect. She was already woozy and shaky, and her pupils were dilated. I sat down in a chair with her, and she dozed on my lap. She twitched every once in a while, probably afraid to fall sleep. She never really went under.
The vet came back in with the second injection and asked if I could help get my cat onto the exam table. I think the vet might have understood a little better then. After a dose of painkiller that left her legs useless and her pupils the size of dimes, my cat was still uncomfortable enough to growl at me when I tried to lift her out of my lap. She was too alert to put up with the electric razor, so the vet decided to inject into her foreleg without shaving first.
A lab tech was called in to help hold my cat down. She struggled a little, more against anyone touching her back than anything else, but sagged after the first few drops and curled up on the table. The vet listened to her heart for a second and pronounced her gone. I hadn’t expected it to happen instantly. I had assumed I’d have another few minutes with her. The assistant folded the short end of the pad over her neck and the long end over her body. The vet thanked us for taking such good care of her for so many years, and I started to cry. They told us to take all the time we needed with her, and left us alone. Her eyes were wide open, and her fur was warm and soft. She didn’t seem any less alive than she had been a few moments before. I stroked her head a few times, although it felt embarrassing to be comforting a dead animal. Then my dad picked up the empty pet carrier, and we left.
*He decamped when the retriever-beagle mix arrived. We suspected he’d been living a double life for several months prior.
**Champion mouser, my cat murdered them all despite my brother’s attempts to secure them. After the third one was decapitated, its head left in my brother’s doorway and its body ten feet away, my parents decided that there would be no more rodents in the house.