It is a fact that every cat is the best cat in the world.
Rascal was living on a golf course, eating mice, little birds, and trash, and lapping water from puddles when he was captured and taken to the pound. When we went to adopt, my sons small, he immediately agreed to be part of the family. Every night he slept on my head at the top of my pillow. His only difficulty in adjusting to domestic life was with kibble, plentiful but unaccustomed, and he farted on me all night as I tried to sleep.
He had been around and was no Pollyanna, a tomcat neutered a few months too late. He liked to make impossible jumps from the top of a low dividing wall to tiny spaces over cabinets at the ceiling and sit there like a trussed chicken and survey his kingdom. In Louisiana he loved to catch the geckoes that ran through opening or closing doors, and liked to watch their disembodied tails twitch and flop on the tiles before hunting their owners down and carrying the little limp bodies around in his mouth. He was no longer young the year he climbed the Christmas tree and felled it in a great shattering of delicate glass ornaments collected over decades.
Something happened! he told me when I sprang from sleep to see what was the matter.
But he was essentially good-natured and had retained an original innocence. He carried curiosity in his pure eyes that were like clear marbles at the bottom of flower vases and had intelligent pupils. There was never any question the house was his as much as ours, but he was never macho or aggressive about the space. He always came to see what was up and was generous with talk. He spoke with his whole mouth, a panther’s mouth that showed the thorns of his fangs, and sometimes I called him Meow Meow Kitty in affection.
His third move with us was to separate apartments and separation from his adoptive sister, for whom he never felt much affection, and from me and my younger son. He was often alone in my wife’s place and became very insistent on lying on her when she returned from work. When I visited, he came to meet me at the door, There you are, what’s been going on? Hello, I live here now, and I was just lying on the cat pad in the bay window. Have you seen the sun?
He started getting thin; tests were inconclusive. He did not seem to be suffering. The vet offered other tests and the option of surgeries and chemicals, and I began to speak with my sons about costs, making a creature who could not understand treatment suffer, and the future charted in prognoses.
In a few short weeks even his eyes, voice, and smell changed. His eyes did not droop with lost struggle but became more epicanthic, as mine have become with age. My son and I visited more often, and he was interested and talkative. I would say hello then lie on the floor so he could roll and flirt and smell my face. I stroked his furry cheeks and petted his belly, his one dangerous spot for a hand like a small animal.
When he began to sit in the floor of an abandoned closet with nearly-closed doors, we knew he was telling us it was time, and that he needed us to love him the rest of the way. Love worth its name is as hard as packed earth. On his last morning he looked at me with sick eyes, passed by, and climbed the stairs slowly. I went up and found him staring into a bowl of water as if thirsty but unable to drink.
The appointment was made for four pm, the last possible time that day. My brave, compassionate son who still lives with me at home said before he went to school that morning that it was non-negotiable that he be in the room. I wept so spontaneously alone over lunch that I took two of the little blue pills that block the body’s physical reaction to stress but weirdly let you feel it still there. I wept as I would for any human family member, and it crossed my mind that Rascal would have had a long, healthy, engaged life and would die after a brief illness, just as my father did. There is no point in comparing cats, but in Rascal I was reminded of qualities he shared with a cat in my childhood who climbed trees to sit with me as I read. Cats have been models for me of companionship and independence—that is, how we are in the world in relation to others. Cats taught me how to treat women and to read others’ moods. They taught me how to get up to no good.
I went in alone and paid first, so I would not have to pay afterward. We were shown to a room. They took him in back, as they seem to do now, wrapped in the lush blanket my wife had knitted, to give him the sedative. He came back fully awake but started getting drowsy immediately. My wife held him in the blanket so he would not have to lie on the stainless table, but as he faded I helped her put him on the table so he could be more comfortable. His head sank, and I put my palm under his head as it sank, and he lapped as if at water, tasting and smelling my skin. He breathed wetly into my hand. When the sedative took hold fully he turned his face and rested his cheek in the hollow of my hand. They pressed the plunger and put the pink death fluid in the clearly defined black vein in his back right leg. He died with his head in my palm. He was my kitty boy.
The vet listened, moved the stethoscope, listened, moved it, listened. He’s gone, she said softly. They left us, and the three of us stayed with him long enough for the furry body to begin to cool. My wife could not watch them take him away, so I stayed when my son took her to the car. They were going to meet me at my apartment.
Maybe it is a final gift that death returns youth to the features, a last glimpse of how things used to be, and a comfort of what it means to unburden the weight of years or illness. My mother’s face grew younger as she approached the end with dementia. Rascal’s head became that of a strong, vital tomcat again, one who had looked dead-on at everything, like the great poets. His head was flat on top with a short steep forehead and a royal nose, like Mary Moody Emerson’s in old age, his eyes as grave and far-seeing as Lincoln’s. His long whiskers hung at half-staff, and the gray along his cheek was like insignia on a warplane. He was how he was without planning or waver or even consciousness of it, as far as I know. But what do I know? There is that feeling in the death of another being of being the unlucky one, in being abandoned, again.
They gave me back the blanket. We had paid for individual cremation in order to get ashes, as well as two paw prints in clay and an ink print of nose and paw. It was an indulgence, and they would call. In the parking lot I saw my wife’s car was still there. She was bent over my son. She had wanted to wait for me to come out. She got out and sobbed in my arms. She said all the stresses of her life had settled into this event, so the grief was enormous. I felt the same within my own body.
This what we make, on our side of the divided kingdom, of small companions.