Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Eulogy for Cat
I grew up in a Navy family. We moved a lot, and I never had a pet. Sure, we had a goldfish for a few days. Hamsters for a brief time. I always wanted a dog, but I was always denied. Which, in hindsight, makes a lot of sense. Sort of.
When I was twenty years old, I lived in a punk house in the Mission district of San Francisco. It was a great old building that had been left to decay. We lived with eight people in a three room flat with a picture of Prince in a g-string on the front door. I was going out with a girl at the time and she moved in with me. We were in love. We were also battling some serious demons, though we didn't realize it at the time.
My girlfriend grew up with cats. She suggested we get a kitten. I don't remember being all that excited about it, but she was excited, and I certainly didn't hate the idea. I craved some kind of "settled" existence, and I was not in the right frame of mind to realize that being an addict and living with an addict made the decision to adopt a cat kind of bizarre.
I looked through the paper until I saw an ad for free kittens. I called a nice woman and we were shaking hands less than an hour later. The woman was friendly. Older (I have no idea now whether that means she was forty or sixty). There was a pile of kittens in her garden. Half were all white. Half were black and white. None were moving.
I walked over toward the pile and, immediately, one of the little black and white kittens stood up like he had been called to duty, walked over to me and put his paws as high up on my leg as he could. Something changed in my heart that day. I didn't realize it at the time. At the time, I thought, "I guess we'll take this one."
Kittens are one of my favorite things. If you can find anything unlikeable about a kitten, there is something seriously wrong with you. We went back to the house and everyone was stoked on the new kitten. We played the rest of the day. When it was time to go to bed, I lay down, and the kitten immediately plopped down onto my chest and went to sleep. I woke up the next morning to a tiny rough tongue licking my face. We decided to name him Catamaphone (which will make sense to Simpsons fans), but we called him Cat for short.
I think it is fair to say that, from the beginning, Cat was my cat. He liked my girlfriend and they were cute together. He played with my friends. But he slept on my chest. He followed me around like a puppy. I was fascinated and in love in a whole new way. We took him to the SPCA to get fixed. They had a deal where they would give you five bucks if you got your cat fixed. I donated the five dollars although I really could have used it. They were looking after my cat, after all.
Cat didn't leave my room much. I loved my roommates, and I didn't mind having a different band sleeping in the living room all the time, but I didn't trust them to be as vigilant as I was. Cat was hell on wheels, and he broke for the door every time it opened. He was fast as hell. I think if I had let him out, he would have come right back, but when you live at 24th and Mission, you have some reservations about leaving a tiny, cute animal to defend itself. There are some tough cats in the Mission.
Time passed, the house changed, and my girlfriend and I moved to a tiny apartment with Cat. We were happy for a while, and then things started to go downhill. Honestly, I don't remember whose fault it was. Which probably means we shared in the petty stupidity that led to our breakup. Regardless, we broke up. In one of the worst ways I can imagine.
A few days before my last semester of college, my girlfriend didn't come home until like six in the morning - several days running. We didn't speak of it. I was mad, but I didn't want to know what she'd been doing. I left for the first day of my last semester with the same words I used every time I left the house: "I love you, Cat. Be good and hold down the fort. I'll be home soon." When I came home all the locks on the apartment had been changed.
This would seem normal if I were an angry, abusive guy. Or a thief. I'm not. And I never have been. I get angry, but not at people I love. And if I do, it's more of a sadness. I remember trying every key I had, even though I knew - it was incomprehensible to me. I was pissed. My cat was inside the apartment.
I called my girlfriend and told her that the door was going to be opened whether she came home and opened it or the cops did. She came and opened the door. I said I was leaving. She said she'd pack my stuff up. I said one thing and I remember it like it was thirty seconds ago. I said: "If you think I'm not taking Cat with me right now, you're out of your mind." She nodded: "I know." I remember being glad that she didn't fight for Cat. It made it much easier to hate her as opposed to missing her. I called my friend Josh who went to Stanford and lived in East Palo Alto - the murder capital of the US at the time. I went and stayed with him. I rented an apartment in the same complex. I couldn't afford the City on my own, and I, literally, did not have the strength to even think about apartment hunting. So, I moved to EPA.
I stopped doing hard drugs because Cat didn't like it when I was spun, but my drinking hobby became a drinking obsession. I drank Albertson's brand bourbon. $7 a fifth. I probably went through four or five on an average week. I worked, I went to school, I drank as much as I could, and I read everything John D. MacDonald ever wrote. I was grasping at straws, and I'm not sure if I would have made it had it not been for Cat. I loved bourbon. I love John D. MacDonald. But they didn't need me. Cat needed me, and the responsibility of taking care of him saved me. As did the fact that he was there for me. Always.
A lot of animals do amazing things, and everyone thinks their pet is special, but Cat was something extra special. When I was sad, he knew it and would not leave my side. When I was sick, he slept with me. He didn't even demand food. He put me first. That was a new experience for me. Later, when I was married, my wife would tell me that every day about ten minutes before I came home, Cat would go and stand vigil by the door. Waiting for me.
Allow me to break the narrative for a moment. My cat played fetch. I would sit for hours and throw sparkle balls and he'd either catch them in mid-air or bat them around a little before trotting over with the ball in his mouth and dropping it at my feet. He came when I called. He was my best friend. I say this because I know there are folks who don't think you can have a meaningful relationship with a pet. And there are a lot of folks who don't like cats because they're not dogs. I didn't expect to adopt a cat who played fetch, obeyed voice commands, or was completely devoted to me. Cats were supposed to be aloof ... like I'd always tried to be.
Back to the story.
Things were hard, as I said. But, no matter what, I had to be able to feed Cat. I had to clean his litter box. I had something to take care of. He needed me. I didn't think I was worthy of being cared for. Cat disagreed. And there was no doubt in my mind that he deserved the best of everything. He ate better than me. I built a track around the wall of my 'bunker' ... er, studio ... and he'd run and jump and amaze me. The only thing that made me happy was Cat, bourbon, and John D. MacDonald. You can't snuggle with booze or dead writers, though.
I'd always been a pretty high-functioning drunk, so I didn't miss work, I finished school and even made the Dean's List. And I met a girl. And I reconnected with my best friend, Pat. We soon moved in together (me and Pat), and I was happy. We didn't have much, but we had guitars and a four track and I had a sweet girlfriend. And, most importantly, I had Cat. And he had a bigger apartment to run around in.
This girlfriend lasted about as long as the one who'd locked me out. Around two years. The major difference was that we parted as friends, crying, hugging, knowing we loved each other but were not right for each other. I think it hurt worse that way.
Pat and I moved to a new apartment, close to my first home in the Mission. We both worked. When we weren't working we read, played music, wrote a lot of songs about heartache, and spilled a lot of whiskey on our four track. The best songs I've ever written were written during this time. And Cat sat quietly and listened to us play.
Cat was the only true constant in my life. When I sat down, he sat on my lap. When I was in the shower, he waited outside the door. When I went to sleep, he curled up beside me. Once I was asleep, he'd take his night time prowls around the apartment, but he was always back when I woke up in the morning. Sometimes he didn't even ask for food.
And then I met Karen, the woman I would end up marrying. The first time she came to my house, we sat down and Cat ran over and climbed up on me, licking my chin for all he was worth. Karen thought it was cute. She was a cat person. Had she not been, we would not be married. But she was. She was wonderful with cats. Cat absolutely adored her. She gave him face massages and knew special tricks I didn't know. We were happy.
After a decent amount of time, we moved in together. Later, I would pop the question and we would marry. We're still married. We have two daughters. Until yesterday, we also had Cat.
When my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, I wondered how Cat would react. He was a thirteen pound Tom cat. I was about to have a baby that would weigh less and come un-equipped with claws and sharp teeth. I wasn't worried. Cat had never used his claws or his sharp teeth on anyone. Ok, I was a little worried. I needn't have been.
About a month before my daughter came, Cat began to lick and 'scent mark' all the things we had gotten for the baby. Crib, bouncy chair, toys. It was curious. Was he marking his territory? Was he helping us prepare? Other people worried. I didn't. Much.
Every morning, my daughter would wake up and grab Cat's tail. Then, she would rub it vigorously on her nose. She followed Cat around the apartment. She hugged him and dragged him to the ground. She tried to ride him like a horse. For a week or so, I worried that Cat was caught in a living hell. Then I noticed that he never left. He'd simply move away and wait to be tackled again. And he never once made an aggressive move toward the tiny child pulling on his ears. He was clearly enjoying himself. And my daughter was thrilled.
Years began to pass quickly. And each year took a little bit of Cat with it. Soon, he was eleven pounds. His demeanor did not change, but he became easier to pick up. He still chased sparkle balls. He still came running when he heard his name (I think he thought his name was psst psst, but he answered to Cat, too). When my second daughter was born, he did the same thing. Wouldn't come near her until they were the same size. Then, the exact same thing happened. Right down to the morning nose tickles with Cat's tail. Cat had another tiny friend. A more aggressive friend, but it was by nature - both my girls loved Cat.
As they tend to do, the years were catching up with Cat. Soon, he stopped chasing sparkle balls except for rare occasions. He slept more. His days consisted of napping beside me when I wrote and playing with the girls. He started sleeping more at night.
I was always good about taking Cat to the vet. He got a respiratory infection after being boarded that almost killed him (and me). I gave him antibiotics. He got better. Then the vet trips became more and more depressing. Bad teeth. He had some removed. His kidneys were failing. The last trip to the vet (before yesterday) was about a year and a half ago. They said he had a year left. He weighed seven pounds.
For the last several months, Cat could not eat solid food. We mixed cat food with baby food and when that was too much, we gave him straight baby food. We debated taking him to the vet, but I thought the trip would kill him.
Then, it was no longer a choice.
Two nights ago, I was reading before bed. My wife came in and told me to come see Cat. My throat closed and my heart sank. That's a cliche, but I felt it sink. I had been dreading this moment. I could read it on my wife's face.
Cat was unable to walk without stumbling. My wife had made an appointment with the vet for later in the week (the writing was on the wall, even if I didn't want to read it), but it was clear he was not going to make that appointment. My wife called the vet as soon as they opened. I found Cat hiding under the shelves in our "junk room," which he had claimed as his sanctuary. He was barely responsive. There was blood crusted on his nose and mouth. I have never felt such acute physical pain from an emotional response - and I don't know that I've ever been so scared.
When we got to the vet, Cat weighed in at six pounds. His bones poked out. His blood pressure was low. The vet, very kindly, told us that he could admit Cat to the hospital and buy him a few more weeks or months, but he would also support euthanizing him. As strange as it may sound, being "given permission" to euthanize Cat was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. When I can do it, I will go thank that kind vet.
I'm a pretty sensitive guy, and I'm not afraid of crying. I don't, however, like to cry in front of people I don't know. That didn't matter. My wife was trying not to cry. I didn't even try. I stood, covered in cat piss, bawling so hard I thought I might hyperventilate while the doctor asked me if I'd like Cat to be cremated or buried. Or if I'd like to take him with me. I tried to speak. I signed the paper.
Karen and my youngest went to the waiting room. My oldest was at school. I went back to a room that looked like a miniaturized version of every grandmother's living room. Soon, the doctor came in and put a pink towel on my lap. Then, he lay Cat on the towel. Cat had an IV in his shaved leg, and he had just been given the anesthetic. The doctor told me I had a few minutes and then Cat would sleep and he would be back.
What do you say? Especially when you're gasping and crying so hard you'd probably vomit if you had the strength. I thanked Cat for being the most loyal friend I've ever had. I thanked him for taking care of me and for letting me take care of him. I thanked him for loving my wife and my girls and being so sweet to them. His eyes were getting heavy and I said, "Psst psst." He looked up and I said: "I love you, Cat. I'll hold down the fort for you. Come back soon ... somehow ... if you can. And now just sleep. Just go to sleep and dream." I kissed the top of his head. You will never convince me that he didn't look grateful. His gratitude made it hurt even more. But it will help someday.
The vet came back in and made two injections into the IV. Thirty seconds later, Cat was gone. His body was there, but there was a very real sense that he was gone. The body was merely an empty vessel now. I stood up, tried to comport myself, gave up quickly and went out to the waiting room. I was sobbing. I later asked my wife how big of a wreck I'd looked like. She said I looked like someone who had just lost their best friend. Sounds about right. The nurses murmured their condolences. I shook the doctor's hand. Then, I shook, my whole body, for a long time.
I have always feared Cat's death, partly because he played such a huge role in my life, but partly because I'm not sure if I'd have a life if it wasn't for Cat. As I said, during periods of my life where I couldn't muster the courage to take care of myself (and didn't very well), I refused to shirk my obligations to Cat. I had to get out of bed. I had to make money to buy cat food. I had to be there for Cat because I knew he would do the same for me. And I promised him many times that, no matter how hard it would be, when it was time to step up and tell a man it was OK with me if he killed my cat, that I would do it. For him. And I did.
Yesterday, I did very little other than alternately cry and stare off into space. I hugged my family a lot. I winced when I saw Cat's bed. His food bowl. I'd realize that I'd never be sitting in a room and have Cat come in huffy that I'd snuck off and left him in bed. He was never mad. He just relocated his nap.
One of the realizations I had yesterday makes me feel strange. Over the years I have fought many battles against drugs and alcohol. And I quit them all. But I could never fully quit drinking. Three days ago, I drank too much at a party and had a come to Jesus talk with my wife. I have never been a mean or an angry drunk. And recently, I haven't even been drinking all that much, but the party made me realize (again) that when I take a sip of alcohol, I am taking a serious gamble. I might drink two beers and wake up feeling a little groggy. I might wake up with no memory of the night before. So, enough was enough. I wrote up a contract. If I ever drink again, my wife gets to sell my pocketknife collection (it's quite a collection) and my motorcycle. And I can never have a motorcycle ever again.
So, it occurred to me yesterday that, possibly, the Cat that kept me alive when I didn't care ... the Cat that spent his whole life loving me and putting me above everyone and everything else (including himself) ... maybe that Cat was finally satisfied that I'd be okay. And maybe he was smart enough to know that I would never break the vow if he checked out. He had been sick for a long time. Maybe it's a coincidence. I don't know. I don't think so, and I don't really care what anyone else thinks. I think Cat spent seventeen years looking out for me and, when he was confident that I would persevere on my own, he allowed himself to end the pain. He reached out to me and my wife and you could just tell that he needed it to be over.
What will I do now? Well, you can call it stupid or silly or whatever you want, but I am going to try and live the rest of my life by the example Cat set. He was never angry, never petty, never greedy. He was kind, loving, generous, and forgiving (not some of the time, ALL the time).
I don't believe in cat heaven. I don't believe in people heaven. I wish I did. I believe that Cat stopped being Cat the moment his heart stopped. My heart stopped for a second, too, but it kept beating.
My oldest daughter has never dealt with death before. She spent part of yesterday walking around with a stuffed cat and making meowing sounds (she's always done a really good Cat impression) until I asked her, in tears, to play with another toy. She asked if we could get a hamster now. Or another cat. It was like being stabbed in the heart. But she didn't mean me any harm. She was dealing with it in her way. And Cat would have understood that better than anyone.
Will I ever have another Cat? I don't know. If I do, it won't be for a long time. And if I do, that cat will have some pretty big shoes to fill. I know it won't be Cat, but someday I might be able to accept that I can love another furry thing.
Some people will probably find it weird that I wrote this. I understand. I had two reasons. One, when I was younger and didn't have any experience with domesticated animals, someone would tearfully tell me they put their dog or cat down and I'd say I was sorry while thinking, "Wow. It was only a dog/cat." I see now how stupid that was. It's hard to miss anyone you love when they die. It's damn near impossible when the loved one never did anything but fill your house, heart, and life with love and joy. Two, I have to write things out. I can't talk things well, but I can't keep it inside me or it will fester.
It still doesn't seem real. I took my best friend to the vet and didn't bring him home. Every time I leave my apartment and don't say, "I love you, Cat. Be good and hold down the fort. I'll be home soon." will be a twinge in my heart. Maybe for the rest of my life.
And I write this because, despite the fact that I am currently typing ten words a minute through tears, I owe Cat a decent send off. I need people to know. Even if it's only six people. I need to tell the story. Hell, I'm a writer. If I was a sculptor, I'd be shopping for slabs of marble online. I'm not. My sculptures are made out of words. Usually, they are made out of pretty words that I care about very much. This is the first thing I've written in a long time where the words don't matter. I could give a damn about the typos because it all comes down to this:
I held onto him for as long as I could.
Catamaphone Mader. 1998-2014. RIP, buddy. We'll never forget.