Mistah Cat–He Dead.

Our cat died Thursday night. It wasn’t sudden; he was fast approaching 19 years old. He had renal failure, which means that for the last couple of months, pursuant to sudden weight loss, we’d been giving him special food and subcutaneous fluids and extra helpings of affection. I met him when he was three, and within a matter of weeks he would greet me by rushing over to this one small area rug in Christine’s apartment and flopping down supine for some serious tummy rubbing. He was a big cat, and in his heyday could easily jump five feet in the air in pursuit of a laser pointer’s red dot. He loved to fight with me, getting all huffy and dilated with indignant cattitude at the temerity of my hand when it bopped him on the nose. He liked to eat raisins.  And he was a total whore for the tummy love.

Being a cat, he was at times a giant pain in the ass. He pissed on rugs and furniture alike with no warning, and then stopped for long periods. He would also go outside and eat plants and then come in expressly to barf all over some hard-to-clean textile. Prior to vomiting up the half-digested crabgrass, he would drool, undulating his body and staggering backwards while he made the most ungodly yowling noise. That sound was my cue to drop everything, find him, and toss him out the door before he horked up some ghastly, matted blob of sick all over something with a “dry clean only” tag on it.

And I confess that occasionally I would flick an ear when he woke us up at 4AM or give him a bit of a bitch slap when he brazenly urinated on something. And I threw pennies at him when he yowled and yowled horribly for no discernible reason and I was trying to concentrate. But mostly I massaged his tiny, walnut-sized brains out every evening on the couch while we watched a movie. He’d follow me into the TV room, leaping up before I even had a chance to get comfortable myself, loudly demanding his deep-tissue massage and getting all pissed off when I needed to move a pillow or get a throw arranged if it was chilly. And then he’d slowly turn into a big puddle of furry, purring liquid as I worked my fingers in between his toes and under his scapulas, feeling him throb with delight.

At the time he began to fade, he moved more or less permanently onto a spot of kitchen floor right where the fridge and the oven almost touch. The fridge vents there, so it’s warm, and he’d sit like a sphinx, rarely sleeping, in that very place unless there was fresh food or he needed to use his box. We put folded towels there, and that was his spot until the end. As he declined, the nightly Rolfing became desperately important to him. Until the last days, when he couldn’t walk any more, he’d wobble into the room and clamber wide-eyed up onto my lap, purring furiously. After an hour or so of my going deep into his ears (he went deaf a while ago) and literally separating his muscles from each other and from his scrawny skeleton, he’d finally relax enough to sleep. He couldn’t get enough of intense face-rubbing: hard along his jaw, under his chin, on his temples and his nose.

The last couple of nights, I carried him, set him on my lap, and worked everything I knew he liked until he finally passed out. Thursday evening, his breathing got raspy, and his mouth set in a snarl. I gave him an hour-long rub on his towels, and then came up here to do some work. Christine picked him up, carried him to the couch, and stroked him until he died. He was her cat, after all. He’s in a box out on the porch in the cold while we decide what to do with him; I’m going to take a pick and shovel out this morning to see how hard the ground is next to the garage near the blackberries, and depending on the success of that venture we’ll either bury him there or do something else.

What makes me go on and on about this in a place that’s pretty much all about the food is that these last few weeks have made me think a bit more about our relationship to animals. Why did this creature get such different treatment than the others I write about so often? To begin with, I’m pretty sure that cats aren’t very good to eat. He also used to catch a lot of rodents, which was most welcome both back in Brooklyn and up here. And that, after all, is the reason cats were domesticated; we brought the predators inside, and with dogs we trained them to protect the domesticated prey outside. The prey make better eating; it’s part of their job description. But death has a sharpening quality; it leaves a merciless question behind it, focusing our attention on the very real nature of mortality. There’s a stiff, cold black cat in a box on my back porch and a few days ago he was stretched out in my lap, still purring softly. Kobe beef cattle get massages, but that’s to marble their fat into their muscles so they’re meltingly tender to eat. Cats get rubbed because they’re soft and they purr, making us feel nearly as good as we make them feel.

Cats, dogs, and pigs can all make a feral living in the wild. Chickens and sheep not so much. We’ve selected different species to fulfill different functions, and bred them accordingly. Death is so incontrovertible for every living thing and domesticated animals are so intertwined with our lives that I find myself feeling OK about the pig I helped kill last summer, and the other frozen dead animals in my possession besides the cat. The food animals had decent, humane lives that ended prematurely. There are no factory-raised animals in my freezer. The cat had an incredibly luxurious life of comfort and affection that ended when his body shut down of its own accord. There’s no question that we privilege some species over others; witness the national furor over horse-eating a few years ago (but of course it’s fine to feed horses to our pets). Even having pets can be problematic: outdoor cats are killing songbirds at a terrible rate. Despite all of our shiny cultural and technological veneering, nature is still red in tooth and claw. We’re animals, too, and we’re going to die as well. If we’re lucky, we’ll die in the lap of someone we love, and along the way we’ll do what we can to engage ethically with our treatment of all the animals we own, eat, or otherwise have stewardship over.

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  1. January 8

    Oh, Peter. Give Christine my condolences. Almost-19 years is a good chunk of her life (15 is a good chunk of yours too) and it is hard when an era ends.

    And good for you for embracing cognitive dissonance. I am sure your veg years informed you, but still, it is a good lesson to put out there with the example of this flesh, this death. People wonder how I can kill animals that I have raised and I say, well, it is easy if you love them. It’s the waste that angers me so. And I waste nothing, it would be so disrespectful.

    Also, Mr. C appears to have had as wonderful a death as he did a life; you are all to be commended. Sub-q fluids are no picnic (I did it to my cat for 4(!) years) but bad kidneys could have been the reason for his peeing and not plain spite. (Warfing, well, as you say, that’s just cats.) I wish you all well.

  2. January 8

    What a wonderful tribute to your kitty, the good and the bad. I am facing the same thing with mine, she is 20 and still hanging on. Lots of rubbing, and the giving of meds, and the combing out of knots since she doesn’t groom.

  3. January 8

    I sense the grief behind the bravado. That’s the way I am, too.
    Feelings for you.
    (I said that?)

  4. January 9

    I loved this post. I know I was callous on your facebook page, and I’m sorry for that. It’s easy to do that from where I sit – 4 miserable old cats slowly destroying my home – but I’ll be a mess when their times come.

  5. January 9

    Really good and kind post. I don’t know how else to say that. It makes us better to bestow tenderness on creatures within our power, I think. I’m glad your cat had such a sweet end.

  6. January 9

    It’s always a sad day when a loved one dies, even if you know they had a splendid life and got to do everything they would have enjoyed. Sympathy sending, and thanks for the thoughts about animal stewardship, too.

  7. January 9

    That is a lovely tribute to your well-loved cat. Have you read Rudyard Kipling’s ” The Cat That Walked By Himself?” It’s the best story of a cat ever and is a sort of a larger domestication story.

  8. January 9

    so sorry. send my love and a huge hug to christine. your cat was a cool cat. that christmas we overran your house, he made sure we kept up whatever routine he could convey to us. there was much petting and massaging and purring. the ethical questions and answers, if there are any, are giant: we now have pet chickens for laying eggs, yet we feed our dogs chickens. not the same chickens, I tell my chickens. in fact I keep it a secret. let them dream that we all eat bulghur and chard.

    the box photo, my gosh. really peter you are kind of — brave.

  9. January 10

    i agree with jana. the box photo was brave – and important in light of how you wrote this. i have lost a fair few animals in my time and death is sad. but how we have lived is what we will be remembered for and i see your cat as quite the noble beast with a terrible soft spot for you.

    i’m sure milo has had many good talks with you both about the passing of his cat. it’s amazing how kids can really grasp the concept in a very cool way if you handle it right…

    still, it’s sad. yes it is.

  10. January 10

    Luna, age 13, is getting the same scapula treatment as I read this, all the while purring, hooking my sweater with her claws, and meowing the distinctive meow that we’ve come to call the Luna Quack. Downstairs, Daisy, our beloved ten-year-old pooch, is recovering from surgery to remove a tennis-ball-sized mass from her liver. Today we find out whether the mass was malignant. A Japanese proverb reminds us that one cannot be certain of living even into the evening.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, Luna is protesting the fact that I’m typing instead of petting her.

  11. January 10

    Sorry, Peter. Sounds like he had quite a long, good life with you guys. The loss of any family member, no matter what species, leaves a big hole. How has Milo taken the change/loss?

    Growing up, my parents always had the vet cremate our kitties when they died but I have to say that I would have preferred to bury them on our property (though I did not factor in the whole winter/frozen ground thing).

  12. January 10

    I am so sorry. But what a thoughtful post. And I really appreciate that beautiful shot of your cat in the box. It’s really very poignant, I think, and yes, brave. We just got a new cat and I look down at her sometimes and think, what are you doing in here, little animal? She’s already our friend, a part of the family, and I’m already worried about her well being.

  13. Peter
    January 10

    El: The peeing thing goes back years, and came and went, so it remains a mystery. And the waste is indeed the galling thing.

    Pam: I’m sure she loves the brushing. Good luck.

    CC: The couch isn’t the same without him.

    Blanche: Add a couple more and give in to your inner Crazy Cat Ladyness.

    Christine: Thanks.

    Zoomie: It was sad, and the house feels empty.

    Jacquie: I haven’t. I’ll put it on the list.

    Jana: Your secret is safe with me.

    Claudia: He was sad, and wanted to spend extra time outside after we filled in the grave (I found a perfect spot that wasn’t fully frozen). And we talked about it a lot before and after.

    Franklin: I hope Daisy is OK.

    Eve: In stride, but he misses him.

    Julia: I put the box shot in in part because the Internet loves cat pictures so much. It’s strange, isn’t it? If that was a chicken in the box, nobody would bat an eye.

  14. January 10

    This was powerful and emotional writing and I am glad to have been able to read it. Sorry for your family’s loss, and glad that your cat was such a lovely part of your lives.

    “We’re animals, too, and we’re going to die as well. If we’re lucky, we’ll die in the lap of someone we love, and along the way we’ll do what we can to engage ethically with our treatment of all the animals we own, eat, or otherwise have stewardship over.”

    wise words.

  15. January 23

    Peter, my condolences to you and your family. This was a beautifully written tribute.

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