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.