When I moved to New York in 1996 in a spasm of ambition and romanticism from which I am only recently recovering, it was to go to school. No cats allowed in the dorms. I dropped her off at my sister’s to live, and didn’t look back for almost seven years.
This does not speak well to my character, I am aware.
In the meantime I graduated from school, got married, moved into a relatively decent apartment, and made enough money to think about taking care of an animal. Which is a good thing, as my sister, and her pets, had had enough. Honey got along with other animals about as well as she got along with people, that is to say, not very, and her continued presence at my sister’s house made trouble for all concerned. Not to mention the behavior problems of having been abandoned by the only person she really even sort of liked in the world. I still feel a stab of guilt when I think of how her very simple kitty brain dealt with knowing that she had a person, even if she only vaguely remembered him, and that he was gone.
After a conversation with my sister where she made it very clear that the cat was coming to live with me no matter what, I had her shipped from Las Vegas to Newark, a trip which, I’m convinced, almost killed her. She was packed into an airplane and flown for hours across the country in dry air. She was dehydrated, terrified, and exhausted when I finally picked her up at the cargo shipping section of the airport.
As I drove with her over the bridge to Newark airport, windows rolled up to block out the stench of the chemical plants, she climbed out of the container, stuck her head in my mouth to smell my breath, settled down on my chest, and began to purr contentedly.
And thus began our real relationship.
Her time away from me, and my time away from her, had given us both an opportunity to grow up a little. To call me a “late-bloomer” emotionally would be an understatement, but I had, in her absence, learned a little bit about putting someone else’s needs above my own. We began to get along, somewhat. She was still loud, and skittish, and touchy, afraid of her own shadow, and in all ways almost the opposite of a cat. But she could also be gruffly affectionate, sweet, and she seemed to have a genuine talent for being a stolid, loving presence when you felt sad. She was opinionated, picky, and had no problem sharing her disdain for whatever it was that had pissed her off today. It was a bit like living with a grumpy little old lady who never left the house, and who would occasionally express her displeasure by peeing in a corner.
I realized what a jerk I’d been for most of her life (not to mention much of mine), and I tried to make up for it by being as kind and gentle to her as I could. I gave her wet food, which she adored. I tried to play with her (which annoyed her) and gave her toys (which mostly confused her), and just generally tried to make her as comfortable as possible.
She was smart, had a huge personality, and was her own cat. I had her for another eight years, through a separation, a catastrophic move, a drug problem, a couple more bouts of religious mania, a divorce, and a remarriage. She started getting slower (but no less obnoxious), in the last year or so.
Then, seemingly overnight, her eye swelled up so that she looked like Popeye. At first, it was cute, and we rubbed it (which she liked), and made fun of her, called her “winky.” Then, we took her to the doctor, and they said, “Oh, that? Yeah, that’s cancer. She’s too old and little to operate on, so your best option is to keep her comfortable.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, as they were actually quite nice.
We pampered her as much that she would allow, and she still yelled and stalked around the house like she owned the place, so we held out hope that it might be an infected tooth. But it never really got better. And then, very quickly, it got much worse. Over the course of a day it went from “a little swollen and not really that uncomfortable” to “really, truly terrible and awful and pitiful to look at, and kind of painful.”
It was time, so we took her back to the doctor. They offered to take a clay impression of her paw, “You know, there’s a lot of kids in this neighborhood, so it’s mostly for them. But you could have it done too!” they hastily reassured us. We declined.
They gave her the first shot, to put her to sleep, and she settled on my lap for a moment, and then, for a moment, it was like she wanted to get down and take a walk, which we talked her out of pretty easily. She then lay down and began breathing deep and slow. The doctor discretely left the room, and we pet her, and cried. Her paws twitched as if she were walking, and we discussed where she might be dreaming she was, and if she was having a good time. Seeing her so relaxed, we seized the opportunity to touch her paws and her belly, and play with her tail, and stroke her fur, in ways that she would have deemed to be entirely inappropriate while she was awake. We laughed a little at the small irony: the only time she was ever really relaxed to be a cat, in the traditional sense, was when she was just about to be nothing at all.
After the doctor came back in, he injected her with a syringe full of purple liquid, and she breathed deeply, and then was still. And that was the end of her.
She was difficult, and ornery, and angry, and almost entirely humorless. I loved her very much, and she saw me through some very difficult times. She is exactly the cat I deserved, and I hope that, in the end, I had learned enough about being alive to be a good owner.
Because that’s really the thing. I needed to learn about being alive to be worth a damn to her. And, like most things in this life, it took me a long time to get it. I’m pretty dumb for being such a smart guy. Mostly it was learning to take things as they are, and trying to remember that others are more important than me. I’m still learning. I hope I’ll have it figured out by the time I see Honey again.