19 March 2014
They say a cat has nine lives. Weasel, our Tonkinese, spent the last of hers today. Ill for a while and deteriorating rapidly and irreversibly, she visited the vet one final time; we put her down.
We brought her into our home some sixteen years ago along with her litter mate, a twin sister whom, for reasons still a mystery to me, we named Wombat. For fourteen of those years, the two were inseparable, eating daily side by side, their postures nearly identical, their every movement almost synchronous, almost in unison. At night they slept together on the couch, curled spine to spine into opposing commas, mirror images one of the other.
Close as they were, their personalities were yet distinct. Weasel was the very definition of a lap cat, a plump, contented organism conceived entirely as an insatiable purring receptacle for belly rubs and chin scratches in whatever evolutionary workshop bears responsibility for nature's smaller miracles. Convinced of her superior intelligence her sister Wombat was more independent, more aloof, more inquisitive, more adventurous.
We kept them as rigorously as possible as house cats, sequestered from the dangers of the world beyond the door. Still, we could not wholly keep from them the awareness that there was an "out there" prohibited them. They watched birds in the backyard through the kitchen window, the neighbors through the side window, the daily life of the street --- traffic, walkers, dogs, the mailman, other cats --- through the front. Her curiosity thus irresistibly piqued, Wombat would not be deterred; she positioned herself stealthily near the door whenever we approached it, poised for opportunity.
In the end we were forced to compromise. We allowed her out onto the back patio, free to explore within the confines of her own yard, always and only with at least one of us out there with her, attentive and supervisory. Any attempt on her part to broach the boundaries set her merited swift and certain transport back into the house. Weasel, determined against any unjust distribution of privilege, insisted on participating as well in these monitored forays into the open air, but, in keeping with her mellowed temperament, contented herself with napping in the sun on the back steps or on the warm patio stone, never more than a few feet from her minder.
I am uncertain how deeply and how fully one can enter the mind of a cat but on the evidence of observation only it is clear that one can doubt neither their memory nor their perseverance. One day Wombat's long and patient indoor vigils paid off. The circumstances of the escape are unknown: perhaps a door not fully latched blown open just enough by the wind, perhaps an unseen dash behind one's back while bringing in the mail. For just that second, the wider world, unmonitored, beckoned, and she rushed out into it.
And never returned.
We stuffed mailboxes with flyers, walked the street and neighboring blocks, searched garages and under porches, all to no avail. For the first few days, perhaps a week, we comforted ourselves over coffee in the morning with the thought --- the frail hope really --- that, lovely as she was, someone had taken her in, that she was the delight of some new household, warm and well fed and awaiting just one more open door before she would return home. In our hearts we knew otherwise, knew that there had been some unhappy accident --- a passing car, an aggressive dog, something --- and that she was gone for good. Certainly we grieved, but for us, in time, the memory of loss lessened, the grieving abated.
Not so for Weasel.
Her daily routine changed. She now began each morning sitting before the patio door, awaiting exit. In the good weather we would let her out and watch her through the kitchen window. She would position herself on the top step and mewl plaintively for a good many minutes, a sound we had never before heard from her, part inquiry, part moan: Rachel crying for her lost children. In inclement weather she would say this mournful matins inside on the rug in front of the door. Only when she had completed this melancholy ritual would she deign to eat her breakfast. She grieved ceaselessly in this manner for the next two years.
In the end I believe that it was this grief as much as her failing liver that did her in, that, unable to sustain any longer the weight of her loss, the inefficacy of her daily plea, she determined once and for all to find her sister by the last means yet available to her and that this determination and the mechanisms of her failing health were inextricably bound one to another, were in some sense the very same thing.
The worst of it took about eight days. We medicated her as prescribed, hopeful for some sign of a turnaround, some hint of returning appetite. There was none. Unable or unwilling to eat, she subsisted, barely, on the fat of her own liver. She weakened daily: her voice diminished, her eyes dulled, her gait faltered.
I stayed with her to the end. She deserved no less from me. In the privacy of the vet's examining room, she lay prone on the table, feeble, now distanced but loving yet, bonded yet. I scratched her chin for the final time, rested my hand on her side, felt her shallowing breath. And still she purred, faint but responsive as always to my touch. After the first sedating injection I felt for the few remaining moments her quieting heartbeat, her breathing sliding into sleep, almost restful, almost resigned, almost at last peaceful. Then the final, euthanizing injection and she was gone. I restrained the sobs somewhat. I could not contain the tears.
I am neither naive nor ignorant nor even unduly sentimental. My soul has been appropriately hardened by life and by my experience of it. I know that the world is full of pain. The loss of a child, the death of a spouse or a life partner, the hunger of the world's ignored, the despair of the world's poor: perhaps these and these alone merit the heart's true pain, and my conscience therefore, mindful of just proportion, prohibits the use of that word. But the soul is capable of other deep bonds. I have missed her sister. I will miss her. And my soul acknowledges and my conscience permits a profoundly deep and profoundly abiding sadness.
It will be so for some time.