TEN HOURS AGO I CALLED THE VET and made an appointment. When I hung up the phone, my favorite cat, Keebler, officially had less than a day to live.
I'm sitting here at one in the morning, back from work, my wife and the baby asleep, trying to deal with the gnawing creep of sadness blooming in my stomach. Keebler is crouching on the carpet by the kitchen, awake and probably in some pain. The growth in his stomach has gotten bigger; he throws up three and four times a day now, and you can feel every bone through his fur.
I've been putting it off for weeks now. As long as he can still eat, I said. As long as he still walks around, still comes down and curls up with us on the bed.
He still nibbles at his food, but usually throws most of it up. He still makes it up and down the stairs, but it's hard to compare him to the robust old tomcat he used to be.
He curled up on the bed with K. and I when I came home from work, as we talked and I failed miserably at holding back the sobs. I feel wretched, and since he's always been the most empathetic of cats, he's being his usual solicitous self. The bitter irony of what's making me so sad isn't making this any easier.
He just threw up again. Not much there - just white froth. I probably should have done this weeks ago, but I can only plead weakness. I've been dreading losing this cat probably from the moment I got him, almost fifteen years ago. He was my first cat, and without a doubt I can say he's the best. I am in hell.
HE WAS NEVER A KITTEN, at least not while I knew him. Fifteen years ago, he was a rough-looking street tom who decided he liked my friend Howie, a generous soul whose kitchen window backed onto the alley where Keebs lived. One day, when Howie was getting ready to move, he asked me if I'd take Keebs, since no one else would probably take care of him. Lonely after a gruesome break-up, I agreed.
On moving day, Howie picked Keebs up in his arms and carried him six long blocks down Roncesvalles to get his shots and get rid of his fleas. Halfway there, Keebs squirmed free and ran down the sidewalk. Howie called him and he came back. He picked him up again and carried him to the vet. Later that afternoon, I paid the vet and took Keebler home.
I'm just recording these little details here since, in twelve hours or so, they'll be all that remains of my cat, the vapor trail of his life drawn across my memory.
He spent the first few months in my second-floor loft mewing pathetically from the window above the street. I'd come home and find him there, crying at the busy traffic below. He settled in after awhile, though, enough for me to be able to tell that he was lonely. He always liked other cats, so I went out one day and got him one - a little black-and-white female that I called Nato.
We had seven years with Nato, until cancer lodged in her belly. I was in Spain when I got the call that she had to be put to sleep. I have her ashes in a little box on my dresser, underneath the cartoon my friend Seth drew of me with Keebs and Nato, me pretending to be Tal Farlow while my cats curled up at my feet. In a week or so, Keebs will be there as well, next to Nato again, in his own little box. I haven't played the guitar in years.
I am not making this any easier.
ONE LONELY EVENING, MANY YEARS AGO, I watched Keebs roll around on my couch while I did the dishes. I'd never lived with a cat before, and I was amazed at how playful they could be, how utterly beguiling, how content in their own little world. I thought to myself, "I'll always remember this, even when he's gone." And here I am, remembering it again.
He was - he is, at least while I write this - more like a dog than a cat. He's the only cat I've ever known who understands the word "no", who obeys commands. He spent a winter ridding my loft of mice, bringing them to me until he saw that I adamantly didn't want the bloodied, sometimes still-squirming carcasses. Never one to waste food, he softened them up in his jaws, little bones snapping like pretzels, then swallowed them whole.
He's a handsome, dignified animal, with a deep, rumbling, snorting purr. The purr, alas, has been silent for weeks, and he hasn't sat compulsively licking my hand for even longer. That's how I know he's sick. The habits of a lifetime don't disappear without a reason. My poor old man.
I WAS A MESS when Keebler arrived. I was a mess for years afterward, but I know with faithful certainty that I'd have been much worse without Keebler. A dog's loyalty married to a cat's instinctual empathy is a powerful thing, and my worst nights, deepest funks and bleakest depressions were all made easier to bear thanks to my cat, whose nature dictated that he'd alway be there with a sympathy offered entirely without pity.
Pity is entirely beyond a cat, after all - I mean, they're just a cat - but sometimes that animal empathy is the only thing that brings human comfort.
In hindsight, it's obvious now that Keebler was my best friend. No one else could have borne the onerous task of dealing with me on a daily basis but a cat, and that's the most difficult thing to describe to anyone who's never lived in peace with an animal.
I have lost friendships since then, some abruptly, some with the wear and weathering of time and changing circumstance. Keebler has been a constant. If I'm a salvageable human being at the end of my fourth decade of life, I have to thank Keebler, as much or more than anyone else I've known as long. He's my pal, my buddy, and knowing him was the first great gift I never deserved.
And tomorrow at noon I'm going to hold him while he dies.
IT WAS PEACEFUL. I held him and nodded to the vet and just as she pushed the plunger on the first needle he looked up, craning his neck back to look at something behind him. Then she injected the second solution into the I.V. drip and he put his head down. He went limp a second later, just as I began to say "Goodbye, old man. Goodbye, Keebler." She checked his heart and said "He's gone." I asked her to put his tongue back in his mouth - I couldn't bring myself to do it - and looked into his eyes. Clouded marbles. He was gone.
It was terrible. I did everything I could to prepare myself for that moment but nothing could have done the job. He cried in the carrier on the way to the vet and struggled to stay inside it when we were finally in the room. He was weak but he wasn't going to let that get in the way of a lifetime aversion to the vet and the cat carrier. He clung to life, even if he probably didn't know it was about to end.
If one thing has acted as an anchor, holding me back from mere, peevish godlessness during long years of doubt and denial, it's been my certainty that not only men and women, but animals, have souls. It's clear that something more than surging chemicals and charges animates a body, since a body without a soul is so clearly less than a machine without power, its pistons no longer pumping, its wires no longer surging with energy.
It was hard to take Keebler to the vet, harder still to hold him while he died, but leaving his body behind was easier than I imagined. The vet thoughtfully arranged him on a towel in the plastic bag that would carry him to be cremated, his head on his paws, his tail tucked around him as if asleep. But he wasn't just asleep, and I knew that as I kissed him on his head and said goodbye for the last time. Something was gone, something undeniably Keebler, it was no longer contained behind his striking black and white coat, or his somber yellow eyes.
HE HAD A GOOD MORNING. For the first time in days, he came downstairs and curled up on the bed, his back against my chest while I rubbed his stomach. He curled up on the pillow above my head, then moved again to lie against my legs, his thick black tail draped over my stomach while I scratched his ears. It was more than he'd been capable of in a long time, almost a return to form, the cat who once spent his days moving from room to room, a silent presence, reassuring but never demanding.
I took pictures, loading them into a file called "Keebler's last morning". On the carpet at the top of the stairs. On the bed, in his usual spot. He seemed to enjoy the attention.
He didn't eat, but he didn't throw up. He gave me the best he could manage under the circumstances, and it was more, much more, than I could have asked for. At twenty minutes before noon, I went to the basement and got the carrier. K. went in and said goodbye, and I held Agnes, who smiled and laughed, as she always does when she sees a kitty.
I picked him up and held him close, stroking his fur and rubbing his chin, then put him in the carrier with a firm shove when he resisted. Oh God, this is so hard. Please give me strength.
WHAT WILL I DO WITHOUT KEEBLER? He was a model of dignity and gentleness, sheer benevolence and loyalty. More than most people I know - and certainly more than most cats - he was irreproachable, a cat of peculiar virtue. He was the patient one, happy to spend a decade and a half nudging me along to a better conception of what it is to be a decent man. I stopped calling him cat long ago. He was "my little man", then "my old man". And now he's left me with years to go, and responsibilities I could never have shouldered when he arrived in my life, on that day so long ago when I thought I was just adopting a poor stray cat.
Godspeed, old man. I know, beyond a breath of doubt, that I'll never know another cat like you. Thank you for your time.