When I was single, friends and family would often suggest that I should get a cat. My answer was always no. Not enough room in my one-bedroom apartment, I was in and out too often, there was no place to put the litter box and I had no interest in cleaning up furry messes every day. The truth beneath those pat excuses was rather more revealing: I didn’t want the responsibility. I fancied myself a free-wheeler (even if most nights were spent at home on the couch or on the computer) and couldn’t abide the idea of having a feline anchor demanding constant attention and care. The other, more appealing half of the equation never entered into my mind. Truly, until you’ve had a pet, it doesn’t compute, and I grew up in a house without animals. I’m not exactly sure why we never had a pet – I can’t even recall discussing the idea of one. It seemed to be tacitly understood that animals weren’t an option, and that was that.
We flash forward then, to the time I met the woman who would become my wife. And her cat, Muffins.
Muffins was a gray tortoiseshell born in 1992 who had belonged to another family for the first ten years of her life. For whatever reason those people gave her up to the local humane society – abandoned her, as it were, to fifteen months hard time in a cage before her fateful encounter with my lady-to-be. As the story goes, my wife was merely accompanying my sister-in-law who was interested in volunteering there, and while waiting for her to fill in the forms, wandered into the cat room. It was replete with amiable felines in need of families, some of whom hopped about eagerly for attention while others curled up in resigned croissants and paid no heed to the human visitor. Muffins, however, made her way to the front of her cage, sat back on her haunches and reached her little paws out through the bars to grasp my wife’s cheek – like an old soul recognizing its long-absent mate from a life lived in another time and place. Their bond was sealed. My wife adopted her on the spot. A few hours later, Muffins took only a few moments to examine her new surroundings for the first time before curling up and going to sleep in my wife’s lap, purring, content, at ease. She had come home, to her true forever home, at long last.
My own bond with Muffins wasn’t the touching moment related above, it was more of a gradual acceptance on her part that this tall, loud thing that spent an awful lot of time in her territory wasn’t going anywhere. I was house-sitting for my wife shortly after we were first dating, dropping in for a few hours every night to ensure Muffins was fed and had some company. So I was lying on the couch, channel-surfing, when I noticed this furry, adorable face on the floor looking up at me. We stared at each other for a few moments, sizing each other up. I patted my thigh in what seems to be the universal signal for hey cat, come up here and make yourself comfortable. And up she leaped, to my shock and awe. She stood there, pawing at the unfamiliar terrain, trying to figure out how best to position herself for maximum relaxation potential. Of course I wasn’t used to how to deal with cats, so I was petting her relentlessly, probably a bit too hard, and she responded with an angry hiss and a swift departure, flicking her tail in my face as she went. It would be a couple of months before she’d dare try again, this time when my wife was on a girls’ weekend away. That time, I knew enough to keep my hands to myself – and she settled in for a cozy nap.
It would take an entirely separate blog, I would think, to chronicle all of Muffins’ most endearing traits and quirks, but a few stand out more than most. When we were first living together, Muffins used to tuck my wife and I in for bed at the end of the night. She’d stay while we sat up and talked, read or did a crossword puzzle, but when she knew we were getting close to turning out the light, she’d leave – as if she was a nanny sending her charges off to sleep and retiring for the evening, her job done, until the morning when she heard us talking and would hop up on the bed to say hello again, it’s a new day, get your rears in gear. As the years wore on and we relocated dwellings a few times, she began staying through the night, particularly in some bitter winters, where my legs became the bed of choice, and I’d have to find ever more contorting ways to slide myself down so I could go to sleep without waking her up. We would joke, too, that whenever you put something soft like a blanket or a cushion down for more than a few minutes, it would become a cat bed – Muffins’ predatory instinct when it came to sleeping spots was unparalleled. Even the little pink igloo we purchased for her went rarely used, her preference wherever a sunbeam fell through the windows. It was not uncommon either to find a stuffed animal knocked over if it was in the way of a designated snooze spot; her usual targets were an Eeyore we kept on our spare bed or the snowmen in our annual “stuffy Christmas” display. Of course, a few summers ago she abandoned her old habit of letting us sleep through the night and began announcing her arrival loudly at one or two a.m., repeating that inimitable wail until we awoke and attended to her whims. For a short time I kept a plastic water gun on my bedside table to shoo her away.
Though meant to be an indoor cat, she loved roaming our various backyards, rolling around on and eating the grass, investigating nooks and crannies for potential mouse habitats and avenues of escape, defending with stubborn honor against the intrusion of other wayward cats, sleeping under this hideous tree in the back corner for hours at a time – yet never failing to return and wait patiently at the door for us to let her back inside. On a particularly memorable occasion we had chosen to leave the back door open a crack to let her come and go as she pleased – that policy lasted a whole two days as on the second afternoon I looked up to see her trotting in merrily with a dead mouse in her mouth. By the book you’re supposed to thank the cat and dispose of the corpse quietly (it’s their way of thanking you for feeding them by “getting the groceries” themselves) but my behavior was a little more along the lines of bellowing some unprintable oaths and smacking her on the nose to make her let go of the vile thing. Then of course was this last summer when we forgot she was out back until well after the sun went down and we suddenly noticed a pungent smell wafting in through the windows. We raced to the door and Muffins stumbled in, sneezing, drooling and dripping snot, having just been sprayed by a passing skunk. One emergency run to the 24-hour grocery store for hydrogen peroxide and a few baths later, this shriveled, wet, ratty-looking thing wandered shaken through our contaminated house, trying to regain her composure. We wanted to laugh but felt so bad for her. She looked so embarrassed.
I’ve met a lot of other people’s cats who have fit the stereotype of the aloof, uncaring feline who treats you as staff instead of family. Muffins, by contrast, never failed to be friendly even with complete strangers walking through the door for the first time. She was a well-mannered hostess, dropping by to greet newcomers and offering little kitty kisses to let them know they were welcome, instead of fleeing from caresses, hiding in the closet and waiting for the interlopers to leave. Of course she was getting something out of the deal, namely, the affection she vacuumed up like an overclocked Hoover, but she seemed to understand the importance of treating guests like family, letting them know that our home was a warm and safe and happy place. In her own way, Muffins was a reminder even in the darkest moments of how truly wondrous this world can be. The melancholy of the worst of days at the office, or the inevitable clashes between stressed spouses, was soothed instantly by an unjudging look from her enormous eyes, a touch of her gentle paws, the incomparable purr, the sight of her fast asleep on your lap or tucked behind a stuffed animal knocked askew. Even the meow from some distant room elsewhere in the house, assuring you she was around. It’s okay, mommy & daddy, I’m here. What she asked in return was merely a scratch behind her ears and the occasional (okay, daily, truth be told) slice of deli honey maple turkey.
She infused herself into our vernacular as well – my wife’s original nickname for her was “boo boo,” hence shorthand references to Muffins became “the boo,” and boo became a prefix for anything related to her. Dry food was boo bits, wet food was boo-goo, the litter pan was the boo box, the occasional coughed-up hairball was boo barf, even the aforementioned ignored cat bed became the boo-gloo. Additional nicknames for Miss Boo herself became too numerous to count, as did silly songs we’d make up for her. To the tune of Mary Poppins’ “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”:
Let’s take Boo to bed,
She is a sleepyhead,
Let’s take Boo to bed and hear her purring
Up to the second floor
Then through the bedroom door
Oh, let’s take Boo to bed!
One might think such devotion the exclusive bailiwick of the crazy cat lady, but she was our only baby for years, through failed attempts to conceive a child of our own, when it seemed parenthood was a path we would never walk. Interestingly enough, when we met the boy who would become our adopted son, the first question he asked us was about Muffins (as I recall, he was disappointed that she was fixed and couldn’t have kittens.) Of course, she came to accept him, though he was even louder than the last male to intrude upon her pleasant solitude. We were in the kitchen, I think, and my wife whispered for me to look over into the family room where she was nestled on top of him for the first time. Giving us her blessing, I suppose, that this kid was a keeper, regardless of his inability to sit still for longer than a minute at a time.
There is no interest, I suspect, nor any desire on my part to chronicle her decline in great detail, suffice it to say that age excepts none. Over the past year her weight had begun to dwindle and visits to the vet became more frequent and more expensive. To our credit, I suppose, we never questioned the need to give her the best care regardless of cost. If it had been one of us who’d been suffering, we would not hesitate to pay whatever was required; so too would it be with our boo. It was the responsibility part. Oddly enough, maintaining her dignity was foremost on Muffins’ mind these last few months – much like a golden-aged human being fighting to hold onto what slips ever further from their grasp with each passing year, what it seemed would always be there. The vet had suggested moving her litter from our basement to the main floor to ease the strain on her legs. Well, didn’t the impossibly stubborn little lady simply refuse to go for two days until we put it back where she was used to having it. I’ll just say there’s a reason why female cats are called queens. Her Majesty Muffins was determined to remain so. Yet despite her brave, ever-purring face, sober realization crept into our minds that her remaining days were dwindling – and at some point, a decision would have to be made. A terrible, horrible, no good, awful and goddamned necessary decision.
Two Thursdays ago, Muffins wasn’t eating or drinking. She was lying listless on her side, struggling to be comfortable. We’d received the results of a recent blood test letting us know her kidneys were failing. There were treatment options available, but no cure – it would be putting her through frightening medical procedures to extend her life only for a couple of weeks. That Thursday night we said good night to her in the family room, afraid she wouldn’t make it through the night. Friday morning we found that she had struggled her way up the stairs to crawl into a box in our bedroom – she didn’t want to be alone. I went off to work allowing myself to hope that “Lady Bounce-Back” – our diminutive for her habit of recovering nicely from seemingly mortal ailments – would rule the day once more. When my wife contacted me in tears later that morning, I realized that wouldn’t be the case this time.
The vet gave us a few moments alone to consider our options. I made myself verbalize what we were both feeling. If we put her through the ordeal of hospitalization, who were we doing it for – her, or ourselves? So I said it. We needed to put selfish concerns aside. We needed to let her go. My wife said she thought I was right. Clenching at a rising lump in my throat I said I didn’t want to be right.
We both took a turn holding Muffins one last time. She was angry – she didn’t like the vet’s office, never had. Defiant to the last, the queen holding court and meowing and hissing her displeasure. But we both knew that she was tired, and she was ready to go. She was almost 22 years old – in human terms, nearing 140 – and she’d made the most of her time here. The vet told us that it was a testament to how well she was looked after that she lived as long as she did.
I thought back to what my wife had told me about when she and Muffins found each other. She went to sleep now just as she first had, in my wife’s lap – comfortable and content, surrounded by love and leaving now for that place without pain, to run and chase mice in an endless meadow beneath eternal sunshine.
We all want to deny the responsibility that goes with love. We want no part of it. We want the ice cream and not the brussel sprouts. When we’re admiring the curve of a young woman’s perfect breasts or the sinew of her tanned legs, or losing ourselves in the depth of her soulful eyes, we don’t want to consider the idea that someday we’ll be changing her adult diaper or cringing at her inability to remember our name, or worse, watching her waste away in a hospital bed, hooked up to fluids and monitors and catheters as some microscopic, malevolent clump of cells eats her from the inside out. Commitment terrifies us because like all sumptuous meals, eventually we know we’ll be handed the bill and asked to leave the restaurant. Better to just walk on by that four-star place and purchase the Happy Meal instead, right? Easier. Quicker. More seductive.
Hardly the most nutritious option. To extend the food metaphor past its limit, it’s a recipe for loneliness. To shy from that responsibility is to deny the greatest thing you can ever ask for. If you can open your heart, you may find a gentle little being curling up inside it and starting to purr.
George Carlin once said that adopting a pet is essentially purchasing a small tragedy, unless you’re 80 and you get a turtle. What he didn’t say was how despite that, adopting a pet is accepting unconditional love. Muffins ended the question for me of whether or not animals have souls. They are proof of the essential goodness of life, of its capacity to embrace and give and forgive, of life’s evolution towards a utopia dancing just ever so slightly out of reach. Cruelty and malevolence are artificial constructs forced upon us by our unwillingness to share and to accept the responsibility of love, to treat living things as more valuable than things. Muffins did not earn a salary or spend money: her only currency was love, in which she was a billionaire many times over, and she lavished it upon us at every opportunity, without thought of reward. She understood her responsibility. She had it figured out, better than any of us. The impatient meows were like tiny admonishments that we didn’t grasp the obvious. Silly humans.
I thank whatever guides this universe for winding our paths towards one another, and even an atheist can dream about a far future day when he gets to cradle his beloved pet in his arms again, in some unfathomable form.
Until then, I miss her very much, and I thank her, and I say goodbye, my little friend. I love you always.