Yesterday, I said goodbye to Smokey, the cat who spent the last thirteen years of her alloted span of twenty with us. It's been a long time since I've had to go through the experience--but, today, I recalled that I had written about it, ages ago.
It's not for the squeamish.
It is no easy thing, living the life of a literary cliché, but there’s no avoiding the fact that I am a writer who lives with cats. I have always lived with cats. There is little doubt that I shall continue to live with cats. Individual cats are inextricably tangled in all the threads of my experience.
I have measured out my life, not in coffee-spoons--as did Eliot’s Prufrock--but in deceased cats.
My first cat, Frosty, died of classic altered-male-cat-urinary-problems. He was an ugly, mean-spirited gutter cat who spent his last miserable days soaking all the rugs and furniture with his dribbling excreta. Thus, he guaranteed that we would remember him--not so fondly--whenever the weather turned dampish, for years afterwards.
My mother vowed never to get another cat.
A week or two later, our next-door neighbor handed her a little gray female kitten. Twinkie (short for Twinkle Toes) was--fortunately--everything Frosty was not. She was charming, loyal, companionable--walking me to the school bus-stop in the morning, waiting for me in the afternoon. She would even follow me fishing--‘though it meant negotiating a half-mile of swamp, hopping from dry spot, to rotten log, to weedy tussock, to floating board to be with me.
When she was hit by a car, in front of our house, I was convinced that my knowledge of science was enough to prevent her demise. I explained to my father that she was merely wounded. I was eleven or twelve, and full of confidence in the invincibility of knowledge--but she was furry and dead.
I cried for six or seven hours, partly for her loss, partly for mine. We buried her in the backyard.
In college, I continued co-habiting with cats. One lovely--but dim-witted--tortoiseshell, was named George C. Scott because she always wore what appeared to be an oddly knowing sneer or twist of her upper lip. Her sister was Peggy Sue, a smart and sexy calico. They shared my house with a sweet motherly tabby named Jane Goodall--the first of several “Jane cats.” After a summer spent on a commune in New Mexico, in 1969, I arrived home to find a feverish George sitting in the kitchen sink with cold water dripping on her head. She died of distemper at the vet’s a couple of hours later.
Some years, and many cats later, I was given a huge, peach-colored, altered male named Cicero--as soft and floppy and comfortable as a well-loved toy. One day, he didn’t come home. A stranger came to the door to tell us he had been hit by a car. He was in bad shape, but alive, at the vet’s office. We went to see him immediately. His head had been crushed and he looked like he should be “put to sleep.” My girlfriend couldn’t even look at him.
I stayed to comfort him, petting whatever parts did not seem too bloodied, and he seemed to respond. Day after day, I went back, and each day he got a little stronger. When we took him home, he could barely walk. The only way he could get around the apartment was to lean against the wall, and shuffle along edge, circling the entire room to reach the opposite end of the threshold from which he started. We nursed him back to near-health, and he was as grateful as a cat can be.
One day, as I was leaving the house, for something that seemed important at the time, I spotted him between two parked cars across the street. When he saw me, his eyes lit up with joy. I yelled for him to stop, but he ran towards me, across two unbroken lanes of traffic.
He was hit two, maybe three, times, his body twisting and lurching involuntarily on the double yellow line. I grabbed him from the moving lines of cars, trying to hold his thrashing body close to me.
I have seen his terrible, trusting, blissed-out face, across the road, thousands of times since then.
Still more years, and more cats, passed through my life. I had four cats: two city cats who moved to the country (Alice and Electra) and two country cats (Sebastian and Jane). The city cats were wimpy non-entities but the country cats were wonderful. Sebastian, huge and black, as gentle and kind as Cicero. Jane, another tortoiseshell, was sweet, soft, with golden eyes. Jane, one hard winter, drank some water that contained Drano or antifreeze (we’d had terrible plumbing problems that year) and developed a wheezing cough. I was about to drive to Florida to visit my parents, so I dropped her off at the vet. I made him promise to call us about her condition.
He never called.
A couple of days after Christmas, I called him. He told me he “did what he could but... .” He asked what I wanted done with the body. Very calmly, I told him to keep it ‘til we got back and I would take care of it.
After returning to my cabin in the Catskills, I chopped a Jane-sized hole in the frozen soil, then drove to the vet’s office. When I arrived, the receptionist seemed uncomfortable, and tried to avoid making eye-contact. She called for the vet to come out to the waiting room.
He explained that there had been a mistake, that Jane had been hauled off for disposal at some anonymous pet disposal center. He apologized profusely, and handed me his bill. I paid it and left. A half mile down the road, I had to pull over because I couldn’t drive through the tears.
When I got home, I buried my soggy hankerchief in the grave I had dug for Jane.