Once upon a time, nearly seventeen years ago, my husband mentioned that the cat of a friend of his had produced a litter of kittens and was looking for homes for them. Long discussion short, he brought one home.
This little, dark gray scrap, dressed in white shirt front and spats for the occasion, sat at attention, his tail neatly wrapped around his feet, for the next day or two in our spare room, refusing to give an inch to catnappers, even though he was swaying with exhaustion, his green eyes closing every few seconds before snapping open.
We named him Toby, though he had a lot of nicknames over the years: Tober, The Tobes, Tobias Eater of Toes, Howler Kitty, and Bean Brain.
By the time I was carrying Jane, he had forgotten his old life and had taken up his role as Firstborn Son and Heir Apparent. He stretched around my distended tummy, and when Jane poked out a foot, he poked back at her. He wasn’t impressed with her during those first introductions, and spent several months elated when we took her out with us and utterly disgusted when we brought her back. I’ll never forget his face when she took her first steps: “Holy $#&%! You didn’t tell me these things were mobile!”
He acted exactly the same way when Sunny appeared—there’s a reason we dubbed him Bean Brain. But to the kids, he was part of the family and was always included in school drawings, a small, gray, betailed blob next to Mommy, Daddy, Sister, and Me. Sunny put him in her genealogy tree project last year as an adopted sibling with his own dotted line.
He never met a glass of water he didn’t try to tip over or a blanketed foot he didn’t try to gnaw. He’s the reason I know that a jab to the eye does make you see stars—red ones—and that it hurts when a cat butts your shoulder with the top of his hard, little head when you’re trying to sleep through his bout of the Sudden Terminal Itchies. He liked to shove things off my desk in the middle of the night, just so I’d wake up and keep him company.
But over this past year, I couldn’t help noticing some changes, though I tried my best.
He couldn’t reliably land onto the counter from the kitchen table anymore, and when he failed, he didn’t bounce up for a do-over. He couldn’t hit the litter box when he was standing in it and it took him a lot of effort to climb in and out—so much so that he rarely bothered. The levels in his food bowl weren’t changing and he didn’t seem to care for wet food or any of his favorite forbidden people treats.
A few days ago, I realized that he weighed less than a full coffee mug and I could feel his bones wherever I touched him. His hind heels were wearing through his white boots and his swagger was worn to a painful hobble. He couldn’t sit down on my lap, because his hind end didn’t fold anymore and he stopped sleeping on my pillow, because the mattress was too high for him to jump.
He no longer did his nightly opera solos and would disappear from his usual haunts for the whole day. Sometimes two.
I’m not new to the ways of cats. I know what all this means.
Yesterday morning, I called the vet and made the appointment. I spent the afternoon telling myself I was doing the right thing.
My husband told Janie before I came home from work and she cried and snuggled with Toby until her eyes nearly swelled shut. “Why?” she cried. “Why do people have to end?”
I told her that I didn’t know. But that I was glad we’d given Toby a good home and loved him while he was here, because that was so much better than never knowing him at all.
“Yes, but he’ll be gone.”
“Why can’t we just keep him here until he . . .”
“Because we have a responsibility to take care of him,” I said, not entirely to her. “He doesn’t know what’s happening to him and we can’t let him suffer just because we don’t want to let him go. That’s not the right kind of love.”
“Oh, God, Sunny,” she said.
“Don’t tell her. I mean, let her ask first.”
“If you think it would be better that way. I won’t tell her until she’s home from camp.”
“Good.” She teared up again. “They won’t hurt him? At the vet? Don’t you let them hurt him!”
I told her that the vet would take his pain away and he wouldn’t hurt any more.
“His pain,” she said. “What about our pain?”
“Time and good memories and hugs,” I said, giving her one. “They work slowly, but that’s what we have.”
“This sucks, Mom.”
“Yes. It does.”
My husband cleaned the pet carrier last night and I put a towel in it early this morning. After a search that wasn’t helpful to my state of mind, Toby was found and put into the carrier with no fuss, but he let me know the car ride upset him. It was the first time he’d made a sound in a week and I almost turned to car around—if he could complain, he was okay, right? That’s the Wesson way, right?
An elderly woman was waiting outside with her barrel-shaped dog. She smiled as I passed by and said that the weather was beautiful after all the rain we’ve been having. I said something agreeable and went in.
The receptionist was gentle with both of us and gave me a form to fill out to keep me busy. Toby rubbed up against the vet when she examined him, friendly, if wary of her probing fingers, and unable to get his hind end to line up right. He kept going back into his carrier and looking up at me; he was done here and wanted to go home.
So did I.
The vet told me that she could do bloodwork, if I wanted to make sure, but from his general appearance, he had thyroid and kidney problems, which would be chronic. If she was right, there were treatments, but those would maybe give us a couple of months together, with shots and side effects, ending back where we were.
I signed the papers, marked my preferences for his cremation—I didn’t want his ashes, or a commemorative paw print plaque, I wanted my Toby to be healthy and playful again—and told them I wanted to be present. I was the one who’d made the decision. I would be there to see it through.
They took him away for a moment to prepare him with a catheter and I grabbed a handful of tissues and called myself terrible things.
An assistant brought him back, wrapped in a blanket and angrier than I’d ever seen him in his life, but I rubbed his neck until he calmed down, his hard little head pressed against my stomach, like he’d done when he was small. The vet came back and he tensed up again . . . then relaxed, all at once . . . and was gone.
They told me to take as much time as I needed, and I wondered, not for the first time, if there was some way we could be offered that kindness before the final partings. And maybe we are, if we’re smart enough to spend it wisely, with spilled water glasses and midnight howls and gnawed toes and fond exasperation.
As I left with the empty carrier and a handful of soggy tissues, the nice elderly lady was just coming in. She took one look at my face and held the door for me.
Her dog bumped my legs with a cheerful doggy grin. “Rocket!” she said, pulling him away, but I told her he was helping, too. “Bless you, honey,” she said.
My husband was home, waiting until the last possible moment to leave for his class so he could give me a hug. Then I cried for a while, sat down, and wrote this out.
Is it overshare, a 1300+ word, detailed eulogy for a cat? Yeah, probably.
But the choices that led up to this post were made for him. This one is for me.
Time, memories, and hugs are what we’ve got.
And I’m going to miss him.