If you ask me why I’m weepy watching a TV show, why when I talk to the man who repairs a couple of doors in my house, I want to put my arms around him and tell him how beautiful he is, I will tell you that I put my cat to sleep last week.
If you ask me why I drove out to Lake Michigan the other day and stared at the water for three-quarters of an hour, remembering how I’d gone rollerblading with my ex-husband there and that we’d taken our kids to this park to swim a number of times and the sun was so hot and wonderful and why that makes me want to cry, I’ll tell you I put my cat to sleep last week.
If you say, “Oh, yes, I understand” and begin to tell me about your dog or your cat and how you had to put an animal to sleep and how sad it all was and what a good pet he or she was, I won’t stop you and say, “No, you don’t understand” because on some level I’m sure you do.
It’s not about a cat. My relationship with my cat was civil. She didn’t like people; she only liked me. I wasn’t flattered by this; I found her mildly annoying and rarely, some minor company. I did not love her like I love a person or attribute human qualities to her. She was just a cat I had for 15 years. To some, my saying this will seem insufficient or pathetically unfeeling. It’s just the truth. There wasn’t any more than that to our relationship. I fed her, I gave her water, I got rid of hairballs she coughed up, I paid someone to care for her when I was gone for a weekend. I named her as a kitten. Then I gave her a nickname. She was one of two cats and I called her “cat” and the other one “other cat.” Occasionally, I threw a tiny fake mouse to her and watched her bat it around. I sometimes liked to pet her, and at times she slept near me on my bed. I liked that. But I always hated it when she rubbed up against my legs, leaving a trail of cat hair. I hated the hairballs, the cat hair on chairs and couches and the whole litter box thing.
Frankly, and here I am vulnerable to all kinds of criticism from pet lovers, I found her kind of dirty. We wouldn’t bring a possum or a muskrat or a goat inside our houses, but we bring these other animals into our homes, label them pets and let them leave their traces all over the place. I’m not saying these animals are dirtier than we are; we’re dirty too. But they add to the dirt in a house and they don’t take baths. It’s hard enough to keep a house clean.
So why did I cry while watching a sappy something on TV? Why did I go to Lake Michigan to observe the waves pushing their way to shore, the white foam broadening out onto the sand? I was mourning a pet, but what was I really mourning?
Here is what I thought about while I watched twelve-foot waves crash onto the Lake Michigan shore: My cousin’s husband, dead now nearly three years, a relative only by marriage, but one I thought of as a brother. We felt the same way about many things and he had a fine sense of humor. One summer we spent a three-week period in northern Michigan—our cottages are next door to each other—painting in watercolors together every morning. My old friend Harry, an unassuming guy with a brilliant mind with whom I planned to have a radio show reviewing movies together, “he-said-she-said” style, who died way too young. My mother and my father, who had some sizable problems in their marriage, but stayed together and then died in their late eighties within 11 months of each other. My own marriage, because no matter what happened and no matter how much I wanted to leave it, I didn’t marry him thinking it would all go wrong. Perhaps mostly, the passage of time and the stark realization that what is gone is gone. My son and daughter are grown up and the time of taking them to the beach when they fully belonged to me is gone forever; it will never come back. Did I treasure that time? Did I love them enough? My children are adults, married themselves, with children of their own. The time of me with those children has ended.
Now a few weeks have passed and I have come to a place where I would say to you, “Yes, the cat was 15 years old and she was very sick and it was her time.” And I no longer am flooded with the thoughts I had after I watched the vet push a clear liquid into a catheter and saw the cat’s dainty pink tongue loll to the side. Five seconds it took. Five seconds to end a life and to end a 15-year chapter of my own life. And I don’t say, “But listen . . . listen to what it made me think about, listen to what I felt and the depth of my sorrow.” I don’t. Instead I say, “Yes, it was a bit sad; she was a nice cat. It’s always sad when something ends.”