I hate to say it, but I've been watching a lot of "Beverly Hills 90210" lately. It comes on - two shows back to back - on the Soap Opera Network daily and just so happens to coincide with the time I normally get home, and want to do the dishes or maybe pay some bills, but those tasks are so boring on their own that I choose to watch some reruns of that magnificent program. Recently they were airing the shows from the era just before Brenda takes off for good, when she gets in real trouble with the law for becoming involved with animal rights activists and breaking into a lab at California University. The gang had saved this poor little dog who'd been experimented on, and after he died, allegedly from experiment-induced cancer, Brenda went on a rampage. This is sort of a tangent, because the point of my admitting to watching the show is that on that same episode, Kelly was trying to console Donna, who was most upset about the loss of the dog, and told her that she'd heard losing a pet can be even more difficult than losing a person, because with people we have all these complex emotions, but with animals, it's just love. This episode just so happened to come on a few weeks ago when J and I were dealing with a situation with Teddy, our cat, who had been recently diagnosed with cancer. And since he was an older cat, and the cancer was very invasive, spreading from his esophagus down into his lungs, we knew he wouldn't be around much longer.
It's strange, because when the vet first called me to tell me the bad news, after Teddy had spent all day at NC State Veterinary College, being x-rayed and tested and whatnot, I just wanted it to be all over - immediately. I had been expecting her to call and say he had a minor heart issue that could be medicated, not that he was going to die in a matter of months or weeks, and my immediate, and very selfish reaction, was to wonder how in the name of God I was going to watch my cat get sicker and sicker and then make a very difficult decision.
It's not that I ever thought Teddy was going to be around forever. When I took him home from the animal shelter about four years ago I knew he was old, although never knew how old exactly, because his teeth were in such bad shape. It was clear he'd had at least some sort of decent life before arriving at the shelter. He was big and very friendly, and extremely, extremely loud, meowing and purring all day. I like to think he spent a lot of his former life strutting around town, seducing the ladies, but we'll never really know.
My friends Maggie and Zandra, who worked at the shelter with me, pretty much declared him the best cat in the land, and placed him in a cage near the front door, where everyone could check out how handsome he was. And he was handsome, no doubt, but most of the time people come to the animal shelter looking for young animals, not geriatric, if very personable, ones. So after a while I took Teddy home. I'd never intended to have a cat, but hey, I'd never intended to do a lot of the things I'd done, including move to North Carolina and marry a scientist, and that all worked out just fine.
Teddy adjusted very well with to life with me and Mina in the studio apartment. He held his own when Mina tried to run him out of the place, and eventually they formed a sort of symbiotic relationship, never making eye contact or really admitting the other existed. It was different with Cecilia, who loved Teddy unconditionally from the moment she met him.
When J and I moved in with each other we rented a very spacious, beautiful home from a woman who, for some reason, trusted us with it. For reasons I'll never figure out, we neglected to tell her that we had a cat. We told her about the two dogs - the dogs who chew on things, and poop on things - but we figured if we told her a cat, too, the cat who did nothing but lie around and eat, and sometimes groom himself, she might not let us have the house, so for the next year or so that we lived there, whenever the very nice, understanding landlord would pay a visit, we'd scoop Teddy up and place him the master bedroom bathroom and close the door so she'd never know.
Also, at one point while living in the very nice house, J decided it might be good if Teddy became an "upstairs cat," as he felt the cat had taken too much to lying on (and presumably damaging) the downstairs couches, which belonged to the landlord. J tried a series of tricks involving baby gates and intricate psychology to get the cat to stay in the upstairs portion of the house, lying only on our furniture, but day after day, Teddy would appear downstairs, blinking, meowing, asking for his food, dealing with yet another one of our crazy stunts patiently.
The current house has suited everyone's needs very well for the past year and a half that we've lived here. The dogs have a big backyard and Teddy had the screened-in porch and the bed of pine needles just outside the carport that would get warm in the sun where he liked to lay down once I finally became alright with letting him outside every now and then. He never went anywhere. He was content to just lay in the pine needles, or in the grass in the front yard. He picked his indoor spots, as all cats do, with seemingly ridiculous logic, choosing to sit atop the DVD player, sleep in the closet on all our shoes, settle down on J's schoolbag.
The thing that's struck me so much in the past month is how, even never having really wanted a cat in the first place, this cat had become such a part of our lives, a part we took for granted, demanding food every morning and night with the other animals and cuddling up next to us, where it was warm, when we'd watch a movie. When he recently became sick we couldn't take any of it for granted, and not only because we wanted to spend as much time with him as possible, knowing he didn't have much time left, but because we had to check on him much more than usual. I couldn't go to sleep at night without making sure he was comfortable and safe, sometimes transferring him from the couch to a cushion in our bedroom, noticing his diminishing weight each time I'd gather him up and hug him to my chest. I couldn't leave the house without transferring a kiss from my lips to my hand to his head, or putting my face close to his to make sure he was still purring, still happy, and waiting for him to touch his nose to mine so he'd know I was checking in. We made disgusting concoctions out of baby food and kitten formula, spoon feeding the cat when he wasn't able to reach down into the bowl. J would sit Teddy in a corner of the kitchen to give him his medicine through a plastic syringe, squirting it into his mouth and making sure every drop went down.
And even though we knew his condition would deteriorate, and watched that happen, up until the night before last, Teddy would purr and come to sit with us, or drag himself up on the bed where it was most comfortable, showing us he still had something to live for. Still, I constantly watched for signs that he wasn't alright - that it was time to make that impossible decision, a decision I've never had to make before. My parents called me at college to tell me about the last days of the cat and dog I had growing up.
Thankfully, the obvious sign came very quickly. One minute Teddy was lying comfortably nearby as I worked on my computer in the office and the next he was very clearly sick and in distress, so sick that I called our vet and told him something was wrong and I had to bring him in right that minute.
When I arrived, the very compassionate doctor told me that putting Teddy to sleep was obviously the right thing to do, because he was suffering and I agreed. I couldn't get a hold of J at the lab, but knew he wouldn't have wanted me to wait any longer. So while she got everything ready I leaned down near his head, like I'd done so many times in the past month, so he would know I was there.
On my way out of the vet's office, with my empty cat carrier, red eyes, dropping used tissues all over the parking lot, a man who must have seen me come in stopped his car and told me he hoped the rest of my week would be better. I thanked him - his small gesture meant the world at that moment. I said maybe I'd go home and cry for a couple hours, and then I'd be alright. He told me to give it longer than that. And I'm sure he's right, that over the next few weeks the missing trappings of having a cat - the litter box in the corner, tufts of fur clinging to the rug, the loud vocal alarms that it was time for him to eat - will all become more obvious and finite.
Even though I only took care of Teddy in his retirement years he, like all the animals in all our lives, became such a normal part of my everyday routine, running underfoot and greeting us each day when we came home. I will miss him dearly, because as Kelly wisely pointed out, with animals it is only about love and he was a wonderful cat to love, a very good boy, which is exactly what I told him, to make sure he knew, as I leaned in close to say goodbye.