Monday, January 07, 2008
Once during the summer after I graduated high school, my cat Tex got out of the house. He was an indoor cat and he escaped all of the time. When he was a kitten, he'd climb the trees in the backyard and look down on us as we shouted at him from the ground. Eventually he'd jump back down, his fur matted and sticky with sap. He'd usually come back inside when he realized that the only thing outside for him to eat was grass, which he'd cough back up on the kitchen floor a few hours later. The mounds of cat vomit were another example of why my mother cursed us for talking her into getting a kitten. She knew that even though we had promised to clean the litter box and make sure he was fed, we would forget - I was in seventh grade and my brother in first when we adopted him, after all. The only pro of us getting a pet, I'm sure, was the learned responsibility, which never really took.
We had Tex declawed when he was about five years old, and his escapes became more of a nuisance. Because he didn't have any claws to defend himself, we were worried that he might have a run-in with one of the other animals in the neighborhood. Usually, however, he was fairly safe, as there weren't many dogs in the area that ran wild. Tex would just lay under bushes (since he could no longer climb trees) and eat more grass, which would later end up on the floor. He had also become extremely fat; my father, who had taken over the feeding duties, would fill up his bowl several times a day - anytime Tex happened to flash him a hungry look.
On the day when he ran outside - the summer I was seventeen - I made my usual chase after him, only to slow down after I saw him run around the side of our house. I walked back inside so that I could go out the front door to catch him. When I jumped onto the front steps, I saw that two dogs, which belonged to a family down the street, were barking and jumping and one of the bushes. I ran toward it, but not in time to catch Tex, who had darted out across the lawn in an attempt to evade the dogs. I started after the three animals, and watched as the bigger of the two caught up with Tex, lunging at his front leg, which he caught in his mouth. I yelled and ran toward them, effectively chasing them off, and then tried to catch Tex, who, even with a limp, was able to make it to safety under a bush.
Everything seemed a blur. I called my father at work and screamed into the phone; luckily, he was still in town and managed to speed over in his Coke truck in a matter of minutes. Tex was still under the bush, hissing at us as we tried to reach out at him, with blood running down his leg as well as his mouth.
We drove almost a half-hour to the animal hospital. I was sobbing in the front seat of my car, glancing back to look at Tex in his cage, terrified to touch him through the holes. I had remembered that my mother once told me that she had a kitten who fell off of her piano when she was little; it had broken its leg and had to be put down. It didn't dawn on me that veterinary technologies had improved so much that, thirty-five years later, Tex would be able to survive a broken leg.
He did, of course; the vet put a pin in his leg, and then put on a cast. And several years later, when my father took the cat to the same animal hospital for shots, the vet told him that he never forgot that "little red-headed boy" (remember, I was seventeen but looked about twelve) who was so worried about his cat.
Tex was my first real pet. My parents had a cat, Ray, who lived until I was about six years old (I'm guessing, as I don't really remember her at all). I had a few hermit crabs and fish, but those aren't the kinds of pets that make an impact on you. I had a dog for about three hours; she was a black lab named BenHur (I had named her Ben before discovering it was, in fact, a girl) and I adopted her at my town's fall festival from a couple who had her sitting in a box. They had promised that if they didn't find a good home for the dog, they'd have to take it to the vet. Unfortunately, my parents weren't as sympathetic. A week before I was born (on my due-date in fact), one of the neighborhood dogs killed Bucky, the cockapoo my parents adopted soon after they married. In an impassioned speech my mother told me that I didn't understand what it was like to have an animal I loved so much be taken away from me. She had never gotten over her dog's death, and feared that her attachment for another dog would similarly be crushed.
I suppose my parents thought that having a cat would be better since they didn't expect to be too attached to one. And I always thought they weren't too attached to Tex. As my mother didn't want him in the first place, but finally relented after years of pleading on my part, she always had a dislike for the animal whose hair shed all over the living room couch, or who scratched the curtains on the family room door. She admitted to me a few months ago - as a joke, of course, because this is the kind of thing that we would joke about (see where I get it from?) - that when she said yes to us getting a cat, she did so under the assumption that it would surely be dead by the time my brother left for college twelve years later. In September, however, she was stuck feeding Tex and cleaning out his litterbox and she was not happy about it.
My mother took Tex to the vet this morning to be put down. For the last month, he hadn't been eating. When I went home for Christmas, I was actually shocked to see how skinny he had gotten. When I was last home in August, he was still about eighteen pounds. His hair was matted and dirty because he had stopped cleaning himself. I took him to the vet - the same vet who fixed his leg, mind you - the day after Christmas. He told me that Tex had developed a heart murmur and had fluid building in his lungs. I left with a prescription for Lasix and the idea that possibly, with the medicine and some time, Tex might be able to recover and still have about five years ahead of him.
My mother told me this evening that she didn't sleep at all last night because she knew what she was going to have to do this morning. She woke up early and searched all over the house for him. Tex had taken to hiding in strange places all week - closets, bathtubs - and that was, of course, a sign that he was looking for a place to die. When she brought him to the vet, he said, "I expected you to come the next day." She felt awful for thinking that he had suffered longer than he needed to as she tried not to jump to conclusions and act too quickly.
She told me on the phone that as she walked back out into the waiting room with Tex, who wrapped up in a towel in his cage, several people whom she recognized from home were crying with her. It’s so funny to me that she experienced, in a room full of almost-strangers, that sense of compassion. I found myself much less upset this evening than that day seven years ago when I found myself expecting to lose my cat because of a broken leg. And it is hard for me to imagine anyone reading this essay thinking, slightly, in a mocking sense, “Why is he, a twenty-four-year-old, getting so philosophical about the death of his cat?” I would most likely have the same reaction, as I never found myself to be the kind of animal lover who gets attached to other peoples’ pets. But perhaps in that waiting room, as people sat with their sick animals in line after my mother, experience some sort of fear of their own. My mother, indeed, found herself uncontrollably attached to our cat, which shows that sometimes, even the pets we have taken for granted, as simply the dependents that roam around our houses, are something more tangible to our lives. As silly as it sounds, it’s hard to think back on my young adulthood without picturing Tex pouncing at my feet, chasing balls down the hallway, or even throwing up grass on the kitchen floor.
at 9:37 PM