The Death of a Cat

A story of fur and love and loss

My son’s cat, Chewy, died in April of 2020. The world was a confusing place then. The world is always a confusing place, but sometimes we convince ourselves we can force it into a pattern, something we understand. But that April, every pattern, every comforting rhythm was gone.

My kids were in online school, my job at the newspaper was so overwhelming I felt like I was clawing upward through the water for air, breathing only when it was bedtime. And it was never bedtime because I was always working. I started getting vertigo, and every time I stood up or sat down, the world tipped and turned and I felt like I was going to throw up. And then, one day, I stepped out of the shower and saw Chewy, his long black body bloated on the bathroom floor. I stepped over him, dripping water on him, and got dressed.

I’ve seen the bloated bodies of cats before. Our first cat, Archie, died the year before. Archie was an old, old alley cat who still had scratches on his face and an infected paw when my daughter spotted him at the pet rescue. He rubbed against her and chased the toy she offered, and that was it, they were in love. I told her he was old, but she insisted he needed us. And I said, “Okay,” because what else can you say when humans and fur fall in love.

We thought Archie was 6 or maybe 8. He was closer to 12 years old. As we discovered when I found him bloated under my bed 18 months after we adopted him, and I took him into the emergency vet and they said he was just old and dying and couldn’t pass his food. A week later, I came home at midnight from a reporting trip and found him dead on the floor. I screamed and there was no one to hear me. I called everyone I knew who wouldn’t hate me for calling about a dead cat at midnight, while I sat in the living room and cried. They were all asleep. Finally, someone I’d been on exactly two dates with texted me, and I made him come pick the cat off the floor and put it in a box. And then I spent two hours scrubbing the spot where Archie had lain dead. Also, it was a rental house. I wondered how I’d explain the dark shadow of death on the cheap carpet.

So, when I saw Chewy on the bathroom floor, I knew something was wrong. Chewy was a tuxedo cat who had been found by a friend outside an apartment in Iowa City on a rainy summer night. Archie was still alive then and was my daughter’s cat. My son wanted a cat of his own, and when I saw the post on Facebook announcing a small black cat was looking for a home, I messaged my friend and asked her to keep him for a couple of days until I could get home from New York. She did. I put the tiny black kitten into a bright red gift bag and handed him to my son, and he was so delighted, he started to cry a little.

Chewy, named after Chewbacca, which my kids insisted was short for Cheward, was the sweetest cat I’d ever met. He snuggled with my son at night and when my son was with his dad, he’d snuggle with me. Sometimes too aggressively. I like my space. Except when I don’t. Then, and only then, I want to be squashed with limbs and fur and need. I’m one of eight kids. I left home and went to college, then got married. Then, I had kids. I’m not good at being alone. I don’t know how. Or I didn’t know how. Not when we got Archie and Chewy anyway. I’ve learned since then -- the art of being alone without loneliness. But the cats were a way of figuring out how. They were such gentle souls.

And in those early days of divorce, when I didn’t have my kids with me, I’d fill my time up with work, working out, going out with friends, then at home I’d clean and work and work and clean and find something to do. Anything. And on the long nights, the cats helped.

Of course, the cats were ostensibly for my children. We got Archie right after the divorce. I wanted to tell my kids something I couldn’t say. Something I can probably never say, about truth, about breaking, about life and loss. But because children are a whole comprised of two parts, betraying one side means betraying part of them. I never want to build a story around them so tightly that they feel like it has no room for their experiences. I was raised Evangelical; I know what it’s like to exist in a narrative that has no room for you. So, I offer my children things that could not have been possible in another story line, things that are just as much for me as they are for them, things like a trampoline, a spontaneous weekend trip, late nights with popcorn in bed watching silly movies, and cats.

Archie’s death felt inevitable. He was so old after all. But Chewy, barely two years old, lying on the floor, was a failure. I’d wanted to give my kids love and a home full of pets, snuggles, fur and love. And all we’d had was death. I knew this would destroy them. It was already destroying me.

I dried off and dressed and wrapped him in a towel and took him to the emergency vet. There, wearing a face mask and gloves (Gloves! What we didn’t know last April!) , I placed him in the kennel in the doorway because of their new Covid procedure. He barely moaned. I cried in the car when they told me over the phone that he had an infected bladder, he’d require surgery, and some cats never really get over this. I said yes to everything; what little money I’d built up as savings was going to be gone, but I didn’t care. Or I did care, but not really. I was very worried about money; I’d just gotten back on my feet financially. Just months before, I’d had to borrow from friends to buy food. Things were better now, but just barely.

But even more than money, I was worried about a cat and my children and the life I was building for them, the one with all the love and fur. So, in the gamble between money and life, I bet on life. Because I knew if I didn’t, I wasn’t the person I wanted to be. Plus, the way I grew up, I learned that money isn’t to be trusted. It’s there. It’s gone. One day you have a good job. One day you don’t. One day it’s new shoes. Next day it’s hand-me-downs.  McDonalds or beans and beans. What you learn to trust in is people.

Then, I’d been in a marriage where there was money, but those 12 years I felt poorer than when I’d been a kid and we’d had to move because the house was gone, and I’d spy on my mom in her room crying about how we’d eat. Then, you could trust money but not people.

Those were the only two ways I’d seen life and money balanced. I didn’t want either one. But what I did want to be the person who took good measure of a situation and said, “Fuck it, we save this cat.” So, that is exactly what I did.

That could not have happened in another story.

As I sat there, I saw a man also sitting in his car, his fists against his eyes. I wanted to knock on the window and say something. But it was April and there was a virus, and I didn’t know how to say I was sorry and sad too. So we cried alone in our cars for our pets.

Once my sobs steadied, I called my mom who told me almost casually about how she had euthanized my sister’s cat when I was a teenager and never told her. “I’m sorry, what?” I said.

“Your sister’s cat, the one that ruined everything.”

I got quiet. I was the one who had the cat who ruined everything. My cat was sent to live on our friend’s farm, where she disappeared and never returned.

While Chewy was in surgery, I called my sister and my friend (the one who lived on the previously mentioned farm). This is probably why I’m a writer. I remember. I make friends. I know the witnesses. In 20 minutes, I confirmed the truth. While Chewy was still at the vet’s, I sent my mom a text, “That was my cat.” 

That was all I said.

Then, I didn't talk to her for weeks.

It’s not that I was mad about the cat. Okay, I was. But I would have understood. I was 15 at the time the cat disappeared, and my little brother was in the house and had Down syndrome. I knew he came first. What I wished was that I’d been able to have that conversation. To get the chance to learn. To step into that place of sadness and confusion and come out okay. To weigh life’s balances and see a situation where there are no right answers, only your heart’s beating best. 

And how do you say that? How do you process all of that in a world that tips and turns and makes you nauseous? When the things that have made your life have a comforting pattern are now dying?

Chewy came home after two days. The kids and I tried to help him recover. I got a water fountain and special food for him and a new cat bed. No one could pet him anymore. The cat who previously let my children put him in doll clothes, now hissed when they got near. I took him back to the vet, and they unclogged his bladder again. Back home, he slept on my bed until he started peeing on everything and then, suddenly, stopped. And when he stopped, he was bloated again. I took him back to the emergency vet, this time with the kids. 

I was glad they were there. It was going to suck, but if we had to do this, we should do it together. Whatever we had to do, I wanted to do it with them. I wanted to give them a chance to understand something, that I still am not sure I fully get. I talked to them about Chewy’s pain, about how miserable his life was with no pets and snuggles from them. And then we all hugged and sobbed in the parking lot, and I told the vet I was out of money and it was time. My daughter, then 9 and always prepared, had brought a bag of cookies and kept offering them to her brother. He refused, but I ate five.

It’s been almost a year now since Chewy died. We now have Waffles, the cat who survived the in-land hurricane, and we also have two dogs. One dog is little and adorable. The other is large and loving. But we still miss Chewy and Archie. The other night, right before bedtime, my son told me he missed Chewy and how scared he was because what if more pets died?

I tried to tell him that’s what it means when you decide to love something, that you expose the tender underside of your life. And that it hurts always. But if you stop, you get mean. If you stop, you stop remembering softness and fur.

I do this as a parent. I monologue. My kids ask me a question, and I tell them absolutely everything. An innocent question like, “What’s the last war?” turns into a lecture on the state of modern warfare and conflict. A question about “What does it mean when you dream about a forest?” brings a lecture on the subconscious and the gift of fear and trusting your gut.

And so, that night, a question about what if more pets die, turned into me telling him about love and about how I hope he’s the kind of person who bets it all on a dying cat and has no regrets. And how betting on life, even when you lose, is worth it. And how what’s the point of money if you can’t use it all on something you love? And how opening yourself up is hard and it means more loss, but it also means more pets and snuggles and limbs and fur and need and isn’t that the start of the right kind of story? But by then, he’d fallen asleep in my arms, a thing he still does every once in a while.

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