The doctor studied the malignant shadows on Crystal’s lungs as the weak arc of winter sun was being devoured by denuded trees. Amidst these winter solstice days, the world is trapped in permanent twilight.
Her breathing had been labored for the past few days and she had stopped eating.
“I really can’t tell if the fluid is from some type of heart failure or a mass in her chest.” He remarked absent-mindedly as he turned the X-Ray image sideways. “We probably need a EKG. She’s an old lady and well, these things happen. I suppose we can refer you to an oncologist but if it is a mass, you might do well to start thinking now about making arrangements.”
“She could be in pain. There’s no way of knowing at this point until we drain the fluid and try to see what’s causing it. It’s not good though. For now, take her home and try to keep her comfortable.”
Is there not a Sloan Kettering for cats?
It had been a long day and I was not emotionally prepared for a dinner discussion about palliative care, hospice or Dr Kevorkian. This was not just any cat. This was Crystal – – she-wolf of the pachysandra, eviscerator of all raptors and rodents and my literary muse. The vet seemed not to notice that his suggestion was asking our family to euthanize a section of our own hearts.
My wife looked as though she had been on the losing side of a Joe Louis fight. Her swollen eyes betrayed her maudlin day as she sat on the edge of a bed stroking the gaunt, aging lioness whose purr still thrummed like a 350hp engine.
It all hit me, the flood of memories: cats, dogs, fish, turtles, newts, snakes, hamsters, rats — all prematurely taken by automobiles, old age, ignorance, disease, other pets, and in one case, a cannibalistic sibling – a crime scene that still ranked in my mind with the Tate & LaBianca murders. There was never time for emotional preparation, we would return home from school only to be told of Frank, the alligator lizard’s untimely demise. We would mourn life’s cruel inequities. Each death would often be followed by a memorial worthy of a head of state. We would carefully prepare a shoebox coffin often with one of my mother’s expensive silk hand towels. On this particular day, we had gathered at the edge of a small dirt fissure near the back ivy yard fence. We gave everyone an opportunity to share stories about Jay, the kangaroo rat.
“He was a friend to every kid.” Someone said.
We used kite string to unevenly lower the cardboard shoebox into the dirt – the way my brother had seen Churchill slowly interned on television during his state funeral.
Yet, here I was, at 52, moved into adolescent depression by my cat’s terminal prognosis. In my slow shuffle across the sweeping steppe of middle age, I have come to accept that each life is indeed terminal but also understand, as Lincoln mused that “it is not the years of living but the living within the years” that counts. In time, a man may become the things he once ridiculed. As a young invincible, I routinely cast stones at death the way a child might throw rocks at headstones as I whistled passed a graveyard. I was convinced my broad mind and narrow waist would never change places.
This milestone was inevitable. Yet, I felt unprepared. Death, the thief, was once again scratching at my window wanting to steal my precious whiskered talisman into the night. In a life so jammed with preconditions and contingencies, I increasingly found delight in the simplest things – my favorite chair, my routine and the unconditional love I would receive from an ordinary white house cat.
In her youth, Miss Crystal expressed her unconditional love for us in macabre and graphic ways – often leaving what appeared to be a small lima bean or earth worm in a conspicuous location. Upon closer examination, the odd gifts were confirmed as the internal organs of some unfortunate rodent who could not even be identified by its dental records. Perhaps, the bequest was a spleen or a segment of intestine. She radiated feline conceit and like the Victorian mad man from east London, could perform complex surgery with a single talon. On the lethal day she arrived in a crate from JFK, rumors and raw fear began to circulate through the New Canaan rodent community of a new and terrifying Ripper, an alabaster Lizzy Borden that swept in like a silent avalanche capable of devouring rabbits and small dogs.
She was in fact, a Cinderella story of sorts – a rag to riches housecat rescued from near death in a grubby, ramshackle pet mill in southwest of London. She was a Father Christmas surprise for an eight-year-old girl who was homesick for friends after moving half way around the world to start a new life with her family.
“I’ll call her Crystal because she has such blue eyes.”
I had been chasing the kitten around the house for hours after she had escaped our bedroom late Christmas Eve. I could no longer disguise her existence as an increasingly suspicious and excited trio of children writhed in their early morning beds. As I smiled with satisfaction, I mindlessly scratched an itch on my arm which turned out to be ringworm, courtesy of our new family member. In time, we would endear ourselves to many families in SW19 as our cat became the local distributor for the loathsome skin disease.
Both cat and young girl eventually grew into women but they never stopped cuddling or consoling one across four thousand nights of adolescence. Nighttime would find them in deep conversation, a unilateral discussion about what to wear to school or perhaps who to invite to tea. She would visit me at night after the children had gone to bed, weaving between my legs like a pilot fish before leaping on to my desk and sitting on my paperwork, daring me to play by knocking every pen, pencil or moveable object off my desk. She would swat at my hand without bearing her claws, boxing and trying to lure me into a game of cat and crab.
She was like Wordsworth’s solitary cloud. Her purring reassured us, soothing our trauma in the months following 9-11. She padded her way through fifty-two seasons of life. She always seemed to sense when a gray cloud was crouching on one of our heads and would find us, coaxing us back into her world of gardens and butterflies.
Her foreign policy was fickle – a shrewd mixture of passive aggressive affection. It soon became apparent that she preferred women to men and children to adults. She would occasionally use her bodily functions as method of conveying her judgment of people, places and things. A male house sitter vowed never to return when a simple “present” was left right in the middle of his bed. It seemed to suggest that he spend the remaining evenings at his apartment.
Like most pets, she taught us responsibility, the risks and rewards of unconditional love, the vagaries of living with domesticated animals and the simplicity of sitting in a window watching as the world swirled all around you.
Time moved on and the English matron chose voluntary exile to the upstairs with the adoption of an Australian Shepherd pup. She loathed him and never forgave the Gods for upsetting her perfect only-child world. She lived with the girl, watching her grow into a woman – all the while weaving in between prom dresses, suitcases and increasingly long absences. In fits of loneliness, she turned to the inferior boys and on rare occasions would work her way down the stairs to yowl like an alley cat for attention. She resorted to exploring the house in the dead of night – an ancient Grace Pool exploring her former domain, ever wary of the jingling collar of her nemesis – the dog. She had gone from making history to being a relic of a waning age of innocence. Yet, she rested and waited for the girl to return – always appreciative of any affection and the attention that came when the upstairs would be once again crowded like a Pullman sleeping car.
I shift off of my stiff right shoulder. It’s now dark outside and the room is dimly lit. I sit on the floor, my arms stretched under bed where she rests in the dark – her sides scalping as she wrestles with lungs that cannot purge the fluid that keeps filling within them. The reassuring bustle of her purring rises each time I move my hand across her head and down her back. Her tail twitches with a slow rhythmic snap, a sign of happy fatigue. I scuttle my fingers across the floor emulating a crab. She half-heartedly swats at me and closes her eyes. The graying man and the snow-white grand dame now resting side by side. She moves closer and I touch my nose to hers, prompting her to lick her lips – a kiss goodbye. She falls into a fitful sleep and I descend down the stairs.
She’s still fighting the shadows so she might remain at our sides. When she finally releases this life, she will be remembered like a singular snowflake. Perhaps she will be reincarnated into a magnificent monarch butterfly or a tempestuous French actress.
One thing is for certain: Miss Crystal makes my weird little world a better place and leaves only love – and small rodent spleens — in her wake.