August 2, 2014

Epitaph for a Friendship

Mouser died today. It had been 13 years since the black-and-white kitten had come into my life (we called her Mouser to make Dad happy about the mice in the barn). And I think she wanted to live up to her name as well; she was an aggressive mousing cat — except …well… except she didn’t seem to know a mouse from a dog. And it was dogs she chased from the house, and it was dogs she lay in ambush for in the front yard and chased down the street with me running after her, screaming for their lives. “You’ve got to do something about that cat,” Mom would warn me. “She’s terrorizing the neighborhood.”

But I didn’t do anything about that cat, and not because I wouldn’t, but because I couldn’t. Mouser made it clear from the beginning that I belonged to her. Later, when my car was stolen along with my house keys, and the locksmith, hired by the apartment manager, arrived to change the door locks, I got an urgent call at work. “You’re going to have to come down here after all, ma’am,” he said kindly. “Your cat won’t let me in the apartment.”

But as determined as she was at voicing her opinion, she was equally affectionate — with me, that is, her possession. I’d lie on the sofa, tap the center of my chest, and say, “Kiss? Kiss?” and she would oblige, leap onto my chest, press her forehead against my lips and take as many kisses as a cat could stand.

She was also an extremely intelligent cat. Traditional cat games were out of the question. If you wanted to play with Mouser, you had to play games by rules you learned as you went along. “You throw the ping-pong ball to me,” she would say, “and I’ll lie here comfortably and hit it back to you. I’m not moving, so if I miss it, you fetch it.”

Mouser preferred, you see, to spend her waking hours eating. When she failed to remind me to feed her, I’d sneak off to work or to sleep, hoping she’d never remember — because Mouser could stand to lose a few pounds. One night, after forgetting a meal, I was awakened by a horrible cat cry at bedside. I snapped on the night lamp and leaned over the mattress. Mouser was sitting there, blinking up at me with that, “You thought I’d forget again, didn’t you?” expression while a small can of cat food — which apparently she had carried in from the kitchen — sat nestled on the carpet between her front paws.

I laugh about that to this day—but in the split second of that memory, I hear again the eternal silence on the phone line, the vet’s voice in my ear, patient, waiting, hollow — like the way my heart felt then: “Do you think we should let her go?” And I could see Mouser, in my mind’s eye, lying there on that exam table with memories that had spanned 13 years.

The vet was telling me what I had feared most: Mouser would be dead within the week. Both kidneys and her liver had been consumed by cancer. And I had the power at that very moment, and would never have it again, to bring her out of the anesthesia, to give us one more week, or one more day, or even one more moment, to say goodbye again. If she left me, my heart would break; I couldn’t bear the pain that hinted at its inevitability: my life would never be the same without her; she had been my best friend since I was a young girl.

But I realized, in those long-drawn out minutes on the phone, in my hesitation, that it was my life I was fighting for, not hers — and would she ever forgive me for that? I remembered suddenly the night before Mouser died. We were lying together on the cool kitchen floor. There was a dying light in her gaze that was fixed on the wall beyond me. I don’t think I’d realized, even after her lengthy illness, just how sick she was until that night. She had lost so much weight she was merely a skeleton, and she hadn’t eaten in days. I couldn’t force one more pill down her throat; I wept with guilt when she fought me — as if she wanted to die and I wouldn’t let her.

And I was weeping that night, the night before she died, lying on the floor with her, asking her with a grief-filled anguish in the hope she would understand my question: What should I do, Mouser? what do you want me to do in the morning when you go on the table for exploratory surgery; when I may be told that your condition is terminal? Do you want me to let you go? I cried because only Mouser knew what Mouser wanted.

As we lay there and I asked these questions silently, only my crying audible, a flash of light came into Mouser’s dying eyes. She turned her head in my direction and met my gaze. For a long minute that I had wished would be an eternity, she looked at me, almost through me; my eyes filled with tears and hers with an inexplicable smile. What? I begged her silently. Do you have the answer? She was only a few inches from my face; she pressed her forehead to my lips and asked me for a kiss.

“Do what it is best for me,” I believe she said. “I accept life better than you can; after all these long, full years, I accept death as well. In the end, doing what’s best for me will bring peace to both our lives.” So I did that next day what I believed Mouser had asked for in her kiss. The kiss goodbye. “Yes,” I finally answered the doctor. “Let her go.”

If Mouser’s death has taught me anything, I think it would have to be this: It is not an intangible number that we are removing from our midst when we kill the millions of dogs and cats every year in animal shelters across the country. It isn’t a single ID number or a solitary statistic that dies when the light in a single dog’s or cat’s eyes dies. When we kill a million dogs and cats, we’re killing a million lives who could touch us and heal us and bring us a kind of joy and warmth and peace in ways our fellow humans cannot. We’re robbing a million beings of a million rays of sunlight, a million memories, a million heartbeats, a million lights of life.

We’re killing a million Mousers.

That shelter kitten is waiting for you. Go. Life has more to offer than death.

Laura A. Moretti is now owned by more than a dozen cats.

Speak Your Mind

*