It's What You Do
He is going gentle into that good night. He does not rage, rage against the dying of the light.
His transformation feels sudden, a bright lamp dimmed.
One day he is a robust 15 pounds. The next day he is only 10.
One day he is depositing elephantine dumps and clumps into sand in his litter tray. I am mumbling disgust while I scoop and sweep. He is diplomatically ignoring my unpleasantness and later rewards me with a lapful of purrs while I push through the Chicago newspapers’ depressing articles of doom and discord.
The next day his litter box is unused. And the next, and the next.
One day eating is his joy. Taco is the cat who sits on a chair at our kitchen table, just his head showing, waiting for a bit of meat from our plates. He is the cat who licks clean the dregs from my late morning containers of yogurt or cottage cheese. He is the cat who vacuums the tuna tins when I make tuna salad. Taco is the cat who ravages my fresh flower arrangements so often that I stop buying flowers.
One day Taco is a cat who eats with gusto.
The next day his food and water bowls stay full.
A few days ago, I bring water to him where he lies on the bottom basement stair. Ten times his tongue laps water, and then he turns his head away. He eats only one out of the four “kitty crack” morsels he used to devour as a reward after his twice-daily insulin injections.
He is still handsome, his white and caramel fur still smooth and clean.
I bring litter tray, food and water bowls from the basement and set everything on thick towels in the corner of our dining room. I carry him there, so light, like carrying a few sticks of butter.
He tucks his paws under his body, lowers his head, nose almost touching the floor. He resembles a loaf of unsliced bread. He does not groan. He does not complain. He does not mew. He does not purr.
I’ve been giving him insulin twice daily for four years, feeding him smelly, expensive prescription cat food I can get only from the vet.
Four years ago when he first started the insulin injections and special food, he “pooped his pants” a few times until his body adjusted. Each time, I donned vinyl gloves, gathered rags and a bucket of warm water, confined us in the bathroom, and cleaned, cleaned, cleaned him.
“Gross!” my kids exclaimed. “Disgusting!”
“It’s what you do,” I explained.
And at family gatherings, relatives would roll their eyes when my husband described our (my) cat duties.
“Needles! Ugh! Trade him in for a kitten! Why do you keep doing all that?” is what I heard.
“It’s what you do,” is what I said.
Now he is almost 16, equivalent to about 80 in human years. We got him right after 9/11, a scrawny orphaned kitten found next to his dead mother under a neighbor’s front porch.
He grew into the best cat ever. Affectionate as a dog. Serene as Buddha. A superb mouser. When any of us—three children, two parents—returned home from somewhere, we greeted Taco before we greeted each other.
These last days, I sit on the floor next to him, murmuring memories:
Taco playing kitchen-floor hockey with my husband and sons and a crumpled ball of foil;
Taco snuggling with my 7th grade daughter who is cocooned in sadness on her bed while her two best friends are having Facebooked-fun at a sleepover party she wasn’t invited to;
My high school boys ferociously shooting X-Box villains in our basement, dropping the game controllers and shrieking when a mouse zooms across the floor, my boys jumping to safety on the ping-pong table and cheering as Taco dispatches the mouse, saves the day;
Our family returning from a two-week adventure in Yellowstone, me finding my bottom dresser drawer wide open, my folded clothes covered in cat hair, understanding that Taco pawed open the drawer and slept there while we were gone—his way of staying connected to his primary human.
It’s nice to be missed.
“Thank you for missing me,” I now murmur to Taco who breathes shallowly on the floor. “Thank you for being a good boy all these years. Taking care of you was my privileged job. I’m sorry I groused when I scooped your litter.”
There is more than diabetes happening. The vet suspects that Taco’s weight loss and high liver enzymes mean end-stage liver disease. A definite diagnosis would require biopsies, feeding and catheter tubes, hospitalization.
I go to the grocery store, a bright June afternoon, the summer solstice. When I return, Taco is stretched on his side. His food and water bowls are full. The litter tray is pristine. He is still beautiful, his white and caramel fur still smooth and clean.
He is not breathing. My eyes sting. Then he breathes.
I sit on the floor next to him. I’ve kept the blinds closed but raised enough to welcome outside breezes through the open screened windows. The peonies just below the windows are past their brief prime. Now the flowers are wrinkled brown-pink fists, but still they pump their scent. I can smell it, faintly. Can Taco?
In his younger days, when he liked to bum around our yard (always supervised), he often tucked himself under the peonies. I’d be sitting on a chair in our driveway by the flowers. I could finish reading an entire issue of The Weekbefore Taco would emerge, ready to go back inside the house.
Just last week, he was still joining my husband and me while we had our pre-dinner drinks. Our kids are now grown and gone, but Taco has always been there to sit with us while we chatted about our day. Sometimes Taco would sit on my lap, more often on my husband’s—the alpha human, Taco knew.
I lightly pet Taco now, feeling bones just beneath his beautiful fur. I am not religious—my two priest brothers consider me one of those “bred-wed-dead” Catholics—but now I want to say a rosary while I sit with Taco, as I did when I sat with my dying mom six years ago.
I watch Taco breathe. “Should I take you to the vet?” I ask. “He can help you go fast.”
Taco doesn’t answer. But he’s always hated vet visits, crying the whole drive over and back, trembling on the vet’s cold metal table while he’s poked and prodded and shaved for a blood draw, then, back home, hurtling from the carrier, so happy, happy, happy to be where everything smells right.
“Wait for me,” I now say to Taco. “I’m just going to go upstairs and get my rosary. Be right back.”
But when I return, rosary around my neck, Taco is gone. My heart knows he is gone even though my head waits for his next breath.
I start saying the rosary anyway, dedicating each decade to him. He has died in his home, in a quiet corner, surrounded by things of his life.
I pray—may that be the way, I go, too.
If you’re lucky, it’s what you do.
Marie Anderson lives near Chicago. After completing two years at The University of Chicago Law School, she escaped without a law degree, married, raised three children, and worked in schools and offices. Her stories (39) have appeared in 25 publications, including LampLight and Gathering Storm. She heads her library’s writing critique group, now in its 10th year. She has two books available, “What Good Moms Do and Other Stories,” a collection of some of her previously published stories, and “The Wrong Coat,” a themed multi-author anthology which she edited. In her daily life, she strives for tidiness, timeliness, and simplicity.