If you enter the phrase “when to put” into Google, the first suggestion that appears is When To Put Your Cat to Sleep. The suggestion is followed by: When To Put Your Dog To Sleep, When To Put A Child In A Booster Seat, and When To Put In A Baby In A Toddler Bed.
I was trying to answer the first question.
I had no plans to become a cat person. I considered myself, at most, a guinea pig person, although I hadn’t owned one since I was ten. We had a dog when I was in high school, but she ran away a month after my parents’ divorce, two weeks before Christmas, never to be seen again. When a guinea pig was ready to die, they just died, and you would wake up to find them stiff and cold, head tucked under some newspaper, or hiding in a shoebox in their cage. I’ve never had to put a cat to sleep. I’ve never had a cat.
I realized I was a very good candidate for a cat: single, writer, loves reading in bed and knitting. Lesbian like whoa. Five years ago I quit teaching to be the secretary of a sweet little nursery school downtown, and everyone at this nursery school had a cat. Next to my desk was the door to the office, which was called the Door of Pets. Photos of everyone’s pets–teachers, speech therapists, kids, even the mailman (who has like seven cats, no joke)–were scotch taped up there, the pet’s name sharpied underneath. My first week there, one of the teachers stood by the office door waiting for something, and together we gazed at the Door of Pets.
“Do you have a cat?” she asked.
I told her no.
“You will,” she deadpanned.
Not long after this, and not long after a series of cat sitting gigs that warmed me up to the awesomeness of cats, there was an e-mail posted on the listserve for my beloved Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls volunteers. The e-mail was about a cat that needed urgent adoption. It had been found in someone’s backyard in Bushwick, and when it was taken in for shots and neutering, they found he had feline leukemia, which meant he couldn’t live with other cats. It also meant that if he was taken to a shelter, he’d be most likely put down. Currently, he was living in someone’s music studio, sleeping in a bass drum. He was a black and white tuxedo cat, and his name was Professor.
Out loud to myself, at the desk crammed against the bookshelf in my tiny bedroom on Pacific Street, I shouted, “That’s my cat!”
Backing up: what is feline leukemia? What the hell was I getting into? I turned to trusty Google to help me with FeLV. My understanding became that it was a condition that weakened a cat’s immune system and shortened their life, usually to 7 or 8 years. They were more susceptible to other diseases, and since FeLV is transmitted by fluid, they couldn’t live with other cats. One wacked out source I found described some woman’s plight to nurse a feverish kitten with FeLV to good health by feeding it iced spring water with an eye dropper, and after a lot of praying, she was blessed to have a totally healthy and cured cat.
I can be a little bit pollyanna sometimes, but of all the things I read, that one made me decide it was okay to adopt a cat with feline leukemia.
If you are one of those people who think that pets find their owners, and that animals can come into the right person’s life at just the right time, and that there is some awesome universal force at work pairing pets with people in the name of love, then yes, please add the tale of Professor Gillette to your evidence.
Professor would run and greet me when I came home. He liked to sleep on my head, waking me up with what I came to refer to as his snorkel-purr, circling my pillow before throwing his weight, ass first, onto my face, with a whump. He chewed on pens, purred on my chest while I read, and became territorial about my desk when I wrote, knocking off everything in sight (sometimes with his paws, sometimes with his butt) until there was a wide swatch of space for him to melt into. This eventually lead me to give him his own inbox.
He had his issues. He liked to get my attention by pulling books off the shelves, and tearing at the pages with his claws. He bit the ankles of anyone I dated. He wet the bed — a lot. He’d get anxious if I didn’t wake up when my alarm went off, mewing and kicking my head and shredding books and knocking over water glasses and pissing on my down comforter until I got out of bed.
Later, he’d develop a codependent habit that I totally got ensnared in. In the middle of the night he would wake me up with a panicked meow, kicking and yowling and pulling books off the shelf until I got up and followed him to his food bowl in the kitchen, where I then had to watch him eat. If I walked only part way, he’d mew pathetically at my feet, motioning in his little cat way to follow him. He’d vacuum the food into his mouth, pausing every so often to turn and make sure I was there, half asleep against the refrigerator, wondering about the quality of my life. Only after this 3 or 4 am ritual would we both be allowed to sleep. He’d return to my bed, snorkel purring all the way, and–whump–attempt to sleep over my face.
There’s a Margaret Wise Brown book that the kids at the nursery school love — The Good Little Bad Little Pig. And that’s Professor. The good little bad little cat. Okay, so I owe my roommate like $450 in damage (that leather ottoman? not a scratching post, Prof), and I’ve thrown out so much bedding over the years I don’t even wanna talk about it. But man, he was a damn good cat. This is a photo of him showing odd interest in 8 Minute Abs, back when I thought I would actually start doing 8 Minute Abs. I spend a lot of time at my laptop, and Professor never ever expressed an interest in anything on screen, until Jaime Brenkus came on. The few times I did get down on the ground and do the routine, Professor would come and lie on my stomach, mewing if I moved too slowly.
The first time I applied to graduate school, I read every one of my eleven rejection letters with Professor, taking the mail into the bathroom of my old apartment to sit on the toilet and open the thin envelopes and say to Professor, “Well. At least we’re not moving to Alabama.” (Or Arkansas. Or Texas. Or Minnesota. Or Colorado.)
In my bedroom, I tucked Prof’s fleece bed under my red reading chair. Many nights, he slept there while I read, and if it was quiet enough, I could hear him purring. Home felt so perfect to me in those moments, like I’d done something right, like I’d cultivated the best life for myself in New York.
When I moved apartments, I took my current place in part because I could picture Prof on the wide windowsills in all of the rooms. In the warmer months, I’d sometimes ride my bicycle up to my apartment and find Professor sleeping in my bedroom window. He’d perk up, and if I called up to him and waved–here, in all my awesome crazy lesbian cat lover glory, waving to a cat while wearing a bike helmet on the streets of Bed Stuy–he’d meow, and jump down, and run to greet me at the door.
Seven to eight years. According to the birthday the vet randomly gave him at his first check up, Professor would’ve turned five on December 5th. By the time you read this, he’ll be gone. I only got to have him in my life for three and a half years.
About a month ago, he began sleeping more, being Professor less. He stopped eating. He was hot to the touch. This was the week of Hurricane Sandy, and so with the trains in my hood down, I was lucky to wrangle a friend to drive me and Professor to the vet. He had a fever of 105.9–a high fever for a cat is 102. “Oh man,” the vet said, shaking her head gravely. “No bueno. A fever like this in a cat with FeLV? No bueno.”
There was a three-day hospital stay. There was blood work and there were ultrasounds and antibiotics. It could be an infection. It could be cancer. It could be this rare fatal disease that doesn’t have a cure called FIP. They weren’t sure. On his second day there, I realized I could visit him, and rode my bike about 45 minutes to see him. When they brought Professor in–head in a cone, IV in his forearm, belly shaved, wrapped in an orange towel–I burst into tears.
I was never supposed to be a cat person, you guys. I was never supposed to fall in love like this. And when I did, it was supposed to be for seven to eight years, at least. It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. It wasn’t supposed to cost $2,600. It wasn’t fair.
They allowed me to bring him home, even though his fever hadn’t quite gone down, and they were still waiting for test results for a real diagnosis. The trains still weren’t running. The city was still a wreck (and will be a wreck for a long time). Another friend miraculously had the gas and time to drive me and Prof home. I let him out of his carrier and he went to curl up in a ball on the rug, same as he’d been when he’d gotten sick.
I was never gonna get my old cat back.
The vet was 95% sure it was FIP. Confirming this would’ve taken an expensive biopsy surgery. And what could that other 5% be anyway? Nothing good. Professor was dying. They put him on steroids and said it’d help his appetite come back. They thought he had weeks, hopefully months to live.
That was on a Wednesday. A week later, I was Googling When To Put Your Cat To Sleep.
I’m writing this and he’s still alive. I’m writing this and he’s asleep in half of his cat carrier, fashioned with a pink towel and his beloved catnip corn toy. I call it his incontinence bed, since he’s lost the ability to make it to the litter box and has peed on me in my sleep the last two nights. He can drink water, but never cared for food again–not the wet food, not the dry food, not the tuna, not the baby food. He can purr. He can knead his paws against me. I’ve taken to sleeping with his little incontinence bed in my bed, turned in such a way that I can fall asleep with one arm around him in his box. Usually, though, I wake up and pull him against my chest, and we fall asleep like that, my head on the pillow, his little face pressed against mine, his paws wrapped around my neck. I can feel the weight of his body change as he drifts to sleep.
If you are still reading this, you are either a dear friend of mine, my dad, one of the incredible people I work at the nursery school with, or you are a crazy cat person like me. I mean, this is an effing 3,000 word essay about a dying cat. I am writing about the most maudlin, sentimental, cringe worthy crap you can choose to write about. My cat–still alive–is asleep on a towel in my living room. I haven’t even made the appointment yet. I haven’t even picked up the phone.
The last time we were there, the vet asked what Professor had a PhD in. When I adopted him, he had a nasty stomach bug, which lead to the joke that he had a PhD in Farting. I told the vet this, and he laughed. “I figured he would be a doctor of awesomology,” he said.
Here’s how it will go: I imagine I’ll have the support and company of any one of my awesome friends (truly, do not attempt to become a crazy lesbian cat lady in your life time without a badass resource of rad, loving friends). I’ll choose to hold him while they put him down. I know that it happens through an IV, and it’ll take eight to twelve seconds, and that they’ll ask if I want a few moments alone with him afterward. I’ll bawl. I’ll bawl on the way there, and during the thing, and afterward. I’ll bawl when I put this on my blog. I’ll bawl anytime I see a stupid photo of a stupid awesome cat anywhere, anywhere, for a long time. I’ll bawl as I throw out his litter box, and his food dishes, and the collar I never made him wear. I won’t throw out his beloved corn toy. I’ll keep a lock of his hair in a little box inside of my desk.
When To Put Your Cat To Sleep: when he can’t walk, and he won’t eat or drink, and he dry heaves, and wheezes, and cries loudly when he can’t breathe, and his white paws are stained with urine because he won’t let you clean them, and he looks miserable, so you spend the entire day on the couch together watching Friday Night Lights until your friend arrives to drive you to the vet, and you wrap him a towel and take him out on a cold November evening because it’s time, it has to be time.
I can’t get it out of my mind: the moment the vet leaned forward, pressed a stethoscope to his chest, and confirmed that he no longer had a heart beat. There’s no sadness in the world like that sadness. Later the vet sent a sympathy card. He wrote, “I imagine Professor is up there lecturing all the other animals on awesomology.” There’s no goodness in the world like that goodness.
The same week Professor was in the hospital, a woman in my neighborhood found a cat carrier stuffed with five eight month old kittens in the middle of the street. No one would help her with it, so she took it to her backyard. Two of the kittens ran away, but three of them she and her husband took in, with their rescue dog Stanley, in the hopes of fostering them. The week that Professor died, someone from rock camp (I love you, rock camp) posted photos of them on Facebook. Help! she wrote. Kittens need homes!
Tonight I’m adopting one. I’m going to name her Sappho.