Some twelve years ago, when I was just married and living in an apartment, a lost kitten scratched at our door. Not once, but several times. A white cat, about six months old, with orange ears and tail, a child of a neighborhood cat and the local tom. I never saw any of the others from that litter around, but this one stayed camped out by our door, wanting in every time we went in or out.
I hadn't planned on getting a cat yet. Things were in flux, our money wasn't where I wanted it to be, and I was reluctant to take on the responsibility of a cat. But you don't get to choose these things. He had adopted us, of all the people on the street, and that was that. We took him in, and named him Xander.
Xander was smart, friendly, and - aside from the hyperactivity of a young orange cat - was pretty much as perfect a cat as you could want. He went with us through a host of changes and challenges, including the breakup of the marriage over three years ago. Xander went with my ex-wife, who had always had a close bond with him, but he was still my boy, and I got to see him whenever I dropped by to touch base with her on our remaining mutual business. He was a happy boy, and we both loved him like a child.
And today he died.
Read on . . .
She had told me some months back that he was having trouble jumping up. Neither of us put too much on it - he was getting on in years, and I'm having trouble jumping up, myself, on a lot of days. But this morning she texted me that something was very wrong with Xander, so I called her.
What we had both assumed was arthritis had gotten suddenly and horribly worse over the weekend. By Monday morning, Xander couldn't walk, his tail was limp and he was in obvious and excruciating pain. He hissed and screamed when she tried to pick him up, and even bit at her.
Xander was one of the most people-friendly cats I've ever raised, and I raise them all to be people-friendly. Through all the indignities at the vet, through moving, through everything, he had never tried to bite anyone, and especially not his mother.
I told her to try and get him in the carrier, and I started heading toward her apartment, sure that I would have to help. A few minutes later she called me, saying she'd surprisingly managed to get him to go into the carrier without hassle, so I changed course and told her to meet me at the vet we had always taken him to, where we used to board him when we took long trips.
We both knew. Whatever this was, it was not arthritis. And our boy was in agony. This was the day.
The vet tech - during the brief second she could examine his abdomen before he bit and screamed and hurled himself to the floor - said it felt unusually hard. His bladder was a possibility, if he'd developed urinary tract disease and was blocked, but my ex-wife said his bathroom habits had been normal. And I'd almost lost another cat, years before, to urinary tract disease. It didn't look like this.
The more likely explanation was a tumor.
Even between the two of us, there was nothing we could do as far as treatment. Even if there were hope, we simply didn't have the funds. And seeing Xander in the state he was in, the way he screamed at any touch, the way he snarled around the room at the invisible enemy that was biting him, I could not see any hope at all.
They left us alone with him for a few minutes, and we told him goodbye. Told him we loved him. Told him how special he'd always been. She could not bear to be in the room, afraid her anguish would only upset him more, but I stayed with him as they came back in with the first shot - the tranquilizer to send him into a peaceful sleep.
It was a struggle to administer, with him fighting and trying to crawl away from every touch, but they finally were able to hold him in a corner and give the shot. Then they left again, and I sat down beside him. The tranquilizer made him throw up, so I took the towel from his carrier and folded it, and laid it over the sick so he wouldn't lay his head in it. He was still in pain, still upset from the ordeal of the shot, but he let me touch his head, very gently, so I petted him.
"Go to sleep, sleepy boy," I whispered, which is what we would always say to him anytime we could see he was drowsy and fighting sleep. And I stroked his head as it very slowly drooped onto his paws, as his breathing relaxed into the long, steady breathes of sleep. I stroked my sleeping boy's head until the vet techs walked back in with the second needle, and then I told him one last "I love you" he'd never hear, and stepped out.
Hanging in the waiting room were framed collages, pictures the staff has taken over the years of animals they've treated. It took me a minute to realize that right there by the door, on one of the cat collages, was Xander. He looked sullen, which he always did at the vet, but alive and young and healthy, as he will always live in my mind.
I looked at his picture a long time, until the vet tech came out with a bundle wrapped in a blue towel. She had been able to examine more after the fact, and had found numerous strange lumps in his abdomen and hips. Lymphoma. I was right - there had been no hope at all. I thanked her, my ex-wife and I consoled each other one last time, and I took my boy home to bury.
This is the day we fear, the day that is always coming. From the moment that one particular puppy calls out to you from the litter, or that lost kitten scratches at your door, this day is waiting down the road. All the years of petting and nuzzling and play are paid for with this one day. This is the day you will truly be their parent, one last time. When you will do what is best for them, not you. The day you will make the hard decision, and love them, and help them into that final mercy and peace.
The day that breaks your heart.
My Xander is at rest now, sleeping in the ground. I am sad and hurting, and so is my ex-wife. But tonight, I will lay with my cats, pet them and nuzzle them and sleep by them - if they make room for me on the bed, of course. They are not Xander, and never will be, but they don't have to be. They are each their own person, with their own quirks and appeal (and annoyances), and I will savor each one of them, as I will savor my memories of Xander. I will not think about the day that waits for each of them, because it would be unfair - to me and to them - to let that one day cast a shadow on all the years that lead to it. I will do this, because the days and years with them are worth that one day.
They are worth a thousand times the cost of that one day.