"Why do you have two frozen corn dogs on your eyes?" asks my husband.
It's a fair question. I was trying to relieve the swelling from crying the night before. My 16-year-old cat, Mangia, had died unexpectedly which in many ways is like saying Christmas came without warning or you were ambushed by gravity. Still, as my breaded meat compresses attested, I was completely unprepared for her passing.
Grieving for a cat is a tricky proposition. Especially if you're a woman. By just owning one, you're a potential punchline and crying over one is viewed as more Cathy than cathartic. With dogs, you have society's blessing when it comes to sadness. It's the stuff of best sellers and tear jerkers, from "Old Yeller" to "Marley and Me." I remember being handed "Where the Red Fern Grows" in sixth grade as a silent, in-class reading assignment. It was the story of two hunting dogs bound together by love until their ultimate heroic deaths. You could always tell when one of us got to the touching graveside scene, sniffles erupting, classmates weeping quietly in order of their reading speed.
Our ending would not play out so eloquently. I came home and noticed Mangia's breathing was labored. As the night went on, the effort became more strained, so I called my husband, who was working the night shift at the hospital. He suggested I take her to the 24-hour animal clinic. I wrapped her up in a towel and rushed to the car as he texted how to get there. I patted her as I blazed past posted speed limits. I thought of the story of how a pre-op Ronald Reagan reportedly joked with his surgeons,"I hope you're all Republicans." In my case, I hoped that any on-duty patrol officer was a sympathetic cat lover. Mangia began to moan and seize as I tore into the clinic's driveway. Like a scene from "Grey's Anatomy," they spirited her out of my car and into the clinic's operating room. Unlike Seattle Grace, they yelled over the curtain, "It's $600 minimum to do CPR. Do you want to pay that much?" I assured them they had credit card carte blanche. My husband, likely recalling the diabetic cat that proceeded her and the legendary vet bill that followed, had taken it upon himself to call the attending doctor. He claimed he was "concerned about Mangia's well being," but I knew the concern lay more with the possibility I was instructing them to "re-animate her by any means possible" courtesy of Amex and the imagineers at Pixar. By phone, he reported to me the vet had told him it was a blood clot, and she was experiencing congestive heart failure. As I waited for the doctor to repeat this to me, I let my husband have it. "Listen," I hissed, not unlike my cat. "This isn't 'Love Story' and Mangia isn't Ali MacGraw in the part where the doctor tells the husband that she has leukemia but leaves her out of it." Front desk staff lean in. "She's my cat! You don't know her!" To my husband's credit, he did not sigh at this dramatic soliloquy delivered on the linoleum stage under the clinic's florescent lights. He just calmly replied, "Okay, it is your cat so I want you to decide. We'll pay for whatever you want to do. But just talk to the vet and see what you think."
I'm not big on crying in public. In part because, outside of my clinic theatrics, I have an aversion to drama. But also because my face turns ruddy and my nose bulbous, making me appear not unlike Ed Asner in a wrap dress. But assigned to the little room, which I'm sure is referred to by staffers as the tell-people-their-pet-is-dying suite, Ed wept openly. I knew I was facing the inevitable. I had demanded the final say, and now it was my burden: the decision to end the journey with the old girl. From our college days in Austin to a dizzying career in New York to marriage, a baby and back to Texas again, it all came down to a sterile table and the hand-held breathing pump inserted deep in her throat, which was the only thing, other than my unwillingness to let go, that held her to the here and now.
Given her feline persuasion, I knew there would be no novel-turned-movie about the story we had shared over the span of my adult years. But it was our personal narrative. Mangia, named after an Austin pizza parlor, was a graduation gift from my college boyfriend. I opened the door to find her sitting atop his shoulder like a tiny, hairy parrot. A white shelter kitten with giant, blinking blue eyes, she was cartoonishly adorable, attacking unwitting feet and hands with razor claws and all the gusto of a pint-sized puma. Within a year, she went from pint-sized to plus-sized, often lounging back human-like on my 90s-era futon, seeking positional respite from her cumbersome belly. While a trusty dog might have alerted me to a possible intruder, Mangia didn't make a sound -- except to bray incessantly if her food bowl was dangerously low. If you dared to enjoy ice cream without her, she would divert the trajectory of your spoon with her nimble, pale paw toward the bumpy, pink runway that was her tongue. A few months after graduation, she endured the pet cargo on my first plane ride ever to move to New York to work in publishing. For five years, I was single and living in a studio apartment, officially minting my cat lady status. From our Chelsea perch, we watched the reports of the death of Princess Diana, the impeachment of President Clinton and together posed a united front against terrorism under our bed covers on the night of September 11th.
Then marriage happened and a baby, then another cat and two dogs followed, all leading up to the inevitable Christmas card photos. Each holiday, she defied the reaper, shaking her hairy white fist in his face, while forcibly enduring her status as angel, Santa or elf. "That cat is still alive?" people would say, astonished. "Yes," I'd announce proudly, as if her earthly stay was testament to our bond. Together, we silently challenged these naysayers to outlive her. To outlive us.
The day before she died, I awoke to find Mangia sitting on our new couch, which was universally understood as a no-pet zone. Since she was fairly arthritic, I wondered how she even got up there. Assigning her the role of the Rosa Parks of sofas, my two dogs and other cat followed her lead, piling on in an act of group defiance.
"Everybody off except Mangia!" I said, shooing them away. I figured any cat that lived through four presidential administrations could sit anywhere she liked. I rubbed her head, and she purred. "You can stay here with me," I told her.
But she didn't.
Instead, she sits over my shoulder as I write.
"What are you doing?" she asks.
"Writing the story of a girl and her cat."
"Sounds pretty lame."
"I know. I'm afraid it makes me look like a crazy cat lady."
"Which part? The one where we share a bowl of ice cream or the part where I address you from beyond the grave?"
"All of it."
"Well, you were crazy about me weren't you?"
And I was.
Over the years, as our menagerie grew, Mangia kept to herself, choosing an empty sunlit room in our home as her respite from general dog giddiness. I'd check on her each day but for the most part, I let her be. I told myself she was old and enjoyed the solitude, but the truth was, I was probably distancing myself to prepare for the day the sun would set on our time together. I think I'll always regret that.
But Mangia suffered no fools, known to reserve all her energy for one, well-placed nose swat.
"Don't be an idiot," I hope she'd say, punctuated with a firm swipe.
Watching her lying motionless, only the forced breaths stirring her small frame, I knew I had to let her go. I patted her as they administered the injection into her paw and watched as they released her from the machines. I looked at her perfectly still, white form one last time. Then I walked away from her and everything that came before.
Blubbering in the parking lot, I texted the sad news to my college boyfriend who remains a good friend. "That big girl had a very long and charmed life," he wrote back, trying to reassure me. "To go from a shelter in Austin to New York and beyond is quite a journey."
Quite a journey, indeed.
Occasionally, a white hair will appear on my clothes. Once a countless annoyance, they are now finite reminders of youth, here one minute, blowing away the next. Of course, she wasn't a person, but she was a member of our family, a witness to my evolution into adulthood, and, in her own way, a good friend. For others, it's just a cat, and the story will be lost on them.
But not Mangia and me.