I got Reggie in the divorce five years ago. Sure, she was a fierce hunter--always living outdoors and killing field rodents and the random small bird-- but I didn't really want the old calico cat with the white belly when my parents moved into separate apartments that didn't allow pets. She was a bitch who might take love on a lap until, after one stroke too many, her claws came out to swipe you on her leap down to the ground. But I took her in anyway, because it takes one to know one.
So I dropped some bank at Petco and she moved into my little apartment on 29th Street. I fed her Iams wet and dry; she scratched on my sea-grass rug from Ikea more than the cat-scratch thing I bought, but I didn't mind. I learned to appreciate Reggie's mellow energy and habit of staying horizontal. She talked a lot, caught bugs, jumped into empty boxes when I moved to another little apartment, and slept under the covers with me, but mostly she made my years of living alone less lonely. And living with me in Baltimore, she never again got to be an outdoor cat until the end of last year.
My boyfriend and I were planning a New Year's Eve party in our little Medfield house and figured we might have to sequester Reggie away from festivities. She'd been sick for months, real sick. She was getting on 15 years and had always been lean, but months earlier when the vet, who I'd taken her to for an infected claw, asked me when she'd stopped grooming, I wondered, when had her fur changed texture, now dry, dusty, and dirty? When had she stopped cleaning herself daily before a nap and forgotten how good it feels to scratch on the wood of our second-story porch? I couldn't remember because I hadn't noticed. I thought she was just old.
Tests proved I was wrong, sort of. She suffered from hyperactive thyroid, a common illness in older cats. The vets blamed canned cat food, but in a what-are-you-gonna-do? kinda way, and gave me three options: medication, surgical removal, or radioactive iodine treatments. Or, as I came to think of them: cheap but time-consuming, too late to be an option (she was too old), and freaking expensive.
No matter. In the end I didn't have to decide at all. We would have to medicate until either her scrawny body grew strong enough to withstand radiation or, once the medication helped keep the hyperthyroid at bay, a predictable kidney problem surfaced. See, a thyroid working overtime sends blood racing through organs that may in fact be on the decline, and Reggie suffered from a masked kidney problem.
The hyperactive thyroid also burns a lot of energy, so I began to feed her as often as she wanted--damn the years of canned food that may have brought us here in the first place. I served her the sliced stuff in gravy, the pâté-looking seafood feast, and kitten food. It was September. By Thanksgiving, her bills had racked up, but radiation was out of the question at that point because she was too weak, so worrying about that expense was futile--I spent the money slowly instead of all at once.
By Christmas, her kidneys were failing, so we gave her fluid injections near her shoulder blades twice daily. I cried when it pierced her thin skin all the way through and the liquid flowed to the bath mat; I cried when it didn't. We were making her feel better, but nothing was going to fix it.
Reggie's reptilian yellow-green eyes got huge as her face thinned, but her rowl and purr never diminished. She hated the cocktail made of half a pill ground with the back of a spoon mixed with liquid medicines that we sucked into a syringe and squeezed into her forced-open mouth. She held a grudge, but I didn't care--a grudge seemed so very Reggie.
I wasn't going to give up until I had to, unlike my parents, who gave pets away or put an animal down because they were moving or the animal wasn't well. I saw them do it when I was too young to understand, and I saw them do it with their other cat after the divorce. The support they gave me over sick Reggie came as a surprise, but whatever: We've all heard, "You're so strong, I could never do that," which is basically, "I could never pull off that color," which is to say, "Freak." But what was hard was my sister's initial criticism of what she thought I was putting Reggie through for my own selfish reasons. Bullshit. Cats don't have living wills; we are their advocates and we have to live with ourselves.
Thankfully, I wasn't alone. My boyfriend wanted to help her as much as I did and helped me make decisions based ultimately on my gut. She may have been ill but she was still there, rubbing against the doorframe when we came home and still sitting on my lap when I read a book. It wasn't just that she was breathing, but she responded to us and to birds and to the sound of a can opening. She hadn't ceased to be a cat.
And that wasn't gonna happen in 2006. In the last few hours of last year, when our back porch was loud and full of people smoking and drinking in the wet, cold air and the Pretenders' first album was on the record player, some uninvited guest without regard for her safety let Reggie out the front door and someone with a heart brought her back in. Maybe she needed the air, maybe she went looking for a place to die. I think she simply had it in her to stalk the night and dampen her paws in the rainy grass. Once back inside, she hung out in the basement rumpus room where folks passed a pipe, our friend the DJ spun, and pillows covered the floor. Friends commented on her sweetness, her tenacious stare.
Reggie spent the first day of the New Year on the couch in front of the television with us, as drained and hungover as we were. It was only as the sun set and she couldn't get comfortable on my lap that it started to sink in, a feeling that found purchase the minute I woke the morning of Jan. 2 and she wasn't on the bed. Her faint response when I found her on the back porch told me it would only get fainter. You call for them only until they try and can't come to you, then you go to them and say it's OK.
Driving her to the vet for the last time that afternoon, I held my brittle cat wrapped in an orange sweatshirt while the sun cast patterns of light through the trees. Her eyes watched them and I had second thoughts, but only for a moment. I had always known I could watch her go when she ceased to be Reggie, and Reggie never would have tolerated being held in the car.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Pack a better picnic basket
Le Cabaret de Carmen at Theatre Project (1/25/2010)
Culinary Cunning (12/30/2009)
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