Monday, January 28, 2008


It was nearly 1 a.m. when I came home from poker night and went into the bedroom to put myself to bed. I heard a low Wroaowwwww and looked to my open closet door, where Sam, our oldest cat, was creeping out. His knees and elbows were splayed, and, even as he inched forward at a glacial pace, he still managed to stagger. Every few seconds, he’d moan again. He made it across the room, to the bathroom door, then hunkered, and wroaolled. I filled up a container with water, which he ignored, got a fuzzy sweater I never planned on wearing again, and wrapped it around him, then lay down on the floor and pet him. He stopped moaning, and started to purr. Finally, convinced he was as comfortable as he was going to be, and that he wasn’t going to die immediately, I told him he was a great kitty, that it was okay if he needed to go, and I went to bed, troubled.

When I first met Sam, nearly ten years ago, he was already an elder statesman in a house improbably full of cats. Between my future husband and his twin brother, their shabby townhouse had five cats, two lizards, a parakeet and, ultimately, a husky. Sam and Little Boy were the oldest, Clyde was the Cat in Charge, and the two females, Jiggy and Void, kept out of the way.

You couldn’t help but like Sam, a sturdy fellow with shiny grey fur and a white nose and socks. He appreciated a companionable pat, without Little Boy’s pushy lap-insinuation. His meow was a manly thing, atonal and loud. And he had a very odd habit, despite having been fixed, of stealing sweaters and having intense relationships with them. Generally in front of the TV when guests were over.

When HWLHiJ and I moved in together, Sam, Jiggy, and Kita the husky came along and failed to team up with Grace, my grey tiger stray. Sam and Jiggy claimed the upstairs of our tiny house, and Grace and Kita took the downstairs. HWLHiJ installed a fleecy kitty window-seat in our bedroom, where Sam would while away sunny afternoons, curled up in a rumbly grey ball.

If HWLHiJ said “Blblblbblbrrrtt!” Sam would often come and head-butt a hand for a scratch. He was a chin-and-ears man. Good cats usually are.

After Buddy was born, we moved to a real house. The move killed Jiggy, riddled with tumors. That was the first time HWLHiJ had lost a pet of his own, and he took it hard. By this time, Jiggy’s littermates, Clyde and Void were already gone, and their father Little Boy went soon after. What those cats had in personality, they lacked in good genes.

Sam and Grace never had much to say to each other, but Sam was a mellow chap, and he never bothered his feather-brained housemate. When Opal, the great Dane, came to live with us a few years later, Sam and Grace both assessed the situation briefly, said “Fuck this,” and moved outside.

HWLHiJ had found Sam as an adolescent kitty, abandoned in an apartment in Chicago during his early days at Loyola. We’ve never been entirely sure how old he was, as a result, but he was definitely retirement age, well into his teens, when he moved outside. He did well, though. Brighter than Grace by a country mile, he avoided scraps with the local strays, and stayed close enough to home to never be bothered by the coyotes that live in the greenbelt. If you needed him, you could generally find him under the enormous hosta that hid our electric meter on the side of the house.

He got a little leaner, his knees were clearly getting arthritic. Periodically he’d get an infection in one eye – easily cleared up with a brief session of half-hearted struggle and the application of eye-drops. He made friends with our Russian neighbors, and was always up for a pat on the head and a bit of conversation. We got Maui, an immense indoor cat with a personality like a football field, and then the Bear came along, and all was well for awhile.

We made Sam and Grace come in this winter, when it started getting bitter cold. We’ve been worrying about Sam for awhile – he hid in our bedroom, peed in the bathtub, and started drinking water way too much.

He was alive Saturday morning, having forsaken the sweater for a space under the edge of the bed. I had to take Kita in to the vet to get her stitches out, so I showed Sam to HWLHiJ. Sam was alive, but not interested in opening his eyes or purring.

We had a conversation and made a decision. HWLHiJ speculated that he might die from the stress of the car ride. I, tasked with the terrible errand, kind of hoped he would. He didn’t, and a gaggle of kids in the waiting room crowded around to pet Kita, our canine fashion model. They asked about Sam, and I told them gently that he was old and sick, and that he’d appreciate being left alone, and they were very nice about it. I was glad they left before we did.

The vet checked him out, probably because she’s supposed to anyway. She told me he weighed seven pounds (a third of his normal weight) and was barely breathing, and that we had definitely made the right decision. She took him away for way too long to put in a catheter for administering the medicine, then came back with him wrapped in a towel. She had a white box with beveled edges. She turned out the exam room lights and flicked on the X-ray lamp, which I thought was corny, but she was trying so hard to make things okay for me that I didn’t say a word.

Kita, already relieved of her tummy staples, lay patiently by the door. I imagine she understood. She was very good.

I held Sam in my lap, he was already limp with a sad sort of exhaustion. The vet pushed the plunger slowly on a hypodermic full of clear pink liquid. As the last of the anesthetic went in, Sam’s nose came down gently on my hand.

We buried him under the electric meter, and I think HWLHiJ is going to be okay. When he told his twin brother about it, the response was, in our minds, exactly the right thing to say:

“So, how are your sweaters taking the news?”

In our house, animals are people, and they add much more than fur, excreta and dander to the fun of our lives. Sam was a fine cat, and he is missed.