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My 16-year-old cat, Mangia, died unexpectedly, which is a little bit like saying that Christmas came without warning or that I was ambushed by gravity. Still, I was completely unprepared for her passing.
Grieving for a cat is a tricky proposition, especially if you're a woman. Just owning one makes you a potential punch line and crying over one is viewed as more Cathy than cathartic. With dogs you have society's blessing. They're the stuff of best sellers and tearjerkers. 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 tell when one of us got to the touching graveside scene by the eruption of sniffles.
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, an ER doctor, who was working the night shift. He suggested I take her to the 24-hour animal clinic. I wrapped her up in a towel, rushed to the car and patted her as I blazed past posted speed limits. I thought of the story about Ronald Reagan, who joked with his surgeons, "I hope you're all Republicans," as he headed into surgery. In my case I hoped that the traffic cops were cat lovers.
Mangia began to moan and seize as I tore into the clinic's driveway. Like a scene from Grey's Anatomy, the clinic workers rushed to my car and spirited her to the operating room. Unlike what happens at 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. But my husband, likely recalling the diabetic cat that proceeded Mangia in death and the legendary vet bill that followed, had called the attending doctor while I sat in the waiting area. 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 "reanimate her by any means possible" courtesy of Amex. By phone he reported that the vet said it was a blood clot and that Mangia had congestive heart failure.
As I waited in the lobby for the doctor to repeat this to me, I let my husband have it. "Listen," I hissed, "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." The front desk staff leaned in closer to hear. "She's my cat! You don't know her!" To my husband's credit, he did not sigh at this dramatic soliloquy. 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 talk to the vet and see what you think."
I'm not big on crying in public. But sitting in the little room I'm sure is referred to by staffers as the tell-people-their-pet-is-dying suite, I wept openly. I knew I was facing the inevitable. I had demanded the final say, and now it was my burden, my decision to end a journey that stretched from my college days in Austin to a career in New York to marriage, a baby, and a move back to Texas. It had all come down to a sterile table and the handheld breathing pump inserted deep in her throat. It was the only thing, other than my unwillingness to let go, that held her to the here and now.
Mangia, named after an Austin pizza parlor, was a graduation gift from my college boyfriend. I opened the door to find her sitting on his shoulder like a tiny, hairy parrot. A white shelter kitten with giant, blinking blue eyes, she was cartoonishly adorable as she attacked unwitting feet and hands with her tiny razor claws. Within a year she went from pint-sized to plus-sized, often lounging 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.
A few months after graduation she accompanied me on my first plane ride ever when I moved to New York to work in publishing. For five years I was single and lived in a studio apartment, officially minting my cat lady status. From our Chelsea perch Mangia and I watched the reports of the death of Princess Diana and the impeachment of President Clinton and together posed a united front against terrorism under our bed covers on the night of September 11.
Then marriage happened, and a baby. Another cat and two dogs followed. You could chart our growing menagerie in our family Christmas card photos, but Mangia was the constant. "That cat is still alive?" people would say, astonished. "Yes," I'd announce proudly, as if her earthly tenacity was a 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, a no-pet zone. Since she was arthritic, I wondered how she even got up there. My two dogs and other cat followed her lead as the Rosa Parks of sofas, piling on in an act of group defiance.
"Everybody off except Mangia!" I said, shooing them away. I figured that a cat who had lived through four presidential administrations could sit anywhere she liked. I rubbed her head, she purred. "You can stay here with me."
But she didn't.
Watching her lying motionless in the animal clinic, only the forced breaths stirring her small frame, I knew I had to let her go. I patted her as the vet administered the injection into her paw and released her from the machines. I looked at her perfectly still, white form one last time. Then I walked away.
Mary K. Moore admits to an unapologetic love of her cat but prefers the term "cat woman" to "cat lady."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2012.