It’s 5:35 in the morning, December 26, when I finally begin to type. I’ve been sitting here for almost four hours now, operating on something like three hours’ sleep in as many days waiting for the words to start flowing, or for the bottle of rum at my side to take effect and begin to lull me off to a dreamless sleep.
Last night was Christmas Eve – even though we’re not a true Christian family as much as we are a sloppy mixture of agnosticism and Wicca with a dose of traditional Christian values thrown in (the love thy neighbor type, not the ‘God hates Fags’ type), we subscribe to the purely secular version of the holiday that says you should dupe your kids into believing that a fat guy in a flying sled hooks them up on tons of shit overnight. I spent the wee hours yesterday building a three story off-brand dollhouse so my seven year-old daughter would find it under the tree the next morning, no assembly required.
After four Christmases (my parents, my nuclear family, my fiancée’s mom’s and then her dad’s), plus the assembly project that would make building an entire living room out of Ikea furniture seem tame crammed into a 28 hour block from Friday evening to Saturday night, I’d expect to be so dead to the world that no sleep aid would be necessary. But once all that got done, I came home and had to kill my cat.
I killed my cat. That seems kind of brutal, when you break it down to the basic essence of what went down tonight. And even though I have no regrets about the end result, it very well could be that brutality that’s keeping me up right now.
Some of the people that will eventually read this may not get it – maybe you’re a dog person and hate cats. If that’s the case, try and think about losing your dog – I went through this a few years back when the black lab I’d cared for since I was seven years old decided a decade and a half was long enough to grace the world with her presence, and it’s no different. Maybe you don’t understand the bond humans can form with the animals in their lives – in that case I pity you for all you’ve missed out on.
Roulette was born in a barn in Lakeside and came to live with my family when she was about two months old. I’d recently broken up with an on-again, off-again high school girlfriend who was destined to disappear from my life for about a decade before coming back around to stay. This blotchy little mackerel tabby (who I’d called a tortoiseshell her whole life, only to learn the true name of her coat in the hours after her passing) took to me immediately. Even though I was the stereotypical ‘dog guy,’ she insisted on sneaking into my bedroom every morning, swatting at my face until I’d wake up or simply plopping down across my neck until involuntary asphyxiation got me moving.
It was her fighting spirit that got me to come around. Anyone who knows cats knows that, pound for pound, they’ve got ten times the fight in them as any dog. And my cat was big – over twenty pounds of big. On average, your typical housecat tips the scales at nine to twelve. Roulette had a fierce streak too – hardly a day went by when I was a kid that she didn’t show up dragging home a lizard, mouse, garden snake, gopher, wild rabbit, or even the occasional chicken out of the neighbor’s coop (I hid those pretty quick). But nothing topped the time I heard one helluva ruckus around the edge of our property line and rushed over to see this cat beating a full-grown coyote into submission. This cat wanted nothing to do with running up a tree, she went toe-to-toe with a forty pound wild dog and sent it off yelping for mercy. I guess she was lucky to have caught him alone, as my mom lost one or two cats a year to those damned critters that roamed the neighborhood in packs.
When I moved out at 18, I left Roulette at my parents’ house – I was stuck in a low-rent apartment she’d have hated, and they didn’t allow pets anyhow. Fast forward through a marriage, divorce, and reunification with that girlfriend from a long time ago, who brought with her a beautiful little girl who melts my heart when she calls me Daddy. My cat was getting older, and not getting along so well with the younger, weaker animals she had to share the property with (by now the coyotes had picked off all of her old friends). Since I was still going back home every day, given that the family business is run out of my dad’s basement, I eventually got suckered into taking her to live with me, where she only had to learn to get along with my girlfriend’s cat.
Moe happens to be the only domesticated feline I’ve ever met that’s bigger than Roulette, and by a considerable amount. It didn’t matter much, within a week she’d established boundaries – upstairs where the people spent most of their indoor time was hers, Moe wasn’t welcome. Downstairs, where the food and litter box were located, was Moe’s exclusive domain – except when she wanted to come down.
When we lost the house and moved into a little apartment (this one allowing pets), I don’t know what kind of truce they worked out, but somehow they figured a way to get along in about half the space they had before. Roulette got Kenzi’s room (she was now my daughter’s cat as much as she ever was mine), Moe got to sit at the screen door and watch the world pass him by. The kitchen, living room, and bathroom were gladiatorial arenas where battles occurred whenever both animals were trying to occupy the same space.
This worked out great for a couple years. And then Roulette started hanging out in the corner, behind the bar. She was always kind of a foul-tempered, grumpy sumbitch, so we didn’t take too much offense to her reclusiveness, and she always rushed out of her solitude whenever there was the possibility of scoring some kind of non-kibble food, and she would always rush to Kenzi’s door at bedtime to curl up for a story and to stay the night.
The old girl, now past 13 and getting up there in cat years, started developing a hobble in her walk. We got her some joint medication, which helped for a while. Then she started losing weight. We fed her canned food and leftover meat scraps from dinner, and she kept shrinking. The joint meds didn’t seem to be working as well as before. And she had to be coaxed into our daughter’s room at night instead of jumping at the chance to hop into bed. She couldn’t jump high enough anymore.
Tearful conversations were had – was it time to let her go? Could a doctor help? Could we afford a doctor for our cat, given that I didn’t even have health care myself? I swear she looked up from her corner and watched me hold my fiancée as she collapsed into tears. That look said to me “I’m trying, Dad!”
The vet we could afford was based out of Tijuana, and was kind enough to make a house call across the border, with an American student in tow. Lab tests gave us the diagnosis of feline diabetes, and were told that diet was as important as meds in many cases. We bought a whole “cut up” chicken from the store and boiled it, including those nasty parts like the giblets and the neck and the liver. The apartment stunk for days, and Roulette was in kitty heaven. She gobbled up the fresh chicken mixed with special canned food (and I learned that Fancy Feast crap really is better than the store brand stuff I’ve always forced upon my animals and convinced them it was a treat), she became more active, and developed a noticeable new spring in her step. She could jump high enough to reach the bed and the couch again.
And a week or so later, as quick as the improvements manifested, they disappeared. Roulette started getting finicky about her food that she loved just days ago. The ache in her walk manifested itself once again. She couldn’t be convinced to eat more than half of what would normally constitute a meal at a time. Once nearly twenty-five pounds and bigger than a lot of small dogs, she was less than half her old size. Stepping in and out of the litter box had become a chore, one she wasn’t always up to.
Back to my dog – my dad got Midnight for me as a congratulations for my tee-ball team winning the league championship around 1989, which must have been one of the last years tee-ball leagues crowned champions, if things are like the soccer and basketball programs my daughter has participated in recently where everyone, even the kid scoring a goal on his own team while fisting his nose is a winner. I had Midnight from when I was seven (which explains the creativity in naming a black lab Midnight) until I was twenty-three. Anyone who knew me during her later years knows that I took a lot of shit from that dog, that I pretended she didn’t have selective hearing disorder – her food command was “Chow!” and she never missed that, but “No!” became much less interesting in her later years. She lost a lot of mobility, she went a little senile, and her vision wasn’t all that great. But she was happy. She would still find balls and ask anyone nearby to throw them even if she couldn’t chase them down, would still find a lap to stick her nose into in search of an ear scratching. But one day, she told me she was done. I don’t know how to describe how an animal tells you this, but if you’ve ever been responsible for the care of one, you know what I mean.
Last night, Roulette told us. A raging ball of fur and claws that could never tolerate being picked up didn’t fight being cradled and carried. A head that would forcefully slam into any hand near enough to garner a pet hardly raised to meet a caress. A gaze still every bit full of love had an unmistakable distance that wasn’t there even yesterday.
Of all the duties we owe our pets, the most important one is without question the most difficult – letting go when the time comes. Trying to explain this obligation to a grade-schooler only complicates matters. But life’s not easy, right? Neither is spending a month slowly breaking the news to your little girl that her kitty is sick and isn’t going to get better, and that all we can do is take the best care of her we can and let her know she’s loved as much as we can while she’s still happy.
So this cat that has been a pain in my ass (albeit a very amusing pain in my ass) since junior varsity football two-a-days cuddles up to Kenz for the last time as she falls asleep. Mom and I discuss taking her for a last trip to the vet in the morning until our little human girl is asleep, then we take our little furry girl into our bedroom for the night. When I leave for a minute to get her favorite treats to try once more to get her to eat something, she tries to follow me and falls back upon herself, unable even to stand. And she’s not interested in any kind of food. So we just let her force a fuzzy, faintly purring wedge between us and relax for a while.
It ‘s become obvious that the proposition of surviving another night is a dubious one – and that forcing this time for the sake of our own convenience is cruel at best, Roulette is obviously suffering. So I have to go to the interwebs to find the number of the 24 hour pet clinic in Mission Valley. Luckily, they’re willing to see a late-night euthanasia case, for a fee. So, after a tearful goodbye to Mom, my baby is loaded into her cage for the last time, and for the only time in her life she doesn’t lash out with claws and teeth to avoid it.
To suit the mood, rain is pouring down as I swing out of the driveway and round the corner where land ends and the sea begins. The radio is off and I keep talking for the whole twenty minute drive, cooing the cat’s name over and over, telling her how much she means to our family, even though I’m pretty sure her English fluency starts and ends with her name, Moe’s name, and the various words we use to describe food.
The all-hours clinic vets are tolerable, if not commendable. They process my credit card and bring me my carrier so I can just bolt and leave them a carcass. Discussing the cremation options of getting a personalized cedar box (like the one Midnight lives in, above our living room TV) or an ash-scattering at sea, Christina reminds me that Roulette never liked to be locked up, so the sea burial it is. They tell me that the ceremony will be about two miles off Point Loma and a little bit north, as this is the only section of water where the county allows ash-scattering, human or animal. This is actually a relief to me, as I figure that, given an incoming tide, Roulette should wash up on the rocks right at the foot of our street, back home. It bothers me, though, that after administering the death cocktail the noob man-nurse pushes me away from my pet that I wanted to hand onto for its last moment, shoves a stethoscope on her and soothingly pronounces “Yup, he’s gone. With us no more.” Classy touch there.
A minute later, I’m back out in the rain, driving home on the freeway with windshield wipers long past their change date. And a few minutes past that, I’m standing in my driveway, cheap Target flannel shirt sopping up the downpour, smoking a cigarette and staring out at the edge of the earth, contemplating the cremated animal/human : sand ratio of the beach below.