Monday, February 7, 2011

The Cat

This is my cat, Atlas. We had to put him down this past December. Having to put him down was one of the most difficult things that I've ever had to do in my life. I knew it was at the time, but I was reminded just a little while ago how much I really missed him. On occasion, I'll see something that brings back all the feelings I had from that day when we took him to the vet to be put to rest. This time it was a dream.

The dream was simple and unambiguous. He was just there, on my bed, and I called to him and he rubbed his head against mine. Dream over. I woke up, went to get a bowl of cereal, and as I did, my heart began to ache again.

We found Atlas at one of the pet adoption drives PetSmart or PetCo (I can't even remember which one) has on occasion. He was already about 3 months old when we found him there. He wasn't like most kittens who are clawing at their cages trying to get attention. He knew what he wanted, and it didn't have anything at all to do with other people. He was apparently pretty content with his present living arrangement that included his foster "parent" who was there looking for a good home for him, and her dogs (he was very dog-like).

No, unlike most kittens, he lay grumpily in his tiny litterbox that had been provided for him by his caretaker. Because of his lack of enthusiasm, it appeared the people shuffling around weren't terribly interested in him either.

I got a call from my mother who had passed by and decided to drop in because we had been looking for a buddy for our other cat, a Maine Coon, Baxter. "You have to see this kitten," she demanded with humor.

My girlfriend, April, and I looked at each other, bored, and figured that we might as well. When we arrived, there he was, curled up complacently in his tiny litterbox, not batting an eye. In all estimation, he probably didn't know what he was supposed to be doing there.

Asking the women who had brought him if I could take him out, she said of course. So, I opened his cage, wrapping my hands around his ribs and lifting him out gently. His ears were far too big for his head and hung to the sides making him look very Yoda-ish. As I lifted him out, he gave a grunt and a meow that said, "What the hell are you doing? Put me back!"

Initially, I just held him there in the air, examining him. His eyes were droopy and told me that he'd been through this before and that he just figured that it was part of some odd ritual he didn't understand, but had just come to accept.

Naturally, I wanted him. If someone had disturbed me while I was napping, taking a dump, or watching TV at his age, I would react with similar offense. The woman who'd brought him said she'd named him Atlas. This was perfect because I had already decided some weeks before that I wanted a name along those lines- drawn from mythology.

At this time, I was very ill and approaching the day when I would need a lung transplant. It was late 2008. After bringing him home, Atlas didn't take too long in getting acclimated with his new home and to begin terrorizing Baxter. Though Baxter, initially offended by his presence ("How dare you bring another Cat into my home!") he seemed to enjoy Atlas after not too long.

Additionally, Atlas and I didn't take long to bond. He enjoyed sleeping, and because I was on oxygen and not doing a lot of moving, he found comfort lying in my lap, most often when I would sit at my computer with my legs pulled up, Indian style. He was much smaller then, though, even as he grew, and outgrew the little nest he had made in my lap, he still loved laying there, despite having to hang his legs off.

As time wore on, he learned when bedtime was, and he would, without fail, push his way through the crack in the door to get at me and let me know it was time for bed, in case I had stayed up too late. If I didn't follow his command in time, he would just come and lay next to me, or in my lap until I complied. Often, he would try to keep me from reading, or playing Xbox if that's what was keeping me from bed. When I would finally comply, he would follow me in and make his bed at the end of the mattress, between my legs. I eventually learned to sleep bow-legged, on my back just so he could lay between my legs.
He would never stay all night. I would wake up the next day and he wouldn't be there. Though, more often than not, it was him who was waking me up in the morning with a little bump of his head.

It's becomes clearer to me each time something like this happens, just how important he was to me. When we brought him home, my life was in a state of great upset. I wasn't sure that I was going to be around much longer, I had started seeing April the month prior, but she was only 18, and given how grave my health was, I had no hope that she was going to stick around given that there was a very real possibility that I would be dead soon. I told her on numerous occasions that if she ever wanted out, she could go, and I wouldn't hold it against her.

Looking back on my relationship with Atlas, the fact of his importance in my return home and my emotional recovery following the transplant, is evident. I had been gone for well over a month when I came back from the transplant and I wasn't sure that he was even going to remember me, given how young and prone to distraction he was. But he remembered, and our relationship picked up as if there had been no interruption.

Losing him brought on a kind of emotional anguish that I've never felt. At first, a great deal of it was guilt- guilt that I had just killed my cat, that we hadn't done enough to treat whatever illness he had (we never found out), and guilt that, in the end, the decision, in part, came down to money. We were strapped and simply couldn't afford the five-hundred dollar bone biopsy the vet was calling for. There was no guarantee that the biopsy would provide any answers, or at least any that would salvage his life, but saving a life should never come down to finances. In this case, it's especially painful because it wasn't just the life of some random animal, but a friend. Now, the guilt has passed for the most part. I grieve now because I no longer have in my life that source of joy that I had for two and half years. People are always telling me that I made the right choice, that he's no longer suffering, and that "he's in a better place." These words bring me little comfort, especially the notion that he's in a better place. I find no reason to think that he is. I wish it were true, and that I might reunite with him again sometime in the future. But just because I wish it, doesn't make it true. So, please don't try to comfort me with these words. I know I made the right decision; however, it doesn't change the fact that he's gone.

Call me silly. I know many will feel differently, but I cannot bring myself to value my affection for Atlas, or Baxter for that matter, less than that which I feel for my human companions. Why should our relationships with them be considered less? Don't we feel similar feelings of pain and loss when they go? Why do we consider it odd (though heartwarming, nonetheless) when we see two other animals, who normally wouldn't be friends, sharing their affection with one another?

Why should it be odd? Because their minds aren't as sophisticated as our own? Clearly, love, friendship, and devotion are not uniquely human traits. Why do we think we're so special? Clearly, mutual self-interest drive any relationship; but, in the course of getting what we want and need, our selfishness turns to altruism. Examining this, I find the notion that animals don't practice morals, and that morals must necessarily arise from the supernatural, unconvincing.

I love my cat. I consider the love I feel for him to be as important as that which I share with humans. He was pivotal in bringing me back, both in my heart and mind, from the trauma of near-death. To make light of that would be as wrong as if I were to disregard the importance my family, especially my mother and April, played in my healing. For those of you with pets whom you love, how much happiness and joy have they brought to your lives? How unfulfilling might your unhappy and lonely days have been without their presence? Can you place a price on the pure, unconditional love they provide? How many other relationships do you have that ask so little of you in return for their love?


  1. Your questions are rhetorical, but still, you won't get any argument from me.

    Our five pound maltese dog, Giselle, never left Tony's side during all his bad days with Crohn's Disease. When a ruptured bowel a few years back resulted in near death, a resected small intestine, and peritonitis, Tony nearly died. When he was finally released from the hospital six weeks later, he required dozens of antibiotic and TPN infusions daily for an additional eight weeks.

    Giselle was by his side the entire time. We have scads of photos of Tony during that time, and every one has that amazing little dog in it. She would nap by his side, by his head, or wherever she felt he needed the warmth.

    I think pets are very sensient beings, unsullied by the nonsense we pollute ourselves with. They are undistracted, unfazed by scars and tubes and such, simply wanting to let us know that they are there, they love us, and they will stay.

    We had to put Giselle down a year ago due to untreatable congestive heart failure. The entire family still feels the loss, though the vet and his staff could not have been more helpful or kind.

    You're entitled to grieve, Josh. Atlas earned a rightful place beside your mom and April as part of your family.

    I must say, to have that trait in a cat is fairly extraordinary, though. Most cats I know "own" their owners and wouldn't think twice if they weren't around...unless the food bowl was empty!

    Great post, Josh. I look forward to more.

  2. Yeah, my questions were more just to suggest that we shouldn't take for granted our relationships, even those we share with supposedly "lesser" animals.

    It breaks my heart to think about his last day with me. I knew I was going to be putting him down the next morning. He spent the entire night prior in misery, but he spent the entire night and into the early morning with me on the couch. I didn't want to go to bed because he could barely move and every time I would get up, he would start crying until I returned.

    Eventually, since he couldn't move himself without pain, I picked him up and brought him to bed with me. I didn't sleep well that night.

  3. Wow Josh! You do such a great job on all your articles. I have never been the best at writing nor reading. A lot of it was from being sick and missing so much school growing up. If I did write I would have a lot to write about also. I think anyone that has CF or has had a transplant could write a book about their lives. Anyways keep up the good work. I love reading them.

  4. Dear Josh. Thanks for your thoughts about Atlas and the agonizing that went along with both the decision and dealing with life after he was gone. Thanks mostly for your descriptions of how he lived and how he treated you and got his way most of the time. I love our cats, including the new stray that was always just going to be an "outside" cat but now spends most of his days in with our other pets, warm and comfy on abundant couches, beds and carpeting.

    I've seen the amazing video of the dog saving the other animal. I watched a version once that said the down dog survived but I don't know that I believe that.

    There is no way Atlas is in a better place. His best place and best time was with you. I'm glad you both had that time.