Feline as memento mori.
I was in New York for a book talk, staying at a friend’s house in an industrial area of Brooklyn, when I awoke to a sound somewhere between a teakettle’s whistle and the creak of an ancient floorboard: my friend’s cat, Maude, meowing piteously at the edge of the bed. She was tiny, the color of ivory, with half crescent moons for claws and bright green, bloodshot eyes.
I’d been warned that Maude meowed in the mornings when she wanted the faucet turned on—she drank from the tub—so I walked to the bathroom and twisted the spout until cold water trickled down. Maude leapt into the tub and began lapping away, her tongue bright as chewing gum. I went about my slow morning routine: coffee, Twitter, fussing with hair, scrutiny of encroaching crow’s-feet, etc.
It was noon by the time I was ready to leave, and I returned to the bedroom for my laptop. There, in the middle of the white room, on the white bedspread, was the white cat, covered in blood. It seeped out from her in clouds, watery and pale red like a nightmare sky. But when I bent over and touched her she was still breathing, alert, looking at me with those science-fiction eyes.
There is blood in the abstract and blood in the now, and real blood always makes me feel like I’ve just jumped out a window. I’m Wile E. Coyote perched in midair, finally looking down. I called the cat sitter, who lived just a few doors away; she was barely out of her teens, but had a comfort around bodily fluids I will never possess. We climbed the narrow stairs to the bedroom together, and then she lifted Maude up and examined her skinny, sticky legs with those hard moons of nail. There was no wound, just a bladder that had emptied itself of the wrong liquid.
I had known the cat was unwell, but not the extent of the truth: Maude had kidney cancer. The cat sitter carried a supply of pain medication, and she withdrew a syringe of it from her bag. Maude was pliable in her arms, unresisting, and seemed to calm down even further after the injection, her features melting into the young woman’s small arms.
I left Maude with the cat sitter for the rest of the day. Hours later, the image of the stained comforter clung to me while I read to a roomful of young Brooklynites. My stories were about death, but death of the least emotional kind, death that occurred centuries ago among kings and queens, when velvet-wrapped relics were handed out like party favors among the elite and surgeons stored skeletons like chipmunks hoarding nuts for the winter. There are real people in real graves in my book, but they died deaths that no one alive today would mourn. If they did, it would be with the sweetness of a sorrow once removed, the way you feel after a good cry at the movies.
That night, I found Maude curled up on my hosts’ daughter’s flowered bedspread. There was no blood left, thanks to the cat sitter’s cleaning, just the cat, breathing slowly, the moon illuminating her pale fur through the window. I knew she was dying. There was something in her eyes, a seeing without seeing. I sat down on the bed with her, though I knew there was nothing more I could do, her veins already coursing with powerful pain medication, her owner already on his long drive home from Vermont.
* * *
Several years back, I had attended an event where a local philosopher attempted a “séance” of dead writers. There were no lace-draped conjurers, no Ouija board, no crystal balls, just the bald philosopher jumping on the cushions of a booth to read the introduction of his new book. When I expressed my disappointment at the lack of theatrics, a friend’s date shuddered. “Death isn’t funny,” she said. “It’s not cool. Once you’ve had someone close to you die, you know that.”
That had made me think of Ellen, whom I met in fourth grade when I was impressed by her ability to draw cartoon bunny people. She penciled them in the corners of her notes to me, chubby buck-toothed creatures formed from interlocking circles. From her yearbook photos—long curly hair, perfect skin, widely spaced brown eyes—I can see she would have been beautiful now.
Ellen belonged to a family of Ukrainian Jews who lived in a depressingly functional apartment complex near the mall. Like many girls on the brink of adolescence, we were obsessed with clothes. My most enduring memory of her is when she chastised me, over the phone, for wearing the same peach turtleneck to school yet again.
This obsession with appearances led to us drifting apart. She went to a different middle school and hung out with preppy kids. I discovered grunge and lived permanently in combat boots. We didn’t speak. The next time I saw her, she was in my living room pressing a bloodied tissue to her nose, her bald head large as a melon.
The type of cancer she had escapes me now. My mother, who was close to her family, said they used to vacation near Chernobyl, and I pictured sickness dusting the rusted machinery there, welling up in the water. Mom visited her in the hospital, but I never went. I had a horror of hospitals: the white instruments, the stainless steel, hope wilting in the corners next to the potted plants. I was thirteen, too interested in who I would become to think about other people ending. And then one morning I awoke early to my mother’s soft sobbing in the kitchen—Ellen had died.
I don’t remember much of the procession to the cemetery, just the dark bulk of her family moving across the grass, the ridges of gravestones like the crests of white waves. Ellen’s mother, her short curly hair dyed red to hide the grey, had a face like a wrung-out sponge. My mother told her it was good she’d had two children, so she’d have something besides Ellen to live for.
* * *
Did I feel guilty for not ever visiting Ellen in her final months? For not ever saying hello, other than the one time she was in my house? Was that why I wanted to sit with Maude that night? Probably. I stroked Maude’s cream-colored fur, feeling her belly rise and fall and listening to the night sounds of Brooklyn around me. Silverware clattered, babies cried, a few seconds of music swelled from a passing car. It reminded me of the hum around Ellen’s apartment: dozens of people living together yet alone.
It was around that time I realized Maude’s belly was no longer moving. I bent down to listen, but there was nothing. I jerked my hand away. Don’t touch her, she’s dead, I thought, as if this kind of touch pollutes. But another part of me knew that death isn’t contagious, that it moves more slowly than we think. I stayed with Maude, my hands lingering over her little body, even as I felt the sadness rise inside my chest. After a few minutes, I walked over to my friend’s daughter’s large open closet, stared at the jelly bean–colored clothes hangers, kicked at the bright pink marabou feathers littering the floor. I hoped no one would tell this little girl that her cat had died on her bed.
From the closet, I could see the curve of Maude’s back. And for a second, she seemed to shift ever so slightly. I returned and put my hand on her belly: her fur was moving, rising and falling softly once again. She was still cold, but definitely breathing. The following day, when Maude’s owner returned, she would go to the vet and be put to sleep. But I didn’t know that yet. Relief washed over me, and then exhaustion, and I crawled into my own bed. That was the only time in my life I’ve sat with a dying thing.
Bess Lovejoy is the author of Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Lapham’s Quarterly, Slate, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere.