Meow meow, Yo-Yo Ma
I am sitting on our back deck watching the flies swarm my dying cat like they know what’s coming. She is sleeping in the sun, purring and almost, in this position, looks like her former self.
Mrs. Stein came to us like all my pets, as a stray. Mr. Spy’s roommate found her in an alley behind her boyfriend’s house and brought her home. The roommate already had a bird and a dog, so not wanting to add a vital link to the food chain, she gave her to me.
Mrs. Stein was thin as a rail, full of parasites and had recently had a litter of kittens that were nowhere to be found. Despite her illness, she was feisty. She kept the local dog at bay by boxing it in the nose. The dog would do anything the cat asked, as far as we could tell.
When I brought her back to my house and introduced her to my other cat, there were fireworks. Mr. Stein retreated to the uppermost shelf in my closet, growling. He stayed there for 3 days and then relocated to a spot under the refrigerator. Then one day, I came home and found the two of them curled up together at the foot of my bed. They were friends ever after. They used to sleep on either side of the foot of my bed, like Gog and Magog guarding my feet. When I’d nap on the couch, my knees bent so I would fit, one would curl up behind my knees, the other just under my chin.
Mrs. Stein, like most self-respecting cats, has many names. When I first brought her home, it was a day or two before I was having my choir over for dinner. At the dinner, we all sat around and discussed possible names. We had a long, long list, but in the end the one that seemed appropriate was “Henrietta,” because she sounded just like Henrietta Pussycat on Mr. Rogers. “I look at her,” said my friend J, who at the time lived across the hall from me and shared my back porch, “and I think of her saying ‘Meow meow, Yo Yo Ma.” She was also regularly called Stinky (see aforementioned parasites). Mr. Spy later dubbed her “Queen Henrietta of Furitania,” for her elegant plush grey fur and her tendency to find the most throne-like perch in the room. It was Cranky who dubbed her Mrs. Stein. At the time, we had two cats – Max and Henrietta. She thought they sounded like an elderly Jewish couple and she called them the Steins. And it stuck.
Mrs. Stein is getting up. She stumbles up the two low steps toward the door to the house. She can’t seem to control her back legs. They keep collapsing on her. For the last couple of days, I’ve been following her around trying to keep her from falling, much like I did with AJ when he was learning to walk.
When we first brought AJ home, Mrs. Stein was fascinated. At the time she weighed 12 pounds, much heavier than baby AJ at 7 and a half pounds. Now she is only only 4 and a half pounds, a whole pound lost in just over a week. And AJ, of course weighs twenty times that. Mrs. Stein liked to sniff baby AJ’s head. When he was sleeping, she would perch on the dresser next to his crib keeping watch. She slept in his bouncy chair when he wasn’t using it.
For as long as AJ can remember, she’s come into his room at bedtime just as I was sitting down to read him a story. She’d curl up at his feet until I’d start to sing. Then she’d jump down on the floor and wait until I was done to lead me out of the room and shut the door. Until a couple of weeks ago, she was there every night without fail. Her absence was one of the first signs that something wasn’t quite right.
Mr. Stein died in his sleep seven years or so ago. We took him out and buried him in the backyard in the dead of night, so AJ didn’t have to look at his body, seized by rigor mortis in a rather alarming way. We wondered if our neighbors would think we were up to no good. Mrs. Stein wandered the house meowing for a couple of weeks, as if she were trying to find him.
I had a hard time with Mr. Stein’s death, but I’m having a harder time with this one. It’s harder to have to make the decision myself about having her euthanized. And while it should, in some ways, be easier to know when it is going to happen, I am having a hard time with that too. But we’re giving Mrs. Stein everything she wants. Bowls of milk. The juice from a can of tuna. Free rein to the sunniest spots outdoors. Since we got back from the vet this morning, it’s been inside, outside, inside, outside, inside, outside. But you will not hear one single complaint from me.
At the vet’s this morning, I was partly relieved to have a word for what has gone wrong (cancer). It means I don’t need to subject her to more and more tests. She’s done. They asked me what I wanted to do and there was no question that euthanasia is the right choice. She’s having trouble walking. We’ve had to take her food out of a bowl and put it on a plate, because she can’t stand up long enough to eat. She’s still eating like a champ, but she’s not getting anything out of it. She’s basically starving to death. When I left the vet, I had decided to bring her back on Thursday. When I got home, she walked in and fell down the stairs and then couldn’t make it to the litter box in time. We decided not to wait.
Mr. Spy called the vet and AJ’s school to make arrangements. I couldn’t get the words out. We wanted him to have a chance to say goodbye. We hadn’t warned him about what was going on, because we didn’t know for sure.
AJ had a much harder time with it than expected. He was trying not to cry. He was afraid to go near her. Mr. Spy had pulled out some pictures of her, including his favorite, the one of the day we brought AJ home from the hospital and there was Mrs. Stein, sniffing his head as he sat there in his baby carrier, just 24 hours old. We all tried to say a few words about her as she lay panting on the floor in front of us, present for her own memorial. Then AJ disappeared up to his room for a while, tired, I think, of trying not to cry or of watching me try not to cry. After a while, just before it was time to go, I carried her up to his bed, where we spent so many evenings. “I thought she might like to come up here one last time,” I said to AJ and he nodded. “Do you want to hold her?” He did. “Should we read her a story?” I asked him, since that is what we usually did when the three of us were sitting on the bed. Except usually Mrs. Stein would sit on the book, making it a challenge. AJ shook his head. “Maybe we could sing her a song,” he suggested.
We have made up many ridiculous songs about Mrs. Stein over the years. The name Henrietta seems to lend itself to verse. Most of them involved jibes at her former girth, which used to be prodigious. For instance,
[sung to the tune of O my darling Clementine]
Henrietta, Henrietta, Henrietta pussycat
You are grey and very furry
And your belly is so fat.
When AJ was in preschool, he had CD with a recording of a song called “Naughty Pussycat” that he used to love to sing to her:
You are very fat!
You have butter on your whiskers,
But given the fact that Mrs. Stein was basically starving to death, those seemed inappropriate. We picked the one sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques:”
You are grey and furry
And you are so purry
How about that?
How about that?
And then it was time to go. AJ did not want to go in with Mrs. Stein, so I went in alone and Mr. Spy took AJ to get some lunch, as he’d missed his lunch period at school. The vet took her away to shave her paw and put in a catheter. She came back with one paw bound up in purple tape, like a child’s cast. It looked strangely cheerful. Mrs. Stein, who had been lethargic all day, was looking even more so. She had peed on herself in her carrier on the way over and was looking matted and unhappy. But as she lay on some soft towels with me stroking her fur, she purred. It was weak—barely audible. But it was there. The vet gave her the injection and she almost instantly relaxed. Her breathing slowed. Within a minute, her heart had stopped. I could feel it with my hand, but the vet checked with her stethoscope. And then the vet left me alone with her.
I stared into her eyes, still open. I studied her face. She looked very tired, but not in pain. I’m not sure what I was looking for. I think they always tell you how dead a creature looks, like their soul has left them, that the eyes no longer reveal anything. But Henrietta still looked pretty much like Henrietta, disturbingly so. I sat there longer than I needed to pull myself together just because it didn’t seem right to leave her alone in there on the table. I put my hand on her fur. She was still warm.
When I heard Mr. Spy and AJ’s voices outside, I opened the door and walked out feeling very sad but also a little bit relieved. It was hard watching her die, but it was much harder watching her try to live in her current condition. I’m sure we made the right decision. But it still feels pretty rotten. I’m going to miss her a hell of a lot.