In 1993 my daughter—who was 23 and the youngest of my four girls—had gone off to graduate school in Chicago to become a historian. She must have been feeling strange and disoriented in a new city, on the cusp of a new chapter in her life, when she passed a Dumpster outside her dorm room and heard the sad mewing of several newborn and motherless kittens.
She picked them up and carried them off to an animal shelter, before ultimately taking one of them home. He was a black-and-white male with tiny feet and a small pink tongue that he ran across her fingers as he purred a throbbing, low love song—repetitive but intense. She named him Joey, after an old boyfriend.
She fed him with an eyedropper every few hours and let him tangle his feet in her hair. He grew, and shed his white hair everywhere. If she tapped on her chest, he jumped into her arms, put his head on her breast, and slept. The Chicago winter was brutal—the winds howled, and the glass windows of her room shook with the impact of rain and snow and gales from Lake Michigan. Joey played with string. Joey messed up her papers. Joey lay on one side of the dining table when her boyfriend came to dinner.
A few years later, she decided to go to law school in Boston, and she took Joey on a long car trip, during which his complaints about boredom and captivity were drowned out by the music on the radio. In Boston, he would watch from the window ledge until she returned from class. He slept through the long hours of her life elsewhere, her life without him. And then circumstances changed again: The boyfriend was gone, and she moved back to her hometown, New York City, to begin her career. Lawyers, especially young ones, leave early in the morning and come home late at night—so Joey became a sad cat. His fur was matted. His eyes blinked too often. He had been raised to expect comfort and a human hand upon his head.
I took him to live with me. When my husband came to bed and saw Joey curled up by my side, he would say, “Hey, cat, that’s my lady. Off the bed!” Joey would jump down, and a few moments later he’d come up on the other side to lie on my pillow, his face in my face, our breathing intermingled. I would smell cat food on his breath, and he would smell the coffee I drank, the spices I consumed, my daily coating of soap and shampoo, sweat and powder. His whiskers would sometimes tremble in his sleep as he dreamed.
And so it went. My daughter got married and didn’t ask for Joey back (though I wouldn’t have given him to her, regardless). My black pants were coated with his white fur. My black sweaters were most often in desperate need of cleaning. And when friends came to dinner, I would say, “Don’t put your coats down on the bed,” because Joey would nestle among them. Thick bundles of white hair got embedded in the fibers and wrapped around the coat buttons. If I forgot to vacuum a sofa or a chair (and I often forgot), my guests would rise with white hair covering their bottoms. It was embarrassing.
When I had guests with cat allergies, I would keep Joey locked up in a bathroom until they left. I hated to do it; he was my proper shadow, my four-legged self, my friend—not to mention a happy reminder of my dear daughter, and her act of rescuing a tiny, helpless kitten from a Dumpster.
When my husband died, in 2005, Joey claimed his half of the bed. If I woke in the early hours of the morning, I would stroke his belly until he purred with joy, then go back to sleep. Or Joey would lick my face with his sandpaper tongue. Or I would hide under the covers while he kneaded the blankets with his front paws.
One night I awoke with a start. Joey was screaming—a high howl, a screech that contained a sob, a banshee sound, a frightening noise that said pain, pain, pain.
I jumped up and found him pressed against the white door of the kitchen cabinet. His back was arched high, and he dragged himself forward on paralyzed legs. I looked at the clock. It was 2:30 a.m. All right, I thought, I’ll take him to the vet in the morning.
I tried to go back to sleep. But I could hear his howls even when I put the pillow over my head. I located an all-night emergency animal hospital, some 40 blocks away. I dressed. I put Joey in his carrying case. His fur was wet. His eyes were wild. His nose dripped fluid. He tried to bite me as I pushed him into the cage.
I went down the elevator, walked to the corner, and waited. At last a cab came by—the lone cab on a deserted avenue. Nowhere could I see even the blue blur of a television screen accompanying an insomniac through the hard hours.
At the animal hospital, the walls were too bright, too harsh. A sleepy receptionist guarded the desk. Joey whimpered and then let out his horrible cry. A few minutes later, a vet came and took Joey. The lighting in the hospital reminded me of an Edward Hopper painting: Something beyond empty lingered in the air. No one else entered through the hospital doors. In such a large city as New York, you wouldn’t think it possible that you could be alone with your disaster.
At last the vet asked me to come into the examining room. She was young and gentle, and her green scrubs seemed too large for her small frame. She said Joey had an aneurysm. It was inoperable, and they should put him to sleep immediately to keep him from suffering further. He was 14.
“That’s a good cat life,” the vet said. She had given Joey a sedative, and he lay limply in my arms. His body seemed to be already losing its integrity—a leg, a tail, an ear were all bent oddly. His small pink tongue reached out of his tilted mouth to lick my finger.
“I’ll give you a moment to say good-bye,” she said.
“Just do it,” I responded.
She injected him in the muscle behind his hip and I waited. He grew still, and then even more still, and as the last of his white hairs stuck to my sweater, his chest stopped heaving and he died.
I paid the bill. I put on my coat and went out the hospital’s revolving door. I wondered: How long had it been—an hour, maybe two or three—since I had heard his first cry?
The sky in the east was growing lighter. A garbage truck rattled by. Coffee brewed in the diner at the corner. I smelled it when I walked past. I was not overcome with grief; I had always known this day would come.
As I walked down the avenue, a feeling of peace, like a warm shawl, wrapped around me. Joey, who had once been thrown away like so much trash, had lived to be an old cat first because my daughter had saved him, and then because I had fed him, stroked him, put up with his shedding, changed his litter, and let him sit on my desk when I worked. I didn’t mind when he left the gift of a mouse on my pillow; I praised him for his cunning as a hunter. We had shared a home, and he had been a good companion—and in this world that is no small matter.
Yes, I would have to get used to his absence, and I would miss him when I opened the door, when I sat on my couch, when I rolled over in my bed. But I understood that time had taken him, and that we had done well by each other. In the huge universe of man and beast, bird and flower, we are all just specks of dust, with a short time to be together. Joey had a decent life, and a decent death.
That afternoon, I was set to go to Brooklyn and have lunch with my daughter, who now had her own family. Joey had been her practice run at being a mother. Had he been my last gasp? I took a deep breath of cold winter air. I wondered if the newspaper had been delivered or if it was too early. And then I considered getting a kitten. I went home, checked my e-mail. Should I get an orange kitten? I wondered once again, before stopping. It was a thought for another time, perhaps.
Anne Roiphe is the author of, most recently, the memoir Art and Madness (amazon.com). She has written 18 other books, including Epilogue, Up the Sandbox, and Fruitful. She lives in New York City.