I once had to sleep with a dead cat.
It wasn’t a fraternity stunt, it wasn’t a perverted phase in my life—it was completely and only for a girl. All I had to say was, “What are you talking about? No fucking way. Sleep with your own dead cat.” But I didn’t. I slept with a stiff, dead cat for two very long, very uncomfortable, nights.
I grew up with dogs. I get dogs. We have a dog now. They can be annoying, but you can communicate with them, and I’m not even talking about the ones that are trained. Cats have always thrown me off my game and, honestly, I just never found them that cute or enticing. They always seemed like miniature versions of tigers or leopards that can’t wait to swat me down, carry me up a tree to bleed me out and eat me. So let’s just say I was coming from a less rational, less accepting place when cats came into my life. And this particular cat was not the best representative of the cat nation to send as a diplomat chosen to heal the relationship between their kind and those who did not accept them. More medical miracle than ideal specimen.
“I want to fly Italiano out here and take care of him … he’s really sick.” This unassuming suggestion came from my girlfriend, Amanda. Our story is for another time, but she was my high school sweetheart who I lost touch with for years, finally reconnecting when I was in LA not living the dream. She was driving back across country, on her way to Seattle, deciding whether she was going to get married or not. Flash forward four years and I am in a serious relationship with her, in Seattle.
“Wow. That’s sweet. How old is he again?” This is the dumb me just moving the conversation along, not knowing a trap was being set.
“Amazing. I remember him from high school.”
“Yeah. He’s not doing well and I just want to be with him.” She trailed off, not wanting to go there. I reacted like a dumb dog, just going along with it and supporting the kind gesture.
Within a few days Amanda flew to New York to accompany the cat back to Seattle, like he was an old Uncle needing an escort, so “she” could take care of him in his final days—his final 76 days. When does “final” truly mean final? There has to be some sense of imminence, which was clearly the case with Italiano, but there is also defiance, which was quite evident as well. So I guess there is some equation or recipe when combining those two qualities and you come up with a range of final. But once I saw him I did not argue with the declaration. I might have even gone a step further—that he was making a great case for the existence of the undead.
What I wasn’t aware of, or thinking through, was that because my job, or at times lack of one, kept me at home most of the time, I became the sole caregiver. I was about to learn the hard way that the only thing worse than taking care of a selfish, loveless pet that is completely independent is taking care of a selfish, loveless pet that is completely dependent. Although there were times when the dependency turned into rebellion, like when I had to give him his daily shot. Oh wait, didn’t I mention that he was blind, deaf, incontinent, and dying of diabetes, which required him getting a shot in the stent hanging from his side? How could I have forgotten that? That’s vital information that I should’ve mentioned earlier, because you would want to know that stuff right? Well so did I.
There were also some things that I learned on the job, like sometimes the fluid from the shot would back up, creating a sack on his side that grew so much that it would drag on the floor as if he had a messenger bag slung around his ribcage. His blindness gave him this odd sense of presence; he knew you were near but lacked the exact coordinates. So if I was working for a bit and I turned around he would be a few feet away, staring at me in such a creepy way, almost looking through me. And he would do it for hours until he uttered his death rattle meets meow. Think of Spongebob Squarepants’ voice with a heavy dose of desperate sadness and pain, and he’s only saying one word (groan) over and over again, “Ohhh … ohhh … ohhh.” Then imagine that it could happen at any time during the day, or night. Oftentimes I wouldn’t see him and I would almost step on him or trip to avoid him. I would turn to see those lifeless eyes staring at me, giving me the chills. Yes, this was an 18-year-old cat that was dying. And he was dying in my apartment. “Ohhh … ohhh … ohhh.”
I had the best situation in Seattle. I lived in the nicest apartment, overlooking two mountain ranges, the water, and downtown. I was writing my own stuff and occasionally I would get some advertising work, write whenever I wanted, and send it off to a client I never had to meet. Then, around noon, I would go play basketball with the same group of guys: one a former pro and another a member of Pearl Jam. I would grab lunch, head home, and then watch the east coast sports. “Ohhh … ohhh … ohhh.”
Fantastic life. “Ohhh … ohhh … ohhh.”
A writer’s dream. “Ohhh … ohhh … ohhh.”
Holy shit what happened? “Ohhh … ohhh … ohhh.”
I thought the benefit of a cat was that it doesn’t need attention. That’s how cat people tried to sell me on cats. You won’t hear a dog person say, “He’s the perfect dog. You never see him. He does his own thing.” We chose sides and we all agreed on the terms. Dogs involve effort, but there is love and appreciation in return. And cats, you just let them be and they’ll leave you alone. But now I’m taking care of an animal I don’t like and the only good thing I’ve heard about cats doesn’t apply. Not cool. Amanda was busy running around the city building her Amway business (Don’t get me started, can’t get distracted.) and she couldn’t be home to take care of Italiano, which entailed being a full-time nurse. I probably should’ve changed into scrubs everyday.
Because of Italiano’s age, along with the stent and the skin bag of fluid on his side, he didn’t really walk, he dragged. Kind of like a baby lamb taking it’s first steps on an iced-over lake, with a fluid filled tumor on it’s side. And when it was time for Italiano to use the litter box he would drag himself towards it, but he didn’t have the strength to step over the edge of the box. So I had to walk over, pick him up, and put him in. Every time. Many times he couldn’t find the litter box, because he lost his sense of smell as well. (Down to two remaining senses, in case you were counting.) Now that I think about it, we should’ve changed his name to Keller. It became a game of “was he dragging around aimlessly or was he dragging around looking for the box?” He was like one of those clone experiments gone wrong. The ones that were “unfinished” and shouldn’t have made it. A bit like Brundlefly at the end of The Fly, when he’s this mess of a creature who just wants to be put out of his misery. But, in this case, the misery was mostly mine.
The other thing that comes with the territory of nursing is affection. You need to show some. I would have to pet him every once in a while (I think you have a pretty good idea what he smelled like.) so he knew I was there. The affection was important because it created trust, which was essential when giving him his insulin shot. This was tough because whatever strength he had he saved for fighting this. He bit (Do you have room in your imagination for what his breath smelled like? … Yeah, that.), he clawed, and he tried to drag away. So the petting at least got him in the vicinity and, because cats are smart, he knew what was coming as I was wearing long sleeves for protection. I’d hold him down, grab the sack of fluid and quickly poke him with the needle. Yay! Until tomorrow.
So there I was trying to keep my perfect situation intact, but now it was being interrupted at least twelve times a day by whining, hunger, neediness, needles, and crapping. Never mind him, my quality of life was—lacking. I must admit that I’ve never wished death on any living thing, but I did have some internal dialogue about whether Italiano should just go to “a better place,” which was anywhere but my apartment. Okay, I did mention this to Amanda. Not really saying that he should be put to sleep, but whenever she asked how he was doing that day I would always respond, “not good … suffering … suffering bad.” I would also (Don’t hate me more than you already do.) call her when he started pleading, and I wasn’t sure if the plea was to sustain his life or end it.
“Hey.” (me holding the phone out so she can hear) “ohhh …”
“How’s the little guy?” (phone out) “ohhh …”
“Oh … you know.” (phone out) “ohhh …”
I know. Terrible. I was hoping that she would eventually give in. This lasted for over two months. Every once in a while he would go to Amanda’s for a visit, but for the most part he was in my care. Yes, she would stay over and help out, but I was in charge of this cat.
Finally, it hit her that he had a few days left and it was time. The equation of finality was starting to take shape. She had been crying about him daily, saying how much he meant to her since she was seven—so why was I dealing with it? But I stayed composed and dealt. We transferred Italiano over to Amanda’s and I’m not going to say I did a dance when I got home but, there was a sense of euphoria. Okay, I did a dance when I got home. I cleaned, mopped, and erased all signs of the cat. The dance was a combination of raising the roof, tribal chanting (“Freedom … freedom … freedom …”), and the unbridled joy of a child going down the most fun slide ever, landing in a giant marshmallow-covered ice cream sundae.
The next couple of days were filled with crying jags. Going over to her house, lights out and Amanda on the bed in a fetal position with the cat. Many of us know what it’s like to be in the presence of an inconsolable partner. Maybe an occasional shoulder rub or an “I know, I know” mixed with some half-head shakes of concern. But the other 99.89% of the time is complete and utter discomfort. Now combine that discomfort with the tension of a dying animal sharing that same space. Paralyzing.
Then, one afternoon, the phone rang, probably interrupting my singing a version of “he’s out of my life.” It was one of those rings when I just knew. I think I grabbed my car keys on the way to the phone. I took a deep breath and answered. There was about three unbearable seconds of silence.
“Honey?” I said.
“He dddied … Italiano died.” She was sobbing.
“Aww honey, I’m so sorry. It’s probably for the best as he was (I was) suffering. I’ll be right over.” I hung up and felt really, really relieved. I wanted to be supportive, starting to work on my sympathy face, but then it struck me: what do you do? Who do you call? Was I supposed to go to the vet? How was it finally resolved?
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I approached her door. I walked in and gave her a hug, still thinking about what was next. But she ended the speculation.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I want to stay with him a bit longer,” she said. I’m sure my face didn’t match my verbal response.
“Ok.” I was confused by the “stay with him” part.
“He’s on the bed,” she mumbled. I know my face didn’t match my response because I looked at the door and quickly had an internal dialogue about what the ramifications would be if I left at that moment. Was that breakup worthy? For her as well as me? Was it one of those “and that’s the last time I saw her” moments? But I hung in there, peeked around the corner and saw him lying on the bed. I was able to eek out an “aww,” which could’ve easily transitioned into an “eww.” He looked tiny, stiff, and completely dead.
I felt a sustained chill. Not a quick, jolting fright, but more of an impending, looming, psychological feeling. A film critic would say that this moment was not a cheap, manipulative scare but more of a get-in-your-head-and-stay-with-you scare. My body remained in the front room, not wanting to follow my head into the bedroom.
She took this opportunity to get up on the bed and actually spoon the dead cat. I think I audibly announced the heightening of the chill, “hwwbbwhhh.” In the movie version, the camera would’ve used that classic horror technique: everything behind me stretches off into the distance and my face moves towards the camera in fear. Like the moment the wife realizes her husband is the killer, or when the victim hears that the call is coming from inside the house. If Amanda had said “I’m preparing a white wine reduction as later we will eat him to fully embrace the experience so he can be with us forever” it really would not have advanced the creepiness that much.
With a sniffly voice she said, “Would you lay down next to me?” I found myself still in the entryway, as I gulped, thinking I could still leave. Maybe she’d want to be alone. With her dead, stiff, childhood pet. But, alas, she wanted to share this gothic moment with me. I reached in my mind and, like a good Jew, I came up with something.
“You need to eat something,” I said. (Please, please, let me go get dinner. I’ll gladly drive to Portland to get whatever you want. It’s an up and coming foodie city you know? From their farm to your table in just over six hours.)
“I’m not hungry, can you just lay down with us?”
Oh God. She was looking at me, questioning why I was hesitating. Why? Why? Hmmm … let me think. Oh, I got it—THERE’S A DEAD FUCKING CAT ON THE BED! But I fought it and took a step into the bedroom, slipped my shoes off, and laid down on the very edge of the bed, as far away from the dead animal as possible. I looked over and made sure that her body was blocking the cat, because if I could see him I wouldn’t be able to stop looking at him, and if all I could do was stare at him then I couldn’t stay, which I didn’t want to do, but knew I had to. It was an insane Catch-22. I reached my arm out and gave what was probably the worst back rub in the history of back rubs. It was the same motion you make when you use a mouse pad to scroll down an article you’re reading, with two fingers to move the cursor a half-inch on your computer, just repeated over and over. I was discomforting her.
Eventually she fell asleep spooning the cat. There was no way I could sleep so I slowly got up, trying to avoid looking at the cat and failing miserably, and went into the kitchen to eat. I wasn’t hungry, but I needed a reason to leave that space. Eventually she came in, puffy-eyed. She apologized for the situation, even laughed a bit, which relieved me because she did realize the insanity of it all. That gave me permission to ask,”So how long, you know, can he stay like this?”
She shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I’m not ready yet. Do you mind?” (Do I mind? Of course I mind. This is the freakiest thing I’ve ever been through.)
“Noooo, whatever you need.” (So weak.)
Amanda went back to bed and I stayed in the living room/kitchen as long as I could. After a while she called me in to lie next to her and I stayed in my as-far-away-as-I-can position, alternating between laughter and fear, as we talked about how wonderful he was—well, I was basically just listening, nodding, and agreeing, while keeping my running commentary to myself.
“Wasn’t he just the sweetest?” Sniffle, sniffle.
“Yeah.” (Just the neediest.)
“His cute little face?”
“Yeah.” (His strange glaucoma slicked eyes?)
“That funny little way he tilted his head?”
“Uh huh.” (That odd sack of fluid on his side that made him look like a deformed dromedary?)
“How he’d just rub up against you for comfort?”
“I know.” (How he’d suddenly just be there when you’d turn the corner and you’d almost trip over him?)
“So cute.” (So creepy.)
Somehow I fell asleep, but not for long because, oh God, there it was, the thing I had been waiting for, dreading—the smell. He had started to smell … like … like … well, like dead animal. New Yorkers know that “lovely” scent as “dead rodent stuck in the walls.” I looked over her shoulder as she was spooning him. Rigor mortis? I started thinking back on all the stuff I learned from police procedural morgue scenes. When does rigor mortis set in? No clue. When do they start putting that stuff under their nose to counter the smell? Couldn’t tell you. But it was happening and I was freaked out. I got up, went to the bathroom, and sprayed a healthy dose of her perfume on my palms and rubbed my hands together like I was washing them with soap. Except I wasn’t rinsing this off. I put my stinging hands up to my face and did a double-nostril-movie-cocaine-addict snort, just to smell something pleasant. I walked back to the bed, again trying not to look but magnetically moving my eyeballs towards the horror show. I went to sleep with my hands over my face like a gas mask.
The next day I woke up to the sounds of Amanda crying. Before Italiano, I only saw girls cry when I had just said or done something to cause it. So there’s guilt associated with it, and it’s a trigger. Girl + crying = bad Jon. It took me a bit to realize the situation. I didn’t do anything wrong so I slowly put my hand on her shoulder. She shuddered a bit. “Hey honey, I think it’s …” I had to be so careful here. I didn’t prepare what I was going to say so I started reaching for the right words. Just zipping through my in-this-moment-you-say-this-phrase catalogue. Unfortunately my library of experience was not extensive enough to contain that rare copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “If Your Girlfriend’s Cat Dies And It’s Been In Bed For Two Days And You Had To Sleep With It While It Was Rotting You Should Say This.” So, as I discovered the empty shelves in my library, I went with, “Hey honey, I think it’s time to … to … call your brother.” I had been talking to her brother, who also lived in Seattle, and he understood how crazy it was but he understood his sister’s “sensitivities.” He also knew the cat well and wanted to be part of the “ceremony.” Ceremony you ask?
The plan was, and always was, that we were going to bury the cat on a hill overlooking the water. My suggestion to call Greg was rooted in nothing other than the sooner he comes here, the sooner this ceremony happens, the sooner I can go home, and the sooner I can take a bath in bleach. She nodded and I think I dialed the last number before her chin started moving down. “Hey Greg … it’s time.” Now there’s no way in hell that’s what I said but I’d like to think so. It was probably closer to, “Hey Greg … sooooo … great, we’ll be waiting.”
Greg came over and gave Amanda a hug. He stared at the cat for a bit and then just scooped him up and put him in a shoebox. I was looking around for a lighted candle to accidentally knock over in order to burn her bed to the ground but no such luck. The three of us got into Greg’s car, Amanda holding the box with tiny Italiano inside, staring down at him. We drove about fifteen minutes to a nice spot with lots of greenery and flowers. Greg had a shovel and began to dig as Amanda picked some flowers and placed them in the box. It took Greg all of twelve seconds to dig a grave for Italiano, as he had shrunken to the size of a small rabbit. A spoon could’ve sufficed. He slowly placed the box into the ground as Amanda’s blubbering got a bit more excited. I stood back, giving them their moment. Greg packed the last few piles of dirt on top of the box and patted it. Amanda arranged the flowers around the grave and then brother and sister held each other. It was actually very nice, and that cat should be very thankful to have been loved so much. I’m sure if he is somewhere floating around he’s looking after Greg and Amanda. Occasionally he’ll take a pass over me, stare creepily down and use the wind to make a sound, “Ohhh … ohhh … ohhh.”