We met Isabel when she tumbled out of a shrub.
During one of my mom’s daily walks, she was startled to see a tiny, black and white kitten roll out from the depths of a bush. My mom wore a tan quilted jacket and a muffler tucked neatly into the collar, and she walked with intent, but ladylike purpose. My sister and I dreamed of owning an animal that didn’t live in a tank, but my parents were adamant. There’s the feeding and cleaning and the pooping of an animal not in a tank that kind of requires a more hands-on approach.
But in the presence of a damp, mewing ball of fur, my mother melted like butter in a skillet.
I was home sick from school that day, but had a near resurrection-like recovery when she came home and placed the kitten in my lap.
Well, she said. That’s that.
C likes to quote George Carlin who said this about owning animals: Investing in a pet is investing in a mini-tragedy.
A few months ago, not too long after C and I moved from the depths of downtown LA to a relatively suburban neighborhood, I was dutifully taking out the recycling when a rangy, mangy feline scuttled out from behind the barrels.
See, I know how this works. When a stray animal approaches you, there are two choices. 1. Avoid eye contact and run away, or 2. Feed it and bid life as you know it good bye.
I’m…I’m not good at number one. Not to say that I chose number two while whistling a merry tune, but come on. She came tottering out, yowled, rubbed against my legs, gazed up at me, and blinked. And the blink took effort. Indiscriminate age, but if I had to guess, I would have said she looked about seven. A middle-aged cat.
Hearing the dim echoes of my brain banging against my skull, I went upstairs, got food and water and set it outside for The Cat. The Cat ate as if she’d never eaten. Wolfed it all down and looked around for more.
Oh my god, I realized. Crap. It’s done. I fed it. Crap.
When I turned to go back inside, she followed me. Before she’d eaten, she moved stiffly, her body low to the ground. Now, belly full, The Cat bounded behind me, a bit brittle, but definitely with a renewed morale. She rubbed against me and yowled again. I peered down at her through my Objective Binoculars, and fled.
The next day, as I walked to the garage, The Cat ambushed me like so much paparazzi. Being a glutton for punishment, I did the logical thing. I fed her again.
The day after that, one of my neighbors set up a temporary shelter for The Cat in the stairwell. That night, she projectile pooped all over another neighbor’s doormat.
My weekly craft group came over and after we’d stitched, glued, and scissored ourselves silly, they exited my apartment to the atonal yowls of The Cat. Don’t pet her, I said. She’s filthy and god knows what company she’s kept. The crafters looked at me sympathetically and gave her a very wide berth.
The helpful neighbor had deduced that The Cat had some seriously bad teeth. She was also bone-thin and didn’t seem to have the energy to clean herself.
I have no idea why This Cat chose our recycling bins. There are a ton of stray cats in the neighborhood, and most of them seem to be living off the fat of the land. And most of them scatter at the sound of footsteps. But The Cat was friendly. Downright gregarious. I’m not looking my best right now, she said, but times have been hard. Just trying to make my way through without offending too many folks. In the meantime, I’m going to purr a lot. And walk around unsteadily. And also purr.
That seemed deserving of life to me. So I bundled her into one of our cat carriers and took her to the vet. I’ll just have her looked at, I said out loud while driving. Then I’ll make sure she gets into one of those no-kill shelters and we all go home happy. Yes, I boomed. What a Good Deed.
The Cat was very quiet during the drive, and stayed calm in the waiting room amidst Great Danes and jittery Chihuahuas. She didn’t make a peep when the vet put her on the scale and she looked at us patiently when the vet told me she was probably about 19 years old. The vet took a cursory glance at her teeth and then told me to hold my breath. You’re not gonna want to smell this, he said.
He opened her mouth and frowned. It was full of engorged abscesses and her teeth and gums were rotten with disease. He let her jaws close stiffly and we all took in a small breath.
The vet suggested I take her to a shelter where she would be looked after for a few days. After which, if no one had claimed her or adopted her, I could then decide what to do. This is a very old cat, he told me. She’s suffering. It’s not necessarily in her best interest to continue living this way. She’s suffering and she’s very sick. Do you understand? I bobbed my head up and down and suddenly couldn’t see very well.
I went home. I put a post up on good old Facebook. I called every no-kill shelter within a 30 mile radius. They were all full, or didn’t have an intake process for the public. We only take animals from kill shelters. Kill shelters. There’s an oxymoron.
I began to feel panicky. I couldn’t do anything to help The Cat. The Cat who since returning home had curled up in the carrier and wasn’t moving much.
For some reason, even though the most humane solution was staring me in the face, I just couldn’t accept the idea that The Cat’s last kindness would come from the person who took her down the green mile. I’d only known her for a couple days, and the whole thing seemed revoltingly unfair.
And then I realized – it had only been a couple days for ME. The Cat had led a long and likely adventurous life. She had obviously been someone’s pet at some point. She had managed to survive. She was ancient and literally rotting away, but she treated people with love and tolerance and had patiently waited for me to arrive at the obvious conclusion.
We assume that life wants to live. The fittest and Darwin and instincts and stuff. So we do as much as we can to keep things alive. We nurture and feed, we motivate, we push. And most of the time, that’s a vital part of the journey. But so is reaching the end. And maybe, instead of seeking a prolonged state of existence, The Cat knew her number was up and wanted to be with someone when it was called.
In movies, it’s never the sad stuff that makes me cry. It’s the kindness, the humanity in the face of evil. At the end of Life is Beautiful I had to be absorbed from the floor with a thick towel.
After I drove The Cat to the shelter and carried her inside and checked in and the volunteer had taken her to the back to be analyzed and after I sat down to wait with the empty carrier next to me and after the volunteer came back out and looked at my face and squatted down beside me and said in a very gentle voice that The Cat needed to be put down, I looked at the volunteer, this kind man covered in tattoos and I started to sob. I thanked him as best I could, grabbed the carrier, and stumbled out.
I called C and sobbed into the phone and then I called my neighbor and sobbed some more. What got me, what really got me was how whatever bad luck had befallen The Cat, she wasn’t cynical, she wasn’t untrusting. She didn’t hold any grudges and asked for help easily. It didn’t matter that she was just The Cat. It was a kindness that completely unmoored me.
George Carlin was a brilliantly funny man. I like to think he and The Cat are having some laughs.