This story begins where it ends.
It is approaching midnight on the evening of the Summer Solstice. I am standing, alone, in a nondescript examination room of the local Emergency Animal Hospital. I am waiting for a nurse who will arrive shortly and escort me to the place where I will watch my cat, my dearest friend of thirteen years, pass from this world.
The moments stretch into eternities. I am cold, but I cannot shiver.
As I wait, I try to stave off my impending grief by collecting the many confused and contradictory thoughts coursing through my mind, and transforming them into words. Words can be manipulated, arranged, in my minds eye, into nice little rows that will make some kind of sense. If I can just find the right words I can gain some control over this situation.
The words simply refuse to cooperate. I want them to form a narrative, something with a beginning, a middle and an ending. Instead they seem to run circles around each other, the past and the present blending before my eyes.
My friend is about to die.
Only a few moments before, I had, with an unsteady hand, signed and initialed the document that would end his life. I remember thinking how strange it was, as I signed it, that this little blue piece of paper so resembled the one I was given when he first came into my life.
I find myself wondering what became of that form.
I suspect it is long gone, discarded without a thought because it identified him as ‘Sir Lancelot’, the name his rescuer had given him as a kitten.
At first glance the name seemed apt. We could see, even then, that he would possess the proud bearing of that most noble of knights, but he was just too full of mischief to really pull it off.
Brenna (my girlfriend at the time), and I debated what we would call him until, finally, we admitted to each other the name we knew in our hearts to be his.
We would call him ‘Dream’, named after the titular character in Neil Gaiman’s comic series ‘The Sandman’.
If you have never read the series (and I encourage you to do so), I should explain that the mythology presented in ‘The Sandman’ is focused on seven immortal siblings who are called ‘The Endless’ and who function as the prime archetypes upon which reality is hinged. The Endless are (in no particular order): Destiny, Destruction, Delirium, Despair, Desire, Death and Dream.
I have a vague memory of a master plan in which, eventually, we would have owned seven cats, all named for the members of ‘The Endless’.
That plan never came to be. Little did I know then, that Dream would, by himself, come to represent for me, all seven members of that powerful family and the ideas they embody.
The thing is, he wasn’t even supposed to be MY cat.
At least, not according to the plan.
In the early weeks of October, almost fourteen years ago, I was out for a day of shopping with Brenna. We had just gone browsing through one of those ‘Halloween Superstores‘ which pop up in empty strip malls at that time of year, when she expressed a desire to visit the Petsmart next door. Neither of us had pets, but she’d been wanting a cat for quite some time, only she couldn’t afford the pet deposit her apartment building required.
It was a Saturday, which is “Pet-Rescue” day, and as we browsed among the cages of slumbering felines we were drawn to one which contained five gamboling charcoal grey kittens. The top of the cage was open, inviting you to reach in and pet the little beasts. We were doing exactly that, when suddenly…,
“Yeeouch!” I yelped, inspecting my newly punctured finger, “that one just bit me!”
“This one here, with the big bat ears.”
“Oh, that’s the one I want then.”
“You’re serious, the one that just took a chunk out of me?!”
“Yeah, just look at him, he’s got personality.”
The kitten sat boldly upright, his bright eyes challenging me while his siblings mewled and frolicked around him, unconcerned.
“Is that what they’re calling it now?”
Of course, the pet deposit was still an issue, so we worked out this plan where I would house him temporarily at my place, until she was ready to pay his way and move him in with her.
Plans! What plan ever stood a chance against a cat.
Cats, I have come to believe, are creatures of destiny, and I never had a prayer.
cat |kat| noun
1 Felis catus, family Felidae
2 This is why we can’t have nice things
I often think that, had I chosen instead to shelter a moderately sized herd of wildebeests in my home, I could hardly have experienced more damage to personal property than in adopting this one, grey, slip of a cat.
He once pushed an entire set of stemware out of my wine rack, shattering them, one by one, on the floor below. In his enthusiasm, he tore clothes, knocked drinks asunder, punctured furniture, and sent objects placed on high shelves out of harms way, careening to their doom.
He was sometimes clumsy, for a cat, and even buffoonish, but wickedly smart. There wasn’t a door, drawer or cabinet he couldn’t figure out how to open, scattering their contents in his diligent explorations.
He loved to run at full speed and then slide across the kitchen floor, often with enough enthusiasm to knock himself silly against the kitchen cabinets, or to take the feet out from under his unsuspecting owner.
And I would shout…,
…and eventually forgive.
He may have been the very spirit of destruction, but it was always in good fun.
When he didn’t answer me after the third time I called, I knew something was wrong. I went looking and found him lying on the floor next to the food and water dishes I had set out for him that morning. For a moment, I thought he was already dead. I knelt down calling his name and he lifted his head briefly toward me. Then, it fell back to the floor with a thud and his body shuddered through a frightening spasm.
It had been an otherwise normal evening. I’d arrived home from work, found a fresh food dish for him in the kitchen and filled it with something I hoped he would eat. His diet had been off lately. We’d been fighting a sudden onset of diabetes for the last few months. Just lately, he had become thin and frail, and increasingly finicky. Consulting with his vet, I had been trying a variety of different flavors and brands of food to entice him back to the bowl, all with mixed results.
And now, suddenly, this.
I could tell that he knew I was there with him, but he couldn’t respond to me as I called his name, could not press himself against me as I cradled him. His delirium was infectious. It became my own and I fell into a panicked fog totally foreign to my normal, rational approach to emergency situations.
Suddenly, a thousand different voices erupted in my mind, all calmly outlining my various options in a mad, overlapping, gibberish. For precious seconds, I was locked in place, searching for answers within the strangely distant eyes of my ailing friend.
The cruelest thing I ever did to Dream was to reveal to him that he was, in fact, a cat.
I never intended to deceive him, regarding his origins. It just never came up in conversation, is all. He hadn’t seen another cat in close quarters, since being separated from his litter, and seemingly had no reason to think he was anything other than human.
For the first few years of his life we lived in a second floor apartment, and he might see some neighbor’s cat, at a distance, from a window or the balcony railing. He seemed to regard them as little more than a passing curiosity.
Even when we moved into my little house, with it’s lush backyard, he would see the strays pass through, watching their movements with the no more interest then he showed toward squirrels or birds.
Then, one fateful day, my girlfriend Donna moved in, and with her, three cats.
Suddenly, he was faced with a trio of the creatures in close quarters. Now he could judge their size in relation to his own, taking in their movements and smells, observing how we would stroke them as we did him, and feed them from bowls, like his. We watched all of this, and our hearts broke a little for him. There was no mistaking the confusion and despair in his eyes, as he realized that he and we were not of the same species.
I remember reading an article sometime last year, about apes, raised as pets or in labs, who over time come to realize that they are trapped between the human world and that of their birth, never able to become fully one or the other. Reading that, I felt a spark of recognition. I remembered the same behaviors ascribed to those poor creatures, from Dream’s own period of identity crisis.
After a few sullen weeks, Dream seemed willing to accept what he was. Yet, he was never entirely the same again, either. He would, ever after, seem a little unsure of his place, guarded around other cats and perhaps a little less responsive to the humans in his life.
There was a thing, made of little strips of brightly colored rawhide, which dangled from the end of a string, to the opposite end of which was attached a long plastic stick, like a reduced fishing pole, and that thing, of all the things in all the world, was the one thing that he wanted more than anything.
He would rush and jump with all his strength, performing stunning flips, and hurtling far higher into the air than any animal his size should have been able to leap, all in his quest to obtain that particular toy.
And he was fast. My gods he was fast! Even in these last few weeks when he was thin and weak, he could still whip his body suddenly to the side and capture the toy between his still needle-like teeth.
And once he had it, there was no getting it away from him. He would lock his jaws around it like a vice and pull against the string until, finally, I let go of the stick. Then he would proudly strut, head held high, in circles around the house, trailing the string and stick behind him. We affectionately dubbed this: “The Walk of Triumph.”
A cat is, more than anything else, the living expression of desire.
An indoor cat, Dream was always anxious to go outside. He would explore each bush and blade of grass before finding his favorite napping spot, a shady patch, secluded under the low branches of a tree, to rest in.
He loved the cream filling in a Twinkie, to climb onto the back of the sofa and rub his face in your hair, to drink water from the faucet, and to challenge the vacuum for supremacy whenever it made an appearance.
There were so many things he wanted to do, and places he wanted to explore. Yet every night he would give it all up, the toys and games, the outdoor excursions, and even the mighty ‘Walk of Triumph’, just to curl up in my lap as I sat reading before bedtime.
I could not have asked for anything more.
I wish I could say that his was an easy death. I wanted nothing more for him, than for Gaiman’s gothy teenager with the ankh and the little black dress to show up at the last, taking him out of my hands and into the light.
When the time was right and we knew that there was no other course to take, Donna and I planned to take him to the vet and have him put down. I would have held him, and he would have just gone to sleep in my arms, knowing that he was loved, that his people were with him.
We were denied that comfort.
I don’t know how much he suffered before I found him, or how alone he felt. I will always wonder if he knew I was there with him in his final moments, stroking his face as the drugs took him away from me.
The doctors had done all they could for him. More really, at my insistence.
It was his time.
He lived a good life and mine was the better for it.
I know with utter certainty, that our paths will cross again.
It wasn’t for nothing that he was named after one of the Endless.
This story ends where it begins.
Brenna and I are driving back to my apartment from the local Petsmart. There is a small cardboard box in her lap containing a little ball of grey fur wrapped around a pair of mischievous eyes, bat ears, gangly legs, whip tail and a couple dozen teeth so sharp they could puncture atoms. She opens the top of the box to get another look at him and he climbs out onto her lap, all big eyes and personality.
I put my own eyes back on the road, and suddenly feel little needles sinking into my stomach, then my chest, as he climbs me. Helpless behind the wheel, I protest, pointing out that it’s really not a great idea to have a cat climbing all over me while driving.
She reaches out to take him away, but before she can, the needles vanish of their own accord.
A soft, warm weight, settles on my shoulder, nestling for a moment in my long hair, and then, purring against my neck, drifts off to sleep and begins to Dream.