I always feel like a sappy jerk when I tell the story of how I adopted my cat Homer. It was six or seven years ago. I was fresh off a devastating break-up. I was living a thousand miles from anyone I knew, in a graduate program I realized might be ill-suited for me. I was crying in public a lot. It was, as they say, the worst of times.
As an adult, I’d never had a pet of my own, though I’d swooned over rescue cats in college and dreamed of having my own menagerie of furry friends. So when I happened upon the offer to adopt 13-year-old Homer, I figured our love was fated.
Anyone who has ever used Craigslist knows that there’s a free section. Despite all of the things I’ve gotten from the site -- roommates, furniture, two cars, several jobs -- I had no idea people were just giving stuff away. One particularly sad night, I was cruising around the site and saw the section listing. Free?! I thought.
Even more shocking, three listings down, a family was trying to offload a recently deceased parent’s cat. They lived in some far-flung suburb, and I was convinced I’d have to act fast or miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. (I later realized, to my horror, that dozens of animals are listed for free on a daily basis. Duh, Brittany.)
I ran in to ask my roommates. Did they care if I got a cat? Probably not used to seeing me excited about anything, they shrugged and told me to go for it.
The next morning, I called to ask where we could arrange a mutually convenient pick-up. The woman on the phone sounded startled that anyone was inquiring. Still, she humored me.
Three days later, I nervously arrived to pick up Homer in a dingy Sears Auto Center waiting room. Still knowing nothing about what I was getting into, the carrier I’d brought was a bit too small for my medium-sized homeboy. Homer gamely climbed in anyway, apparently knowing we were meant to be.
Homer had two teeth and matted hair on his back when he came into my life. From what I could tell, he’d been confined to a bathroom, where he wouldn’t be a nuisance to his temporary family’s other animals. He had a pitiful mew and a gentle demeanor, which made it hard to determine if he’d been outright abused (nevermind the obvious neglect).
The first low-cost community vet we visited gave him some eardrops and suggested a more thorough exam elsewhere. The bills for various screenings and pills quickly piled up.
But I wasn’t worried about the money, even though I had none. My new buddy slept curled around my head at night. He gave me a reason to get up every morning, and a reason to come home at night. When you’re depressed and feeling especially self-destructive, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is foster some accountability -- in my case, with a living, breathing friend who needed me as much as I needed him.
It’s a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason. Homer taught me things about myself that, at that depressive juncture in my life, no one else could have helped me understand. I did things I didn’t know I was capable of, like giving him subcutaneous fluids through an IV ion the kitchen table with no one there to spot me.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, I lived with the daily knowledge of his inevitable fate, and I prioritized relationships and life choices accordingly. My academic and professional life suffered, but I felt like my life finally made sense.
When Homer died in my arms in the veterinary emergency room a year after I brought him home, I thought I might drop dead, too. Consumed by grief, I skipped more classes and hid from the friends I’d managed to make. When searching for a new roommate after one’s lease ended, I chose the girl who cried when I told her my cat had just died.
And then, one afternoon, I did the thing that I swore I wouldn’t do. I went to the shelter -- the SPCA attached to the animal ER, no less. I was just there to feel less lonely, I told myself. I assured everyone I was cool. I wouldn’t get there and have a meltdown.
Instead, I walked into the cat adoption center and met Cloe.
Cloe was sitting in a basket, her toddler-sized bigness spread out to the edges, screaming at a ferocious volume at anyone who walked in the room. At first, the noise startled me so badly that I almost turned around and walked back out. (I would not have been the first.)
Instead, I sat down with the 23-pound giant. After studying her yowling for a couple of minutes, I figured it must just be her way of communicating. After figuring out how to lift her with both hands onto my lap, she stopped yelling.
Her nametag indicated that she was 10, and that both her cat brother and human mama had recently passed away. Turned out she and I were both grieving -- her more loudly than me -- and that day, we decided to help each other through it.
Needless to say, we became inseparable. I bought her a dog bed and some low-cal food, and she charmed everyone who entered my life. Like Homer, she became the reason some friends came over.
Her good-natured disposition meant she followed me everywhere and purred when I brushed her belly or hauled her off the bathtub floor when I wanted to shower. My now-husband Andreas moved in, and we became a fiercely loving family of three.
Cloe abruptly stopped eating a year later, which, for such an enormous cat, proved to be fatal within a very short period of time. The vet didn’t seem to realize the severity of the situation, and by the time we once again ended up in the ER, there wasn’t much they could do for her.
I wish I did not know that they make animal-sized oxygen masks. I wish I did not forever have to live with the memory of how one looked strapped on my best pal’s nose as she struggled to breathe through it. I wish I didn’t know what it’s like to tell one love of your life that the other one is about to die. I wish I didn’t remember how his face looked when the meaning of my words sunk in.
Maybe because I was sharing the pain with someone else, Cloe’s death somehow felt acute in a way that Homer’s passing had not. That isn’t to say that both losses were not equally tragic. But for months after Cloe died, Andreas and I both slept badly. We’d wake up crying, Cloe’s physical mass missing from our small bed.
Along with seven other grieving animal parents, we even ended up in a pet loss grief support group, which is a story for another time.
I realize none of this sounds like a sales pitch for senior pet adoption. I’m very far into this personal account of pet loss without telling you why it matters that both of my cats were in the double digits when I adopted them. And in a way, that’s sort of my point. It didn’t and doesn’t matter (except, perhaps, to the fine money-lending folks at American Express). An open love letter to the animals who have lived with me is about celebrating their awesomeness, not pointing out their age. As much as any younger or healthier kitten, my cats deserved a loving home, and for one year each, respectively, we lived full, joyous lives together.
Which is why, about eight months later, I felt reasonably prepared for what I might encounter when I walked into a cat shelter in Copenhagen, where Andreas and I were living at the time.
“I’ve done it all,” I said when the shelter caretaker asked if I was looking for any particular type of cat. “I’ll take whoever needs me the most.”
Malcolm apparently swatted away a number of prospective humans in the weeks before we arrived. When I walked in to meet the chunky, 10-year-old tuxedo cat with an X-shaped scar on his neck, he immediately began purring and bonked his blocky head against my leg. We signed the paperwork and began building our family once again.
This story has a happy ending. For the last three years, aside from my occasional (and thankfully unwarranted) anxiety about his health, Malcolm has lived the good life without incident. We all have, because we have each other.
(We’re also quite unconvinced that he’s as old as they said he is. Aside from some minor issues with his teeth, he’s in perfect health. I have a hard time believing the maniac furball I live with is pushing 14.)
Even though we travel a lot, sometimes we talk about adopting a dog. Malcolm is a bossy terror when he wants to be, but we like to think he might get along with another older animal pal. If and when the time comes, we’ll probably call the good people at Muttville, a local non-profit rescue group that specializes in finding good homes for senior dogs.
If it isn’t obvious, I feel lucky to have shared my life with so many amazingly sweet animals. I grew up with pets, but it wasn’t until I had my own that I felt like I understood the depth of their patience and forgiveness with people who, generally speaking, do a pretty terrific job of letting them down.
Maybe the lesson isn’t that I adopt senior pets, but that I’m open to animal friends who need a little extra help and might otherwise be deemed undesirable and subsequently overlooked.
Time and again, my pets have proven that age is often just a number. When it’s been emotionally or financially taxing, I’ve still felt nothing but extraordinarily fortunate to share my home with such wonderful friends. Even if my foray into senior pet adoption was a Craigslist fluke, I can’t think of another spontaneous, uninformed choice I’d go back and so willingly make again.