The phone call came just as I was finishing eating breakfast.
“We’ve got a cat here on the third floor,” the building doorman said. “Need someone to confirm that it’s yours.”
“OK!” I said, hung up, then went into my room to put on some pants. Silly Socks! She wasn’t yet a year old, and every time I opened the apartment’s front door she took the chance to dash outside, sniff at the elevator doors or trot down the stairs. She must have run out behind my boyfriend when he left for work an hour ago, or behind my roommate when he’d left even earlier, at 6.30 a.m.
She would’ve have to run down over two dozen flights of stairs to end up on the third floor -– a patio area which building residents used to walk to their dogs, host weekly yoga sessions, and drink beer.
I was slipping on my sandals when I paused, thinking. What if--?
I walked to my apartment balcony and then peered over. Twenty-five stories high, we had one of the best views of the city. But all I could see was a crowd of people on the third floor, standing in a half-circle and gesturing at one another. And a little black cat with four white paws, lying curled up on the ground. Definitely not moving.
When terrible accidents happen, at first they seem so reversible. I could fix this! No problem! All I had to do was go back in time to the previous night, when my ladies’ book club was meeting in the living room, and, anxious to make everyone as comfortable as possible, I’d opened the balcony’s sliding glass door in order to let some air in.
But in my eagerness to be a good hostess, I’d forgotten to be a responsible cat owner. My boyfriend, my roommate and I had all agreed some weeks earlier: Always keep the balcony door shut. Socks had once ventured out onto the balcony and jumped up on the wall perch, because she liked to leap on top of perilously narrow ledges and survey her terrain. Better safe than sorry, we all agreed.
At the time, all I’d wanted was some air circulation. Now I had a dead cat.
When terrible accidents happen, it’s easy to observe your own thoughts from a distance, which become slow and mechanical from shock. Thoughts like: Soon, all my friends will be saying comforting things to me -– “You couldn’t have helped it.” “Don’t blame yourself.”But those are the clichés that people rely on when it comes to pets that die tragically. Because no one will say the obvious, which is, “Wow, this is blatantly all your fault.”
When I headed down to the first floor to confront the doorman, I couldn’t help but ask, just to make sure, “The cat on the patio –- is it –- a dead cat? Or a live one? That you wanted me to look at.”
“Dead,” the doorman said. He wanted me to confirm what the building superintendent should do with the body, “because the garbage truck passes by in 15 minutes.”
“NO,” I said. “Don’t –- put anything in the garbage.”
I couldn’t face the idea of looking at the body -– it would confirm that this had actually happened. I also didn’t know what I would see. A head smashed like a pumpkin? A spine bent like a piece of wire? Twenty-five stories was a long way to fall. Did Socks realize as she was falling, twisting and spinning in the air, that something was very wrong?
“Just –- could someone put the cat in a bag? And bring it up to apartment 2503? And then –- we’ll take care of it.”
Socks wasn’t technically mine. She’d arrived with my roommate, who moved into the apartment earlier this year. I’ve had all kinds of cats over the years: a Siamese that was terrified of everything, a Tabby whose lip was cut in a fight and thus had an expression fixed in a permanent sneer, a Calico who would drool so much when she was petted I would have to change my shirt after having a cuddle.
But it was impossible not to feel as though Socks was mine –- or at least, part of our three-person, sky-high family. It was also hard not to feel like she was one of the sweetest, funniest cats in the world (as all cat owners must feel). My boyfriend called her “la niña de la casa,” the little girl of the house, and would give her plastic bags and bottlecaps to play with.
When I went to the bathroom in the mornings, she would stick her black-and-white paws under the door, trying to hook her claws on the carpet. I tried to train her to kill cockroaches, which she would torture slowly to death, batting them back and forth against the wall. She had a squeaky meow and a purr that grew louder if you rubbed the white underside of her chin.
Now she was a heavy thing in a black garbage bag that I put in a box and lamely covered with some dried flowers, trying to prepare myself to call my roommate, then my boyfriend. The cat just died.
Everyone has a tragic pet death story. Sometimes several. In some ways, the point of having a pet isn’t so much to learn how to care for a smaller, more vulnerable being, but to learn how to deal with the horror, grief and guilt that comes when they die, frequently in horrible and unexpected ways. I had one cat die after being savaged by the neighbor’s dog. I had ducks that were killed by possums. A giant white chicken that died of some kind of heart attack, and which I found in the back yard, its orange legs stiff in the air.
In the weeks that followed Socks’ death, I heard countless other wretched stories. My friend’s dog who fell through ice in a London park and drowned. A cat that ate some kind of poison in Indonesia, and died in bloody, thrashing convulsions. A cat that fell out of the seventh floor of a building and survived, because it fell on a bush. A dog that was hit by a cab and then dragged under it for blocks.
The most amazing part of owning a pet -– especially of the dog or cat variety –- is the unconditional love you receive in return. Your pet doesn’t care if you didn’t get that job you applied for. Your pet doesn’t care if you’re breaking out on your forehead and have puffy eyes. For your pet –- if it’s well cared for -– the world is a delight to live in, rather than a chore. A world made for sniffing and rolling about on the ground and being content in the present moment.
And when those animals die in ways that seem so easily avoidable –- and so random, and so careless -– it’s clear that the worst part of being a pet owner is the unconditional guilt you feel when things end so badly. It doesn’t help that for some people, Hey, it’s just an animal.
It’s never just an animal.
My roommate went to a funeral home and bought a baby-sized coffin. “The woman at the front desk was very sympathetic,” he said, until he told her it was a coffin for a cat. Then her eyes went wide and she said nothing else.
He filled the coffin with pictures of Socks curled up in shopping bags; I put in a few of the plastic bottlecaps that she used to play with. We wrapped it up in a big green blanket, because my boyfriend said it wasn’t a good idea to walk outside and try to hail a cab while carrying a baby coffin -– it would attract, you know, questions.
We had a funeral the next day in the backyard of a friend who lived in the country. I spent a lot of time petting a little black dog she’d rescued from the side of a highway, which had an ugly, twisted face and a stubby tail. He better not dig up the coffin to get a better sniff at it, I thought to myself.
But even if he did, who could blame him? He was just a dog. Dogs want to dig; cats want to jump. Socks had felt like another member of the family in our apartment, but in the end, she was just a cat being kept cooped up in too small a space in a big city, and she’d wanted the room to do cat-things like jump on ledges and look around, without the risk of slipping and dying.
My boyfriend, my roommate and I talked about putting up some chickenwire over the balcony. Cat-proofing it, in case a few months later we decided to get another kitten. I don’t think we will.