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As of last week, I am a catless cat lady. How did you miss it? I pretty much live streamed the death of my cat Oliver on Facebook.
At 5:48AM, I asked Facebook to give us a ride to the pet hospital because I live in LA without a car (yes, I know, but that’s the topic of another blog). I’d been trying to wait it out until the morning when the neighborhood vet offices opened, but Oliver was looking like shallow breathing taxidermy and his yelping was heartbreaking. I woke up my roommate to drive us to the 24-hour pet hospital. Two hours later, I left the pet hospital with an empty cat carrier.
Aside from the disinterest in laser pointers and the 35-hour naps expected of an aging 13-year old cat, Oliver showed no signs of poor health. If vets were less expensive than my own medical care, I would have taken Oliver to a vet more than once every 11 years and maybe caught that he actually had an underlying heart condition. Turns out, when Oliver threw up in the middle of the night, he formed a blood clot that caused paralysis in his back legs or “saddle thrombosis.”
I had two options: thousands of dollars in painful surgery to restore the circulation in his legs or the recommended euthanasia. I’ve never pulled the plug on a loved one and even though this wasn’t a human life in my hands, the decision was devastating. Between tears, I did what any tech-savvy person in the post-modern world would do to cope with it all -- I updated Facebook and found comfort in the small chorus of supporters trying to pull Oliver from the light via their comments.The vet tech left me alone with Oliver to share one last living moment. Just two hours ago I was sound asleep, now I was saying goodbye to my cat forever. I hovered over Oliver, my tears dripping over his barely breathing body, a catheter (which now I’ve learned, aren’t just for penises) inserted into his front leg. His hair shed off his body to my touch. He was so weak he couldn’t look up at me. I kissed him, apologized that he had to go like this, told him how much I loved him, and promised I’d name my children after him (hey, I was upset, OK?). The vet came back in, and in three shots, Oliver was in cat heaven. His eyes didn’t close. He didn’t flinch. He just lay there. Still cute. Just dead. I laid my hand on him, shook his paw one final time and then left him there in the exam room to pay my bill in the reception area.I imagine that most pet hospitals are business savvy like the one I went to and have learned that dead animal paraphernalia eases the grieving process. As part of my $395 “kill and cremate” package, the vet tech pressed Oliver’s corpse paw into a piece of wet heart-shaped clay then slipped it into a baggie with baking instructions.Even though I had more than enough cat hair sprinkled throughout my home to make another cat, the vet tech clipped off two dime bags worth of fur as a keepsake, thoughtfully including the rare white hairs from his stomach. Like clockwork, two days after Oliver’s death, the hospital sent a sympathy card in the mail.
The “pet death swag” didn’t help me stomach the biggest loss -- $395. Ironically, putting Oliver out of his misery has thrown me into a whole other kind of financial distress I didn’t anticipate this month. That vet bill is more than my monthly health insurance premium, my HOA fee or my monthly allowance for groceries. But I was so desperate to stop Oliver’s pain, so scared of having a dead cat in my home, I didn’t protest when the receptionist ran my credit card for the charge. I guess the only way I could have skirted the vet expense was to let Oliver suffer a slow death in my arms or find a friend with a shotgun.
What helped me through the sudden death of my cat was also what was most disturbing -- the overwhelming display of sympathy. By my tally, I received a half dozen phone calls, hundreds of Facebook comments, and dozens of texts. People wrote saying I could call them if I wanted to “talk about it.” I also got offers of “let us know if there is anything we can do.” It was as if a parent died or I lost my husband in Iraq. The Facebook grief chorus was at first comforting and then as the comments swelled exponentially, I felt embarrassed to be taking up so much emotional real estate in people’s lives. I was almost tempted to hijack all the attention and move it towards something more worthy: “If you think this is sad, you should sign this petition to stop genital mutilation in Africa.”
Even weirder, I received messages from people who didn’t know me but stumbled upon my public grief and admitted to crying for Oliver and me.Two years ago, I shared my distress over the surprise Stage 3 cancer diagnosis of my 13-year old cousin. Facebook didn’t give me half the play that Oliver’s death did. When I announced that my cousin was cancer-free a year later, I got a few “likes” and a sprinkling of well wishes before that bit of good news got eclipsed by Farmville requests.
How is this possible that human tragedy (or triumph even) gets far less attention than the death of an old housecat?
It seems people can’t agree on religion, birth control policy, or music, but when a pet dies, everyone agrees it’s sad. Indeed, feline love stretches across party lines, race and sexual orientation -- and maybe it’s for those reasons we exalt a cat’s presence and passing. Ironically, I took on my cat because he made things less lonely, and in his sudden absence, I experienced a wave of human empathy I had not experienced in years. Cats are such intrinsic parts of our private lives. Cats comfort us, greet us when we return from long trips, watch us masturbate and cry ourselves to bed, meet the dates that we bring up for “tea,” watch that “tea” devolve into awkward make-out sessions, stand guard as we build our empires via laptop, follow us to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and nap on our laps while we eat dinner alone.
The death of a cat is the end of an era. When I moved into an apartment in West LA over 10 years ago, Oliver showed up at my door and adopted me. He courted me with dead birds and mice. I had just finished my degree at UCLA and was filled with post-college ambition. I was going to make it in Los Angeles as a writer and performance artist! And then a week after my move, September 11, 2001 happened, and with it, a blur of wars and subsequent anti-war demonstrations, the advent of social networking, two presidential elections, a stock market crash, and the brave new world as we know it. Since Oliver’s arrival, I saw three live-in boyfriends (along with other “phases” and mistakes), six plays that I wrote and performed, many more projects that never manifested, the death of two grandparents and a few friends, burnt bridges, intense depression, emotional breakthroughs and feast and famine in my fledgling artistic career. The consistent companion in that long ride was Oliver. He is the only proof I have that I am capable of a long-term relationship.
Oliver was originally my neighbors’ cat. They moved him outdoors (despite being declawed) because they had just had their first baby and in retaliation, Oliver was spraying the baby’s cribs and toys. I like to think that Oliver took to me because I was the childless woman that his previous owner used to be. I had imagined that the rule of owning Oliver was that I dare not procreate in his presence -- or else risk punishment by cat pee.
For two years, with no threat of me getting married or having kids, Oliver inexplicably sprayed in my bed and laundry. It was a period when I was touring my show Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, about depression and suicide among Asian American women. The material of that show was intensely exhausting and I wrestled with the unexpected loneliness of being a working solo artist I felt more isolated watching the Facebook photos of my women friends turn into wedding photos and babies. While the rest of the world seemed to “evolve” into the next stage of life, I seemed locked in a surreal world of still living in my post-college apartment with cat and performing the same crazy show each night.
I consulted a cat psychic by phone to figure out why Oliver was spraying (yes, I know what this sounds like). The cat psychic explained that Oliver and I were connected psychically. According to the psychic, Oliver saw us as a couple. He sensed that as with his previous owner, I’d soon get married and have kids and leave him outside, so he sprayed in anxiety. The faint smell of cat pee followed me outside the house and Oliver was symbolically locking me into gold star cat lady status. This became the inspiration for a play I wrote about Oliver called “CAT LADY” that premiered in Houston and San Francisco last year.Despite having a cat-less home now, I still have cat-owning habits I can’t quite quit. I still swoop my leg in the doorway when I come home to keep the non-existent cat from running out. I habitually squeeze and sniff clothes to make sure Oliver hasn’t marked them. When I get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I walk to not step on the cat following me in the dark.
I just received his ashes by hand delivery today. I think as part of the $395 fee, Carlos, the delivery man from the crematory, talks to you a while and offers some more comfort. We talked on my doorstep for a while about animals and what they mean to us.
Some people scatter their pet’s ashes into the ocean. If by some weird rule of the afterlife, pets are still alive in their ashes, Oliver would probably say upon touching down in the ocean: “Where the fuck am I?” So I’m keeping his tin of ashes here at home where he belongs. I’m not sure if I’m ready for another cat, though I find myself surfing through cat adoption sites like a porn site I can’t quit. Until then, I know that one day I will reunite with Oliver in heaven, where I know he will greet me with his golden showers.