Mourn, O you Loves and Cupids
and such of you as love beauty:
my girl’s sparrow is dead,
sparrow, the girl’s delight,
whom she loved more than her eyes.
For he was sweet as honey, and knew her
as well as the girl her own mother,
he never moved from her lap,
but, hopping about here and there,
chirped to his mistress alone.
Now he goes down the shadowy road
from which they say no one returns.
Now let evil be yours, evil shadows of Orcus,
that devour everything of beauty:
you’ve stolen lovely sparrow from me.
O evil deed! O poor little sparrow!
Now, by your efforts, my girl’s eyes
are swollen and red with weeping.
“The Death of Lesbia’s Sparrow,” Catullus
“These animals with their short lives teach us so much about death.” – Bill Roorbach
I was twenty years old and kind of a hot mess when he came into my life.
I was living in one of those typical college situations, with two girls in a too-small house off-campus; everyone (including the house) being slightly unstable. One of the roommates, in a fit of mild depression because a boy hadn’t called, announced on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend that puppies and Burger King were the only two forms of solace she was accepting. She decided to go to the local pet store to hang out with the puppies for sale, and I went along because I, too, was working through some things and puppies sounded like a good idea.
He was in a cage in the back, near the puppies, with a hand-lettered sign taped to it reading “FREE WITH $10 PURCHASE.” He was tiny, with black fur so fine it looked gray, and huge ears like bat wings framing two very alert yellow-green eyes. I stuck a tentative finger in the cage, and he immediately butted his head against it and greeted me with a combination meow-purr, Purreow?, from the back of his tiny throat. He chose me, and I was his, and that was that. I bought a litter box and some kitten food and he rode home in my lap with the roommate who was lukewarm to the idea of throwing a kitten into the already-unstable mix. She drove while eyeing the kitten warily and checked her phone incessantly to see if the boy had called. He hadn’t.
I named him Sushi, because I thought it was a clever name for a little black kitten. And it was.
The signature purreow? and head butt greeted me every morning when I woke up. He was so small, the vet suggested kitten milk to fatten him up a bit. He drank and ate greedily, but for his entire life he never weighed more than six or seven pounds. In the interest of cultivating a personality (both his and mine), I bought him a little harness and walked him around campus. I was “that girl.”
Sushi was unnervingly clever, a trait that would make him equal parts charming and infuriating, and he could be a total asshole. One of his favorite games was to jump, impossibly, up onto my bureau where he would make and fix eye contact with me while sweeping items off of the bureau top with a cupped paw as I yelled at him to get down. He broke a number of glasses and, once, a makeup compact that shattered powder spectacularly, before I learned not to keep loose items up there. He preferred to sleep on my throat, highly uncomfortable for me, and once caught on fire when he backed into a lit candle up on a counter top. His entire backside went up in a flame and he shot under my roommate’s bed, which I secretly hoped would catch fire (we were not friends). When I retrieved him and ran to the bathroom to douse him in water, however, he was perfectly fine with a few singe marks on his tail. He did stay off of the counter after that and developed a lifelong distaste for scented candles.
When I graduated from college, Sushi was two years old. He had grown into a sleek but small black cat, his ash-gray baby fur had given way to silky jet black. He had grown and his ears had stayed the same size, finally catching up to one another, but he still had a kitten’s face and would for his entire life. He had lived in three different houses at this point, including my parents’ for a summer when I worked in Maine. After graduation, I packed up my life and moved to Florida for grad school, bringing my best buddy with me. He sat on my lap, dozing, during the entire 19-hour drive from Maryland to Florida. He was always good in the car.
In Florida, he chased lizards and brought them to me, proudly, still half-alive. He was allowed to go outside on a long leash during the less-hot months of the year, and he dozed in the sunshine and purreowed? at birds. When the roommate I was living with at the time moved out, taking Sushi’s best friend – an all-white cat named Ranger – with her, he suddenly had far too much energy. He raced up and down the empty hallways, meowing and calling, and so I made yet another responsible, mature, and unwise decision. I was twenty three and in grad school full time, waitressing at a steak house on weekends, and I went to the SPCA and got another kitten to keep Sushi company.
Fiona was a shivering, timid, three pound tortoise-shell kitten that I had some serious doubts about. She was afraid of everything – including Sushi – and she cowered under the bed for three days. Sushi cocked his head and tried to figure her out, but she was a mess. Just when I started to think that I might have stumbled across a cat more emotionally unstable than myself, I came home one night to find them both curled up on my bed, with Sushi rigorously cleaning her from her tiny head to the tip of her tail. Her little face was thrown back, eyes closed, lavishing the love. From then on, the two settled into a firm friendship that consisted of sometimes-violent wrestling matches, team hunting trips, and occasional grooming sessions.
In 2007, when Sushi was five years old, I moved back to Baltimore and into the second and third stories of a row house in Federal Hill – Sushi’s sixth house in his short life. The move was difficult for everyone (Fiona howled the entire 19-hour trip driving back from Florida – she has never been good in the car and she pissed everyone off, including Sushi who swatted at her to shut the fheck up at one point), and the new apartment was much smaller than the ranch house we’d lived in in Florida. Fiona encountered stairs for the first time in her life and spent the two years I lived there going laboriously up and down the iron spiral staircase of death, one terrifying step at a time.
My life during those first couple of years in Baltimore was nothing short of tumultuous. We moved – a lot. I changed jobs – a lot. I went through a series of unfortunate romantic entanglements. I met a lot of new friends. My twenties were all peaks and valleys, and everything seemed worthy of a violent emotional upheaval followed by a night out on the town – break-ups, promotions, firings, new boys, a flat tire. Through it all, I came home every single night to see that little black face, waiting for me with a purreow? He slept at the foot of my bed during the coldest parts of winter, and on the floor next to the bed in the heat of summer. Several times, he escaped out the back door, once for several hours until I found him lying contentedly in a puddle of sun in the neighbor’s backyard.
In 2011, when Sushi was nine, I finally moved out of Federal Hill and into a quieter neighborhood in the heart of downtown Baltimore- Little Italy. I had gotten promoted at a job I really liked, and I had just started dating the man that I will be marrying next summer. The new house, shared with two other girls (much more stable than my college situations), was fantastic – roomy, full of windows for looking out, a working gas fireplace for chilly winter nights, and a fenced-on backyard for lounging on summer days. We spent two very happy years in this house – Sushi’s ninth home. One of my roommates was a true cat lover, and Sushi and Fiona reaped the benefits of her kindness – treats, brushings, new toys all came regularly. The last year we were there, my now-fiance had had to move overseas for his job, and I was traveling frequently leaving the cats in her very capable care.
The last move of Sushi’s life was a big one. After much discussion and careful planning, Sushi, Fiona, and I expatriated to the Middle East in February of last year. There is a lot of paperwork involved in moving cats across international barriers, and I worked with this fantastic pet relocating company. They walked me through every step of the process, even Fed Ex-ing me already-filled-in forms and checklists. I talked to the vet at length about the safety of moving two cats – one 11 years old, and one 9 at this point – overseas, and both were found fit to fly. Sushi, he noted, was a little on the thin side and slightly anemic, but this had been noted years before by our regular vet. I gave him beef liver from time to time to combat the anemia, which he only enjoyed if it was completely raw and ever-so-slightly warm. He got a little too into that and would drag the beef liver pieces all over the house like little treasures, leaving sticky, bloody trails of carnage.
On a bitterly cold day last February, an agent from the pet relocation company arrived at the friends’ house where I was staying temporarily in Baltimore as I tied up loose ends (correction – Sushi had one last home in Baltimore before we left: a fabulous cabana in Harbor East that some very generous friends allowed us to inhabit in our last weeks in town). She put Sushi and Fiona – who was already howling – in their crates in the back of her SUV, and I cried as they drove away. The cats would be flying, separately from me, and would have a layover in Amsterdam at a pet hotel where they would be fed and checked on. I would see them again once I arrived in Abu Dhabi.
My second night in the Middle East, another agent delivered Sushi and Fiona to our new flat. The cats were wired and skittish, but otherwise unharmed during their two-day, international globe-trotting session. Sushi rocketed out of his crate with a purreow? and I was rewarded with head butts. Fiona hid under the bed for two days and then emerged as if nothing had happened.
We settled into our new life in the land of sand, the cats happy to have escaped the ten degree winter of Baltimore and lounging in the ample sunshine. They explored the balcony and skidded across the tile floors. Abu Dhabi is remarkably pet friendly, and I found several well-stocked pet stores and brought home new toys and treats.
When Sushi moved to the Middle East, he was eleven years old and had, in recent months leading up to the move, slowed down a bit. He slept more, and white flecks began appearing in his black fur like little stars. When I petted him, I could begin to feel a more pronounced spine. I worried, but his behavior was normal. He ate and drank readily, always begging for people food and treats. In an effort to fatten him up, I started giving in to the begging and giving him little bits of whatever I was eating – pizza crusts, tortillas, salmon, chicken.
We went on a four-day trip to Sri Lanka for my birthday, leaving Sushi in the very capable hands of a fellow cat-lover friend I’d met out here, and when we came back he purreowed? happily as he’d always done, and followed me around like a little black shadow. This was a perpetual habit of his – since kittenhood he’d followed me from room to room whenever I was home, perching near my feet, or winding himself around my ankles at inopportune times. If I was sitting at my desk, he was on the desk. If I was cooking, he was right beside me. I stepped on him at least once a day, but he never learned.
We’d been back for a day when I happened to look at him, following me down the hallway as I unpacked, and noticed that his stomach was ever-so-slightly bowing out on the sides. I scooped him up and palpitated him, feeling nothing but the velvety skin of his stomach and his soft black fur. He blinked at me, wondering at the curious behavior, but did nothing. I poked him all over and his only response was to keep trying to see if I had food in my hand. His little black nose was wet and cold as normal, he was hungry as ever. The only indication that something was off was that slight swelling of his belly. I decided he was gassy or had eaten too much food – for once – and wrote it off.
A few days after that, my fiancé noticed and began to joke that Sushi was “getting fat.” I knew this wasn’t so, because when I ran my hand down his back, I could feel his spine protruding more than usual. I asked around and found the Australian Vet, one that cat people swore by, and took him in. The vet poked and prodded and looked kind but sad when he suggested I bring Sushi back in the morning for a full day of tests and bloodwork.
The next morning, I dropped Sushi off at the clinic on my way to work and spent the entire day in an anxious state waiting for “that” phone call. It finally came around 3pm, and I excused myself to an empty conference room where I sat while a kind women talked me through their findings: cancer, advanced, inoperable.
“He’s comfortable, he’s happy, he’s eating…as long as he’s still being himself, there’s really nothing to do,” she said. “We’ll put him on prednisone which can help slow the growth of the tumors, but there’s not much else we can do.”
I panicked – we had a two-week trip back to the States planned for July, and this was early June. How could I leave a cat on daily medication? “If you can find a good pet sitter, that would be best so he can be at home, where he feels safe,” she said. “I wouldn’t board him if you can avoid it. But, to be honest, that’s over a month away, and the way things look right now, I’m not sure he’s going to make it. Cats tend to not show symptoms until things are very advanced, and so it can be really difficult to tell how much time they have left, but this is a lot of swelling in his abdomen which is not good.”
I appreciated – and still appreciate – her candor. Although Sushi would live for another four months after that conversation, and do well in our absence with special thanks to a team of fantastic pet sitters who live in the next complex over, I came home from work that day and began the process of saying goodbye to my little black shadow. He was fine, aside from being irritated at having been stuck with needles at the vet all day. I cried over him and took pictures of him, I gave him special treats and new toys, and I brushed him. The prednisone worked beautifully, and the swelling went down almost immediately. Aside from a spot of shaved fur on his neck and paw from where they’d extracted tissue samples, he looked perfectly fine. I spent the entire summer loving that cat the way that I wish I had loved him his entire life.
My twenties were so tumultuous, and I was so self-centered. For a long time, I took advantage of his presence and treated him as an accessory. I moved him around from house to house, I cried and slept and panicked and sometimes ignored him. He was the type of cat that thrived on social interaction, rarely choosing (as Fiona does) to go off and be by himself, and I wasn’t home much in those crazy years. We always say these things in retrospect when we are sad, and we always know we could have done better, and we know that nothing we could have done would have changed the outcome, but we think them anyway. I spent all of this past summer trying to make up for those days and nights I came home late, distracted, only to give the cat an obligatory pat on the head before going to bed. I brushed him, I clipped his claws, I fed him treats, I talked to him. I tried to make up for the days when I’d been gone for 12 or 14 or even 16 hours, rushing around to work and happy hours and dates. I cleaned his litter boxes daily in the vain hope of making up for those sometimes too-long stretches where I’d forget or gotten too busy and kept putting off the chore. I tried to do everything for him to ensure security and stability, the two things I’d skimped on in our years together.
In the last month, Sushi had shrunk to nearly five pounds with the weight of the tumors taking over. Where they’d initially stalled, they suddenly bloomed and I could see and feel them underneath that velvety skin. And then came that day, that terrible day, when Sushi laid down and breathed laboriously. I wrapped him in a towel, I brushed his fur which had taken back some of the ash-gray of his kittenhood. He’d lost so much weight that his ears looked like bat wings again, against the thin wedge of his still-babyface.
Knowing that you will probably outlive your animal is a tragedy and trauma that every pet owner lives with and acknowledges, but doesn’t process until it happens. Sushi was there as the first semblances of adulthood took shape in my life, and this was certainly the first truly difficult and painful decision I had to make as an adult. Knowing when to euthanize an animal is nothing you can predict; all the mental checklists you make mean nothing when stacked against reality. Just as quickly as that little black kitten had made me his person that day in the pet store twelve years prior, I looked at him and knew in my heart that it was time.
I cried all the way there, soaking his head with my tears. He sat quietly in my lap in the towel – he was always so good in the car. The vet met us at the clinic, which was closed that day, but open for emergencies. I was grateful for this, because it meant we were the only ones there. I cried as we laid him on the steel table, I cried when the vet took him in the back to insert a catheter into his tiny, tired vein. When he came back out, he’d been given a sedative and, for the first time in days, was breathing much slower and more steadily. I looked at his tired little face, at those yellow-green eyes, and I kissed him. He was too tired to head butt me, so I did it for him, pressing my forehead tightly against his. I kissed his nose and ran my hands over his body – so thin by now that his ribs felt like matchsticks. The vet talked us through what would happen and gave a speech so kind and compassionate that I wanted to hug him. When he administered the final drug, there was no movement, no gasp, not even a flutter. The only indication that anything happened was the incredible stillness.
We left the clinic without Sushi. We came home, and I put away his bowl. Fiona sniffed at us curiously. In the days that followed, I cried. I cried more than I have cried for any breakup, any lost job, any adult sadness. I cried more than when my father was diagnosed with the cancer he would eventually successfully beat, I cried more than when my fiancé had to move overseas and we spent a year and a half apart. I was astounded at the level of grief that I felt, acute and stabbing, in the aftermath of Sushi’s death. I experienced phantom limb syndrome without a little black streak following me around. I felt his absence physically, and it was huge.
I was so distraught that I began Googling and came across articles that discussed coping with pet death. One consistent argument has to do with the theory that our relationships with our pets are “uncomplicated.” That it’s pure unconditional love at its best, and that this bond is incapable of replication. Although Sushi and I certainly fought in the past – he was far too smart for a cat, and I was far too crazy as a young adult – I recognized the truth. That cat loved me completely and wholly. I moved him all over the world, and he didn’t blink an eye so long as he had food in his bowl and me to follow around. He was there for the worst times in my life, greeting me after every bad day and heartbreak and life lesson with a purreow?
Time since has been slow and sad. It has been two weeks since we said goodbye, and his little cat ghost is everywhere. Little bits of black fur on the furniture, a bare spot on the balcony where he laid down and licked at the sand (for some bizarre reason, he loved licking sand off of the balcony) for the last time the morning of his death, the crunchy sea-creature cat treats that were the only thing he’d eat in the last week of his life. Every space becomes a space where he once was, and a habit and routine that I now have to break. Fiona and my fiancé and I are beginning to close in around the space that Sushi has left, altering our patterns. No longer having to give Sushi his daily pill or clean up after him (he became completely incontinent in the last month) is a relief, but every action or lack of action is a moment for introspection and sadness. Feeding only one cat for the first time in nine years, not hearing that purreow?. Fiona walks around, confused, but happy to have the limelight for the first time in her life. Sushi would eat her food, push her out of the way if she was taking up too much attention, and generally ruled the roost as the older “brother.” Fiona now has the undivided attention of us both, and I think she rather likes it.
The sadness will lift, in time, and – indeed – the acuteness of it is already fading. I can go whole days without crying, I can even forget that it’s happened. But every single night that I walk through the door and don’t trip over that black form, every morning that I wake up and his little face isn’t there imploring me to feed him, I remember and I am sad.
These intense microcosmic relationships we have with animals mean so much. We build our lives, our careers, and our families, and pets always seem to be this incidental part of all of that, but the truth is that they own so much more of our hearts than we realize. They are little witnesses to everything, little reminders that life is temporary and that nothing is permanent. “These animals, with their short lives, teach us so much about death,” wrote Bill Roorbach (actually quoting his mother on the death of his dog). But they also, I argue, teach us just as much about life and how to live a better one.
Goodbye, Sushicat, my best buddy, my little shadow.