Goodbye to an Old Friend
March 1, 2005. My cat, Sebastian, died early this morning. He’d been in my life for 15 years. When I was single, I cried into his fur after every heartbreak. When I moved cross-country to live with my new boyfriend, Jonathan, Sebastian came, too. When Jonathan and I, now married, moved back to New York, so did Sebastian. He tolerated baby Josie’s attentions with endless good grace. When she was tiny, she’d brace her feet on the floor, grab his tail and lean back, pulling as hard as she could. He never lashed out at her. Okay, maybe once when she’d stretched his tail like a piece of challah dough, he put his mouth on her hand and pressed, leaving the barest, warning-est tooth imprint… but he never broke the skin, never scratched her.
When she was 10 months old and a danger to him, he loved her anyway. One August afternoon, he came downstairs and sauntered over to her as she sat on her blanket. He gently head-butted her in the belly, and then lay down on her feet. She bent double (very flexible, the babies) and laid her face in his side. They sat like that for about a half a minute. Then she sat up and went back to her blocks, and he continued on his way. As she grew, moments like that grew more frequent. This year, she became Chief Brushing Officer. She’d sit on the floor with him for ages, brushing his coat as he closed his eyes in bliss, eyes slitted, purring like a power drill. She started to sound like me when she talked to him. “Hello, my sweet, meaty boy,” she’d say. “How are you, my giant chunk of cat?”
When Sebastian was healthy, his weight hovered between 19 and 23 pounds. (What can I say? He was a Jewish cat, a fresser.) He was a giant beast with a tiny, girly meow. He was a manatee. He was a food-finding missile. I still have no idea how he managed to climb up the 8-foot shelving unit in our utility room in San Francisco, home in on the unopened bag of cat food double-wrapped in two plastic bags, knock it to the ground, rip through all three bags and gorge himself. By the time we got home a couple of hours later, he was lolling on the couch like Jabba the Hutt in a self-satisfied food coma. When he was hungry and I was working, he’d deliberately walk across the keyboard and pound the phone and fax with his paws. Shortly after I moved to San Francisco, there was an earthquake that measured 4.7 on the Richter scale. I truly thought that the thumping sensation was Sebastian, slamming his paws into the back of my chair to demand lunch.
He was a meditative fellow. I remember him lying peacefully on the kitchen floor in Loaf Pose (cattafattasana) while I was cleaning. Just as I opened the dishwasher, he sprang into action and darted under the dishwasher door, in pursuit of an invisible bit of lint. The door bonked him in the head. He looked baffled for a sec, then shook it off and lay right back down, as if to say: “Ah, being hit in the head was my goal all along! Thank you!” I tried to give him a treat as consolation, holding it up for him to bat away, as was our custom. He knocked it out of my hand and sat on it. Then he looked around mournfully, baffled. Then he looked at me: What did you do with my treat? I had to push him off it. He still didn’t see it. I pointed to it on the floor. He ate it. Then he took a nap.
Sebastian was a lover, not a fighter. One time, when we lived in San Francisco, I heard a deep, guttural yowl on our deck and ran out to discover that he’d killed a leaf. He pinned that leaf, toyed with it heartlessly, pounced on it, bit it to make sure it was truly dead, then pranced around proudly with it in his mouth. All hail the foliage hunter! He never actually killed anything. Whenever I found a dead fly, I’d bring it to him so that he could think he killed it. (I liked to help his self-esteem.) He repaid me by sleeping with his head in my armpit or sitting on my lap as I wrote, purring into my crotch. When my book came out, a local TV crew came to interview me, with the cameraman crouched on my living room floor. Sebastian jumped onto the man’s back and tried to sleep on his head.
Like my father, Sebastian cheated the Moloch Ha’Movess, or angel of death, many times. He used every one of his nine lives: urinary blockages, crazed allergic belly licking, heart disease, diabetes. I don’t know how old he was; I got him in 1990, when he was already an adult cat. He’d been rescued from the mean streets of Brooklyn by a co-worker of mine at McCall’s magazine. Though she was only a couple of years older than I, she wore woolen dirndl skirts and frilly- collared blouses buttoned to the neck. The other assistants and I smiled at her because she told us about her Eight-Second Rule — that in eight seconds she’d know when she’d met the guy she was going to marry. Accordingly, she didn’t date much. But then she met the first guy to pass her test. He was Dutch. She didn’t speak Dutch. She’d never been to Holland. But she put all her stuff in storage and moved to Amsterdam. I got her cat. (And reader, she married the Dutchman.)
Sebastian was never a truly healthy guy, but he loved food and life and his people beyond all measure. Much like my father, actually. And my father, who teased me for my sentimentality about the cat, slipped me money every time Sebastian had a health crisis.
For the last few months, Sebastian had been moving less, sleeping more. Last week, on Wednesday night, he had a massive seizure. He was hypoglycemic, in kidney failure. We took him home from the vet and shot dextrose into his mouth from a giant syringe. He gradually perked back up… but his hind legs were paralyzed. He’d had a sort of kitty stroke. His legs splayed out uselessly behind him. For a day or two he seemed to be regaining movement… and we hoped. Jonathan, who had been a fervent dog person until he met Sebastian, hoped even harder than I. The vet said we could give it two or three days, but he wasn’t optimistic. For three days I flipped Sebastian’s paralyzed body back and forth so that he wouldn’t get sore; I cleaned off his urine and changed his rugs and towels and kept him warm and dry. I told Josie that the kitty was very sick. “Oh, no,” Josie said, “This is a disastrophe.”
It was a disastrophe. The improvement stalled. Jonathan and I agreed to have him euthanized. But first, I got a big selection of tasty canned cat foods that had been banned because of his kidney disease, plus some little chewable treats shaped like turkeys. Josie decided he’d like the beef dinner. So I fed it to him and discovered that now I had to hold his head to the bowl, because he kept listing to the right, bonking his nose on the rim. But with help, he downed the whole bowl, purring. Then I laid him down on his side, which made him look like a regular sleeping cat, not a paralyzed cat. And I rested my head on his head, and he purred some more. I checked on him last night at midnight — he kindly peed right there with me watching, so I could go to bed confident that he would not spend the night lying in his own urine. I got him all comfy, then spent a long time lying with him on the bathroom floor, cuddling him and telling him the truth: that I could not have wanted a better cat. I left him asleep, warm and dry. I woke up in the morning, dreading the fact that I had to write a column and then take him to the vet to put him down. I found him dead, still warm. He couldn’t have been gone longer than a couple of hours. Considerate to the last, his final act was to die at home, sparing me this terrible decision.
He was my first baby.
Write to Marjorie at [email protected].