George had stopped eating. Looking at him, it was hard to tell how thin he’d become. His white long-haired coat scattered with calico markings concealed how much weight he’d lost. Still, it was obvious he hadn’t touched the food in his dish. I was worried.
George was born feral, an abandoned, but magnificent, kitten. I remember wearing him like a fur stole on my shoulder, when I begged my mother to let us adopt him. We already had two cats, an older Siamese and a formerly-stray black cat. Yet, after much pleading, my mom agreed to let us keep George. At first, our other cats were hesitant to welcome this newcomer into our home, but over time they learned to accept him as part of our family.
Only a month had passed since our beloved black cat passed away just before Memorial Day. I missed him and the way he liked to nudge the pen in my hand whenever I was trying to write, as if he wanted to add a word or two of his own. I also missed seeing his exuberance whenever we cooked corn on the cob. He loved freshly cooked corn kernels the way other cats loved shrimp.
Our first cat, a Siamese, had been a gift from my dad when I was only two years old. My dad knew my mom disliked cats, but believed this kitten would win her over; he was right. Her love for cats lasted longer than their marriage. Our cherished Siamese cat passed away nine years ago, when I was sixteen. Yet, in my mind, I could still see his clear blue eyes, his sleek coat, and his odd, but endearing, habit of licking my mom’s hair. Perhaps he was attracted to the smell or taste of her hair spray, but I think this was just his way of letting her know how much he loved her.
Now, something was wrong with George. Mom and I needed to take him to the vet, but we knew he’d resist. George, still traumatized from his early days as a homeless stray, was scared of many things. He was afraid of all new people. Thus, he learned to distinguish the regular ring of the phone and the double ring that indicated a visitor was calling our apartment from the downstairs vestibule. The double ring sent George scurrying. Clever George discovered he could tap one of the bi-fold closet doors with his paw to make it open just enough to let him slip inside and hide, leaving the door barely ajar. When we first moved in, George used this maneuver so frequently all our long coats had white fur-trimmed hems from George shedding on them as he burrowed his way deep into the back of the closet. To ensure George could continue to seek refuge from our visitors, who meant him no harm, we purchased garment bags to keep our coats fur-free. George often hid among the garment bags, his bright yellow eyes watching for intruders who might attempt to enter his sanctum, threatening the security he’d found within the dark recesses of the closet.
As anticipated, taking George to the vet was a bit of a challenge. Poor George, a housecat who never left our apartment, was terrified to venture beyond our front door. I purchased a cat carrier with the hope it might help George feel safe and protected during the short trip to the veterinarian’s office. When we met with the vet, she carefully examined George and told us the problem was with his heart. She gave him an injection, which she hoped would help. “He may be able to live with this condition,” she said, “but not if he refuses to eat.”
His heart condition caused anorexia; he lost any desire to eat the cat food he used to hungrily devour. We began offering him anything we were eating, hoping he might find “people food” enticing. This seemed to help, but not enough. So, I started to buy him special treats—treats we were too health-conscious to enjoy ourselves—hoping they would encourage him to eat. I bought him everything from fast-food hamburgers to soft-serve ice cream; anything I thought might tempt him, I bought. He sometimes humored me by taking a bite or two, but he seemed to have lost his appetite even for things he would have loved in the past.
Throughout the rest of the summer, we took George to the vet and followed all of the vet’s suggestions and recommendations. Then, just before Labor Day, George started to spend most days hiding under my bed. When he came out, and I was able to pick him up, I could feel how thin he was. I held him close and tried to comfort him, but it was clear his condition had taken a serious turn for the worse, and we didn’t want George to suffer.
On the Tuesday after Labor Day, my mom and I took George to the vet for the very last time. As we said our final goodbyes to George, I was in tears, Mom was in tears, even the vet was in tears.
I struggled to get through the rest of the week. On Friday, I was alone in the apartment wearing sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt. I’d barely eaten and hadn’t showered or even thought of showering. When the phone rang, I thought about letting the answering machine get it.
Just before the machine picked up, I decided to answer it. It was my cousin. “I’m in the neighborhood. Can I come over?” she asked.
“No, thanks,” I said, “I’m really not in the mood.” She was oddly persistent, until I finally gave in. As soon as she arrived, I began to tell her how brokenhearted I was over losing George, when the phone rang.
“You should answer it,” my cousin insisted, perhaps noticing my hesitation.
I did as I was told. “Hello,” I said into the receiver.
To my surprise, it was my father’s wife. This was the first time she’d ever called.
“Your father’s dead.”
“Your father’s dead,” she repeated. “He had a heart attack.”
Stunned, as if physically assaulted, I felt defenseless as my world crumbled around me. I looked at my cousin and realized she knew what had happened even before she’d walked in the door; she’d come over so I wouldn’t be by myself when I received the call. She meant well, but I felt tricked, betrayed. As pain sliced and twisted my grief-sick heart, I wanted to be alone, to escape. I wished, like George, I could disappear deep into the recesses of the coat closet to feel safe again, protected, if even for a moment, in this unsafe world.