Helen Chappell - February 2011


Memorial for a Mouser
Helen Chappell


We had sixteen good years together, William and I. All along, I knew it wouldn’t last forever; the odds were stacked against us. I was in denial that we’d come to the end for a long time, but at the end, I understood that the time had come for us to part.
William first came into my life as a little ball of black and white fur. He was only about six weeks old, but he was already full of personality when we were introduced at the Humane Society. From the start, he had a great sense of humor and a loving disposition that concealed a will of iron. I’d come in looking for a grown cat, but the folks at the Humane Society had other ideas, and placed a very verbal kitten on the table before me.
After my last cat died, I’d sworn no more animals, no more pets, no more hostages to fortune, no more looking for a cat sitter when I went out of town. I thought I’d enjoy the freedom from responsibility and emotional attachments. I just couldn’t fall in love with something, knowing I’d probably outlive it.
Then one day in 1994, my car turned itself into the Talbot County Humane Society on Route 50 – and there was William. It was as if we were meant to be. I signed all the papers, swore I’d have him fixed and provided with veterinary care, and that the sun, the moon and the finest Fancy Feast would be his.
Sure, his origins were murky. He was from the wrong side of Route 50, part of a litter some heartless monster had dumped out at Stony Ridge. I didn’t know who his people were, and I didn’t care. I loved him for who he was, the smartest, most imperious and playful domestic shorthair feline in the known world. From day one, William had charm in buckets.
He figured out how to use the litter pan immediately, then figured out how to jump up on the bed, curl up next to me and make himself a nice foot warmer. It wasn’t long before he developed a whole skill set of body language to let me know he was hungry, that he wanted to go out, that he wanted to be brushed, that he wanted to be rewarded with a treat.
He was just a great companion. Most of the time.
There’s a good reason writers own cats. Unlike dogs, cats are perfectly willing to ignore you for long periods of time while you’re writing. Then, when they decide you need a break, and they need some attention from you, they walk all over your manuscript, your keyboard and rub up against your screen, because after all, your attention should be focused on them.
Samuel Johnson had his Hodge, “a very fine cat indeed,” and hardboiled writer Raymond Chandler’s Taki slept on his manuscripts. The Bronte sisters kept Haworth Parsonage richly populated with felines and wrote about them frequently. Lord Byron kept five cats in his menagerie, and Winston Churchill kept only one, Jock, who attended cabinet meetings and ate at the table with his master. T.S. Elliot wrote an entire book about cats. The descendents of Ernest Hemingway’s six-toed tom still roam Key West.
Charles Dickens’ cat gave birth to a litter in his study. Dickens kept one kitten, who, needless to say, slept on his desk and, when she decided he’d written enough for one day, would snuff out his candle with a paw.
Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, Vladimir Lenin, John Lennon, Edgar Allan Poe and George Sand were all cat lovers who liked to have a feline or two around while they worked. It’s hard to explain the bond between writers and their cats. But there’s something inspirational and reassuring about a cat nearby when you’re trying to string words together.
Not that there is anything wrong with dogs. Dogs love you unconditionally, and are happy to play and love you whenever you feel like it. If several dogs I have loved are not in my afterlife, it will not be much of an afterlife at all.
But if my beloved William isn’t there, I don’t want to go.
Sixteen years of ups and downs, highs and lows. We shared everything, he and I, and he had me perfectly trained. Whether it was waking me up at five in the morning to let him out, or a sudden impulse to need some ear scratches and maybe some brushing right then and right there, I knew all his signals. He couldn’t talk, but he was a master at letting his wants and needs be known.
On the other hand, he was content to roll over on his back on the back of the couch while I read, balancing his elongated body against my head and shoulders, purring happily, dreaming whatever mysterious dreams cats dream.
He went out, and while he was too fat and lazy to catch a bird, he did like playing with the neighbor’s dog, a sort of catch and release game where they chased each other all over the lawn, never quite touching each other.
Often he was off on secret missions in the woods and the creeks around the house. What he did when he lurked in the blackberry canes or lay perfectly still by the edge of the spring, I have no idea. Like most cats, William had a secret life, returning at odd hours of the day and night with an air of secret satisfaction. “Where have you been?” I’d ask, loading up his food dish.
But he never told me, and I never did learn what happens in the secret life of cats.
As a kitten, he loved to play with dangling objects, and those little claws were sharp. Sometimes, thinking he was playing, he’d wrap himself around my arm and sink those claws right into my flesh. It was a big joke to him, but I’ve still got the scars. William fought dirty. It’s cat nature. He also had a love-hate relationship with an enormous marmalade tom who lived in the neighborhood.
They’d fight, then they’d go off and hunt together in one of those mysterious feline adventures. I missed that cat when his owners moved, and so did William.
Gradually, William grew from a kitten into a full-grown tom. His markings were adorable. He had a long white nose, a tiny white circle on his lower lip and perfectly white whiskers that made a wonderful contrast to his black furry body. His fat little tummy would sway back and forth when he ran and jumped.
When he was a kitten, he could really push the limits. He loved to climb all over the furniture, the higher, the better. One day he jumped up on the highboy and knocked over a 200-year-old Bristol glass vase.
But I loved him and he loved me. As he grew into an adult, it was almost as if we had a psychic bond. Somehow I would know he was outside on the porch, waiting to come in, or he would know when I was about to knock off work and head for the gym. He sensed when I was sad or upset. When my oldest friend died, he curled up beside me and refused to leave my side for an entire day, following me wherever I went. When I was happy, he always wanted to play with his toys or have a nice long session with his brush.
For sixteen years, we were companions. We were there for each other. I always knew he was around, and he always knew he could depend on me. Cats are good that way. They can be there, but invisible at the same time. A cat only gets up in your face when a cat wants something.
They say dogs have masters and cats have staff, and to some extent, that’s true. But cats, like most artists, are essentially loners, content to spend a lot of time by themselves, doing mysterious things.
About six years ago, William was diagnosed with a thyroid disorder. He went on medication, but it was a slow decline. And he was getting older, too. He started moving a little slower, showing a little less interest in catching mice and a lot more in curling up in a crepe myrtle branch in the yard, watching the world go past from a lofty distance.
I denied it as long as I could. But it became clear a month or so ago that the end was near. He was all skin and bones, for one thing, no matter how much I tempted him with real people tuna and milk. He lost interest in going outside, and lay in one place all day long, moving only to eat and drink. Then came the incontinence. This cat, once so fussy about where he did his business, was now missing the litter box entirely. He wasn’t even trying anymore. He was in pain, he was old, he was ready, even if I wasn’t.
It was as if someone had scooped my heart out, but I bundled him up for that last ride to the vet. I didn’t know if I could do what had to be done, and all the way to Easton, I prayed for courage for myself and for a peaceful, painless end for my beloved William, who had been my companion and my baby for so many years.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I’d do it again if I had to, rather than let someone I loved so much suffer for even a little more time. I held William while the vet gave him a shot to relax him. I held him and sang the silly lullaby I’d made up for him when he was a kitten, falling asleep on my stomach. I felt him relaxing and slipping away, gently, painlessly. The vet gave him the second shot, then monitored him.
“His heart’s stopped beating,” the vet said at last. William watched me as the life seeped out of him. The last thing I did was close his eyes.
I haven’t cried in years. Not when my oldest friend died suddenly, not when I got home from a nasty hospital ordeal, not for anything. But when I lost William, the floodgates burst and I cried for days and days. I’d lost my baby, my best friend, my companion.
People who don’t have animals will think I’m silly and sentimental. People who have loved animals and lost them, as we must, will get it. You sign up to care for a pet knowing it will probably not outlive you, but you sign up anyway. It’s a love thing. In this case, a 16-year love thing.
My relationship with William lasted longer than most of my romantic relationships. When his ashes came back in their tiny wooden box, I snuggled it up under the pillows on my bed. When I go, William’s ashes and mine will go wherever, however, together. The God some people believe in gives animals souls and an afterlife.
So, that’s that. We had sixteen wonderful years together, and the house seems empty and lonesome without that black and white bundle.
But I know I did the right thing. He’s not suffering anymore, and little by little, I’m getting on with getting on with my life. Maybe someday I’ll find another animal as wonderful as William.
But as much as it hurts right now, I wouldn’t trade the past sixteen years of love and writerly companionship for anything.