mr. n. cat, 1994-2009
I like dogs. I wanted to own a dog. But I like traveling, and I like working, so I got a cat. I project managed this pet acquisition, dammit. I researched shelter cats online, and I turned up at Seattle Animal Control on a Saturday morning in February of 2001, with a cat-knowledgeable friend in tow, and my shortlist of candidates from their website.
All of whom were all already adopted.
I know God wanted me to go get Nebula and bring him home, because the volunteer working with the cats that morning was terrible, did everything he could to discourage people or make them feel bad. I ignored him, and looked down the line of cats in cages. He was the only black cat, which, believe it or not, was a criteria. He was a boy cat. He was older. He was sitting there, calmly.
I asked to see him.
The volunteer made a face, sighed, opened the cage, took him out, and put him on my lap.
Nebula sat there calmly and started to flick his tail. Let’s go, he seemed to say. What took you so long?
You know they don’t do that, my cat-friend said.
I looked at the cat and I got cold feet. I panicked. How could I take care of another living thing? No, I said, it wasn’t right. Part of it was the icky volunteer, but the other part was just sheer panic. I handed the cat back. I couldn’t face it.
We walked out of the building and stood at my car. Are you sure, asked my friend?
I thought about the cat’s face when he was put back into the cage. Oh, no, are you really going to leave me here to go home with some family from Lynnwood???”
No, I said. I’m not sure, actually. I’m going back to get the cat.
I went back inside and walked up to the desk and said, I want the cat I just looked at. Here’s the paperwork. Here’s my landlady’s number.
They looked up in shock. Someone is really going to take a 7 year old cat home? Okay, they said. we’ll get him ready.
25 minutes later I walked out with a cat in a cardboard carrier. I carefully put him on the floor of the passenger seat and drove up the hill to my house. (I literally lived two blocks away from the place.) I carried him in the house, opened the door to the bathroom, and gently coaxed him out.
He promptly walked all the way underneath the counter to the back corner. I was Warned about this. You Won’t See Him For Days, my cat-friends said, don’t take it personally.
I made a quick litterbox, and got back in the car to run up to Petco. I came home, set everything up, and opened the bathroom door.
I got down on the floor and looked at him, with his back against the wall, in the corner. Hello, cat, I said. How you doing?
He slowly made his way out from underneath the counter.
Great. Why don’t you come over here?
I ushered him out into the apartment.
I showed him the litter box.
I showed him his food.
I sat down on the couch, and he promptly hopped up on it. It was my $200 New Year’s Eve couch, I didn’t care much about what a cat might do to it.
I grabbed a fleece blanket and put it on my lap and stretched out my legs.
He climbed up onto my lap.
I fell asleep.
So did he.
Nebula had the poor fortune of coming into my life right when Pearl Jam released Binaural. The artwork, featuring the Eagle Nebula, was all over my house. Thus, Nebula. By rights, my classy, tuxedo-wearing gent should have been Otis or Sam or Jackie. Instead, he got stuck with a name that no one could ever pronounce or understand.
(Buddy, I am so sorry about that.)
Victoria called him Nebbie Cat, and she was probably the only one of his many lady friends he would tolerate a nickname from. The boyfriend was the one who started the Mr. Nebula honorific when we first started dating, out of deference to the existing man of the house. It stuck. Mr. Nebula, or “Buddy”.
The two of them bonded almost instantly. Nebula did not like everybody. Heck, he vetted the movers coming to the house to take estimates when I left Seattle. But he liked the boyfriend, and the boyfriend, not a cat person, would fall asleep with Nebula lying on his chest, claws sunk into his sweater.
Don’t worry, they were very manly snuggles between two manly men.
Nebula was what they call “a shoulder sitter.” I called him “the amazing snuggles cat”. I had a cat that HUGGED me. Seriously, how awesome is that? You have a crappy-ass day, you come home, the cat wants attention, you pick him up, put him on your shoulder, and he starts rubbing his head against you and purring 50 million miles an hour. I dare you to be upset or sad or angry after that. You are filled with love and light and your brain flashes images of grassy meadows and babbling brooks and suddenly your lungs can fill with air again.
Our first night together, he wanted to sleep on the bed. I was fine with that, but he had a shelter cold, so he was sneezing, and he wanted to sleep ON THE PILLOW RIGHT NEXT TO ME. I kept relocating him to the end of the bed, patting him into place as though that was going to magically affix him to that spot. He wouldn’t have it. We compromised with him in the middle of the bed.
I woke up with him sleeping on my pillow, right above my head. I discovered this when I woke up, turned over, and immediately got a mouthful of cat fur.
We eventually learned to work this stuff out. But I could never get him to sleep under the covers.
They say owning a pet changes you. I don’t know about you, but I know a lot of crappy pet parents. I think it changes you if you want to be changed.
Nebula changed me.
You absolutely cannot be stupid or self-centered or careless and take care of an animal. You have to constantly stop and re-evaluate what you’re doing. You have to deliberately be inconsiderate and nasty if you are taking care of an animal, because the very act of taking care of another living thing is going to require you to be human.
Nebula would wake me up. He would nag at me to go to bed. He would not leave my side if I was sick. He would let me know if something, anything was wrong.
He also saved my life on more than one occasion, or at least saved me from terminal stupidity. No matter what I wanted to do, at the end I’d think, “…but then what do I do with the cat?”
He was also great in smacking me out of my own self-pity. I would be sobbing and crying and lying on the floor listening to Gram Parsons or Heartbreaker on repeat, and using the cat as a large tissue. He would certainly allow it, but after a point he only tolerated it, and after another point he would stand up, shake himself, wash his face, and then sit there with a look that said, “Enough already, lady.”
And he would always be right.
Like all cats, Nebula didn’t like when we went away. There was pouting, there was sulking, there was climbing into the suitcase, there was sitting on the newly drycleaned clothes waiting to be put into the bag.
And then, there was this incident:
The debris is the boyfriend packing to move to Chicago temporarily. I trust that the gesture needs no explanation.
The little guy survived a cross-country move in a car with no air conditioning at the beginning of July, manned the ramparts in a Lower East Side tenement, and then, finally, moved to what was known by some people in my house (not me) to the “Nebbie Palace of Love” in Greenpoint. He was probably happiest there, carpet and hardwood, enough hiding places and windows and sunbeams and dark corners, and two people – not just one – attending to his every need. This was, of course, besides the endless parade of lady visitors.
He was handsome, and he was a charmer. He was loud and loquacious. He did not like when you talked on the phone, and yes, he knew the difference between talking on the phone and talking to another person (and he could also tell if you were faking it). When I worked from home, he woke me up as soon as the office phone rang for the first time, and once he was sure I was awake, would go into the office and climb onto the extra chair, ready for work. He liked sitting in boxtops and on cordura, and preferred reclining on the back side of a seriously low-fi High Sierra daypack to the $45 “Snuggle Ball” I bought with a particularly grand windfall.
In short, just like your cat. Or some other cat that you know. Not that it makes him any more or less special.
He was just Nebula.
Nebula started to lose weight, and then one day there were bones where there used to be cat, and trips to the vet and bloodwork. They said thyroid, we feared diabetes, and in the end, it was the big C, lymphoma. Even then, he was doing as well as could be expected, and we had an appointment to see the oncologist on Wednesday. We went to DC on Sunday, knowing he would be grumpy at having been at the vet all day Saturday for the sonogram and would want to be largely left alone, and no one at the vet was acting like he was seconds away from shuffling off this mortal coil.
I was home on Monday, and after being awake for 20 hours straight on Sunday, couldn’t motivate myself to do much. So I had a normal day, reading, talking to the cat, watching tv, talking to the cat, cleaning, moving the cat, writing, talking to the cat and then, finally, I tried to get him to nap with me and he wouldn’t have any of it. He wanted to be near the baseboard heater in a corner in a cat bed.
When Glenn came home around 6:30, something was wrong. We found him in an odd place, under my desk, and when we coaxed him out, he went under the ottoman.
My heart froze. I knew what this meant. I don’t know how I knew this but I did.
Panicked, I called the vet, who wasn’t there. And so I called Missouri, and told Jean that I couldn’t get ahold of my vet and that I was going to have to ask her to be my vet, that I thought Nebula was dying. Jean and Tony have taken care of dozens of cats at this point. They are cat people. They know cats.
She agreed with me, and she and Tony stayed on the phone to talk to me and try to talk me down and through it and I don’t remember much but I remembered enough.
The boyfriend was not ready. We were going to the oncologist. Our cat was not dying tonight.
I got him to walk up to the grocery store and get some cans of tuna and salmon. Maybe we could get Nebula to eat.
Nebula climbed onto my reading chair, propped his head up on one of my travel pillows, and looked at me with sad and miserable eyes. He couldn’t talk any more; his quack was now a rare squeal, reserved for moments he was truly unhappy or uncomfortable. I found a classical station online and put that on for him, hoping it would calm him. He would rest his head on his paw but wouldn’t close his eyes. The other paw was extended, and I gently reached out and slid my finger underneath it. He used to like that, he would close his paw around my finger tightly. He didn’t have the strength to do that right now, but when I tried to move away, he definitely wouldn’t let me go.
I didn’t go.
We kept trying to tell him that it was okay, that he could go, that the boyfriend would take care of me, that he shouldn’t be scared. He kept trying to get comfortable, finally ending up in a washtub full of laundry in the bathroom.
It was when the boyfriend brought him to the kitchen to try to get him to eat some canned salmon that we realized how bad it was, or had just gotten. I will spare you the end, since he was a dignified fellow who would be mortified that I was sharing his personal business with the internet, but it was not good.
And that was when the boyfriend said, “How much longer are we going to let him suffer?” and I changed “Let’s see how he is in the morning” to “I want to take him tonight.”
The boyfriend cleaned the snow off the car and at 12:45, I gently set the cat into an archive box with his cushion and his blanket – not the carrier, he hated that damn carrier, and he loved boxes and box tops – and we drove through the dark icy quiet Brooklyn streets to the emergency vet. Nebula sat calmly the entire way, sitting up, facing me, looking me right in the eye, those big green eyes. I told him where we were going and why but I don’t know if he heard me any more at that point. We told him stories the whole way there, reminded him that he was the strongest cat in Brooklyn and the most handsome cat in the whole five boroughs. I told him that all of his friends everywhere were thinking about him.
When we got to the vet, there was a parking space right out front. In Cobble Hill, on a snow day, this was a minor miracle already.
The people there were truly wonderful. The vet confirmed that we were doing the right thing and praised us for making the decision. That they could admit him if we wanted but he wouldn’t go home with any quality of life.
They left us alone to say goodbye, although we had been saying goodbye all night.
He went so quickly, one deep breath and he finally relaxed, finally went to sleep, while the boyfriend and I talked to him about salmon and sunbeams and attractive lady friends of the feline persuasion that awaited him.
I kissed him one more time, and we went home. I couldn’t prolong it, because if we had stood there much longer I would have started screaming. We told funny stories about the cat the whole way back. I wasn’t expecting to feel relief and lightness, and even happiness that he was gone but he wasn’t in pain and wasn’t miserable any more. The boyfriend poured the whiskey, I put on “Rhapsody in Blue” (which came to me in a flash as something he would have approved of), and we toasted our cat’s spirit into the Brooklyn night.
I am still lost and lonely and alternately numb and crazed with grief, and when I’m home, if I turn my head quickly I see him out of the corner of my eye. I’m praying for this period to pass about as much as I’m praying for it not to.
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