There is absolutely no reason for you to read this post. I had to write it. You don’t have to read it.
In my eulogy for my cat Mist, I described how Mist and her brother Shadow came into my life. They were the offspring of Jersey City street cats.
Shadow carried the street-wise feral heritage of his parents more strongly than his sister did. He was defensive and territorial. If someone visited my place and closed the bathroom door, he perceived it as an annexation of his sovereign kingdom even though he rarely entered the bathroom after he exited kittenhood. He would wait outside the closed bathroom until his space was returned to him. He was likely to pounce and attack the invader.
The same behavior applied to any part of my apartment that he decided belonged to him at the moment: my bedroom, portions of my living room, my bookshelves.
This sounds sweet. It wasn’t. For the majority of my friends, Shadow was a hissing aggressive demon whose behavior was atrocious.
But the overriding reason for his behavior, far more than his Jersey City street roots, was L. She was my cleaning lady for about ten years. L had a quality that most people had to see to believe: All cats grew to hate her. She treated them like dogs, she couldn’t or wouldn’t grasp their need for personal space, and (at least for cats in my apartment) she’d ram the Loud Noise of Doom (known to humans as a vacuum cleaner) into whatever item of furniture my cats were resting on.
My previous pair of cats, Pepper and Ginger, hated L, but they liked everyone else. Shadow and Mist came into my home and were exposed to L as kittens. They quickly separated all of humanity into two groups: me, and everyone else including L.
If you resembled L in any way, Shadow and Mist would hate you. That association could be triggered in a variety of ways: if you were a smoker, if you were in the medical profession (L was training to be a nurse), if you were a woman, or if you were a carbon-based life-form. If you fit any of those criteria, you could be L, and my cats would hate you.
(It’s reasonable to ask: Why didn’t I just let L go? Two reasons: she was one of the other members of my Wiccan group thirty years ago, and it’s hard to fire one of your friends. Also, about five years along she had a brain aneurysm, and I just couldn’t kick out someone with a brain injury. She finally left when she got married and moved to Virginia, but the damage to my cats had been done.)
Mist responded to L and potential Ls by staying in my bedroom; many of my friends never met her. Shadow’s response was to growl, hiss, scream, and claw at visitors he didn’t like, and he didn’t like anyone (including me; we’ll get to that). After a certain point, every single person in my Wiccan class had received a bloody scratch from Shadow.
Once, when my superintendent took someone in to inspect my apartment, Shadow screamed at the inspector when he entered my bedroom to test the smoke alarm. The inspector jumped and ran out of the apartment. It sounds funny, but it wasn’t. I learned that I always had to be there whenever anyone was doing work in the apartment, or I had to lock him in my bedroom. Events like this made me nervous, since technically my apartment complex doesn’t allow pets. (It helps to have paid my rent on-time for the past thirty years.)
Shadow was not liked.
He didn’t like me either. He didn’t want to be held, handled, or touched. When I held him as a kitten and promised to love him forever, he was struggling to escape my grasp. Over the years as I tried to hold him and pet him, he might tolerate it for up to 30 seconds. Then he’d grow violent and launch himself out of my arms, digging both his front and back claws in any flesh he could find in order to leap away. It grew worse as the years went on, until finally I stopped trying.
He tolerated me because I was the only one who knew how to rub his tummy in the way he liked. However, because he didn’t like to be close to me, he would work out ways to get his tummy rubbed while still remaining as far from me as physically possible.
Later, as he started losing his teeth, he became addicted to having his mouth scratched with a wire brush. In the last couple of years of his life, especially after his sister Mist died, tummy rubs and cheek brushing became his only pleasures. I was the hated source of these pleasures.
I thought my previous cat, Ginger, had been cool and stand-offish. That was until Shadow and Mist came into my life. Neither one was much for physical affection, but Shadow resented any attempt at hugs or rubs or pets. There was never a hint of gratitude or reciprocity. He did not trust me, because at any moment I might try to pick him up and (horror of horrors!) show him some affection.
A trip to the vet was a nightmare. Getting him into a cat carrier meant I could get scratches even if I wore a jacket as a precaution. During the vet’s examination I had to ask for an orderly to hold him down, because he wouldn’t tolerate my touch. I took him to the vet less often than I probably should have, which probably contributed to his discomfort in his final years.
I loved him. I promised a kitten that I would take care of him and I did. I made the promise and had to abide by its consequences, even though they were harsher than I ever expected. As I said, I loved him… but I did not like him.
Shadow got his name not because he was a black cat, but because he would constantly follow his sister Mist around. When Mist passed away in 2015, I thought that Shadow would continue to follow Mist. But life is not always the romantic tragedy that makes for a teary-eyed story. He hung on to life with the tenacity of a street cat, even as he lived the nightmare of receiving the only pleasures he deigned to accept from me, someone he hated.
Life with Shadow was not all gloom and doom. He had his traits and moments of cuteness, like all cats:
– He liked to crawl under my bed’s quilt. He usually did this when he was feeling poorly, or irritated, or just wanted to get away from the world. It was also the only time I could approach him and pet him freely, because he couldn’t see me. As the years passed, he finally became too weak to crawl onto my bed.
– He loved his sister Mist. As they aged from kittens to adults, Mist rejected Shadow’s affections, sometimes violently. But Shadow never gave up hope that one day Mist would reciprocate his feelings.
– Shadow and Mist didn’t like walking on linoleum or tile. I’m not sure why. It was rare to see one of them go into my kitchen. About a year after Mist died, Shadow made it abundantly clear that he would no longer go into my bathroom to use the litter box, since that meant setting foot on a tiled floor for five seconds. I had to move the litter box to my hallway so that he’d use it at all.
– Eventually I learned that wouldn’t use the litter box if the cat litter were scented. Only unscented Fresh Step was good enough for him.
– Shadow had a mania for looking out my front door into the apartment complex hallway. He’d meow for me to open the front door. If I did, he’d look outside for no more than thirty seconds, then turn away. Perhaps it was the linoleum in the hallway that discouraged him. If I didn’t open the door, he could get hostile and start hissing and screeching at me. I think he regarded the hallway as his territory and he needed to inspect it.
– Unlike Pepper and Ginger, Shadow and Mist did not sit on window sills and watch the outside world. Perhaps the wood of the sills was too much like linoleum or tile. Or perhaps this was because L would clean my windows without checking first behind the curtains. One time she reported that she had sprayed Shadow in the face with Fantastik because she started cleaning without looking. To be fair, you only have to spray me in the face with Fantastik just once before I will take a powerful dislike to you.
He couldn’t help being who he was, but I couldn’t help being a human being. Shadow’s meow sounded harsh, grating, angry. When he howled or screamed, it was like wild panther or a demon out of hell. How much of his behavior was genuine anger? How much of it was my interpretation of standard meows that sounded like anger? I cannot know.
Without a doubt, he was spoiled rotten. I let him get away with atrocious behavior because I didn’t know any way to discourage it. How do you discipline someone who can’t connect his actions with any response? If I tried the old trick of spritzing him with a water bottle, he would simply grow angrier and become expert at avoiding the wet spray.
I have to accept responsibility for his behavior, his unhappiness at the world, his discomfort at the end of his life. He was a beautiful black cat, with fur softer than his sister’s. He could have been petted and hugged and scritched and rubbed. There was a world of pleasure just waiting for him, but it was beyond his power to accept it.
He became less overtly fierce during his last couple of years, but only because he was growing weaker. He spent almost all his time on an ottoman next to my TV-watching chair. It was the most convenient place from which he could be brushed and petted by me. Of course, as I tried to show him affection, he did his utmost to be as far from me as possible, and never show me the slightest reciprocation for any affection I showed him.
It became harder for Shadow to jump up onto the ottoman. I got him pet steps so he could walk his way up and down. I tried making a home-made ramp out of carpet and fiber board, but he wasn’t able to use it.
His other pleasure in his last couple of years were his cat treats. Every morning I would give him five; if I gave him six he’d vomit. When I got up in the morning, I’d see him sitting alert on the ottoman, waiting for when those treats would be served.
In those ending years, Shadow became both blind and deaf. I thought it hurt him to walk, but once the vet confirmed that he had no vision, I understood: He moved slowly and carefully because he was sensing the world solely through smell, his whiskers, and his sense memory. His fierceness to survive and manage life on his own terms was strong.
Unfortunately, that also applied to any medications I tried to give him. Most cats enjoy moist food, or chicken broth, or tuna water. He acted like these were poison. After the vet prescribed medications for his failing kidneys, I could only give him the pills by dissolving them in water with my fingertips and brushing the powder onto his cat treats. On the vet’s advice, I gave him Miralax to deal with his constipation, but I could only do that by dissolving it into his drinking water.
About three months before he passed away, a bald patch appeared between his shoulder blades. It looked ominous. The vet told me to apply triple-antibiotic ointment to the skin. The treatment worked extremely well; two months later the fur had fully grown back. The vet never figured out what the problem was, nor how Shadow had recovered so quickly.
The last weeks were not unusual for older cats: he had litter-box issues, and ate less and less, even with the appetite pill I tried to give him with his daily cat treats. He still wanted me to brush him and rub his tummy, but not for nearly as long as he’d permitted only a few months prior. The pleasures of his life were fading away. I don’t think he was in overt pain; he usually didn’t hesitate to scream when he was hurt. However, he often looked uncomfortable.
Finally, he even stopped eating his cat treats. I still put food in his bowl, but that was only for the smell to be a navigation tool as he walked from the ottoman to his litter box.
I had a choice to make: Let the vet end it, or let him pass away at home. It was a hard choice. I decided that I didn’t want his last moments to be a scary trip in a car followed by being held down by strangers. The vet offered me subcutaneous fluids for me to administer to make him more comfortable. They worked a bit, but his resistance to the procedure made it more messy than useful.
If there is one blessing to the pandemic, it is that it let me be at home with him during his final days.
I spent three nights sleeping, or rather trying to sleep, on the easy chair next to his ottoman, just so I could be there if he needed anything. Occasionally he would call out, but a touch from me quieted him. Did he quiet down because he thought I was punishing him? Or was it because my touch reassured him that I was there? I shall never know.
Shadow lived to be 18 years old. None of my other pets made it past 14. I think he lived longer out of sheer determination to make my life more difficult. He was selfish and demanding. But, in a strange way, he needed me more than any of the other pets I had. I shall miss him.
March 11, 2002
November 1, 2020
I kept my promise.