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I always tell my kids that Arnold is the best cat I’ve ever had and I’ve had a lot of cats. The first cat I remember was Frisky. Then there was Signe, named after my great-grandmother. Then Roo, Larry and many others who shaped my childhood in central Illinois.
We didn’t have dogs because my parents were busy and my father was allergic to some breeds. Cats were easier.
But none of my childhood cats were as beautiful and cute as Arnold, a silver tabby we adopted from a nearby animal shelter in 2010. According to the notes on his cage, he was from Pike County, a sparsely populated area near Quincy.
“He must be the bastard son of an exhibition cat,” exclaimed my mother, who was visiting shortly after we were adopted. “He’s so silvery and handsome.”
Like my mother, my family and I loved writing stories about Arnold. Our favorite was Arnold as the modified Horatio Alger who went from living in a cornfield to a leisurely life in our Evanston home crammed with Fancy Feast and crawling teenagers.
Arnold also didn’t fit into the stereotypical, reserved cat shape. He willingly jumped into every available lap, offering purrs and affection. My kids called him “The Sh-t,” a big compliment from teenagers.
But gradually, over the years, Arnold changed. His personality was still cute, but his show cat looks were starting to wear off. A friend of my stepson’s even called him mangy. Mangy? Maybe he was older than the shelter claimed when we adopted him, and maybe his tabby stripes were faded but mangy?
It’s easy to deny the ailments and failures of those you love, including pets, but by 2018 I also noticed his fur was looking speckled and less shiny. He looked thin too. (I wouldn’t have called him mangy anyway!)
We made an appointment with the vet who diagnosed early-stage kidney disease, which is not uncommon in aging cats.
We started giving Arnold special food, but he didn’t like it. So we went back to regular cat food and the occasional can of Fancy Feast. I expected him to die within a year, so I said to my husband, “He can eat what he wants.”
But Arnold is still here. He is thin and his coat has lost its luster. When I stroke him, I can feel the bones along his spine.
Maybe it’s the pandemic and the collective feeling of vulnerability, but its demise feels especially poignant. I’ve let other pets die, but Arnold’s exit feels slow, insecure, and confusing.
I know I am humanizing this cat too much. First we projected stories about a glamorous parentage or a story from dishwasher to millionaire onto him. Lately he’s become an avatar for the people I love, who I grudgingly acknowledge are also mortal.
And just like I ask the vet – and myself – how best to take care of Arnold, I stretch my mind beyond this little mammal and think of people like my widowed mother. Will I know when your health is deteriorating? Will i know what to do?
“I’m worried he’s in pain,” I said on our last visit to the vet. “I don’t want him to suffer.”
“You will know when his quality of life is not worth it,” she said.
But I am not so sure. Arnold seems needy these days. He spends a lot of time on my husband’s lap. I worry because he’s slim and in need of warmth. But he still eats, drinks and bathes.
I know, I know. He is a cat! But sometimes I feel like I’m rehearsing when it comes to higher stakes.
If I bump Arnold curled up on a blanket on the couch or between the pillows on our bed these days, I’m afraid he’s gone. Then I see the gentle ebb and flow of its furry flank and smile. I run my fingers lightly over the stripes on his head and he meows roughly. I bring my face to his and whisper, “You are loved.”