Pets Never Leave You

NYT/ By Elizabeth Stein

For years, my husband told me, “You’re the love of my life. Nothing you do could ever make me leave you.”

Then he met someone else, and it was over. As promised, it was nothing I had done.

It had been the second marriage for both of us, and he had come with young daughters, a daunting prospect for me as someone who had grown up in a difficult family and sworn off having children of my own. But they soon joined their father in my heart.

I brought my two cats, who had no experience with children. The girls tried to pet them, only to be rewarded with a claw impaled in a hand, then tears. Two years on, we moved to a new apartment in Brooklyn. The first night found the cats snuggled in the girls’ bunk beds. I finally relaxed.

When the girls wanted a kitten of their own, my unease returned. At the local shelter, a place notorious for euthanizing animals soon after they arrived, my husband filled out paperwork while I accompanied the girls to the cat room. Immediately, their attention was drawn to a solitary kitten with dark fur, shaking in a cage.

The attendant unlatched the door and in a flash the kitten was in the girls’ arms. When they tried to put her back, the kitten spread her limbs like a starfish to block the door. I noticed the sign on her cage — “Female. Approx. 8 weeks. Found Flatbush Ave.” At checkout, the attendant noted she was under the minimum two pounds required for adoption, but, knowing the alternative, he popped her in a cardboard box and handed her over.

The girls named her Tigerlily, for a character in “Kung Fu Panda.” They played with her all weekend, but on Sunday night they returned to their mother’s house, while the kitten stayed in their bedroom, quarantined until her parasites were eradicated.

I worked from home, so her care was left to me. Every hour or so, her mewing beckoned, my deadlines be damned. The older cats hissed at her. I knew how they felt. I had to give Tiger a syringe of pink medication several times a day. I would lay her small body lengthwise in my lap and hold her head while aiming the plastic syringe past minuscule razor teeth into the back of her throat.

She started to fight back more, snagging me with her wee claws, and I became increasingly annoyed that this burden had fallen to me.

Within weeks I had run out of patience. I had been taking care of this obligation for the three people I loved. When she squirmed, I gripped her tiny head hard enough that she cried out. In that moment, I realized I had no beef with her. “Forgive me,” I thought.

As Tiger grew, I noticed how much noise she made, chirping and whirring all day. “She’s a tortie,” the vet said, referring to her tortoiseshell coloring. “They do that.”

She threw herself in front of the older cats, offering herself up for baths. They swatted her away. When she tried again, they would kick or bite her. Undeterred, she ultimately won them over.

She made the humans her family too. The girls were a given, but she also set out to woo me, climbing onto my chest, her purr deafening. She would meow at me until I followed her into the kitchen and fed her, glancing back as she ate to make sure I was still there — a holdover, perhaps, from her life on the streets. This cat had survival skills.

Several years later, my husband persuaded me, a lifelong New Yorker, that we should buy a house in New Jersey. We were there only a few weeks when he told me about a pet adoption event at a local strip mall. Now that we had a yard, he wanted a dog.

On the sidewalk outside of an upscale pet store sat a lone Shepherd mix puppy wearing an orange “Adopt Me” vest. The shelter volunteer guessed he would grow to be about 45 pounds.

I did not want a dog, but I loved my husband, so I went along.

From the first, Buddy was my husband’s. When we were both home, Buddy stayed with him, even though I was the one who fed the dog and let him out. To Buddy, I was the help. When he grew to be 60 pounds, then 70, then 80, there was nothing I could do. The now-teenage daughters found his exuberance annoying and barred him from their bedrooms.

In time, the older cats died. Then my husband moved back to Brooklyn to be with his new girlfriend. His apartment didn’t allow pets. Soon enough, his daughters went off to college.

Late one summer night, I put Buddy and Tiger in the back of my car for the three-hour drive east to our new home in a town on the Connecticut shore I had never heard of before looking there. We got stuck in traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway, cat and dog both whimpering the whole way. I probably did too. It was just the three of us now.

At the new place, Tiger started to press herself against my leg when I sat on the couch reading or watching TV. She remained wary of my lap. She continued to fetch me when she was hungry.

She preferred the dog’s bed to her own. Buddy looked beleaguered when she lay across his front paws, but he let her be. When he slept, she put her face inside his ear. She sniffed his paws and walked underneath him as if he were an overpass. She fell asleep with her paw extended to touch his much bigger one. Their boxes of toys sat side by side. Hers: cardboard, empty. His: wicker, brimming with savaged plushies.

When Tiger woke from her daily siesta, she would stride into the living room meowing loudly, then she and Buddy would chase each other around the coffee table. A sudden screech meant that Buddy had stepped on her tail. I would turn to see her thump him on the nose.

One day during the pandemic, Tiger curled up on my lap. It had been a dozen years since I had hurt her. I guess she finally forgave me.

At night, Buddy arranged himself on my side of the bed while I brushed my teeth, then he moved to the foot of the bed, leaving me with nicely warmed sheets, but he never cuddled. I still wasn’t his person.

Tiger made a nest of my hair or crawled under the covers, like a vibrating hot water bottle. She started to spend her days under the covers too. If I approached the bed and called her name, a lump in the duvet would chirp in response. Sometimes I pulled the covers back so I could nuzzle her head, which smelled like clothes fresh from the dryer.

“Live forever,” I would whisper into her fur.

I was in the living room one evening when I heard the telltale ga-thunk of her jumping down from the bed. She appeared at the door, silent. Something was off. Her back half was dragging. She collapsed under the dining room table. I scooped her up and took her to the ER. Tests were run. A spinal tumor. The end, I was told.

They brought her to me swaddled in a blanket so I could say goodbye before they euthanized her. I nuzzled her head, but it smelled like antiseptic. She died in my arms two minutes later.

At home, I swept up her fur; as Buddy sniffed the pile, his tail began to wag.

“I’m sorry, kid,” I said. He slunk away. Months later, he still mopes in the evening at the hour when she used to come out to play.

Tiger was barely eight pounds, but when she left us, the silence filled the entire house. Even after her things were gone — I purged the house of reminders — she was everywhere.

I had lost pets before, my two cats, but this was different. There had always been the noise of a busy life, a family, and other animals, to fill the silence. For eight years, it had been just the three of us.

Buddy still gets excited when he hears a man’s voice, and he throws himself into the arms of male visitors, a constant reminder that he lost the love of his life years ago. Now we both miss Tiger, who, it turns out, was the love of mine.

Feb. 9, 2024

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *