Another eighteen years later, I’m in Washington DC with Miles and Jackson. Our brownstone has fourteen cats distributed (not equally) among its twenty-seven apartments. I’ve started a campaign to change the “no dogs” rule the building has had since the 1980s when it became a co-op. Although I don’t plan to get a dog, I’d rather live among people who are devoted to their dogs than among those who fret about noise and dirt. My next-door neighbor fears that a dog walking up our terrazzo staircase on a hot summer day might leave a puddle of drool she could slip on and fall down the steps. She tolerates cats because they stay in their apartments and cause no trouble to anyone except their owners.
A pet is usually defined as an animal that is given a name, allowed to live in the house as a member of the family, and expected to perform no useful tasks. Actually, pets give us something no human could or should. Their whole existence is dedicated to being with us; we don’t have to hold back from loving them in order to foster self-reliance. We can have a dysfunctional codependent relationship with impunity. If I spend hours watching my cats sleeping—admiring the way Miles’ grey paws are tucked under his chin and Jackson’s powerful back legs are folded so delicately—or hurry home from my late night class knowing that both cats would be pacing the floor and meowing as I approach the door, I am hurting no one. I wouldn’t have wanted this level of closeness with my husband even when we were newly married. The unmitigated mutual regard of pet love would be creepy and wrong with a human.
My preoccupation with Miles and Jackson prevents me from sitting around imagining all the ways in which I could be maimed by the trivial and the unexpected, as my neighbor does. The official argument for lifting the dog ban is practical. I pretend to care about the sense of safety and neighborliness dogs can bring, the larger pool of potential buyers and sublease tenants that would result from including dog-owners. In truth, I believe that pets are an essential corrective to our building’s predominantly single and middle-aged population. We need dogs and cats both to train us to accept small imperfections like shed hair, dusty paw prints, drool, and hairball vomit. Pets keep things real.
Not everyone, however, agrees that pet keeping is beneficial or even harmless. In his book, Dominance and Affection, cultural theorist Yi-Fu Tuan asserts that a pet is “a diminished being” whose sole purpose is to display its owner’s dominance over it. He places pets in the same category as bonsai and topiary, women, children, and slaves throughout history: victims mutilated to become status symbols or objects of display.
I thought, at first, that this extreme view had nothing to do with my cats and me. For one thing, cats are not easily displayable. They don’t like to ride in cars or accompany their owners to cafés where they can be admired by strangers. The only people who meet mine are the friends who come to my apartment and the veterinarians who, almost by definition, never see anyone’s pets at their best. Still, I did make the guilty choice of acquiring my two cats from breeders rather than adopting homeless cats from rescue organizations. Miles, the Siamese, is sleek and cream-colored with blue-grey markings on his paws and face; Jackson, the Burmese, is glossy brown, like a little prince in a mink coat. I chose these breeds more for their temperaments—they are known to be extremely affectionate to their owners—than for their looks, but I do love when my friends tell me how beautiful my cats are.
Regardless of breeds or species, there may be some truth to Tuan’s assertion that a pet is a “diminished” being. The animals that have been successfully domesticated by humans all have a hereditary quality called neoteny, the ability to stay infant-like through life. Almost any mammal can be taken from their mothers and raised by humans, but those without neoteny become fearful or aggressive as they grow. Dogs and cats have the genetic ability to stay permanently puppy- or kitten-like—eager to accept our care—and we further “diminish” them by neutering and spaying to prevent them from attaining their sexual maturity.
In other words, I’m able to keep Miles and Jackson as my pets by infantilizing them. Every night when I sleep with them—Miles in my arms and Jackson on my legs—we are reenacting the first ten or twelve weeks of their lives when they and their littermates were nursing: physically attached to their mother and dependent on her for survival. At that time, they would have weighed about a pound; their mother would have weighed around ten pounds. This proportion remains the same now that Miles and Jackson are full-grown: just like their mother, I’m ten times their size. I feed them, groom them, clean up after them, play with them, pick them up, and carry them around at will. They are indoor cats, not even allowed to go out into the building’s hallway. Since our apartment is only 660 square feet and I work mostly at home, I can see, hear, and control everything they do.
On the physical day-to-day level, my cats’ dependence on me doesn’t worry me. It’s not as though they could go and feed themselves without doing damage to the environment. In many areas of our country, outdoor cats have decimated sensitive bird and small mammal populations. Keeping cats indoors, like getting them spayed or neutered, is the responsible thing to do. Although the decisions are solely mine, based on my opinions and beliefs rather than the cats’, there is enough evidence that these are sensible practices that protect both the cats and the environment. But what happens when a person’s opinions and beliefs are irrational or harmful to her pets? The history of human-cat relationships isn’t entirely reassuring on this score.
The first known “pet” cat in history was buried with its owner in a Neolithic village of cereal famers in Cyprus. When the site, dated from 7,500 to 7,000 BC, was excavated by a team of French archeologists in 2004, the cat’s intact skeleton was discovered less than eighteen inches from the human’s, the two bodies oriented the same way. The human was male, about thirty years old, and the polished shells and stones placed in the grave suggested that he held a place of importance in the community.
The ancestors of the domestic cat were the small felids—the African wildcat—that came out of the woods to eat the mice that infested stored grain in early agricultural settlements. The cat in the grave, whose sex couldn’t be determined, was probably a wildcat that had been captured in its infancy and tamed, rather than a fully domesticated animal bred by humans. Since no wildcats existed on the island of Cyprus at the time, though, this cat must have been brought in from the mainland during the man’s life to serve as his companion. The proximity of the bodies in the grave suggested that the cat was intended to continue as the man’s companion in the afterlife.
Zoo-archeologist Melinda Zeder of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who was not part of the excavation team, commented, “In lieu of finding a bell around its neck, this is about as solid evidence as one can have that cats held a special place in the lives and afterlives of residents of this site.”
The cat was about eight months old; the cause of its death couldn’t be determined. The team that examined the human skeleton concluded that the man perished from an illness rather than in an accident or by an act of violence. Then, as well as now, there were few infectious diseases fatal to humans and cats alike, so the young cat must have been killed to accompany his master to the next life. In many ancient societies, animals—even humans—were sacrificed to follow kings and chieftains into death. People today are more likely to scandalize others by leaving their fortune to their pets than by causing their pets to be killed and buried with them. Still, the burial site points to an uneasy aspect of pet keeping. An animal who is loved by a human has no control over his destiny. He could lose his life to our belief—or fantasy—that the two of us should travel together into the next life. Or he could be kept alive too long because his owner was afraid to let him go and move on alone into the next era of her life.
My first cat, Dorian, was a seal-point Siamese born in 1979, a muscular cat who, at fourteen pounds, managed to look imposing but sleek. He bit all my friends and drew blood, but he followed me around the house meowing and purring. I could do anything to him. I brushed his teeth, trimmed his claws, and picked him up by his hind legs and dangled him upside down like a bat just for fun. The afternoon he got stung in the face by wasps, he sat in my arms without struggling while I held an ice cube to his cheek. He didn’t have nagging digestive or hairball problems like many cats. He only had to go to the vet for his annual physical examination and vaccination until the early summer of 1997, when I noticed he wasn’t finishing all his food. Then one hot afternoon, he started breathing with his mouth open.
After the X-rays and the biopsy confirmed that he had a malignant tumor on his lungs, the veterinarian could offer no treatment, just palliative care. Because Dorian wasn’t expected to live long enough to suffer the long-term side effects, he could be given high doses of the steroids needed to ease his breathing and increase his appetite. School was out, and I was home every day to care for him. He was a model patient. He didn’t resist or struggle when I crammed pills down his throat. He swallowed and looked at me as if to say, Okay, what’s next?
The medication was amazingly effective. Within days, Dorian was breathing normally and eating his food again. Eventually the cancer would spread, the steroids would ravage the rest of his body, or both. For the time being, though, he perched on my lap, purred loudly when I petted him, and when I got up, he followed me around the apartment instead of slumping back into sleep. If I had been in his position, I would have chosen to die as soon as the medication started working, and I was
restored to temporary health. I would have asked for just enough time to plan and execute a quick exit. But unlike me, Dorian wasn’t going to sit around contemplating his impending death. He wouldn’t spend sleepless nights asking questions that had no answers and become too paralyzed to enjoy the last good stretch while it lasted. A cat really does know how to live moment by moment. So I decided it was okay not to hasten the end, but I agonized over this decision. I worried I might be holding on more for me than for him.
I had been divorced for two years by then, but my ex-husband, Chuck, and I played tennis every week and had coffee afterward at a café near the courts. Chuck was the only person besides me who could handle Dorian. In the thirteen years the three of us were together, Dorian had never slept with Chuck or run to the door to greet him if I was home, but in my absence, the two of them were quite chummy. Whenever I went out of town after the divorce, I brought Dorian back to the old house.
Chuck had looked forward to these visits: Dorian reminded him of the German shepherd he’d had before we met, a dog that refused to let anyone, including his roommates, into the house unless accompanied by Chuck. People still talked about how Levi had circled their car, growling and barking, until Chuck came out to the driveway and called his name. Chuck and I shared our difficult-pet karma.
The first time we played tennis after Dorian was diagnosed with cancer, I asked Chuck if he wanted to have coffee in my apartment instead of at the café so he could spend time with Dorian.
“No,” Chuck said. “I’d rather remember him from when he was really himself.”
I assured Chuck that Dorian was doing well. He had lost some weight, but otherwise, he was the cat I’d known all along.
“It’s okay,” Chuck said. “Really, I don’t have to see him now.”
Chuck didn’t believe in deathbed farewells. He hadn’t visited his grandparents when they were dying because he considered it artificial and false to “say goodbye” in a hospital room to a person who could no longer fully respond. “I’d rather remember him from when he was really himself” was exactly what he had said when his grandfather was in an emergency room with a brain aneurism and his father called to say that he wasn’t expected to make it through the night.
The afternoon I invited Chuck for coffee, Dorian wasn’t at that point yet, but Chuck must have thought I was exaggerating how well he was. And maybe I was, if not to Chuck, then to myself. I was hoping Dorian would hang on for several months before the cancer worsened. But a few weeks later, when he suddenly stopped eating and was breathing with his mouth open again, I knew the time had come to intervene.
When I called and said I was taking Dorian to the vet and asked if he wanted to go with me, Chuck said again that he preferred to remember Dorian from a better time. I personally believed that the death of someone you loved would always seem unfair, untimely, and unreal, so avoiding the last goodbye was only a useless evasion. I also didn’t want to spend the last twenty minutes of my life with Dorian with me behind the wheel and him in the pet carrier. I would much prefer to be in the passenger’s seat with him on my lap.
But all I said to Chuck was, “I understand. You can call me afterward if you want.”
I didn’t insist on Chuck driving us because I couldn’t stand having people help me against their will. I was prepared to exercise the ultimate control there was over another being—to end Dorian’s life for him because I decided his suffering was too much—and yet I didn’t ask Chuck to help me carry out this decision. If Chuck didn’t want to be there for me, I thought, I didn’t want him around, either.
I had been worried about letting Dorian die too soon or too late. It was possible that my idea about what was right for him was utterly wrong. That was the heartbreak of the situation. For nearly eighteen years, I could assume—or harmlessly delude myself into thinking—that Dorian’s needs and my needs were the same: a comfortable home, quiet days and evenings together, play eat, sleep, repeat. Once he started dying, though, Dorian’s physical comfort was the only thing that mattered, and my own feelings—my desire for him to be with me forever—had to be kept out of the equation. Our paths had diverged even while he was still alive.
As it turned out, the decisions I made for Dorian were as right as such decisions could be. I delayed the end while the medication was working and he was feeling well enough. I noticed and acted swiftly when his condition began to deteriorate. I took him to the vet, held him, stayed till the end, and didn’t fall apart in front of him. I’d even had the foresight to ask the vet for a tranquilizer to give Dorian before we went for the final visit so Dorian wouldn’t gather what little strength he had left to make the procedure even worse than it had to be. I knew when I held him on my lap in our apartment and gave him the pill that we were saying good-bye in the least horrible way possible.
The wrong decision I made was about Chuck. I had no right to assume that he didn’t want to help me. On that last day, all I said was, “Do you want to come with me?” presenting his coming along as something he could do or not do for himself, not for me. I should have said, “I know this isn’t something you want to do, but I need you to drive so I can hold Dorian and give all my attention to him before I have to let him go. Will you help me?” Chuck could still have said no. He had never before accompanied Dorian and me to the veterinarian’s office. It would have been awkward and painful for him to go with us just once, at the end. I would have been asking for the impossible, really. Still, if I had asked and he had said no, we would both have had the satisfaction of having been honest.
My favorite essay about marriage, “He and I,” begins with a simple irreconcilable difference: “He always feels hot, I always feel cold.” The Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg wrote about how she and her husband disagreed about everything from food, music, and art to the management of their finances and bullied each other at every turn. Even though there is a hint of affection in the way she makes fun of him, we wonder how two people so unsuited to each other could have fallen in love and gotten married.
In the last section of the essay, Ginzburg reveals that she and her husband had met once in their youth, but the idea of marrying him, at the time, was “light years from me.” They lost touch for years, met again, and married. She still doesn’t tell us what drew them to each other the second time. Instead, she describes their first meeting, twenty years ago, when they were “two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting: who chatted a little about everything, perhaps, and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for