What Remains

Monster was a good kitty.

 

He was ancient, nearly 20, although like many cats, his appearance didn’t betray his age. Had I found him on the street, I would have thought he seemed 10 or so. The legend is that Monster started his life as a kitten hiding in a hot tub enclosure, and it’s his rescuers who named him after spending several days trying to extract the reluctant kitten from his hiding place.

 

Monster joined our household about a month ago. Skyspook’s father is in the process of selling his house, and due to Monster’s propensity to hide behind whatever he could find and meow incessantly, Monster needed to be rehomed. We agreed to foster him. Monster was neurotic and had a variety of special needs (if human, Monster undoubtedly would have carried a diagnosis, perhaps autism or a severe mood disorder), but we were willing to put in the effort to integrate him into our home and get him on at least civil terms with our two other cats (also adult males), and between the two of us, we figured we had just enough cat behavioral knowledge and more than adequate patience to make it happen.

 

Monster understandably freaked out a bit from the car ride home (4 hours) and being moved into a new house. Keep in mind that this is a cat who would hide and cry for hours if a slight change were made to his normal home environment, say, furniture being rearranged or even in response to a loud noise in the street.

 

We sectioned off a large part of our basement for Monster, his toys, his food, his litter box, his bed. A folding door separated Monster and our other cats so that they could all smell each other and hear each other and be around one another so they’d get acclimated gradually. We were being careful because we wanted to prevent cat fights, especially since our other cats are relatively active and energetic, and Monster was so sensitive. Monster seemed to be most comfortable in his own space, and we made efforts to visit him regularly, visit, and pet him.

 

On a few occasions, we even brought him upstairs to the living room and let Monster mingle with our other cats. It went extremely well – if anything, our rowdiest cat seemed slightly afraid of Monster, rather than acting like a bully, which is what we’d been afraid of.

 

Still, Monster wasn’t eating very much. We called Skyspook’s father and asked if we should take him to the vet (we were told it was fine and that brief hunger strikes were Monster’s normal M.O. if anything his environment changed). Skyspook and I visited the pet store and bought some formula intended for kittens and took turns feeding Monster with the dropper once a day, just to ensure he was eating something.

 

He seemed to be getting spunkier, turning the corner, adjusting.

 

And then one afternoon, 10 days after Monster came to live with us, I came down after getting home from class to visit him and feed him only to find him stretched out next to the washing machine. Dead.

 

I wasn’t prepared for it, the body. I wasn’t prepared for the empty shell Monster had left behind. I’d never seen a dead body before of something I’d known living.

 

This was different than seeing grandparents at the funeral home, all powdered, made up, posed. They’re made up to seem lifelike after all – attractive. It occurred to me in that moment and in the days that followed. This was the face of death. And by reverse engineering, I found myself in touch with what life looks like (really, visually what signals to us that something is alive?) – by noticing what was missing.

 

After calling to Monster, then shouting at him, and finally shaking him without a response, I felt chills, went back upstairs and told Skyspook, who was in the middle of his workday. Skyspook was stuck at the office, so he gave me a choice: Leave Monster on the basement floor until Skyspook could get home to deal with the situation or take care of Monster’s remains myself.

 

“I got this,” I told Skyspook. “I’ll take care of everything. Don’t worry about a thing.”

 

And though it unsettled me on every level, half-destroyed with grief, traumatized by the corpse, overwhelmed by the immensity of what I was doing, I fought through the aversion and guilt, made arrangements with the vet, packed up the body, and took Monster to be cremated.

 

*

 

I wasn’t prepared for the darkness of the following days. I came to terms with fear of my own mortality during, of all times, my psychotic break in 2000. At the time, I had a series of vivid hallucinations in which I experienced my own birth in reverse, my consciousness unpacking itself until meaning ripped into shreds. Once lucid, I emerged from the (visual and semantic) static feeling that I had experienced a sort of death and the sense that in the chaos I very well should have died. Every day felt like I’d made it to overtime, that the days I had left were more than I deserved and was entitled to, and to a certain extent, it still feels this way. It’s hard to articulate, and I imagine I’ll write about it in the future, but I didn’t fear my death or worry about dying after that point.

 

After discovering Monster’s corpse, however, I was confronted with the concrete, tangible evidence of the deaths of others, traumatized to a point that truly shocked me. I realized that for the living, death was more than an absence of life. It was also what remained, what needed to be dealt with. Death had a heft, a weight, and the living had a responsibility. In the following days, I’d look at my other cats and imagine their dead bodies. The same with Skyspook when he’d hold me. I’d see a version of him as a corpse, lifeless mass needing to be dealt with.

 

For the first few weeks, I did death checks on the other cats (they’re also old), making sure to wake them when I saw them sleeping around the house just to make sure they were still alive.

 

I write about this now because I’ve reached the point that I can.

 

*

 

Monster wasn’t with us for very long. Truly, he passed away just as we were falling in love with him. And even though Skyspook’s father immediately absolved us of any wrongdoing, and we knew that we did everything we could for Monster, we felt guilty nonetheless.

 

The grief remains, but as I move away from it, I’m grateful to Monster for teaching me I’m capable of far more than I think I am, even if the existential questions raised are deeply unsettling.

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