Fourteen years ago, I was a volunteer at the animal shelter. I walked dogs on Sunday, but in the summer, I agreed to host a cat whose foster home humans were going on vacation.
Oscar was an intact feral tom. Weighing in at fourteen pounds, the jet black cat looked – and smelled – the part. My husband could fit three fingers between the cat’s shoulder blades. His teeth stuck out like vampire fangs even when his mouth was closed. After a few minutes with Oscar in your lap, your eyes would start to swell and your nose would run whether you had a cat allergy or not.
The first time he saw my 65 pound border collie, he nonchalantly raised his paw and swiped a claw across the dog’s nose. No cat ever feared that dog again, but it was the only time he ever acted tough. I looked like I had mumps by the end of that foster week because all Oscar wanted was to snuggle in your lap and rub his face against yours. Once we got him fixed and the smell subsided, no one ever had the heart to push him away. He preferred kibble to mice and would rather chatter at birds through the window than chase them outside. Oscar didn’t like going outside. He’d had enough of the streets and besides, he tended to get lost when he faced away from the house.
Oscar wasn’t very smart. I don’t think that he ever learned his name, and no animal ever in the history of domestication was more consistently in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even the dog stepped on Oscar’s tail. His favorite place to sleep was the top stair to the basement. To paraphrase Bugs Bunny, “Watch that first step – it’s a cat.”
Before I left for Iceland, I hugged my girls and told them to be good and have fun with Grandma. Then I patted the dog and Oscar and told them not to die while I was gone. But Oscar didn’t listen.
We had decided against the expensive diagnostics (roughly the cost of a ticket to Iceland) that would have determined whether the tumor in his abdomen was cancer. What is the point of treating cancer in a 16-year-old-cat who is already showing signs of kidney failure?
We couldn’t have known when I bought my ticket in February that Oscar’s kidneys would fail in July. If I had canceled my trip at the last minute, he would still probably be gone, or would go soon, and I would have missed a once in a lifetime experience. But alone in a remote fjord under the midnight sun, you still have to question your values when you prioritize a music festival over medical care and leave your husband to put down a pet and help your kids deal with death alone.
It’s strange how animals seem to shrink towards death. Once so pushy in demanding snuggles, Oscar had long since become a quiet shadow in the corner, and when I got home, in all the chaos of welcomes and unpacking there almost didn’t seem to be anything missing. It was only the next day when it was time to feed the remaining cat that I looked at the two cat bowls in the cupboard and didn’t know which one to use that I really noticed the void.