You can't get a new pet to take the place of one that you've lost any more than you can replace your very first car or your favorite threadbare sweatshirt. Each one has its own personality, feel, and relationship with you. But that's what I was trying to do when my much loved black and white tuxedo cat, Sam, died just months before my father, in 1997.
I found Sam during a visit to my parents' house after I moved out, when I heard what sounded like a human baby crying near the shed in the back of the property. "You tak-a da kitty home," the Italian woman who lived next door yelled over to me. So I did. From the beginning, Sam made it a habit to crawl up onto my chest while I was lying on my back, positioning herself to stare into my eyes as I read. After months of this, I finally put down my book and stared back. "What is it?" I asked her. "Are you my grandmother, Florence?" She slept draped over my head, with her paw on my hand. Maybe she was my grandmother. I don't know how old she was when I got her, but I had her for nineteen years.
My mother could never stand to see any of her family in pain, and was eager to help me find a replacement for my irreplaceable cat. Just weeks after Sam's death, she learned that her cousin had a new litter of kittens, some of them black and white. We pulled into the driveway of their house in the Lakeview area of Waltham and I met my mother's cousin and his family for maybe the second time in my life. In the corner of the living room was a basket full of kittens, snuggled up and piled on top of one another inside an old comfy sweater. I reached down inside this basket full of kitties - black and whites, grays, and multi colored, and pulled up the one at the very bottom, a funny looking black and white fluffball with long whiskers on her tiny face that curled inward and met at her nose like the unopened petals of a black-eyed Susan. To be honest, she looked like a tiny Gremlin, and her nasty hissing as I lifted her from the comfort of her litter mates made her seem more so. I glanced sideways at a sleek and gentle gray kitten with an admittedly cuter face, but for some reason I still don't understand, I chose the gremlin. At home we named her Bean for two reasons - she had brown oval paw pads, and she tended to pop straight up from standing like a Mexican jumping bean.
I won't lie and say she had a friendly personality. In fact, our dog Roxy, who joined us when Beanie was six, learned quickly to walk a wide berth around her after just one warning scratch to her nose. Many of our friends and family had other nicknames for her: Mean Bean, Mean Kitty, and That Nasty Cat. True, she attacked us and bit down on our hands til they bled if we didn't understand her request, but we saw her sweeter side - the one she liked to hide from the rest of the world. She was our Beanie girl, Beanie Baby, Bean Head. On the Sunday nights when we returned from a bi-monthly weekend in Maine, our tenants knew to let her out after dinner to wait for us. Laura and I always joked as we neared our home about what we would see at the end of the driveway - little Beanie's face in our headlights, her wide mouth meowing soundlessly outside our car's closed windows as if we had left her for dead. We hated leaving her, but she despised car rides and would have foamed at the mouth at the four hour trip to Maine, and the four hours back, so we compromised by not staying at our cottage for more than a long weekend, so that we could get home to her.
Just a month or two ago we noticed a small hard bump at the top of her head, but we didn't think too much about it because we were busy with other things. My mother, Beanie's "finder," passed away in late March. Just days after we buried her, I decided to follow through on a five-day work trip to Ireland, and when Laura and I returned home, Beanie was great for a day or two, crying for a drink from the bathroom faucet or waiting outside the shower stall for our game of throwing bowls of water onto the shower floor for her to lick up.
Although she didn't seem interested in chasing her plastic jingling balls down the hallway, she continued her habit of turning down our initial offering of cat food and treats until we spooned and scooped enough that she could pick from the smorgasbord laid out in front of her. But late on the second day we noticed the lump on her head had grown, and she had a reddened abscess on her back. We treated it with hydrogen peroxide, which my mother always insisted could cure anything. During the following days as her appetite diminished, I took a good look at her and found a lump on her neck, another under her throat, and several on her stomach. We took her to our vet on a Thursday morning, and she confirmed that Beanie appeared to have a breast lump and other hard tumors that were most likely cancerous judging by the growth on her back. Laura and I quickly agreed that we would spend a couple good days with her and then let her go before she was in any pain. She was still purring and grooming her gorgeous long black coat with a white ring around her neck which had earned her the temporary nickname "Ringo" early on. Her black and white rear legs resembled pirate boots, which added to her irascible personality. She was still able to jump on and off the sofa and beds, but she was no longer crying outside our bedroom door in the middle of the night for a drink and extra attention, and only took water from the faucet when we lifted her onto the sink and held our wet fingers to her mouth. She seemed to have forgotten all of her familiar routines, including eating. The sight of her treats in an untouched pile pulled at my heart.
Early Friday morning, I woke to purring. Laura is allergic to cats, but the morning routine is this: Laura gets out of bed an hour or so before I do, pulling up the sheets and comforter on her side of the bed and throwing decorative bedding over her sleeping pillows. After Bean's second breakfast and third drink of water, she jumps on the bed to lay next to me, and all was well with the world when I opened my eyes and found her there, knowing Roxy would join us once she and Laura returned from their morning walk. On this particular morning, Laura lifted her up onto the bed. As I petted her, I was hit with the realization that this was her last full day with us, and I hated to go to work and leave her. I whispered to Bean how much I enjoyed our mornings together and told her I would be home as early as possible to spend the night with her. I was forcing myself to get up when Laura appeared at the side of the bed with a grave look on her face.
"Bevy," she said. "It's been a nice quiet morning here at home, but I have to tell you something."
"Is someone hurt?" I could feel blood flushing my face, and my heart was already racing. She had never learned to approach me in a different way, despite knowing how I jump to horrible conclusions with a sentence that begins this way.
She said, "A police officer at MIT was killed last night outside the Stata Center." That's where Noam and I work. She went on to tell me it was suspected that the guys who shot him were connected to the horrific Boston Marathon bombing on Patriot's Day, the Monday before. And that wasn't all. Watertown, where we live, was under lock down, and we were all being asked to "shelter in place."
"Shelter in place? What the hell does that mean?" I asked. I understood what the words meant, but I didn't understand what was going on. This day was supposed to be about Bean. Laura told me that she had locked all of our doors, and our tenants had done the same.
"But why? What's going on?" I asked, probably a little impatiently.
"There was a car chase after the shooting, and one of the two men was killed around the corner, at School and Mt. Auburn Streets. The other one sped off in the car, and then fled by foot, and they haven't been able to find him. The men were shooting and throwing hand grenades from the car, and the police think the guy who got away might be wearing an explosive vest."
This was a hell of a way to be able to spend my cat's last day with her. It felt like the world outside our home had fallen apart. We soon found out that Jay had been up all night watching the news, and he had tried to call me and texted Laura around four in the morning to make sure we knew what was happening, and were safe. The day had barely begun and it already offered more sorrow than we could contain. I was mourning the ending of our verbal and demanding little pal. I knew it would be difficult to focus on Bean, who had become an integral part of our family, while all of this hell was going on around us, but I was going to do my best to be with her during her last full day. I was also still mourning my mother, and it hit me hard once again that I couldn't commiserate with her about all that was happening, or be grateful with her that my son Jay, who was between the two blasts at the Marathon, had delayed walking to the finish line just before the blast. Later in the day I thought about how I would have called to convince her that my nephew Erik was safe at the Arsenal Mall, where the police had taken him and others who were too far from home as a safety precaution while the second man - the younger brother of the one who was killed - was at large.
I had a difficult time prying myself away from the endlessly looping news stories, waiting for police officers from Watertown and surrounding cities to find some clues in their door-to-door searches, and tried to block out mental images of the bomber running through back yards to end up hiding in our basement. I went downstairs and checked all of the locks, sick with dread and sadness. Beanie was next to me on the sofa, and I followed her to the guest bed when she became restless, and laid next to her, covering her with a soft blanket, and singing the song I made up for her when she was first with us, never making it past the phrase, "Beanie, McQueenie, I'm so in love with you..." When my tears fell onto the top of her head I smoothed them into her soft fur, and thought of the Catholic ritual of dipping ones fingers into holy water as I gently ran my moist index finger over the growing lump near her left ear.
As if things weren't difficult and stressful enough, Laura finally shared with me that earlier in the morning she had received a text telling her that her close friend in a nearby state was in trouble and needed to go to a hospital. It was all too much. The universe seemed to be shaking itself up on our doorstep. And speaking of shake ups, she received a text later in the afternoon that there was a tsunami warning in Hawaii, where her father lives. Fortunately, we learned through a phone call to her father that the report was an exaggeration, and we found space to be grateful for that one break.
By the end of the day, the second brother was found in a back yard in our town, hiding in a covered boat, where he lay bleeding but alive. He was taken into police custody, and by some miracle and the good, capable work of the police officers, nobody else was hurt in the process of his capture.
That evening and the next morning, Laura made phone calls on behalf of her sick friend, petting and sitting with Beanie when she could. I told Beanie stories from her life, and listed her favorite sunny places, and told her what I would miss about her, like her wide-mouthed greetings every time we returned from Maine, and pulling up in the driveway and spotting her through the window on the back of her red living room chair where she waited for us to return from work every day.
My son Jay and his veterinarian friend Pat showed up just before 1 pm the next day, a Saturday. Pat had his black bag with him, and I hugged him and called him the Grim Reaper. After a sedative, some time together, and two shots, Beanie, stretched across our thighs, left us. I cut some fur from her neck, where the white ring mixed with her soft black mane. I lifted her little body and folded her into the carrier and let Patrick take her away for cremation.
As I think about Beanie's last full day with us, I think how fitting it was. It was mean, biting, and nasty. But the love that rose from it, and the community that bonded together in fear, relief and gratefulness, reflected the sweet, soft sides of the Beanie who shared our home for sixteen years.
On Sunday Laura drove for three hours to pick up her friend's dog to stay with us for a while - a beautiful black border collie with a sweet disposition - and a white ring of fur at her collar.