As soon as I came home from the first day of my very first full time job, my mom wanted to know all the details of my day. It was pretty boring. Paperwork, introductions to people whose names it would take me at least a month to remember, and most fun of all TSA training (zero percent of which I’ve used as of writing this). At dinner, I mentioned, “How’s Alec? I haven’t seen him.” My mom’s face went from smiling to dread immediately. My mom and I are both worrywarts, so I’ve seen her express worry plenty of times, but it wasn’t worry in her eyes. She was afraid. “He’s not doing too well, “ she said slowly. This was not very surprising to me. Alec is the oldest of our family’s cats. At fourteen his health was declining and he spent most of the day sitting on my parent’s bed or in their rocking chair. He wasn’t taking care of himself like he used to either. His hair had become matted and dirty since he stopped grooming himself, but he had the softest fur of any cat I ever owned.
My dad explained from the other side of the table that Alec had really taken a dive earlier that week, after I had left. He had been hiding out in the basement and no one had seen him. They only knew he was still alive because they could hear him wheezing and coughing. It was only a couple of minutes after that that we heard a thumping coming from the basement steps a few feet away from the dinner table. It was Alec, dragging himself up the steps and across the floor to me, wheezing and coughing like I had never heard before. He was unkempt and looked like a ratty bird in the middle of molting. He stopped right next to my chair, his eyes unfocused and looking straight ahead. When I finished eating, I stayed at the table to pet Alec. My mother stayed in the kitchen too, watching Alec like I was. When we looked up at each other her eyes were wet.
“He waited for you. He waited for you to come home.” I replied, “I don’t know,” but I was thinking the exact same thing. I assumed he heard my voice and came upstairs. We had always said that Alec was my cat. He came and sat with me whenever I was home, pushing his paws on my belly before finally laying down and allowing me to pet him. And he responded when I called him with a short meow or a look in my direction. Before Alec, there was Jasmine, who was my sister’s cat (she was the only one that liked Jasmine) and Russell was undeniably a Momma’s boy, following my mother around and tracking her every move. But Alec was mine. I loved the spark behind his eyes and his intelligence. When he was just a baby he would play a game my mother called “pay the toll, kiss the troll.” He would sit at the top of the basement steps and wait until Jasmine would come to the door to go down to eat or use the litter box. He would stand and the door and refuse to let her down until she would boop noses with him or smack him in the head and dash past. Either way, he got the attention he wanted.
We stayed in the kitchen and pet Alec for what must have been an hour. We weren’t sure what to do, since he seemed too exhausted to move. We took a clothes basket and put several blankets in the bottom, making a nest for Alec to sleep in. My mother took the basket and Alec to her room and I went to mine. I was nearly asleep when I heard thumping outside my door. Then I heard a raspy breath. I opened the door and saw Alec, lying there on his side, breathing heavily. He had gotten out of the basket and come to my room. As soon as I opened the door, he leaped up and ran under my bed.
I was terrified. The fact that he came to my room, on the other end of the house and the remarkable speed he suddenly had to dash under my bed were both a shock. But I felt another fear, a fear more akin to that I saw in my mother’s eyes earlier. I felt dread about what appeared to be Alec’s imminent death and with the devotion he showed to me. I felt guilty. Why hadn’t I insisted that we take him to a vet when he was getting sicker? Telling myself that he was just a cat made me feel worse. This isn’t the type of devotion you receive from a cat. From a dog maybe, from a human if you’re lucky. But aren’t cats supposed to be removed and distant? How do you repay the dying showing such love in their last moments?
I went to sleep hoping that Alec would still be alive when I woke up. The first thing I did was check under the bed. He was gone and I didn’t hear him breathing. I looked around the room and I saw him sprawled out underneath my desk chair. Motionless. Instead of the soft, fluffy cat that I had loved, he was utterly grotesque in death. His fur was clumpy and dirty, and he died slumped over a bar that connected the back legs of my desk chair, giving his spine an unnatural curve. I wondered whether he lay over the bar to try to make it easier for him to breathe, or if he did it to suffocate himself. We buried him in a shoebox in the backyard that afternoon, putting a large stone over the hole to mark his burial and to keep foxes from digging up his body.
The timing of Alec’s death – at the beginning of my first job after school – was too apt. I feel that it marked the end of my childhood. I’ve had family members die before, but it was always in another state or I had arrived only for the funeral, avoiding the agonizing hours in hospitals seeing if they would recover, or the anxiety of suddenly having to plan a funeral. With Alec, I was present, watching, and experiencing that very human helplessness in the face of death.