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I always tell my kids that Arnold is the best cat I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of cats. The first cat I remember was Frisky. Then there was Signe, named for my great-grandmother. Then Roo, Larry and a host of others who dotted my central Illinois upbringing.
We didn’t have dogs because my parents were busy people and my dad was allergic to some breeds. Cats were easier.
But none of my childhood cats was as beautiful and sweet as Arnold, a silver tabby we adopted from a nearby shelter in 2010. According to the notes affixed to his cage, he had come from Pike County, a sparsely populated area near Quincy.
“He must be the bastard son of a show cat,” exclaimed my mother, who was visiting not long after we adopted him. “He’s so silvery and pretty.”
Like my mother, my family and I loved creating stories about Arnold. Our favorite was Arnold as a modified Horatio Alger, who went from eking out a life in a cornfield to a cushy existence in our Evanston home, replete with Fancy Feast and fawning teenagers.
Arnold also didn’t fit the mold of the stereotypical reticent cat. He willingly jumped in any available lap and offered purrs and affection. My children referred to him as “The Sh-t,” a high compliment from teenagers.
But gradually, as the years went by, Arnold changed. His personality was still sweet, but his show-cat looks began to diminish. A friend of my stepson’s even referred to him as mangy. Mangy? Maybe he was older than the shelter had claimed when we adopted him, and maybe his tabby stripes were fading. But mangy?
It’s easy to deny ailing and failing in those you love, including pets, but around 2018, I, too, noticed that his fur looked mottled and less shiny. He also looked thin. (I still wouldn’t have called him mangy!)
We made an appointment with the vet, who diagnosed early stage kidney disease, which is not uncommon in aging cats.
We started giving Arnold special food, but he didn’t like it. So we went back to regular cat food and occasional cans of Fancy Feast. I expected him to die within a year, so I told my husband, “He gets to eat whatever he wants.”
But Arnold is still here. He’s skinny and his fur has lost its shine. When I pet him, I can feel the bones along his spine.
Maybe it’s the pandemic and the collective sense of vulnerability in its wake, but his decline feels especially poignant. I’ve had other pets die, but Arnold’s exit feels slow, uncertain and confusing.
I know I’m anthropomorphizing this cat too much. At first, we projected onto him stories of glamorous lineage or a rags-to-riches tale. Lately he’s become an avatar for the humans I love, who I begrudgingly recognize are mortal, too.
And, just like I ask the vet – and myself – how best to care for Arnold, I stretch my mind beyond this little mammal and think about people like my widowed mother. Will I know when her health is waning? Will I know what to do?
“I’m worried he’s in pain,” I said to the vet at our most recent visit. “I don’t want him to suffer.”
“You’ll know when his quality of life isn’t worth it,” she said.
But I’m not so sure. Arnold seems needy these days. He spends a lot of time in my husband’s lap. I worry it’s because he’s slender and needs warmth. But he’s still eating, drinking and bathing.
I know, I know. He’s a cat! But sometimes I feel like I’m rehearsing for when the stakes are higher.
These days, when I come upon Arnold curled up on a blanket on the couch or nestled in between the pillows on our bed, I fear he’s gone. Then I see the gentle rise and fall of his furry flank and I smile. I run my fingers lightly along the stripes on his head and he offers a raspy meow. I bring my face near his and whisper, “You are beloved.”