A little black and white cat is hopping around my living room, knocking things off the mantle and quietly testing the dog’s patience with his innocent, precocious behavior. He’s adorable, cuddly, and amusing. I should be smiling.
But my heart aches every time he does something cute, and my eyes keep filling up with tears. You see, this new kitty—named Sherlock by my daughter—wasn’t supposed to be the only cat in the house. We got him a few weeks ago to be a buddy for our other cat, Jack. But Jack’s gone now, and I’m feeling a bit like one of those elderly people in the movies—you know, like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, or the animated guy voiced by Ed Asner in Up—who’ve suffered a loss and just want to be left alone with their grief. But then some pesky new kid comes into their life and demands their attention.
Let me back up a bit. Last June, my family was lucky enough to share our home with two great cats named Mac and Jack, plus a dog named Spencer. As a lifelong animal lover, I couldn’t have asked for much more. The cats were BFFs, and the dog kept his distance from both of them, primarily because of Mac’s ability to terrify him with little more than a glare. Unfortunately, Mac was also fairly advanced in age, and last August—a month short of his seventeenth birthday, he passed away.
Mac’s death was, of course, a huge loss for the humans in our family, but he’d suffered from heart disease, and nobody could say he hadn’t had a good run. Poor Jack, however, didn’t understand. For weeks and weeks, he’d wake up each morning, howling for his missing friend. We gave him as much love as we could, and mercifully, Spencer never tried to hurt him, despite the absence of his bodyguard. But we knew he’d eventually need a new pal.
It took a while for us to feel ready—both mentally and physically—to bring a new cat into the house. Finally, at the end of May, my kids and I drove to our favorite animal shelter and adopted Sherlock. Like Mac, Sherlock seemed bold and unafraid—we wanted a cat who could wouldn’t take any crap from Spencer—but also sweet and affectionate, for Jack’s sake.
As the shelter advised, we kept Sherlock in my daughter’s room with his own food, water and litter box for over a week, then slowly began to introduce him to the other animals. And things were going fairly well. The dog quickly learned to keep a healthy distance from Sherlock’s claws, and although Sherlock and Jack had a couple of hissing matches, they soon began to tolerate each other. Once again, we were a two-cat, one dog household. I was looking forward to a summer with three happy animals.
But this past Monday, I noticed that Jack’s stomach looked distended, almost as though he was a few months pregnant. And we’d all been commenting on how he hadn’t been eating much since Sherlock’s arrival, but had written that off to anxiety over having a new feline in the house. Then, on Tuesday, Jack’s belly was even bigger, and he refused to eat anything at all. On Tuesday evening, I called the vet. My hope was that he had some sort of blockage that could be cured with simple surgery or medicine. I’d also searched Google for illnesses that might cause an eleven-year-old cat’s belly to bloat, and learned about some awful ones, but did my best not to think about those possibilities. After all, Jack had been acting perfectly normal until very recently. Besides everyone knows you’re not supposed to Google medical stuff.
But the next morning, after our vet examined him and did some testing, we learned that he had an aggressive form of lymphatic cancer. In other words, he was terminally ill. It was a shock, to say the least. Treatment would be expensive, stressful for him, and most likely unsuccessful. What did I want to do?
I spent about an hour in the office, weighing the possibilities, talking to my husband on the phone, and listening to the vet’s advice. And crying a lot, of course. Because it was quickly becoming evident that the only humane choice was to have him put down. He wasn’t going to get better and he wasn’t eating. Bringing him home would only lead to more suffering.
Our family is now in a bit of a fog. The kids both have vivid memories of the first day Jack came to live with us; it seems like only a few years ago that we all fell in love with the tiny black furball with one yellow eye. (The people at the animal shelter where we got him told us he’d been found in an alleyway with an eye infection so severe that doctors hadn’t been able to cure it, so eventually it’d been removed.) How can he be…gone? Especially now, when we just adopted a new friend for him? Even the dog is confused and acting depressed.
And then there’s Sherlock. He never had a chance to bond with Jack, so for him, things are pretty much all good. He’s free of the animal shelter and happy to be in his forever home.
It’s so strange, and my feelings are all over the place. Obviously, if we’d known how sick Jack was, we wouldn’t have gotten a new cat in May; we would’ve focused our attention on Jack, grieved his death for a while, and then perhaps gotten a new cat—or two new cats—when we were ready.
But here we are with a feisty, one-year-old kitty who refuses to be ignored. He’s in our faces, literally, and in our beds at night. He tries to hop up on the table when we eat dinner. And right now, he’s fallen asleep behind me on the couch. I reach around to pet him, and he purrs. Once again, I cry for Jack, but I can’t help but love this new creature too.
In all the “grieving old person” movies I’ve seen, the pesky kid eventually wins over the sad adult’s heart. In fact, the pesky kid’s presence usually helps the adult to see the brighter side of life and move on. And I’m thinking little Sherlock will help our family do that. But we’ve still got a bunch of tears to shed. Fortunately, both Spencer and Sherlock like hugs and don’t mind us crying into their fur.