“Mommy, do cats sleep with their eyes open?”
My seven-year-old called to me from the bottom of the stairs, hair still tousled from sleep, clad in his footie pajamas. At his feet lay our tabby cat, Max, sprawled out on the floor. My heart sank. The cat’s location itself wasn’t unusual – he preferred to hang out in high-traffic areas around our home - but even from a distance I could tell there was nothing typical about this scene.
I hurried down and bent down over the small body. I stroked the thick, gray fur on his head. He was already cold and stiff in death. He looked strangely peaceful, eyes open, paws crossed gracefully, as if he lay down to rest and simply never got up again. My breath caught in my throat. Max was gone.
“Oh honey,” I choked. “It looks like Max died.”
“What?” he said, face crumpling as he started to wail. “No!”
My other son appeared at the top of the stairs, drawn to the commotion. “What’s going on?”
“Max died, honey.”
“Oh no!” another round of sobs began, and he joined us at the bottom of the stairs, as we all stroked the cat’s soft fur. We all wept and hugged each other in disbelief.
At some point I managed to get a towel and move Max onto a cushioned bench where we could all sit and mourn him more comfortably.
Maximus – mostly called Max – was a rescue kitten when my then boyfriend (now husband) found a listing for a kittens on Craig’s List. The somewhat blurry picture showed a chubby gray tabby leaping from a post, playing with his brothers and sisters. His mischievous face was expressive and sweet. I was in love.
When I went to pick him up from the foster family, there were kittens everywhere, but I only had eyes for Max. He cuddled up under my chin and purred so loudly as I completed his paperwork. I put him in his crate and as I was gathering my things, I heard a ragged meow. A scrawny black cat was poking his tiny paws at Max through the bars of the carrier. He was so little and his fur was so thin that I could see stripes through it.
“That’s his brother Matty.” the foster cat Mom said. “He’s kind of little and Max is the big guy of the litter. They play together a lot but he’ll be fine on his own.”
He will be fine, I thought, but I’ll never get over leaving this runt behind.
“Will you make me a deal if I take them both?” I asked without hesitation.
Soon I was on my way home with the brothers mewling a chorus in their carrier in the back seat. That was almost 11 years ago.
The kitties have been part of our lives so long I’m not sure what we did before them. My husband, more allergic to cats than either of us realized, took allergy shots and they were our practice kids in the years before we had our own human babies.
Max grew to be a big, sweet lug of a cat. Easily five pounds heavier than his little brother, he was shy around strangers but a constant lap companion to my husband. He would flop over for belly pets and nudge his petter’s hand if they paused even for a moment. Every morning Max loudly demanded water from the kids’ bathroom faucet, a habit picked up in kittenhood when my condo bathtub leaked and they’d play in the dripping water any time access was available. He spent his days batting around balloons and other toys, chasing and being chased by his brother until they curled up asleep together on my boys’ beds. Every evening when I read books to the kids, Max joined us on the couch, snuggling in as if he was listening, too.
Through the years, his little brother, Matty, had some health issues so we had steeled ourselves that he was probably going to be the first to go, something I pushed out of my mind, unable to fathom life without only one cat in the house.
Then last November we noticed that it was Max who was suddenly struggling. I rushed him to the ER and after an overnight visit and a trip to a veterinary cardiologist he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. His prognosis wasn’t great, but we started him on a handful of medication administered twice a day, and he dramatically improved, back to his old antics and demands for water and petting. He slowed down a bit, but he was still the same old Max. We were relieved at the reprieve and settled in for the holiday season.
I morbidly joked that he just had to live until January 10, we simply did not have time for a cat funeral – not with three birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and all the rest of the holiday obligations. Sweet and obliging boy that he was, he nearly made it to my proposed date, and we found him the morning of January 2.
I felt obliged to take his body myself to the vet where he would be cremated, somehow comforted by being the one who accompanied him on his final trip in the carrier, just as I was the one who brought him home for the first time. I talked to him the whole trip down, and stroked his head a final time as I turned him over to the technician. “Bye big Max,” I said. “You are a good boy and I love you.”
A month later, we are all figuring out how to go on without him. My human boys sometimes burst out crying and I do too, when the usual moments of his routine go by without his deep and demanding meows. Just this morning I found myself looking for him in the bathroom, ready to give him a drink from the faucet as always. I bit my lip and held back tears as I moved along into the tasks of the day, my heart sick with his absence.
I find myself somewhat embarrassed by the level of grief I feel over this loss even though I have mourned the deaths of pets before.
Max was different.
This gentle creature rarely needed more than some attention, a warm spot to stretch out his long, furry belly, a few treats here and there. He was always sort of second fiddle to his silly little brother in personality, but his calm and collected manner was soothing and patient. I’ve been his mother longer than I’ve been a parent to humans.
There’s something of a miracle in each pet that enters our lives. Without Maximus, we never would have found Matty. And without both of them, we might not have been ready to be parents together. My kids have learned about love and loss, things so integral to the human condition, taught to them by felines. We are all a little sadder for his loss, but richer for having him for as long as we did.
We got our human boys stuffed animals, gray cats as close to Max’s coloring as we could find, for them to hug whenever they are sad or missing him. I find myself sitting on the couch when the kids are in school, reading and idly stroking the toy, lost in my book and comforted by the familiar routine. Sometimes little Matty joins me, stretched out on my legs, and I have to smile.
The family will have an official funeral this spring when we come out of our Midwestern deep freeze. We plan to let go of balloons to honor one of his favorite playthings as well as to release his spirit into the sky. I’m sure we will all cry again, as I am now, just picturing the scene. I am not religious, but I find comfort thinking that he’s found a place somewhere with dripping faucets, endless bowls of treats, and broad patches of warm sunshine perfect for napping.
Farewell Maximus. We love you.