Sunday, August 20, 2006


We were, we decided, slaves of the immaculate heart of Billy, our 14 year old tuxedo cat. He was a fine cat, the finest cat, no, the finest being in the whole world, in the whole universe, even. Mr. B was a mensch. Each night he took his place at DK's side and, as we slept, watched the night through the window at the head of our bed. Mr. B. was one with the night; his purr was an elemental throb, like a sound from the earth's core. We adored Mr. B., totally, crazily, beyond all reason.

A year ago we began to notice Mr. B, once a lean, dense, fur-covered muscle, was attenuating. Bird-bones were emerging from under black fur. You could count his ribs; a row of knobby vertebrae led to a pair of sharp, protruding hip bones. Nonetheless, Mr. B. seemed his old self: fond of out, fond of dinner, able to stand up on his hind legs and, looking at us over his shoulder, pat the doorknob with a paw: let me-owt. A few months ago the vet cut through our denial with alarm. There was something brewing chez Mr. B., something not good. She would do tests: bloodwork, a whole-cat xray. She would sample various bodily fluids.

And she found nothing. But Mr. B. was dwindling. His appetite and energy were flagging. We could, the vet said, do more tests. Scans, scopes. A consultation at the tertiary care veterinary hospital. Surgery, chemotherapy.

No thank you, we said. We'd once given a beloved cat, our large, gray longhaired boy-kitty Toscar, a high tech death at the tertiary hospital. Never again, we'd vowed.

So we took Mr. B. home with a bottle of steroids, an infusion bag of saline, and the name of a local vet who made housecalls. We wouldn't subject the B-dog to any more hated car rides.

And, miraculously, after a day or two of steroids, Mr. B. perked up. Began hoovering up the plates of baby food with which we chased him around the house. Began lobbying, once again, for out. We breathed a sigh of uneasy relief. He even gained weight, we thought.

One morning DK called me at work. Mr. B., he said, had found a new morning spot. In the guest room, next to the photo of the Dalai Lama kissing a penguin. Mr. B. was giving important teachings to the Dalai Lama. Undoubtedly the Dalai Lama was becoming a slave of Mr. B's immaculate heart. We added "The Billy Lama" to Mr. B's collection of names.

But, after a month, he began to fail again. He holed up in the shower, in the closet, under the bed, and recoiled from the plates of food we placed under his nose. So we phoned up the itinerant vet. It was time. He would come in 2 days.

It was always about time, I thought, driving late that afternoon to visit my mother. Her appetite and energy were also flagging. I pictured my father pursuing her through the house with plates of food, just as we'd been pursuing Billy. There was chowder that I was to encourage her to eat. It was about food and it was also about time. Mr. B. had spanned 14 years of our life. He, like us, was a tiny light that had blinked on and would blink off within a vast ocean of time. Of time and matter, time and food. I drove toward my childhood home; shafts of late sunlight pierced the pine woods to my left. To my right, down a dark slope, was the river.

The vet, bespectacled, earringed, blue-jeaned and absurdly handsome, arrived with his black bag. I'm J., he said, quietly, and moved toward Mr. B, who was crouched on a small table near the sofa. He watched Mr B. for a while then gently lifted him to the floor. "There's a mass in the abdomen," he said softly, palpating Mr. B's underbelly. "Like a small lemon. Right here, see ?" I felt the soft, indistinct round thing near the right ribs.

Did he think Mr. B. was in pain ?

"It's not an easy question to answer," replied Dr. J. He studied Billy. "He looks glum," he said. "Melancholic."

So we could try some subcutaneous fluids and an injection of steroids; perhaps we'd buy Mr. B. some more quality time. We'd know within 36 hours. Or, said the vet, we could simply give him an easy way out. I looked at DK. We'd try the shot and the saline. Billy relaxed under Dr. J's practiced hands.

The next morning, at the sound of kitty crunchies hitting the bowl, Mr. B. arrived and tucked in with enthusiasm. Our hearts leaped. But by the next morning it was clear that the remission had been ephemeral: Billy was once again in retreat under the bed. Two dull green eyes stared out at us of the dusty darkness. He turned from the proffered food, adamant. Let me-owt, he seemed to say.

Late that night, fresh from a long drive back from New York, interrupting the beginning of his vacation for Mr. B., the devoted Dr. J. returned. We placed Billy on our bed. Dr. J. gazed into his eyes.

"Yes," he said, quietly. "He's not even focusing. I think you're right. I think it's time to give him an easy way out." One shot would relax him, and put him to sleep. Another would stop his immaculate heart.

It was time to give him an easy way out, and so we did. Out of what did we give him the easy way ? Out of time and out of matter. We watched as Billy subsided into a small, warm pile of fur and bones at the foot of our bed. We watched (although he suggested we might not want to) as Dr. J. placed what was left of Billy into the cadaver bag. There was emptiness but there was also form. We knew that. Matter had its exigencies. Things had to be dealt with. Transactions had to occur. We'd have to gather up the plates of untouched food. We'd have to call the crematorium. Tomorrow morning we'd have to eat breakfast.

We watched Dr. J. carry the small, black receptacle out into the night. We watched as his car -- a gleaming, black Humvee -- rolled down the dark street and disappeared over the crest of the hill, leaving us, the faithful slaves of Billy's now-stilled, but ever-immaculate heart, behind. And, stuck here in time, we began to wait out the long, the seemingly endless tedium of grief.

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