On the day that Christine Blasey Ford testified about being assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, we found Newton, our nineteen-year-old cat, cowering behind the toilet. Each time we reached for him, he recoiled.
My husband adopted Newton before he and I met. I had not grown up around animals and took some months to feel comfortable around Newton, who accepted me without complication, unbothered as I timidly slept on the corner of the pillow, his soft body covered. Newton was handsome, all black with white down his chest and across his face, and friendly—he liked people and he loved food, especially chicken soup and salad (a friend said he was, like his parents, Jewish). He became my companion, spending thousands of hours sleeping in a sunbeam while I wrote. I called him a prince among kitties.
We made an afternoon vet appointment. I went to work but didn’t do any, instead crying as Ford faced a row of dead-faced white men and said, “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified.” She described how Kavanaugh laughed as he held her down, his hand so tightly against her mouth she had trouble breathing. She told almost nobody about the assault because she believed she should just get over it.
The vet said Newton’s body was shutting down. We could take him home and wait what would likely be a few days. The other option started with an anesthetic, then something to stop his heart. She told us to take as much time as we needed and left the three of us alone.
We sat on the cold linoleum floor of the small room and sobbed while Newton nuzzled us. Newton had moved with us from Brooklyn to Iowa City, Chicago to Chapel Hill, sleeping between us on frigid Midwestern nights and lazing under the fan on hot southern summer days, offering his affection and curiosity to the new friends we made in each place. Despite Newton’s long life and decline in his later years, I had not imagined this moment, what we would do in it, or what would come after.
I did not want Newton to suffer but I was horrified by the prospect of ending a life. That we could choose to do it that day, that hour—it felt like too much power.
I did not want Newton to suffer but I was horrified by the prospect of ending a life. That we could choose to do it that day, that hour—it felt like too much power. The alternative, though, was worse: watching him die more slowly, perhaps in agony. The things I wanted—for Newton’s pain to go away, for his body to work, for him to be with us forever—were not available in either course.
We held Newton as he died. Sorrow ripped through me, and at the same time I was deeply humbled witnessing the passage from life to death, the actual moment of ceasing. The vet slipped out of the room and I stared at now-dead Newton, struggling to realize that inside his body was a heart, one that had been beating a few minutes ago, one that now had stopped. The simple math of death boggled me.
The weeks that followed were marked by acute grief. Ford’s agonizing testimony was long over, and the sweaty, red-faced man who liked beer, who had a calendar confirming his whereabouts for the summer in question and firm denials of the two other accusations of sexual misconduct, became a judge on the highest court in the land. Slowly, I acclimated to a catless home, shifting from expecting to see Newton when I came in the door to reminding myself, hand on doorknob, that he wouldn’t be there. I learned to stop expecting him, but I never stopped missing him.
Two years later, in September of 2020, we adopted two kittens, a tightly bonded brother and sister, the first creatures to set foot in our house since the pandemic began in March. It was the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I’d gone years without doing anything to properly mark a Jewish holiday, but after six months of solitude, I needed homemade challah and lit candles, a slice of hope and wisp of faith. I hadn’t entered a synagogue in decades, but I joined an online service so I could hear the minor key songs I’d learned as a child. We raised our glasses to a new year, to our new friends.
I hadn’t entered a synagogue in decades, but I joined an online service so I could hear the minor key songs I’d learned as a child.
A few minutes into dinner a phone buzzed: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. Our spoonfuls of long-simmered stew suddenly felt empty. The small animals I hoped would bring comfort and joy into our home were cowering under the couch, overwhelmed by strange surroundings and unfamiliar humans.
By the time Ginsburg, a towering mind who spent decades brilliantly advancing gender equality, had been replaced by a woman with comparatively little judicial experience who’d once belonged to a Christian group that prized the submission of women to male authority, the cats had names: Scout for the curious, adventurous girl; Boo for her sweet, shy brother. I didn’t remember much more of my middle-school read of To Kill a Mockingbird beyond Scout Finch as a plucky, funny narrator, Boo Radley as the secretly kind shut-in, and Tom Robinson’s horrific conviction for a crime he obviously did not commit. I revisited the book that fall, listening to it while I cooked dinner and did yoga, Boo purring beside my mat. Though the book is dated and flawed, its story of systemic racism felt painfully familiar and immediate.
When Scout first came to us, she had no meow. Eyes urgent, mouth moving, but no sound. She was incredibly jumpy, bolting at any noise or movement. I wonder what happened in the barn they were found in, what dangers she was on guard for, how many times she saved herself and her brother from harm. Even now when I pick her up, she stiffens, her heart thumping furiously inside her rib cage. It’s OK, I say softly, and she gives me a green-eyed stare that says what proof do you have of that? I put her down, let her run, fearful we are doomed to live the same cycles of hurt and betrayal over and over with no movement, no change.
Newton was returned to us in a lacquer box in a red velvet bag with a poem about the Rainbow Bridge, the mythical place where our deceased animals await us. One day Scout and Boo will join him, and I will grieve, putting the photos I lovingly took in their first months into a photo album that will sit on the shelf next to Newton. Sometimes I wonder what the point of protest is. The first tiny meow, a plea for food, that flew from Scout’s mouth startled me. You did it, I shouted, and she ran away. It has grown to a sharp, loud cry, impossible to ignore. Unheeded, I think as I look into her demanding eyes, is not the same as unheard. She meows again, an insistent roar. I put dinner in her bowl and stand back as she feasts.