How to Kill a Cat, or How to Prepare for CATastrophe
I have killed my cat a hundred times.
In my head.
Please don’t call PETA.
Let me be clear. I love my cat more than I love most things in this world, and I believe that the only way I can keep anything bad from happening to him is to imagine all of the ways he could die.
I adopted Pippin six months into pandemic lockdown in Chicago.
I’d spent most of the pandemic up until that point unemployed and obsessing over every square inch of my apartment and what could possibly go wrong. I looked for signs of infestation, or signs of water damage. I leaned my face next to my stove to smell if it was leaking, and then ruminated for a while on whether or not I actually remembered what gas smelled like. I worried my A/C unit could, without any prompting at all, fall out of the window and kill someone in the gangway below, leading me, a nice lady, to be charged with involuntary manslaughter. I checked locks and knobs and the locks again for good measure.
My focus was to make the uncontrollable world of a pandemic feel controllable. I wanted to outsmart disaster. I wanted to feel a tsunami coming in my hooves and dash to higher ground. The only way I could do that was to be on high alert at all times. If I let my guard drop for even a second, something terrible would happen, and it would be all my fault. You’re welcome, to the people in my building who were saved from losing all of their possessions in a flood or fire due to my constant vigilance.
With all of these distressing thoughts rolling around in my head, I decided that the only way I would be able to survive a long, cold pandemic winter in my studio apartment was with a companion. I needed a distraction from the worst case scenarios pacing between my synapses.
Along came Pippin.
Pippin’s an abnormally long tuxedo cat with a broken tail and a meow that comes out with a question mark at the end. When he came home with me in a blue and white plastic carrier, he was eleven months old. Also, his name was Pepe. The kitten who would become Pippin was found in a storm drain outside a Holiday Inn Express in Indiana. He lived for a time with the British finance bro who found him. After the Brit lost his job, and by extension, his visa sponsorship, he needed to rehome his cat with urgency.
Enter me, stage left. I had newfound free time since graduating from an Intensive Outpatient Program for the OCD that filled my days. Without a job, I didn’t look awesome on a regular adoption application, but I was desperate to have a cat and the Brit was desperate to no longer have one. A perfect match.
I brought Pepe home on a Wednesday and somewhere on Lake Shore Drive, I told him that his name was no longer Pepe. To honor the strong plosives in his given name, I called him Pippin.
His first night in my studio, Pippin screamed for eight hours straight. Nighttime used to be my time to stay up late and dream up worst case scenarios or perform my checking and inspecting routines. It was when my anxiety was the loudest and meanest. As Pippin stood in dark corners and screamed at 1:00 am, I thought, Oh my god, I just brought home the physical embodiment of my intrusive thoughts.
He didn’t eat for a day and a half. While I waited for him to eat, I researched “what to do when your new cat won’t eat,” and “How long can a cat go without eating?” and also “When will my cat die from starvation?” At the suggestion of a WikiHow article, I poured tuna water over his kibble, and shone his laser pointer into the full bowl.
The soundtrack for those first few days was the cruel voice in the back of my head telling me that something bad was going to happen and it was going to be all my fault. You’re not ready, it taunted. You can’t handle it.
Eventually, he did eat, and eventually he did stop screaming, and in the darkness of the winter, he became my sole focus. And he was not the panacea for my distressing thoughts I craved. He only redirected those thoughts.
Now, I only paid attention to the imperfections in the walls when Pippin peeled the paint with his claws. I swept the chips of Chicago-landlord-beige paint away before he could choke on them. I worried about him slipping out my back door onto the staircase and into the alley when I took out the garbage. I worried about him swallowing the string from a toy or inadvertently eating poison, not that I had much poison lying around. But maybe, I thought, just to be safe, I should research all of the essential oils for my diffuser to make sure they are not slowly poisoning him.
I imagined the look on a vet’s face above their paw print face mask as I explained what a horrible cat lady I had been for not preventing the choking-disappearance-poisoning that had occurred.
By inventing the ways he could lose all nine of his precious lives, I thought I could prevent disaster from happening.
Or, at the very least, I made it so I could recognize every possible worst case scenario that could happen to thirteen pounds of fur.
No, no, Pippin was not going to die on my watch.
And then he did try to die in earnest. If you have had more than a ten minute conversation with me over the course of the last two years, you have pretended to be interested in the tales of Pippin’s feline lower urinary tract disease. I couldn’t think of anything else to talk about with my assigned table at my friend’s wedding back in October.
“This disco ball centerpiece is beautiful. It reminds me of the crystals in my cat’s bladder. Yes, his bladder! Apparently that’s not a good place for crystals to be. Well, the crystals from his bladder, you see, they got stuck in his tiny cat penis!” I said between bites of my over-buttered bread.
I imagined my cat’s death so many times to be prepared for catastrophe, and then catastrophe happened and I didn’t feel prepared at all.
How stupid am I, I thought to myself in the parking lot of the emergency vet on a muggy midnight in May, that I didn’t think to look out for this too? How unfair, I thought, that the world has worst case scenarios that I didn’t think of. Tears squeaked out from behind my eyelids.
I couldn’t go in with him, still in the days of curbside cat care. Instead, I hunched over my phone in the backseat of my friend’s CRV, pulling up tab after tab on my phone.
Tab 1: Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease
Tab 2: Preventing Urinary Blockage in Cats
Tab 3: Chances of recurrence for urinary blockage in cats
Tab 4: Life expectancy for cats with urinary blockage
Tab 5: Cause of feline lower urinary tract disease
Tab 6: Is FLUTD the owner’s fault?
Three days later, the vet tech handed me a new carrier, because Pippin refused to get back in his old one. “Oh, he’s mad,” she said. “Keep him in the carrier for a while until he calms down.”
Back home, Pippin slammed his head against the carrier’s sides until he forced a zipper open. He stuck his head out, pupils wide and wild.
His arm was shaved and wrapped with a purple bandage. He wobbled as he stalked around the apartment. He slept and I watched him sleep. I then followed him to the bathroom to watch him pee (which is only fair considering he does this to me every morning). I held my hand on the back of his head as I aimed the syringe of his medicine into his throat. He begrudgingly accepted his prescription diet with an eye roll, not appreciating the unbelievable mark-up on medical cat food.
I know, intellectually, what a waste of time the worry was. Yes, logically, I know that worry does not stop bad things from happening. Spending my overcrowded mental space and limited free time worrying about what I would do if Pippin got an intestinal blockage does not prepare me for the fight-or-flight panic of a midnight emergency vet visit. It just invites the fight-or-flight panic into a normal Tuesday evening at home.
I know the thoughts only distract from the good things that are happening right in front of me. Unfortunately, intrusive thoughts defy logic. I will check that the stove is off even if I’ve ordered take out for the last three meals. I will rest my fingers on my door’s deadbolt even if I remember locking it. I will squeeze the tip of a match between my fingers to make sure it’s fully burnt out even after I’ve run it under the faucet for ten seconds. Instead of stopping the thoughts and urges with Pippin, I have the tap-tap-tap of small toe beans following me around the apartment as I check. I have the judgmental look of a cat who is always wearing his Sunday best to watch as I sob over the soundtrack of his vet’s hold music, worrying about the fact that Pippin ate part of the plastic wrapper of a COVID test swab again.
He is another thing to worry about.
He is a witness to the worry.
I wish I could just stay, as my pre-pandemic therapist would say, “present with the good,” like when Pippin drags a wand toy across the wood floor, meowing around the highlighter-pink bird in his mouth. Or when he perches on my hips when I sleep on my side, to tuck me in by kneading the blankets around me. Or when he climbs on the bathroom sink first thing in the morning to bump his forehead against my cheek while I pee.
And yet? Tomorrow, I may find half a rubber band on the floor, realizing that this means the other half is very likely somewhere inside his delicate digestive system. I will call the vet and ask what I should do. I will click links I have already clicked purple on Google about intestinal blockages. I will watch him eat. I will sit up in bed when I hear him pawing at the sides of the litter box, ready to check if anything is amiss. I will wrap myself up tight in the worry and convince myself that I’m protecting us both–his body, my heart.
On the other hand though, maybe, after work tomorrow, I will sit down on the couch that has been sacrificed to Pippin as a scratching post. My back will lean against the arm. On the other end of the couch, he will stand and stretch. I will say, “Ooooo big stretch,” and mean it with all my heart. He will crawl up my lap to my chest, slam his forehead into my chin with aggressive affection, and lay across my chest with his mouth hanging open just a bit, like he was just about to say something but lost his train of thought. A little drool will slip out onto my t-shirt. This is okay. I know because I googled it.
I will not be able to reach the remote or my phone. I will just sit, feeling his purr vibrate in my ribs.
I cannot make my cat live forever.
Some days I will still try.
Some days I will just lean back and let us be.
Meghan McGuire is an essayist, screenwriter, and playwright. Her comedy pilot The Way Life Should Be was a quarterfinalist for the Slamdance Screenplay Competition, the WeScreenplay Diverse Voices Lab, and the Page International Screenwriting Awards. She holds a BA in Theatre from Denison University and has studied at the Second City, The Annoyance Theatre, and the Neo-Futurists. Meghan is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Born in Alaska and raised in Maine, she followed her passion for cold places to Chicago where she lives with her cat. Twitter: @mearghan Website: meghanmcg.com