Somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago, my wife and I acquired a cat named Milo. He came to us by way of one of our sons, who had adopted the cat toward the end of his time in college, and named him Milo after the boy in The Phantom Tollbooth. Our son then took a job in France, which of course meant he had to find another home for Milo. We didn't mind taking him--one cat more or less didn't make that much difference. Over the past twenty years we've had a total of three dogs and five cats, including Milo, and I can't remember how many of the other cats were here when he arrived: at least two, I'm sure.
For the most part they lived outside. One big lazy male named Kristoff had stayed inside for much of his life, but his presence in the kitchen had become very aggravating to my wife: he would sprawl in the middle of the floor, so that you could hardly move in the small space without tripping over him, and absolutely refuse to move; to get him out of the way you had to just give him a shove with your foot and slide him across the floor. So he was forced to live outside for a few years, until one day he just wasn't there anymore. We never knew what happened to him, but there is a good deal of undeveloped (and I hope undevelopable) land around our house, and the chances are probably good that he got into a scrap with some bigger animal. But we allowed ourselves to hope that maybe he had just been taken in by a family who would support him in the style to which he had been accustomed.
Milo, on the other hand, was only half-civilized, and preferred to be outside. He didn't especially like to be petted, he never sat on anyone's lap, and when we allowed him in, he was soon at the door asking to be let out again. We fed him on the front porch, and he showed up looking for food twice a day. He was ornamental, being of a soft gray color with yellow eyes, and I suppose he did his part to keep rats and mice away. He often lay around in the yard sleeping during the day, and made the crawl space under the house his retreat. I always left the door to the crawl space propped open a bit for him.
Beyond feeding him and giving him an occasional bit of petting when we were outside and he seemed to want it--he didn't like very much of it, and got mean if it went on very long--we really didn't have that much to do with him. The outdoor semi-wild life seemed to be his preference, though it was clearly hard on him at times, as he sometimes showed up with ugly cuts, and acquired a notched ear. A couple of his claws suffered some kind of permanent damage and couldn't be retracted.
I worried about him during hurricanes, especially Katrina, which brought water further up toward the house than any other. I was afraid he would take refuge in the crawl space and be trapped there by the rising water. But it didn't come quite that far, and as with other hurricanes, he appeared again a day or so after the storm, seeming none the worse for the experience.
Five years or so ago he suddenly grew very thin, so thin that his shoulder blades were visible. I thought maybe he had worms, but when worm medicine didn't help I took him to the vet. The vet couldn't find anything in particular wrong. In time he got better, and returned to something closer to his old self.
But then a couple of years later he lost weight again, and looked generally very unhealthy. Another trip to the vet produced no diagnosis. Again he improved on his own, though this time he never seemed to get quite back to where he had been, and seemed considerably less lively. Well, he was getting up in years by then, for a cat, so I let it go. He went through that weight loss and gain once or twice more. Sometime last fall he grew emaciated again, and didn't get better. And he was noticeably slower and weaker in his movements.
The winter just past was an unusually cold one for this area, as for most of the country. Previously I hadn't worried much about Milo in the winter, since temperatures rarely get below freezing and I figured it would still always be warm enough under the house, which was where he seemed to spend all his time in cold weather. But since it was so much colder than usual, and he didn't seem to be in good shape, I started bringing him in at night. This didn't work out too well, as he had forgotten how to use a litter box. So I only allowed him in when the temperature got down near or below freezing.
By mid-March or so we were past anything that could reasonably be called cold, and Milo was no longer invited in overnight. But he had developed some curious habits; he was ravenously hungry, always begging for food, and apparently very thirsty, but only for fresh flowing water. We developed a routine: he came to the door, I let him in, he ran to the bathroom and jumped into the tub and waited for me to turn on a thin stream of water, which he would lap at for five or ten minutes at a time. And he was thinner than ever. And he had become more desirous of human contact: when inside he would demand, very aggressively, to be petted, coming up to your chair if you were sitting, sinking his claws into your leg, and butting you with his head. "There is something wrong with this cat," I'd been saying to my wife for a couple of months. "I think I'm going to take him to the vet again." But I didn't do anything about it.
For some months he seemed to have abandoned his residence under the house and taken to the woods, even in the coldest weather. Across the street from our house there is a small creek, and on the other side of the creek there is a sort of hollow in the bank under the roots of a big magnolia. That apparently was his new hideout; I saw him emerging from it a couple of times.
From that vantage point, where he could see all the comings and goings on the street, he began a few weeks ago an even stranger routine. I walk our two dogs down to the bay and back every morning around 7, and every night around 10, and he began joining us on those walks, to which he'd never paid any attention before. For the first few times he did it, he followed very cautiously twenty or thirty feet behind us. But before long he began to lead the way. At the bay the dogs are always running around (as far as their leashes permit) investigating things, but Milo mostly just stood there. Once or twice when the water was very calm he went down to the very edge of the beach and sat on his haunches staring out across the bay, for all the world as if he were contemplating the vastness of it.
I'm hoping to retire at the end of this year, and I decided that when I did I would re-civilize Milo. He was too old and sickly to be living more or less in the wild, but we couldn't leave him in the house all day with both of us gone for ten or eleven hours. So I thought that when I was no longer going off to work every day I would make him a house cat again. His new companionableness had made me fonder of him, and more determined to bring him in from the wild and make his old age more comfortable.
Last weekend he abruptly became much less interested in eating, and seemed to get a little weaker. "I am definitely taking this cat to the vet," I said. We talked about taking him to a different vet, one who had formerly been at the clinic where we take all our animals but now had established her own practice, and who had seemed to be a better diagnostician than the other doctors there. I looked up her number, but didn't call. Monday went by. Tuesday. Wednesday. Milo had eaten almost nothing. On Wednesday night I noticed that he had trouble scrambling into the bathtub for his drink. I will call that vet today, I thought on Thursday. But I was busy at work and forgot about it.
On Thursday night he didn't appear at the door within a few minutes of our getting home from work, as he usually did. He didn't appear for the walk to the bay with the dogs and me. Just before bedtime, I called him again, and this time he came, very slowly, more or less dragging himself from under the house. He got as far as the bottom of the steps, a distance of only ten feet or so, and collapsed. I picked him up and carried him into the house. I tried to give him water but he wasn't interested. He walked around for a bit, very weakly, and finally settled on the mat in the front bathroom, where he'd always slept when we let him in when it was cold out.
When I got up on Friday morning I thought at first that he was dead. He had moved a foot or so off the mat and was lying in the doorway of the bathroom. He was almost completely still. I picked him up and he made a very weak sound. I figured that at this point it was too late for the vet. I briefly considered staying home from work, but I was needed there and really didn't think there was anything I could do for Milo: either he would recover, or he wouldn't, most likely the latter. I laid him on a towel and pulled it partway over him, because his body temperature seemed low. He mewed very weakly a few times as I arranged him but otherwise was perfectly still.
I went to work. When I got home Friday evening he was dead, and I think had been dead for some time, because he was quite stiff. Yesterday afternoon I buried him on the hill behind the house.
Why am I writing about this at such length?--it's a perfectly ordinary incident; pets die every day, and why go on about it? Well, I really don't know. But Milo's death saddened me more than I expected it to. I'm not the kind of pet owner who gets extremely emotional about dogs and cats or refers to them as his children. Most of our pets have come to us by accident, by way of our children, like Milo did. If there is any one of our current lot that I'm strongly attached to, it's the little bichon, Andy. (We have Andy because my wife acted as an intermediary between his owner, who wanted to get rid of him, and a family who thought they wanted him; the deal fell through and Andy ended up with us.) But I had grown more fond of Milo over the past month or so, and liked the idea of re-domesticating him; I envisioned us retiring together.
And I feel like I let him down. I wish I'd taken him to another vet last year, or even last month; I'm pretty sure that last week was already too late. I'm not confusing him with a person. I don't think I had the sort of duty toward him that I would have had toward a person. But I do think we have a serious responsibility for these small creatures who come under our care, and I should have done a better job of it. Never mind that he lived better than the vast majority of cats who have ever walked the earth; I could have done better.
And the death of a pet always provokes, apart from the eternal question of death itself, questions and speculation about the relationship of animals to eternity. One needn't fall prey to "all dogs to go heaven" sentimentality to feel that there is something seriously wrong with the idea that when a loved animal dies it is dead forever, and you'll never see it again, even in heaven. Maybe that's true, and if it is we will understand why it is true and not be given pain by it. But from our earthly point of view it's hard to accept. The worst thing, of course, as most parents have to learn, is seeing a child lose a beloved pet. But it bothers the grownups, too, even old people who have seen it often. Perhaps it may bother an older person more than the middle-aged, who have more pressing concerns, because age may bring with it a great sad sympathy for everything mortal.
I have a speculation which I thought was only mine until recently, when I came across it in someone else's writing (more about which in a week or two). Perhaps, although no individual animal has an immortal soul, there is a personal spirit that belongs to every species, an angel if you like, or a sort of Platonic dog-ness or cat-ness or bird-ness, but conscious, in which the essence of all the individual creatures is somehow contained and embodied, and in which each individual exists in some sense eternally, because the soul or spirit of the entire species is eternal. And perhaps in meeting, one day, those spirits, we will also be able to know again the animals we loved here.
It's only a speculation, and I have only the vaguest inkling of what I might mean by it. But there are a lot of things in creation of which we can have only the vaguest inklings.
Milo, in good health and not excessively friendly, 2009.