Here is how I said goodbye to one of my cats last week:
"I have to go away, but I will always love you. You needs to be really good to help Other Daddy, because this is hard for him. That means less mischief, Rudy. I wish I could be with you forever, but I won't be. I will think of you always, though, because you're the first cat I ever loved. I'm not going to tell you why I'm leaving because you don't understand English anyway. But I love you so much."
I was holding him in my former kitchen, as I'd done countless times to his chagrin. He whined a little less than usual. I buried my head into his fur and cried and then he whined at his normal rate. (I was never able to tame out of him the disdain for being held.) I picked up Winston, who's less whiny when held but less submissive, too — he kept a front leg extended, his paw planted on my chest, the cat's way of keeping me at literal arm's length. I told him that I'd miss him and what a joy it was to experience life with him and watch him experience it. He kept his head turned away from my face, refusing eye contact. When I put him on the floor, he walked off without looking back.
I've never experienced the real-time, vet's office death of a pet, but I hear that as their last moments draw close, their owners often get a sense that they "know" they are dying. When your animal is at the end of its life, it's possible to grieve with them at the end, to reach a mutual understanding of finality. I imagine that's therapeutic. It's not the case with a breakup. I left like I always do, never to return like I always did. I don't even know if they realized they'd now have more space to play in.
I'm somewhere between Tennyson's famous quote that's been canonized as cliché ("'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all") and George Carlin's truest of true assertions that buying a pet amounts to "purchasing a small tragedy," as you will outlive this life that you're emotionally investing in (and if you don't, that's even worse, since you're dead).
One of those small tragedies happens to be the uber-flat-faced exotic shorthair Winston, who's netted millions of views on YouTube and has a few thousand Twitter followers. He's no Maru, but I'd call him "Internet famous" if that weren't a boastful reflection on myself and if I just hadn't spent the weekend at ROFLcon listening to people describe themselves as such, beckoning the bile up my throat. People who've never visited my apartment know who he is; strangers tell me they love him. And now when they inquire about how he's doing, I'll either have to lie vaguely or explain my situation specifically. That's the downside of etching in Internet stone something as skittish as life.
When my nine-and-a-half year relationship ended, so did my time as Winston's dad. That's at least the official story. There's another saying that feels really apt (don't all the broad strokes suddenly become specific when you experience something as fundamental to the human experience as heartbreak?): you don't choose cats, they choose you. Winston rarely chose me. He loved (and loves) my ex. Winston followed him around, positioned himself close (but not too close – even at his most engaged, Winston has never been a lap cat) and slept by his side. Typically, Winston would move away when I sat next to him. That apathy of his when I said goodbye was the same apathy when I said anything.
The flashes of unsolicited affection that cat gave me were inscrutable and inconsistent. Sometimes he'd run into the bathroom while I was on the toilet and seemingly demand to be pet (always requiring that his affection object avoid his highly sensitive ears and spend most of the time sticking his fingers in the folds between Winston's eyes and nose). He loved to rub up against me while I stretched before running. But mostly, he used time as a barrier: he'd consistently take my seat when I got up from the bathroom and sleep on my side of the bed until I came in every night. I'd tap him on his shoulder blade and he'd leap to the other side of the bed, switching to use my ex as a barrier.
Winston maybe didn't love me and he definitely didn't respect me, but he did work with me. I made so many videos of Winston (it would make me way too sad to count, as it would require looking back over my YouTube channel, which time, this job and my radically altered life have now rendered a relic of my past). He was both a muse and collaborator. I remember really wanting to get Winston Isn't Normal (a point-by-point refutation of the Wikipedia description of exotic shorthairs' breed temperament) finished for posting on a Monday and, down to the Sunday-afternoon wire, we blew through about five points back-to-back in one take. It was like the cat knew he was performing, in his completely detached, non-performative manner. He'd get in these patterns – sleeping in a bowl and squawking when I removed one of his beloved bananas from the bunch next to it, jumping at a spot in the wall, attempting to meow but failing – and then drop them very soon after I'd captured enough of them to make an illustrative video. It was like he knew that his work there was done.
Strangers often assumed that it was Winston who was my primary feline love and that the far less chronicled cat we'd adopted a year prior to him, Rudy, was neglected. But when it came to my daily attention, the opposite was true. I recorded and shared videos of Winston not because he was my favorite but because he was so weird. The point was not, "Look at this cat," it was, "Look at this alien." I suspect that when your face is smooshed flat, you experience the world uniquely. I also suspect that Winston has an intellectual disability. His looks, his shriveling yowl, the bobble in his giant head, his weird way of walking and sitting and lying – all of it made him so shareable beyond the way that cats are typically shareable. "Look, I finally got my Mogwai," I said to the world with videos that were often dreamed up with my ex, the René Elizondo to my Janet Jackson.
In contrast, Rudy's a real cat's cat, and while occasionally notable, he mostly did cat things like scratching the furniture, yelling at me for food, playing with string and lounging. But he was my boy. That cat slept on my chest virtually every night that I spent in bed – something I'd trained him to do at an early age. When we adopted Rudy from the North Shore Animal League at age six months, he was virtually feral and completely unaffectionate. I wasn't going to let anything relying on me to live not earn his keep and so from the first night on, I would find him in whatever corner he was sleeping and hold him on my chest for as long as he would tolerate. He got used to it, and then he started demanding it, shouting at me in a clipped mew whenever I'd walk in the bedroom at night when he, my ex and Winston were on the bed. Often, I wasn't yet ready to sleep, but I'd always patronize Rudy for a few minutes, lying under the covers just for him. I appreciated his demand for affection, actually. It was a nice contrast.
This loss is my problem to get over. There is no other way. My ex took care of those cats much better than I ever did – I was just some asshole with a camera who'd often play too rough for their pussy sensibilities. My ex nursed Winston to health when we rescued him at age 1 with a terrible case of IBS. For months, my ex researched, cooked and discussed diet options until finally that cat's shit was right. His concern about them has always been frantically paternal, as he'd rush home to feed them like other people would their dogs (my philosophy was that they could always wait a few hours – they weren't going to die of hunger, and once they ate, they'd forget that they were hungry in the first place anyway). He's probably spent 10 nights in total away from those cats for the entire time that he's owned them (we got Rudy in 2004 and Winston followed a year later). This meant traveling with them virtually everywhere. Though he never made any cross-country trips, I have often and he's always held down the kitty palace.
There is no way to implement a visitation-rights policy that wouldn't disrupt the lives of these highly sensitive creatures who don't understand the concept of a weekend home, or put me in a place where I am no longer welcome. (And anyway, in the latter scenario, what am I going to do, go over and pet them manically for a few hours on Sundays?) Splitting them up and coupling with them in the way that would make the most sense (Rudy for me, Winston for him) would also be too traumatic – they wouldn't get it and each would miss their brother. I'm the one who left, and by doing so I've elected this pain. I'm not paying kitty support (though I would gladly contribute for any major surgery). Me being without my cats is the fairest way to deal with an unfair situation.
It hurts my heart, but it jibes with my intellect to have all of these relationships end at once. The cats were such a bonding force that it makes sense for that to fade away when the relationship did. They were endlessly entertaining to us as a couple, one of the rare things that we could agree on to watch since we didn't share taste in television. They were always something to talk about or to talk for – we created their personalities together and made up voices for them, which we used to speak in to an embarrassing extent. (If anyone overheard us, they would have thought less of us, seriously.) These cats were our secret language, a way that we expressed affection for each other implicitly. I don't particularly like children, and I cannot imagine wanting to have them with anyone that I call my man, but Winston and Rudy were our kids. I don't even think it – I know that part of what kept us together for so long was the cats.
I worry about Rudy, who's so sensitive and whose anxiousness was palpable the longer I stayed out of bed, especially during the final month-long stretch. (He'd never cuddle with me on the couch, just as he'd never sit on my chest if I were shirtless and without a blanket covering me. So many rules, that Rudy.) I don't know if my ex was projecting, but he would always tell me when I'd travel for work that Rudy would become visibly depressed. The best I can hope for his emotional well-being is that he forgets me.
I'll never do the same. I couldn't if I tried. Winston is a compulsive shedder to the point where there are some dark pants that I just couldn't wear because they'd pick up his hair and not let go, not even with several passes of a roller. He's such a pain in the ass, that cat, that he will be with me always in that respect. And really, like the rest of the world, I can "visit" him all the time with just a few clicks. I've been reduced from caretaker to spectator, but there is something comforting in having former joy at my fingertips. I'll start revisiting old Winston videos when the idea of watching them becomes less sad.
The love endures, too. I'm an unabashed animal enthusiast and while I'd never bother with a useless argument about why liking cats is better than dogs, but I believe, like many cat people do, that being liked by cats is better than being liked by dogs. A few breeds and demented particulars aside, dogs like anyone. You don't have to do anything but show up to win a dog's affection. Some "dog-like" varieties aside, cats are different. They take time to warm up to you. They pick through a family and decide their focus. They enforce rules of affection. They don't mind being alone in the first place. When a dog loves you, it is because you are breathing; when a cat loves you it is a compliment. Or, at least, that's what the cat poop is controlling my brain into believing. And for that reason, the shit that I most want to say to Winston and Rudy now is, "Living with you was an immense honor."