Last Friday morning we had to say goodbye to our cat Genghis Khan, my best friend of almost 14 years.
He was never supposed to be mine. When we brought him and his sister home in August of 2000, he was actually supposed to be my brother’s cat – his sister Chakka was the one I had picked out. But that night, this little orange pain in the ass of a kitten decided he liked me instead.
It took about two weeks of my brother and I constantly trading kittens before we just gave up. Their very different personalities began to show as they made it clear whatever intentions we had for them were not going to fly. The grey one was more reserved and shy, but she was obviously gravitating towards my brother. Chakka would hover around his feet, sleep on a chair next to his bed, and hesitantly creep closer to him on the couch when she thought he wasn’t looking. And when my brother would hand her back to me? She’d be gone in a flash.
Meanwhile, Genghis consistently and obnoxiously inserted himself in whatever I was doing… at all times. Working on homework? Here, let me walk all over that for you. Watching TV? Here, let me climb on your head with my razor sharp kitten nails. Reading a book? Let me lay on that for you. Working on the computer? Wow, this keyboard is comfortable. Practicing the double crochet stitch you just learned how to do? Ooooh, your thumb looks awfully tasty…
His little tiny orange face was constantly finding its way to mine. When he’d appear, I would pick him up without a word – he was small enough to hold with one hand at the time – and just hand him back to my brother. But within 30 seconds he’d be back, nudging his face back into my book, or batting at my hand on the computer mouse.
Eventually both my brother and I just gave up and accepted that while we each may have picked one of them out at the adoption center, ultimately it would be their decision who “belonged” to who. And the orange tabby had decided he was definitely mine.
From that day on, Genghis was my constant pal, and for the next 14 years he was attached to my hip. Every single night that I have spent under my parents roof since, he was right there in bed with me, tucked under my arm with his head on my shoulder like a pillow. And I mean every. single. night. I perpetually had little claw marks on my right upper arm from where he would knead as he purred and eventually fell asleep. He was my leg warmer when watching TV – even in the stifling heat of the summer, and I certainly dared not move him for fear of getting a nice new gash in my arm. My reading pal, my gaming buddy, my paper-writing companion. He had made it clear way back when he could still fit comfortably inside my size six shoe that I was his. As the years pressed on nothing about that changed.
When I went to college I’d return on break to a circle of cat hair on my bed where he’d been sleeping every night in my absence. During grad school when I’d have dozens of books and papers sprawled out on the basement sewing table, prepping for an all-nighter to study or finish a paper, he’d be there, perched on the couch cushion that needed mending on the corner of the table, watching over the process until I was done. Then as the sun began peaking through the windows, he’d follow me up to bed, if only for a short half an hour before I had to get ready to leave.
Even when I moved out for real in 2012, every time I’d return for my Sunday night visits – or any other night or for any other reason – we’d fall back into old patterns. For all my mother would call and tell me he’d finally “defected” to her, as soon as I set foot back in the house, he’d be mine again, if only for a short time.
Over the years he had gotten a bit slower, a bit stiffer. Thirteen is well into the “elderly” category for cats, after all. It was about this time last summer that we noticed he was limping a bit – he had a penchant for weaving in and out between people’s legs as they walked, and so we assumed one of the many times he tripped one of us must have caught him the wrong way.
The limp went away rather quickly, but after that injury the arthritis set in rapidly, and over the past year it had grown steadily worse. His hips started to splay out – to the point where my mom was convinced there was a tumor growing in the joint – but he was still getting around fine, albeit a bit more slowly than usual, and he wasn’t in any pain.
The vet consulted with us over the phone several times – actually taking Genghis to the office was out of the question because the vet feared that putting him in the car after almost 11 years not leaving our house might cause more stress than anything that was going on with his hips. He (the vet) remembered well that the vet visits when Genghis and Chakka been young and healthy had almost killed not only them, but all the people who had to handle them as well. The cats had been born feral, and so even as young resilient cats the vet visits had stressed them out to the point of serious concern – it’s why we stopped taking them in the first place. The vet agreed that it was best that way, unless it became truly dire – Genghis didn’t seem to be phased by the stiffness nor did he seem to be in any pain. He was still his normal, pain in the ass, trouble making self – just slightly slower and occasionally wobbly. Besides, at age 13, even if we did take him in odds are there was nothing we’d be able to do. Putting a 13 year old cat through any sort of massive orthopedic (or otherwise) surgery was just out of the question.
And so Genghis soldiered on. He was still perky, filled with personality, and forever picking fights with not only his sister, but also our 128 lb. blonde labrador, Rusalka (shown below at decidedly NOT 128 lbs). He faced his growing stiffness with astounding tenacity – never letting it phase him in the slightest. His resilience even managed to win over my father, who has never really been terribly fond of cats and honestly had a particularly antagonistic relationship with Genghis over the years – I swear Genghis made it his business to irritate him. Up until the last year, my dad had only really tolerated him because of how important he was to me.
Then Thursday night, my mom called me and told me to come home. It was time. He went downhill quickly – all of a sudden that day he pretty much lost use of his back legs. He couldn’t get them underneath him anymore, and even if we helped him, he had lost control of his paws. We knew it was going to happen sooner or later, and starting about six months ago we had begun to talk about the inevitability of it. But nevertheless, it still came as a shock. His condition had seemed to plateau over the last three months, staying steady. The only consolation as I drove home Thursday night was that he still didn’t seem to be in pain – in fact my mom had said he seemed to have lost all feeling in his haunches.
And so I stayed with him that night. We had one final night with him tucked under my arm, kneading and purring quietly and contentedly as he fell asleep just like it was any other day – and as I definitely did not. The vet appointment was at 9 – I didn’t get to go with him because I had a final scheduled for 10 that morning and the vet is 45 minutes away from the school. It had already been rescheduled once so I could attend my brother’s graduation, and so rescheduling again was out of the question. The vet, upon examining him in person, basically confirmed that his over-the-phone diagnosing had been correct, and that what had happened is that the arthritis simply became too advanced, moving up to his spine and ultimately cutting off all feeling and control to his lower half. What had happened to make it so sudden is that one of the vertebra probably shattered from the erosion. The vet said we did the right thing by allowing him to live the last year peacefully at home – that just as suspected, what was happening was not something that he could have fixed or really alleviated much at all given the cat’s history, and personality. He also said that indeed we were right, and it was time. The damage to his spine had reached critical mass, and if let go would start to cause a whole host of other problems for him in the next few days – problems that WOULD end up causing him immense pain.
And so we said goodbye. My mom was there and held him as he drifted off. I should have been. I’m sure my students knew something was wrong – I couldn’t exactly hide my swollen, red-rimmed eyes. But as heartbroken as I was- and still am – I know that it was time. He lived too good of a life, and was too good of a pet for us to allow him to suffer. He deserved a dignified, painless send off.
So here’s to you, Genghis, you little orange asshole. You chose me, and I’ll be forever grateful for that. I’ll miss you forever, and to borrow a page from the Hans Wilhelm book that shaped my childhood: “I’ll always love you.”