My stepcat, Asia, died this week. I surprised myself by crying and kissing her goodbye as she drifted away in the vet's office. We had had a tempestuous life together, sometimes painful. For me.
Asia was born eighteen years ago in the parking garage of a major New York medical center. The doctor who rescued the litter gave one of the kittens to her friend, the writer Lois B. Morris, who named her Asia and became her mom, feeding her through an eye-dropper. They were joined a few months later by a large black abandoned puppy. Lois named him Rudy. Asia resented sweet, gentle Rudy for supplanting her. She attacked him for passing too close to her, for breathing in the same room. Sometimes, she planted herself in front of his bowl and dared him to step over her. He slunk away, hungry and hurt.
Six years later, I arrived, Lois' third pet, determined to be the alpha animal. Lots of luck. Rudy, huge by now, had to be wrestled out of bed every night, and Asia pushed carefully away with pillows. Rudy would never retaliate with anything more than a resigned look to make me feel guilty. But Asia's response, her claws, and her teeth were lightning fast. Usually, I escaped, sometimes with nothing more than a bloodless scratch. Over the years, there were also four courses of antibiotics for deeper wounds. In terms of reflexes, I was aging more quickly than Asia.
But there were also long, good times, particularly in recent years during Lois' frequent China trips when Asia and I snuggled in bed. Her gray, striped fur was lustrous and soft, and I had figured out her pleasures - long strokes down her nose - and when to stop. If she had to tell me, it would hurt. I came to realize that the only times she would attack me were if I didn't pet her when she wanted me to, if I petted her after she no longer wanted me to, if I coughed while I was petting her, if my big toe was in tantalizing range, or if she merely felt like it.
Rudy died three years ago, and during his final days she pawed him tenderly, too little too late, I thought, but a nice enough gesture.
When she became sick a year later, yowling in pain, unable to eat, we took her to an emergency city vet who relieved the symptoms - or just waited them out - for about $3,000 and suggested for some fistfuls more we could find out if it was lymphoma or a bellyache. We took her home and she was her old self until a few weeks ago. Failing, she had no energy, dragged her back legs, stopped eating, became incontinent. I had hopes for her recovery until I realized there was nothing I could do - or not do - that would interest her in biting me.
In recent years, I have sat deathwatches for my parents, a former wife, and a best friend. Last May, Lois' sister died in a plane crash. I didn't think a dying cat would move me. The vet said it had to do with our feelings of responsibility toward pets. Lois and I wondered if it evoked the sadness of those other deaths. Or maybe, Asia had simply become part of my family and I came to love her, bites and all.