My cat was a legend. An icon. A king.
He made cat haters say, “this is the only cat I’ve ever liked.” Dog lovers would nod approvingly as he played fetch - “this cat is actually cool.” Even cat lovers, who approach even the most recalcitrant with fondness, would make comments like, “I’ve never seen a cat be so friendly.”
When I would walk into Greenwich Village Animal Hospital for his annual check up, Dr. Sane would stop in his tracks and shake his head, a huge grin on his face. “Mis. Ter. Grits,” he would say with delight, nearly following it with “You old so-and-so!” As if the last time they saw each other Grits snuck out without buying a round.
He was born because my best friend, the kind of tender hearted soul who empties her wallet for every panhandler she passes, had built a makeshift menagerie in her first post-college house in our hometown of Birmingham, AL. She adopted stray animals, took in pets that family members could no longer care for. Sammy, Grits’s mom, was a petite, shrewd, jet black stray - and one night my friend saw her running around an alley with the big bad neighborhood tabby.
About two months later, I got a call walking down 6th Avenue in NYC where I had just moved for grad school - “Sammy had kittens in my lingerie basket! Three black ones and a little grey tabby!”
Surprising no one, I laid claim to the one with stripes, and immediately named him after an infamous albino gangster that loomed large in Birmingham in the 90s. Mr. Grits he would be called. And he would be mine.
I was 23 when he was born, an adult woman by every calculation. But still, nothing marked my transition from child to grown up more than becoming this kitten’s companion.
I viscerally remember the stress of flying with him from Birmingham to NYC, worrying that he would hyperventilate to death in his carrier under my seat. If I can get him home safe, I would pray…. if I can get him home safe…
I did, and the next day a British man I had been seeing off and on for a few months came over with a carton of milk for him. I told him gently that cow’s milk wasn’t actually good for kittens - but how would he know? He had never had a pet, until then.
My tiny West Village apartment that year became the pre-party, the after-party, the viewing room, the weekend long chill pad covered in take out containers and Tostitos cheese dip jars and ashtrays and empty bottles of champagne and gin. And Mr. Grits, in all his 18 lb glory, was there for it all.
Friends who crashed on the pull out couch, or later in the pale yellow bedroom under the roof deck ladder in Park Slope, or the room-that-would-become-Baxter’s in Red Hook, or now the proper little attic guest room in our home in Maplewood, all put in their time with Mr. Grits. While he would never go a full night far from my body, he visited those he trusted and was fond of, would give them the attention he knew they deserved, and then trot off back to his home base. Present, social, but never needy.
And of course I knew, from that first phone call, that one day he would die.
I knew even as a girl-woman, that there was a distant future in which I was a put together business woman who no longer bit her nails, who had a big brownstone with nary a Tostitos jar in sight and who carried a briefcase and drank coffee on her way to an office with windows made of glass, who had beautiful children and a successful husband and had learned to ski - and in that future, one day, that woman would have to make a decision about ending Mr. Grits’s life. Eventually, I knew, the end would come. But the end, just like the woman who would live through it, was a flickering star seen through a telescope. So far away.
That was the bargain I made, that’s the bargain we all make, either consciously or unconsciously, when we welcome a pet into our lives. I will take care of you, and you will bring me endless comfort and companionship and laughter and joy. And one day, if all goes according to plan, you will grow old, and I will hold you as you die.
The British man who brought the milk just kissed me goodbye as he left for the dentist. The perfect kids I imagined having are more perfect than I could have imagined. And they both cried this morning, and one of them caused me to cry. I’ve never had a briefcase in my life, the only time I’ve ever been in one of those glass walled offices is to ask the rich person who works there for money for a nonprofit I work for. I just stopped biting my nails last month and that’s only because I got Invisalign, and I still eat Tostitos direct from the jar at least once a month. I’ve skied twice, both times requiring rescue on a green slope. And I do regularly drink coffee from a thermos but I rarely can find the correct lid, so most of the items of clothing I own are stained.
But even though I’m not yet, and will never be Her, the woman who could handle this, a few months ago, after years of steady weight loss, our vet told us what I had feared - that our 15 year old Mr. Grits had late stage kidney disease, and that the end was near.
I had grown up. He had grown up. The bargain had played out.
I wasn’t ready.
The problem was, he wasn’t a pet. The contract I signed in my heart when I flew from Birmingham to Alabama is that I would take care of this pet and eventually make decisions about the end of his life. But how do you make decisions about the end of your best friend’s life? About the being who has rested atop your body for hours each day, every day, for 15 years? Your hungover body, your single body, your married body, your pregnant body (twice), your postpartum body (twice), your pandemic body? How do you make decisions not about a pet but about a soul, an energy, a life force that carried you through? That affected not just you, not just your partner, not just your children but everyone who’s known you at all for the entirety of your adult life?
One of the lessons I struggle with the most in studying Buddhism is coming to terms with impermanence. And what more sacred teacher for us than being present for the life and death of a pet?
In accepting Mr. Grits’s death, I was accepting my own. All of the big beginnings of my life that Grits had been part of - marriage, children, our first house, our first everything - were behind me.
After the diagnosis I cried for weeks. Every time I would sit down to meditate, him near me always, the tears would flow and sometimes they wouldn’t stop for 30 minutes. I couldn’t tell my mom, my therapist, my friends. I didn’t want to have to grieve twice, I said to myself. I needed to be in this alone.
The most wrenching part that I hadn’t imagined was making the decision about exactly when. The vet said we would know, but how? He will give you a sign, she said.
One Sunday morning in early September in my small meditation group that meets weekly, I told them what I was holding. The grief, the not wanting to let go. The confusion about how and when.
That day, one of the members of the group led what’s called a benefactor meditation, where you imagine someone who has loved you unconditionally and wanted nothing but the best for you, and you send that being love and gratitude. Michele said, “your benefactor may be someone you’ve never met before, someone who is not currently alive, or it may be a pet…”
She ended the meditation by asking us to imagine we are standing side by side with our benefactor, looking at our self alongside them.
Tears streamed down my face as I held the image of me and Grits together, like Scrooge and the ghost of Christmas present, looking out upon my life. My wonderful, healthy, happy life. The life he had seen me through.
Later that day, he fell asleep in my lap and slumped over in a way that I had never seen him do before. Lifeless. Maybe it was a sign, or maybe he was waiting on me to give him a sign. Either way, it was time.
If it had been just Grits and I, living alone, maybe that decision could have come easier. But how could I deny him just one more day horsing around with Pearce, one more night snuggling with Baxter at bedtime?
Preparing for my own grief took a backseat to preparing for my children’s. I had to be the grown up here, I had to usher them through their first experience with loss with some presence and steadiness. I read articles, I ordered books.
And then the day arrived. The kids were at school, Chris was on a consuming work project, I took the day off and just laid with him. Crying, holding him, talking to him.
I would tell him how much he was loved, not just by me and us but by every human who had ever known him. By all the people who came to the Big Ass Do and our wedding and went home with tote bags featuring his face and a witty Grits-like saying (“Pace Yourself” and “Stay Classy,” respectively). By all of our friends who developed their own inside jokes with him - the Grits-Mit, entrance meow/exit meow, Grits in the oven, the time we wrapped him up in tin foil like a burrito and he liked it.
But the main thing I said over and over that day and the days leading up to it was, thank you. Thank you, god. What have I done to deserve this cat, this one? This friend, this companion, this love? Thank you, Grits.
It became a mantra. Thank you god, thank you Grits. What’s the difference? One benefactor, and the other. Which one grants us which? It’s impossible to know.
A week after we said goodbye, after I cried for days in my husband’s arms, feeling comforted by him alone, after my older son’s wild ragged sobs gave way to acceptance and my younger son’s confusion dissolved into a quiet repetitive prayer like an announcement - Meow Meow’s gone. Meow Meow was sick. Meow Meow died. - I was laying in bed with Baxter looking at a book and pointed to a cute cartoon bird and said, “Mr. Grits would have liked that one the best,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said with a laugh. “He was always meowing at birds through the window.”
I teared up. “Yeah,” I said quietly, holding back sobs, not wanting my emotion to overwhelm my child.
Baxter snuggled up to me and said quietly, “I wish he was still alive.”
There it was, said so plainly. The simple truth that I hadn’t acknowledged in all these hours of heartbreak. I knew he would die one day. I know all things will end. But I wish he was still alive.
Maybe that was Grits’s final gift. Showing me not just that my children were capable of love, but that they were capable of grief. Not just that I was strong enough to show them a way through theirs, but that maybe they were strong enough to show me a way through mine, too.
So Mr. Grits, my baby, my best friend, my benefactor - I guess what I’m saying is, I got more than I bargained for.
I hope you did too.
Meeting Grits, 2006