|A while back I was trying to explain “quality of life” to the pones— why sometimes it’s okay to die young, why sometimes a long life can be the most terrible of fates. I invented a simple graphic to help make the point, and was rather surprised at its utility. Imagine time along the x-axis: quality-of-life along the y, but as a range not a scalar value (i.e., the wider the range, the better the QoL). You can throw in a z-axis too, if you want two QoL metrics instead of one.
I call it “The Life Sausage”, and it’s not height or width but total area that you want to maximize (or volume, if you’re going the 3-axis route). You can live a hundred years if you never leave your home, never eat fatty foods, never risk love or sex for fear of failure and STDs — and your life sausage will be one long, emaciated pepperoni-stick of misery, hyperextended along one axis but barely registering on the others. You can fuck everything that moves, snort every synthetic that makes it past the blood-brain barrier, dive with sharks and wrestle ‘gators and check out when your chute fails to open during the skydiving party on your sweet sixteenth. Your life sausage will be short but thick, like a hockey puck on-edge, and the sum total of the happiness contained therein will put to shame any number of miserable incontinent centenarians wasting away in the rest home. More typically the sausage will be a lumpy thing, a limbless balloon-animal lurching through time with fat parts and skinny parts and, more often than not, a sad tapering atrophy into loneliness and misery near the end. But in all these cases, the value of your life is summed up not by lifespan nor by happiness but by the product of these, the total space contained within the sausage skin.
Banana died in my arms yesterday: somewhere around 0630 counting from the time the pain stopped, maybe an hour later if you go by heartbeat. I do not know how long he lived in total; he came into my life as an adult with more miles on him that I’d care to imagine. But as far as I can tell, his Life Sausage looked something like this:
There must have been some joy there at the start, yes? He must have nursed at least, felt his tiny belly filling with milk, reveled on some dumb kitten level in the warmth and protection of a mom and litter-mates and an ambient bumble of purrs. Maybe he even had a Human home for a while; cats born feral are difficult at best to socialize to human company, and Banana’s fearlessness in later years suggests at least some favorable interactions with us can openers during his formative months.
He must’ve gone through a whole shitload of Blue Mondays after that, though.
The vet couldn’t tell me how old he was when he finally came into my care; all she knew for sure was that he was over ten years old, and most of those years had been mean ones. One of his ears was torn to shit, the cartilage permanently disfigured by his own furious scratching for a bit of relief from what the vet described as the worst case of ear mites she’d ever seen. The other was folded back and literally fused to itself, flesh to flesh: that was frostbite. Most of his teeth were rotten and abscessed and had to be pulled; for the rest of his life, he would spray like a lawn sprinkler when he did that whole cat-head-shaky thing. Fur was missing in patches; the skin underneath was crusty with scabs.
I wasn’t really looking to adopt another cat. Freshly single, about to relocate to a scummy little one-bedroom, and as financially-secure as any midlist author whose latest book had tanked like a Panzer, I didn’t know if I’d be able to take on a long-term dependent. But fostering was different— a few weeks, a few months I could handle. So I renewed a lapsed acquaintance with Annex Cat Rescue — a local band of cat-lovers who capture ferals off the street, find homes for those who can be socialized, speuter and release those who can’t. (They are good folks, and have an ingenious arrangement by which you can forward them your air miles using a special card; you avoid all that junk mail and provide kibble for homeless cats. Win win.)
Banana had worn out his welcome at his current foster home. Too used to a lifetime of hunger games, he was attacking anything he perceived as a threat to his kibble supply (which is to say, another cat who’d been living for years at the same address). So I took him back to my place, fell instantly in love, and wrote an adoption blurb which I maintain, even now, is the best piece of prose I ever wrote. It was an ode to a goddamned hero, and it worked: it wasn’t even 24 hours before the calls started coming in.
Twenty-four hours too long. In all truth, I was a goner before I ever wrote the blurb.
In the six years that followed we pumped Banana’s life sausage almost unto bursting. We moved from one furnished bedroom in an aching empty house over to an accursed apartment where I had to fight back successive waves of invading bed bugs. Other cats started dropping by along the rooftop; one of them even officially joined the team as First Officer Chip, after an initial few weeks spent hiding under my bed and hissing at my ankles. Banana developed an uncanny knack for time-keeping; if his bowl hadn’t been kibbled by 0800 he was standing on your chest by 0801, filling the room with the sound of his solicitation purr. If that didn’t work, his claws would hook you through the internasal septum and he’d lead you down the hall to the place where his bowl gaped empty and innocent of food, a profound insult to the very idea of feline decency. (I started calling him “The Tum That Tells Time” about then.)
Sometimes I would go traveling, leave Banana in the care of a professional cat-sitter; upon my return he would huffily ignore me for perhaps five minutes, then break down and gallop like a small water-buffalo up the hall to hurl himself onto my chest as if to say oh god I thought I’d never eat again that other can-opener only fed me twice a day oh please oh please never do that again.
He never really lost that sense of insecurity — I think the legacy of so many starving years taught him that every meal might be his last, that you can never trust the future, that you have to eat not only for now but for all those hungry nights yet to come. Once he stole a whole BBQ chicken off the bed, got it halfway down the hall before I caught up with him; I had actually been defending his honor at the time, insisting to a mistrusting partner-of-the-moment that He’s not even looking at that chicken, how dare you accuse him of —. When other cats started joining the team we had to feed Banana in a separate room, so he wouldn’t shoulder-check them out of the way and eat their food as well. Such precautions notwithstanding, it eventually began to dawn on me that he no longer resembled anything so skinny as the banana for which he had originally been named. I contemplated changing his name to Potato, which would have been more descriptive of both color and shape (not to mention the nickname potential: Spudnik! Or in tandem with Chip the Fuzzbot, Potato-Chip!) — but although Banana had many fine qualities, a razor-sharp intellect was not among them. I did not want to tax his furry little brain with the demands of learning a whole new name.
We were two grumpy mammals against the world. He saw me through a half-dozen short-term relationships (with partners who understandably found him far more charming than me), and helped lure a longer-term one into range (ditto). We appeared together in Nature. We moved again: from Accursed Apartment to Magic Bungalow, replete with a front porch from which to survey Raccoon Alley; a wild English garden full of triffids to prowl in the back; a small ravine just off to the side, just in case he was feeling adventurous— although he rarely was, as he was in his mid teens by now. Inside was adventurous enough: three other cats, two rabbits, a couple dozen tropical fish, and two adoring pones (the smaller of whom compulsively carried him around like a furry handbag; for reasons I will never fully understand, he did not seem to mind this in the least).
Banana and I developed a tandem fondness for half’n'half; mine in coffee, Banana’s straight up in a little ceramic cup. His yowled demands for refills drew in the other cats every time I hit the kitchen to top up my mug; within a week every feline in the place was hooked on the white stuff. I was married now (Banana got a shout-out in Caitlin’s vows), with real in-laws and everything; Banana got his own seat at family dinners. He would sit there looking back and forth, patiently following the dinnertime conversation between the bits of curried chicken or smoked salmon laid regularly before him by the can openers arrayed worshipfully to either side.
When I worked, he was curled up on my desk. He padded at my side when I went for the mail. He was an omnipresent obstacle that Caitlin and I had to maneuver around during sex, whether in the bedroom or the kitchen or bent over the treadmill; somehow he was always in the way, furry and unflappable.
I would have killed for that cat.
Sometime around 5:45a.m. this past Saturday, Caitlin returned to bed from an early-morning pee-break to find Banana curled up on the pillow beside me. She edged in under the covers, careful not to disturb him. I scritched his ears; he purred, half-awake.
At 5:50 he shot off the bed like a rocket and bolted from the bedroom, crashing into walls and furniture. I smiled at first. Just another cat kerfuffle, I thought, one of those psycho midnight boxing matches always breaking out amongst the Gang of Fur: with Minion, maybe, although I hadn’t seen any of the others on the bed. “Stupid cat,” I mumbled to Caitlin, and rolled over as something crashed into the kitchen garbage pail.
Caitlin sat up. “I think — I think he’s having a seizure—”
Banana screamed, and didn’t stop.
I’ve never heard a sound like that: like he was caught in a leg-hold trap, like something was tearing him apart from the inside. He would howl, and stop when he ran out of air, gulp a breath and cry out again. By the time we got to the kitchen he was convulsing on his side, back arched, legs thrashing, strings of foamy saliva smeared across the floor. His tail was puffed big as a raccoon’s; his eyes were wide and sane and utterly terrified. And all I could think was He’s still in there. He knows. That puffy tail— that’s not just some thrown clot, that’s not a stroke, that’s fight/flight, that’s a threat display, that’s what they do when something’s coming at them and they’re trying to scare it off.
He tried to run, you see. Something happened, inside; something broke, and he felt it but he had no way to parse it except that somehow there was a mortal threat and he wasn’t equipped to tell the difference between the things that kill you from the outside and those that kill you from within. All he knew was that his life was in danger, and he reacted the only way he knew how: he tried to run away.
Like a fucking idiot, I try holding him and making stupid comforting shhh noises. He screams and thrashes and pisses all over the floor. I leave him with Caitlin, boot up the laptop, Google desperately on 24-hour emergency veterinary Toronto: get a hit down on Kingston Ave, click (fucking idiots, what kind of emergency clinic doesn’t have phone number and address on the splash page where’s the fucking phone number?), punch in the number. We’ve got a brown tabby late-teens mild heart murmur mild hyperthyroidism, otherwise healthy, good appetite normal behavior until about five minutes ago and he’s convulsing, massive salivation, piloerection, can you hear the sounds he’s making, here I’ll hold the handset down—
No clue, they say. Could be anything. Bring him in. (Of course we’re bringing him in, Caitlin’s already on the other line and she’s on fucking hold waiting for the cab dispatcher to pick up…)
The other cats hide or circle at a safe distance, unnerved, eyes wide. In the next room the rabbits thump out alarm signals like little bongos. I grab my Powershot to film the convulsions: probably stupid, probably just make-work but you never know maybe there’s something in those leg movements that could have diagnostic value. The Powershot isn’t working: the digital display’s been on and off for months, just never got around to taking it in. I run into the bedroom, get Caitlin’s camera instead. By now Banana’s running out of strength — still screaming, but the screams are weaker now, the convulsions edging down to frantic twitching kicks — but I take a few seconds of footage anyway, even though the light’s shit, even though you can barely see anything on playback. I take an mp3 of the sounds too, just in case. We grab towels and clothes, bundle up, slam the door behind us as the cab pulls up outside. Banana’s so much quieter, now; “He’s dead” I say a block south of Danforth, but he squirms and lifts his head and gulps as if drowning.
We get him to the clinic. They put him on oxygen. He’s not screaming any more, hasn’t been screaming for minutes now but he’s still kicking and for the first time I don’t know if there’s any light left in those eyes. Shit spills out of him. They wipe it up and hand me some paper to authorize an IV. They send us away to wait. I can still see them working around the corner.
When the vet comes out, he’s all equivocation and soft-peddle. Could be thrombosis. Could be anything, really. No way to know. He’s sedated now, see what happens. A few minutes into the spiel he tosses off something about no pupil response. He’s brain dead, I say. The vet nods sadly. Well you might have fucking said so up front; that has a certain central relevance, wouldn’t you say? He agrees.
Almost no chance of recovery, he admits when pressed. What do you mean almost? I ask, because there’s hope in that word. What are the ballpark odds? He can’t give me any. How long have you been in the business? I ask. Twelve years. And in all that time, have you ever seen a patient recover under these conditions?
He has not.
We go back in. Banana’s lying on his side, IV dripping into one bandaged paw, breathing in short jerky gasps. His tongue lolls on the table like a little pink firehose; I never knew those things were so long. I tap at his nose right beside the eye; the lids blink a little, but the eyes themselves don’t move. Something has already settled on the cornea, some thread or bit of dandruff. The vet grabs a hindpaw, squeezes out a claw, starts clipping. He cuts off pieces one after another, nail up to quick and beyond. He’s cutting into tissue now; he must be cutting nerves. Banana doesn’t twitch; maybe that’s just because he’s sedated, right? But, you know. Brain dead. Twelve years experience. Zero recovery.
Banana’s already dead. We pay almost a thousand dollars, all told, to help his body catch up. Graveyard shift, remember: premium rates. The sun’s up by the time we walk home, carrying what’s left in a box sealed with white medical tape.
The pones are with their dad this morning. We ascertain, over the phone, that Mesopone wants to be present for the burial. Micropone blows it off. As has always been my custom, I wrap the carcass in an old Jethro Tull t-shirt (the Living With the Past tour; I’ve been saving it for years). I think I read somewhere that it’s a good idea to let the deceased’s peers encounter the body, so I leave the opened box in the dining room, Banana shrouded within. Nutmeg and Minion could care less but Chip, who has known Banana almost as long as I have, immediately takes up position beside his dead buddy and sits there for an hour or more. I have no idea if there’s any significance to this.
I spend the time until Meso and Caitlin’s sister arrive choosing what proves to be the most godawful root-infested part of the garden to dig the grave, and then hacking through roots as thick as my wrist with the edge of a shovel. I get the hole deep enough to foil any attempts by the local dogs or raccoons to disinter the body (or at least, if they do get down that far, they’ll have earned their spoils). I go collect my glasses from across the yard where I hurled them in a fit of unexpected rage halfway through the excavation; we all line up in the cold. I lower Banana into the ground. Nobody has anything to say. We each drop a shovelful of soil into the hole. I retrieve the shovel and move the rest of the earth back into place. Mesopone pours a cup of half’n'half onto the dirt. We go inside.
I can’t stop thinking about that puffed-out tail, about Banana’s panicked terrified flight from the reaper. I can’t stop thinking that he knew what was happening, and it scared the shit out of him, and I couldn’t do fuck-all to make him feel even a little bit better. I spent six years making up for the ten that had gone before, making the life sausage of his retirement so fat that he’d forget all about the dried leathery string of jerky that preceded it. He went to sleep with us the night before, a furry pain in the ass somehow capable of monopolizing 70% of the bed with 10% of the mass; just minutes before everything turned to shit, he was purring under my hand. But in the end, he didn’t die basking in the reflection of his golden years. He died in the present, in the thirty-minutes-to-an-endless-goddamned-hour when he felt something killing him from the inside, something that somehow effortlessly kept up no matter how fast he tried to run. I keep telling myself that those last minutes don’t obliterate the previous six years. I will never be entirely convinced.
He’s still here, of course, even though he isn’t. I go into my office and he’s asleep on the desk. I go into the kitchen and he’s figure-eighting around my ankles. I reach down to scritch him here on the bed and it’s only when the ears feel wrong that I look down and realize it’s been Chip or Nutmeg or Minion all along.
The Gang of Fur goes on, leaderless for now. Minion continues to jump onto the bedside windowsill, pull the window open and jump down again without even going outside; she’s always been less interested in going walkabout than in freezing me to death in my bathrobe. Chip continues to swat at me from atop the fridge, trying for a repeat of that long-past glory day when he scooped the contact lens right off my eyeball with a single claw. Nutmeg is still a furry slut. None of them are Banana, of course; just as Banana was never Zombie, or Cygnus, or Strange Cat. They’re just who they are, and someday they’ll all be dead. Chip’s probably next to go. Positive for both Fe-leuk and FIV, he was supposed to be dead last summer, not running around robust and full of beans the way he is. And as I am typing these very words — I shit you not — the pones have just started yelling about A Cat That Looks Just Like Banana! trotting out of our back yard along the fence. And they’re right: I just watched him cross the street. Same walk. Same well-fed tum. Same dirt-common brown tabby markings.
Different ears, of course. No one will ever again have Banana’s ears.
The pones want to leave a bowl of kibble out on the porch tonight. I have no idea what that means.
 aka my stepdaughters