Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What Love Does

Of all the topics of conversation Mr. Brown Eyes and I covered during our first date, I will never forget him telling me about his crazy, snaggle-toothed cat, Critter, that he had had since he was a teenager. His description of him made me laugh out loud. I had no idea then that I would later have the opportunity to get to know Critter very well.

When we got married, Mr. Brown Eyes' oldest sister drove down with her family from Kansas for the occasion--and deposited a cat carrier full of smelly Critter into our apartment. My first impression of him was exactly as Mr. Brown Eyes had described him. His ears were torn and scarred, his left eye cloudy, the fur on his nose zigzagged from old scratches. A rough old tomcat, he didn't take to me right away. For the first few days we lived together he spent most of his time on top of the fridge, watching me warily. But it only took a few feedings for him to decide he liked me.

Critter was not so easy for me to love. I found myself constantly scolding him. If there was something I didn't want him to do--sharpening his claws on the couch, napping on the counter, sneaking into the cupboards--he was sure to do it. I learned to keep edible items away from the edge of the counter when I was preparing a meal because inevitably Critter would pit-pat into the kitchen next to me, stand up on his hind legs and reach one paw as far as he could, sometimes snagging a piece of chicken or cheese. He was like a puppy, always hovering around the table, begging for scraps. The first month of our marriage, Mr. Brown Eyes left a sandwich he'd made for his lunch in the living room; Critter got the bag open and ate out the lunchmeat. Once I made the mistake of turning my back on Critter during breakfast, and when I turned around I found him on the table, happily lapping up the milk from my cereal.

His eccentricities drove me crazy, but slowly endeared him to me. As annoying as he was, I had to admit he was smart. It didn't take him long to discover that if he stuck his paw underneath our closed bedroom door just so he could rattle the doorstop, rudely snapping the newlyweds out of our blissful sleep. That became his daily ritual of alerting us it was morning and he wanted to be fed. Until we finally removed the doorstop. And he was amusing, with that one snaggletooth that occasionally got caught outside his lip and his habit of racing around the apartment after he had a good poop in the litterbox. Mr. Brown Eyes and I had a good laugh the night we bought a scratching pad infused with catnip and watched Critter protect it from my high-strung kitten, Oot. He'd lure her in, pretending he'd lost interest in it, then pounce the minute she got too close.

One night while exploring the closet Critter got his claw stuck in one of my favorite dresses. I stormed over to him, grabbed his paw, and pulled his claw out of the delicate fabric. I didn't hurt him, but I was unreasonably harsh. Later that night I found him sitting by himself on the moonlit balcony. I crouched down next to him.

"Do you forgive me, Critter?" I asked. "I'm so sorry. I am mean to you and you don't deserve it. I know you and I have not really had a chance to bond. But Sean loves you. So I love you, too. Do you forgive me?"

He probably hadn't heard a word I said because the minute I stepped onto the balcony he was up and rubbing his head against my hand, purring contentedly. I knew all was forgiven. Critter loved unconditionally like that.

That certainly wasn't the last time I scolded Critter, but we continued together in harmony. There were times when Mr. Brown Eyes and I would be lying together on the couch and here comes Critter, jumping up onto our sides and weasling his way into our arms, sinking his claws into our flesh as he made himself as comfortable as possible. It felt like we were one happy--if slightly alternative--family.

We knew Critter would love all the room to run around at our new house. He had his very own kitchen windowsill looking out over the grassy pasture. The outdoors beckoned him and a few times he escaped outside, once to be attacked by the neighbors' dog. Critter was noticeably old then, little more than skin, bones, and fur, but he gave the dog a good fight, clawing her on the nose and trotting away without a scratch. He was a fighter, clear to the end.

When Critter first got sick, I was relieved. The first thing I noticed was that he wasn't yowling at me every two minutes to be fed, chasing after my heels and tripping me. I thought that maybe he had settled down a bit and I enjoyed the peace and quiet. It didn't even cross my mind that he was sick. Not at first. Then I noticed that he didn't seem very interested in food, which was very un-Critter-like. But I thought that maybe he was eating while I was at work, so I wasn't too worried.

One morning I saw Critter try to jump up on the counter and he didn't even get two paws up before he fell back to the floor. He took to sitting in the bathroom, or one corner of the living room, his paws tucked underneath him, staring ahead at nothing. Slowly he would stand up, pad his way to the food dish, take a few licks of water, then return to his sitting spot.

I brought it up with Mr. Brown Eyes.

"I tried mixing it with water," I told him. "I even tried giving him canned food. He always loved that stuff before. Now he just turns his nose up at it and Oot eats it all and barfs it up five minutes later."

"Are you giving him that ground-up stuff?"


"He only likes the chunky cat food."

I raised my eyebrows. "He never cared before."

But Mr. Brown Eyes was convinced that that was the problem.

The next evening I was proud of myself. I offered Critter a little bit of milk and he took it, gently lapping with his scratchy tongue. Maybe he's going to be all right, after all, I thought.

But later that night when Mr. Brown Eyes came to bed I sensed his anxiety before he said anything. "I want to show you something," he said. "Tell me if it looks like what I think it does. Critter threw up, and it looks red."

I followed him into the dining room and almost gagged. A puddle of dark red stained the floor. I nodded, my earlier triumph fading. "That's blood."

Mr. Brown Eyes stared at it. "How much milk did you give him?"

I tried to bite back my irritation, feeling like he was blaming this on me. "Not very much. Sean, this isn't a matter of him having too much milk. This is blood."

Mr. Brown Eyes didn't reply. He had been in denial, and now the awful truth stared him in the face.

I found him in the bathroom later, crouching down and stroking Critter's head. I knelt beside him and put an arm around him. Big, salty tears rolled down his nose and he buried his head into my shoulder, sounding for all the world like a crushed little boy as he wept, "Critter's going to die." Seeing my husband cry is always enough to move me to tears and I started to cry, too.

I thought myself a very loving and supportive wife as we cried, saying nothing. I knew I would miss Critter, but in my mind he had lived a good, long life and now that he was old and possibly suffering, it was best to let him go. He would be happier.

In my selfishness, I took for granted that Mr. Brown Eyes felt the same way.

Mr. Brown Eyes called me the next day at work, sounding dejected. "Could you call the animal hospital and see how much it would cost to bring Critter in?"

I was taken aback. "Babe, you know it's going to cost a fortune..."

"I know..."

"I've seen plenty of old cats in Critter's condition come into the hospital. Their owners spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars on bloodwork and ultrasounds, whatever it takes to find out what's wrong, and in the end there's nothing they can do."

"But maybe it's something simple. Maybe there's some medication they can give him or something we can do."

"Even if there was something, at Critter's age it's not going to improve the quality of his life." I was adamant about this; there comes a point when owners just need to let their pets go, a point when extending their life is not a kindness.

Silence on the other end of the line. "They won't be able to give me an exact price, anyway," I continued. "There's no way for them to know what he needs until they see him."

"Could you please just try?" he asked hollowly.

I realized I had hurt him and I bit my lip. "Yes."

I was able to get a rough estimate on an exam and bloodwork, but my heart felt ready to break when I hung up the phone. I wasn't sure why. I was absolutely convinced I was in the right. So why did my husband's hollow voice still ring in my ears, piercing me with guilt?

I knew why. If the roles were reversed and it was my precious pet on the verge of death, Mr. Brown Eyes would not simply hug me through my tears and then pat himself on the back, telling himself what a great husband he was. I recalled a few months before when my horse had suddenly stopped eating. Mr. Brown Eyes had been right there, sticking his fingers into Sultan's mouth to administer a syringe full of mineral oil, listening to his bowel sounds with a stethoscope, giving him a bucket full of sweetened mash. And as I cried he had leaned in and said softly, "We can call a vet if we need to."

He probably knew it would be expensive. He probably knew there was a chance it wouldn't do any good. But he also knew that sometimes those things don't matter. That there are times in life when logic and sensibility must stand aside for love.

Suddenly I understood the break in my heart. In my overzealousness, I had missed it all. Now, in addition to a dying cat, Mr. Brown Eyes had an insensitive wife blind to her own husband's pain.

Ashamed, I consented to taking Critter to the vet. But we had to wait until Monday for the vet's office to open.

That Sunday Critter spent most of his time in the laundry room, climbing into his litterbox but unable to get back out. For a while I sat beside Mr. Brown Eyes on the cement step, watching helplessly as his tears fell and Critter's breath came so faint I wasn't sure if he was breathing at all. I felt like an intruder. And remembering how willing I was to let Critter die, I also felt shallow and selfish. I kissed Mr. Brown Eyes' forehead, stood up, and let them have their time alone together.

That night Mr. Brown Eyes jumped out of bed every time he heard Critter cry. It didn't matter that there was nothing he could do. He was there for him because that's what love does. Even love for a cat.

Mr. Brown Eyes called me at work the next day to tell me that Critter had died. He died in Mr. Brown Eyes' hands just before he took him to the vet. My heart hurt to hear my husband's voice like that, broken with tears. But I was glad Critter died there with the man who loves him most, and that I was not there to take away from their last moments together.

Mr. Brown Eyes showed me the grave that afternoon, painstakingly dug and mounded with rocks taken from the yard. I praised it and said we should make a headstone to mark it, but I felt uneasy, not sure how to act or what to say. Did Mr. Brown Eyes know that I loved him, even though I had been insensitive and selfish? Did he blame me for Critter's death?

We stood in silence for several minutes, the spring breeze rustling the weeds in the pasture. I shifted my weight, agonizing over what I should say. But before I could whisper a word of apology, Mr. Brown Eyes put his arm around me and pulled me close. I knew by his touch that I was forgiven. Maybe not because I deserved it. But because that's what love does.

Critter taught me that.

The Brown-Eyed Girl

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