Last weekend my little sister and I saw a dead cat on the side of the road. We were driving home from campus on our way to our parents’ house to visit, do laundry and eat a home-cooked meal when we saw it. It was blotched black and white, laying down as if it was only sleeping. But it was just a foot off the road, unmoving, on top of a piece of cardboard.
We saw it almost at the same time, and when we did we both gasped and then looked at each other, both knowing exactly what the other was thinking without having to say a word. We’ve both always had an affinity for animals of all shapes and sizes, so seeing this dead cat obviously upset us. But what upset us much more was that seeing this dead cat reminded us that our own cat, Lila, who’s on her ninth life and is going to die soon.
When we arrived home she was there to greet us, along with our mom, dad, little sister and our two dogs. She is a senior lady; she’s lived with us for 15 years now. We’re not 100% sure exactly how old she is though, because we didn’t get her the way one would normally get a cat.
In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that she ‘got’ us. Back when my family lived in Appleton and I was only six and my little sisters only four and one, Lila was a vagabond in our upper-crust neighborhood, finding shelter where she could and terrorizing families of rabbits so she could eat. Eventually she took a particular liking to our home and became a frequent visitor because my mom left 2% milk out on our porch in a dog bowl so she could have something to drink.
One day, when my dad and my little sisters went on a walk around the block, she spotted us, and because she recognized our faces or our scent or maybe was just lonely, she followed us 1/2 a mile back to our home. My sisters and I begged and begged to keep her. She didn’t have a collar after all, so she didn’t belong to anyone else, we said. My dad didn’t want to keep the cat and didn’t budge. But that didn’t stop us from begging to keep the cat, and it didn’t stop her from visiting regularly to drink a bowl of milk.
Shortly after the day she followed us home, Lila did something spectacular that made her a part of our family. Somehow she had been pregnant with a litter of kittens that whole time without us noticing it. There were five in all, three little short-haired black kittens and two slightly larger orange kittens, one with short hair and one with long, fluffy hair. And after she delivered them, probably under a tree somewhere, she carried each of them by the scruffs of their necks to our garage, one-by-one, and began to nurse them.
My little sisters and I reacted the only way little kids can be expected to when an entire litter of baby kittens is brought to their house. We wanted to play with the kittens and name them and keep them. This was the best day ever.
There was no way we were going to keep all five kittens though, so my mom helped Lila take care of them, and she fed them and treated them for worms until they were old enough to go live with their own families. But after this episode, there was absolutely no way my mom wasn’t going to keep Lila. The homeless cat had proven herself to be a caring mother, which, in the eyes of my mom, is the most virtuous thing one can possibly be. She had made up her mind that we were going to keep Lila; Lila had trusted us with her kittens, her babies, and how could we possibly betray that trust? There was nothing my dad could do but give in.
So since that day Lila has been a part of our family. We got her spayed so that she couldn’t have any more kittens, we kept her safe from the elements and we started feeding her fancy wet cat food for every meal because that’s her favorite. For the rest of the time we lived in Appleton, and since we moved to Madison, Lila would spend her days terrorizing families of rabbits and birds, and her nights cuddling with us and purring and swatting us when we didn’t give her ample attention.
Since I left for college though, Lila has gone outside less and less. She walks crooked now because she has a bad back, she doesn’t spend very much time awake and she very often looks confused. We can’t put her down though, according to my mom, as long as she is still enjoying life, even a little bit. We must carry her around when she wants to come downstairs or go back upstairs, we must bring her her fancy wet cat food because she won’t eat anything else, we must go outside with her every once in a while because she still likes the grass and the breeze and we must bathe her because she can’t clean herself anymore.
Because she still likes to cuddle with all of us, and because she was still there to greet my sister and I when we got home, traumatized from seeing the dead cat on the side of the road.
Today, 358 days after I wrote this essay, my sisters and my parents and I made the upsetting but ultimately correct decision to have a vet come out to our home and help Lila to end her life peacefully. She was not enjoying life anymore, and it was clear that the only thing keeping her alive was stubbornness; the stubbornness so strong it took the vet 3 doses of pentobarbital to overcome. I will think of Lila for the rest of my life, but today I wonder about the cat on the side of the road, asking the same question my sister wondered aloud the moment we saw it: “I wonder where its family is.”