Your Shadow Never Leaves You

I spent 13 years of my life with Mr. Shadow, a little grey tabby dumped outside our house one day. I always say that your cats come to you — you can’t come to them — but this was a particularly literal case. From the very beginning of his days with us, Mr. Shadow was a strangely simultaneously affectionate and aloof cat. He loved snuggling with people and claimed hats, laps, knitting, and anything else that looked interesting; but he would also sit up high and gaze down imperiously, making sure that no one ever forgot he was the cat in charge.

Mr. Bell was there before Shadow was, and the two became fast friends, coiling up together on every available surface, wrestling amiably, and sleeping together after every exhausting activity. Their fast bond was interesting to observe, and they always loved each other deeply, right to the very end, when Mr. Bell sat at the head of the bed while Dr. Perry, a vet tech, and I sat at the foot of it with Shadow. Loki, as a late addition, may have formed a trio, but he was always the third wheel, and they never let him forget it (especially on his first day home, when Mr. Bell literally scared the piss out of him).

Mr. Bell watches Mr. Shadow sleep.

Shadow always preferred sleeping in the highest spot — here he is on his faux sheepskin fleece on top of the closet in our old house on Stewart Avenue. Mr. Bell would always follow him up and guard him. Towards the end, I knew he wasn’t feeling well because he gradually adjusted his sleeping places: First to the tops of the bookshelves, which were easier to reach, then the table under the window, then to the blue chair, then to my steamer trunk, and finally to the floor, unless I was around to lift him up — but he still needed my help to get down.

We spent his last morning together in my bed — by that time, I had set up steps that he would shakily navigate to get into my relatively low bed. He’d been tucking himself under the covers with me for weeks by then, and that morning, he burrowed himself deeply and purred softly to himself. Something about him told me he was done — by then, the intestinal lymphoma that was ravaging his body had made it nearly impossible to eat and drink, and his pain medication wasn’t adequate any more.

Living with dying animals is so difficult. As you watch them slowly deteriorate, you’re forced to make a thousand tiny decisions that haunt you every day — you constantly second-guess your decision tree, wondering what you should have done and when. There’s always a part of you that wonders if you could have stopped it, even if you know on an intellectual level that there’s nothing you could have done, that terminal illness is a monster that comes in the night whether you want it to or not.

Sometimes I wonder when that one cell divided. Was it while he was sitting on my lap as we watched a Buffy episode? As he was chasing Loki around the house? When I gave him a scrap of liver while I was roasting a chicken? One of the days we sat on the porch reading together? While he was seated on a friend’s lap, quietly kneading her knee? I know it’s a ridiculous question to ask — even if I’d felt it when it happened, I couldn’t have reached inside and wrenched it out — but there’s a part of me that longs to know.

Mr. Shadow sitting in the sun on my steamer trunk.

One of the great tragedies of being an atheist, and something many people of faith don’t seem to understand, is that I know there’s nothing else. He’s just gone, and we’re never going to meet each other in some world or some other form. He’s not watching over me, and when I feel haunted by him, it’s just tricks of my mind — rogue electrical impulses and neurotransmitters. If I think I hear his scratchy meow in the night, or his feet padding along the floor, it’s just an echo of memory. There’s nothing there, no grand reunion for us, no redemption, and that is an acutely painful feeling.

For days after he died, Mr. Bell looked for him, curious and expectant every time I opened the door, thinking I would come back with him. He padded around the house restlessly at night while Loki meowed querulously, both of them wondering where Shadow had gone — and why they couldn’t follow.