I held him gently, scratching him in the places he liked best and looking into his eyes as his signature motorboat purr faded to silence. The vet pulled her stethoscope away and said, "He's gone."
I stroked his face for several minutes. As his body relaxed, his face looked younger than it had in years, reminding me of the days shortly after he adopted me.
As I moved into a house I'd purchased in Charlotte, N.C., I'd seen a flash of fur zip across the lawn. The lightning-fast visits became more frequent as I settled into the home with my roommate, Pam, and our two cats.
"Did you see that big ol' gray kitty outside?" I asked Pam. "Well, it's really not gray, but you know the one."
After that, we'd compare sightings, always calling it "that-big-ol'-gray-kitty-outside-well-you-know-the-one." We asked neighbors whose cat it was, but they all said they'd never seen the cat before we moved in. They'd assumed it was ours.
Soon, it seemed, the cat was ours. Cat food found its way onto our porch and eventually the cat wouldn't bolt as we watched through the window. That's when we found out that "gray" described the cat not one bit. It was really mostly brown, maybe part tabby, almost certainly part Maine coon.
When Pam moved away to get married and took her cat, my cat Ashlee went into a kind of mourning. She wouldn't eat, and she cried out in loneliness. My vet suggested I get another cat to appease my little dilute calico. I immediately thought of that big ol' gray kitty outside.
I hauled the cat to the vet to finally claim ownership by getting up-to-date shots.
"What's the cat's name?" the technician asked.
"Um, Grey Kitty," I decided.
She looked at the cat and then looked at me with a raised eyebrow. "You do know the cat's brown, right?"
"Yes," I said, somewhat defensively. "Look, I just want to make sure that she's not going to have kittens."
"Oh, you won't have to worry about kittens. She is a he, and he has been neutered."
(Well, he was really furry and I hadn't wanted to invade his privacy.)
The vet estimated his age at 3 to 5 years. I would never have any clue about what came before he adopted me back in 1991, but I resolved to give him a happy home.
He and Ashlee became best friends, cross-grooming and wrestling and nestling together. They saw me through life's ups and downs and happily moved to Baltimore with me in 1993. They eagerly bonded with The New Guy, Rick, when he arrived from California in 1999 to marry me. And when Catie came in 2001 and Teddy arrived in 2004, the cats tolerated them, too.
Ashlee proved timid around the kids, but nothing could faze Grey Kitty. While little hands learned the difference between "petting" and "yanking," he didn't complain at all. When Teddy would grab a handful of Grey's luxurious fur, Grey would look at me as if to say, "Um, could you give me a hand here? I'll just stand still while you relax his grip."
About six years ago, when Grey was about 12-14, the vet found problems with his heart. Thyroid pills became a necessity, and Grey would walk to us for his doses twice a day.
Lately, though, the pills seemed to lose their effectiveness. His fluffy coat had always hidden his small frame, but now the pounds just dropped away. When I picked him up, all I felt was bones.
He was unhappy, too. His vision was failing, and he had a hard time doing anything he loved. Even eating and drinking were a chore. The nights were when he felt the worst. He would cry out over and over in pain and possible confusion. We'd go to him and comfort him and he'd settle for a bit. Then he'd cry some more. Even when he purred, he shuddered a little.
There were several times, during those last days, that Rick or I would go looking for Grey Kitty, wanting to make sure that we found the body before the kids did.
We knew it was time to let go.
The cat I took to the vet's office was a shadow of his former self. I knew I was making the right decision, but that didn't make it easier. I held on tight and told him over and over again what a good kitty he was. How gentle he was. How loving. Rick stroked him and told him that there would never be another cat so special.
Within seconds, it was over. The pain was gone and once again his eyes were bright. His fur was softer that day than it had ever felt before.
And so the cat who sprinted from nowhere in particular to adopt me so long ago was once again on the run. This time, I know a loving home was already waiting for him.
To listen to podcasts of Real Life essays, go to baltimoresun.com / reallife.