This spring the secret hero of my memoir Beijing Bastard died. “Brawny, blunt, and down-to earth,” as I described him, Qu Qu’r had been with me since he was six weeks old and I was 24 and living alone in a concrete bunker in a red-light district on the edge of Beijing. I wanted to be half a world away from my family and for years this orange tabby with the beautiful green eyes felt like all I had.
You get the cat you need and I needed an anchor. He watched my every move like other family members I’d lived with, but unlike them, he passed no judgment. He was accepting, patient, stalwart, and, contrary to feline stereotype, loved to be held. The best description of him came from a catsitter who called him “a great, content little guy.” He moved with me from Beijing to Baltimore to Brooklyn to Boston, from the living and writing of my book through its publication.
The diagnosis was cancer. When I got off the phone with the vet, I sobbed.
I’d cried over his death before, years before when it was just us two. A line in a Lorrie Moore story undid me. A good cat had died, you had to start there. The thought of being on my own again made me sob. The night before I put him to sleep I went to look for the exact line but gave up halfway. His death was not as I’d imagined. That night I hugged my son and felt the direct line from QQ to him. The love that opened in me.
QQ looked after me as much as I looked after him. When I was in Beijing looking for an apartment in Baltimore, I posted an online ad saying a woman with a cat was looking for an apartment, and a woman with a cat moving out of a cozy one-bedroom wrote back to offer it.
The next year when I wanted to move my penniless self to Brooklyn, I found a room for $380 a month (a steal even back in 2003), but at the last minute the owner decided she didn’t want to live with a cat, so I had to find a different room, twice as expensive. I thought my streak of luck was over. Guess what, though? My first month there, in walked the man I’d later marry.
He wanted children, always had, but I was never sure. I’m not exactly mother material, being by nature whatever is the opposite of accepting, patient, and stalwart. I could keep a cat alive, but that felt like about it.
The vet appointment was on a Friday afternoon so I spent QQ’s last morning in bed with him, petting him and reading and crying. I’d spent the day before like that that too. It was Spring Break, my first as a writing professor, and I should have been grading papers. QQ loved it best when I was sick and in bed, and times in the past when I’d lain down with a migraine he’d come by to lick my forehead and keep me company. Now it was my turn to keep him company.
I wish I’d held QQ more in his last few years of life but after our twin sons were born in 2012, my husband and I have had our hands full, literally and figuratively, and we never sit still anymore. I don’t even lie down when I have a migraine. Parenting has its joys but it can also fill me with feelings of rage and powerlessness, and most nights not long after putting my sons to bed, I crawl into bed too and hope I wake up more the mother I want to be. In QQ’s last months, another needy creature was the last thing I wanted, I’m embarrassed to say.
I lifted my boys up onto the bed that Friday morning and told them to say goodbye to the cat. He’s sick and going home, I said. One of my sons sat next to him and put his fingers near his ears to make them twitch. “Wiggo, wiggo!” he said one last time without knowing it, with a look of pure delight on his face.
QQ’s death wasn’t as I’d imagined it would be. Instead of despairing over being on my own again, all I wanted was a little time by myself. Two days to lie in bed reading a book cover-to-cover felt criminally decadent. QQ looked after me to the end.
We held him as the life went out of him. Lying limp on a purple towel in a narrow room between two corridors, his paws, the pink pads of them, were so familiar to me and I would never see them again. His eyes were still such a beautiful shade of green. His tail curved. He was a great, content little guy and no one else in my life is like that. He showed me that you could be perfectly satisfied with what you had, that you could see it all and yet judge none of it. I lay my palm on the shaved patch on his side; it was still warm. You were my anchor. Now that you’re gone, can I learn to be that for myself? Have I learnt? As a mother, can I be that for my sons?