“He’s 22,” the vet told my wife and me, “it’s time to let him go.”
When our cat Santo recently died, my wife Evin and I had been in denial about his behavior those last few days — the not eating, not playing, the hiding. We had thought the vet would examine him, prescribe something, and we’d be off to dinner with friends.
Three of us went to the vet that Saturday afternoon, but only two came home. The weekend was filled with sadness, looking at pictures and videos, and long discussions about which of his things to get rid of, and when.
Santo didn’t always belong to us, he belonged to my first wife long before I even came into the picture. When I met them, Santo and my ex were a lot alike: shy, skittish, interested in me maybe disrupting things a little in their lives. I’d never been much of a cat person before so I treated Santo like a dog. There was a lot of roughhousing, play pinching and slapping, letting him use my hand for a chew toy. After a short courtship, his owner and I moved in together, got married, bought an apartment, and settled in — our shared affection for Santo part of that intangible glue that forms a relationship.
But it didn’t last. We probably didn’t work from the very beginning actually, but neither of us had been courageous enough to acknowledge it. Our brief marriage collapsed under the weight of our incompatibility, and the pressure of her obtaining a PhD in clinical psychology. If I’m being totally honest with myself, I should shoulder the lion’s share of the responsibility for the marriage’s dissolution. I hadn’t a clue how to be a good husband. I was given to bouts of spiking anxiety which kept us both habitually off balance. And my writing career was stalled in lower gears. When my ex moved out she took her clothes, some personal belongings, and half the sheets and towels. Left behind were boxes filled with personal mementos of her childhood, her wedding dress — and Santo.
She never formally asked me if I wanted to keep him. She did call once a few months after leaving to see if I was happy having him. By that time, I had formed a deep attachment to the little guy. Santo had become a buddy, a pal, a keepsake; a living, breathing, eating, purring, scratching, sleeping, consolation prize. “Your marriage is over! Tell him what he’s won, Johnny.” “It’s a 10-year-old cat, Bob!”
When we first split and people would question why I got custody of my ex’s cat, I answered with a myriad of replies. They ran the spectrum from, “she was insane” to “she didn’t have a permanent place to live” to “the long hours of getting her PhD made caring for him impossible.” My response depended on my mood, what best served my interests at the time, or how I had felt about my ex at the particular moment. Demonizing her was a necessary component of being able to rebuild my life.
I ran into her only once, and only briefly, on my way to jury duty one morning a year or so following our split. We never spoke again after that. No postmortem, no rehash, no fond reminiscing, no last scene from Annie Hall.
Five years after the divorce, I met Evin. She had initially been allergic to Santo and there were a few weeks where I thought I might have to give him away. But magically the coughing and sneezing ceased. To her credit Evin fully embraced Santo, not hung up in the least about having him as a reminder of my first marriage. Evin and I fell in love, moved in together, and got married. Santo was now part of our family.
Since I work from home his death permeated my days. I was so accustomed to my morning routine of first feeding him then making coffee, that for a few days I actually forgot to make the coffee. When I wanted a break from writing, I’d spin around in my chair to look for him. Sometimes I’d hear the imaginary clickety-clack of his nails on the hardwood floors. It was hard to escape things he’d left behind, too: toys under the bed, little bags of catnip scattered about, cat treats on both the nightstand and the kitchen shelf.
And there were lingering questions that Santo’s death had dredged up, like wanting to know the end of a book you put down before finishing. I wondered whom my ex had become. Was she anything like my memory of her? Did she ever miss Santo or regret leaving him with me? Why, at the end of our marriage, did she decide to gift him to me? Suddenly, I had this overpowering feeling to let her know that Santo had died, but I wondered if that would be appropriate after having had no contact for so long. I had heard some factoids over the years: she’d married and moved to Westchester, adopted a child, opened a psychology practice.
Late one night after a few weeks of obsessing, I composed an email to my ex about Santo. I wanted her to know how long and happily he had lived, and that he had been well loved and cared for by me and my wife. But most importantly, I wanted to do something I had never done, to thank her for him.
Everyone warned me that she might not reply and prepared me for disappointment. “It’s been years,” a good friend said, “she’s moved on.” But I clicked SEND, confident I’d hear back. The following night, I did. Her response was cautious, a little guarded, but included a sincere gratitude for how well we had cared for Santo. “Leaving him with you just seemed like the right thing to do,” she wrote. She closed the email with an offer I had not expected, an invitation for more communication.
We agreed to meet for lunch at a café near the Metro North train station in her new hometown. I had no intention of picking at the scab of our long ago ended marriage. What would be the point of that? But there was one question I wanted to ask, one which had nagged at me all those years — and it involved Santo.
We got the important stuff out of the way — her mom (whom I adored) my dad (whom she adored), new spouses, their adopted son, her practice, my writing career. Reconnecting couldn’t have been lovelier, funnier, or more enjoyable. We had over the ensuing years, finally become the individuals we had always wanted each other to be. Then I got around to Santo. I wanted to ask her about one very specific moment at the tail end of our marriage.
In the weeks before we had split up, our time together in the apartment was certainly not joyful. I ate lots of dinners with friends, saw many awful movies alone, and got good at killing time wandering around the city until I was sure my then-wife would be asleep. One late night I returned home to find her still awake, sitting at the computer writing a paper, Santo splayed on the floor behind her. We exchanged innocuous pleasantries about our day before she returned to her work. I then dropped to the floor to engage Santo. I pinched, he scratched. The clock was ticking on him remaining in my life and I wanted to get some extra playtime in while we were still together. I looked up and caught my soon-to-be ex watching us with a thoughtful expression. No words were exchanged. She turned around and went back to work. The whole thing happened so fast, I should’ve forgotten about it. But I didn’t.
“Do you remember that?” I asked her.
She smiled and nodded. “Yes.”
“All these years I’ve been convinced that that was the exact moment you decided to leave him with me. Am I right?” She nodded again.
It was nice to know my memory was clear and true. That in the moment of fullest sadness and anger, she had been able to see my connection to Santo and have the kindness to let him go.
Two and a half hours sailed by and it was time to wrap it up. We agreed to keep in touch, which feels likely to happen. She hugged me goodbye and just before she drove off I shouted, “Hey! Thanks for leaving me!” She replied with a laugh, “Thanks for giving me reasons to leave you!”
Deep down I always knew that someday Santo would pass away and I’d be compelled to reach out to my ex. I like to think that he hung around long enough just to make sure I was ready for that. Santo’s death provided a closure I couldn’t have had any other way. His death was not in vain.
One wet April morning a few months later, Evin and I wandered into a Petco and adopted a female, rescue cat. We named her Loki. She runs around at night, knocking things over, inhales every bowl of food we put in front of her, and is habitually underfoot. We love her like we did her predecessor. Loki has some pretty big paws to fill, but we’re betting she’ll make it all the way to 22, and beyond.