“Grief, I’ve learned, is…all the love you want to give but cannot. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
“It’s okay,” I reassured him, his little kitty face resting on my chest, his eyes staring at mine. “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Tears pooled in my eyes, the overflow cascading with a tremendous crash. This was Friday night, just after 10 p.m. This, we both knew, after six days of what at times looked as if it would be a recovery, was the end. I stroked his side, the lungs rising a little less each minute. His eyes, ordinarily aquamarine, were black beads. How do you capture a lifetime in just a few minutes?
I know, I know. He’s just a cat. And you may stop here and I won’t blame you.
The morning of October 1, 2001, was gray and dull. I was walking home from the gym and just before I entered my building on Riverside Drive, a man and woman, both slightly older, approached. They were in business attire. The man held open his palms to reveal a tiny kitten, no more than a month or two old.
They said they’d found him in a tree planter on the sidewalk. They both had to get to work. Would I mind taking care of him for the work day? The woman knew an older lady whom she thought would want it. Would I mind? No problem, I said, taking the Siamese-looking kitten from the man.
By the time I climbed the four flights of stairs to my front door, I knew this kitten (the breed, I’d later learn, was Balinese) was mine. Waited half an hour, phoned the lady, told her I wasn’t giving him back. She understood. I never spoke to those two again, would have no idea how to contact them. As far as I’m concerned, they’re angels.
That afternoon I phoned my Godliness-is-next-to-Cleanliness mother. “I’m taking in a kitten!” I told her.
“John, please no,” she said. “It’ll ruin your furniture (she was right). Cats can live as long as 19 years.”
In this case, 17 1/2.
My niece, a toddler at the time, noticed the white splotches on his paws and tried to say, “Milk.” She bungled it and in so doing named him: Mirk. Over the years he’d be called that or simply “The Kitty.” Not that it mattered. Mirk never came when you called him.
It took only a few moments for anyone meeting Mirk for the first time to realize that he was an extraordinarily handsome feline. It took less time after that to realize that Mirk knew it. He possessed the ego of a Pro Bowl wideout, but that only added to the legend.
Nights, Mirk would never come to bed with me. Instead, he’d wait about five minutes and then I’d hear him jump onto the foot of the bed. Slowly he’d approach, finally nestling in the crook of my left arm, allowing me to pet him for a few minutes. Perhaps a deep tissue massage for the hind quarters. If pleased, he would never purr like a cat but rather mew like a pigeon (a true New Yorker, he). Then, just as abruptly, he’d be gone, moving to the foot of the bed to sleep.
Mornings, Mirk was the alarm clock. Always about 45 minutes earlier than I’d like, he began brushing that sandpaper tongue against my face. First round, the corners of my lips. If that didn’t work, he’d circle my entire body, always counterclockwise, one orbit lasting about 20 seconds (just long enough to delude myself that I could return to sleep) and work on the orbital bone just outside my eyes. If that still didn’t work, another revolution and then, standing behind my head, he’d crook a paw into a nostril. If that still did not work, the same maneuver but this time with the claws out.
One fine May morning, my bedroom window open, we were both awakened by a rogue pigeon that flew right into the room and kept going. We both heard it and saw the gray streak fly into the living room. Mirk looked back at me for the briefest moment as if to ask, Am I dreaming? Then instinct took over.
The bird landed on a perch just below the skylight over my tub. Mirk stared intently at him from the bathroom tile below. I had to get to work. “You two figure it out,” I told him. The bird would eventually escape.
Nearly 18 years of meals taken at my coffee table that were a reign of terror. A bagel or toast for breakfast? Mirk would have some of that butter, thank you. A sandwich? He’s getting some of that deli meat. Dinner, if it had meat, became a one-for-you, one-for-me endeavor. There’s a popular take-out roast chicken joint here on the Upper West Side called Chirping Chicken and they do not know that for nearly 18 years their most zealous fan was The Kitty. When I brought Chirping Chicken home, any mode of decorum vanished. I was the singular lion and he was the pack of hyenas poaching my kill.
Roommate, antagonist, closest friend. Mirk was all of the above. Through failed jobs or failed relationships, he was a constant. Each night I’d open the door with a two-octaves higher “Kitty hello!” or “How’s my kitty!” and Mirk would jump off the couch or bed to greet me. Not to say hello, mind you, but to intercept me as I walked down the entrance hallway so as to stop me before I passed the kitchen.
“Kitty food!” I’d cry and he’d flash his default expression: impatient expectation. Mirk knew, every time, that there’d be a small tax to pay as I hoisted him up and performed my best Pepe Le Pew on him. These shamelessly overt displays of affection by me came to be known as Kitty Love Bombs, or KLBs.
Mirk traveled. One summer I was stationed in Minneapolis and one of my closest Notre Dame friends, a Minnesota native named Andre, was also headed home. The three of us drove out. Stopping at an I-80 rest stop in Ohio, we let Mirk out in a picnic area to stretch his legs. An elderly couple took Andre aside and told him they were fine with our alternative family arrangement.
Another time, Mirk and I were going to drive all the way to Arizona. At our first gas stop, in central Pennsylvania, I returned from the rest room to my overpacked vehicle to discover The Kitty missing. I phoned good friend Moose with what can only be described as a panic-stricken voice. This is how parents sound when their child doesn’t get off the bus at the assigned stop. “Someone’s stolen the kitty!” I cried as she attempted to talk me off the ledge.
Only a thorough search of the car would find The Kitty hiding beneath a few items, perfectly camouflaged. Moose still enjoys reminding me how terror-stricken I sounded.
(Friends and family, almost all of whom did a stretch of cat-sitting over the years—THANK YOU!—were well aware of my connection to Mirk. Everyone’s favorite MH writer, Katie McCollow, even painted a portrait of him that hangs in my living room. It’s as thoughtful a gift as anyone has ever given me.).
In his later years, as many senior citizens are wont to do, Mirk began spending portions of his winters in Arizona. As his caretaker, I felt obliged to accompany him. This winter, I had a strong sense that it might be his last, a fact that I was cognizant of but never fully emotionally aware of. How can you be?
Mirk’s final two months were full of sunshine, of double helpings of breakfast (he’d wait in the hallway for the first person to awaken, secure breakfast, finish it, then return to his hallway post to nab the second person—my mom or me—to get up. We caught on to his act quickly, but to know The Kitty is to not deny The Kitty), and of generous and frequent allotments of turkey or roast beef slices. And napping. Plenty of napping.
The end, thankfully, was rather quick. A stroke or seizure, a couple of days where it appeared that he was on the road to complete recovery, then a relapse. Last Friday morning the two of us sat in the Charlotte airport waiting to make a connection off a redeye flight. I sat in one of the pavilion’s oversized white rocking chairs, gently rocking The Kitty on my lap. He was spent, nearly a rag doll. A man about my age approached, a fellow animal lover.
“Is he sedated?” the man asked.
No, I told him. He’s had a rough week and he’s old.
The man stared at Mirk for a moment. Then he looked at me and with a voice filled with profound sincerity he said, “Good luck to you.”
He knew. And he’d probably been through it himself. Thank you, sir.
It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.
I loved my father, but I didn’t really cry when he died seven years earlier on the same exact date. This weekend, however, I was a bawling mess. One of the lessons learned is that people are not unhappy because they are not receiving love. People are unhappy because they are not giving love, or because they are being denied the opportunity to give love, or don’t realize they have the opportunity to do so every day.
For the last few years I’d open the door to my apartment, see Mirk’s portrait by Katie staring directly back at me, then see Mirk pop his head up on the couch, directly beneath it, awakened from his slumber and moving on to his determined march to intercept me. Yesterday I opened the apartment door and there was only the portrait.
It’s not that I wish I had one more chance to truly show this creature how much I loved him. I did that for nearly 18 years and could not possibly have shown it more. It’s just that, as grief evinces, I had so much more to give. The look Mirk gave me with his final breaths, after being upright and having an appetite only two days earlier, said to me, I don’t want this journey to end, either. Why does it have to end?
Last week Moose, who once took in The Kitty for a five-month stretch in Beverly Hills, told me, “You saved him as a kitten. And then he saved you. You saved each other. And The Kitty never had a bad day with you.”
Life is precious, as is love. I feel remarkably, crushingly sad today, but only because I know how blessed I have been. How lucky that I happened to be walking outside my apartment at that time on that day so many years ago. Unhappiness is just love going untapped. For 17 years and five months, I never had that problem. Thank you, Mirk.