I was never really a cat person.
We had a cat in our house for a short time when I was very young, but my general experience was that felines were standoffish and unpredictable, as likely to rake your arms with their filthy claws as purr when you pet them. I preferred the company of our big, lovable dogs growing up, and always thought I’d have one myself, someday.
Way back in 1998, when I was teaching fourth grade, one of my students wanted to bring in her cat’s litter of kittens to show the class. I wasn’t so thrilled at the idea. But my student was in luck, because my teammate was way into kitties, and gave her the go-ahead.
So one Friday afternoon, my student’s mom brought in a passel of mewling, furry creatures, unloading them onto the classroom carpet while our students sat in a circle around them. The kittens slowly began to find their way into the hands of kids, and the only black one somehow ended stumbling his way to me. I began to step back, but my meddling teammate scooped him from the floor and pressed him to my chest.
“No, no,” I said, trying to push her hands away. But she wouldn’t relent, and that’s how I ended up holding a warm, purring, green-eyed kitten, his baby claws hooked through my shirt. He smelled sweet, like warm milk, and he nestled his head against my wrist. I couldn’t help but scratch him behind the ears, or bring him up to my face and kiss the top of his head. He was so tiny that he fit perfectly in my two hands, rolling to his back and revealing a little white bow tie — the only fur that wasn’t black. I rubbed his belly with a finger, and he mewed contentedly.
“You can take him home, if you’d like,” the student’s mother said. “They’re all just weaned.”
“Ha, no.” I replied. “I don’t need a cat.” But holding the kitty’s warm body against my chest magically started the internal gears working. Could I actually bring him home?
“Well, you should call Jennifer and ask her what she thinks,” said my teammate, meddling again.
Why not? I thought. She’d put the kibosh on the whole idea, and I’d have plausible deniability. So I called my fiancée, Simone’s future mom, and she didn’t make things easier at all.
“You need to make this decision,” she told me. “I love cats, and he sounds sweet. You should ask about his shots, but I can go pick up supplies on my way home if you end up keeping him.”
“But what do you think?” I asked, a little panic in my voice.
“You get to decide this one.”
And that’s how Akiva the Mighty, AKA Akivabaer, AKA The Boy, AKA Simone’s older brother ended up sleeping on my chest that very night, his tiny wet nose tucked under my left ear, a gentle, purring ball of affection and sweetness, 16-plus years ago.
Akiva would sleep on my chest every night for the first few years, his freight train purr leaving off when he’d finally slip into a doze, only to rev up again if I moved in the slightest. Although he was cuddly with my ex, he was always really my cat. My familiar.
When Simone was born a couple years later, he was immediately protective of her—following any non-family members around when they held her, standing vigil at her crib when she cried, curling up on my lap when I held her.
There was no question he’d stay with me when we got divorced. And Akiva stuck with me through my life’s challenges and joys and difficulties and changes for another 11 years. He slept on my feet, or pressed himself against my back, or nuzzled under an arm every night. He came running to the door when I’d get home, talking and complaining about my absence. He greeted every guest in our house with sweetness and interest, and even the most allergic or cat-phobic of my friends or dates couldn’t help but cuddle with him.
Last spring, when I brought Akiva to the vet for some dental work, they found a growth at the back of his throat, and sent in a sample for biopsy. My wonderful veterinarian called me on the phone as soon as the results were in.
It was squamous cell carcinoma, and between his advanced age, the location of the cancer, and the weirdly amorphous nature of the growth, operating was out of the question. Just a couple months after losing my father, the terms “chemotherapy,” “radiation,” and “palliative care” were part of the conversation again. Words I was hoping I wouldn’t have to hear for a long time.
The vet told me that Akiva was the strongest cat she’d met for his age — that they wouldn’t have believed he was older than 11 or 12 if I hadn't told them otherwise. She told me he had a good chance of fighting things off, at least for awhile, but that the prognosis after diagnosis was six to eight weeks.
“But Eric,” my vet said, “remember that Akiva doesn’t know he has cancer. So keeping him strong and happy is the best thing you can do right now.”
When I hung up the phone, I pulled Akiva into my lap, held him close, and started weeping into his fur. I cried for him, I cried for my dad, and I cried for myself. He sniffed at my neck and gave me a little lick before hopping to the floor to find his food dish.
The experimental meds we gave him over the next few weeks caused the carcinoma to shrink, but Akiva’s healthy appetite waned and waned. He went from 15 pounds to 12 and down to 10. When Simone and I got back from Japan, he looked tiny and weak. But he still wanted to cuddle, and would rush to the kitchen if I was cooking up salmon or tilapia, meowing at my feet for a taste.
Our sweet boy was expected to live maybe six or eight weeks, but he stuck around for closer to four months before finally giving in. It all happened quickly. Simone and I spent a lazy Sunday with him, feeding him melted ice cream and loving him up. Simone gave Akiva a nuzzle when her mom came to get her, and, late that night, I covered him with a towel, placing a soft rag under his head before scratching him behind the ears and kissing him one last time on the top of his head. By the time I woke up in the morning, my sweet Akiva was gone.
My mom calls Akiva the best cat she’d ever met. He was truly special in the pantheon of awesome felines. Whether you were a new friend or a familiar guest, Akiva’s first order of business was to say hello by nuzzling your leg and asking for some love. If you sat down, he’d be on your lap, settling himself contentedly so you could have the honor of petting him.
My vet and her techs fell in love with him, too, telling me how strong and sweet he was, and how he’d twist and yowl and complain when they took his blood pressure or poked at his belly, but he wouldn’t bite. My friend and dedicated cat-sitter would send me pictures of Akiva sprawled on my bed, waiting for me to come home.
And, oh, Simone loved Akiva, from the moment she could grasp his tail or crawl on top of him. Akiva might complain a little bit, or wander away, but for the most part, he’d accept her ministrations, licking her hand or grasping it gently between his front teeth if Simone got too rough. Simone’s “big brother” was a constant companion, snuggling with us each night as we read together at bedtime, sitting at the table with us as we ate dinner, getting underfoot as we’d hustle our way out the door on school mornings.
He loved weekends best, especially the lazy ones, when the three of us would cuddle on the couch together to watch cartoons.
When I go home now, there’s no one waiting for me at the door. I don’t get the blessing of Akiva’s warmth and snuggles at night, and it makes getting into my big new bed a little less inviting. He doesn’t crawl onto my lap on the weekends. I don’t get to nuzzle him or rub his belly or grumble as he settles himself on my bladder when I’m just waking up.
A couple weeks ago, I was watching TV and thought I heard him crunching on the food in his dish. But it was just the fridge making little chirping sounds. The black shadow on the floor when I wake up in the night is just a shirt that fell out of the laundry basket. And Simone gets so sad when we lay down to read “Cold Mountain” together and we don’t have the boy purring between us.
Even though it’s been a bit more than a month since Akiva left us, I still get moments of true grief that he’s not there to cuddle. I don’t want to take a chance with another kitten, and I don’t have the right lifestyle to handle a dog in the house. So when I’m alone, it’s extra-quiet, and the big, new, modern brownstone feels too spacious for just me. It’s going to be awhile before I really feel at home there.
And, in some weird ways, the loss of my father and the loss of my 16-year-old cat within six months ties my grief together, missing my dad when I find a cat toy under the couch, missing my cat when I’m sitting in my dad’s house, looking through his wrist watches and cufflinks.
Last week, I went through Dad’s stuff with his wife and my sister. It was my first trip back to the house since he’d died, and my turn to go through what he’d left behind, to take home the things that were meaningful to me. It was so odd to think about the 69 years of his life, all of his accomplishments and relationships, his energy and love, reduced to a bed covered in hats and tie pins and pocket knives. I know that my father left more to the people he loved than the fleece jacket in the closet, or the samovar he wanted me to have. But still, the concrete nature of his possessions, now bound for a crawlspace or a new home, or, honestly, Goodwill, nagged at me, made me sad, made me wonder which of my things Simone would find, and say, “Oh my gosh! I remember this!”
But there was one moment that brought things back into focus for me. My sister Karen asked if some of Dad’s shirts were still hanging in the closet in the spare bedroom. When my father’s wife nodded, Karen led me into the room, and slid open the closet door for me.
“Put your nose in there,” she said.
So I walked over, stuck my head into the closet, my face hidden in the hanging shirts, and took a deep breath. Then I closed my eyes and took another. And then I started crying. Karen and Dad’s wife left the room, so I had a moment to myself, looking at the shirts and missing my sweet father. I stopped for one last sniff of the closet, of my father, before we left that house for the last time.
There’s nothing in my new house that smells like Akiva, who always smelled good, with his own clean, musky scent. I can't smell him, but I can imagine it.
And sometimes, late at night, when I’m mostly asleep, I imagine I feel something on top of the comforter, spooned up at my back, a little extra warmth, and maybe, just maybe, the slightest purr helping me drift back to my dreams.
I miss my little guy.